- Friday, 01 April 2011 10:33
The transcript for the talk on whether a scientist can be a believer that was given at a lecture hosted by the New York Encounter in January has just been released by the Crossroads Cultural Center. Faith and reason is being explored here. It is a great question to ask if a believer in Christ –or perhaps a Jew or Muslim adherent– can be credible, true to his or her being given a certain intellectual formation. Does belief in God forfeit our true search for the Divine? Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete’s portion of the discussion is the most interesting to me and it is noted below (emphasis mine). A believer sometime has to work overtime to convince him or herself that faith and science are compatible. The other day my attention was drawn to what a little girl said about Lent: her view of life and the simplicity by which we have to look everything realizing that we don’t make ourselves; everything is given. Albacete answers the question of the compatibility of faith and science: The answer, I propose, is not only yes he can, but, in fact, it is faith that will sustain his or her passion for investigating nature, and prevent the process itself and its results from becoming enslaved to political, economic, and religious ideology.Let me know what you think.
In such a case, is awe, wonder, and joy at scientific
discoveries possible? When I was thinking about this, a friend sent me the text
of a speech given by Msgr. Luigi Giussani about the “love of being” that is
remarkably appropriate to this reflection. Giussani’s argument is that the truth of Christianity can be
verified by a proper consideration of the evidence for it. Evidence, he says,
is the correct word, even if the evidence for the Christian claim is given to
us through signs. Signs are things that can be touched, seen, and experienced. The Apostles had Jesus in front of them and this presence was a sign of His
victory over death, and therefore of His mysterious identity. But what about
us? What happens with the passage of time? What signs are there for us as
evidence of the truth of the Christian claim, of the reasonableness of the
The interpretation of the signs available to us engages our
liberty, he says. In this drama, our liberty is a manifestation of our love for
being. Without this love for being we are not truly free and we will never
grasp the evidence of the signs given to us. At this point, as an example of
this love for being, Giussani invokes the Magi.
He asks why the Magi decided to pursue the sign of the star. Why did they follow the “impulse” that they felt within themselves when they saw the star? “Because they were full of love for Being,” he answers. This is the characteristic of those who are poor in spirit, he continues. The poor in spirit is a child who says yes to everything that is evidently present before him. It is a matter of not imposing our expectations to block our recognition that something unforeseen is happening, that it has happened, and it is worthwhile to pursue its meaning. This is what made the Magi take off on their journey, this opening or poverty of spirit, this child-like fascination, amazement, awe. The sign of the star, so to speak, unveiled a path to follow, a road to take. What determined this road for them, as they traveled day and night on their camels with their presents, as they rested at night looking at the sky because they were perhaps not sleepy? What determined their way? It was following the path of the star they could see.
Still, recall that at one moment the star disappeared. Why did they continue their search? Why not give up and go back home, losing interest in the search, figuring they had made a mistake? The star was gone, their enthusiasm low or gone, and yet they continued. Obviously, it had not been the star itself, or their intelligent calculations, or their imagination, or their enthusiasm that moved them: it was something that had happened, that they could not rationally deny had happened. The reason for their search was a kind of “benevolence,” says Don Giussani, a benevolence that guided them. The reason for following the road, the motivation, that which defined the road, was the initial event, that which had made them take off on their journey, and they could not go back on it, because factum infectum fieri nequit, you cannot make something that happened become something that has not happened.
And so it is this poverty of spirit, this interior simplicity, this lack of fear of innocence, this spirit of the beggar that begs for the spiritual nourishment that truth communicates, this love for being that opens us up for the grace of the gift of faith that allows us to recognize the truth of the Mystery of Being.
Is this not also at the root of scientific research, a love for science that protects it from the relativism that now threatens it?
But, to ask again, is such an interior disposition possible today?
I immediately recalled the words of my dear friend Robert Pollock, Professor of Biological Sciences and Director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Columbia University, talking about “Science Informed by Awe” at our Crossroads Cultural Center on Sept. 9, 2009.
Bob starts the day with the Jewish prayer: “The beginning of Wisdom is Awe of the Lord” (in our Old Testament Book of Wisdom we also read: “The fear of the Lord is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding). This awe, he said, was understood as awe before the grandeur of nature, before its incomprehensibility, as in Psalm 92, recited by the Levitical priesthood in the Temple on Shabbat: “How vast are Your works, Lord; Your designs are beyond our grasp.” However, according to Pollock, in this age of Science, we no longer have the luxury of this “incomprehensibility.” Consider this: “I am not exaggerating the seriousness of this problem: scientific insight into the meaninglessness of DNA-based life is not simply missing meaning. It is a demonstration that a satisfactory, even elegant explanation of the workings of this aspect of nature actually conflicts with the assumption of purpose and meaning.” Pollock thinks that poets can understand this better than those not as skilled in self- awareness, quoting from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Spring”:
To what purpose April, do you return again?…
The smell of the earth is good
It is apparent that there is no death
but what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots,
Life in itself is nothing.
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill
comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
Still Pollack sees grounds for awe in the human ethical choices that are inexplicable in terms of nature, to freely perform actions on behalf of another that “slip the constraints of natural selection.” (During a visit to a House where professional women lived in community, freely embracing a life of poverty, virginity, and obedience, Dr. Pollack said to me that to freely choose such a life was an example of escaping the boundaries of natural selection.)
“That is also the intersect of awe and science,” he concluded, and thus, I suggest, the path to a faith that expands the scope of reason beyond what scientific rationality allows. Once again, the capacity to experience awe or wonder is the path to the knowledge of reality made possible by faith.
Which, of course, was known all along by St. Gregory of Nyssa (c.335AD- after 394), who wrote The Life of Moses in which he said: “Concepts create idols; only wonder [or awe] knows.” In an essay with the title, “Only Wonder Knows,” Fr. Giussani insists again that the capacity to wonder requires simplicity of heart and poverty of spirit, the attitude of a child who, upon seeing something new (like a new star in the sky), reaches out to it to touch it, to explore it without any “if”s or “but”s. Wonder is the experience that John and Andrew had when they first saw Jesus and decided to follow Him.
Faith is the affirmation of a fact, of the objectivity of a fact from which there emanates an aesthetic, a suggestiveness that demonstrates human reason in action. Goodness or ethics, writes Giussani, derives from aesthetics. Otherwise, morality is alienating, because it doesn’t correspond to the desire of the heart that make us human; it doesn’t generate amazement, wonder, or awe, but leads instead to fear or boredom. Sacrifices required by preconceptions are destructive of the self; only a sacrifice motivated by wonder, awe, by an unexpected attractiveness of a Presence is consistent with being fully human. Aquinas put it bluntly: without grace, the Law of Christ is deadly. What is grace if not gracefulness, gentility… yes, beauty to be discovered in nature in spite of the meaninglessness of the results of evolutionary science.
The title of this presentation is whether a scientist of today can meet the requirements of modern science and still be a believer. The answer, I propose, is not only yes he can, but, in fact, it is faith that will sustain his or her passion for investigating nature, and prevent the process itself and its results from becoming enslaved to political, economic, and religious ideology.