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Mystery at the heart of science and religion

By Paul Titus

Indigenous people can contribute to the dialogue between science and religion, says theologian Rev Dr Ama’amalele (Ama) Tofaeono Siolo.

Ama is supply minister at Waitakere Methodist Samoan Parish. Originally from Samoa, he completed his PhD at Augustana Theological College, in Germany and has taught at Pacific Theological College in Fiji, and a number of universities in Canada and the US.

Among his interests are ecological and constructive theology, Christology, the dialogue between science and religion, and the pre-colonial ideas of Oceania.

Ama says church people are happy to adapt the technology science provides but are often less willing to accept scientific explanations of nature and existence. Nevertheless, at the heart of both science and religion is the experience of mystery.

“The Church has often treated science as the enemy. This dates to when the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Galileo. But today we have to accept that science can support faith and faith can support science,” Ama says.

“A scientist may not believe in God; he may believe in his own knowledge. But for science the universe is always a place of mystery because so much lies beyond human understanding, and this is the same for people of faith.

“The problem for Christians comes when we take a literalist approach. For example, science doubts the possibility of virgin birth or the bodily resurrection. But these Biblical stories make sense if we view them on a spiritual or a psychological level.

“If we see Mary not as a literal virgin but as a person who was pure and blameless in this corrupt world, then the birth of Jesus is a miracle.

“We can view the resurrection not as a physical event but as the way Jesus’ followers personalised their experience of him. They tried to overcome his death by recreating their experience of him. This enabled them to maintain their community and create a fellowship,” Ama says.

The world views of indigenous people too can be compatible with science. They can even contribute to a more ethical approach to the natural world, Ama believes.

As an example he sites parallels between scientific understandings and Samoan creation myths.

Scientists believe life first arose in the oceans. This view is paralleled in the Polynesian concept of ‘moana’, which sees the ocean as mother or the womb of life.

Similarly the scientific concept of evolution has its parallels in the Samoan creation myth. The myth holds that human beings emerged from a series of sexual reproductions in which simple elements give rise to more complex ones. Rocks fused and gave rise to plants; plants gave rise to worms; from worms came human beings.

“The colonial experience has stripped away many indigenous concepts. In Samoa the notion of mana and tapu, or the sacred, was once used to restrict access to portions of the land or the sea. This allowed those areas to serve as breeding grounds for animals and fish.

“Indigenous ideas and practices are being rediscovered as we seek to protect the environment.”

Another of Ama’s interests is Christology and how different cultures portray Jesus. He says Europeans have an image of Christ developed in Italy. We still have images of Jesus as a handsome white gentleman with a long golden hair and a beard. In South America, Asia and Africa, the legacy of poverty and injustice has led to an image of Christ in agony.

Pacific Island peoples tend to view Christ as a high chief who is an agent of service for others. In the Pacific the pathway to become a chief is through service.

Jesus in this context can be viewed as the one who became a chief through service. In his chieftainship, he was an agent of service for others, the community. Jesus is therefore the source and medium of liberation.