What’s Love Got To Do With It?

In a few days, Pope Benedict XVI will embark on a four-day visit to Portugal, where, newspapers carrying the story have remarked, he will be engaged in a “battle against secularism.” This is true enough. The return of an agnostic Europe to its Christian roots is one of the driving desires of Benedict’s pontificate, while an impending legalization of same-sex marriage and a collapse of the national profit-driven economy in Portugal will also provide two timely, though very different, incarnations of the secularism he may address next week. But as John Allen points out in a typically excellent analysis, the secular-religious dichotomy will fail in Portugal in one crucial regard. The centerpiece of Benedict’s journey will be a visit to the shrine of Fatima, whose famous 1917 apparition is not the kind of Catholic devotion close to the heart of this resolutely down-to-earth pope:

Ever the rational academic, Benedict XVI has never really embraced the florid visions or private devotions that swirl around Marian sacntuaries such as Fatima, La Salette, or Medjugorje. His interest in Fatima has always been less mystical than theological — seeing it primarily as a reminder of Mary’s role in salvation history as the one who introduces Christ to the world.

…[T]he best window onto Benedict’s attitude towards Fatima comes in his comments back in 2000, when he put the publication of the “Third Secret” into theological context. On that occasion, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger played down the significance of the secret, saying that “no great mystery is revealed” and that “the veil of the future isn’t lifted.”

…While acknowledging that Fatima has been approved by the church, he suggested that some of the more famous claims associated with the three seers may have been “interior signs” rather than something belonging to “our normal sensible world.” Not every detail of the visions has meaning, he warned, and altogether they represent a “symbolic language” requiring interpretation by the church.

When Benedict visited the Shroud of Turin a few days ago, his reaction was similar: rather than endorsing the fabric’s much-contested claim to be the real burial cloth of Christ, he cautiously described it as an “icon written in blood” — that is, something more akin to a work of art than to an authentic historical relic.

With so many of the Church’s teachings and practices regarded as retrogressive, and even paleolithic, it’s a relief to have evidence for a skeptical public that the current Pope at least doesn’t go in for mawkish superstitions. More profoundly than that, though, this question of the mystical appartenances of Roman Catholicism, in which the otherworldly personality of Pope John Paul II was steeped, is a truly vexing one for the Church in its efforts to speak to the modern world. It is difficult enough to dialogue with a haughty culture that places belief in God on the level of belief in Santa Claus simply on account of a lack of “proof”; having to rationalize saints that people pray to when they’ve lost their car keys, and rosaries they say on certain days of the year to elude X amount of time in Purgatory, sometimes seems a nigh impossible task.

If there is one major point on which I disagree with Pope Benedict, it is in fact a central tenet of his thought: Benedict holds that the modern world is in the thrall of relativism, and has lost interest in the search for objective truth. In the human sciences — anthropology, philosophy — with which the Pope is personally most familiar, there is something to this claim. At the same time, the permissiveness of modern culture concerning, most visibly, sexual and familial ethics does not seem to me to issue from an abandonment of truth; it represents, instead, a redefinition of truth along basically liberal or libertarian lines. For many, an expanded vision of tolerance is not the same thing as relativism. Contrary to what many clerics will charge, when a so-called “modern” criticizes the Church’s uptightness, she isn’t contradicting herself by hewing to a universal moral standard she’s said to have disavowed; she’s merely turning the tables on the reigning pieties, and proclaiming that truth, which does exist, nonetheless has more to do with freedom than with seemingly arbitrary behavioral restrictions or with a supposed, and scientifically naive, “natural law.” Indeed, the Church is in for trouble if it doesn’t recognize that the modern world remains wedded to a notion of truth: only, its notions about moral propriety follow from a conviction that the best standard for all truth claims is scientific, and its idea is that the Church, and not relativists, have betrayed the truth by persisting in a belief in silly things like limbo and talking snakes.

Of course, the Catechism doesn’t advocate Biblical literalism or claim to have any idea what happens to children who die unbaptized; but even if we distinguish, more carefully than Christianity’s critics do, noisy evangelical Protestantism from magisterial Catholicism, we’ll still be forced to admit that nuanced hermeneutical methods have not always reached the level of the pews. The question of evolution and creationism, held up by the media as the crux of the science-religion debate because it’s involved in the writing of public school curricula, is actually a red herring. There’s a whole gamut of difficult questions which the Church, wittingly or not, avoids every time it insists that it does accept the Big Bang, does accept some form of natural selection, and does accept the fossil record. Do cutting-edge studies of reflexes prove that free will is an illusion? If higher intelligence is discovered elsewhere in the universe, will it dash to shreds our belief in the divinity of Christ? Will transhumanist advances in biotechnology prove definitively that what we understand as intrinsic to humanity is merely provisional, and not something to base a religious anthropology on? Even more fundamentally, once we’ve quieted all doubts that the two creation myths in Genesis are meant to be taken figuratively, and permitted ourselves to believe that Adam and Eve didn’t really exist, can we still claim that the question of the unique ensoulment of homo sapiens is a no-brainer when evidence exists that members of our own species mated and reproduced with “primitive” Neanderthals?

These are incredibly difficult questions. The conventional wisdom is that science deals with that which is empirically observable, whereas theology deals with the invisible meaning of Love, yet the divide between disciplines is not as impermeable as that. To read modern science with integrity demands that we ask ourselves, honestly, what Love has to do with the human species, in the first place; and a Church that refuses to answer those questions (out of modesty) because it isn’t an “expert” on science, and then prattles on about indulgences and miracles, is, on some level, shirking an important responsibility. (Hence my ardent admiration for someone like Teilhard de Chardin, the maverick philosopher-paleontologist, a discoverer of the Peking Man and a Jesuit priest, who’s perhaps the only prominent Christian to have constructed an entire systematic theology on lessons learned from evolutionary biology.)

I’ve had the chance to interrogate, on a very modest level, the relationship of believing communities to science and reason here at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, where the question of syncretism has often reared its head. Many times in my encounters with people in the social services office, I’ve been told that if you are pregnant and don’t wear a belt around your stomach during a full moon, your child will be born deformed. I’ve also met too many people with stories like that of the woman who came in to my office yesterday morning. “The doctors have been using their chemo to treat my cancer for seven years, and they still haven’t cured me!” she pronounced contemptuously. Before I could fully process this, she leaned back in her chair and smiled. “So, now? I’m taking herbs instead.”

There’s also a rumor going around that if you distribute seven stacks of seven copies of a given prayer to St. Jude to seven different churches, God will grant whatever you wish for. This has not been known to fail!! screams the promise at the bottom of the photocopied sheet, which keeps cropping up (in multiples of seven) in the foyer of the church. Our associate pastor — who, it must be said, is a member of the mystically inclined Marian movement of priests and so cannot easily be pigeon-holed into the “skeptical and scientifically minded” category — is routinely purging the foyer of these arcane prayer sheets. One day he decided that enough was enough, and gave a forceful homily decrying the pernicious effects of paganism and belief in the occult in the barrio. “If you own a Oujia board, brothers and sisters,” he implored, “throw it away. If you own a set of Tarot cards, burn them. If you’ve ever participated in a seance, come to Confession. These simply are not things of God.”

The reaction to his homily was vicious. People stormed out of the church and were waiting for Father outside on the steps. Many of my housemates took an extremely negative view of the sermon, considering it brusque, Eurocentric, and condescending. At the same time, I couldn’t help but admire this priest for speaking what I believe to have been the truth. It is really very difficult to have much patience for superstitions like those ones when you have people coming into your office in tears because the curtains have been moving in the baby’s room and they believe that there are demons a-prowl. “They say if you get holy water from seven churches,” people will explain to me, breathlessly [it is always seven!], “and sprinkle it on the doorway, the ghosts can’t enter. Do you have any holy water?” I usually hand them an application for the San Antonio energy company’s home weatherization program so that they can seal up their draughty walls.

It’s not as simple, of course, as a battle against paganism. The form of these superstitious beliefs is often Christian. Holy water is a Catholic sacramental, whether its use in the above circumstance is Catholic or not. I’m deeply sympathetic to scientific critiques of Christian superstitions, and when I talk about the sociology of belief, I’ve come to use the phrase “ideal religion” — to imply how aware I am that the varieties of religious experience include some that are insane. Still, for everyone who rightly thinks my criticism of superstition should include Christian superstitions, there are also representatives of a third ideological camp, some of whom are Christian and some of whom are not, who seem to feel that an insistence on intellectual rigor is mean-spirited and has no place; who am I to criticize people’s “beliefs”?

They don’t always use the word “beliefs,” for beliefs are in fact fairly easy to criticize; they often speak instead about “culture.” Yet I know that myths like that story of the ghosts instill fear into people’s hearts, and lead people away from an understanding of God as love (and of modern medicine as efficacious). Culture, quite simply, can hurt people. It is in speaking with this camp that I find myself drawing on the Pope’s message about relativism: our metaphysical ideas are not irrelevant to the way we live our daily lives, and we have a moral responsibility to submit them to the honest critique of informed reason. If some religious conservatives are guilty of anti-scientific credulity, some liberal humanists are still guilty of permissive, kneejerk relativism, which doesn’t fulfill its responsibility towards the truth any better than Biblical literalism does.

For all this, I am not arguing for positivism or materialism. I believe, more and more each day, that religious belief needs to be purified by the flame of science, but I also believe in a God that is the ground of all existence and in an indwelling Holy Spirit that orients us towards that ground. In less Rahnerian terms, I believe that Love has a great deal to do with who we are and what we (are to) do. It’s also true that liberal rejections of religion still need to justify the perceptible beauty of our existence and often do so in intellectually untenable ways. Regardless how indicative he may or may not be of twenty-first century iterations of this problem, Auguste Comte, the nineteenth century sociologist and founder of positivism, is nonetheless an interesting fellow to look back on…and not just because he went off the deep end and tried to create an actual ecclesiological structure for his new “religion”: naming himself “pope,” appointing scientists as priests, and trying to convert to the new “positive religion” all the Catholic bishops of France.

Famously, Comte identified three stages of belief which he claimed every individual’s and every society’s great ideas would pass through; though in his discussion of the three stages in his book The Drama of Atheist Humanism, Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac cautions that, realistically, they are better understood as “three coexistent modes of thought” than as “three successive states.” The states are theological, metaphysical, and physical, and de Lubac adds that true progress consists not in an advance from the theological to the physical, but in “an increasingly clear distinction between these three aspects, at first perceived in a kind of chaotic unity.” De Lubac continues, “If, then, it is true to say that ‘physics’ (in the sense of the whole of science) began by being theological, it would be just as true to say that theology began by being physical, and the law of evolution does not tend to expel theology any more than science, but to ‘purify’ both by differentiating them.”

What is meant by the physical and what is meant by the theological can be pretty accurately guessed in the context of the rest of my discussion; it is the intermediary, “metaphysical” state which is the most complicated, and the most interesting (to me), and which contains the crux of Comte’s disagreement with de Lubac. For Comte, metaphysics is a “purely critical” disposition, which derides the excesses of polytheism and attempts to straightjacket religious belief, containing it with a series of “no”s. It leaves no room, he claims, for “honest sentiment,” which — and this is telling — is what Comtian positivism tries to rescue from primitive theology. We shouldn’t be forced to choose between science and emotion, in Comte’s mind; rather, positivism as a study of humanity, unencumbered by thoughts of the unseen God (to whose actual existence Comte was agnostic and indifferent), places everything about humanity, including its emotions, center stage, and exalts the whole package. This may be the most telling lesson we have to learn from Comte; liberal modern rejections of religion often try to sacralize humanity on its own terms. They, too, at heart, want to believe in Love. We may be reminded of the wonderful scene in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which Alyosha visits Mitya in prison, and Mitya says:

“On the whole, I am sorry to lose God, I must say.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just fancy. In our heads, that is to say, in our brains, there are nerves…These nerves have fibers and when they begin to vibrate…You see, I look at something, like this, and they vibrate, these fibers…and, as soon as they vibrate, an image is formed, not immediately but after a second, and an impulse is born…no, what am I talking about? not an impulse but an object or an action…that is how perception happens. Then comes thought…because I have fibers and not because I have a soul and was created in God’s image, what nonsense! Mikhail explained that to me only yesterday. That fired me. what a wonderful thing science is, Alyosha! Man is undergoing transformation, I quite see that…And yet, I am sorry to lose God!”

“That’s something, anyway,” said Alyosha.

“That I regret God? Chemistry, brother, chemistry! A thousand apologies, your Reverence, would you mind stepping aside, chemistry is passing by!”

Comte will also claim that metaphysics, and monotheism, are “theologically arbitrary” — that they substitute fantasy and magic (“miracles”) at the expense of human emotion, which he calls the only authentic “religious spirit”: “Since the decrease in religious spirit, one has consequently had to create naturally the notion of miracle, properly speaking, in order to characterize exceptional events, those attributed to a special divine intervention. In the beginning, and while the theological philosophy was fully dominant, there were no miracles, since everything seemed equally marvelous. Minerva intervened to pick up the whip of a warrior in simple military games as well as to protect against a whole army…”

De Lubac, however, does not conceive of the metaphysical attitude as purely critical. He constructs an analogy, whereby theology is to myth what physics is to materialism and what metaphysics is to mystery. We might pun on positivism; the metaphysician, alone, is honest, because he isn’t “positive” about anything he has no reason to be positive about. He admits that the meaning of life transcends him, and accepts a spiritual orientation towards that mystery. Furthermore, we might say, in theological terms and against the Comtian accusation, that the reduction of the pantheon to a sole God (the work of metaphysics) is not a negative or an arbitrary movement; it allows the substance of the one God to permeate everywhere. De Lubac quotes Renan, who puts it nicely in the Cahiers de Jeunesse:

In his infancy, man and humanity does not conceive of the law of nature…He sees everywhere a supernatural action, God everywhere. In his second state, he observes the law through observation and induction, then he drives God out of the world, for he believes he no longer has need of him; from there, we have atheist philosophy…In his third state, he preserves the result acquired in the second, which is true; only he connects the laws themselves to God, the universal cause and true effector. From there, we have true, complete science…Instinct sees God everywhere and sees him nowhere; observation sees the law everywhere (hence its mocking, proud tone) and God nowhere. True philosophy sees God everywhere, acting freely through invariable laws because they are perfect.

We see in these musings a glimmer of Christianity’s light: it represents a marriage of fides et ratio, faith and reason, orientation towards the mystical and mysterious ground of our own existence without accepting just any cockamamie explanation for bizarre happenings. The Popes’ embrace of evolution, for instance, fits into this schema as well as does Jesus’ own pronouncement on the collapse of the Tower of Siloam (Luke 13:4). If only the sort of preacher in whose vocabulary the words “sacred mystery” do not exist — and who finds it, then, a lot easier to blame September 11 and Hurricane Katrina on Jews and homosexuals — had stumbled upon this page of the inerrant Scripture: “Those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them: do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means!”

The “metaphysical” view, which orients itself towards mystery, thus has this advantage over the “theological” view: it is mature enough, and secure enough, in its basic existential convictions that it neither loses faith nor retreats into radical extremism when the authority of modern science shows it the error of one or two of its beliefs or practices.

Still, the metaphysical view’s advantages over the physical, or positivist, view are equally great — not least that it admits to the existence of a category of realities unseen, realities which in my experience are the salvific ones. I’ve met murderers and rapists and victims of rape, and men and women struggling to free themselves from the ravages of addiction, who have come into my office and told me what it was that got them to reform their lives, and what it is that keeps them going through the horrible suffering of their days. It’s not membership in the Democratic party, it’s not a devotion to Flaubert and Hugo, and it’s not a firm grasp of the principles of Darwinian evolution; it’s grace, and it’s faith, and it’s God. That’s it. I invite any atheist to come up with a close and workable approximation; my mind, anyway, can’t conceive of one. When I stare into the abyss of my clients’ chaos, completely at a loss for words that will relativize their pain or offer a way out of their drama, the empty consolations of materialism become manifest. The happy ones, the ones that survive without resorting to violence, are the ones with God’s name on their lips; only reference to an ultimate meaning, which eludes us for now except for its capacity to make us feel loved, can put earthly meaninglessness into perspective.

I could give a hundred specific, real-life examples of this experience of mine, but it’s also true on the grander scale of the history of ideas. Freeing ourselves of the weight of God sounds wonderful, but it also deprives us of a shield against the meaninglessness of human existence that stares us in the face every time we look honestly at cosmic history. Levi-Strauss observed in Tristes Tropiques that “the world began without the human race, and will certainly end without it,” a statement whose melancholy is a symptom of the attitude Gabriel Marcel describes in the following analysis by de Lubac:

The “objective” world, in its most restrictive sense, is taken to be the totality of what is real, which constitutes a first impoverishment; and human reality is treated like the most inert of these “objects” to which it is assimilated. In this adolescent crisis, the essential new searches for the interior man are repulsed for a time, confused as they are with subjectivist maladies and distortions of interiority. At the same time, the intoxication of the future causes the loss of that sense of being to which one philosopher recently tried, with so much reason, to lead us. “Western man,” said Gabriel Marcel, “behaves officially more and more as if what I have called the higher soul were a survival, the useless relic of a fossil species.”

The perpetual yet ultimately weak remark that looking up at the stars and finding them beautiful — finding them, even, a sign of God’s creative genius — is proof that Christian spirituality can be “scientific” is no longer a sufficient rejoinder to the hard claims of modern science. More damningly for the Christian, though, it is not even enough to justify his own theological hopes, given that the universe stares back at him from the perspective of Voyager 1 and sees little more than the pale, blue dot famously described by Carl Sagan. For people in my office, it is often enough to have any Christianity at all, to supplant and purify with reason the naive superstitions they’ve grown up with. For human history, though, a far sharper and more rarefied Christianity needs to emerge. If popular theology doesn’t step up to the plate and address modern science, shrewdly, in its own language and on its own terms — even if that means admitting where theology has gone wrong — then I fear that an apocalyptic funk submerged beneath the surface of the positivist venture will bubble up and spread over all modernity like oil over the Gulf.

6 thoughts on “What’s Love Got To Do With It?

  1. Hey Nick,

    As you might expect, I agree with you that if religion is to have a significant place in society (at least, in educated society – non-educated society is a different question, which I’ll get to below), it needs to be able to modify its theology so that it meshes with the now observable. Not that I talk with many people in religious circles, but it seems like it is not noted as frequently as it should be that Christianity and all other major religions first came about in eras when significantly less was provable or “observable”. Because of this, many of the mysteries religions were accounting for are no longer mysteries.

    However, I think your view of where religion is and needs to go is limited in a number of ways, likely due to your personal stake in Christianity. In particular, I think that the move away from religious practice due to its conflicts with science is primarily true among educated, wealthy communities, and that as much as we would like everyone to be able to have a high standard of living that’s not going to be the case for a long time. To the educated, it is impossible to not run against contradictions between science and the theological/mystical. I agree with you that because of this, the overall trend is going to be to move away from faith.

    However, to truly reconcile faith and science I think the move is going to have to be much more extreme than I think you’re implying. To me, it is obvious that central tenets of popular Christian theology, such as the virgin birth, heaven and hell, Jesus being the “son of God”, etc., are simply bunk – no better than believing that gathering holy water from seven churches will shoo away ghosts. I think more and more people will see things that way, and view the Christ story as a myth that serves as a wrapper around some much vaguer truth about morality, a Creator, and the human spirit. This will, as you say, be more of a move towards a vaguely “metaphysical” mindset as you describe it above.

    With this being the case, though, I don’t think that that will necessarily take away from the experience of faith, or be the death of Christianity – as long as Christianity is smart about it. Large numbers of people of all social classes and education levels have experiences that appear to be contact with the transcendent. Similarly, large groups of these people share relatively common morals. Because of this, I see educated Christianity going the way of American Judaism in the long term: towards a mix of varying degrees of belief that for the most part aren’t oriented towards any specific systematic theology. These people still gather to practice the religion in groups that share culture and values.

    To me, this is the ideal position for religion to be in. I’ve come to think that religious practice and religious community is much more important than specific doctrines of faith – it is the tradition, and the sense of being around people who share a world view, that helps people feel connected. If it were to be stripped of its theology – religion’s historical baggage – it would be reduced to its core values, and serve the purpose it is meant to serve in a benign manner.

    I think Christianity is already there to a certain extent. The sense I’ve gotten is that people look for congregations largely based on how they relate to the demographics of the congregation, how they feel they fit in with the community values, and the feel of services, as opposed to specific doctrines of faith.

    I don’t think this is the direction of religion for the less well-educated. Last summer, I was hiking in a beautiful valley formed by glacial retreat, and a couple of born-again Christians stopped me and tried to convert me for about 45 minutes. (Me being me, I talked with them as an educational experience – I hope they didn’t think I was actually going to be converted!). What became clear over the course of this conversation was that it wasn’t just that these people thought that science was wrong – they truly didn’t understand the nature of scientific inquiry, or the concept of proof by induction. This is the case for a very large portion of the world, and will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future.

    To people who do not understand the nature of scientific inquiry, specific theology simply won’t matter, and people will subscribe to theologies that fit their culture and experiences, however bunk they may be. I was reading an article yesterday about the Central African Republic, where well over half the population still believes in witches, and because of this witchcraft is a crime just like robbery or murder. There’s very little chance of this changing any time soon.

    It is on these premises that I want to challenge you on the importance of specific Christian faith in God and Love. I largely agree with you that it’s hard to find anything in atheism that gets one through the day when there is terrible hardship, but as you know, I disagree your idea that it is because of a true existence of God or Love. Instead, I attribute it to the fact that when life really sucks, the only way to find optimism is to believe that you are a part of something greater than life. I do agree that faith in something is valuable, and have not infrequently wished I had faith in the transcendent for that reason.
    However, I don’t believe you can demonstrate that the reason that a faith in God and Love works is its truth (or lack of truth – I’m not in a position to disprove it any more than you are in a position to prove it) instead of the hope it provides. Similarly, I don’t think you can argue that any specific theological framework is the unique, true best method for inducing this hope, as evidenced by the diversity of worldwide spiritual systems that produce similar effects. So Love matters – but as a mechanism for spreading hope, and only ambiguously as an element of truth.

    After writing this, I’m not sure if this argument is coherent any longer – I apologize if it’s a bit rough.


    1. Hi Benny:

      Re your expressed opinion:

      “However, to truly reconcile faith and science I think the move is going to have to be much more extreme than I think you’re implying. To me, it is obvious that central tenets of popular Christian theology, such as the virgin birth, heaven and hell, Jesus being the “son of God”, etc., are simply bunk – no better than believing that gathering holy water from seven churches will shoo away ghosts. I think more and more people will see things that way, and view the Christ story as a myth that serves as a wrapper around some much vaguer truth about morality, a Creator, and the human spirit. This will, as you say, be more of a move towards a vaguely “metaphysical” mindset as you describe it above.”

      Quantum physics, which originated in work conducted by Max Planck and Albert Einstein at start of 20th Century, is a hugely successful theory: the predictions it makes about the behavior of subatomic particles are extraordinarily accurate. And yet, it raises profound puzzles about reality that remain as yet to be understood. Niels Bohr once said if quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.

      In quantum mechanics any situation is a blend of every possible option of what might happen and this blend is called a wave function. This seems to work for light. Sometimes light can act as a particle and sometimes as a wave. Atoms, it has been found, seem to follow the same rules. As the world is made of atoms, the world must follow the rules of quantum mechanics. Obviously in the real world life doesn’t spend its time sitting on the fence, things just happen. But in quantum mechanics things happen only when this wave function collapses and only one possibility is left.

      Erwin Schrödinger was the man who first discovered the equations that quantum mechanics relies on. Even he couldn’t believe the idea that nothing happens until someone looks to check it. He invented the most famous cat in science – Schrödinger’s cat. If nothing happens until it is observed then imagine the following. A cat is put in a box with a small gadget that will release poison. This poison will be released by something that is controlled by the laws of quantum mechanics, for example radioactive decay. Radioactive atoms are ones that are unstable and spontaneously break down into smaller atoms. So there is a lump of radioactive material and a device to detect if an atom has broken down. This atomic break-up has a 50:50 chance of happening in one hour. According to quantum mechanics, until the box is opened an hour later both outcomes should co-exist. The cat should be both dead and alive at the same time until someone observes the result.

      Despite what some people think, this story was meant to show how Niels Bohr’s interpretation of quantum mechanics was wrong. It was just an interpretation. There is an easier way of thinking about this. Quantum mechanics does seem to explain a lot of things about atoms and light. This craziness of a cat that is both dead and alive only applies if you stick to the idea that everything happens until it is measured by a person. There is no paradox if you just change to the idea that a quantum event happens when the result interacts with anything. When the radioactive atom in the box decays, the cat will only die when the radioactivity detector in the box detects it. When a particle that follows quantum mechanics interacts with anything it has to commit to being one thing or another. So a quantum mechanic event can set up a sequence of events that end up with a cat that is dead or alive without needing it be both at the same time.

      All this cat really tells us about quantum mechanics is that trying to use quantum mechanics to explain normal day-to-day life doesn’t work. Understanding atoms doesn’t help you understand a whole cat, but then again understanding cats doesn’t help you understand atoms, so it works both ways (no matter what cats say). Einstein’s problem with quantum mechanics was summed in the idea that ‘God doesn’t play dice’. Everyone seems to remember that but do you know not what Niels Bohr said in reply: “It is not the job of scientists to prescribe to God how he should run the world.” (Some excellent advice, were that more of his fellow scientists followed it instead of penning best sellers on atheism.)

      Recently the Templeton Prize, awarded for contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension”, has been won by French physicist Bernard d’Espagnat, who has worked on quantum physics with some of the most famous names in modern science. d’Espagnat says a spiritual reality is veiled from us, and science offers a glimpse behind that veil. The bizarre nature of quantum physics has attracted some speculations that are wacky but the theory suggests to some serious scientists that reality, at its most basic, is perfectly compatible with what might be called a spiritual view of things. Some suggest that observers play a key part in determining the nature of things. Legendary physicist John Wheeler said the cosmos “has not really happened, it is not a phenomenon, until it has been observed to happen.”

      D’Espagnat worked with Wheeler, though he himself reckons quantum theory suggests something different. For him, quantum physics shows us that reality is ultimately “veiled” from us. The equations and predictions of the science, super-accurate though they are, offer us only a glimpse behind that veil. Moreover, that hidden reality is, in some sense, divine. Along with some philosophers, he has called it “Being”.

      These are very serious men and I would suggest to you that your dismissal of their faith as so much “bunk” is something you should hesitate to do. Much of the above was taken from here (http://payingattentiontothesky.com/2009/09/08/a-spiritual-reality-veiled-from-us/) . You will also find several posts (http://payingattentiontothesky.com/category/catholicism-for-atheists/science-and-religion/) dealing with the writings of Dr. Steven M. Barr and Dr. Francisco Ayala that might serve as an exploratory jumping-off point for you.


  2. If I could take a shot at answering your blog question “Has the finite any capacity for the infinite?”

    A latin phrase comes to mind that I read in something from Fr. Richard John Nuehaus (one of my heroes)

    finitum capax infiniti
    There is a marvelous phrase used by theologians in controversies over the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist: finitum capax infiniti. It means “the finite is capable of the infinite.” Put differently, there is no access to the infinite except through the finite. God’s investment in the finite can be trusted infinitely.



  3. Thank you both for your comments, and Derek, welcome to this blog. You’re right: this phrase, which I first discovered (in the negative – “finitum non capax infiniti”) in Barth, is what inspired my subtitle.

    Derek, I found your analysis of quantum physics and Schrodinger’s cat fascinating and encouraging, as I do whenever a theologian speaks intelligently and fluently on science. (The other day, for instance, I came across this delightful interview with Jesuit astronomers Coyne and Consolmagno: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2010/asteroids/transcript.shtml) Only one remark: my guess is that Benny would appreciate your fluency in speaking of quantum physics, but would claim that the fact that one is able to speak fluently of quantum physics isn’t an argument for the compatibility of science with what he calls “bunk.” Sure, intelligent people have believed in the Virgin Birth — but this is not the same as saying that they have believed it for good reasons. Can we provide a scientific justification for such an occurrence?

    I don’t think we can, so my response to Benny is always that he points out something valuable: a Christian needs to acknowledge that the events surrounding the birth of Christ are very nearly a once-in-eternity set of events, and they are, really, “in-credible.” The onlookers at the site of Jesus’ miracles debated their scientific authenticity, too, and they had just witnessed them! So our attitude, I think, towards the Christian miracles must remain incredulous, and as soon as we become comfortable with the fact that they controverted the incontrovertible laws of physics (and medicine, and parturition, and what have you), we lose some authority to speak to what they really mean…

    Benny, I don’t think your argument is rough, and I agree with it on most points. What I found most provocative was your suggestion that contemporary Catholicism might go the way of contemporary Judaism. I heard a lecture by Dr. Jerome Baggett which gives reason to believe this is already happening – he is a sociologist of religion who has surveyed a bunch of different Catholic parishes with different demographics, and found that nearly across the board people talk about their faith in increasingly relativistic terms. (“My faith is right for me,” kind of thing, without insisting on absolute truth standards.)

    At the same time, there is another trend at work that Dr. Baggett didn’t mention. The up-and-coming generation seems remarkably conservative…I think there is a “neo-conservatism” taking root in religious communities, which is fed all the more as society becomes hostile to religion and religious believers, feeling marginalized and persecuted, begin to understand themselves as the prideful and defensive recipients of a mission which is profoundly counter-cutural. (This trend is visible not just in Christianity, but in Islam, too, which I am slightly familiar with after having studied the French ban on headscarves in Paris last year. Whereas the French government’s official line is that they are protecting young Muslim girls from their parents’ misogynistic coercion, in reality Muslims face so much discrimination that fathers in the older generation do NOT want their daughters looking like “terrorists” or “extremists.” On the contrary, it’s the GIRLS who resent the pressure not to wear what is for them a fashion statement, a political statement — they have not forgotten the barbarism of the Algerian war — and, yes, a religious statement.)

    For his part, Pope Benedict imagines Christianity becoming…not a watered down yet diffuse cultural phenomenon, as Judaism arguably is, but a distinct “creative minority,” marked by orthodoxy (which is not the same as strident moralism or intolerance) and diminished numbers. I hope he’s right (because I am frequently disappointed by the impotence of “cultural Judaism” for many Jews I’ve met who have faced difficult moral-ethical situations), and I think he may be, but you raise an interesting point, as well as helpfully remarking that the conflict over science may be a determining factor in how this all plays out. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next!

  4. An examen wrote: “A Christian needs to acknowledge that the events surrounding the birth of Christ are very nearly a once-in-eternity set of events, and they are, really, “in-credible.” The onlookers at the site of Jesus’ miracles debated their scientific authenticity, too, and they had just witnessed them! So our attitude, I think, towards the Christian miracles must remain incredulous, and as soon as we become comfortable with the fact that they controverted the incontrovertible laws of physics (and medicine, and parturition, and what have you), we lose some authority to speak to what they really mean…”
    Some quotes from the Creed by Luke Timothy Johnson that I think strike a good balance on what the proper Christian attitude should be vis a vis non-believers:

    Faith Is Not Science
    Faith is not science…Science seeks to be objective. What counts in science is not passion nor commitment but verification. Scientists even dislike using the first person pronoun in writing. They prefer “It can be seen” to “I see.” Faith is just the opposite. It is always personal and subjective. Faith cannot be verified by facts observable to all, because it deals with realities that cannot be measured the way claims are measured, and because the realities it engages demand personal commitment. Faith that could be verified in the way that the basic laws of physics can be verified would not be faith but a kind of science.

    Faith Knows The Same World Differently
    Faith does not know a different would from the one measured and calculated by science, but it knows the same world differently. Paul says, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”[2 Corinthians 4:18] Such seeing demands a specific embodied “seer.” Faith’s language is consequently not the scientific language of description, analysis, measurement, and prediction but the language of “confession,” “profession,” and “bearing witness.”

    Confession Is Risky
    Confession is obviously risky business. Because I can occupy only this place in the world and must speak from this particular perspective, I can never be sure that my perspective is true in any larger sense…If people swear in court to opposite views of a car accident, they will surely also fight over matters of ultimate truth. I declare God is real. But I am just as limited in my perspective as you are when you declare that God is an illusion….

    And worse, to bear witness to the reality of God is to risk appearing foolish in the eyes of the sophisticated. Faith has, to be sure, its own ways of testing the truth of the creed. Is it consistent and cogent? Does it match the Scriptures? Most of all, what sort of life does it aid and support? It must be admitted, though, that such tests appear shabby and insubstantial beside the tests used by science…

    Compared to the multiple and impressive ways (clinical trials, return of astronauts from space, etc.) – in every touch of the remote and casual scan of e-mail – the Christian’s appeal to the story of Scripture or the lives of the saints to prove their creed seems pathetic and even a little desperate…The risk is greater than simply looking like a fool. We risk being fools.

    Confession Is Modest
    Christian profession is therefore appropriately modest. Luther’s famous statement: “Here I stand, God help me, I can do no other,” is exactly right. We bear witness because this is the truth as we see it, or as we want to live it. We profess faith because from this place that our bodies occupy, the claims of the creed make more sense than not. But even when Christians make this profession of faith (recite the creed) together , the creed never turns into scientific truth. The Christian should candidly acknowledge that he speaks of things he does not fully understand, that he cannot demonstrate their truth even to his own satisfaction, and that many other people simply can’t affirm what he does.

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