Archive for the ‘Templeton Prize Winners’ Category


Michael Novak On Two Radically Different Ways Of Living In The World

September 15, 2010

Another set of reading selections from Michael Novak’s 2008 bestseller, No One Sees God. Here we see a contrast between atheism and Catholicism: one where the inner horizon offers no answering personal presence (because the unbeliever thinks God is an illusion) and the other where a central light and energy and love lives within us. Both can be pretty awesome at times.

The Experience Of Insight
In coming to my own views, I have been much helped by Bernard Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. Lonergan treats the experience of insight as an empirical datum. An insight (getting the point of a joke, for instance, or seeing at last the solution to an algebra problem) is not quite a sense datum, but it is an experience at least equally vivid. A more complex form of insight, also experienced vividly, is to conclude reflection by making a judgment; for instance: “Having heard the evidence, I conclude that your story is demonstrably false. I conclude that witness number one is a good man — but his associate is not to be trusted.”

The experience of insight and the steps involved in reaching a sound judgment are important to recognize in one’s own mental life. Beyond that, based on evidence we recognize in our own inner life, these steps offer important evidence for the judgment, Who do I understand myself to be? A mistake in this judgment deeply affects our judgments about God, his nature, his existence.

Our acts of insight are different in kind from acts of sensation. This difference suggests that our inner life goes beyond sense knowledge. It also suggests that what the ancients meant by “spirit” or “soul” appears most clearly today in a virtually unlimited drive within us — the drive to raise questions to have insights, and to reach sound judgrnents about what is true, what false. These common human drives instruct us about our true nature, who we really are. They also aim us in the direction of what an acceptable idea of God’s nature is. At the very least, He must be capable of insight and judgenent. He is nonmaterial and may be outside of the space-time continuum.

These are not matters of Christian faith or theology; they appertain to the branch of secular Philosophy called “metaphysics,” by which I mean considerations of reason, apart from faith. I mean the “background assumptions” about nature and history that are implicit in everything each person thinks and writes. I mean competing conceptions of God, some of which are to be judged better than others. In such explorations, the Greeks and Romans of old were far braver and more persistent than all but a small band in modern times

Among the chief participants in Plato dialogues, such differences in metaphysics are starkly drawn. If the participants in these dialogues are to make progress in their this-worldly arguments,  it is necessary to bring their underlying metaphysical differences to light. Plato found that the artful presentation of a back-and-forth conversation is the best way to bring out these differences. Bringing these differences to light is a work of reason, even if it is not exactly empirical reason.

A Commitment To Reason
Catholics hold that other Christian communities share with Catholics many affirmations of Christian faith, but not all. We cherish this community of beliefs, but pray that the shared circle of belief will grow larger. We hold that our Catholic faith does not make sense unless the Jewish faith is also true. We share with some atheists their clear commitment to reason. Truth is indeed crucial to Christian faith. But it does matter to our consciences which church is closest to the truth. As the aphorism puts it, faith does not take away from reason, but brings it to completion (gratia noi tollit sed perficit naturam). A quite imperfect analogy is how eyeglasses, microscopes and telescopes do not demean eyesight, only carry it where it could not go alone. For Catholics and some other Christians, reason is to be honored. Which church is true is a crucial judgment of reason.

The Tension Of The Absurd Is Crucial To Our Truthfulness
Albert Camus pointed out an unavoidable duality in human experience, which gives rise to what he calls the Absurd. On the one hand, we feel the undeniable longing for truth, beauty, goodness, justice, wholeness, love, that rushes powerfully within us, even under the most unpromising conditions (as in the Gulag, under torture). On the other hand, these aspirations cannot avoid crashing head-on with the cruel randomness, desolation, and emptiness that we are often forced to confront. We can evade this unhappy duality for a long time by distracting ourselves with pulsating music, card playing, ceaseless activity shopping.

Yet sooner or later we are driven to ask: Why are we here? Why are so many abandoned children crying in the night? Why the everlasting boredom, and the incessant rain of nothingness upon the windowpanes of our consciousness? Why so many jading daily routines, such petty strife, such pointless quarrels, such office pretenses?

Without both these sides of our consciousness, Camus taught us, we would not come to rest on the razor’s edge of the Absurd. Keeping the two sides in contact is crucial to our truthfulness. The Absurd arises from our longing for meaning and beauty held in contact with the absurdities we meet every day. Remove one or the other, and the tension falls limp.

Atheists would like to shift onto Christian shoulders the burden of explaining the evil and absurdity in the world, which their reason discerns steadily enough. Yet even when they have eliminated God from the scheme of life as they see it, they have not diminished by one iota the evils, sufferings, and injustices both Christians and atheists alike see around us. Atheists do not explain how they fit into their fairly rosy view of human progress, reason, and hopefulness. A faith they dare not express seems to tell them that this progress is indefinitely upward, ennobling, worth contributing to, quite enough purpose for a good life.

Yet, irony of ironies, meaninglessness squared, what if our visible “progress” is hurtling us toward the most awful end of history any apocalyptic writer has ever imagined? What if progress is not progress at all, but ultimate madness? (The atheist may well hold this darker assumption, not the rosy one.) I am not trying to diminish the glory of modern progress; without certain new pharmaceuticals, I would be dead. On the contrary, I am trying to make myself conscious of the underlying metaphysics on which progress depends — the vision behind it of the upward direction in which history tends, its underlying dynamism, and its ultimate kindliness toward humankind, Atheists seems to share this vision when they write of human reason and progress as benevolent. Atheists themselves suggest that the true problem before us is not the problem of evil but the problem of good. Why is there so much good?

In my experience, however, the problem of evil does in fact bother Jews and Christians, because it goes contrary to what faith teaches about the goodness of God. Evil may not be a problem for my atheist friends. For them, the evil of the world is just there. Insofar as evil matters metaphysically, it destroys arguments for the existence of a good God. To their minds, absurdity forms the backdrop for their heroic human Sisyphus who, against all odds, keeps rolling progress up the hill, only to watch it slide back down into meaninglessness.

Religion Recognizes Two Contrary Forces In The Human Soul
Here Professor Harvey Mansfield of Harvard, who has known more than enough suffering from the irrationality of life, seems wiser than most:

In the contest between religion and atheism, the strength of religion is to recognize two apparently contrary forces in the human soul: the power of injustice and the power, nonetheless, of our desire for justice. The stubborn existence of injustice reminds us that man is not God, while the demand for justice reminds us that we wish for the divine. Religion tries to join these two forces together.

The weakness of atheism, however, is to take account of only one of them, the fact of injustice in the case of Epicurean atheism or the desire for justice in our Enlightenment atheism. I conclude that philosophy today — and science too — need not only to tolerate and respect religion, but also to learn from it.

Unbelievers And Believers Must In The End Submit
In real life,’ what we see seems sometimes ugly. We do not understand how mad the world then appears. We protest against evils that cause us revulsion. Yet, no matter what we do, welcome them or hate them, the facts remain the same. To a world of fact, where “randomness rules:’ unbelievers and believers must in the end submit. At this point, the unbeliever submits to randomness, while the believer submits to the inscrutable will of the Creator. Both must submit. The latter shows more confidence both in intelligence and in the intelligibility of all things.

A World In Which Free Agents Act Freely
God wills a world in which free agents act freely. He doesn’t only “permit” things to happen. He empowers free agents to act, even with less attention than they ought, or against His laws, or simply without common sense. Free agents acting freely, despite the frequently resulting irrationality, is what He now wills and has always willed. He does not command irrational (or evil) action. But He certainly brought into being, consciously and (I think) beautifully, a world in which free acts can occur, and evils and misfortunes are frequently transformed by courage, generosity of spirit, and charity into occasions of great human beauty.

God Wills And Approves The Whole
More profoundly, as Stephen Barr has pointed out:

“The really more relevant metaphysical point here is that God wills and approves the whole. He does not will the death of the unfortunate man at the railroad crossing for its own sake, as an end in itself, and as something good in itself. Considered in themselves some events are obviously not good, but horribly tragic.

But before we condemn God, consider this: We ourselves set up, and approve as good, systems that have as necessary consequences the occurrence of painful and tragic events… for example, educational systems and economic systems. When the professor flunks a student and dashes his life’s hopes, is he doing evil? Does he want the student to fail? Is any system unjust in which that happens? That it contains much tragedy is not an argument for the badness of the world.

Jewish and Christian faith do allow for trusting in God’s mysterious ways. Jews and Christians hold that the inscrutable workings of God always lead to an ultimate good, though the individual believer may be unable to see that himself.”

Is Freedom Worth The Price?
Professor Gelernter comments with great learning:

“All we know is that the evil and pain of this suffering world force us inward, onto the one path that leads to knowledge of self and God. What we don’t know: Would true self-sacrifice compassion exist without misery and suffering? Could moral heroism and concomitant strength and depth of character exist without it? Now we face a good question from doubters: even granted that we owe the existence of compassion in this world to suffering, is the gain worth the price? Or: granted, the price for human freedom is human suffering; is freedom worth the price? Or, in the words of a famous question posed in the Talmud: would man have been better off had he never been created? The two famous schools of Hillel and Shammai argued the point (as usual), and reached a conclusion: Man would have been better off had he never been created. But the rabbis know that their vision is limited, and their task is to take the world as God made it.”

We Ought Really To Thank God At Every Moment Of Our Existence
Professor Barr offers a richer and more lyrical response:

“Why do we thank God for good fortune but not blame Him for bad fortune? We ought really to thank God at every moment of our existence for our very existence at that moment, for all the blessings that we enjoy — the ability to think, to see and to hear, to taste and to touch, to move and to act, to know and to understand, to love and to be loved. Everything we have at every moment comes from God, and we should be thanking Him at every moment.

But being as we are, we forget and largely take things for granted. It is when we have a “near miss” and almost lose something important, that we remember to thank God that we have it in the first place. When the car swerves and narrowly misses the oncoming traffic, we say “Thank God?’ We are really just remembering to thank God for all of the life He has given us up to that point, and for allowing us some time more to live. If, however, something happens that takes away our health or wealth or even life, we have no legitimate claim that God has “robbed” us of anything. What we have lost was His free gift to begin with, not something to which we had a right.”

The Desire To Express Gratitude
Theodore Dalyrimple describes himself as an atheist but he is an unusually congenial, fair-minded, and discerning critic. A psychiatrist, he faults the new atheists for depriving billions of human beings of a crucial civilizing agency, the desire to express gratitude:

“The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality.

If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement, Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.”

For those who know God, by contrast, life is a conversation They are never far from raising their affections toward the Almighty directing their will to Him: “Thy will be done.” For them the world is personal, through and through. It is about friendship, and staying in close touch with our one closest Friend. Prayer is like breathing, like easy conversation with one’s Beloved. Even to love another human being, spouse or child, is to love them in and through and with the divine origin of all love: Deus Caritas Est. God is that particular form of love called Caritas.

Two Very Different Horizons
The logic in deciding whether to link one’s identify to atheism or to God is sui generis (vocab: unique, of its own kind). The argument is not whether there is one more object in the world (God), or one less (atheism). The center of the argument concerns whether I should think of the universe as impersonal and indifferent to me, and ruled by randomness and chance. Or whether I should interpret it as personal through and through, in such a way that all things that are (and have been, and will be) dwell in the presence of God, a Person (not in a literal but in an analogous sense) who understands and chooses all that He brings out of nothingness into existence. “Existence” here means being “alive in the presence of” our Creator. I apply the term now to conscious human persons, not to all existents.

For the believer, this world is personal. All of human life is an interior conversation with our Maker. Personality — whose defining traits are understanding and deciding (or creative insight and choice) — is the inner key and dynamic force in all things.

To the atheist, all this seems hot air. Solipsism. Fear of death. Illusion, delusion, poison. The unbeliever’s universe (say they) is far more bracing, invigorating, and challenging. Each brave spirit is like Prometheus, snatching a burning stick of justice from the nothingness of the night. The atheist believes that human beings put into a random, purposeless universe all the good that has ever been, is now, or ever will be. Using Ockham’s razor, the unbeliever slices off God: “We have no need of that hypothesis” The unbeliever holds that the most elegant, most economical, and most chaste explanation is likely to be best. Ockham’s razor seems to be in tune with the way things are. Into the bucket below the guillotine drops the head of God.

The believer, however, does not regard God as a “hypothesis:’ an “explanation:’ or even an “entity.” Rather, in the horizon of the believer, God is the inner dynamism of inquiry, understanding, and love in his (or her) own life, but also in the lives of all others. Dante Alighieri described God as “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.” The believer sees God as the inner mathematical and creative light — and the inner, dynamic striving — of all things. Yes, that special sort of love that is proper only to the divine: Caritas.

In short, unbelief and belief are not two rival theories about phenomena in the universe. They are alternative “horizons.”  A horizon describes all that an intelligent, inquiring subject can experience, imagine, understand, and judge to be real, from the point at which that subject is currently situated. A horizon is defined by two parts: the attentive, conscious subject, and the range of all that that subject can experience, imagine, understand, and judge. Human horizons are “systems on the move?’ The horizon you now have has changed by a great deal — in range and in intensity –since you were ten, twenty, or forty, or even sixty. Ideally, one hopes one’s horizon will keep reaching out and growing until death.

The horizon of the unbeliever has within it no answering personal presence (because the unbeliever thinks God is an illusion). By contrast the horizon of the believer is permeated by an obscure sense of living within the presence of Another. Thus, if the believer strives mightily not to cooperate with the Lie, even under torture, even in prison with no possibility of escape, pain leads one to see that the inner light to which one tries to be faithful comes from beyond one’s pain or one’s own strength, burning Insight that fires one’s whole being. In being faithful to the truth, one is being faithful not only to oneself, but also to the One who is the central light and energy and love within us.

These are two radically different ways of living in the world. Two very different horizons.


No One Sees God – Michael Novak

September 8, 2010


Michael Novak

Michael Novak, who celebrates a birthday tomorrow, is an American Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat. The author of more than twenty-five books on the philosophy and theology of culture, Novak is most widely known for his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). In 1994 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which included a million-dollar purse awarded at Buckingham Palace. He writes books and articles focused on capitalism, religion, and the politics of democratization.

In No One Sees God (2008), “Novak brilliantly recasts the tired debate pitting faith against reason. Both the atheist and the believer experience the same “dark night” in which God’s presence seems absent, he argues, and the conflict between faith and doubt stems not from objective differences, but from divergent attitudes toward the unknown. Drawing from his lifelong passion for philosophy and his personal struggles with belief, he shows that, far from being irrational, the spiritual perspective actually provides the most satisfying answers to the eternal questions of meaning. Faith is a challenge at times, but it nonetheless offers the only fully coherent response to the human experience.” (Publisher’s blurb)
So good I have double the reading selections. What follows is part one:

Two Classes Each Fearing The Other
All others are in the same predicament. We are all in the same darkness. It is not so hard, of course, to evade the rain on the windowpanes, the tapping of the night on the doors and shutters, the darkness, the mist, and the fear. Not so hard to hide from it in the protected circles lit by comforting scientific reason. I have met people who, when you ask them how they account for the unexplainedness of life, the puzzle of it, the pain of it, smile and say: “When someone raises questions like that, I turn away, sit down, and enjoy a good lunch.” Afterward, they think of it no more.
Some people live in a protected circle of light. I notice this especially about two classes of people: first, the unquestioning Christian minds, full of light and sweetness, never doubting a doctrine, seeing in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ the answer to all things. Second, the more scientifically minded, the people of reason, the pragmatists who see no reason to wonder about where it all came from, or where it is going, or how mad it may be. Serenely, both classes race through life — each at times fearing the other.

Albert Camus Quote
The one contemporary whose life I most carefully tracked, from the beginning to at least The Fall, was Albert Camus. “A single sentence will suffice for modern man;’ he wrote in 1956: “They fornicated, and they read the papers.” Well, that’s a way to avoid the nothingness.

Mistake Your Own Nature Mistake God
Gathering force over many years, one discovery has hit me with the force of a law: If you make mistakes about your own nature, you will make as many mistakes about God, and quite properly then, reject what your inquiries put before you. The god you fantasize will appear to you not very great, a delusion, a snare from which others ought to be freed. You will despise this god.

A New Habit Of Reasoned And Mutually Respectful Conversation
This looking behind the veils of reason is what many in North America and in Western Europe today passionately resist. They do not so much despise “God” as they despise the Jewish and Christian God. (Not for the reason Nietzsche did — because Judaism and Christianity are “slave religions;’ Judaism first and in its wake Christianity –but on the contrary, because these faiths assign to humans too much liberty and judge them too exactly for their use of it.) Passionate secularists heap ridicule on the Bible. They tear to shreds Christian doctrine — the whole garment — or with some effort rip out the seams that hold its parts together.

Thus I will need to show how out in the dark, and without ever wholly coming in from the dark, I have come to understand that what the Jewish Testament and the Christian Testament teaches us about God, about human beings, and about ourselves is a truer account of reality than any other I have encountered.

Much as my atheist friends will loathe it and mock it, I have tested this judgment in living and found it to ring true. It better meets the facts of my own reality and the urgent inquiries of my own mind, and better turns aside thrusts intended to wound it and to destroy it, than any other account I have discovered. My reasoned judgment on this matter cannot really be discounted as “merely subjective:’ for it is shared under great stress by hundreds of millions of others. About one of every three human beings on this planet is Christian, over two billion in all. And in no age has the persecution of Christians reached such horrific numbers with so much cruelty. The even more barbaric assault upon our Jewish “older brothers:’ no matter what they believe, awakens amazement and full contempt.

My underlying thesis is a simple one: that unbelievers and believers need to learn a new habit of reasoned and mutually respectful conversation.

The conversation among Western atheists and Christian/Jewish believers is particularly important. An excellent model was offered in January 2004 between one of Europe’s most prominent public philosophers, Jurgen Habermas, and the Vatican’s Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect at the time of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They discussed moral relativism, Islam, and the problematic but fruitful tension between atheism and Jewish/Christian belief. In chapter ten, I try to extend and deepen their argument.

Saint Thérèse’s of Lisieux (1873-1897)
Saint Thérèse lived for most of her adult life in utter darkness and dryness and abandonment by her divine Lover. She wrote an autobiography about her experiences and how it led her to interpret the inner heart of Christianity. So powerfully and clearly did she write that Pope John Paul II inscribed her name among the historic handful of “Doctors of the Church”teach so profound and so sweeping in their wisdom that they instruct the whole Catholic people.

The canonization of Saint Thérèse in 1925 was at that time one of the swiftest on record. Miracles attributed to her care and her attention to the needy — which she promised she would “shower down” from heaven — were too many to count. As early as the war of 1914, Thérèse was the favorite saint of French soldiers in the trenches, held by them coequal with Saint Jeanne d’Arc. And so she remains today, this twenty-four-year-old victim of consumption, who after the age of fifteen never set foot outside her cloistered contemplative convent — with Jeanne d’Arc co-patroness of France.

The kernel of Saint Thérèse’s teaching is often called “the little way:’ meaning that no Christian is too humble or too insignificant to follow it and no thought or action too negligible to infuse with love. In other words, God cherishes not only great actions ( love, but also minor, childlike ones. No matter what spiritual darkness you find yourself in, choose as your North Star a tender love of the persons that life’s contingencies have put next to you. Do not go looking around for more fascinating neighbors to by Love those right nearest you.

You cannot see God, even if you try. But you can see your neighbor, the tedious one, who grinds on you: Love him, love her, as Jesus loves them. Give them the tender smile of Jesus, even though your own feelings be like the bottom of a birdcage. Do not ask to see Jesus, or to feel Him. That is for children. Love him in the dark. Love for the invisible divine, not for warm and comforting human consolation. Love for the sake of love, not in order to feel loved in return.

It happens that Agnes Bojaxhiu of Albania eventually became a missionary nun in Ireland, and chose for her religious name Therese, in the footsteps of her patron saint of darkness from Lisieux. In Spanish, the same name is Teresa, and Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was also m experienced traveler in inner darkness. She came to be a Doctor of the Church, builder of scores of convents of Carmelite nuns all over Europe, administrator and guide extraordinaire, and a canny operator in bureaucracies, running rings around most of the male hierarchy of her time. Saint Thèrése of Lisieux took the name Teresa in her honor, and followed her teaching as inscribed in Teresa’s books and in the traditions of the Carmelites. (Pope John Paul H was a close follower of the Carmelites.)

For those who love God, that way is excruciating. They would like to feel close to God, but they find — nothing! Like Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), the Carmelite priest who was her spiritual guide, Teresa gradually came to see that if God were a human invention, a human contrivance, then warm human feelings would be quite enough..

God Is Outside Our Range
God is far greater than that. He is beyond any human frequency. He is outside our range, divine. One must follow Him without any human prop whatever, even warm and comfortable inner feelings. That may be why Jesus loved the desert as a place for prayer. The Jewish scholar David Gelernter has written:

This exactly (or very nearly) underlies Judaism’s ubiquitous image of the veil, & God beyond or behind it. In its simplest form this veil is embodied in the talit or prayer-shawl men wear at morning prayer. A more substantial instance: in the First Temple destroyed by Babylonians, worship centered on the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. In the Second Temple destroyed by Rome, worship centered on the Holy of Holies — which was an absolutely empty space. After that — today — the holiest site in Judaism is a blank wall (the Western Wall) with nothing behind or beyond it. This sequence is no accident. It’s part of the Jewish people’s coming of age and being weaned from what you properly call the child’s view to the adult’s understanding of God. That is to say, our senses cannot touch God. Neither sight nor sound, scent nor taste, nor touch, either. Our imagination cannot encompass Him, nor even bring Him into focus. How can we count on our memory? Our minds can form no adequate conception of Him; anything the mind imagines is easily ridiculed. The God who made us and out of His infinite love redeemed us and called us to His bosom is divine, not human. As such, He cannot be found using human perceptual equipment.

The Darkness In Which The True God Dwells
This is not a new idea. Serious and devout believers from the time of Elijah and Job have known about the darkness in which the true God necessarily dwells. In order for one’s soul to be ready to go far beyond any human contrivance, one must be willing to go out into the desert and the night. Thus we read of the prophet Elijah:

“At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (I KINGS 19:9-13)

Thus, also, Job, after he had been stricken with painful boils all over his body, and sat outside where others might mock him, scraping off the scabs, and unable, now, to find the Lord in whom he had placed such utter trust:

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold. My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside. I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth.” (Job 23:8-12)

Saint John of the Cross Dark Night of the Soul
The teachings of Elijah and Job were not so different from those of the teacher of Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, the  other great Spaniard who founded the male order of Carmelites, expert practitioners of the way to God in the darkness.

In more than one book, but especially in Dark Night of the Soul, Saint John of the Cross proceeded lesson by patient lesson to mark out for the novice at prayer the terrors yet to be faced in the desert, while human expectations were shed for those seeking to receive the divine. He vividly described the aridity and emptiness that the lover of God ought to expect, as he traded a child’s faith for that of an adult, as he was weaned away from the sweet milk of infancy and obliged to live on hard, dry bread for long stretches of time. And what the North Stars are. And the dangers to watch for. And the characteristic temptations of every stage of the journey

Beginners prone to “spiritual gluttony;’ St. John writes, are, in fact, like children, who are not influenced by reason, and who act, not from rational motives, but from inclination. Such persons expend all their effort in seeking spiritual pleasure and consolation; they never tire, therefore, of reading books; and they begin, now one meditation, now another, in their pursuit of this pleasure which they desire to experience in the things of God. But God, very justly, wisely, and lovingly, denies it to them, for otherwise this spiritual gluttony and inordinate appetite would breed innumerable evils. It is, therefore, very fitting that they should enter into the dark night, whereof we shall speak, that they may be purged from this childishness. There is thus a great difference between aridity and lukewarmness, for lukewarmness consists in great weakness and remissness in the will and in the spirit, without solicitude as to serving God; whereas purgative aridity is ordinarily accompanied by solicitude, with care and grief as I say, because the soul is not serving God.

Dark Night of the Soul is not an easy book to read. For one thing, it relies heavily upon the experience of the reader. It is intended to show the voyager of the spirit the ways through the night and the desert. How can anyone who has not known the night and desert recognize the symptoms and the signs? This is not a book for reading, but for experiencing.

Perhaps its main point may be expressed thus: Go, seek with love your Beloved, follow wherever He leads. Yet even when you come up to Him you must anticipate that there will be no one to be seen. Your faculties are simply inadequate. Were you actually to see, you would be destroyed. It is too much. Your bulbs would short out. Be prepared, therefore, to walk in darkness Not at all in doubt; on the contrary for the first time ever, aware that you are not now following illusions, but only the true darkling light of the true God, beyond human range. Anything else is human contrivance and illusion.

Saint John of the Cross imagines his soul as the bride, the spouse, eagerly seeking her Beloved for just one sight of Him. This is his great classic song to the Dark Night of the Soul, in eight brief stanzas, of which the following four are the most telling.

1. On a dark niqht, Kindled in love with yearnings — oh happy chance! —  I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.

2. In darkness and secure, By the Secret ladder, disguised —  oh happy chance! — In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.

3.       In the happy night, in secret when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, With out light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

4.       This liqht guided me More surely than the light of noonday To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me. A place where none appeared.

Saint Teresa Of Avila On Spiritual Aridity And Torment
The memoirs of Saint Teresa of Avila recount years of spiritual aridity and torment:

“I may say that it was the most painful life that can be imagined, because I had no sweetness in God, and no pleasure in the world.

I believe that it is our Lord’s good pleasure frequently in the beginng, and at times in the end, to send these torments, and many other incidental temptations, to try those who love Him, and to ascertain if they will drink the chalice, and help Him to carry the Cross, before He entrusts them with His great treasures I believe it to be for our good that His Majesty should lead us by this way, so that we may perfectly understand how worthless we are…

It is certain that the love of God does not consist in tears, nor in this sweetness and tenderness which we for the most part desire, and with which we console ourselves, but rather in serving Him in justice, fortitude, and humility That seems to me to be a receiving rather than a giving of anything on our part.”

Yet Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa, and Saint Thérèse all break out in joy in an analogous way. Dante saw the Christian story as a happy one (commedia), not a tragic or crestfallen one — as Easter follows Good Friday.

For example, of her own spiritual aridity, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux wrote:

“But during the Paschal days, so full of light, our Lord. allowed my soul to be overwhelmed with darkness, and the thought of Heaven, which had consoled me from my earliest childhood now became a subject of conflict and torture. This trial did not last merely for thys or weeks — I have been suffering for months, and I still await deliverance . . . I wish I could express what I feel, but it is beyond me. One must have passed through this dark tunnel to understand its blackness.

Sometimes, I confess, a little ray of sunshine illumines my dark night, and I enjoy peace for an instant, but later, remembrance of this ray of light, instead of consoling me, makes the blackness thicker still . . … And yet never have I felt so deeply how sweet and merciful is the Lord.”

The Darkness And The Desert Free Us
This is the context in which Come Be My Light by Mother Teresa of Calcutta must be grasped. Teresa of Avila and Thèrése of Lisieux are her two “mothers” in spiritual growth and authentic Christian faith, in the light of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. The forty-five years of emptiness, darkness, and inner pain experienced by Mother Teresa, and honestly set forth in her private letters to her spiritual director, follow in a long tradition. They are not really signs of doubt, although the black darkness feels like that.

 They are in fact signs of Christian adulthood, following in the only way in which illusions of human contrivance can be scraped away, as Job tried to scrape away the dry boils on his arms and ribs. And in which the truly faithful, like Job and Elijah, can find Him whom they love in the darkness.

“Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” (Job 2:9-12)

It is from “human fabrication” that the darkness and the desert free us. When God subtracts His gifts, as He subtracted Job’s, Job does not take this withdrawal as punishment. Job knows his innocence; he knows his fidelity, even in the darkness and in utter suffering. He utters not one denial of his Lord. His soul stands firm beneath the pain. So also Mother Teresa of Calcutta stood darkly in the presence of her Beloved, confident that even unseen, He was best found where love for her nearest dying neighbor presented Him. To the place where he (well she knew who!) was awaiting Her — A place where none appeared. (Adapted from Dark Night of the Soul)

Somehow I early learned that the important move in prayer is to direct an inner, quiet, steady will toward God’s love, to be united with that love, even in dryness and aridity. Prayer, essentially, is saying “Yes” to the will of God. Not knowing exactly what that will is now, or yet will be, saying “Yes:’ in any case — and in whatever tranquility one can bring to one’s disorderly, discordant self.

One Comes To Know His Presence
I came to learn that, while one can come to know that God is present, our minds are unable to form an adequate conception of Him, or to grasp Him with any of our five senses, or to imagine Him. His mode of drawing us into His presence is necessarily by way of absence, silence, nothingness. I remember an image fixed in my mind by the poetry of Saint John of the Cross, mentioned earlier: “The place where he . . . was awaiting me — A place where none appeared.”

It must necessarily be so. The true God is beyond human concepts, senses, imagination, memory. On those frequencies, He is not reachable. Mother Teresa of Calcutta acknowledged her inability to reach God on human wavelengths in a 1979 letter to one of her spiritual directors, the Reverend Michael Van Der Peet:

“Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me — the silence and the emptiness is so great — that I look and do not see — listen and do not hear”

If a Christian has not yet known this darkness and aridity, it is a sign that the Lord is still treating him like a child at the breast, too unformed for the adult darkness in which alone the true God is found. Any who think they can make idols, or images, or pictures, or concepts of God remain underdeveloped in their faith. Darkness is not a sign of unbelief, or even of doubt, but a sign of the true relation between the Creator and the creature. God is not on our frequency; and when we get beyond our usual range, which in prayer we must, we reach only darkness. This is painful. In a way, it does make one doubt; in another way, experience shows us that when one is no longer a child, one leaves childish ways behind.

Our intellects, our will — these can reach out to God, like arrows of inquiry shot up into the infinite night. These are not shot in vain. They mark out a direction. Waiting in silence, in abandonment, even in the dry sands of the desert, one comes to know His presence. Not believe in it. Know it. In a 1959 interview with the BBC, C. G. Jung once made the same point. Asked whether he believed in God, Jung replied, “I don’t believe — I know.” This is a dark knowledge. One cannot expect anyone else to know it, unless they have also walked the rocky and darkling path — or somehow by God’s grace been brought to it by a different journey, along a different route. Ascent of the Mountain, Plight of the Dove, I called another book of mine. Some of us labor sweatily, others are borne on eagle’s wings.

I do not mean that this knowledge consists of warm sentiments, feelings of devotion, uplift, and “faith.” I mean a certain quiet emptiness. A dark resonance of wills. Echo to echo.

Mother Teresa wrote of her own emptiness in 1961: “I accept not in my feelings — but with my will, the Will of God — I accept His will.”

This is not a “will” characterized by effort, unrelenting desire, unshakable determination. I mean something almost the opposite: the quiet of abandonment, and trust. This is another mode of will, quite different from the striving will. It is. the willingness to forgo any other reinforcement except the blind and dark love we direct toward that infinite Light, on which we cannot set our eyes.

Nor do I mean a turning away from intellect or rationality On the contrary, I mean taking these with utter seriousness “all the way down” to the very roots of the universe. I mean trusting our own rationality our own intellect. I mean serene confidence in infinite Light, even when our senses go quite dark. Trust the light, the evidence-demanding eros of inquiry, within us. I mean the suffering love in which that Light issues forth among us. Not to, remove us from suffering. But to transfigure us by means of it.

The Line Of Belief And Unbelief
In every age there have been atheists. In every age there have been believers. Sometimes I think that the proportion of each hardly ever changes. True enough, within a given civilization the relative prominence of one may favor it far beyond the other. Furthermore, many people at any one time may take neither choice with much seriousness. Swirling along the streets, the fallen leaves of autumn. Too passive to act, one way or the other.

In my own life, I have tried to keep the conversation up between the two sides of my own intellect. The line of belief and unbelief is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us. That is why the very question stirs so much passion. I have known people who declaim so passionately and argumentatively that they do not believe in God that I am driven to wonderment: Why are they so agitated, if, as they insist, God does not exist? Why, then, do they pay so much attention? Some of the greatest converts, in either direction, are those who wrestled strenuously for many years to maintain the other side.

I want to add here, before I go back to an earlier theme, that I left the seminary after twelve years, but not out of lack of faith. On the contrary, I was much deepened in its darkness, convinced only that I could not be a good priest and also experiment and write as by then I knew was my true vocation. Maybe others could do it. I could not. Besides, the attraction of women was more than I thought that, over the long run, I could bear. For a long time, yes. But forever? It seemed to me that life as a layman would be far better for my soul. So I returned to my philosophical studies, experiments in fiction, and close attention to Albert Camus.

What particularly struck me in Albert Camus was his insistence that we begin within nihilism. Only by finding our way out from nihilism could any new civilization rest on solid ground. He meant: finding our way out by intellect, the kind of intellect that can engage with the Absurd. Now some fifty years after my first book, much of the spiritual terrain has changed — on a massive scale, and more than once. My aim at the present moment is to give one more report from that no-man’s — land, at the crossroads where atheist and believer meet in the darkness of the night.

What is it that keeps us from getting through to each other? What is it that needs to be looked at from a fresh perspective, or disentangled in one’s own mind, before true disagreement can occur? What goes through the minds of some when they use a name like “God” is very different from what goes through the minds of others.

Naturally, coming face-to-face with God is to be feared (Mysterium tremendum et fascinans, “The Mystery fascinating, attracting, and to be feared,” in Rudolf Otto’s phrase) Happily for some, this encounter within the self is fairly easy to avoid. There are many ways to avoid inwardness and to “kill time” simply by keeping busy, frequenting rooms throbbing with the strong beat of certain kinds of music, picking up the car keys to search somewhere else for something to do.

It is not at all hard for a believer to become an unbeliever. A great many do. The seed has often been thrown on dry ground, or on the soil over rocky shale, and cannot bear the heat of the afternoon. Often enough, faith leads one, to feel abandoned to darkness, isolated in inner dryness, undermined by a fear of having been seduced into an illusion For a believer, it does not take a prolonged thought experiment to imagine oneself an unbeliever.

Yet atheists may actually find it harder to imagine themselves coming by way of reason to know God than believers to imagine the opposite I hypothesize that unbelievers, especially those who have never known religion in their personal lives, or who have had bad experiences with it, experience a revulsion against reasoned knowledge of God, and even more so against a Jewish and/or Christian faith Indeed, they find it harder to imagine themselves as believers than believers to imagine themselves as un-believers. Am I wrong?

Reflecting On The Experience Of Nothingness
I noticed that Nietzsche and Sartre, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, and all those other early writers on nihilism did one remarkable thing at variance with their theories: They wrote books for others to read. In a world that makes no sense, why would they endure the hours and hours of sitting on their back-sides, moving old pens across resisting pieces of blank foolscap? If everything is as meaningless as they say, why would they do it?

And since some people seem oblivious to the experience of nothingness, what is it that those who have the experience do, that others don’t do?

I began reflecting on what goes on inside the experience of nothingness, first within myself, and then among others I could talk to about it. Here a brief summary will have to do. The normal way in which Nietzsche, Sartre, and we ourselves come to an awareness of the experience of nothingness is through four activities of our own minds and wills. The one Nietzsche and the others most stress is ruthless honesty, forcing ourselves to see through comforting illusions and to face the emptiness. The second is courage, the habit that gives force and steadiness to our ability to see truly. Without courage, we would avert our eyes, as so often we have done.

Third is the ideal of community exemplified in reaching out to others through books — the good moves outward to diffuse itself. There is a kind of brotherhood and sisterhood among those who recognize the experience of nothingness in one another. There is a sort of honesty and cleanness in it one wants to share. One of the marks of “the good” is that, as the Latin puts it, bonum est deflusivum nil — the good diffuses itself. It wants others to participate in it.

Fourth is practical wisdom, that is, practical reason applied to action, by an adult experienced enough to take virtually everything concrete into account — or at least to avoid most of the common mistakes of the inexperienced. When the experience of nothingness hits, one cannot simply take to one’s bed. Well, sometimes one does, but then one can’t stay there. Moment by moment, in a kind of staccato, action keeps calling to us. Sooner or later, I have to start acting as an agent of my own future again. “Granted that I have the experience of nothingness, what should I do?”

Yes, there are such things as relativity and meaninglessness and pointlessness. Question is, What are we going to do even if that is true? We will not be able to escape practicing honesty courage, community and. practical wisdom — or else withering into dry leaves for stray winds to blow about. The choice is ours, and unavoidable.

These four virtues do not constitute a complete quiver of all the virtues needed to be a good man or a valiant woman. Still, these four do constitute quite an admirable list. They are a wonderful starting place for an ethic rooted in the experience of nothingness. Here is the point at which Albert Camus began his own ascent out of the problem of suicide (The Myth of Sisyphus), on the road to the heroic and clear-eyed compassion of Dr. Rieux in The Plague. Sartre, locked inside his own solitariness, writing that “hell is other people:’ faltered on the idea of community. No, hell is not other people. Hell is total isolation within one’s own puny mind. It is solitary confinement. (To step out of philosophy for a moment and into the terms of Christian faith: Hell is the solitary soul who freely and deliberately rejects friendship with God.) Hell is becoming conscious of what one has irretrievably chosen for oneself. This Hell has been deliberately chosen.

What we do with the experience of nothingness depends on our proven reserves of practical wisdom, community courage, honesty. By the end of our lives, learning from experience, we ought to be wiser than we were in the beginning.

Nihilism Turned Out To Be Antihuman
We may observe how the generation that fell into the nihilism of the 1930s at last stumbled onto the way. In the concentration camps and prisons, many a poor wretch unexpectedly felt himself morally bound not to become complicit in the lies his torturers demanded him to sign. But why? Why, if before they had thought they were nihilists, why couldn’t they manage to be cynics and nihilists and liars here at the end, under torture and torment and soft blandishment (“You can go free, you can have drinks with your friends again”)? Is not a lie a small price to pay in a world without truth? What would a lie mean anyway? “No one will ever know No one will ever care.”

But the liar himself would know his soul would know; in his own mind’s eye, his integrity would forever lie in the dust, humiliated. And his torturer would use this petty surrender to weaken the will of his next victim. “If he did as he was told, why can’t you?” The aim of these torturers was to destroy every last vestige of the moral sense, every fiber of integrity of soul within everyone. For those in prison, the torturers could use the harshest methods and take all the time they needed to break a man. The integrity of the entire public could be assaulted by incessant intimidation and occasional, unpredictable terror. After seducing almost everyone to spy on their associates, the slave masters could easily blackmail them forever. These poor sinners could never forget their own treason to loved ones.

Even with their almost unlimited power and ferocity of will, it proved impossible for totalitarian regimes to instill nihilism into everyone. Nihilism turned out to be antihuman. However powerfully nihilism is enforced, the human spirit is sometimes able to triumph over it by honesty; courage, community and practical wisdom.

Those who have doubts about the power of this argument should read the biographies of Anatoly Sharansky, to whose stirring memoir we will turn our attention in chapter one; as well as the stories of Václav Havel, Mihaio Mihaiov, Armando Valladares, Pavel Bratinka, Irma Ratushinskaya, Maximilian Kolbe, and hundreds of others. From the ashes of nihilism, the human spirit rose stronger and truer.

I have tested this moral principle and have found it fortifying:

Accept the experience of nothingness as a gift, search deep into it, live by its living streams. One thing I particularly appreciate about this moral principle is that it requires no illusions. Far from shutting one’s eyes to the nothingness and the meaninglessness, one keeps the cellar door open in order to feel, at all times, its cool, stale draft. In that way, one is never allowed to forget. And from these four moral virtues, one forges creative strength. Creation out of nothingness.

Freedom means choosing every moment who I am, and what exactly I must do this minute. Self-government yes, precisely that. Yet not exactly without community, community down through time, community around the planet. Not exactly isolated. One’s ancestors continue to live in one’s own consciousness. One’s universal brothers also do. All together, on a darkling plain.

In “Dover Beach:’ Matthew Arnold wrote of an ebbing Sea of Faith:

But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

But today there is a difference. The melancholy roar of a receding sea belongs to atheism.

“Unquestioning” Faith?
Our three authors (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet), it does seem, are a bit blinded by their own repugnance toward religion. Even his good friends, Dawkins writes, ask him why he is driven to be so “hostile” to religious people. Why not, they say, as intelligent as you are, quietly lay out your devastating arguments against believers, in a calm and unruffled manner? Dawkins’s answer to his friends is forthright: “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise . . . Fundamentalist religion is hell — bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a Virtue?’ Dawkins refuses to be part of the public “conspiracy” to pay religion respect, when it deserves contempt.

Yet his complaint about “unquestioning” faith seems a bit odd. Some of us have thought that the origin of religion lies in the unlimited drive in human beings to ask questions — which is our primary experience of the infinite. Anything finite that we encounter can be questioned, and seems ultimately unsatisfying. That hunger to question is the experience that keeps driving the mind and soul on and on, and is its first foretaste of that which is beyond time and space. “Our hearts are restless, Lord,” Saint Augustine recorded, “until they rest in Thee.” These words have had clearly echoing resonance in millions upon millions of inquiring minds down through human history ever since. “Unquestioning faith?” The writings of the medieval thinkers record question after question, disputation after disputation, and real results in history hinged upon the resolution of each. Many of the questions arose from skeptical, unbelieving lawyers, philosophers, and others in the medieval universities; still others from the Arab scholars whose works had recently burst upon the Western universities; still others from Maimonides and other Jewish scholars; and a great many from the greatest pagan thinkers of every preceding century. Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.

Christian Innovations
I have no doubt that Christians have committed many evils, and written some disgraceful pages in human history. Yet on a fair ledger of what Judaism and Christianity added to pagan Greece, Rome, the Arab nations (before Mohammed), the German, Frankish, and Celtic tribes, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, one is puzzled not to find Dawkins giving thanks for many innovations: hospitals, orphanages, cathedral schools in early centuries, universities not much later, some of the most beautiful works of art — in music, architecture, .painting, and poetry — in the human patrimony.

And why does he overlook the hard intellectual work on concepts such as “person:’ “community” “civitas,” “consent:’ “tyranny?’ and “limited government” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.) that framed the conceptual background of such great documents as the Magna Carta? His few pages on the founding and nourishing of his own beloved Oxford by its early Catholic patrons are mockingly ungrateful And if Oxford disappoints him, has he no gratitude for the building of virtually every other old and famous universities of Europe (and the Americas)?

Dawkins writes nothing about the great religious communities founded for the express purpose of building schools for the free education of the poor. Nothing about the thousands of monastic lives dedicated to the delicate and exhausting labor of copying by hand the great manuscripts of the past — often with the lavish love manifested in illuminations — during long centuries in which there were no printing presses. Nothing about the founding of the Vatican Library and its importance for the genesis of nearly a dozen modern sciences. Nothing about the learned priests and faithful who have made so many crucial discoveries in science, medicine, and technology.

Alfred North Whitehead And Faith In The Possibility Of Science
Among my favorite texts for many years, in fact, are certain passages of Alfred North Whitehead — in Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas, for instance. In these passages, Whitehead points out that the practices of modern science are inconceivable apart from thousands of years of tutelage under the Jewish and Christian conviction that the Creator of all things understood all things, in their general laws and in their particular, contingent dispositions. This conviction, Whitehead writes, made long, disciplined efforts to apply reason to the sustained Herculean task of understanding all things seem reasonable. If all things are intelligible to their Creator, they ought to be intelligible to those made in His image, who in imitation of Him, press onward in the human vocation to try to understand all that He has made.

In addition, Judaism and Christianity have inculcated in entire cultures specific intellectual and moral habits, synthesizing them with the teachings of ancient classical traditions, without which the development of modern sciences would lack the requisite moral disciplines — honesty, hard work, perseverance in the face of difficulties, a respect for serendipity and sudden insight, a determination to test any hypotheses asserted. What would modern science be without belief in the intelligibility of all things, even contingent, unique, and unrepeatable events, and without culture-wide habits of honesty; intellectual rigor, and persevering inquiry? Whitehead pointed to this marvelous indebtedness many times, much more generously than Dawkins. In Science and the Modern World (1925), he wrote: “My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivation from medieval theology”

The path of modern science was made straight, and smoothed, by deep convictions that every stray element in the world of human experience — from the number of hairs on one’s head to the lovely lily in the meadow — is thoroughly known to its Creator and, therefore, lies within a field of intelligibility; mutual connection, and multiple logics All these odd and angular levels of reality, given arduous, disciplined, and cooperative effort, are in principle penetrable by the human mind. If human beings are made in the image of the Creator, as the first chapters of the book of Genesis insist that they are, surely it is in their capacities to question, gain insight, and advance in understanding of the works of God. In the great image portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling — the touch from finger to finger between the Creator and Adam — the mauve cloud behind the Creator’s head is painted in the shape of the human brain. Imago Dei, yes indeed.

A Theology of the Absurd
It seems useful — and necessary — to sketch out some of the facets of Christian faith to which our atheist threesome (Dennett, Harris, Dawkins) seem inattentive. Each Christian (each Catholic) sees this differently, of course, but right off the bat I notice four questions on which Christian faith offers arresting reflections.

A Theology of the Absurd. Begin with the bloody cross of Calvary. On this gibbet dies the Son of God? The cross is the very symbol of contradiction, and the absurd. When Christians speak of the act of Creation, we do not think of a perfectionist artificer making Lladró dolls, but rather of God creating flesh and blood in all its angularity deformations, imperfections, and concrete limitations, and in the midst of myriad evils and abominations. The world of His creation is riven through with absurdities and contradictions, species that die out, and the teeming, blooming, buzzing confusion of contingencies and chance. When God singles out a chosen people, He picks a small and difficult tribe in a poor, backward, and underdeveloped part of the world. His chosen ones are overrun by enemies again and again, and carted off into slavery and exile for long, long years. Then, when the Creator sends His Son to become flesh, the Son also roots his new community mainly among the poor, the uneducated, the humble, the forgotten.

But then, blasphemy is added to blasphemy, and this Son of God is condemned to death as a common criminal, and forced into the most disgraceful sort of death known to men of that time: public mockery and scourging virtually unto death, and then put out to hang on a cross where the public can shout insults, until the vultures come to pick at his eyes and his wounded flesh. This is not a Pollyanna, this Creator. But what He does do is assure those who suffer and who groan under the weight of the absurd, that, though at times they feel icy fear, they do not in the end need to be afraid. God is a good God and has His own purposes, and it is no mistake to trust His kindness, ever. The Creator did not make us to face a reasonable world in a rational, calm, and dispassionate way — like a New York banker after a splendid lunch at his Club, sunk into his favorite soft chair in the Library where a fragrant cigar is still permitted, as he comfortably reads his morning papers. Instead, there is war, exile, torture, injustice. Life is to be understood as a trial, and a time of suffering. A vale of tears. A valley of death. Even in the bosom of wealth, and luxury, and plenty — even there, cancer and failure and radical loneliness strike; but even more often still, simple boredom.

Not at all a land of happy talk, not at all the perfect world of Candide. Atheism is in the main suitable for comfortable men, in a reasonable world. For those in agony and distress, Christianity has seemed to serve much better and for a longer time, not because it offers “consolation” but precisely because it does not. For Christians, the cross is inescapable, and one ought always be prepared to take it up. I myself have watched three deeply religious people die without consolation, bereft, empty of feeling for God. To be empty of consolation, however, is not to be empty of faith. Faith is essentially a quiet act of love, even in misery: “Be it done to me according to thy will.”

Like Stephen Jay Gould, our three authors think they are destroying the argument from design by showing how poorly designed are so many parts of human anatomy, how many species have perished since the beginning of time (something like 90 percent), how chancily and seemingly without reason so many steps in natural selection are taken. They want to show that if there is a Designer, he is an incompetent one; or, more exactly, there is too much evidence of lack of design. What kind of Lladrô doll do they think God is? Our God is the God of the Absurd, of night, of suffering, and silent peace.

The Burden of Sin
It took me some years, but I have come to understand that, just as some people have no ear for music, so others (as Friedrich Hayek put it) “have no ear for God?’ Still others say they have no “need” for God. They sense in themselves no round hole into which God fits. One of the blessings of atheism seems to be that it takes away any sense of Judgment, any sense that by one’s actions one may be offending a Friend, any awareness of sin. “Sin” seems, indeed, to be a leftover from a bygone age. Beati voi! I want to cry out to atheists. Lucky you.

“At the heart of Christianity is the sinner,” a very great Christian, Charles Péguy, once wrote. Some of us are aware of doing things that we know we ought not to have done, and of not doing things that we know we ought to have done. We are aware of sinning against our own conscience deliberately doing what we know to be wrong, whether from weakness or from a powerful desire that is still out of control. Afterward, sometimes, we feel a remorse so keen that it hurts — and yet what has been done is done, and nothing we now do can take that fault away And at times the fault is shamefully grave, at that.

It is to this common, virtually universal experience that Jesus, like John the Baptist before him, first addressed his auditors, “Be sorry! Do penance. Resolve not to sin again.” (Even though the probabilities of sinning again are high, just as a man with a bad knee, though his knee has healed, knows that it will too easily go out on hint)

Christianity is not about moral arrogance. It is about moralism, and moral humility Wherever you see self-righteous persons condemning others and unaware of their own sins, you are not in the presence of an alert Christian but of a priggish pretender. It was in fact a great revolution in human history when the Jewish and Christian God revealed Himself as one who sees directly into consciences, and is not misled merely by external acts. (This God would be unpersuaded by the external pietas of the numerous Greek and Roman pagan philosophers who — unconcerned about conscience — were sure to be present at religious rites, whether they took the gods seriously or not.)

The biblical respect for conscience greatly dignified and honored inner acts of reflection, commitment, and choice. It turned a powerful beam of attention away from the external act to the inner act of conscience. It greatly honored truthfulness and simple humility Eventually, the inner duty of conscience toward the Creator became the ground of religious liberty — no other power dares intervene in this primal duty to God, which is antecedent to civil society state, family, and any other institution. (See James Madison’~ Memorial and Remonstrance) 1785.)

The Bright Golden Thread of Human History
Emphasized in the liberation of the Jews from the Seleucid Empire (celebrated at Hanukkah), from Egypt (celebrated at the Passover), and from Babylon (celebrated in the poetry of Israel’s prophets), a pilgrimage toward liberty and truth is the defining theme of the Torah. Every story in that testament has at its axis the arena of the human will, and the decisions made there (whether hidden or external). Thus, for biblical religion, liberty is the golden~ thread of human history This conception of liberty is realized internally in the recesses of the soul and also institutionally in whole societies or polities.

The Point of the Cosmos Is Friendship
No other world religions except Christianity and Judaism have put liberty of conscience so close to the center of religious life. For instance, Islam tends to think of God in terms of divine will, quite apart from nature or logic. Independently of reason, whatever Allah wills, does occur. Judaism and Christianity tend to think of God as Logos (reason), light, the source of all law and the intelligibility of all things. This difference in the fundamental conception of God alters, as well, the fundamental disposition of the human being proper to each religion: inquiry, versus submission. If it has ever occurred to you to ask, even if you are an atheist, why did God create this vast, silent, virtually infinite cosmos, you might find your best answer in the single word “friendship.” According to the Scriptures, intelligently read, the Creator made man a little less than the angels, a little more complex than the other animals. He made human beings conscious enough, and reflective enough, that they might marvel at what He had wrought, and give Him thanks. Even more than that, He made human beings in order to offer to them, in their freedom, His friendship and companionship.

Friendship is not only the biblical way of thinking about the relationship between God and man; it is also a good way to imagine the future of our nation and of the world toward which we should work. From this vision, Judaism and Christianity imparted to the world a way of measuring progress and decline. William Penn called his capital city “Philadelphia” (brotherly love), and made freedom of religion its first principle. If there is no liberty there can be no friendship. Even the atheists of the French Revolution named their fundamental principles “Liberty Fraternity Equality” — each of them a term that, as we will see in chapter two, derives not from the Greeks or the Romans, but from biblical religion.

A worldwide civilization of mutual friendship is a powerful magnet, and a realistic measure. Friendship does not require uniformity On the contrary, its fundamental demand is mutual respect, willing the good of the other as other. It births a desire to converse in a reasonable way about fundamental differences in viewpoint, hope, and a sense of practical responsibility.

Evolutionary Biology As A Guide To Life
The young Thomas Aquinas, in his late twenties, was one of the first men in the West to have in his hands an authentic translation of several key books of Aristotle. As his extended line-by-line commentaries on several of the most important of these books show, Aquinas mastered a viewpoint quite foreign to his own. Not many years after, he had to do the same in reading al-Fãrabi, Avicenna, Averroes, and other major Arab philosophers.

And so, when a Christian reader comes across Professor Dawkins’s argument that God cannot exist, because all complex and more intelligent things come only at the end of the evolutionary process, not at the beginning, the Christian’s first reflex may be to burst out laughing — but as an attentive student, he is also obliged to observe that, yes, from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology; that must in fact be so. The argument may be intellectually or philosophically satisfying, yet when its practical implications are compared with those of the Christian viewpoint, evolutionary biology may not be attractive as a guide to life. If one wants to be an evolutionary biologist, however, one must learn to confine oneself within the disciplines imposed by that field.

From a Roman Catholic point of view, at least, there is no difficulty in accepting all the findings of evolutionary biology understood to be an empirical science-. — that is to say, not as a philosophy of existence, a metaphysics, a full vision of human life. It is easier for Christianity to absorb many, many findings of the contemporary world — from science to technology, politics, economics, and art — than for those whose viewpoint is confined to the contemporary era to absorb Christianity That is just one reason that we may expect the latter to outlive the former.

It is obvious that Dawkins, at least, is quite aware of the conventional limitations of the scientific atheist’s point of view He writes that “a quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief.” A few pages of his book, in almost every section, are given over to showing how an atheistic point of view can satisfy what have hitherto been taken to be religious longings. Atheism, too, he shows, has its consolations, its sources of inspiration, its awareness of beauty its sense of wonder. For such satisfactions, there is no need to turn to religion. Dawkins does good work in restoring human subjectivity emotion, longing, and an awed response to beauty to the life of scientific atheism. For Dawkins, scientific atheism is humanistic, a significant step forward from the sterile logical positivism of two or three generations ago.

Harris Explaining Away The Horrors
Atheism has a more severe limitation, one that shows itself in the actions of its proponents. One of my favorite parts of the Sam Harris book is his attempt to explain away the horrors of the self-declared atheist regimes in modern history: Fascist in Italy, Nazi in Germany, and Communist in the Soviet Union and Asia. Never in history have so many Christians been killed, tortured, driven to their deaths in forced marches, and imprisoned in concentration camps. An even higher proportion of Jews suffered still more horrifically under the same regimes, particularly the Nazi regime, than at any other time in Jewish history. The excuse Harris offers is quite lame. First he directs attention away from the ideological character of the regime, toward the odd personalities of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. No, the problem is the ideology the regime, the millions of believers in atheism. Harris ignores the essential atheism of the ideologies of the regime, “scientific secularism” and “dialectical materialism?’ Yet it is these ideologies, not just a few demented leaders, that bred a furious war on God, religion, and clergy. The nature of a regime and its ideology matter more than mad leaders. Yet here is Harris, limping: “While it is true that such men are sometimes enemies of organized religion, they are never especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements are often delusional. .. The problem with such tyrants is not that they reject the dogma of religion, but that they embrace other life-destroying myths.” In other words, delusional atheists are not really atheists.

Would Harris accept a claim by Christians that Christian evildoers are not really Christians? The real problem is not that tyrants reject the “dogma” of religion, but that they derive their furors from a dogmatic atheism that brooks no rival. They build a punitive totalitarian regime far more sweeping than their own personal madness.

Everything Is Permitted
Enthusiasts such as Harris may dismiss the argument that atheism is associated with relativism. Sometimes it isn’t. Some atheists are rationalists of a most sober, moral kind. Nonetheless, the most common argument against placing trust in atheists is Dostoyevsky: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” There will be no Judge of deeds and consciences; in the end, it is each man for himself. Widespread public atheism may not show its full effects right away, but only after three or four generations. For individual atheists “of a peculiar character,” brought up in habits inculcated by the religious cultures of the past, can go on for two or three generations living in ways hard to distinguish from those of unassuming Christians and Jews. These individuals continue to be honest, compassionate committed to the equality of all, firm believers in “progress” and “brotherhood,” long after they have repudiated the original religious justification for this particular list of virtues. But sooner or later a generation may come along that takes the metaphysics of atheism with deadly seriousness. This was the fate of a highly cultivated nation in the Europe of our time, Germany, before it voted its way into Nazism.

George Washington considered this risk in his Farewell Address: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” If morality were left to reason alone, common agreement would never be reached, since philosophers vehemently — and endlessly — disagree, and large majorities would waver without clear moral signals. Adds Alexis de Tocqueville:

“There is almost no human action, however particular one supposes it, that does not arise from a very general idea that men have conceived of God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties toward those like them. One cannot keep these ideas from being the common source from which all the rest flow

Men therefore have an immense interest in making very fixed ideas for themselves about God, their souls, their general duties toward their Creator and those like them; for doubt about these first points would deliver all their actions to chance and condemn them to a sort of disorder and impotence. .

The first object and one of the principal advantages of religions is to furnish a solution for each of these primordial questions that is clear, precise, intelligible to the crowd, and very lasting.”

This extremely practical contribution is one reason Tocqueville saw religion as essential to a free people, and unbelief as tending toward tyranny

Reasons For Altruism
Dawkins attempts to get around this flaw in (what he calls) the neo-Darwinian view of chance and blind natural selection by counting out four reasons for altruism rooted in evolutionary biology: “First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favors given, and the giving of favors in ‘anticipation’ of payback. Third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying authentic advertising.”

To these reasons based upon nature’s egotism (which furnishes little motivation to be kind or virtuous when no one is looking), Jews and Christians would add four or five others. To begin with, altruism is morally good, rooted in natural law, and most highly commended among the “laws” of God. Second, not to love one another is to disappoint the Creator who wishes us to be His friends. Next, not to love one another is a failure to imitate the Lord Jesus, who asked us to imitate Him. Fourth, experience confirms that loving others is in tune with a communal dimension of our nature, beginning in the family, but radiating outward through the polity and the economy. (Adam Smith referred to this highest law as “sympathy”) Last, as Tocqueville pointed out, every Mosaic commandment has a foundation in nature, but tends to stretch nature’s outer limits. Maimonides, Aquinas, and many others discussed this in great detail centuries ago.

As Thomas Jefferson recognized, it is self-evident that any creature owes his Creator certain duties in conscience; that much is clear by nature itself. But the commandment “Remember the Sabbath” is more specific than the natural law of reason; it stretches nature by adding to it a specifically Hebraic duty Meanwhile, Christianity specifies this duty in terms of Sunday, rather than the Jewish Sabbath. Thus, nature alone reaches the fundamental principle, but this Third Commandment, at least, specifies more than nature alone does. Jewish and Christian faiths do not reject, but build upon nature, add to it, bring it to a more concrete expression.

Finally, our three authors (Dennett, Harris, Dawkins) fail to think carefully about what Jews and Christians actually have to say about God. Their own atheistic concept of God is a caricature, an ugly godhead that anybody might feel duty-bound to reject. Dawkins makes fun of an omniscient God who would also be free. If an omniscient God knows now what future actions He will take, how will that leave room for Him to change His mind — and how does that leave Him omnipotent? Isn’t He caught in a kind of vise? -

But, of course, this is to imagine God being in time as Dawkins is in time. Dawkins fails to grasp the difference between a viewpoint from eternity outside time, and his own viewpoint from within time. He also fails to grasp the freedom that the primary cause allows to secondary causes, to contingencies, and to particulars. God’s will is not before human decisions are made. Rather, it is simultaneous with them, and thus empowers their coming into existence. Ancient philosophers proved able to grasp this point. Surely our contemporary atheists can become equally as learned?

When Catholics celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass, for example, we imagine that our moment of participation in that particular Mass is — as for every other Mass we attend in our lives — in God’s eyes simultaneous with the bloody death of His Son on Calvary In our eyes, it is experienced as a “reenactment;’ but in God’s eyes both moments are as one. No doubt, for some minds this is all too mystical, and its underlying philosophy is a bit too sophisticated, especially to those of literal and purely empirical tastes. Our three authors, in any case, present a quite primitive idea of God. If the rest of us had such a view, we, too, would almost certainly be atheists.

The whole inner world of aware and self-questioning religious persons seems to our atheist authors unexplored territory. All around them are millions who spend many moments each day (and hours each week) in communion with God. Yet of the silent and inward parts of these lives — and why these inner silences ring so true to those who share them, and seem more grounded in reality than anything else in life — our writers seem unaware. Surely, if our atheist friends were to reconsider their methods, and deepen their understanding of such terms as “experience” and “the empirical;’ they might come closer to walking for a tentative while the moccasins of so many of their more religious companions in life, who find theism more intellectually satisfying — less self-contradictory; less alienating from their own nature — than atheism.


More Evolution Topics by Dr. Francisco Ayala

April 28, 2010

Dr. Francisco Ayala

A continuation of a previous post.

Natural Selection as an Opportunistic Process
Natural selection has no foresight, nor does it operate according to some preconceived plan. Rather it is a purely natural process resulting from the interacting properties of physicochemical and biological entities. Natural selection is simply a consequence of the differential multiplication of living beings. It has some appearance of purposefulness because it is conditioned by the environment: which organisms reproduce more effectively depends on what variations they possess that are useful in the environment where the organisms live. In a sense, natural selection is an “opportunistic” process. The variables determining in what direction it will go are the environment, the preexisting constitution of the organisms, and the randomly arising mutations. But natural selection does not anticipate the environments of the future; drastic environmental changes may be insuperable to organisms that were previously thriving.

Examples of Adaptive Behaviors
Adaptation to a given environment may occur in a variety of different ways. An example may be taken from the adaptations of plant life to desert climate. The fundamental adaptation is to the condition of dryness, which involves the danger of desiccation. During a major part of the year, sometimes for several years in succession, there is no rain. Plants have accomplished the urgent necessity of saving water in different ways. Cacti have transformed their leaves into spines, having made their stems into barrels containing a reserve of water; photosynthesis is performed in the surface of the stem instead of in the leaves. Other plants have no leaves during the dry season, but after it rains they burst into leaves and flowers and produce seeds. Ephemeral plants germinate from seeds, grow, flower, and produce seeds — all within the space of the few weeks while rainwater is available; the rest of the year the seeds lie quiescent in the soil.

The opportunistic character of natural selection is also well-evidenced by the phenomenon of adaptive radiation. The evolution of Drosophila flies in Hawaii is a relatively recent adaptive radiation. There are about 1,500 Drosophila species in the world. Approximately 500 of them have evolved in the Hawaiian archipelago, although this has a small area, about one twenty-fifth the size of California. Moreover, the morphological, ecological, and behavioral diversity of Hawaiian Drosophila exceeds that of Drosophila in the rest of the world.

Why should have such “explosive” evolution have occurred in Hawaii? The overabundance of drosophila flies there contrasts with the absence of many other insects. The ancestors of Hawaiian drosophila reached the archipelago before other groups of insects did, and thus they found a multitude of unexploited opportunities for living. They responded by a rapid adaptive radiation; although they are all probably derived from a single colonizing species, they adapted to the diversity of opportunities available in diverse places or at different times by developing appropriate adaptations, which range broadly from one to another species.

Natural Selection Explains The Adaptive Organization Of Organisms
The process of natural selection can explain the adaptive organization of organisms; as well as their diversity and evolution as a consequence of their adaptation to the multifarious and ever changing conditions of life. The fossil record shows that life has evolved in a haphazard fashion. The radiations, expansions, relays of one form by another, occasional but irregular trends, and the ever present extinctions, are best explained by natural selection of organisms subject to the vagaries of genetic mutation and environmental challenge. The scientific account of these events does not necessitate recourse to a preordained plan, whether imprinted from without by an omniscient and all-powerful designer, or resulting from some immanent force driving the process towards definite outcomes. Biological evolution differs from a painting or an artifact in that it is not the outcome of a design preconceived by an artist or artisan.

Natural Selection Can “Create”
Natural selection accounts for the “design” of organisms, because adaptive variations tend to increase the probability of survival and reproduction of their carriers at the expense of maladaptive, or less adaptive, variations. The arguments of Aquinas or Paley against the incredible improbability of chance accounts of the origin of organisms are well taken as far as they go. But neither these scholars, nor any other authors before Darwin, were able to discern that there is a natural process (namely, natural selection) that is not random but rather is oriented and able to generate order or “create.” The traits that organisms acquire in their evolutionary histories are not fortuitous but determined by their functional utility to the organisms.

Chance is, nevertheless, an integral part of the evolutionary process. The mutations that yield the hereditary variations available to natural selection arise at random, independently of whether they are beneficial or harmful to their carriers. But this random process (as well as others that come to play in the great theatre of life) is counteracted by natural selection, which preserves what is useful and eliminates the harmful. Without mutation, evolution could not happen because there would be no variations that could be differentially conveyed from one to another generation. But without natural selection, the mutation process would yield disorganization and extinction because most mutations are disadvantageous. Mutation and selection have jointly driven the marvelous process that starting from microscopic organisms has spurted orchids, birds, and humans.

The theory of evolution manifests chance and necessity jointly intricated in the stuff of life; randomness and determinism interlocked in a natural process that has spurted the most complex, diverse, and beautiful entities in the universe: the organisms that populate the earth, including humans who think and love, endowed with free will and creative powers, and able to analyze the process of evolution itself that brought them into existence. This is Darwin’s fundamental discovery, that there is a process that is creative though not conscious. And this is the conceptual revolution that Darwin completed: that everything in nature, including the origin of living organisms, can be accounted for as the result of natural processes governed by natural laws. This is nothing if not a fundamental vision that has forever changed how humanity perceives itself and its place in the universe.

Teleology and Teleological Explanations
Explanation by design, or teleology, is “the use of design, purpose, or utility as an explanation of any natural phenomenon” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 1966). An object or a behavior is said to be teleological when it gives evidence of design or appears to be directed toward certain ends. For example, the behavior of human beings is often teleological. A person who buys an airplane ticket, reads a book, or cultivates the earth is trying to achieve a certain end: getting to a given city, acquiring knowledge, or getting food. Objects and machines made by people also are usually teleological: a knife is made for cutting, a clock is made for telling time, a thermostat is made to regulate temperature. Similarly features of organisms are teleological as well: a bird’s wings are for flying, eyes are for seeing, kidneys are constituted for regulating the composition of the blood. The features of organisms that may be said to be teleological are those that can be identified as adaptations, whether they are structures like a wing or a hand, or organs like a kidney, or behaviors like the courtship displays of a peacock. Adaptations are features of organisms that have come about by natural selection because they serve certain functions and thus increase the reproductive success of their carriers.

The Essential Characteristics Of Teleological Phenomena
Inanimate objects and processes (other than those created by people) are not teleological in the sense just explained because we gain no additional scientific understanding by perceiving them as directed toward specific ends or for serving certain purposes. The configuration of a sodium chloride molecule (common salt) depends on the structure of sodium and chlorine, but it makes no sense to say that that structure is made up so as to serve a certain purpose, such as tasting salty. Similarly, the shape of a mountain is the result of certain geological processes, but it did not come about so as to serve a certain purpose, such as providing slopes suitable for skiing. The motion of the earth around the sun results from the laws of gravity, but it does not exist in order that the seasons may occur. We may use sodium chloride as food, a mountain for skiing, and take advantage of the seasons, but the use that we make of these objects or phenomena is not the reason why they came into existence or why they have certain configurations. On the other hand, a knife and a car exist and have particular configurations precisely in order to serve the purposes of cutting and transportation. Similarly, the wings of birds came about precisely because they permitted flying, which was reproductively advantageous. The mating display of peacocks came about because it increased the chances of mating and thus of leaving progeny.

The previous comments point out the essential characteristics of teleological phenomena, which may be encompassed in the following definition: “Teleological explanations account for the existence of a certain feature in a system by demonstrating the feature’s contribution to a specific property or state of the system.” Teleological explanations require that the feature or behavior contribute to the persistence of a certain state or property of the system: wings serve for flying; the sharpness of a knife serves for cutting. Moreover, and this is the essential component of the concept, this contribution must be the reason why the feature or behavior exists at all: the reason why wings came to be is because they serve for flying; the reason why a knife is sharp is that it is intended for cutting.

The configuration of a molecule of sodium chloride contributes to its property of tasting salty and therefore to its use as food, not vice versa; the potential use of sodium chloride for food is not the reason why it has a particular molecular configuration or tastes salty. The motion of the earth around the sun is the reason why seasons exist; the existence of the seasons is not the reason why the earth moves about the sun. On the other hand, the sharpness of a knife can be explained teleologically because the knife has been created precisely to serve the purpose of cutting. Motorcars and their particular configurations exist because they serve transportation, and thus can be explained teleologically. Many features and behaviors of organisms meet the requirements of teleological explanation. The hand of man, the wings of birds, the structure and behavior of kidneys, the mating displays of peacocks are examples already given.

Distinguishing Different Kinds Of Teleological Phenomena
It is useful to distinguish different kinds of design or teleological phenomena. Actions or objects are purposeful when the end-state or goal is consciously intended by an agent. Thus, a man mowing his lawn is acting teleologically in the purposeful sense; a lion hunting deer and a bird building a nest have at least the appearance of purposeful behavior. Objects resulting from purposeful behavior exhibit artificial (or external) teleology. A knife, a table, a car, and a thermostat are examples of systems exhibiting artificial teleology: their teleological features were consciously intended by some agent.

Systems with teleological features that are not due to the purposeful action of an agent but result from some natural process exhibit natural (or internal) teleology. The wings of birds have a natural teleology; they serve an end, flying, but their configuration is not due to the conscious design of any agent. We may distinguish two kinds of natural teleology: bounded, or determinate or necessary, and unbounded or indeterminate or contingent.

Bounded natural teleology exists when specific end-state is reached in spite of environmental fluctuations. The development of an egg into a chicken is an example of bounded natural teleological process. The regulation of body temperature in a mammal is another example. In general, the homeostatic processes of organisms are instances of bounded natural teleology.

Unbounded design or contingent teleology occurs when the end-state is not specifically predetermined, but rather is the result of selection of one from among several available alternatives. The adaptations of organisms are designed, or teleological, in this indeterminate sense. The wings of birds call for teleological explanation: the genetic constitutions responsible for their configuration came about because wings serve to fly and flying contributes to the reproductive success of birds. But there was nothing in the constitution of the remote ancestors of birds that would necessitate the appearance of wings in their descendants. Wings came about as the consequence of a long sequence of events, where at each stage the most advantageous alternative was selected among those that happened to be available; but what alternatives were available at any one time depended, at least in part, on chance events.

The Compatiblity of Teological and Causal Explanations
Teleological explanations are fully compatible with (efficient) causal explanations. It is possible, at least in principle, to give a causal account of the various physical and chemical processes in the development of an egg into a chicken, or of the physicochemical, neural, and muscular interactions involved in the functioning of the eye. (I use the “in principle” clause to imply that any component of the process can be elucidated as a causal process if it is investigated in sufficient detail and in depth; but not all steps in almost any developmental process have been so investigated, with the possible exception of the flatworm Caenorhabditis elegans. The development of Drosophila fruitflies has also become known in much detail, even if not yet completely.) It is also possible in principle to describe the causal processes by which one genetic variant becomes eventually established in a population by natural selection. But these causal explanations do not make it unnecessary to provide teleological explanations where appropriate. Both teleological and causal explanations are called for in such cases.

Paley’s claim that the design of living beings evinces the existence of a Designer was shown to be erroneous by Darwin’s discovery of the process of natural selection, just as the pre-Copernican explanation for the motions of celestial bodies (and the argument for the existence of God based on the unmoved mover) was shown to be erroneous by the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. There is no more reason to consider anti-Christian Darwin’s theory of evolution and explanation of design than to consider anti-Christian Newton’s laws of motion. Divine action in the Universe must be sought in ways other than those that postulate it as the means to account for gaps in the scientific account of the workings of the Universe.

Nothingness As A Subject For Scientific Investigation
The Copernican and Darwinian revolutions have jointly brought all natural objects and processes as subjects of scientific investigation. Is there any important missing link in the scientific account of natural phenomena? I believe there is, namely, the origin of the universe. The creation or origin of the universe involves a transition from nothing into being. But a transition can only be scientifically investigated if we have some knowledge about the states or entities on both sides of the boundary. Nothingness, however, is not a subject for scientific investigation or understanding. Therefore, as far as science is concerned, the origin of the universe will remain forever a mystery.

Science as a Way of Knowing?
Science is a wondrously successful way of knowing. Science seeks explanations of the natural world by formulating hypotheses that are subject to the possibility of empirical falsification or corroboration. A scientific hypothesis is tested by ascertaining whether or not predictions about the world of experience derived as logical consequences from the hypothesis agree with what is actually observed. Science as a mode of inquiry into the nature of the universe has been successful and of great consequence. Witness the proliferation of science academic departments in universities and other research institutions, the enormous budgets that the body politic and the private sector willingly commit to scientific research, and its economic impact. The Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) of the U.S. government has estimated that fifty percent of all economic growth in the United States since the Second World War can directly be attributed to scientific knowledge and technical advances. The technology derived from scientific knowledge pervades, indeed, our lives: the high-rise buildings of our cities, thruways and long span-bridges, rockets that bring men to the moon, telephones that provide instant communication across continents, computers that perform complex calculations in millionths of a second, vaccines and drugs that keep bacterial parasites at bay, gene therapies that replace DNA in defective cells. All these remarkable achievements bear witness to the validity of the scientific knowledge from which they originated.

Scientific knowledge is also remarkable in the way it emerges by way of consensus and agreement among scientists, and in the way new knowledge builds upon past accomplishment rather than starting anew with each generation or each new practitioner. Surely scientists disagree with each other on many matters; but these are issues not yet settled, and the points of disagreement generally do not bring into question previous knowledge. Modern scientists do not challenge that atoms exist, or that there is a universe with a myriad stars, or that heredity is encased in the DNA.

Science is a way of knowing, but it is not the only way. Knowledge also derives from other sources, such as common sense, artistic and religious experience, and philosophical reflection. In The Myth of Sisyphus, the great French writer Albert Camus asserted that we learn more about ourselves and the world from a relaxed evening’s perception of the starry heavens and the scents of grass than from science’s reductionistic ways. The validity of the knowledge acquired by non-scientific modes of inquiry can be simply established by pointing out that science dawned in the sixteenth century, but humanity had for centuries built cities and roads, brought forth political institutions and sophisticated codes of law, advanced profound philosophies and value systems, and created magnificent plastic art, as well as music and literature. We thus learn about ourselves and about the world in which we live and we also benefit from products of this non-scientific knowledge. The crops we harvest and the animals we husband emerged millennia before science’s dawn from practices set down by farmers in the Middle East, Andean sierras, and Mayan plateaus.

It is not my intention in this section to belabor the extraordinary fruits of nonscientific modes of inquiry. But I have set forth the view that nothing in the world of nature escapes the scientific mode of knowledge, and that we owe this universality to Darwin’s revolution. Here I wish simply to state something that is obvious, but becomes at times clouded by the hubris of some scientists. Successful as it is, and universally encompassing as its subject is, a scientific view of the world is hopelessly incomplete. There are matters of value and meaning that are outside science’s scope. Even when we have a satisfying scientific understanding of a natural object of process, we are still missing matters that may well be thought by many to be of equal or greater import. Scientific knowledge may enrich aesthetic and moral perceptions, and illuminate the significance of life and the world, but these are matters outside science’s realm.

On April 28, 1937, early in the Spanish Civil War, Nazi airplanes bombed the small Basque town of Guernica, the first time that a civilian population had been determinedly destroyed from the air. The Spanish painter Pablo Picasso had recently been commissioned by the Spanish Republican Government to paint a large composition for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris World Exhibition of 1937. In a frenzy of manic energy, the enraged Picasso sketched in two days and fully outlined in ten more days his famous Guernica, an immense painting of 25 feet, 8 inches by 11 feet, 6 inches. Suppose that I now would describe the images represented in the painting, their size and position, as well as the pigments used and the quality of the canvas. This description would be of interest, but it would hardly be satisfying if I had completely omitted aesthetic analysis and considerations of meaning, the dramatic message of man’s inhumanity to man conveyed by the outstretched figure of the mother pulling her killed baby, bellowing faces, the wounded horse or the satanic image of the bull.

Let Guernica be a metaphor of the point I wish to make. Scientific knowledge, like the description of size, materials, and geometry of Guernica, is satisfying and useful. But once science has had its say, there remains much about reality that is of interest, questions of value and meaning that are forever beyond science’s scope.


Evolution Topics by Dr. Francisco Ayala

April 27, 2010

2010 John Templeton Foundation Prize winner Dr. Francisco Ayala

These topics were written by Dr. Francisco Ayala, Professor of Biological Sciences and Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He is a member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, and has been President and Chairman of the Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dr. Ayala is a highly respected evolutionary biologist who has received the 2010 Templeton Prize, an award issued each year by the John Templeton Foundation to a person “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” He is perhaps best known scientifically for his research into the evolutionary history of the parasite scientists have associated with malaria, with an eye toward developing a cure for the disease. He also pioneered the use of an organism’s genetic material as molecular clocks that help track and time its origins.

But for the past 30 years, he has been at the forefront of battles to keep creationism and its more-sophisticated offshoot, intelligent design, out of public-school biology classes, noting that they actually represent religion masked as natural science. At the same time, he has vigorously argued that religion is a vital pillar in American life, thereby confusing those who confuse religion with being anti-science.

The US scientific enterprise is the envy of the world, he says, and the country is the most religious of any nation in the western world. “It is nothing short of tragic to see these two pillars of society are often seen as in contradiction with each other,” he said during the award’s presentation Thursday at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. “Properly understood, there can be no contradiction because they deal with different subjects,” he said.

Although he has been reluctant over the years to describe his own religious leanings, Mr. Ayala argues that religion and science are “different windows” for looking at the world. Only when each tries to make “assertions beyond their legitimate boundaries” do the two appear to clash.

“Science gives us an insight on reality which is very important; our technology is based on our science,” he says. “But at the end of the day, questions important to people, questions of meaning, purpose, moral values, and the like” are not answered through science.

Beyond championing the roles science and religion can play in their respective domains, he also has argued that “scientific knowledge, the theory of evolution in particular, is consistent with a religious belief in God, whereas the tenets of creationism and the so-called intelligent design are not.”

While intelligent-design advocates point to the complexity of many biological processes as too intricate to have emerged from a random evolutionary process, Ayala points to many of biology’s flawed designs as evidence of a lack of intelligence behind them. “Any engineer who would have designed the human jaw bone would be fired the next day,” he says. Instead, he terms biology’s flawed products as “a consequence of the clumsy ways of nature and the evolutionary process.”

Ayala, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, began his dual journeys into science and religion during his formative years in Spain, where he graduated from college with a bachelors degree in physics. After graduation, he studied theology there, and five years later became an ordained priest. But during his theological studies, two geneticists took him under their wing, and in 1961, Ayala moved to New York to take up graduate studies in evolutionary biology and genetics at Columbia University. And he left the priesthood. Over the course of his career, he has won awards for his scientific work and has served on several high-level science advisory panels in the US. In 2001, President George W. Bush awarded Ayala the National Medal of Science.

In a prepared statement, John Templeton Jr., the president and chairman of the John Templeton Foundation said, “Ayala’s clear voice in matters of science and faith echoes the Foundation’s belief that evolution of the mind and truly open-minded inquiry can lead to real spiritual progress in the world.” Ayala has donated the $1.42 million prize to charity.

I advance three propositions. The first is that Darwin’s most significant intellectual contribution is that he brought the origin and diversity of organisms into the realm of science. The Copernican Revolution consisted in a commitment to the postulate that the universe is governed by natural laws that account for natural phenomena. Darwin completed the Copernican Revolution by extending that commitment to the living world.

The second proposition is that natural selection is a creative process that can account for the appearance of genuine novelty. How natural selection creates is shown with a simple example and clarified with two analogies, artistic creation and the “typing monkeys,” with which it shares important similarities and differences. The creative power of natural selection arises from a distinctive interaction between chance and necessity, or between random and deterministic processes.

The third proposition is that teleological explanations are necessary in order to give a full account of the attributes of living organisms, whereas they are neither necessary nor appropriate in the explanation of natural inanimate phenomena. I give a definition of teleology and clarify the matter by distinguishing between internal and external teleology, and between bounded and unbounded teleology. The human eye, so obviously constituted for seeing but resulting from a natural process, is an example of internal (or natural) teleology. A knife has external (or artificial) teleology, because it has been purposefully designed by an external agent. The development of an egg into a chicken is an example of bounded (or necessary) teleology, whereas the evolutionary origin of the mammals is a case of unbounded (or contingent) teleology, because there was nothing in the make up of the first living cells that necessitated the eventual appearance of mammals.

I conclude that Darwin’s theory of evolution and explanation of design does not include or exclude considerations of divine action in the world any more than astronomy, geology, physics, or chemistry do.

The Darwinian Revolution
The publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin ushered in a new era in the intellectual history of humanity. Darwin is deservedly given credit for the theory of biological evolution: he accumulated evidence demonstrating that organisms evolve and discovered the process, natural selection, by which they evolve. But the import of Darwin’s achievement is that it completed the Copernican revolution initiated three centuries earlier, and thereby radically changed our conception of the universe and the place of humanity in it.

The discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had gradually ushered in the notion that the workings of the universe could be explained by human reason. It was shown that the earth is not the center of the universe, but a small planet rotating around an average star; that the universe is immense in space and in time; and that the motions of the planets around the sun can be explained by the same simple laws that account for the motion of physical objects on our planet. These and other discoveries greatly expanded human knowledge, but the intellectual revolution these scientists brought about was more fundamental: a commitment to the postulate that the universe obeys immanent laws that account for natural phenomena. The workings of the universe were brought into the realm of science: explanation through natural laws. Physical phenomena could be accounted for whenever the causes were adequately known.

Darwin completed the Copernican revolution by drawing out for biology the notion of nature as a lawful system of matter in motion. The adaptations and diversity of organisms, the origin of novel and highly organized forms, even the origin of humanity itself could now be explained by an orderly process of change governed by natural laws.

The origin of organisms and their marvelous adaptations were, however, either left unexplained or attributed to the design of an omniscient Creator. God had created the birds and bees, the fish and corals, the trees in the forest, and best of all, man. God had given us eyes so that we might see, and He had provided fish with gills to breathe in water. Philosophers and theologians argued that the functional design of organisms manifests the existence of an all-wise Creator. Wherever there is design, there is a designer; the existence of a watch evinces the existence of a watchmaker.

The English theologian William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802) elaborated the argument-from-design as forceful demonstration of the existence of the Creator. The functional design of the human eye, argued Paley, provided conclusive evidence of an all-wise Creator. It would be absurd to suppose, he wrote, that the human eye by mere chance “should have consisted, first, of a series of transparent lenses … secondly of a black cloth or canvas spread out behind these lenses so as to receive the image formed by pencils of light transmitted through them, and placed at the precise geometrical distance at which, and at which alone, a distinct image could be formed … thirdly of a large nerve communicating between this membrane and the brain.” The Bridgewater Treatises, published between 1833 and 1840, were written by eminent scientists and philosophers to set forth “the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as manifested in the Creation.” The structure and mechanisms of man’s hand were, for example, cited as incontrovertible evidence that the hand had been designed by the same omniscient Power that had created the world.

The advances of physical science had thus driven humanity’s conception of the universe to a split-personality state of affairs, which persisted well into the mid-nineteenth century. Scientific explanations, derived from natural laws, dominated the world of nonliving matter, on the earth as well as in the heavens. Supernatural explanations, depending on the unfathomable deeds of the Creator, accounted for the origin and configuration of living creatures — the most diversified, complex, and interesting realities of the world. It was Darwin’s genius to resolve this conceptual schizophrenia.

Darwin‘s Discovery: Design without Designer
The strength of the argument-from-design to demonstrate the role of the Creator is easily set forth. Wherever there is function or design we look for its author. A knife is made for cutting and a clock is made to tell time; their functional designs have been contrived by a knifemaker and a watchmaker. The exquisite design of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa proclaims that it was created by a gifted artist following a preconceived purpose. Similarly, the structures, organs, and behaviors of living beings are directly organized to serve certain functions. The functional design of organisms and their features would therefore seem to argue for the existence of a designer. It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the directive organization of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process, natural selection, without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent. The origin and adaptation of organisms in their profusion and wondrous variations were thus brought into the realm of science.

Darwin accepted that organisms are “designed” for certain purposes, i.e., they are functionally organized. Organisms are adapted to certain ways of life and their parts are adapted to perform certain functions. Fish are adapted to live in water, kidneys are designed to regulate the composition of blood, the human hand is made for grasping. But Darwin went on to provide a natural explanation of the design. He thereby brought the seemingly purposeful aspects of living beings into the realm of science.

Darwin’s revolutionary achievement is that he extended the Copernican revolution to the world of living things. The origin and adaptive nature of organisms could now be explained, like the phenomena of the inanimate world, as the result of natural laws manifested in natural processes. Darwin’s theory encountered opposition in some religious circles, not so much because he proposed the evolutionary origin of living things (which had been proposed before, and accepted even by Christian theologians), but because the causal mechanism, natural selection, excluded God as the explanation for the obvious design of organisms.

The Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to Galileo in the seventeenth century had been similarly motivated not only by the apparent contradiction between the heliocentric theory and a literal interpretation of the Bible, but also by the unseemly attempt to comprehend the workings of the Universe, the “mind of God.” The configuration of the Universe was no longer perceived as the result of God’s Design, but simply the outcome of immanent, blind, processes. There were, however, many theologians, philosophers, and scientists who saw no contradiction then nor see it now between the evolution of species and Christian faith. Some see evolution as the “method of divine intelligence,” in the words of the nineteenth century theologian A.H. Strong. Others, like the American contemporary of Darwin, Henry Ward Beecher (1818-1887), made evolution the cornerstone of their theology. These two traditions have persisted to the present. Pope John Paul II has recently (October 1996) stated that “the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is … accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge.” The views of “process” theologians, who perceive evolutionary dynamics as a pervasive element of a Christian view of the world, are well represented in this volume.

Natural Selection as a Directive Process
The central argument of the theory of natural selection is summarized by Darwin in The Origin of Species as follows:

As more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. … Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favorable variation and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection.

Darwin’s argument addresses the problem of explaining the adaptive character of organisms. Darwin argues that adaptive variations (“variations useful in some way to each being”) occasionally appear, and that these are likely to increase the reproductive chances of their carriers. Over the generations favorable variations will be preserved, injurious ones will be eliminated. In one place, Darwin adds: “I can see no limit to this power [natural selection] in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life.” Natural selection was proposed by Darwin primarily to account for the adaptive organization, or “design,” of living beings; it is a process that promotes or maintains adaptation. Evolutionary change through time and evolutionary diversification (multiplication of species) are not directly promoted by natural selection (hence, the so-called “evolutionary stasis,” the numerous examples of organisms with morphology that has changed little, if at all, for millions of years, as pointed out by the proponents of the theory of punctuated equilibrium). But change and diversification often ensue as by-products of natural selection fostering adaptation.

Darwin formulated natural selection primarily as differential survival. The modern understanding of the principle of natural selection is formulated in genetic and statistical terms as differential reproduction. Natural selection implies that some genes and genetic combinations are transmitted to the following generations on the average more frequently than their alternates. Such genetic units will become more common in every subsequent generation and their alternates less common. Natural selection is a statistical bias in the relative rate of reproduction of alternative genetic units.

Natural selection has been compared to a sieve which retains the rarely arising useful genes and lets go the more frequently arising harmful mutants. Natural selection acts in that way, but it is much more than a purely negative process, for it is able to generate novelty by increasing the probability of otherwise extremely improbable genetic combinations. Natural selection is thus creative in a way. It does not “create” the entities upon which it operates, but it produces adaptive genetic combinations which would not have existed otherwise.

The creative role of natural selection must not be understood in the sense of the “absolute” creation that traditional Christian theology predicates of the Divine act by which the universe was brought into being ex nihilo. Natural selection may rather be compared to a painter which creates a picture by mixing and distributing pigments in various ways over the canvas. The canvas and the pigments are not created by the artist but the painting is. It is conceivable that a random combination of the pigments might result in the orderly whole which is the final work of art. But the probability of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa resulting from a random combination of pigments, or St. Peter’s Basilica resulting from a random association of marble, bricks and other materials, is infinitely small. In the same way, the combination of genetic units which carries the hereditary information responsible for the formation of the vertebrate eye could have never been produced by a random process like mutation. Not even if we allow for the three billion years plus during which life has existed on earth. The complicated anatomy of the eye like the exact functioning of the kidney are the result of a nonrandom process — natural selection.

Natural Selection as a Creative Process
Critics have sometimes alleged as evidence against Darwin’s theory of evolution examples showing that random processes cannot yield meaningful, organized outcomes. It is thus pointed out that a series of monkeys randomly striking letters on a typewriter would never write The Origin of Species, even if we allow for millions of years and many generations of monkeys pounding at typewriters.

This criticism would be valid if evolution would depend only on random processes. But natural selection is a nonrandom process that promotes adaptation by selecting combinations that “make sense,” i.e., that are useful to the organisms. The analogy of the monkeys would be more appropriate if a process existed by which, first, meaningful words would be chosen every time they appeared on the typewriter; and then we would also have typewriters with previously selected words rather than just letters in the keys, and again there would be a process to select meaningful sentences every time they appeared in this second typewriter. If every time words such as “the,” “origin,” “species,” and so on, appeared in the first kind of typewriter, they each became a key in the second kind of typewriter, meaningful sentences would occasionally be produced in this second typewriter. If such sentences became incorporated into keys of a third type of typewriter, in which meaningful paragraphs were selected whenever they appeared, it is clear that pages and even chapters “making sense” would eventually be produced.

We need not carry the analogy too far, since the analogy is not fully satisfactory, but the point is clear. Evolution is not the outcome of purely random processes, but rather there is a “selecting” process, which picks up adaptive combinations because these reproduce more effectively and thus become established in populations. These adaptive combinations constitute, in turn, new levels of organization upon which the mutation (random) plus selection (nonrandom or directional) process again operates.

The manner in which natural selection can generate novelty in the form of accumulated hereditary information may be illustrated by the following example. Some strains of the colon bacterium, Escherichia coli, in order to be able to reproduce in a culture medium, require that a certain substance, the amino acid histidine, be provided in the medium. When a few such bacteria are added to a cubic centimeter of liquid culture medium, they multiply rapidly and produce between two and three billion bacteria in a few hours. Spontaneous mutations to streptomycin resistance occur in normal (i.e., sensitive) bacteria at rates of the order of one in one hundred million (1 x 10-8) cells. In our bacterial culture we expect between twenty and thirty bacteria to be resistant to streptomycin due to spontaneous mutation. If a proper concentration of the antibiotic is added to the culture, only the resistant cells survive. The twenty or thirty surviving bacteria will start reproducing, however, and allowing a few hours for the necessary number of cell divisions, several billion bacteria are produced, all resistant to streptomycin. Among cells requiring histidine as a growth factor, spontaneous mutants able to reproduce in the absence of histidine arise at rates of about four in one hundred million (4 x 10-8) bacteria. The streptomycin resistant cells may now be transferred to a culture with streptomycin but with no histidine. Most of them will not be able to reproduce, but about a hundred will start reproducing until the available medium is saturated.

Natural selection has produced in two steps bacterial cells resistant to streptomycin and not requiring histidine for growth. The probability of the two mutational events happening in the same bacterium is of about four in ten million billion (1 x 10-8 x 4 x 10-8 = 4 x 10-16) cells. An event of such low probability is unlikely to occur even in a large laboratory culture of bacterial cells. With natural selection, cells having both properties are the common result.

As illustrated by the bacterial example, natural selection produces combinations of genes that would otherwise be highly improbable because natural selection proceeds stepwise. The vertebrate eye did not appear suddenly in all its present perfection. Its formation requires the appropriate integration of many genetic units, and thus the eye could not have resulted from random processes alone. The ancestors of today’s vertebrates had for more than half a billion years some kind of organs sensitive to light. Perception of light, and later vision, were important for these organisms’ survival and reproductive success. Accordingly, natural selection favored genes and gene combinations increasing the functional efficiency of the eye. Such genetic units gradually accumulated, eventually leading to the highly complex and efficient vertebrate eye. Natural selection can account for the rise and spread of genetic constitutions, and therefore of types of organisms, that would never have existed under the uncontrolled action of random mutation. In this sense, natural selection is a creative process, although it does not create the raw materials — the genes — upon which it acts.


Book Recommendation: A Secular Age by Charles Taylor

November 5, 2009

Taylor_Secular_compThese are my reading notes and selections from the opening chapters of A Secular Age which lay out the framework for the rest of the book. It’s 872 pages and although I found it readable and will return to it, I’ve decided to take the advice of another reader to read the shorter A Catholic Modernity? (Oxford University Press, 1999) The latter is a published version of the Marianist Lecture that Dr. Taylor gave in Dayton where he casts the issue of how the Catholic Church should relate to the modern world. In the meantime these reading selections give a good overview of A Secular Age and function as a companion post to the interview and selections from the 2007 Templeton Prize speech I featured yesterday.

I think A Secular Age is one of the most important books for those of us who think about the religious landscape in America because it has wonderful concepts like “the buffered self” and “subtraction stories” that go a long way to explain the secular society Catholics live in. Elsewhere on this blog you will find many references to Michael Novak’s No One Sees God,  another book that helps Catholics understand the phenomena of atheism in relationship to their faith.

Belief And Unbelief: Living Lives That Have A Certain Moral/Spiritual Shape
I want to talk about belief and unbelief, not as rival theories, that is, ways that people account for existence, or morality, whether by God or by something in nature, or whatever. Rather what I want to do is focus attention on the different kinds of lived experience involved in understanding your life in one way or the other, on what it’s like to live as a believer or an unbeliever….

We all see our lives and/or the space wherein we live our lives as having a certain moral/spiritual shape. Somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness: that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worth while, or admirable, more what it should be. This is perhaps a place of power: we often experience this as deeply moving, as inspiring. Perhaps this sense of fullness is something we just catch glimpses of from afar off; we have the powerful intuition of what fullness would be, were we to be in that condition, e.g., of peace or wholeness: or able to act on that level of integrity or generosity or abandonment or self-forgetfulness. But sometimes there will moments of experienced fullness, of joy and fulfillment, where we feel ourselves there. Let one example, drawn from the autobiography of Bede Griffiths, stand for many:

“One day during my last term at school I walked out alone in the evening and heard the birds singing in that full chorus of song, which can only heard at that time of the year at dawn or at sunset. I remember the shock of surprise with which the sound broke on my ears. It seemed to me that I had never heard the birds singing before and I wondered whether they sang like this all year round and I had never noticed it. As I walked I came upon some hawthorn trees in full bloom and again I though that I had never seen such a sight or experienced such sweetness before, If I had been brought suddenly among the trees of the Garden of Paradise and heard a choir of angels singing I could not have been more surprised. I came then to where the sun was setting over the playing fields. A lark rose suddenly from the ground beside the tree where I was standing and poured out its song over my head, and then sank still singing to rest. Everything grew still as the sunset faded and the veil of dusk began to cover the earth, I remember now the feeling of awe which came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground, as though I had been standing in the presence of an angel; and I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God.”

Modern Unbelievers: The Power Within
For modern unbelievers…the power to reach fullness is within. There are different variations of this. One is that which centers on our nature as rational beings. The Kantian variation is the most upfront form of this. We have the power as a rational agency to make the laws by which we live. This is something so greatly superior to the force of mere nature in us, in the form of desire, that when we contemplate it without distortion, we cannot but feel reverence (Achtung) for this power.

The place of fullness is where we manage finally to give this power full reign, and so to live by it. We have a feeling of receptivity, when with our full sense of our own fragility and pathos as desiring beings, we look up to the power of law-giving with admiration and awe. But this doesn’t in the end mean that there is any reception from outside; the power is within; and the more we realize this power, the more we become aware that it is within, that morality must be autonomous (functioning independently without control by others) and not heteronomous (subject to another’s laws or rule).

Later a Feuerbachian theory of alienation can be added to this: we project God because of our early sense of this awesome power which we mistakenly place outside us; we need to appropriate it for human beings. But Kant didn’t take this step. …There may be a more rigorous naturalism…but within this kind of naturalism, we often find an admiration for the power of cool, disengaged reason, capable of contemplating the world and human life without illusion and of acting lucidly for the best in the interest of human flourishing.

A certain awe still surrounds reason as a critical power, capable of liberating us from illusion and blind forces of instinct, as well as the phantasies bred of our fear and narrowness and pusillanimity (timidity, cowardliness, irresolute; faintheartedness). The nearest thing to fullness lies in this power of reason, and it is entirely ours, developed if it is through our own, often heroic action. (And here the giants of modern “scientific” reason are often named: Copernicus, Darwin, Freud. ….

The sources of power are not transcendent (existing apart from the material universe: said of God). They are to be found in Nature, or in our own inner depths, or in both. We can recognize theories of immanence (present throughout the universe: said of God) …most notably certain ecological ethics of our day, particularly deep ecology (ecology = relations between living organisms and their environment; deep ecology= …(These) views have certain analogies to the religious reaction to the unbelieving Enlightenment, in that they stress reception over against self-sufficiency; but they are views which intend to remain immanent, and are often as hostile, if not more so, to religion than the disengaged ones.

The Presumption Of Unbelief
We have changed from a condition in which belief was the default option, not just fit for the naive but also for those who knew, considered, talked abut atheism; to a condition in which for more and more people unbelieving construals seem at first blush the only plausible ones. They can only approach, without ever gaining the condition of “naïve” atheists, in the way that their ancestors were naive, semi-pagan  believers; but this seems to them the overwhelming plausible construal, and it is difficult to understand people adopting another. So much so that they easily reach for rather gross error theories to explain religious belief: people are afraid of uncertainty, the unknown; they’re weak in the head, crippled by guilt, etc.

That is not to say that everyone is in this condition. Our modern civilization is made up of a host of societies, sub-societies and milieu, all rather different from each other. But the presumption of unbelief has become dominant in more and more other milieu; and has achieved hegemony in certain crucial ones, in the academic and intellectual life, for instance; whence it can more easily extend itself to others….To put the point in different terms, belief in God isn’t quite the same thing in 1500 and 2000.

The Shift In Background: Understanding The Differences In Terms Of Experience And Sensibility
It is this shift in background, in the whole context in which we experience and search for fullness that I am calling the coming of a secular age….How did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naively within a theistic construal, to one in which we all shunt between two stances, in which everyone’s construal shows up as such; and in which, moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option?…

We have to understand the differences between these two options not just in terms of creeds, but also in terms of differences of experience and sensibility. And on this latter level, we have to take account of two important differences: first, there is the massive change in the whole background of belief or unbelief, that is the passing to the earlier “naïve framework, and the rise of the “reflective” one. And secondly we have to be aware of how believers and unbelievers can experience their world very differently….

We have moved from a world in which the place of fullness was understood as unproblematically outside of “beyond” human life, to a conflicted age in which this construal is challenged by others which place it (in a wide range of different ways) “within” human life.

An Immanent Order In Nature: The Great Invention Of The West
The great invention of the West was that of an immanent order in Nature, whose working could be systematically understood and explained on its own terms, leaving open the question whether this whole order had a deeper significance, and whether, if it did, we should infer a transcendent Creator beyond it.

This notion of the “immanent” involved denying – or at least isolating and problematizing – any form of interpenetration between the things of Nature on one hand and the “supernatural” on the other, this understood in terms of the one transcendent God,  or of Gods, or magic forces, or whatever.

The Resources That Society Offers
Every person, and every society, lives with or by some conception(s) of what human flourishing is: What constitutes a fulfilled life? What makes life really worth living? What would we most admire people for? We can’t help asking these and related questions in our lives. And our struggles to answer them define the view or views that we try to live by, or between which we hover.

At another level these views are codified, sometimes in philosophical theories, sometimes in moral codes, sometimes in religious practices and devotion. Those and the various ill-formulated practices which people around us engage constitute the resources that our society offers each one of us as we try to lead our lives….

Buddhism and Christianity
In both Buddhism and Christianity, there is something similar to spite of the great difference in doctrine, This is that the believer or devout person is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing in their own case; they are called on, that is, to detach themselves from their own flourishing, to the point of the extinction of self in one case, or to that of renunciation of human fulfillment to serve God. The respective patterns are clearly visible in the exemplary figures. The Buddha achieves Enlightenment; Christ consents to a degrading death to follow his Father’s will….

In the Christian case, the very point of renunciation requires that the ordinary flourishing forgone be confirmed as valid. Unless living the full span were a good, Christ’s giving of himself to death couldn’t have the meaning it does. In this it is utterly different from Socrates’ death, which the latter portrays as leaving this condition for a better one.

Here we see the unbridgeable gulf between Christianity and Greek philosophy. God wills ordinary human flourishing, and a great part of what is reported in the Gospels consists in Christ making this possible for the people whose afflictions he heals. The call to renounce doesn’t negate the value of flourishing; it is rather a call to center everything on God, even if it be at the cost of forgoing this un-substitutable good; and the fruit of this forgoing is that it become on one level the source of flourishing to others, and on another level, a collaboration with the restoration of a fuller flourishing by God. It is a mode of healing wounds and “repairing the world” (Here I am borrowing the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam).

This means that flourishing and renunciation cannot simply be collapsed into each other to make a single goal, by as it were, pitching the renounced goods overboard as unnecessary ballast on the journey of life, in the manner of Stoicism. There remains a fundamental tension in Christianity. Flourishing is good, nevertheless seeking it is not our ultimate goal. But even where we renounce it, we re-affirm it, because we follow God’s will in being a channel for it to others, and ultimately to all….

Buddhism also has this notion that the renouncer is source of compassion for those who suffer. There is an analogy between karuna and agape. And over the centuries in Buddhist civilization there developed parallel with Christendom, a distinction of vocation between radical renouncers, and those who go on living within the forms of life aiming at ordinary flourishing, while trying to accumulate merit or a future life.

Self-Sufficient Humanism And The Secular Age
Now the point in bringing out this distinction between human flourishing and the goals which go beyond it is this. I would like to claim that the coming of modern secularity in my sense has been coterminous with the rise of society in which for the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true. …

A secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing become conceivable; or better, it falls within the range of an imaginable life for masses of people. This is the crucial link between secularity and self-sufficing humanism.

A Polemic Against “Subtraction Stories”
I will be making a continuing polemic against what I call “subtraction stories”. Concisely put, I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier confining horizons , or illusions, or limitations of knowledge.

What emerges from this process –modernity or secularity – is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.

Three Modes Of God’s Felt Presence That Disappeared
One important part of the picture (why it was virtually impossible not to believe in God in 1500 while in 2000 many find this not only easy but inescapable.

(1)  The natural world they lived in, which had its place in the cosmos they imagined, testified to divine purpose and action; and not just in the obvious way which we can still understand and (at least many of us) appreciate today, that its order and design bespeaks creation, but also because the great events in this natural order, storms, droughts, floods, plagues, as well as years of exceptional fertility and flourishing were seen as acts of God, as the now dead metaphor of our legal language still bears witness.

(2)  God was also implicated in the very existence of society (but not descried as such — this is a modern term – rather as polis, kingdom, church or whatever). A kingdom could only be conceived as grounded in something higher than mere human action in secular time. And beyond that, the life of the various associations which made up society, parishes, boroughs, guilds, and so on, were interwoven with ritual and worship…. Once could not but encounter God everywhere.

(3)  People lived in an “enchanted” world. This is perhaps not the best expression; it seems to evoke light and fairies, But I am invoking here its negation, Weber’s expression “disenchantment” as a  description of our modern condition. …The enchanted world in this sense is the world of spirits, demons, and moral forces which our ancestors lived in.

…Now the disappearance of these three modes of God’s felt presence in our world, while it certainly facilitates this change, couldn’t by itself bring it about. Because we can certainly go on experiencing fullness as gift from God, even in a disenchanted world, a secular society, and a post-cosmic universe. In order to be able not to, we needed an alternative.

And so the story …will relate not only how God’s presence receded in these three dimensions; it also has to tell how something other than God could become the necessary objective pole of moral or spiritual aspiration of “fullness.” …What I’ll be concerned with is the Entstehungsgeschichte (developing history) of exclusive humanism.

Modern (Exclusive )Humanism Produced A Substitute For Agapē: The Buffered Self
In this respect, of course, science is helping to disenchant the universe, contributed to opening the way for exclusive humanism. A crucial condition for this was new sense of the self and its place in the cosmos: not open and porous and vulnerable to a world of spirits and powers, but what I want to call “buffered.” But it took more than disenchantment to produce the buffered self; it was also necessary to have confidence in our own powers of moral ordering…

It had to include the active capacity to shape and fashion our world, natural and social; and it had to be actuated by some drive to human beneficence. To put this second requirement in a way which refers back to the religious tradition, modern humanism, in addition to being activist and interventionist (like Epicureanism, that taught ataraxia — ataraxia was synonymous with the only true happiness possible for a person. It signifies the detached and balanced state of mind that shows that a person has transcended the material world and is now harvesting all the comforts of philosophy had to produce some substitute for agapē. …This couldn’t be done overnight.


Dr. Charles Taylor

November 4, 2009

taylor2007 Templeton Prize and 2008 Kyoto Prize winner Charles Margrave Taylor is reputed to be a genial man with a disposition to laughter, often at himself. Perhaps more importantly, for a thinker who coined the term “malaise of modernity” he is also an optimist. That he, is considered a philosopher’s philosopher by his peers, exhibiting a rare mastery across an impressive spectrum of ideas only increases admiration. The author of more than a dozen books, including the widely praised “Sources of the Self” and the masterful “A Secular Age,” (reading selections in another post) Taylor’s work explores a dizzying array of disciplines — philosophy, religion, political theory, moral theory, and ethics, among others. Lindsay Waters, executive editor at Harvard University Press, has said, “Charles Taylor’s passionate philosophy allows him to zero in on the most distinctively human issues of our time, and not be afraid.”

A Bibliography of Charles Taylor (His comments on each follow the titles)

The Explanation of Behavior. (Routledge and Paul Kegan, 1964) This was my doctoral dissertation. It was an all-out attack on psychological behaviorism, which tried to show that only muddled philosophical thinking could hide from its practitioners that their research program was reaching a dead-end.

Hegel. (Cambridge University Press, 1975; various languages) This was an attempt to write an introduction to Hegel’s philosophy which would make his work understandable to people trained in the analytical tradition. It was originally commissioned for the Penguin series on major philosophers, but it rapidly outgrew the permitted dimensions for this series and had to be published elsewhere. Why Hegel? Because I sensed then that I wanted to attempt the kind of philosophically informed reflection on history, and particularly the rise of modernity, that Hegel had pioneered. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his actual results (and I have big disagreements with it), you have to come to terms with Hegel’s work before you form your own view.

Hegel and Modern Society. (Cambridge University Press, 1979; various languages) This was basically a shortened version of Hegel, without some of the difficult parts (for instance, on the Logic), and with more emphasis on the relevance of Hegel today.

Philosophical Papers Vol. 1: Human Agency and Language.
Philosophical Papers Vol. 2: Philosophy and the Human Sciences. (Cambridge University Press, 1985) In these two collections, I brought together a number of papers written in the previous two decades. These were mostly critiques of mechanistic, and/or reductive, and/or atomistic approaches to human sciences. Following a similar line to The Explanation of Behavior, I tried to show that the popularity of these approaches, which modeled human on natural science, depended on faulty philosophical thinking and /or obviously over-simplified views of human life. One paper in particular in these collections brought together a number of these themes: “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man.”

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. (Harvard University Press, 1989; various languages) This was my first large-scale attempt to make a philosophically-informed reflection on history. The theme was the development of the modern understanding of the human agent, with its peculiar and often conflicting features: an individual, potentially disengaged from history, society and the body, and yet with inner depths, calling for further definition through expressive activity, with an identity which he or she can contribute to define. My thesis is that we are all caught in the tension between what we have drawn from the Cartesian-Lockean tradition and the Enlightenment on one hand, and what we have learned from the Romantic-expressive movement on the other.

The Malaise of Modernity. (Anansi, 1991; various languages). Published in the United States as The Ethics of Authenticity (Harvard University Press, 1992). This text was the basis for my Massey Lectures, a series of talks given each year on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It tried to explore our conflictual relation to modernity, in particular to modern individualism, the stress on instrumental reason; and it looked at the problems these pose for democracy, largely in a Tocquevillean spirit. I attempted to describe the ethic of authenticity, which emerges from the Romantic-expressive tradition I had articulated in Sources, and to discuss the ways in which this can be led astray and trivialized in contemporary society.

Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”. (with Amy Gutman and others) (Princeton University Press, 1992; various languages) Modernity has produced a new concept of identity, a definition of self which we partly take over from our world and our history, and partly redefine ourselves. This has had a profound impact on our political life. Issues which might have been fought out in terms of equality versus privilege, or the fight against exploitation, in the past, are now frequently framed in terms of personal and collective identities and their alleged non- or mis-recognition. I was trying in this essay to analyze this new phenomenon, drawing heavily on conflicts with which I am (all too) familiar, those surrounding Quebec nationalism, language rights and the issue of independence.

Philosophical Arguments. (Harvard University Press, 1995; various languages) This is another collection similar to the two published in 1985, and it reflects further developments of the same themes, with a greater emphasis on epistemological issues.

A Catholic Modernity? (Oxford University Press, 1999) This is a published version of the Marianist Lecture that I gave in Dayton. I try to cast the issue of how the Catholic Church should relate to the modern world, in the context of an understanding of Catholic Christianity as capable of finding a place in, without ever identifying with, all human civilizations and cultures. I tried to look at modern Western civilization as another such culture, analogous to the unfamiliar cultures which missionaries may find themselves in. I think this kind of move dissolves the too close identification which Western Christians have with the Modern West, seen as a former Christendom partly in the process of apostasy, with all the multiple resentments and attempts to hold on to an idealized past which this entails.

Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited. (Harvard University Press, 2002; various languages) This is one of the (three) products of my Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 1999. The theme of those lectures, delivered at the Vienna Institute of the Human Sciences, was the rise of the contemporary secular age in the West (see below A Secular Age). This was an off-shoot, a look back at William James’ Gifford Lectures, also delivered in Edinburgh a century before (1902). I note the often uncanny parallels between what he said then, and what we see now.

Modern Social Imaginaries. (Duke University Press, 2004) This is the second product of the Gifford Lectures, an expanded version of one of the chapters in A Secular Age, where I try to define the shifts in our way of collectively imagining ourselves as a society which occurred in the development of Western modernity and helped to constitute it. I examine particularly the way we have come to understand ourselves as existing in an economy, participating in a public sphere, and being part of a citizen state.

A Secular Age. (Harvard University Press, to be published Fall 2007) This will be the third (and central) product of the Gifford Lectures. It is an attempt to follow the development of the modern Western secular age, which at the same time is an attempt to define what we mean by this term. It is a basic thesis of the book that these two questions: “What is secularity?” and “How did it develop?” can only be properly addressed together. In the course of it, I challenge what for a long time was the dominant “master narrative” of secularization, as the inevitable decline of religion with advancing modernity; and this, of course, involves a rather different understanding of the place of religion and spirituality today.

Reading Selections from  Charles Taylor’s Templeton Prize News Conference, March 14, 2007

About the Prize
I want to say first how deeply honoured I am to be chosen for the Templeton Prize. I believe that the goal Sir John Templeton has chosen is of the greatest contemporary importance and relevance: we have somehow to break down the barriers between our contemporary culture of science and disciplined academic study (what the Germans gather in the term “Wissenschaft”) on one hand, and the domain of spirit, on the other. This has been one of the driving goals of my own intellectual work, and to have it recognized as such fills me with an unstable mixture of joy and humility.

Sir John has seen, I believe, that the barriers between science and spirituality are not only ungrounded, but are also crippling. They impede crucial further insight. This case has been eloquently argued by the physicists, biologists and cosmologists who have been awarded the prize in recent years. But I feel that now a further step is being taken. The divorce of natural science and religion has been damaging to both; but it is equally true that the culture of the humanities and social sciences has often been surprisingly blind and deaf to the spiritual, and that in my case, the attempt to break down these barriers is being recognized and honoured.

A Deafness To The Spiritual Dimension
The deafness of many philosophers, social scientists and historians to the spiritual dimension can be remarkable. And this is the more damaging in that it affects the culture of the media and of educated public opinion in general. I take a striking case, a statement, not admittedly by a social scientist, but by a Nobel Laureate cosmologist, Steven Weinberg. I take it, because I find that it is often repeated in the media and in informal argument. Weinberg said (I quote from memory): “there are good people who do good things, and bad people who do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”

On one level, it is astonishing that anyone who lived through a good part of the 20th Century could say something like this. What are we to make of those noble, well-intentioned Bolsheviks, Marxist materialist atheists to a man (and occasional woman), who ended up building one of the most oppressive and murderous brace of regimes in human history? When people quote this phrase to me, or some equivalent, and I enter this objection, they often reply, “but Communism was a religion,” a reply which shifts the goal-posts and upsets the argument.

When “Religion” Means The Murderously Irrational
But it’s worth pondering for a minute what lies behind this move. The “Weinberg principle,” if I might use this term, is being made tautologically true, because any set of beliefs which can induce decent people, who would never kill for personal gain, to murder for the cause, is being defined as “religion.” “Religion” is being defined as the murderously irrational.

Pretty sloppy thinking. But it is also crippling. What the speaker is really expressing is something like this: the terrible violence of the 20th Century has nothing to do with right-thinking, rational, enlightened people like me. The argument is then joined on the other side by certain believers who point out that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc., were all enemies of religion, and feel that good Christians like me have no part in such horrors. This conveniently forgets the Crusades, the Inquisition, and much else.

Both sides need to be wrenched out of their complacent dream, and see that no-one, just in virtue of having the right beliefs, is immune from being recruited to group violence: from the temptation to target another group which is made responsible for all our ills, from the illusion of our own purity which comes from our readiness to combat this evil force with all our might. We urgently need to understand what makes whole groups of people ready to be swept up into this kind of project.

A Need For A New Insight Into The Human Propensity For Violence
But in fact, we have only a very imperfect grasp on this. Some of our most insightful scholars, like Ren Girard, or Sudhir Kakar, have studied it. Great writers, like Dostoevsky, have cast great light on it, but it remains still mysterious. What is equally imperfectly understood is the way in which charismatic spiritual leadership, of a Gandhi, a Mandela, a Tutu, can bring people back from the brink.

But without this kind of spiritual initiative, the best-intentioned efforts to put human history on a new, and more humane footing, have often turned this history into a slaughter bench, in Hegel’s memorable phrase. It is a sobering thought that Robespierre, in the first discussions on the new revolutionary constitution for France, voted against the death penalty. Yet the path to this peaceable republic, which would spare the lives of even its worst criminals, somehow led through the nightmare of the Terror.

We urgently need new insight into the human propensity for violence, and following the authors I mentioned above, this cannot be a reductive sociobiological one, but must take full account of the human striving for meaning and spiritual direction, of which the appeals to violence are a perversion. But we don’t even begin to see where we have to look as long as we accept the complacent myth that people like us (enlightened secularists, or believers) are not part of the problem. We will pay a high price if we allow this kind of muddled thinking to prevail.

The Secularization Thesis
The barriers between our social sciences and the spiritual dimension of life are crippling in a whole host of other ways as well. I have recently been working on the issue of what we mean in describing our present civilization in the West as “secular.” For a long time, in mainstream sociology this development was taken as unproblematic and inevitable. Certain of the features of modernity: economic development, urbanization, rising mobility, higher educational levels, were seen as inevitably bringing about a decline in religious belief and practice. This was the famous “secularization thesis.” For a long time, this view dominated thinking in social science and history. More recent events have shaken this conviction, even among mainstream scholars.

But well before this revision occurred, a minority of scholars were already turning the theory inside out. In particular, David Martin in his epochal, General Theory of Secularization. The main thrust of this work, and of others who have followed, is that secularization theory was not just factually wrong. It also misconceived the whole process.

New Forms Of Religious Life
It was indeed, true that the various facets of modernization destabilized older, traditional forms of religious life; but new forms were always being re-invented, and some of these took on tremendous importance. David Martin has traced the development of new congregational forms through Methodism, and various waves of revival in the United States, through the birth of Pentacostal forms about a century ago, which are now spreading with great speed in all parts of the globe. Equally far-reaching changes have occurred in Catholic Churches in many parts of the world.

Breaking out of the old intellectual mould opens up a whole new field of great importance: what are the new forms of religion which are developing in the West? And what relation do they have to those which are growing elsewhere, in Asia, Africa, Latin America? This is part of what I am trying to study in my work, drawing on the pioneering analyses of David Martin, on the writings of Robert Bellah, and on the recent work of younger sociologists, like Jos Casanova and Hans Joas.

Some of these forms, like those in which religion or confessionality becomes the basis of a quasi-nationalist political mobilization, have obviously assumed immense, even threatening proportions in our day. We urgently need to understand their dynamic, their benefits and dangers, an area that the old framework of secularization theory hid from sight.

John Templeton’s Insight
In this domain too, John Templeton’s insight turns out to be valid, a blindness to the spiritual dimension of human life makes us incapable of exploring issues which are vital to our lives. Or to turn it around and state the positive: bringing the spiritual back in opens domains in which important and even exciting discoveries become possible.

I am happy to be engaged in this work, among a number of others: the sociologists I mentioned above, and some philosophers, like Alasdair MacIntyre. I sense in this prize awarded to me a recognition not only of my work but of this collective effort. This awakens powerful, if somewhat confused emotions: joy, pride, and a sense of inadequacy mingle together. But above all I feel the great satisfaction of knowing that this whole area of work will acquire a higher saliency through the award of this Prize; and I feel the most heartfelt gratitude to Sir John and to the

Templeton Foundation Interview with Dr. Charles Taylor

In the following Q&A, Professor Taylor explains the importance of the concept of mystery to our understanding of the universe, why “God is not Dead,” and whether he is a fox or a hedgehog.

JTF: In your 2007 Templeton Prize statement you spoke of “the deafness of many philosophers, social scientists, and historians to the spiritual dimensions.” What do you think accounts for this deafness? Where is that deafness coming from?

CT: Well, we can go back and back and back … the immediate cause is that people bought into a very simple narrative of secularization. Modernity – however you want to define it, be it economic growth or urbanization or science and technology, or the whole package – makes religion shrink. But that’s not sufficient to explain it intellectually. For a long time people tried to explain the Reformation in economic terms, which is the same kind of deafness. So they buy very deeply into this narrative and I think we all live by narratives. And always have

JTF: The ancient Mayans said the universe is made out of stories.

CT: That’s right and they’re absolutely right. The thing is these people believe in science and they don’t think they are living by narrative. They think they are just picking up the facts.

JTF: Science is just a magnet that picks up facts?

CT: Yes … there is this idea of science, and “God is Dead” as part of the background to this narrative, that tells you that you don’t need to worry about religion.

JTF: Isn’t “God is Dead” getting old as a concept?

CT: You’re right. But there’s a lag. People – and I’ve lived a long time – people in the last few decades are more embarrassed about just saying “God is Dead,” or religion doesn’t count … But these disciplines are like a large tanker. They are not easy to turn. You can’t turn academic disciplines around in six months. They are trained, and they have entire dissertations, and a lot invested (laughter).

JTF: In a certain sense we’re talking about “God is Dead” as an intellectual exercise, but if you take that idea out of the academy and apply it on a global scale, it doesn’t track. Religious activity is very high world-wide and over 90% of Americans say they in fact believe in god. Doesn’t this create a tension for the “God is Dead” narrative?

CT: Well, not necessarily because the people who are really sure of this picture, of this narrative, they have all sorts of ways of accounting for this. They will always account for it by some other factor, be it economic or social factors, etc.

JTF: Is religious belief too big a phenomenon to be explained by one or two reductionistic theories?

CT: Yes, but it’s more than that. This is something that you cannot ultimately prove except by impressing people with the fact that you have a more intelligent interpretation all the time. But it is just evident that human beings are religious animals. There’s something that intrinsically strikes people about spirituality and that’s part of the motivation. It’s part of the reason why it goes on. And it you try to circle around that, you go nowhere.

JTF: What do you make of the Richard Dawkins/Sam Harris argument that religious moderates of all faiths empower, and in some cases allow, religious extremists to exist by dint of their tolerance? In a sense the moderate broad-mindedness enables the extremist’s narrow-mindedness.

CT: This doesn’t make an awful lot of sense to me. I know my Muslim friends are not tolerating extremists. They say, “This is awful, a distortion, a travesty of what I consider my faith.” Now, if they aren’t saying that, then it is a political criticism to make to them very severely, “Why are you shutting up?” But what Dawkins means is that by propounding the core doctrines of Islam or Christianity we are somehow empowering Pat Robertson’s or what have you. That seems to me to be absurd. Particularly if you think these doctrines are correct, and that these doctrines are the only antidote to this kind of rage. I would also throw back to Dawkins, ‘Are you empowering Stalin? Are you empowering Pol Pot?’ These people took their violence out in destroying religious institutions. So is Dawkins empowering them by saying that religion is a terrible curse, a virus that has to be stamped out? I’m sure he would say “no, Joseph Stalin, don’t shoot those priests. Be a nice guy!” But that’s exactly what we’re trying to say to religious extremists! So if we’re supposed to stop promoting these doctrines because people carry them to extremes, then he is surely guilty of doing the same thing.

JTF: Why are we encountering fundamentalism–in all stripes–atheists, Christians, Islam right now?

CT: We’re living in an age of anxiety where everybody is made insecure in their own deep sense of meaning by the fact that there are all these competing elements. One of the ways you can calm down that anxiety about your own sense of meaning is by diabolizing the others, making it absolutely clear and undeniable that they are wrong.

JTF: Some scientists criticize religion for not properly understanding science’s incredible ability to explain the natural world.

CT: The Christian tradition got totally pulled off-track in the 17th century where a very simple scientific influenced notion–through Newton–arrived at design; thinking of the universe like a clock.

JTF: They thought if we just start to peel off the hands and then we’ll get to the inner cogs and we have just start to really understand the universe as a mechanism.

CT: They saw it as this fantastic design. But they lost the sense of a really great mystery; the sense that there is maybe something here we can’t understand. And a great deal of Christian apologetic since then has been based on this incredible oversimplification of our universe. The result has been, in a certain sense, a kind of not very fruitful spirituality.

JTF: The battle over the mystery that you speak of is one that many scientists are keen to engage in. Will science come up against a fundamental limit?

CT: I don’t know. It’s something you’d have to guess at. We know that Newton had oversimplifying ideas. Although the mystery has been pushed further out, it’s not just the mystery of how it all began that is important here, but there’s also of course the absolutely untouched yet mystery of how we–intelligent beings–arose out of all of this. Today, the equivalent of the Newtonian mind are people in genetics. They say, ‘we’ve got the human genome.’ But it’s laughable, they are no closer to understanding how it really works. People talk about a gene for this, a gene for that. But then you’ve got to press them, how does it really work? They say, ‘something switches it off, and then something switches it on.’ What’s missing here is a holistic account of how it all works. My hunch is that it’s very, very unlikely that we will have a complete resolution on how this extraordinary rise of species came about in terms that are consonant with current molecular biology.

JTF: As a philosopher, what do you think about the role of neuroscience in pushing back this mystery?

CT: I’m not a great expert, but I am a great consumer of it. The people that are really cutting-edge are making a lot of sense, but they are more backing me up than anything else… what we really need is a kind of field theory and nobody really knows what that could be.

JTF: If you were hired to consult with all the great world religions, with the idea toward finding a pluralistic solution that guaranteed mutual respect, how would you get around the obvious problem that the closer the world religions come together, the more they must flatten their beliefs into a universal theme, denying their depth and differences?

CT: It’s a very, very deep question and when I’ve been in dialogues across these barriers, that haven’t been of that watering down kind, but where there’s something else, there’s a deep sense that there’s something very important and valid there even if you don’t end up believing it. That in this other spirituality there is something very deep. I’ve talked to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and I’ve said ‘tell me what really makes you tick, and don’t water it down, and I’ll do the same for you.’ And this has been a remarkably spiritually rewarding experience for me. You don’t need to find some middle-point, some syntheses, that doesn’t make sense . . . The Dalai Lama, someone I admire very much and I’ve had some discussions with said about this issue, ‘you don’t put a yak’s head on a sheep’s body.’

JTF: Do you think the 21st century is going to be pulled towards religious pluralism? Or do you think the forces of fundamentalism are going to be a wedge into that concept?

CT: Well, the jury’s out. We have a battle on our hands whether we end up getting into a clash of civilizations mindset. At the moment in the West, we have a huge cultural fight within ourselves against Islamophobia. There’s a kind of mindless Islamophobia that says all 1.2 billion Muslims believe the same thing and that what they believe makes them do terrible things. I’ve seen this in Europe and in North America and we have to fight this kind of thinking very, very hard.

JTF: You say in your JTF essay that now more than ever we need “trail-blazers, who will open new or retrieve forgotten modes of prayer, meditation, friendship, solidarity and compassionate action.” Who are some figures that qualify in your mind as past trail-blazers?

CT: Well John Main, who created a Christian meditation practice, and Mother Theresa come to mind.

JTF: There is a long-standing debate about the relationship between science and religion. Some see modern science as a new kind of explanatory power, capable of pushing into territory once held exclusively by religion. Others see science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria?” (To quote Stephen Jay Gould) Where do you fall in this dialogue?

CT: Science and religion are not quite totally non-overlapping magisteria, but he is right in the sense that if anybody said, ‘I’m going to solve all the problems of the meaning of life, by only looking at the evolutionary view,’ they would be mad, they do not understand the limitations. Or, on the other hand, reading the Bible to understand how human beings evolved, that’s equally unrealistic.

JTF: So it is perfectly reasonable to believe in both God and evolution…

CT: Yes, of course.

JTF: Aristotle talked about the good life and what it means to live a good life. What is the Taylor view of how to live the good life in the 21st century?

CT: You have to look at it like this: what do you want to give to your children and grandchildren? You want to give them some range of these very profound spiritual languages that have come down to us, with the understanding that they will always have to tweak them and change them, but you want to give them some starting insight. What is really disconcerting in a lot of the modern world is how many young people no longer have contact with Shakespeare, or what a biblical reference is, and they are really cut off.

JTF: You work has focused on some of the most horrifying realities of human existence: religion and violence, the malaise of modernity, and yet in so much of your writing contains real optimism. Where does that come from?

CT: Yes, it’s terrible. It’s just temperamental, I can’t stop myself! My friends keep saying I’m ridiculously optimistic.

JTF: Isn’t being optimistic a little bit at odds with philosophy?

CT: Definitively, it’s at odds with the zeitgeist. But I recognize that I must be as realistic as possible and that I must not get carried away. On the other hand, if you don’t have optimism you just give up in a way that I don’t want to do.

JTF: You studied under the famed political philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin at Oxford, Are you a fox or hedgehog?

CT: (laughing) Oh very definitely a hedgehog.

JTF: You’re a hedgehog? He said you were a hedgehog, but I’m surprised to hear you say that.

CT: Everything connects.

JTF: Everything connects, but I see in your range of interests and your ability to go across multiple disciplines, a fox-like demeanor. Are you not a hedgehog disguised as a fox?

CT: Yes, ok, as a fox. (laughs). But don’t blow my cover!


Fr. Michael Heller

November 3, 2009
Michael Heller

'Science gives us knowledge, but religion gives us meaning.' – Michael Heller, 2008 Templeton Prize winner

From the Christian Science Monitor: Author of 30 books in Polish and five in English, Fr. Heller, an ordained Roman Catholic priest and a professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Academy in Krakow, Poland, has made the fostering of dialogue between science and religion a priority.

“He’s one of the key contributors in the international scholarly community dedicated to the creative dialogue on science, theology, and philosophy,” says Robert John Russell, founder and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif. “He’s a great example of someone who bridges these fields.”

For Heller, these seemingly distinct realms of human understanding actually depend on one another for stability. “Science gives us knowledge, but religion gives us meaning,” he says. “Science without religion is not meaningless, but lame…. And religion without science [slides] into fundamentalism,” he says. Heller draws on deep understanding of cosmology, religion, and philosophy to tackle questions such as, “Does the universe need to have a cause?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Those familiar with Heller’s work laud his rigor of thought. “In an era when serious scientists and serious religionists declare themselves at war with each other and claims of connections are often by superficial thinkers, Michael Heller is the exception,” says Philip Clayton, professor of philosophy and religion at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. “Rigorous thinkers seem to have fled the no man’s land between the two warring factions.”

Heller was born in 1936 in Tarnow, Poland, one of five children. His mother was a teacher, his father a mechanical and electrical engineer. When the Germans invaded in 1939, Heller’s father sabotaged the chemical factory where he worked to keep it out of Nazi hands. The family then fled east into what is now Ukraine.

In 1940, Joseph Stalin ordered 1 million Poles, including Heller’s family, to Siberia to log the forests. The hardships of exile made a lasting impression. “[Heller] knew that many people survived the extreme Siberian situation because they found in prayer both their spiritual force and their will to survive,” writes Joseph Zycinski, archbishop of Lublin, Poland, in the foreword to Heller’s 2003 book, “Creative Tension: Essays on Science and Religion.” “His main dream after coming back to Poland was to become a priest and to help people in finding solutions to the most basic problems of life.”

Heller has a different take. On his return to Poland, “I was too ambitious,” he says, smiling. “I wanted to do what was the most important thing to be done.” In his estimation, that was science and religion. In 1959, at a time when religion was officially discouraged under communism, Heller was ordained a priest. In 1966, he received his PhD in philosophy from the Catholic University of Lublin. And beginning in 1969, Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow who later became Pope John Paul II, began inviting scientists, philosophers, and theologians – Heller included – to his residence to discuss how the disciplines interrelated. The group became known as the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies.

Heller also studied Marxist philosophy, primarily so he could rebut it. His time in Siberia had given him an all-too-close view of the reality behind the slogans. “Many young Poles were seduced by Marxism,” he says. “But from the very beginning, I had no illusions.” Navigating these worlds sharpened Heller, says Professor Clayton.

“Michael had to work with the complexities of two very difficult systems – the communist system and the complexities of Vatican politics,” he says. “Instead of being tempted to sell his soul, he used that complexity as a drive, as impetus to do more careful and more subtle work at the level of the science-religion dialogue where enduring connections could be discovered.”

The announcement on March 12 that Michael Heller had won the 2008 Templeton Prize drew wide international news coverage. Media outlets from the U.S. to the UK, from India to Heller’s native Poland, described his achievements and his unusual career as a theoretical physicist, philosopher, and Catholic priest. The story was interesting enough to readers of the New York Times that it climbed to #3 on the paper’s list of the most e-mailed articles. Heller explained to BBC World TV that the link between his scientific research and his work in philosophy and theology is the central role of rationality. As he put it, mathematics serves as a way of “contemplating the work of God.”

Such themes were eagerly taken up by the many bloggers and readers who commented on Heller’s ideas in various online forums. A news article about the Templeton Prize posted on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education generated more than forty responses. Though several were little more than the familiar name-calling of the culture wars, other comments were much more thoughtful. As one reader remarked, the “richness” of Heller’s contribution lies in his understanding that “science and religion are not methods of either/or.” Another expressed his hope that religious people would not “close their ears to science” and that scientists would “not fall into scientism.”

Chris Herlinger, a reporter and blogger for the Religion News Service, was struck by Heller’s impatience with the advocates of “intelligent design.” Calling their views “a grave theological error” (a phrase taken from his formal Prize statement), Heller told Herlinger that the “mind of God” allows the “collaboration of chance and laws.” Taking out a pen during the interview, he held it up and let it drop to the table, saying that we know the pen will fall but cannot know precisely where. “Physics,” he explained, “leaves room for random events.” Heller’s critique of what he called “the intelligent design ideology” was also noted with approval by the National Center for Science Education.

Larry Arnhart, a professor of political theory at Northern Illinois University, praised Heller for setting out a position too often missing in the heated debate over Darwin. As he wrote on his own blog, “Whether God works through the ordinary laws of nature or through extraordinary miracles, it’s all an expression of His intelligent design. From the point of view of Christian theology, Darwinian evolution is intelligent design.”

Blogging for the New Scientist, Amanda Gefter admitted to being won over by Heller despite her own commitment “to the idea that science and religion don’t mix.” In a phone interview, Heller came across to her “as a contemplative, kind, and brilliant man with an impressive intellectual range, flitting easily between talk of complex philosophical ideas and sophisticated mathematical physics.” He is “the kind of physicist,” she noted, “who is so awestruck by the mathematical order of the universe that he sees God lurking in equations.”

The following are some comments Fr. Heller made in a speech at a news conference announcing his reception of the 2008 Templeton Prize:

“The seventeenth-century German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is my philosophical hero. I am proud (but not quite happy) that I share with this great philosopher at least one feature. He was a master in spreading, not to say dissipating, his genius into too many fields of interest. If he had a greater ability to concentrate on fewer problems, he would have become not only a precursor but also a real creator of several momentous scientific achievements. But in such a case, the history of philosophy would be poorer by one of its greatest thinkers. This is not to say that in my case the history of philosophy would lose anything. This is only to stress the fact that I am interested in too many things.

Amongst my numerous fascinations, two have most imposed themselves and proven more time resistant than others: science and religion. I also am too ambitious. I always wanted to do the most important things, and what can be more important than science and religion? Science gives us Knowledge, and religion gives us Meaning. Both are prerequisites of a decent existence. The paradox is that these two great values seem often to be in conflict. I am frequently asked how I could reconcile them with each other. When such a question is posed by a scientist or a philosopher, I invariably wonder how educated people could be so blind as not to see that science does nothing else but explore God’s creation. To see what I mean, let us go to Leibniz.

In a copy of his Dialogus, in the margin we find a short sentence written in his own hand. It reads: “When God calculates and thinks things through, the world is made.” Everybody has some experience in dealing with numbers, and everybody, at least sometimes, experiences a feeling of necessity involved in the process of calculating. We can easily be led astray when thinking about everyday matters or pondering all pros and cons when facing an important decision, but when we have to add or multiply even big numbers everything goes almost mechanically. This is a routine task, and if we are cautious enough there is no doubt as far as the final result is concerned. However, the true mathematical thinking begins when one has to solve a real problem, that is to say, to identify a mathematical structure that would match the conditions of the problem, to understand principles of its functioning, to grasp connections with other mathematical structures, and to deduce the consequences implied by the logic of the problem. Such manipulations of structures are always immersed into various calculations, since calculations form a natural language of mathematical structures.

It is more or less such an image that we should associate with Leibniz’s metaphor of calculating God. Things thought through by God should be identified with mathematical structures interpreted as structures of the world. Since for God to plan is the same as to implement the plan, when “God calculates and thinks things through,” the world is created.

We have mastered a lot of calculation techniques. We are able to think things through in our human way. Can we imitate God in His creating activity?

In 1915, Albert Einstein wrote down his famous equations of the gravitational field. The road leading to them was painful and laborious a combination of deep thinking and the tedious work of doing calculations. From the beginning, Einstein saw an inadequacy of Newton’s time-honored theory of gravity: It did not fit into the spatio-temporal pattern of special relativity, which was a synthesis of classical mechanics and Maxwell’s electrodynamical theory. He was hunting for some empirical clues that would narrow the field of possibilities. He found some in the question, Why is inertial mass equal to gravitational mass in spite of the fact that, in Newton’s theory, they are completely independent concepts? He tried to implement his ideas into a mathematical model. Several attempts failed. At a certain stage, he understood that he could not go further without studying tensorial calculus and Riemannian geometry. It is the matter distribution that generates space-time geometry, and the space-time geometry that determines the motions of matter. How to express this illuminating idea in the form of mathematical equations? When finally, after many weeks of exhausting work, the equations emerged before his astonished eyes, a new world had been created.

In the beginning, only three, numerically small, empirical effects corroborated Einstein’s new theory. But the world newly created by Einstein soon became an independent reality. Yet, in his early work, the field equations suggested to Einstein the existence of solutions describing an expanding universe. He discarded them by modifying his original equations, but in less than two decades it turned out that the equations were wiser than Einstein himself: Measurements of galactic spectra revealed that, indeed, the universe is expanding. In the subsequent period, lasting until now, theoretical physicists and mathematicians have found a host of new solutions to Einstein’s equations and interpreted them as representing gravitational waves, cosmic strings, neutron stars, stationary and rotating black holes, gravitational lensing, dark matter and dark energy, late stages of life of massive stars, and various aspects of cosmic evolution. In Einstein’s time, nobody would have even suspected the existence of such objects and processes, but nearly all of them have been found by astronomers in the real universe.

Perhaps now we better understand Leibniz’s idea of God’s creating the universe by thinking mathematical structures through. We should only free the above sketched image of creating physical theories from all human constraints and limitations, and take into account a theological truth that for God to intend is to obtain the result, and to obtain the result is to instantiate it. Einstein was not far from Leibniz’s idea when he was saying that the only goal of science is to decode the Mind of God present in the structure of the universe.

And what about chancy or random events? Do they destroy mathematical harmony of the universe, and introduce into it elements of chaos and disorder? Is chance a rival force of God’s creative Mind, a sort of Manichean principle fighting against goals of creation? But what is chance? It is an event of low probability which happens in spite of the fact that it is of low probability. If one wants to determine whether an event is of low or high probability, one must use the calculus of probability, and the calculus of probability is a mathematical theory as good as any other mathematical theory. Chance and random processes are elements of the mathematical blueprint of the universe in the same way as other aspects of the world architecture.

Mathematical structures that are parts of the composition determining the functioning of the universe are called laws of physics. It is a very subtle composition indeed. Like in any masterly symphony, elements of chance and necessity are interwoven with each other and together span the structure of the whole. Elements of necessity determine the pattern of possibilities and dynamical paths of becoming, but they leave enough room for chancy events to make this becoming rich and individual.

Adherents of the so-called intelligent design ideology commit a grave theological error. They claim that scientific theories that ascribe a great role to chance and random events in the evolutionary processes should be replaced, or supplemented, by theories acknowledging the thread of intelligent design in the universe. Such views are theologically erroneous. They implicitly revive the old Manichean error postulating the existence of two forces acting against each other: God and an inert matter; in this case, chance and intelligent design. There is no opposition here. Within the all-comprising Mind of God, what we call chance and random events is well composed into the symphony of creation.

When contemplating the universe, the question imposes itself: Does the universe need to have a cause? It is clear that causal explanations are a vital part of the scientific method. Various processes in the universe can be displayed as a succession of states in such a way that the preceding state is a cause of the succeeding one. If we look deeper at such processes, we see that there is always a dynamical law prescribing how one state should generate another state. But dynamical laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations, and if we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about a cause of mathematical laws. By doing so we are back to the Great Blueprint of God’s thinking the universe. The question of ultimate causality is translated into another of Leibniz’s questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (from his Principles of Nature and Grace). When asking this question, we are not asking about a cause like all other causes. We are asking about the root of all possible causes.

When thinking about science as deciphering the Mind of God, we should not forget that science is also a collective product of human brains, and the human brain is itself the most complex and sophisticated product of the universe. It is in the human brain that the world’s structure has reached its focal point the ability to reflect upon itself. Science is but a collective effort of the Human Mind to read the Mind of God from the question marks out of which we and the world around us seem to be made. To place ourselves in this double entanglement is to experience that we are a part of the Great Mystery. Another name for this Mystery is the Humble Approach to reality the motto of all John Templeton Foundation activities. True humility does not consist in pretending that we are feeble and insignificant, but in the audacious acknowledgement that we are an essential part of the Greatest Mystery of all of the entanglement of the Human Mind with the Mind of God.”


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