And then I wrote… This essay was originally given as a talk to the Florida Council of Catholic Women in 1999. (The organizer of their annual meeting, and later president of the Florida chapter, was my mom.) Later I condensed it for a chapter in my book God’s Mechanics. But I don’t know if the complete version has been published before.
Jesus, as the incarnate Word, is relatively easy for most people to picture. And for all the talk of “spirit” that fills our hymns and our daily conversation, whether we’re talking the “spirit of the law” or “school spirit,” you’d have to assume that at least we think we know what we mean by the term “spirit”. But what can be said about God the Father?
The documents from the Vatican itself don’t help that much. Much of their emphasis is on using the image of God as Father to promote the sense of shared brotherhood and sisterhood among all of us who would call God, Father. And that’s fine as far as it goes – though I must confess, and as my mom can attest, when I was growing up I never could figure out how “treating all men as my brother” could possibly be a good idea considering how my brother and I used to get along…
But God the Father?
The Apostle’s Creed, one of our most ancient prayers, puts it succinctly. We believe in God the Father, Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. And that’s it. “Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord” gets all the rest of the press.
Creator of heaven and earth. All that is seen and unseen, adds the Nicene Creed. And that’s it. But of course, that’s everything.
Creator of Heaven and Earth. What does that mean, what has that meant, to us humans?
It means a lot to me as a scientist. To believe in the God of Genesis, who creates the world in an orderly fashion and calls it “good”, is the foundation of all my work.
Every scientist, believer or not, makes three basic assumptions before starting any scientific work. First, you must assume that the world does make sense, even if the sense can’t be easily seen. The Universe is intelligible. There is some kind of logic and order and regularity to it.
If you think that the universe is nothing but chaos, totally arbitrary and random, like the cultures of India and the East do, then – like India and the East – you may develop wonderful philosophies and even phenomenal mathematics, but you’ll never see any point in studying natural science. You’d think there was nothing there to be studied.
But a creator God, the God of the holy books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, gives hope that there is a rhyme and reason to the way things work…no matter how hard it may be to fathom those reasons, they’re there for us to ferret out eventually. That may be one reason why natural science flourished in the West and not the East.
The second assumption of every scientist is that this understandable universe can be understood by us. It’s not enough to know that the rules exist; we also have the arrogance to think that, at least in some small and incomplete way, we can grasp them. You’d think we imagined ourselves as having, in ourselves, the “image and likeness of God.” Where did we ever get such a notion? But again, without that belief there’s be no point in doing science.
The final assumption is the wildest of all. Every scientist must accept, as a tenet of faith, with no reason to believe it ahead of time, not only that the world is understandable; not only that we can somehow be capable of grasping that understanding; but finally, that understanding the world is a worthwhile endeavor.
I refer you again to the Eastern religions, and indeed to the heresies that regularly arise here in the West – most recently in the New Age movement, full of ideas that are hardly new. They maintain that only “spiritual” matters count and that the physical world is something we should “rise above.”
In contrast, God the Father, the Creator, in Genesis says that His creation is good. And God the Father, in the New Testament, so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son. As Saint Athanasius put it back in the year 300, in the Incarnation the whole universe has been “sanctified, quickened and cleansed by His Indwelling.”
What’s more, Saint Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans, “since the beginning of time the Creator has made himself known in the things that have been created.” That means, to know creation is to get to know the creator. God the Father. Natural Science is an act of worship.
It’s not an option; it’s a commandment. The First Commandment. We are to adore God with our whole heart and our whole soul, every fiber of our being. That includes our brains. God calls us to be scientists.
Yet today, so many people assume that science and religion are somehow at odds. Where did that idea ever come from?
Science developed directly from the scholastic thought of the church’s medieval universities. Astronomy was one of the seven subjects they required you to master before you could go on to do philosophy and theology.
Saint Albert the Great, who taught Thomas Aquinas his theology, wrote on botany and minerals and fossils and is known today as the Father of Geology. The monk Roger Bacon is the father of Chemistry; more recent churchmen in science include Gregor Mendel, the monk who discovered genetics; Angelo Secchi, the Jesuit priest who first took the spectra of stars and thus founded the science we now call astrophysics; even the Big Bang theory got its start in the work of Fr. Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest of this century.
Jesuit priests mapped the Moon, invented the modern atomic theory, devised the wave theory of light. And even the laymen giants of Renaissance science considered themselves to be religious men; Newton and Kepler and Copernicus and, yes, Galileo, all were men of high devotion. Don’t forget, even though he could have fled Italy and his trial, for love of the Church Galileo submitted, and accepted the infamous ruling against him.
The split between science and religion is primarily a nineteenth-century phenomenon. It arose in America and England when devout but poorly educated Protestant preachers misinterpreted the Bible. They preached in ignorance of the long tradition of the Church, explicitly stated by Origen in the 200’s, St. Gregory of Nyssa in the 300’s, St. Augustine in the 400’s, and again quite strongly by St. Thomas Aquinas, that the Bible is a holy book about God, speaking of things that no words can contain by using the words of poetry. Indeed, the whole point of Protestantism was to reject Tradition, leaving themselves open to these Biblical misinterpretations.
It also arose because, at the same time, scientists of the 19th century who were educated without philosophy or religion arrogantly assumed that their classical physics was on the brink of explaining everything, even the acts of individual humans, in terms of deterministic, mechanistic laws. When the mathematician Laplace explained his equations for the orbits of the planets to Napoleon, the emperor asked him, “What role does God play in your theory?” And Laplace replied, “I have no need for that Hypothesis.”
Both religion and science can share the blame for this split. As a Jesuit and a scientist, that means I get a double dose of guilt!
Of course, the 20th century has done a lot to temper the ignorance and arrogance of both camps. Despite what you may believe reading the papers, most Christians – even Evangelicals – are not Creationists. Of course, the Catholic Church has always condemned Fundamentalism as a heresy. But you may be interested to know that there’s a large group of Conservative Evangelical Protestant scientists, called the American Scientific Affiliation, who are working to educate their fellow Evangelicals away from this false interpretation of the Bible.
And likewise, twentieth century physics has been humbled on two counts. First, the insoluble problems of classical physics finally led to the rise of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and a view of the universe that is no longer totally mechanistic nor deterministic. And secondly, every scientist with any sort of soul cannot help but be given pause by the abundant evidence of the horrors – from pollution to modern warfare – that result when science and technology are allowed to reign unconstrained by morality and ethics.
You know, I had been a scientist for fifteen years, working in the field of planetary science, on the origin and evolution of our solar system and the planets within it, before I became a Jesuit. I was a good Catholic all that time, but I kept that side of me private.
When I became a Jesuit, when I became a “public Catholic” so to speak, an interesting thing happened. At every scientific meeting, wherever I went, people I’d known for years in the field – including some of the most prominent members of my field – would come up to me, to tell me about their churches, to tell me about their faith. It seems most scientists – at least, most of the astronomers of my acquaintance – are believers. It’s just that they, too, consider that to be a private side of their lives.
So why does this story of a split between science and religion persist? Because most scientists keep their religion private – which is their right. Because too many religious people have been scared off of science precisely by the stories of this split. Because the ones who do speak about these topics are people with a very limited education in science – the Creationists – or a very limited education in religion; people like Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould who are probably not the best representatives of their fields… just the best-known.
But there’s a deeper reason why this split arose, and why to some degree it’s not going to go away soon. Ironically enough, it comes from many of the very people who would most want to heal the rift.
Modern atheism arose, according to a very persuasive work by the Jesuit Fr. Michael Buckley, precisely when the theologians of the 17th and 18th centuries tried to use the best science of their day to “prove” God.
In the process they made two fundamental missteps. Either they reduced God to the “prime mover” who started up the Universe at the beginning, and then stepped back and let it run on its own accord. Or they used God as the explanation of all the things that science couldn’t explain… yet. The God of the Gaps. As science progressed, and the gaps got filled, God got squeezed out of the picture.
Laplace’s retort – “I have no need for that Hypothesis” – was in fact well taken. His mathematics had solved problems in the orbits of planets that Newton had assumed were merely the visible hand of God. Laplace was rejecting both bad science – Newton’s incomplete calculations of planetary motions – and bad theology: the God of the Gaps.
A modern version of this can be found in the writings of religious apologists who would try to cram 20th century theories of cosmology into the “seven days of creation,” or who use our ignorance of the beginnings and ends of creation, or the uncertainties of quantum theory, to identify the places where God acts in the universe.
Yes, with a little pushing and shoving you can bend 20th century science into a form that looks like traditional religion. But 20th century science is guaranteed to be obsolete in the 21st century. Just as the Babylonian cosmology of 1000 BC looks primitive to us today, the Big Bang Cosmology of 2000 AD will probably look pretty primitive in the year 5000.
Yet the fundamental truths of the Bible, that God is a loving creator responsible for this universe, no matter how we understand it, is a truth that will never be obsolete. To reduce the Bible to a science textbook does it no favors. Science textbooks go out of date. (I know; I wrote one.)
If to us God is nothing more than a scientific hypothesis invoked to explain planetary orbits, or the rise of life on Earth, or the beginning of the Big Bang, then we are guilty of believing in the God of the Gaps. And we hold our religion hostage to new advances in science that may close those gaps.
Besides, that image of God is far removed from the God whom we experience every day in prayer and contemplation. And far removed from the God who came to Earth to save us from our sins.
What sort of God would these images give us? God as nothing but Prime Mover, who starts things off but then abandons us? What do you call a Father like that? God is no deadbeat dad.
Nor is he the kid of Father who would let us think we were living our own lives, but secretly – without our knowledge – pulls strings to make life “easier” for us; use his influence to get us into college, arrange for us to meet the love of our lives, in general never let us grow and try and stumble and try again. Any parent knows, as any teacher knows, the hardest part is knowing when to keep your mouth shut.
God is not only the Father of Jesus. In Jesus we have become co-heirs to creation – I am quoting St. Paul again – and as the letter to Hebrews says, to be raised and taught as such. He is, as our oldest prayer says, our Father.
God is a Father gives life to the Universe, yes, but who watches as he allows it to grow and, indeed, to evolve. Yes, evolve; as Pope John Paul II himself has stated, evolution is more than just a theory, it’s an observation. The universe does evolve, and life on Earth does evolve, according to rules that we can begin to understand, rules that reveal the personality of the rule giver.
In creation, I see a creator who loves to produce amazing complexity from the interplay of a few simple rules. I see a creator who works with great economy, wasting nothing, ignoring nothing. And I see a creator who values highly elegance and beauty. There have been, I’d guess, a hundred thousand images returned by the Hubble Space Telescope; I don’t know of a single one that’s ugly.
My religious faith does not control or directly assist the day to day details of my scientific work. I cannot lay on hands to stop my computer from crashing, or open the Bible to a random page and find the solution to a differential equation. Nor does my science direct me to an explanation of the mysteries of my faith, to define scientifically the true presence in the Eucharist or to explicate definitively on the nature of the Trinity.
But my science helps me get used to the style of my God, to search out explanations that are beautiful and elegant. And my faith reminds me that my study of creation must be based not on dreams of power or fame, but on love.
God the Father allows his universe to evolve according to the rules He has set up. But he is a good Father, always attentive to each of His children. He does intervene; not too much; but when we do need Him. And when we ask. He likes to be asked.
It’s a mystery that no theology can predict, no science can account for. We study the world for the love of it. And love makes the world go round.