Archive for May, 2009


Reflections On The Sermon On The Mount

May 29, 2009

Here are some of my favorite commentaries on The Sermon on the Mount which is in the 5th, 6th, and 7th chapters of Matthew:

Fr. Robert Barron, From And Now I See:
The Salt of the Earth
At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew,  Jesus tells his followers that they shall be “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) Normally, we construe this saying to mean that Jesus’ disciples are to be “down to earth” or “savory,” but the image, more straightforwardly interpreted, carries a very different sense. In the ancient world, when a conquering power overran a city and wished completely to negate that city’s influence, it would eliminate the people, destroy the place, and then salt the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again.

Thus when Jesus urges his disciples to be salt for the earth, he is not trading in folksy pleasantries, rather, he is encouraging them to be forces for destruction and elimination. Filled with the power of the magna anima (the great soul of the saint), they are to be courageous and independent upsetters of the status quo, troublemakers, naysayers. They are to make sure that, in the fields of the pusilla anima (the cramped soul of the sinner), nothing more shall grow. Like Christ himself, they are to be profoundly annoying to a world constructed around sin.
Further reading selections from And Now I See are found here.

Fr. Robert Barron, From Thomas Aquinas, Spiritual Master:
“Creation Consciousness” And The Sermon Of The Mount
In our bones we feel our commonality with all things in the energy of God, and we know that this relationship is more basic and more enduring than any of the differences that separate us . It takes an enormous effort of the will and a tremendous amount of sinful cultural conditioning to knock this “creation consciousness” (that we are nothing but outflows of the divine love, nothing but ongoing gifts from our Creator) out of our hearts.

When Jesus speaks in the Sermon of the Mount of radical nonviolence, of turning the other cheek, of going the extra mile, he is not simply giving ethical suggestions. Rather…he is trying to root his listeners in a creation spirituality. I ought to offer the other cheek to my persecutor because I realize, despite the violence, a far more enduring and powerful bond between us. The turning of the cheek expresses my celebration of this commonality, and one can hope that it will shame my persecutor into a similar recognition. The “ethics” of the Sermon on the Mount is a dramatic expression of the creation mentality in and thorough provocative action; it is a playing out of the mind and heart that have risen above the corrupting influences of sin and have seen the truth of things. It is a holding up of the icon of creation to a world in forgetfulness. 

Romano Guardini, From The Lord’s Prayer
A New Order
Is this a fairy tale existence, where food is wafted to the lazy and clothing grows on trees? Or a promise that the world will lose the harshness of its realities and that it will be granted to the devout to piously put it right by their wishful thinking? … Everything hinges upon the words “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” We are required to make the quest for the kingdom of God our first and most serious quest; to strive above all else to see that the kingdom of God comes and finds a place in our lives; to make it our first care that everything becomes as God wills it to be….if we enter into an understanding with God to care for his kingdom, then God will care in a new and creative way for us.

Life – which really, for all its vaunted rational order, cares nothing at all for man – rallies to us. Is this a miracle?…If God’s creative love is taken up by the loving solicitude and trust of the Christian, if  man’s free will is opened to it and gives it scope, then a new form of reality emerges from it. A new order originating from God comes into being, an order applied to the salvation of the new being. Life flows in his direction. He receives what he needs in the sight of God, even if it is by means of darkness and sorrow. In the measure that a person puts the quest for the kingdom of God first, “not in words but in deed and truth” will he be one with God in love. Then, by God’s Will, a new, all-embracing unity will arise.

Events will coordinate themselves around such a person (Mother Theresa), and all that happens will be from God’s love. This is the meaning of Providence….It takes hold of reality, orders it anew, and changes the world; not in fantasy, not as in a fairy tale, not by magic and witchcraft, but by the mighty operation of God’s creative love and through the hearts of those who place themselves at His disposal….

Fr. Robert Barron, The Strangest Way
Addiction And The Beatitudes
Anthony de Mello defines an attachment as anything in this world — including life itself— that we convince ourselves we cannot live without. The implication, of course, is that in Christ we can live without anything in this world, and to know that in our bones is to be detached, spiritually free. To live in the infinite power of God is to realize that we need nothing other, that we crave nothing more, that we can let go of everything else. De Mello’s attachment is very close to Augustine’s concupiscentia, or errant desire.

 For Augustine, all of us have been wired for God (“you have made us for yourself”) and therefore we are satisfied with nothing less than God (“our hearts are restless until they rest in you”). To become focused on something less than God (anything created, including our own lives) is therefore to place ourselves in spiritual danger and desperately to frustrate the will. Perhaps the best way to translate these notions of attachment and concupiscence into our contemporary jargon is by using the word “addiction.” When we attach our wills to something less than God, we automatically become addicted, and this is the case precisely because the lack of satisfaction that we necessarily experience leads to an obsessive return, a compulsive desire for more and more. If that amount of money didn’t quell my deepest desire, I must need more money; if that sexual encounter didn’t satisfy the longing of my heart, I must need another more thrilling one, etc., etc. The initial thrill — the “rush” — of money, sex, or power conduces to an obsession that finally takes away our freedom and our self-possession.

Jesus describes the overcoming of this addiction with the evocative word “blessed,” malcarios in Greek. In Luke’s version of the beatitudes, we find a pithy presentation of what the view from the center is like. First we are told “how blessed (malcarios) are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20). We notice that there is none of the softening offered by Matthew (“poor in spirit”), but a simple and straightforward statement of the blessedness of being poor. How do we interpret what seems prima facie to be a glorification of economic poverty? Let me propose the following reading: “How lucky you are if you are not addicted to material things.” One of the classic substitutes for God is material wealth, the accumulating of “things.” Like any drug, houses, cars, and property provide a “rush” when they first enter the system, but then in time, the thrill that they provide wears off, and more of the drug must be acquired. This rhythm continues inexorably and tragically until the addict is broken by it….

Luke’s beatitudes continue with “How blessed are you who weep now” (Luke 6:21). Again, we are struck by the oddness of the claim: how fortunate you are if you display the outward sign of greatest anxiety and depression. Might we translate it as follows: “How lucky you are if you are not addicted to good feelings.” We live in a culture that puts a premium on good feelings and attempts to deny or medicate depression. But feeling happy is just as much a false god as wealth or power. It is, in itself, only an emotional state, a fleeting and insubstantial psychological condition that cannot possibly satisfy the deepest yearning of the soul; yet it is sought with as much compulsive frenzy as any other drug. We feel the “rush” of pleasure and then, when the thrill fades, we try at all costs to reproduce it at a higher pitch. It is in this context that the addictive use of drugs, alcohol, and artificial stimulants, as well as the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure in sex and at the table are to be understood. The person who lives in the center, the place of detachment, escapes (fortunately enough) this trap.

Luke’s Jesus continues: “Happy are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22). What could be stranger than this seemingly masochistic dictum? Again, some light might be shed if we translate it in terms of our hermeneutic of detachment: “How lucky you are if you are not addicted to the approval of others.” Status, attention, fame are among the most powerful and insinuating of the false gods who lure us … Jesus told his disciples: “Woe to you when all speak well of you” (Luke 6:26), and Winston Churchill said, “Never trust a man who has no enemies.” The one whom everyone loves is in spiritual distress, since the good-will of the crowd has undoubtedly become that person’s idol. As so many of the saints — and Jesus himself– witness, the path of spiritual freedom brings one almost inevitably into conflict with those who are still in chains. Those who have placed themselves in the Christ-center rest secure even as the approval of the fickle crowd waxes and wanes.

The freedom and fullness of detachment is probably no better expressed than in John of the Cross’s beautiful mantra: “To reach satisfaction in all, desire satisfaction in nothing; to come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing; to come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing; to arrive at being all, desire to be nothing.” This fourfold nada is not a negation but the deepest affirmation, since it is a “no” to a “no.” Desiring to possess all, desiring to be all is the nonbeing of attachment, the misery of addiction; desiring to possess nothing, desiring to be nothing is, accordingly, freedom and being. It is finally to see the world as it is, and not through the distorting lens of cupidity and egotism. It is the view from the center.

Fr. Barron makes a video presentation here:

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
Jesus And The Parable Of The Lilies Of The Field
For various reasons we have come nowadays to venerate children, perhaps partly because we envy children for still doing what men used to do; such as play simple games and enjoy fairy-tales. Over and above this, however, there is a great deal of real and subtle psychology in our appreciation of childhood; but if we turn it into a modern discovery, we must once more admit that the historical Jesus of Nazareth had already discovered it two thousand years too soon.

There was certainly nothing in the world around him to help him to the discovery. Here Christ was indeed human; but more human than a human being was then likely to be. Peter Pan does not belong to the world of Pan but the world of Peter. …Even in the matter of mere literary style, if we suppose ourselves thus sufficiently detached to look at it in that light, there is a curious quality to which no critic seems to have done justice. It had among other things a singular air of piling tower upon tower by the use of the a fortiori; making a pagoda of degrees like the seven heavens. I have already noted that almost inverted imaginative vision which pictured the impossible penance of the Cities of the Plain.

There is perhaps nothing so perfect in all language or literature as the use of these three degrees in the parable of the lilies of the field; in which he seems first to take one small flower in his hand and note its simplicity and even its impotence; then suddenly expands it in flamboyant colors into all the palaces and pavilions full of a great name in national legend and national glory; and then, by yet a third overturn, shrivels into nothing once more with a gesture as if flinging it away `and if God so clothes the grass that today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven– how much more’ It is like the building of a good Babel tower by white magic in a moment and in the movement of a hand; a tower heaved suddenly up to heaven on the top of which can be seen afar off, higher than we had fancied possible, the figure of man; lifted by three infinities above all other things, on a starry ladder of light logic and swift imagination.

Merely in a literary sense it would be more of a masterpiece than most of the masterpieces in the libraries; yet it seems to have been uttered almost at random while a man might pull a flower. But merely in a literary sense also, this use of the comparative in several degrees has about it a quality which seems to me to hint of much higher things than the modern suggestion of the simple teaching of pastoral or communal ethics. There is nothing that really indicates a subtle and in the true sense a superior mind so much as this power of comparing a lower thing with a higher and yet that higher with a higher still; of thinking on three planes at once. There is nothing that wants the rarest sort of wisdom so much as to see, let us say, that the citizen is higher than the slave and yet that the soul is infinitely higher than the citizen or the city.

It is not by any means a faculty that commonly belongs to these simplifiers of the Gospel; those who insist on what they call a simple morality and others call a sentimental morality. It is not at all covered by those who are content to tell everybody to remain at peace. On the contrary, there is a very striking example of it in the apparent inconsistency between Christ’s sayings about peace and about a sword. It is precisely this power which perceives that while a good peace is better than a good war, even a good war is better than a bad peace. These far-flung comparisons are nowhere so common as in the Gospels; and to me they suggest something very vast. So a thing solitary and solid, with the added dimension of depth or height, might tower over the flat creatures living only on a plane. …

This quality of something that can only be called subtle and superior, something that is capable of long views and even of double meanings, is not noted here merely as a counterblast to the commonplace exaggerations of amiability and mild idealism. It is also to be noted in connection with the more tremendous truth touched upon at the end of the last chapter. For this is the very last character that commonly goes with mere megalomania; especially such steep and staggering megalomania as might be involved in that claim.

This quality that can only be called intellectual distinction is not, of course, an evidence of divinity. But it is an evidence of a probable distaste for vulgar and vainglorious claims to divinity. A man of that sort, if he were only a man, would be the last man in the world to suffer from that intoxication by one notion from nowhere in particular, which is the mark of the self-deluding sensationalist in religion .

Nor is it even avoided by denying that Christ did make this claim. Of no such man as that, of no other prophet or philosopher of the same intellectual order, would it be even possible to pretend that he had made it. Even if the Church had mistaken his meaning, it would still be true that no other historical tradition except the Church had ever even made the same mistake. Mohammedans did not misunderstand Mahomet and suppose he was Allah. Jews did not misinterpret Moses and identify him with Jehovah. Why was this claim alone exaggerated unless this alone was made. Even if Christianity was one vast universal blunder, it is still a blunder as solitary as the Incarnation. …

If Christ was simply a human character, he really was a highly complex and contradictory human character. For he combined exactly the two things that lie at the two extremes of human variation. He was exactly what the man with a delusion never is; he was wise; he was a good judge. What he said was always unexpected; but it was always unexpectedly magnanimous and often unexpectedly moderate. Take a thing like the point of the parable of the tares and the wheat. It has the quality that unites sanity and subtlety. It has not the simplicity of a madman. It has not even the simplicity of a fanatic. It might be uttered by a philosopher a hundred years old, at the end of a century of Utopias. Nothing could be less like this quality of seeing beyond and all round obvious things, than the condition of the egomaniac with the one sensitive spot on his brain.

I really do not see how these two characters could be convincingly combined, except in the astonishing way in which the creed combines them. For until we reach the full acceptance of the fact as a fact, however marvelous, all mere approximations to it are actually further and further away from it. Divinity is great enough to be divine; it is great enough to call itself divine. But as humanity grows greater, it grows less and less likely to do so.

God is God, as the Moslems say; but a great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it. That is the paradox; everything that is merely approaching to that point is merely receding from it. Socrates, the wisest man, knows that he knows nothing. A lunatic may think he is omniscience, and a fool may talk as if he were omniscient. But Christ is in another sense omniscient if he not only knows, but knows that he knows.


Annals Of Atheism V: The Scientist Debunks Himself

May 27, 2009

The final theme Dr. Barr takes up of the materialist’s story is the mechanistic view of man himself. It is the final theme in more ways than one. Here the scientist debunks himself. Here all the grand intellectual adventure of science ends with the statement that there is no intellectual adventure. For the mind of man has looked into itself and seen nothing there except complex chemistry, nerve impulses, and synapses firing. That big fat nothing, at least, is what the materialist tells us that science has seen.

One recalls Chesterton’s reflections on Evolution  or  the “Thought To End All Thoughts.”  It’s astonishing to see someone like Dr. Barr making the same point here that Chesterton essentially made some seventy or eighty years prior. I could almost feel the Great One chuckling as I read the Barr essay.

However, the story is really not so simple for here again (after Chesterton’s time) the plot has twisted. Two of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century cast considerable doubt upon, and some would say refute, the contention that the mind of man can be explained as a mere biochemical machine (Chesterton was refuting it on a rational or theological basis).

The first of these discoveries that Dr. Barr offers is quantum theory. In the traditional interpretation of quantum theory — sometimes also called the “Copenhagen,” “standard,” or “orthodox” interpretation — one must, to avoid paradoxes or absurdities, posit the existence of so-called “observers” who lie, at least in part, outside of the description of the world provided by physics. That is, the mathematical formalism which quantum theory uses to make predictions about the physical world cannot be stretched to cover completely the person who is observing that world. What is it about the “observer” that lies beyond physical description? Careful analysis suggests that it is some aspect of his rational mind.

This has led some eminent physicists to say that quantum theory is inconsistent with a materialistic view of the human mind. Eugene Wigner, a Nobel laureate in physics, stated flatly that materialism is not “logically consistent with present quantum mechanics.” Sir Rudolf Peierls, another leading twentieth–century physicist, said, on the basis of quantum theory, “The premise that you can describe in terms of physics the whole function of a human being…including its knowledge, and its consciousness, is untenable. There is still something missing.”

Admittedly, this is a highly controversial view. That is only to be expected, especially given the materialist prejudice that affects a large part of the scientific community. Moreover, the traditional interpretation of quantum theory has aspects that many find disturbing or implausible. Some even think (wrongly, in Dr. Barr’s opinion) that the role it assigns to observers leads to subjectivism or philosophical idealism. Dissatisfaction with the traditional interpretation has led to various rival interpretations and to attempts to modify quantum theory. However, these other ideas are equally controversial. The controversy over quantum theory will not be resolved any time soon, or perhaps ever. But, even if it is not, the fact will remain that there is an argument against materialism that comes from physics itself, an argument that has been advanced and defended by some leading physicists and never refuted.

The second discovery that arguably points to something nonmaterial in man is a revolutionary theorem in mathematical logic proved in 1931 by the Austrian Kurt Gödel, one of the greatest mathematicians of modern times. Gödel’s Theorem concerns the inherent limitations of what are called “formal systems.” Formal systems are essentially systems of symbolic manipulation. Since computers are basically just machines for doing such symbolic manipulations, Gödel’s Theorem has great relevance to what computers and computer programs can do.

It was recognized fairly quickly that Gödel’s Theorem might have something to say about whether the human mind is just a computer — Gödel himself was firmly convinced that it is not. Indeed, he called materialism “a prejudice of our time.” However, he never developed, at least in print, the argument against materialism based on his own theorem. That was first done by the Oxford philosopher John R. Lucas. In 1961, Lucas wrote,

“Gödel’s theorem seems to me to prove that Mechanism is false, that is, that minds cannot be explained as machines. So has it seemed to many other people: almost every mathematical logician I have put the matter to has confessed similar thoughts, but has felt reluctant to commit himself definitely until he could see the whole argument set out, with all objections fully stated and properly met. This I attempt to do.”

Both Gödel’s Theorem and Lucas’ argument are extremely subtle, but we can state the gist of them as follows. Gödel’s Theorem implies that a computer program can be outwitted by someone who understands how it is put together. Lucas observed that if a man were himself a computer program, then by knowing how his own program was put together he could outwit himself, which is a contradiction.

One may explain the Lucas argument in another way. Gödel’s Theorem also showed that it is beyond the power of any computer program that operates by logically consistent rules to tell that it is doing so. However, a human being, Lucas noted, can recognize his own consistency — at least at times — and so must be more than a mere computer.

In recent years, the eminent mathematician and mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose has taken up the Lucas argument, further refined it, and answered criticisms that had been leveled at it by mathematicians and philosophers. This has not quieted the criticism. However, the Gödelian argument of Lucas and Penrose, though often attacked, has never been refuted.

Where does this all leave us? After all the twists and turns of scientific history we look around and find ourselves in very familiar surroundings. We find ourselves in a universe that seems to have had a beginning. We find it governed by laws that have a grandeur and sublimity that bespeak design. We find many indications in those laws that we were built in from the beginning. We find that physical determinism is wrong. And we find that the deepest discoveries of modern physics and mathematics give hints, if not proof, that the mind of man has something about it that lies beyond the power of either physics or mathematics to describe.

Chesterton told the story of “an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was an island in the South Seas.” The explorer, he said, “landed (armed to the teeth and speaking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the pavilion at Brighton.” Having braced himself to discover New South Wales, he realized, “with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales.”

Science has taken us on just such an adventure. Armed not with weapons but with telescopes and particle accelerators, and speaking by the signs and symbols of recondite mathematics, it has brought us to many strange shores and shown us alien and fantastic landscapes. But as we scan the horizon, near the end of the voyage, we have begun to recognize first one and then another of the old familiar landmarks and outlines of our ancestral home. The search for truth always leads us, in the end, back to God.

So ends Dr. Barr’s essay. I know many atheists who refuse to get beyond the notion that any scientific hypothesis rejects the supernatural outright as premise and thereby see Christianity’s role in science as pernicious. What I liked about Dr. Barr’s essay was how it supports the scientific method and rejects supernaturalism but also points out how much of current scientific thought is predicated on an intelligible universe and supports the notion of an intelligent designer or ground of being in the nature of things. While nothing can be flat out proved by the limits of the scientific approach, there is much that points to all of what the Christian senses in the fallen world about him and beyond.


Annals of Atheism IV: The Determinism Of Physical Law Meets The Indeterminacy Of Quantum Theory

May 26, 2009

The fourth theme of the materialist’s story was the determinism of physical law. Everything in the history of physics up until the last century seemed to support this idea. All the laws discovered — those of mechanics, gravity, and electromagnetism — were deterministic in character. If anything seemed securely established it was physical determinism.

Perhaps there was nothing more counter to Christian anthropology than the notion of Man held captive to a deterministic universe. Christian anthropology posits a sensual-intellectual human nature:

“Penetration to the deeper essence of things, not perceptible to the senses is possible only to the reasoning mind. The reasoning mind alone can relate itself to the whole of reality. To be able to establish an inner link with all creation is precisely what distinguishes the higher level on which man moves from the essentially lower level of the animal. Furthermore, only the reasoning mind is capable of an act of free will; and free will also distinguishes man essentially from all creatures lower than himself. Without freedom of choice and decision man could neither sin nor be converted nor be sanctified. However, the use of our mind requires the use of the senses to start with. Purely intellectual knowledge is not possible for man. Yet God so created our sensual-intellectual human nature as to make us able to see Him in the Beatific Vision in eternal life. The ultimate reason for man’s distinctive difference is the spiritual character of his soul.”
What Catholics Believe Josef Pieper and Heinz Raskop

However, in the 1920s the ground rumbled under the feet of physicists. Determinism was swept away in the quantum revolution. According to the principles of quantum theory, even complete information about the state of a physical system at one time does not determine its future behavior, except in a probabilistic sense.

This was terribly shocking to physicists. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of an exact science is its ability to predict outcomes. So shocking was this twist in the plot that several of the makers of the quantum revolution, including de Broglie and Schrödinger, were reluctant to accept this aspect of it. Einstein was never reconciled to the loss of determinism. “God,” he famously said, “does not play dice.” There have been many attempts to restore determinism to physics by modifying, reformulating, or reinterpreting quantum theory in some way. So far, however, it seems unlikely that the old classical determinism will be restored.

There are many who argue, nonetheless, that the indeterminacy of quantum theory does not create an opening or a space for free will to operate. They argue that the basic building blocks of the human brain, such as neurons, are too large for quantum indeterminacy to play a significant role. At this point, who can say? So little is known about the brain. What we can say is that there was for a long time a strong argument from the fundamental character of physical law against the possibility of free will, and this argument can no longer be so simply made. To quote Hermann Weyl again, from the same 1931 lecture:

“We may say that there exists a world, causally closed and determined by precise laws, but… the new insight which modern [quantum] physics affords…opens several ways of reconciling personal freedom with natural law. It would be premature, however, to propose a definite and complete solution of the problem…We must await the further development of science, perhaps for centuries, perhaps for thousands of years, before we can design a true and detailed picture of the interwoven texture of Matter, Life, and Soul. But the old classical determinism of Hobbes and Laplace need not oppress us longer.”

Yale professor of computer science David Gelernter argues that at least one part of the universe does have a purpose: we human beings do, and around us, the earth that made us possible. And what is that purpose?

Namely to defeat and rise above our animal natures; to create goodness, beauty and holiness where only physics and animal life once existed; to create what might be (if we succeed) the only tiny pinprick of goodness in the universe —  which is otherwise (so far as we know) morally null and void. If no other such project exists anywhere in the cosmos, our victory would change the nature of the universe. If there are similar projects elsewhere, more power to them; but our own task remains unchanged.

As we can see from these comments, even the strictest scientists need to put the findings of science in a metaphysical context. When they are faced with questions about meaning, purpose, and cause, they cannot help themselves. Some speculate that Causes may be hidden within other causes like Russian stacking dolls. Others speculate that the entire universe should be considered as an uncreated cause, the first cause, of its own existence. However, when they do metaphysics they invite comparison to the inquiries of ancient and medieval thinkers, who moved more carefully on such matters.

Michael Novak argues in “No One Sees God:” “What we do know is that concrete things exist. We live in the midst of them. And things do not hold themselves in existence; one by one, their period in existence is brief. That fact poses a problem to our inquiring intelligence.

It is entirely possible that one form of existence evolved from another over eons of time, in the way that the new Darwinians picture human history. Aristotle’s philosophical argument for the reality of an imperishable existent is actually consistent with a Darwinian exposition of how things, once they came into existence in some form, perhaps as a primal ocean, got to where they are today. Can there be an imperishable Existent that infuses temporary existence into all perishable existents? If so, that fact is consistent with theories of either evolution or creation, or both. The philosophy in question is pre-biblical. It springs from wonderment at the marvel of coining into existence, and exiting out from it.

The fact it rests upon is this one: You and I unarguably exist

The mind wants to understand not only the how of that fact, not just the brute fact, but the source of existence that makes you and me to be. In the argument of Aquinas about the “unmoved mover,” the key step is an empirical, undeniable one “But, indubitably, things do move.” The fact of movement is the crucial datum. The question it awakens is “What greater mover put moving things into motion?” What is it that lifts things out of the world of mere concepts, mere possibilities, into the concrete world of perishable existents? Things don’t just come into being by themselves. Especially highly intelligible things don’t. Some intelligence suffuses them. (Otherwise, detective novels would not grip us.)

For those trained in flatter ways of thinking, this is all ridiculous metaphysical speculation, mere words, unresolvable by empirical tests.

Yet if it is true, it plants an intelligent source of existence at the nerve center of every existing thing in the whole blooming evolutionary panorama. It links each intelligible event to an active intelligence, which understands all the things that exist. This philosophy is wholly compatible with science, even though its mode of arguing is not a subset of scientific arguments. Rather, scientific arguments are a subset of other forms of rational argument.

This philosophy is much more intellectually satisfying than the alternatives. It rests upon and protects the close link between intelligence (greater than our own) and the intelligible existents that come into our ken. It forces us to imagine intelligence “all the way down,” and to rule no questions out. It helps to explain the source of our own unrestricted drive to inquire. It suggests that that drive is in harmony with the world as it is isomorphic (vocab: different in ancestry, but having the same form or appearance) with it.”

Another post on quantum theory here:


Annals of Atheism III: Anthropic Coincidence

May 25, 2009

The first two themes we’ve taken up in the Annals of Atheism blend together to give the third theme of Prof. Steven Barr’s story, what the late Stephen Jay Gould called the “dethronement of man.” With the earth but an infinitesimal speck of flotsam in the limitless ocean of space, and the human race but a chemical accident, we can no longer believe ourselves to be the uniquely important beings for whom the universe was created. .” A classic statement of this view was given by Steven Weinberg in his book The First Three Minutes. He wrote:

“It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a farcical outcome of a chain of accidents, …but that we were somehow built in from the beginning….It is very hard for us to realize that [the entire earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe….The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

Dr. Barr continues: “Certainly, given the immensity of the universe and the impact of Darwinian ideas, it is easy to understand why this sentiment is widespread. However, in the last few decades there has been a development that suggests a very different estimate of man’s place in the universe. This plot twist was not a single discovery, but the noticing of many facts about the laws of nature that all seem to point in the same direction. These facts are sometimes called “anthropic coincidences.”

The term “anthropic coincidence” refers to some feature of the laws of physics that seems to be just what is needed for life to be able to evolve. In other words, it is a feature whose lack or minute alteration would have rendered the universe sterile. Some of these features have been known for a long time. For example, William Paley, already in 1802, in his treatise Natural Theology, pointed out that if the law of gravity had not been a so–called “inverse square law” then the earth and the other planets would not be able to remain in stable orbits around the sun. Perhaps the most famous anthropic coincidence was discovered in the 1930s, when it was found that except for a certain very precise relationship satisfied by the energy levels of the Carbon 12 nucleus, most of the chemical elements in nature would have occurred in only very minute quantities, greatly dimming the prospects of life.

Interest in and attention to anthropic coincidences has greatly intensified since the work of the astrophysicist Brandon Carter in the 1970s. Many such coincidences have now been identified. The most natural interpretation of them is that we were indeed “built in from the beginning,” in Steven Weinberg’s phrase, and that the universe, far from being “overwhelmingly hostile” to us, as he asserted, is actually amazingly, gratuitously hospitable.

Fr. Robert Barron, writing about St. Thomas Aquinas had this insight into God’s goodness:
“Dionysius, a theologian to whom Thomas Aquinas is deeply in debt, described God as “the good which is diffusive of itself.” For the great mystic Dionysius, goodness is like a fountain, constantly overflowing, or like the sun, naturally radiating out, communicating almost in spite of itself. Or in more psychological terms, it is like a joyful person who simply cannot keep his good cheer to himself. The good spills over speaks itself, shines forth …For Thomas it is precisely this insight into God’s playfulness and capacity for self-offering that convinces Christians of the unspeakable goodness of the divine power. It is this self-forgetfulness of God, made visible in Jesus, that persuades us finally of God’s superabundant generosity. If God had not joined us in our creatureliness, God would remain a limited, finite good, still to some degree restricted in love. In a word, the Christian discovers in Jesus Christ that God’s being is fully ecstatic. God’s nature is to go beyond himself, to step outside of himself, to forget himself in love….For Thomas, Jesus Christ, God made human, is the light by which the goodness, the power, the strangeness, and especially the ecstasy of God are revealed. In his great leap out of himself, God discloses, superabundantly and overwhelmingly, who he is. In this ecstatic leap, God opens up the human mind and heart, illumines and heals the eyes of the human spirit, and thereby sets us on the path that leads to him.”

Hans Urs Von Balthasar speaks to this same goodness and its meaning:
The Ground Of Being And The Good: The Ultimate Cause Of The Creation Of A World
God does not produce the world naturally because he is God, which would then mean that the world would be in the same measure divine and necessary as God himself; rather it is an absolute freedom which is the ground of the self-effusion of the ultimate good. This in turn has two consequences: that God in himself and independently of his relationship to the world is the good, or in Christian terms is love, and that the ultimate cause of the creation of a world can only be the free, loving communication of divine goodness to created beings.  If one thinks this through, then one will have to say, over and above this, that precisely in the freedom of the love of the divine ground of being lies the possibility of there being such a thing as a world (which is not God, not the infinite and the all) at all. Indeed the final point may emerge dimly as a kind of limiting concept which will find its confirmation in the central assertions of the Christian faith: The ground of being can be called the good as free love only if it possesses in itself a spiritual life of love; that is to say, if there is within it a self-giving, a communing, a communality that does not impugn the identity of the absolute but indeed is the necessary condition of its truly being the absolute good.

The Intentions of a Free Divine Good
If (a man) encounters the idea that he …is the image of the freely loving God who consequently also wills him of his freedom, then a strange and remarkable light will be shed on his existence. On the one hand, it will become clear to him that the free divine good has intended him to be this particular person, this unmistakable person, and has consequently freely given to him his freedom insight and responsibility; but that this, on the other hand, cannot be simply a matter of dismissing him, of sending him off without further interest into an estrangement from God. Rather he must realize his being as a man with free, rational responsibility precisely by relating the image to the original, not by turning away, but by turning to God. Here a realm of intimate inwardness is opened up which may take many forms and names: contact with the primal image, cherishing an d contemplating memories and recollections, prayer, the attempt to make human insight and freedom in every situation transparent to absolute insight and freedom. It is an openness, ready to be formed and fulfilled; it is making room for the one who may come to dwell, a readiness to the be the womb which shall bear fruit each in one’s own particular human world activity and efforts.

Most scientists take a very jaundiced view of the whole subject of anthropic coincidences, but yet they refuse to go away – perhaps because of the very theological observations, so terribly unscientific, that Barron and von Balthazar list above. Those who oppose anthropic coincidences have some respectable reasons, but the major reason, in Dr. Barr’s experience, has been a knee-jerk reaction against anything that smelled like religion or teleology. Moreover, those well-known scientists who have shown interest in anthropic coincidences generally see them as having an explanation that does not invoke purpose in nature.

They appeal to what is sometimes called the Weak Anthropic Principle. This is the idea that a variety of different laws of physics apply in different regions of the universe, or even in different universes, and that so many possible laws of physics are sampled in this way that there is really no coincidence in the fact that in some places the laws are “just right” for life.

This is a very speculative idea, and as an explanation of all the anthropic coincidences it faces formidable difficulties. However, it cautions us that the anthropic coincidences may not point unambiguously to cosmic purpose. Yet one thing is for sure, these coincidences do completely vitiate the claim that science has shown life and man to be mere accidents and life the outcome of a mechanistic determinism. If anything, the prima facie evidence is in favor of the biblical idea that the universe was made with life and man in mind.

Next in the series:


Annals of Atheism II: Mechanism Over Teleology

May 23, 2009

The second theme that Dr. Barr deals with is the triumph of mechanism over teleology. The Biblical religions had the concept of a natural order, but they saw that order as embodying purpose, which gave rise to the science of teleology. Teleology (Greek: telos: end, purpose) is the philosophical study of design and purpose. A teleological school of thought is one that holds all things to be designed for or directed toward a final result, that there is an inherent purpose or final cause for all that exists. As a school of thought it can be contrasted with metaphysical naturalism, which views nature as having no design or purpose and is one of the philosophical homes of atheism. Teleology would say that a person has eyes because he has the need of sight (form following function), while naturalism would say that a person has sight because he has eyes (function following form).

The arrangement of the world and the processes of nature the Biblical religions saw as being directed toward beneficent ends. That is why Christianity had little difficulty in accepting the naturalistic science of Aristotle, which was based on final causes. However, the Scientific Revolution occurred when it was realized that final causes could be dispensed with altogether in physics and that phenomena could be adequately explained in a completely mechanistic way in terms of preceding physical events. Even in biology, apparent purpose is now thought to arise from the undirected mechanism of natural selection acting on random genetic mutations. The materialist or metaphysical naturalist argues that the disappearance of purpose from nature undercuts the idea that nature is designed.

Dr. Barr continues the story:
“The second theme of the materialist’s story was the triumph of mechanism over teleology. Instead of seeing purpose in nature, and thus a Person behind the purpose, science came to see only the operation of impersonal laws. There was no need for a cosmic designer, for it was the laws of physics that shaped and sculpted the world in which we live. When Laplace was asked by Napoleon why God was never mentioned in his great treatise on celestial mechanics, Laplace famously answered, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” This revealed a shift in perspective. Whereas once the laws of nature had been seen as pointing to a lawgiver, they were now seen by some as constituting in themselves, and by themselves, a sufficient explanation of reality. This brings us to the second plot twist in the story of science. In the twentieth century another shift in perspective took place. One might call it the aesthetic turn. This requires some explanation.

Macrophysics begins with phenomena that can be observed with the senses, perhaps aided by simple instruments, like telescopes. It finds regularities in those phenomena and seeks mathematical rules that accurately describe them. Physicists call such rules empirical formulas or phenomenological laws. At a later stage, these rules are found to follow from some deeper and more general laws, which usually require more abstract and abstruse mathematics to express them.

Underlying these, in turn, are found yet more fundamental laws. As this deepening has occurred, two things have happened. First, there has been an increasing unification of physics. Whereas, in the early days of science, nature seemed to be a potpourri of many kinds of phenomena with little apparent relation, such as heat, sound, magnetism, and gravity, it later became clear that there were deep connections. This trend toward unification greatly accelerated throughout the twentieth century, until we now have begun to discern that the laws of physics make up a single harmonious mathematical system.

Second, physicists began to look not only at the surface physical effects, but increasingly at the form of the deep laws that underlie them. They began to notice that those laws exhibit a great richness and profundity of mathematical structure, and that they are, indeed, remarkably beautiful and elegant from the mathematical point of view.

As time went on, the search for new theories became guided not only by detailed fitting of experimental data, but by aesthetic criteria. A classic example of this was the discovery of the Dirac Equation in 1928. Paul Dirac was looking for an equation to describe electrons that was consistent with both relativity and quantum theory. He hit upon a piece of mathematics that struck him as “pretty.” “[It] was a pretty mathematical result,” he said. “I was quite excited over it. It seemed that it must be of some importance.” This led him to the discovery that has been justly described as among the highest achievements of twentieth–century science.

The same quest for mathematical beauty dominates the search for fundamental theories today. One of the leading theoretical particle physicists in the world today, Edward Witten, trying to explain to a skeptical science reporter why he believed in superstring theory in spite of the dearth of experimental evidence for it, said, “I don’t think I’ve succeeded in conveying to you its wonder, incredible consistency, remarkable elegance, and beauty.”

All of this has changed the context in which we think about design in nature. When the questions physicists asked were simply about particular sensible phenomena, like stars, rainbows, or crystals, it may have seemed out of place to talk about them, however beautiful they were, as being fashioned by the hand of God. They could be accounted for satisfactorily by the laws of physics. But now, when it is the laws of physics themselves that are the object of curiosity and aesthetic appreciation, and when it has been found that they form a single magnificent edifice of great subtlety, harmony, and beauty, the question of a cosmic designer seems no longer irrelevant, but inescapable.” Mechanism, along with Elvis, has left the house as it were.

The principal arguments for beauty are:

  1. We have a strong intuition, especially when in the presence of great art or extreme natural or human beauty, that the beauty is real and transcends its material manifestations. Although such intuitions are not always correct, they are strong enough prima facie evidence that very compelling arguments to the contrary would be needed to cancel them out.
  2. Creative artists generally experience their efforts to create great art/literature/music in terms that assume the objective existence of beauty, albeit mediated by their subjective experience
  3. Although one can make plausible evolutionary explanations for finding beauty in potential sexual partners and in healthy animals that might be food or predators, the experience of beauty is much wider than these categories and includes visions of things for which there can be no direct evolutionary advantage (like clouds seen from aeroplanes, or images from telescopes).
  4. Scientists, especially physicists, have found that mathematical beauty is a very useful guide to a valid theory.
  5. It is very difficult to speak of beauty in a coherent way without assuming its objective existence, albeit mediated by highly subjective and cultural factors.

The splendor of a great work of art communicates the radiance which belongs to the truth of things, what the Scholastic philosophers called pulchrum, beauty as a determination of being as such. In a similar way, it is proposed, the glory of God shines forth in the life and person of Jesus Christ. His words and works of love express the self-communicating goodness of being, a goodness derived from being’s transcendent ground or source.

John Paul II: “In reasoning about nature, the human being can rise to God: “From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13:5). This is to recognize as a first stage of divine Revelation the marvelous “book of nature”, which, when read with the proper tools of human reason, can lead to knowledge of the Creator.

If human beings with their intelligence fail to recognize God as Creator of all, it is not because they lack the means to do so, but because their free will and their sinfulness place an impediment in the way. Seen in this light, reason is valued without being overvalued. The results of reasoning may in fact be true, but these results acquire their true meaning only if they are set within the larger horizon of faith: “All man’s steps are ordered by the Lord: how then can man understand his own ways?” (Proverbs 20:24).

For the Old Testament, then, faith liberates reason in so far as it allows reason to attain correctly what it seeks to know and to place it within the ultimate order of things, in which everything acquires true meaning. In brief, human beings attain truth by way of reason because, enlightened by faith, they discover the deeper meaning of all things and most especially of their own existence.”

In 1931, Hermann Weyl, one of the great mathematicians and physicists of the twentieth century, gave a lecture at Yale University in which he said the following:
“Many people think that modern science is far removed from God. I find, on the contrary, that it is much more difficult today for the knowing person to approach God from history, from the spiritual side of the world, and from morals; for there we encounter the suffering and evil in the world, which it is difficult to bring into harmony with an all–merciful and almighty God. In this domain we have evidently not yet succeeded in raising the veil with which our human nature covers the essence of things. But in our knowledge of physical nature we have penetrated so far that we can obtain a vision of the flawless harmony which is in conformity with sublime reason.”

As I noted in an earlier essay, I’m not seeking to replace atheist conceits with Christian ones. Nowhere here will I posit the existence of God from a scientific argument on the nature of Beauty or the demise of mechanism in the recent history of science. Alan Mittleman has demolished the usefulness of such arguments as far as I am concerned. (LINK). God is not a scientific hypotheses.

These essays are measured responses to a virulent and obnoxious atheist conceit that says Christianity has been debunked by science and has no role in scientific discourse or endeavors. To be perfectly truthful there is a form of Christianity typified by Christian fundamentalists who assert a certain Biblical literalism (The earth is 6000 years old; Intelligent Design is opposed to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, etc. etc.) that should be read the riot act and shown the door. Most forms of Jewish and Christian faith do not support such biblical literalism. However some atheists attempt to paint a broad stroke, toss in issues of faith such as Transubstantiation or the Resurrection to muddy the waters and attempt to muscle Roman Catholicism out the door too. This is for you guys.

Along with this short lecture from John Paul II:
This is why the Christian’s relationship to philosophy (and science) requires thorough-going discernment. In the New Testament, especially in the Letters of Saint Paul, one thing emerges with great clarity: the opposition between “the wisdom of this world” and the wisdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The depth of revealed wisdom disrupts the cycle of our habitual patterns of thought, which are in no way able to express that wisdom in its fullness.

The beginning of the First Letter to the Corinthians poses the dilemma in a radical way. The crucified Son of God is the historic event upon which every attempt of the mind to construct an adequate explanation of the meaning of existence upon merely human argumentation comes to grief. The true key-point, which challenges every philosophy, is Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross. It is here that every attempt to reduce the Father’s saving plan to purely human logic is doomed to failure. “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the learned? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” [1 Corinthians 1:20], the Apostle asks emphatically.

The wisdom of the wise is no longer enough for what God wants to accomplish; what is required is a decisive step towards welcoming something radically new: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). Human wisdom refuses to see in its own weakness the possibility of its strength; yet Saint Paul is quick to affirm: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Man cannot grasp how death could be the source of life and love; yet to reveal the mystery of his saving plan God has chosen precisely that which reason considers “foolishness” and a “scandal”. Adopting the language of the philosophers of his time, Paul comes to the summit of his teaching as he speaks the paradox: “God has chosen in the world… that which is nothing to reduce to nothing things that are” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:28). In order to express the gratuitous nature of the love revealed in the Cross of Christ, the Apostle is not afraid to use the most radical language of the philosophers in their thinking about God. Reason cannot eliminate the mystery of love which the Cross represents, while the Cross can give to reason the ultimate answer which it seeks. It is not the wisdom of words, but the Word of Wisdom which Saint Paul offers as the criterion of both truth and salvation.


Asking The Wrong Question: A Meditation On The Question “Does God Exist?”

May 23, 2009

Alan Mittleman is director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies and professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Whenever I find myself dealing with the subject of God’s existence, I find this essay a suitable way to say, “Here, read this and don’t ask me that again.”

I recently attended two conversations under the aegis of the Templeton Foundation’s Big Questions initiative. Both dealt with whether God exists—one directly, the other obliquely, by asking whether science makes belief in God obsolete. Both were so deeply unsatisfying that I have to wonder whether this enterprise should more aptly be named “wrong questions.”

To be clear, I think that the Templeton initiative is praiseworthy. The problem begins with the way all such conversations are framed. God, contra the late Richard Rorty, is not a conversation stopper, but the question “Does God exist?” surely is. It tilts toward the atheist’s strength, for it assumes that the religious believer is committed to the existence of something akin to unicorns or gremlins, for which there is not the slightest bit of evidence. In asking “Does God exist?” the atheist challenges the believer to produce sufficient evidence to persuade him. The believer cannot. That which counts as evidence for the believer can be explained or explained away by the atheist.

Evidence can always be interpreted in a variety of ways, some of them unfavorable to the believer’s case. (If you claim that God spoke to you in a dream, how is that different, as David Hume asked, from dreaming that God spoke to you?) The atheist will charge that the believer’s interpretation is gratuitous or merely circular: The believer is simply asserting the truth (of Scripture, for example) of precisely that which he must demonstrate.

When modern science is brought into the discussion, the believer is hard pressed to find a bit of room left for God to occupy. Our contemporary ways of thinking about nature leave little space for God-as-hypothesis. Science has no place for untestable hypotheses. Once again, the way such science-and-God questions are framed—Does science render belief in God obsolete?—diverts believers from testifying to the God they claim to love. It squeezes them into making existence claims on behalf of a distant God in a universe that doesn’t have a place for him.

From the atheist’s point of view, that is fine. It matters not at all whether the believer is pressed to defend the existence of Zeus or the God of Israel; for the atheist, it’s all mythological and superstitious in the end. The believer is reduced to having to defend the God of Israel as if he were Zeus—just another fictive entity in a universe now known not to contain such things. When the believer protests that the sort of God the atheist asks to be convinced of is not his God, the atheist protests that the believer is diluting the tradition. If the believer invokes a notion such as metaphor to explain religious language, the atheist already feels that he has won. And so he has. For the question “Does God exist?” is immediately prejudicial to those who take seriously the God of Israel.

In fact, the God of Israel is not one about whom existence claims can be made in any straightforward fashion. This is both a theological assertion and, leaning on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a logical one. Martin Buber, on the eve of the First World War, was asked by a visitor, an English clergyman who worried about Buber’s soul, whether he believed in God. As Buber waited with him for the train and the indefinite parting to which the war would condemn them, Buber answered, reluctantly, yes. The pastor was satisfied.

Later Buber ruminated on what he had said. He felt that he had erred. The God he encountered in prayer, awe, wonder, and the small graces of the everyday was not a being about whom one could speak in the third person. God was not the sort of thing about which one could say, yes, it exists or no, it does not exist. To speak in this way was already to be estranged.

God, Buber felt, could not be discussed but only addressed—and that in the second person as “you.” To speak of God as if one were speaking of a thing, however recondite and mysterious, or of a distant person, was to speak of nothing more than a fictive character. For Buber, it seems, the word God named nothing real. Rather, the use of the word God, in the context of address, absorbs one in a way of life that touches on the real. All that we can really say of God is what we can say to God.

Faith, in this view, is never a set of belief claims. It is a way of life marked by trust, by affirmation of the goodness of being, by the repudiation of despair, and by an infinite openness to others and their needs. Buber contrasted religion, invidiously, to faith. Faith needs no tall tales. Religion cannot exist without them.

There is much that is wrong with this thoroughly existential view. Historical religions, as complex cultural and moral systems, do not fare well under it. (Buber was not an observant Jew in any traditional sense.) Nor am I sure that it sustains rational coherence. But there is also something honorable and right about it. The refusal of the faithful to be boxed into the existence question, as if it were the one thing needful, rings true. The faithful know that their way of life springs from mystery and goes to mystery. Their God, in Maimonides’ astringent view, bears no predicates. We are as little able logically to call God just as to call him unjust; it is piety, for Maimonides, not logic that guides us to use the former rather than the latter term.

God is one, in classical Jewish theology. This does not mean that God is numerically one, as opposed to two or three, but that God is unique: There are none like God. Nothing about which we know anything is in any relevant way like God. Therefore, our language categorically fails to touch the divine. To say of God that he exists or to say of God that he does not exist are both wide of the logical mark because they force God to be like all of those things and persons of which we can say “X exists.” That is, they force God not to be God. (Given this severely negative theology, Maimonides also had his work cut out for him to accommodate traditional faith.) Maimonides and Buber, in their very different ways, both articulate a truth: We cannot talk about God in the way that we talk about the creation. The question “Does X exist?” is a question about things and persons, not about the God of Israel.

I can well imagine an atheist at this point taking issue with this whole line of reasoning. It is one thing, he might say, to be unable to present credible evidence for the existence of your God. It is another thing to glory in your inability to do so. If God refers to nothing, why use the word at all? If God is unlike anything of which we can have knowledge, then what could justify your use of the term? We use words because they have meaning. It’s not meaningful to use meaningless words. This just proves my point, the atheist could conclude: The term God no longer has any conceptual work to do. We should pension the concept off to permanent metaphysical retirement.

The faithful need to argue at this point that the word still has work to do and that this work cannot be done with equal adequacy by any other term. Note how the question has shifted: We are no longer discussing whether God exists and going through the terminally unsatisfactory process of marshalling evidence or assembling proofs. (Even the medievals, who put great stock in proofs, knew that the intellectual project of proving the existence of God rested on faith. If faith was lacking, the proofs could not succeed in their work: fides quaerens intellectum.) We are now wondering whether a whole way of speaking is warranted. The task has shifted from a metaphysical one to a logical one: Are we warranted when we speak to—or, if we must, about—God?

One way of answering this question, presumably the one favored by the atheist, is that we are warranted in speaking to or about God only if God exists. We are warranted in saying “It’s snowing outside” only when it is snowing outside. Absent a discernible set of facts, one would not be warranted in making assertions about them. The atheist always wants to bring us back to the apparent paucity of facts. But are facts the only court of appeal for whether statements are warranted? Clearly not. There are many different warranted uses of language in which the stating of facts is beside the point.

So-called performative utterances constitute such a case. “I christen you the good ship Lolly Pop” does not state a fact. It brings a new fact into the world, as does “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Whenever we use language to change the world rather than to describe it, we reach beyond the practice of stating facts. Affirmations such as “Love is stronger than death” look factual in their surface grammar but are not. They are not testable in the way that statements of fact normally are, but they are no less meaningful and significant for that. Their significance lies in how life is lived in light of the conviction that they express.

Similarly, poems and stories model reality in complex ways and create new realities at the same time. They do not merely state facts. Could not religious language be more like these usages than like the standard, pedestrian use of language as a means of stating facts (or alleged facts) about the world? What seems to rule this out, the critic would charge, is that most statements about God in Scripture—most statements made day in, day out by ordinary believers—purport to convey factual content. God acts like the name of a being, whose existence is in dispute.

Against this, I would argue that the faithful ought to claim that, despite how the word God has been used for much of its linguistic career, the continuing warrant for the use of the term has little to do with the straightforward statement of facts. God plays a role in a way of speaking that is constitutive of a way of life, without which the world would be poorer and darker. The work it does is not to name a mysterious being who may or may not exist. The word God does not make a claim about the furniture of the universe. Rather, to speak of God is to underwrite a form of life that allows us to respond with love and courage and hope to the mystery out of which we come and toward which we progress. That some of our ancestors took the language of God in a mythological way, as a set of existence claims, is undeniable, although even here great ancestors, such as Maimonides, saw the problems that inhere in such naivete.

Wittgenstein taught us that language belongs to groups, not to isolated minds. Language reflects communal practices. Much of the reality that terms mark out is specific to the communities that use the terms. As any learner of a foreign language knows, reading a newspaper in that language requires learning about social and political realities specific to another culture. The abstract question “Does God exist?” is the question of an isolated mind. It tears God out of the context of communities who pray, celebrate, and serve, and it reduces the term to a cipher.

As the atheists were speaking at the Templeton events I attended, I asked myself what holidays I would celebrate if I were an atheist. What kind of community could atheism sustain? What degree of continuity, if any, could a perfectly atheist Western civilization sustain with its own past? This is not to suggest that religion is warranted only on account of the social, functional tasks that it performs. All sorts of false and pernicious things can enhance social solidarity and mobilization. Rather, it is to point toward a truth: As communal beings, we have constitutive ways of speaking that locate us in a meaningful universe and give moral contours to our shared form of life. An adequate conversation between a person of faith and an atheist cannot afford to neglect the questions of what we can celebrate, what we can hope for, what we must remember, what stories we can tell our children, and why we should bring children into the world.

I suppose that the question “Does God exist?” will not go away, for many people find it crucially important. Nonetheless, I would like to see it put aside. I would rather hear questions such as these put to atheists and persons of faith: Could you please make sense of love, courage, hope, and virtue? If you think that belief must be tied rigorously to evidence, on the basis of what evidence ought one to live a life of love, courage, and hope? What stories bear truth for you, and on what basis do you believe they do so? Is truth separable from stories with respect to matters of human significance? Can persons in the end live without a sense of the sacred? Do we inevitably discover sacredness in (or ascribe sacredness to) something central to our lives as persons and societies? If so, are we not better off anchoring the sacred in historic patterns of thought and conduct than in fresh enthusiasms? Does science open up a vista for us of wonder and delight, an iron cage of technical problems and complex moral consequences, or both? Does faith? And in the end, within reason, how shall we decide?


Annals of Atheism I: Overturning The Religious Cosmology

May 22, 2009
Joseph Nicolas Robert-Fleury "Galileo Galilei in front of the Inquisition in the Vatican 1632"
Joseph Nicolas Robert-Fleury “Galileo Galilei in front of the Inquisition at the Vatican 1632″

One of the great stories of materialism and the atheist conceit is how the religious cosmology, man and earth in the center of the universe was overturned by Galileo and other brave atheists in history. The bad guys wear robes and answer to “Bishop” or “Pope.” We now know, of course, or are led to believe, that we do not live at the center of a cozy little cosmos but in what Bertrand Russell called a “backwater” of a vast universe. Christian megalomania to the contrary, our atheist guides point out that the earth is a tiny planet, orbiting an insignificant star, near the edge of an ordinary galaxy that contains a hundred billion other stars, in a universe with more than a hundred billion other galaxies. “Deal with it.” says the guide, “Live courageously as I do,” “Dare to be free.”

The problem with this little drama of science debunking religion is that most of it is not true. For one thing, as I covered in the opening post of this science and religion series (Revelation Reveals Not Only God To Man But Man To Himself), the notion that the universe has a center entered Western thought not from the Bible, which knows no such idea, but from Ptolemy and Aristotle.  

The geocentric theory that the Church endorsed and propagated through its medieval scholasticism was no more supernatural than the heliocentric theory that it condemned. This was, rather, a clash between two perfectly naturalistic theories of astronomy. Galileo had to overcome the naturalism of Aristotle, not the supernaturalism of Christianity and while under the aegis of the Church natural philosophy became a staple of a medieval university education, nothing in it was derived from any biblical source.

Biblical religion has a great deal to say about the existence of a natural order (which is simply a corollary of its teaching on God and creation), but little to say about the detailed workings of that natural order. Augustine, whose Literal Commentary on Genesis declared that God’s Spirit has not spoken through men in order to teach the laws of biology or physics, since these have no relevance to the order of salvation.[ Augustine, see De Genesi ad litteram L 21, 41] Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus wrote: “They (biblical authors) did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science…”

There was, however, a question about the structure of the cosmos that historically really did, early on, divide Jews and Christians from materialists and pagans. That question was not about space and whether it had a center or not, it was about time and whether it had a beginning. The idea that the universe and time itself had a beginning entered Western thought from the Bible, from the opening words of Genesis. Virtually all the pagan philosophers of antiquity, including Aristotle, and, according to most scholars, Plato, held that time had no beginning. Modern materialists and atheists, for obvious reasons, have naturally followed that ancient pagan view.

Let’s follow Dr. Barr’s story line: “For a very long time, all the indications from science seemed to tell against the idea of a beginning. In Newtonian physics it was natural to assume that both time and space were boundless and infinite in extent. The simplest assumption was that time coordinates, like space coordinates, extended from minus infinity to plus infinity. The discovery of the law of conservation of energy gave further support to the idea of the eternity of the world, for it said that energy could be neither created nor destroyed. And chemists discovered that the quantity of matter, as measured by its mass, is also unchanged in physical processes. Thus almost every scientific indication at the beginning of the twentieth century was that space, time, matter, and energy had always existed and always would. One more nail in the coffin of religion, it would seem. But then came the first plot twist.

The first intimation that time could have had a beginning came from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity — that is, his theory of gravity. In the 1920s, the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann and the Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître (who was also a Catholic priest) independently proposed mathematical models of the universe, based on Einstein’s theory, in which the universe is expanding from some initial explosion, which Lemaître called the “primeval atom,” and which is now called the “Big Bang.” Observational evidence for this cosmic expansion was announced a few years later, in 1929, by the American astronomers Edwin Hubble and Milton Humason.

The initial reaction of some scientists to the idea of a beginning was extremely negative. The eminent German physicist Walter Nernst declared, “To deny the infinite duration of time would be to betray the very foundations of science.” As late as 1959, thirty years after the discovery of the expansion of the universe, a survey of leading American astronomers and physicists showed that most still believed that the universe had no beginning. Not all, but certainly some, of the resistance to the idea of a beginning can be attributed to materialist prejudice.”

Least anyone accuse me of constructing a new Christian conceit to replace the old atheist model: None of this is to say that the Big Bang proves the biblical doctrine of creation, or even that it proves conclusively that time had a beginning. It is possible that something existed before the Big Bang, even though in the simplest and currently standard model of cosmology nothing did. Nevertheless, it remains true that on the one question of cosmology where Jewish and Christian doctrine really did have something to say that conflicted with the expectations of materialists and atheists — the question of a beginning — the evidence as it now stands seems strongly to favor the religious conception.

And this is what this series wants to point out, the many religious concepts from which modern science flows and has adopted. Here are three readings from John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio that delineate the timeless truths the Church holds and their relationship to science and philosophy:

The Church Has THE Ultimate Truth About Human Life; Philosophy The Way To Come To Know Fundamental Truths About Human Life
“The Church is no stranger to this journey of discovery, nor could she ever be. From the moment when, through the Paschal mystery, she received the gift of the ultimate truth about human life, the Church has made her pilgrim way along the paths of the world to proclaim that Jesus Christ is “the way, and the truth and the life” [John 14:6] It is her duty to serve humanity in different ways, but one way in particular imposes a specific responsibility: the diakonia (service) of the truth. …On her part the Church cannot but set great value upon reason’s drive to attain ascertain goals which render people’s lives ever more worthy. She sees in philosophy the way to come to know fundamental truths about human life. At the same time, the church considers philosophy an indispensable help for a deeper understanding of faith and of communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who don’t yet know it.”

An Implicit Philosophy
“Although times change and knowledge increases, it is possible to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole. Consider, for example, the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness. Consider as well certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all. These are among the indications that, beyond different schools of thought, there exists a body of knowledge which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity. It is as if we had come upon an implicit philosophy, as a result of which all feel they possess these principles, albeit in a general and unreflective way.”

Sundered From The Truth, A One-Sided Concern To Investigate Human Subjectivity
“The positive results achieved (by science) must not obscure the fact that reason, in its one-sided concern to investigate human subjectivity, seems to have forgotten that men and women are always called to direct their steps toward a truth which transcends them. Sundered from that truth, individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as person ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all. It has happened before that reason rather than voicing the human orientation toward truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights not daring to rise to the truth of being. Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing. Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned.”


The Hymn To Love

May 21, 2009

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

IN THE THIRTEENTH CHAPTER of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we find one of the most compelling and beautiful texts in the Sacred Scriptures, the so-called “Hymn To Love.” Fr. Barron writes: “Love, we hear, is the greatest and most enduring of the theological virtues (those “three things that last”), surpassing in importance both hope and faith. “If you have faith strong enough to move mountains, but have not love, you are nothing.” To realize the significance of that particular ranking, all we have to do is consult Paul’s letter to the Romans, where the salvific centrality of faith is explained so rapturously and so unambiguously. What is more, love outstrips any of the impressive manifestations of the spirit that appeared in the Pauline communities: “If I speak with the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Finally, love is greater than even the most morally heroic act: “If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Paul intuited something that has remained central to the Christian tradition for two thousand years: since love is the divine life, to live in love is to participate in God. Whereas faith opens the door to God and hope orders us to God as our final end, love is what God is. And this is precisely why Paul tells us that faith and hope will fade away in heaven, whereas love will not. Immersed in the divine being, we will need neither faith (for we will see clearly) nor hope (for we will have the good that we want), but we will need love, for love is what it means to be immersed in this way.

But what precisely is love? We have a tendency, especially in our rather romantic culture, to identify it with a feeling or a sentiment. But authentic love, in the biblical sense, is only marginally related to emotions. To love is to will the good of the other as other (Aquinas), really to want what is advantageous to another person and to act concretely on that desire.”

Michael Gerson in Reading Paul writes: “Paul’s call to love is an alternative not only to the blatant violence that dominates human relations, but also to the manipulative gift-giving and “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” mentality that permeates many human cultures. This law of Christ forbids activity in the name of God that does not correspond to the divine graciousness displayed in the faithful and loving death of Jesus, and it requires an ongoing individual and communal discernment of how to actualize the love of God in creative but faithful ways. Those in Christ must “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatian 5:25), learning how the Spirit continues to empower the faithful in a life that corresponds to the reconciling, redeeming love of God in Christ, the love that is both giving and forgiving. Reconciled and redeemed, the community re-incarnates that kenotic, cruciform love of God, not only within itself, but also in the world, as a foretaste of the final salvation to come.” One of the great failings of the modern Church has been to watch the secular society transform Paul’s great hymn of love into a Hallmark greeting card sentiment.”

Fr. Barron continues: “This is to be distinguished then from all forms of indirect egotism: doing something good for others so that they might return the favor, Love involves an ecstatic leap outside the narrow confines of one’s own preoccupations and needs which explains why real love is such a rare phenomenon. It also explains why love of your enemy is the fullest test of love. When you desire the good of someone who is not the least bit likely to return the favor, you know that your desire is pure, unadulterated by egotism.

With this fundamental clarification in mind, we can more deeply appreciate the nuanced analysis that Paul gives us in the second part of the hymn to love. The Apostle tells us first that “love is patient; love is kind.” When you want the good of the other and not your own good, you are willing to wait. A sure sign that one is being merely superficially benevolent is a lack of patience in the face of the other’s recalcitrance. “I’ve done so much for him, and he doesn’t even acknowledge my presence,” imperfect lovers find themselves saying. But true lovers wait, continuing to forgive, even when no reciprocal forgiveness is forthcoming, continuing to be kind, even when no answering kindness ensues. Real love is patient because it doesn’t calculate or measure or weigh according to the demands of strict justice; rather, in the manner of a parent who loves her child in season and out, it watches the other in hope.

Next, Paul tells us that “love is not envious.” When you really desire the good of the other, you don’t resent that person’s success or joy. The American novelist Gore Vidal beautifully summed up the attitude of jealousy in this admission: “When a friend of mine succeeds, something in me. dies.” Vidal made his observation more pointed, commenting that he burned with jealousy at the successes of the celebrated playwright Tennessee Williams, precisely because Williams was so close to him personally. When I first came across that quotation, I experienced, unpleasantly enough, a shock of recognition. How often, I mused, have I remained indifferent to the triumphs of strangers, while silently but deeply resenting the achievements of friends. There seems to be a perverse proportionality at work in the dynamics of jealousy: the more closely related the person, the deeper the envy she awakens. But authentic love wants the good of the other and therefore delights in the joys and attainments of others. The practitioner of love realizes a truth taught consistently throughout the Bible — that the being of the lover increases precisely through the good of the beloved, since both are, at the depths of their being, one.

As the hymn to love unfolds, we hear that love “does not put on airs; it is not snobbish.” Our economic, political, and social lives are, it is sad to say, predicated to a large degree on the very opposite impulse. From the time we are children, we instinctively seek higher positions and more impressive titles that we might establish our superiority over others. We spend much of our lives desperately jockeying for every advantage, impressing whom we can and destroying whom we must; for we realize that if we don’t act aggressively, we will be supplanted. In this terrible zero-sum game, if you are noticed and celebrated, I am forgotten, and if you advance, I am forced to retreat. Though most of the players in this tournament are far too deft to let it show publicly, they are engaged continually in a cutthroat competition, destroying their opponents even as they smile at them over cocktails. But love wants the good of the other; it wants the other to succeed and to be noticed. Therefore, it is, as Paul says, self-effacing, self-forgetting, willing to let the other shine and bear the privileged title — willing, in the manner of John the Baptist, to decrease while someone else increases.

Next we hear that love is “not prone to anger, nor does it brood over injuries.” In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the angry are punished on Mt. Purgatory by being made to choke on thick smoke. The punishments in Dante are never arbitrary, always relating to the sin they address. In this case, the angry are compelled to experience the effects of anger: its manner of clouding the vision and strangling coherent speech. When we read the world through the cloud of our own anger, we get a deeply distorted picture, and when we attempt to speak while choking on our own bitterness, our speech is sputtering and ineffectual. Licking our wounds, reminding ourselves how deeply we’ve been hurt, nursing decades-old grudges, we shrink into a very small space, and our communication with others becomes, at best, garbled, distorted. But to will the good of the other as other to love — is to break out of this prison. When we love, we let go of our brooding self-regard and our ultimately self- destructive patterns of resentment.

Paul then says that love “does not rejoice in what is wrong, but rejoices with the truth.” If we turn around Gore Vidal’s observation, we come up with what the Germans call Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in another’s misfortune. Obviously, this tendency to rejoice in the pain of the other is the precise opposite of love, but how gleefully most of us sinners indulge in it. So thrilled are we at the failure or embarrassment of someone else that we become evangelists of it, announcing it to anyone willing to listen. If we do a serious examination of conscience, most of us would discover that much of our day is spent in this spiritually debilitating exercise. Real love, Paul is telling us, finds no joy in another’s pain and is loath to serve it up, through gossip, to an eager audience. Rather, love finds joy in the truth of things, and the truth is that we are all connected by the deepest metaphysical bonds. And therefore, mocking another or intensifying his pain by reveling in it is repugnant to love.

Paul concludes his great hymn by reminding us that knowledge will fail, the speaking in tongues will cease, prophecies will die away, but that love never dies. We will take none of our earthly titles, degrees, or “religious” achievements with us to heaven, but we will indeed carry there the quality of our love. Therefore, order your life according to this great and abiding act.”


Revelation Reveals Not Only God To Man But Man To Himself

May 20, 2009

Dr. Steven M. Barr

I’ve created a series of meditations on the nature of science and religion, adapted from a longer essay on the topic that  was originally presented in New York City on November 15, 2002 as the sixteenth annual Erasmus Lecture of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. The author is Stephen M. Barr a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware. He is the author of “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith” from which most of this comes from originally.

There is something else about the Bible and ancient texts that atheists tend to ignore and have some relevance to the long-debated question of Darwin and design. Many seem to have gotten the impression that the old Argument from Design for the existence of God is primarily an argument from biology. Richard Dawkins says, for instance, that it was the discovery by Darwin that biological structure could arise without design that “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” However, most of the ancient Jewish and Christian texts seem to emphasize the structure of the cosmos as a whole more than the structure of living things. Jeremiah speaks of the covenant with day and night, and the laws given to heaven and earth; the Psalmist of the law obeyed by the sun, moon, stars, and heavens; and Minucius Felix, a second century Christian apologist, emphasized the providence, order, and law in the heavens and on earth.

It was in the heavens that the orderliness of nature was most evident to ancient man. It was this celestial order, perhaps, that first inspired in him feelings of religious awe. And it was the study of this order that gave birth to modern science in the seventeenth century. It is not altogether accidental, then, that it was an argument over the motions of the heavenly bodies that occasioned the fateful collision between science and religious authority that will forever be evoked by the name of Galileo. The case of Galileo raises another important historical point about supernaturalism and biblical religion. It is NOT as some posters here suggest, another example of supernaturalism advocated by Christian whackos vs. the dignified rationality of early scientists.

The geocentric theory that the Church in effect endorsed was no more supernatural than the heliocentric theory that it condemned. This was a clash between two perfectly naturalistic theories of astronomy. It was the veracity of Scripture that the Church authorities (mistakenly) saw themselves as upholding, not supernatural explanations of planetary motion over natural ones. (It is true that the inspiration of Scripture is supernatural, and that Galileo’s opponents thus thought they had supernatural warrant for believing what they did. But one may believe a natural fact on supernatural authority. I may believe that figs grow on trees or that Pontius Pilate was procurator in Judea because the Bible says so, without thinking that those facts are in any way supernatural in themselves.) There are some very big differences here that atheist materialists love to paper over.

It was the same in physics: what Galileo and Newton overthrew were the erroneous, but perfectly naturalistic, theories of Aristotle. The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century had to overcome the naturalism of Aristotle, not the supernaturalism of Christianity. Christianity had already embraced naturalism in science five hundred years earlier, when Western Christians first encountered Greek science (or as it was called, natural philosophy) through translations from Greek and Arabic texts. Under the aegis of the Church, natural philosophy became a staple of medieval university education and was even a prerequisite for the study of theology. So comfortable were Christians with a naturalistic conception of the cosmos that it was a cliché already in the twelfth century for theologians and other writers to refer to the cosmos as a “machine.”

Now, while biblical religion has something to say about the existence of a natural order (which is simply a corollary of its teaching on God and creation), it has for the most part not regarded itself as having much to say about the detailed workings of that natural order. The materialist’s notion that religion is about providing mythological explanations of nature in the absence of real scientific understanding—the “God of the gaps” idea—is, as applied to biblical religion at any rate, itself a piece of mythology.

It is instructive to look, for instance, at the Roman Catechism, or Catechism of the Council of Trent, published in 1566, exactly fifty years before Galileo’s first run-in with the Roman authorities. It contains not a word about botany, zoology, geology, or astronomy. Those were simply not considered part of Christian doctrine. That was the general attitude of the Catholic Church both before and after the Galileo affair, which can now be recognized as an adventitious and unique event in the history of the Church’s relationship with science. It was a bump – not a pretty bump — in what has otherwise been a smooth road. As for the Bible, another target of atheist materialists for its supernaturalism, it shows almost no interest in natural phenomena, the primary concern is with God’s relationship to human beings, and with human beings’ relationship to each other.”

It is notable that the Catholic Church never condemned, or even criticized or warned against, the theory of evolution. Its first statement on that subject did not come until 1950, when Pius XII isolated two points concerning evolution as being of doctrinal significance. Both concerned only human evolution. First, Pius XII said, the original unity of the human race has to be upheld. And second, whereas the human body might have evolved, the human spiritual soul, not being reducible to matter, cannot be held to have evolved. It was specially created by God in the first human beings as in all subsequent human beings. Here, in this one case, we do see the Church upholding a form of supernaturalism. It is the one great exception to the depersonalizing of nature by Judaism and Christianity. Man himself must not be depersonalized or reduced to the merely natural in the sense of the merely physical.

Supernaturalism is out of place in physics, astronomy, chemistry, or botany. However, it is necessary in anything that touches upon the nature of man, for man is made in the image of God. I have noted that biblical religion opposed the supernaturalism of the ancient pagan. In doing so, it clearly served the cause of reason. In our time, biblical religion serves the cause of reason just as much by opposing the absolute naturalism of the modern materialist. Where the ancient pagan went wrong is in seeing the supernatural everywhere in the world around him. Where the modern materialist goes wrong is in failing to see that which goes beyond physical nature in himself. By extending naturalism even to his own mind and soul, the materialist ends up sliding into his own morass of irrationalism and superstition. How so?

In the first place, a purely materialistic conception of man cannot account for the human power of reason itself. If we are just “a pack of neurons,” in the words of Sir Francis Crick, if our mental life is nothing but electrical impulses in our nervous system, then one cannot explain the realm of abstract concepts, including those of theoretical science. Nor can one explain the human mind’s openness to truth, which is the foundation of all science. As Chesterton observed, the materialist cannot explain “why anything should go right, even observation and deduction. Why good logic should not be as misleading as bad logic, if they are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape.” Scientific materialism exalts human reason, but cannot account for human reason.

Nor can materialism account for many other aspects of the human mind, such as consciousness, free will, and the very existence of a unitary self. In a purely material world such things cannot exist. Matter cannot be free. Matter cannot have a self. The materialist is thus driven to deny empirical facts—not the facts in front of his eyes, but, as it were, the facts behind his eyes: facts about his own mental life. He calls them illusions, or redefines them to be what they are not. In lowering himself to the level of the animal or the machine, the materialist ultimately denies his own status as a rational being, by reducing all his mental operations to instinct and programming.

Thus, like the pagan of old, the materialist ends up subjecting man to the subhuman. The pagan supernaturalist did so by raising the merely material to the level of spirit or the divine. The materialist does so by lowering what is truly spiritual or in the divine image to the level of matter. The results are much the same. The pagan said that his actions were controlled by the orbits of the planets and stars, the materialist says they are controlled by the orbits of the electrons in his brain. The pagan bowed down to animals or the likenesses of animals in worship, the materialist avers that he himself is no more than an animal. The pagan spoke of fate, the materialist speaks of physical determinism.

Pope John Paul II has said that divine revelation reveals not only God to man but man to himself. It reveals to man that he is made in the image of God and therefore endowed with the spiritual powers of rational intellect and free will. Thus the supernaturalism of religion with regard to man is not an attack upon human reason, but ultimately the only basis upon which human reason can be adequately defended. The Church has this balance exactly right. The “God” of the materialists and the New Atheists needs a towel.


The Seven Gifts Of The Holy Spirit

May 19, 2009

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;

Isaiah 11:1-3

“IN THE ELEVENTH CHAPTER of the book of the prophet Isaiah, we find a striking description of the Messiah who is to come. We hear that a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse and that “from his roots a bud shall blossom.” In his typically lyrical and symbolic language, Isaiah is asserting that the Messianic ruler will he, not the scion of a royal dynasty, but a descendant of Jesse and David, shepherds of Bethlehem. One of the stained-glass windows on the western façade of Chartres Cathedral beautifully depicts this prophecy.


It shows a great plant rising up out of the loins of a sleeping Jesse and on the limbs of this tree are displayed, like leaves, all of his descendants, the ancestors of the Messiah. Then Isaiah tells us that the Davidic king will be endowed with an array of gifts: ‘The spirit of the Lord will rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” In the Chartres window, the figure of the Messiah, on the top of Jesse’s tree, is surrounded by seven doves, symbolic of these seven energies of the Spirit.

Because they are so tightly associated with Christ Jesus himself, the gifts of the Holy Spirit have been discussed, analyzed, and pondered throughout the great Christian tradition. Pope Gregory the Great, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas are just a few of the prominent thinkers who have made a consideration of the gifts central to their presentation of the spiritual life. Therefore, all Christians can benefit from taking them seriously.

The first gift of the Spirit is wisdom, sapientia in Latin, sophia in Greek. Wisdom is a highly distinctive kind of knowing, one that Aquinas compares to the view from the mountaintop — that is to say, from the standpoint of God, the highest and all-embracing cause. Most of us look at our lives from the narrow perspective of our own desires, needs, and fears, and this leads to a distorting of vision, the tendency to miss the overarching and clarifying pattern.

When Job complains to God about the gross injustice of his suffering, God takes him on an elaborate tour of the cosmos, introducing him to the rhythms of nature, the behavior patterns of obscure animals, and the constitution of the heavens, He draws him out of a self-regarding framework and toward the divine vantage point, where the entire causal nexus is visible. God thereby successfully places Job’s experience of his own pain in a different context. One could say that the entire narrative of the book of Job culminates in the spiritual gift of wisdom — the capacity to see things, as far ‘as it is possible for us, from the mountaintop.”

I find a lot of that in a comment of Flannery O’Connor’s on the laws of nature that I recently posted: “For my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me, it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws.” Wisdom in many ways simply means not jumping to some obvious conclusions.

Fr. Barron continues: “The next two gifts — understanding and knowledge – are usually treated as a pair. Aquinas tells us that these refer to the capacity for insight into holy things and the truths of the faith. Most of us can move through our lives quite successfully and rarely ponder the deepest and most abiding realities. Though we might become expert in the theory and practice of banking, business, politics, or even sports, most of us never become theologically astute, never intensely interested in the Eucharist, the meaning of the cross, the whys and wherefores of the Incarnation, or the enigma of the Trinity.

I can imagine you smiling as you read this: who, you might wonder, besides priests and specialists in theology, would have the time, ability, or energy to think about such things? And yet this world, and all of its interests and diversions, is passing away. What we shall meditate upon for the whole of eternity are not the intricacies of finance or the strategies of corporate advancement; rather, we shall meditate upon the mysteries of the faith. The spiritual gifts of understanding and knowledge result in a participation, even now, in this mode of contemplation.”

Josef Pieper has written: One might take the statement that contemplation is man’s ultimate happiness and say to oneself, “Very well, obviously this refers to the ‘happiness of the philosopher.’” Undeniably there does exist a happiness of knowledge and insight, just as there is happiness in action and “happiness of the senses.” Certainly it can be maintained, with good reason, that the happiness of the perceptive mind surpasses all other forms of happiness in depth and value.

All very well. Yet to interpret this sentence in this way, to put so special a construction on it, is to ignore its real meaning. For it says not a word about any special happiness that pertains only to the “philosopher.” The dictum speaks of the happiness of man in general, of the whole, physical, earthly, human man. And contemplation is not held up as one among other modes of happiness, even though an especially lofty one.

Rather what it says is this: however the human craving for happiness may time and again be distracted by a thousand small gratifications, it remains directed unwaveringly toward one ultimate satisfaction which is in truth its aim. “Among a thousand twigs,” says Vergil in Dante’s universal poem, “one sweet fruit is sought.” The finding of this fruit, the ultimate gratification of human nature, the ultimate satiation of man’s deepest thirst, takes place in contemplation.” We can taste this mode of contemplation briefly in this life but if there is a heaven where our souls can find a true repose, wouldn’t this be a natural activity for the human soul? This is my current answer to the question, “So what the hell does one actually DO in heaven?”

Fr. Barron: The next gift of the Holy Spirit is counsel. This is a practical power, the ability to make good moral and religious judgments. In the course of our careers, we make countless judgments regarding professional and personal matters: What sort of job should I take? Whom should I marry? What sort of house should I buy? But how often do we ever deliberate about questions such as “What kind of person do I want to be? What shape should my ethical life take? Am I growing in faith, hope, and love?”

I watched a wonderful game over the weekend, my Yankees against the Twinkies. One of my favorite Yankees now is Brett Gardner, a player who changes the game itself with his speed. Gardner was on second when Franco Cervelli pushed a bunt about twenty feet from the plate. The Twins catcher, Joe Mauer went out and fielded the ball and was about to take the automatic out at first when he had enough presence of mind to take another look at Gardner who had never stopped running and was charging around third intent on coming all the way home. Mauer wound up making an athletic dive at the plate to catch the speedy Gardner. The play demonstrated his practical prudence, the ability to sense an every shifting pattern of play aligned against him. It was a great play for Mauer, as well as for Gardner. Fr. Barron’s spiritual gift of counsel is a practical prudence in regard to the complexities of journeying toward God. The game here is a feel for becoming holy, a knack for answering the spiritual questions rightly. Fr. Barron’s shows elsewhere that St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way” is born of this same gift of counsel, for it is nothing other than a prudential instinct in regard to the will of the Holy Spirit: in every concrete situation, no matter how trivial, what is the loving thing to do?

Fortitude is the next spiritual gift. Fr. Barron: As everyone can attest, being good, in the context of a fallen, conflictual world, is a struggle. Very often we know what to do, but we cannot muster the capacity or the energy to do it. In the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul gave classic expression to this truth when he said, “The good that I would do, I do not; and the evil that I would avoid, that I do.” There are stumbling blocks — both internal and external — to moral rectitude, and these can be overcome only by strengthening the spiritual fiber, toughening the character.

This empowerment is fortitude. Jesus himself exemplified this gift of the Spirit in the Garden of Gethsemane when he successfully resisted enormous internal pressures and overwhelming external threats in order to carry out his Father’s will, Thomas More embodied it when, over the course of many years, he stared down the various menaces and enticements Henry VIII put before him in order to dissuade More from following his conscience. And Maximilian Kolbe showed that he had been endowed with it when he volunteered to take the place of a man condemned to death and endured weeks of an agonizing execution by starvation. Now these are extreme and dramatic examples. An ordinary person exhibits fortitude when he perdures in the faith despite the mocking of his colleagues, or when she does the right thing despite the fear of being ostracized. Like other forms of toughening, fortitude can and should he intensified through exercise.

The sixth gift of the Holy Spirit is piety. Unfortunately, “pious” is an unimpressive word in contemporary English — calling to mind fussy, superficial, and often hypocritical people whom our culture likes to satirize. But neither Isaiah nor the theologians of the great tradition have any of this in mind when they speak of piety. For them, this gift is an instinctual feel for what is owed to God. Now what we owe to God is everything, and therefore the pious person is deeply aware of her obligation to praise God and to worship him. This is why piety is the great virtue that undergirds the liturgy. Thomas Aquinas commented that we attend Mass as an act of justice, rendering to God the praise and thanksgiving that is his due on account of the gift of creation. How far this is from our contemporary sense of worshiping in order to evoke a spiritual experience.

The seventh and final gift of the Spirit is fear of the Lord. Aquinas says that there are two basic forms of fear: servile and filial. The first is the fear that a slave has in the presence of his master, or that an employee might have when confronted by his angry boss. It is trepidation at the prospect of punishment. But the second fear is that which a son might have before his beloved father. It is not so much a fear of being punished as a deep regret that a precious relationship might he lost. It is this second type of fear that is a gift of the Holy Spirit, for it is the feeling that leads someone away from those attitudes and acts that might compromise his friendship with God, the relationship which is more important than anything else. When the Bible speaks — as it often does of the “fear of the Lord,” it implies this healthy concern that intimacy with God might never be lost.

Having briefly surveyed the seven gifts, the natural question arises: how does one come by them? They cannot be acquired in the manner of natural virtues through habituation and resolute effort. They are, after all, gifts. But since they flow from Jesus Christ, they come to those who establish an intimacy with Jesus in the church and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  St. Augustine said that we pray in order to expand our wills to make them capacious enough to receive what God wants to give us. So perhaps the best thing that we can do in order to receive the seven gifts is, with expansiveness of heart, to ask for them.


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