Reality Is Bigger Than the Human Mind

 In “God’s Omnipresence, God’s Body and Four Ideals of Science,” the masterful second chapter of Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (1986), the late Jewish historian and philosopher of science, Amos Funkenstein, delivered a blow to the believing intellect in his narrative of the unhappy transformation of theological reflection during the Scientific Revolution:

The medieval sense of God’s symbolic presence in his creation, and the sense of a universe replete with transcendent meanings and hints, had to recede if not to give way totally . . . God’s relation to the world had to be given a concrete physical meaning . . . [Most] believed that the subjects of theology and science alike can be absolutely de-metaphorized and de-symbolized.[1]

It is impossible to overemphasize the difference between such an anti-poetic approach and previous Christian reflection, at least in the Catholic tradition. To speak about God without metaphor or symbol—in other words, to speak of him univocally rather than analogically—was to mistake creature for Creator and to fall into absurdity. The LORD cannot be the proper object of finite minds save through the dim mirror of creaturely perfections and more proximately through wordless contemplation.

This humble approach is captured by the philosopher and theologian, bishop and cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa in his dialogue “On the Hidden God” (De Deo Abscondito). As it begins a pagan approaches a Christian whom he finds at prayer. When the pagan asks the Christian to identify the God he worships, he receives a startling answer: “I don’t know.” When the puzzled pagan asks how this can be, the Christian responds, “Because I am without knowledge [of Him], I worship Him.” Later the Christian drives the point home: “I worship God—not the one whom your paganism wrongly supposes it knows and wrongly calls God but rather the God who is ineffable Truth.”[2] The paradox at the heart of authentic theological reflection is unveiled here—only a God who cannot be fully known, who is inexpressible Truth, could be the true God and worthy of our adoration. For Cusa and the mainstay of the Christian tradition, de-metaphorized, de-symbolized God-talk was worse than blather (or, in biblical terms, “idle chatter”)—it was lying speech, speech that might tickle a pagan ear but must sadden a Christian heart.

So why this fateful shift? The intellectual giants of the 17th century—Hobbes, Descartes, Henry More, Spinoza, Isaac Newton, Leibniz—had deeply religious concerns and robust theological ideas even while challenging European theological orthodoxies, Protestant, Christian and Jewish. But the theological ideas they produced had a new center of gravity—they revolved around scientific ideals rather than theological ones. Then as now, scientific ideals indicate how a scientific community conceives its goals, the “ultimate criteria of rationality” for scientific work.

For the age of Newton, the central scientific ideal was monocausality, “the elimination of all but mechanical causes from the consideration of nature.”[3] Transferred to theology, the ideal of mechanical causality required that the God-creature distinction be rendered in novel ways. God’s omnipresence was no longer seen as an eternal, gratuitous and ineffable act of love that causes all things to be; rather, Dante’s “love that moves the sun and other stars” was supplanted by notions of omnipotent motive force. Love might move the planets for Newton, but to do so love needs some intelligible relation to the physical world, if not corporeality at the very least dimensionality. To satisfy the transplanted scientific ideal, God needed some way to get at the world. Why not a sensorium (Newton), or the omnipotent provision of all discrete moments of mechanical causality (Malebranche), or indivisible physical extension (Spinoza)? Henry More would propose a fourth dimension for spiritual creatures, spissitude, the quality of spiritual density, to do the work of making the divine maintenance doable. “Yet these very distinctions prove that the absolute medieval commitment to an idea of God radically purged from all material connotations, however abstract and remote, was broken in the 17th century.”[4]

In this way the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the loving God of persons, regained a strange new form of bodiliness in 17th century theological reflection in order to become the God of the cosmic machinery. Essential theological ideas that emerged from the encounter of Abraham’s descendants, both of the flesh and also “of the promise” (Rom 9:8), with classical Greek philosophy were subverted. Hallowed concepts such as divine omnipresence and omnipotence remained as key categories in theological reflection, but the apophatic space, the analogical dissimilarity that, in previous centuries, was a primary theological ideal no longer marked the field. And so, as Funkenstein concludes thus:

Our story thus comes to a halt. We have seen how and why God lost his body in Christian theology, how and why he regained it in the seventeenth century. Once God regained transparency or even a body, he was all the easier to identify and kill. The study of his slow philosophical death—from Kant through Feuerbach to Nietzsche—is as fascinating as the story we told of his lost and found body. But that is another story.[5]

Another story indeed—and sadly, it is our story. A story in which God is ultimately squeezed out of the monocausal gaps by the progress of the science whose great pioneers first mistakenly located him within them. A story in which the devout anxiously scramble to find some new, smaller gap in which to squeeze him, investing themselves in ersatz scientific proofs of the existence of God, or donating millions to erect Creation Museums and produce films like God Is Not Dead, or investing confidence in pseudo-scientific endeavors such as Intelligent Design Theory. How far our theological notions have sunk.

At least Sir Isaac Newton had gravity for his apologetic; the immediate action of things upon each other without physical contact was his replicable proof of monocausal omnipresence, of God acting directly and constantly within the universe via his sensorium of time and space.[6] But Einstein would show that gravity is no force but the effect of the curvature of space and time upon material objects. So now we are left clutching at apparent irreducible complexities such as the bacterial flagellum, hoping no one notices that the evolutionary biologists have explained that one too.

Such well-intentioned but misguided efforts to resuscitate the God of the Machine have been to no avail. Many contemporary Catholic young people, who would be hard-pressed to explain a single doctrine of the Creed, could easily write some version of the final words of Funkenstein’s narrative. In a study released by CARA in late August 2016 of young Catholics who have set aside their religious heritage, one adolescent interviewee put it in short form: “As I learn more about the world around me and understand things that I once did not, I find the thought of an all-powerful being to be less and less believable.” Another, when asked what would serve as sufficient motivation to return to the Catholic faith, echoed the warped mechanical ideal of omnipresence by requiring “replicable, peer reviewed, conclusive proof that a deity exists and I’m guaranteed a happy afterlife.” How can we blame her, when believers themselves seem convinced that empirical proof of the Grand Designer can be found in the apparent un-evolvability of the blood-clotting cascade?

Once again, we must marvel at the eclipse of a more beautiful way. One need only survey the Jesuit tradition of astronomy, or the groundbreaking geological and anatomical work of the (also 17th century scientist and priest) Blessed Niels Stensen, to recognize that the most disciplined adherence to empirical methods need never require the adulteration of the most exalted theological ideals. In contrast with the contracted theology of the 17th century, the expansive reason of the great thinkers of the Catholic tradition sought to appreciate as much as possible the causality of creatures, not to get God out of the picture, but to glorify him, because God is most profoundly glorified by a universe that in his perfect love and wisdom is endowed with the ability to do his will. God is not one cause among many, not even if we multiply creaturely capacities by infinity. Rather, he is the cause of all causes; the more a creature can do, the more it shows forth the power of God. The scientific luminaries of Newton’s day squeezed God back into the picture of nature; by contrast, the Catholic intellectual tradition is about giving the whole picture to him.

Is there a way back to the humble sanity of Cusa, to the recognition that borrowing scientific ideals to serve theological endeavors is idolatry. How do we discover a road home to the wisdom of learned ignorance within the forward trajectory of scientific discovery? The art of combining confident openness to great scientific insights with childlike reverence for divine mystery may be rare today, but it is not lost. As we will shortly see, it lives on in the splendid essays that will serve this month’s theme of the Church Life Journal: the faith-science dialogue in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Many of the contributors are veterans of this dialogue; all of them have important insights to share. Special recognition is owed to those contributors who have brought their gifts as teachers and scholars to serve in the programs of the McGrath Institute for Church Life Science & Religion Initiative (SRI), now completing its fourth year of service to Catholic educators from across the nation. The Church’s vision of Catholic education has its own ideal: the creation of a synthesis of faith, culture and life, “reached by integrating all of human knowledge through the subjects taught, in the light of the Gospel.”[7] SRI is about helping schools achieve this vision by showing the harmony between scientific inquiry and the Catholic Faith in the confidence that, when a young scientist learns how to find God in the thing she loves, she is much more likely to grow in her love for God, and in the desire to glorify him through the dedicated study of his handiwork.

Thanks to their work and that of many others like them, above all to the prophetic leadership of McGrath Institute for Church Life Director John Cavadini, the efforts of Program Manager Patricia Bellm, and the farsightedness of Academic Advisor Jay Martin, SRI has been named one of two winners of a 2018 Expanded Reason Award in the category of Teaching by the Universidad Francisco de Vitoria and the Joseph Ratzinger Foundation. The winners will receive the award on September 25th at the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences in Rome. Thanks to SRI, there is hope that the CARA surveys of the next generation of Catholic youth will paint a brighter picture.

In conclusion, it is helpful to recall that the arc of scientific discovery of the 17th century has had many surprises to offer, twists that show that even within science, the ideal of mechanical causality is not even capacious enough to describe empirical realities. Consider the science of light. Over centuries many scientists developed distinct ideas about light, ideas that conformed to the rigid categorization required by the mechanical ideal. Following the position of the Catholic priest and astronomer Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), Newton thought that light was a particle, which would explain why light can knock electrons off of metal plates. But light also flows around objects and reforms its patterns, which is what waves do; hence the Jesuit priest Francesco Grimaldi theorized that light was a wave, a transfer of energy. The debate lasted for centuries until, in 1905, Albert Einstein resolved the issue by demonstrating that light is a “wavelike particle,” a photon. Later he explained the “wave-particle” paradox of light this way:

But what is light really? Is it a wave or a shower of photons? . . . It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.[8]

Light cannot be fully imagined according to mechanical modeling; it presents us with a natural paradox. Since Einstein, many other natural paradoxes have been discovered by scientists, leading the physicist Neils Bohr (1885-1962) to introduce a scientific principle he called complementarity. Interestingly, Bohr used a theological example to illustrate his scientific principle, the paradox that God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful. Mechanical causality is a helpful start for understanding the world, but it cannot stand alone as an ideal even for science, much less theology.

Reality is bigger than the human mind, even a mind as great as Newton’s. Both the wave and particle models of light are necessary to explain what light is, in a way similar to how we must hold in faith that God is both one and three, Jesus is both human and divine, etc. In his classic 1968 Introduction to Christianity,whose 50th anniversary will be celebrated this November at a special conference hosted by Notre Dame's McGrath Institute, a 40 year-old Joseph Ratzinger used this very example to show how a scientific idea can be properly incorporated into theological reflection:

We can only speak rightly about [God] if we renounce the attempt to comprehend and leave him as the uncomprehended . . . What is true [of light] here in the physical realm as the result of the deficiencies in our vision is true in an incomparably greater degree of the spiritual realities and of God . . . only by circling around, by looking and describing from different, apparently contrary angles can we succeed in alluding to the truth, which is never visible to us in its totality.[9]

Science not only clarifies, and makes the complex simple. When the truth requires it, it also reveals the complexity of physical reality, its paradoxes and mysteries. This is not so different than faith that, by recognizing the Absolute Mystery of God, clarifies the meaning of life. In the words of C.S Lewis, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[10]

Editorial Statement: CLJ will explore the latest developments in the relationship between science and religion throughout September 2018. Special emphasis will be put upon exploring the demise of the conflictual model of science and religion. Our series is a celebration of the McGrath Institute’s Science & Religion Initiative winning an Expanded Reason Award from the Ratzinger Foundation and the University Francisco de Vitoria (Madrid, Spain). Posts in the series will be collected here (click link) as they are published. 

[1] Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination: From the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton, NJ: PUP, 1986), 116

[2] Nicholas of Cusa, De Deo Abscondito, 1, 6, in Jasper Hopkins, ed. and trans., A Miscellany on Nicholas of Cusa (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 1994), 300-302.

[3] Funkenstein, 18.

[4] Ibid., 25.

[5] Ibid., 116.

[6] Ibid., 96-97.

[7] Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, “The Catholic School,” §37.

[8] Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics (New York: Touchstone, 1967), 262-263.

[9] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 174.

[10] C.S Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 140.

Featured Image: Leonardo, Proportions of the Human Head, 1489; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Christopher Baglow

Christopher Baglow is Director of the Science & Religion Initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Faith, Science and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge and is the co-recipient of the 2018 Expanded Reason Award in the Teaching category.

Read more by Christopher Baglow