Living at the Science-Religion Interface

Theodor Benfey - Haverford, Pennsylvania
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, October 26, 2015
Theodor Benfey

Theodor Benfey is a scientist who believes the fields of both science and religion must stay open in searching for truth. Benfey believes that God is the ultimate force of truth and that love is the path of the self to God, so therefore, he finds that it is love that binds him to God and the ultimate truth.

Age Group: 65+
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In the past I used to say that religion was like science—that religion dealt with knowledge that had to be found and checked in ways not too dissimilar from the ways in which the sciences develop. Now I would rather say that science is like religion—that we have pictured science falsely as almost an infallible path to knowledge, following definite rules; whereas, in fact, the great advances in both science and religion have been made by men and women who had sufficient powers of concentration and sufficient humility to open themselves completely to whatever was given to them in experience, and to live with what was given, to enter into it, until they sensed truths relating hitherto separate data of experience. Profound humility is required because the truths that may be sensed are almost invariably in fundamental opposition to many of the beliefs held by the person at the time.

In the field of science, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Marie Curie, Harvey, Darwin, are people of this stature; in the field of religion, the saints and prophets of the higher religions, and supremely in Jesus of Nazareth. To me, Jesus was the supreme mystic, the supreme scientist, for he opened himself completely to truth. No shred of fear or personal ambition finally clouded his sight so that, in Tillich’s phrase, “He made himself transparent to the forces of truth, to God, to reality, so that in Him I can see a reality incarnate, reality supremely revealed in a human person.” And the glory of his revelation is that at bottom there is love, a love whose full nature was only seldom glimpsed: when we fall in love, when we hear of or experience a person’s self-sacrifice for the sake of a friend, when we enter into the joy of a child.

I believe—though I seldom live up to it—that I live truly when I do not fear, that I find both reality and joy in losing myself in love. If love is reality, then it is love which binds me to other people and to God. Consequently, I am not the isolated individual the eye suggests, and spiritual growth is the growing awareness of the fact that I cannot plan my destiny, but that instead, I must progressively accept my membership within the community—or as Whitehead would put it, “the organism of men and God whose service is perfect freedom.”

It is difficult for me in the rush of my daily existence to learn how to lose myself in love. Our religious heritage has cramped the emotions, and we must, I believe, rediscover the spiritual significance of beauty, of the arts, of drama, of the dance, of the giving of man and woman to each other in love, as paths to the supreme giving of the self to God.

I have come to my present beliefs largely through the many men, women, and children who have made love a reality for me and through the writings and lives of the pioneers in science and in religion. As a scientist who claims an awareness of spiritual reality, the relation between scientific and religious knowledge remains an ever-pressing problem, and the right use of science presents itself as a most urgent necessity of our time.

Theodor Benfey was born in 1925 in Berlin but left for England at age 10 because of his Jewish ancestry. Trained in chemistry during World War II, he moved to the U.S. in 1946 and taught at three Quaker colleges, Haverford, Earlham, and Guilford. He became editor of Chemistry for the American Chemical Society and later was editor for the Chemical Heritage Foundation, was the translator of several science-related books, and developed a spiral periodic table. He married the artist and educator Rachel Thomas, with whom he had four children.