All that is and ever was or will be

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November 25, 2018

Grace to you and peace from him who is, and who was, and who is to come.

That salutation is from John, in the book of Revelation. The one who is, and was, and is to come is God; God, to John, means Christ, in whom God lived within the universe of his own making. We call God’s life on earth the Incarnation. “The Incarnation,” Thomas Aquinas says, “is the exaltation of human nature and the consummation of the universe.”[i]

The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.

That pronouncement was Carl Sagan’s opening line in Cosmos, his famous 1980 book and public television miniseries. His student Neil DeGrasse Tyson repeated it in his recent update of the series. Cosmos, word for word, replaces God, suggesting science replaces faith in God. “Scientism,” we call that.

Modern science began in 1543 when Copernicus gave evidence the earth is not the center of the universe. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was the title of his study. In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, followed twelve years later by The Descent of Man.

Approaching the hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s second book, Jacques Monod, a founder of molecular biology and winner of the Nobel Prize, published Chance and Necessity, “a philosophy,” he said, “for a universe without causality.” According to Monod, “the ancient covenant is in pieces; man, at last, knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged by chance.”[ii]

That isn’t true. Man does not know that; nor does woman. Scientism plays a pair of fours like they were aces.

In John, the Gospel, Jesus says to Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not from this world.” Pilate had challenged him: “Are you the king?” That would put Jesus and Pilate in the same arena, competitors like Sagan did with God and cosmos. Jesus rejects the false equivalence. “My kingdom is not from here,” he says. “So you are a king,” replies Pilate, missing the point. Like Sagan, Pilate sees only to the limit of his own expertise, in his case politics, where one king and one king only is the rule. Jesus indicates that with respect to him, to God, this rule does not apply.

After publication of The Origin of Species, an English bishop named Charles Gore gathered a group to think and write about questions Darwin’s science had raised for Christian faith.[iii] One of the group, J.R. Illingworth, wrote an essay titled  “The Incarnation and Development.” It begins: “The last few years have witnessed the gradual acceptance by Christian thinkers of the . . .  the theory of evolution. History has repeated itself, and another of the '‘oppositions of science [so-called] have “proved upon inquiry to be no opposition at all.”[iv]

[i]Lux Mundi, 186

[ii] Jacque Monod, (1972), p. 167, quoted in Southgate, p. 154.

[iv]Lux Mundi, 181.

Going further, Illingworth claimed the opposite of science-religion conflict. Darwin’s science and Christian faith were mysteriously harmonious, he said. Our doctrine of the Incarnation (remember: “the exaltation of human nature and consummation of the universe”) may “provide an outline to which science is slowly but surely giving reality and content.” In my doctoral dissertation, I agree with that. Faith in God, as met on earth in Christ, sees the method God has chosen for involvement with the world. That method fits the science of evolution. This is Illingworth:

Science may resolve the complicated life of the material universe into a few elementary forces, light and heat and electricity, and these perhaps into modifications of some still simpler energy; but of the origin of energy… it knows no more than did the Greeks of old.  Theology asserts that in the beginning was the Word, and in Him was life, the life of all things created: in other words, that He is the source of all that energy, whose persistent, irresistible versatility of action is forever at work molding and clothing and peopling worlds.  The two conceptions are complementary, and cannot contradict each other.[i]

That is still a good answer to the sort of foolish talk that religion and science so often stir up: religious-minded people rejecting solid science and science-minded people ridiculing faith. I have no quarrel with Monod’s belief that our species emerged, so to speak, “by chance” because, in comparing causes, “chance” is not an alternative to “God.” Where God is involved, one cause is not the rule.

To illustrate, I like to bring up Harry Potter. As JK Rowling is cause to the goings-on in Harry’s universe, so is God to happenings in ours. God is “primary cause”, as Aquinas put it, the cause of causes. For example, in the first book Harry, Ron and Hermione chance to meet and share a compartment on the Hogwarts Express. Their meeting like this was happenstance—pure chance almost—and yet so fateful for future of the magic world. To say they met by chance is true in one sense, while from the author’s standpoint it was meant to be. Aquinas says God’s will “transcends the distinction between ‘must’ and ‘might not.’”[ii] For God, chance and necessity are the writer’s tools.

Why did children fall in love with Harry Potter? As a dad, I was sent on midnight runs to bookstores from Hot Springs to Manhattan to pick up Christoph’s copy the minute it was released for sale. He would grab it and read through that night, hardly stopping to sleep or eat until he finished. It was like he was thirsty for it. Max Weber might have had the explanation. Weber, the great pioneer of modern sociology, said that for people in the modern world the universe has been “de-magicalized” or disenchanted. Nicholas Wolterstorff, a Yale philosopher, says the problem with that is that it leaves the universe “devoid of meaning.”[iii] That makes us thirsty.

“Secularism” we call that. Secular means “of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred.”[iv] In modern life, that is almost everything: not only stars and planets but also life on earth six days a week—work, politics, music, sports, etc. There is a secular Christmas too, “not regarded as religious.” The secular realm is an expanding circle on the floor, pushing the sacred back into its shrinking designated corners. We are meeting in one of those right now.

Unlike scientism, secularism has benefits, the big one being its practical solution to the challenge of religious pluralism. “Plural” means more than one. Ours is one of many world religions. As policy, religious pluralism provides that religions should be allowed to peacefully coexist within their sphere. That is good, but it works best when the religious sphere is small. When religion comes out of its corner from more than one direction we wind up with bizarre face-offs like the one at the state capitol last August: defenders of the ten commandments versus proponents of something pagan, sad and awful, angry shouts from both sides. That was a church-state carnival show, but serious religious differences have lead to wars. Secularism makes quarrels less frequent and keeps little ones from becoming big. That is the dividend of disenchantment.

Why is there more than one religion? Christopher Morse defines  religion as “how we position ourselves with respect to that which we hold sacred.”[v] Religions are faiths, faith implies uncertainty, which leaves room for more than one answer to the question: “What is sacred?” That is why there is more than one religion.

Why would God leave room for doubt concerning something so important? I don’t know. I do know this: uncertainty makes space for choices. We choose our faith, to some extent. A free decision for the beautiful and good is itself a thing of beauty—adding to the luster of creation. Without room for doubt, the world would be diminished.

There is a sacred reason that our world seems disenchanted and it divinely validates success in science. Aquinas explains it in the Summa Theologiae in a respectful disagreement with Muslim theologians. “Sages in Moorish law,” he called them. Everything that happens, these sages attributed solely to the will of God—from the creation of the stars to floods and forest fires. To that, Aquinas says yes and no. Yes, because as primary cause God is everything’s creator and the Lord of necessity and chance. But no, because to leave it at that renders nature useless. For everything that happens the explanation is the same: “God wills it.” Science is left with nothing to explain about the cosmos.

Aquinas rejects that way of thinking about the world and God, because our senses, our reason, and our faith say otherwise. Our senses, because they can see and feel the difference between fire and water: “Touch this, not that,” they say. The universe insists upon its own importance. If God is in both, we reason, then it is fire, not God, that burns—so let’s try to understand a forest fire or flood with God left out of the hypothesis. That train of thought led to On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Our faith in God’s goodness completes this line of thinking. Aquinas writes:

God could, of course, produce the effects of nature without nature, but nevertheless, he wills them to be done through nature, so that order be preserved in things.[vi]

That is why we believe in science rather than in magic.

From love, God gives existence to the cosmos. From love, he exalts and consummates it. There is goodness in the order of it, goodness in its freedom, and goodness in the interplay of necessity and chance. We have a universe for science to probe and understand. It is a gift: full of meaning seven days a week and sacred to the core.

[i]Lux Mundi, 187-88.

[ii] Timothy McDermott, ed. And trans. Thomas Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 283.

[iii] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Theology and Science: Listening to Each Other,” in Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue, ed. W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman (New York: Routledge, 1996), 95.

[iv] Random House Dictionary, 2nd edition unabridged.

[v] Christopher Morse, Union Theological Seminary.

[vi] Timothy McDermott, ed. And trans. Thomas Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 300-305.