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.

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.