Protestant communities in Northern Ireland of the 1980s had the air of provincial England thirty years previously, on Sunday mornings people still went to church; men in collars and ties, women wearing hats. Paisleyism, a volatile mixture of religious fundamentalism and populist politics, was in the ascendancy and arcane theological questions, long since forgotten elsewhere, still had the capacity to excite public interest. So it was that a gentle and kindly Church of Ireland clergyman went to a Christmas carol service at a Roman Catholic church during which he said a prayer for the souls of the departed. The words were to bring the wrath of the town’s evangelical constituency down upon the head of the clergyman; Protestants did not pray for the dead.
Without having much regard for fundamentalist religion, prayers for the dead always seemed odd, what cosmology did people have if they thought that people needed prayers after they had died? When people died, they presumably moved outside of the space-time universe in which humanity existed, so death and judgment and eternity all occurred at once, there was no waiting. Attempting to engage someone who prayed for the dead about his understanding of the universe brought a look of incomprehension; the universe in which his faith was operative was not the universe that we inhabited.
Christians seem to believe that, on one hand they can hold on to their traditional doctrines, whilst on the other they can engage with the scientific realities that surround us, yet the claims made by faith specifically exclude many of the insights of science. Most Christians deal with the conflict by living in a dual reality claiming that science and religion are about different things, the hackneyed phrase is that one is about the ages of rocks and the other is about the Rock of Ages.
The concept of “consilience,” the reconciliation of science with the humanities, cannot extend to the reconciliation of science with theology as long as theologians rest their arguments upon assertions that things are so because the church says they are so. Propositions are not facts, they are opinions, not verifiable, not open to falsification. Theology reconciled with science would be a religion where doctrines were amenable to testing, where claims were subject to rigorous empirical investigation. No theologian would claim such a process was possible; faith is a subjective thing, a personal thing, a thing that cannot be proven.
So when the Easter Gospel is proclaimed tonight, the church states its belief in a story that rests upon the faith of those who tell it. The Eleventh Chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Things hoped for and things unseen fall outside the realm of science; science and religion exist in different ways of thinking.