Are science and religion enemies, each seeking supremacy over the other? Or do they simply look at the same thing from different, perhaps complementary, perspectives? In The Penultimate Curiosity, Wagner and Briggs propose a very different relationship than either of these options.
the earliest days of prehistory, as much as a hundred thousand years ago, there has been an interplay (or entanglement) between religion and science, with each pushing and prodding the other to think more deeply about their inquiries. From there the authors trace the dramatic story of the interaction of science and religion from Athens to Alexandria to Italy to Oxford.
In this well-illustrated book, the story begins with cave paintings discovered in recent decades showing religious impulses. Yet the mixing of pigments needed to create these paintings show rudimentary science in the service of religion–but also that religion pushed our science further so faith could express itself. Likewise the new discipline of the cognitive science of religion (CSR) investigates how and how long religion has been fundamental capacity of the mind, like language.
While the authors offer ample attention to the giants–Aristotle, Galileo, Newton–we learn of the contributions of many other lesser-known but important figures. There is the story of two men (one Christian, one pagan) who studied in Alexandria and whose arguments continued to be played out for a thousand years. We learn of the contributions of Muslim philosophers and of Robert Grosseteste (“Large head”). Aquinas, the Bacons, Pascal, Maxwell and many others all receive their due. Not only do we get a wonderfully told story of a slice of the history of western thought, we see how religious and scientific concerns continually spurred each other on.
of the most helpful and nuanced sections of the book concerns 19th-century archeological discoveries that uncovered the context in which many Old Testament books were written. In the ancient myths of Mesopotamia, humans were created as slaves. In Genesis they are made in God’s image as his vice regents. Instead of a multitude of warring gods seeking to destroy the nuisance of humanity with a flood in an act of arbitrary despotism, the one creator God judges the world for having ruined itself. Instead of an ark being the subversion of a rival god, it is God’s own provision of rescue. Similar to the work of John Walton, Briggs and Wagner suggest that the Bible can be seen at least in part protest literature against harsh and cruel worldviews.
Yes, there was rancor and animosity between opposing characters in this long drama of science and faith. Arguments abounded on whether new scientific discoveries contradicted the Bible (or Aristotle!). Was science seeking to go beyond penultimate curiosity (which extends to the limits of the visible world)? What implications did the theological thoughts regarding ultimate curiosity have on science?
Yet the authors want us to view these quarrels through the lens of a slipstream. We know geese do not fly in a fixed V-formation but that each goose takes its turn at the front, so the others can have an easier time flying behind it in its slipstream. That is, they contend, how religion and science interact. Each helping the other despite their differences.