How does the human person come to know God? This core question of life rests at the heart of many of my reflections for The Catholic Astronomer. One of Catholicism’s foundational principles is that natural reason and Divine Revelation are the two wings on which the soul ascends to God. In this reflection on Saint Bonaventure, we will explore an understanding of spiritual ascent that is aided by six wings revealed through an intense, mystical experience. As we explore Saint Bonaventure’s mysticism, we will come to see how Franciscan spirituality, greatly influenced by the thought of Saint Bonaventure, affirms the exploration of the natural world and how this exploration leads us to the knowledge of God. Second, I will compare Bonaventure’s ascent with recent scientific speculations on the possibility of a Creator due to String Theory.
Saint Bonaventure was born in Bagnoregio, Italy in 1217 and died in 1274. He joined the Franciscan Order in 1243 and studied at the University of Paris where he eventually was accepted as a Master of Theology. Bonaventure was known for his brilliance as a Theologian and teacher while at the University of Paris, but was later removed from his position as he was named Minister General of the Franciscan Order. There are many worthwhile topics to explore in Bonaventure’s life, but the central event he is known for is a mystical experience at Monte La Verna. Monte La Verna is also known for Saint Francis of Assisi’s vision, culminating in his reception of the stigmata. Consistent in both Bonaventure’s and Francis’ visions was a six winged seraph. In Bonaventure’s vision, the seraph became a mystical symbol in his written work, The Mind’s Road to God, in which the Seraphic Doctor sees in the six wings of this heavenly vision a symbolic pathway of ascent for the human person when moving from the material world to God. Bonaventure explains that the six wings exist in three pairs or categories that are the exploration of the material (or sensible) world, our inner reflection on God’s image and likeness, and, lastly, the revelation of the very essence of the Triune God as Three Persons in One Nature.
In regard to Bonaventure’s exploration of the material world, we see in his thought a mix of philosophy and an approach to studying the natural world that is at home to the modern sciences. In regard to philosophy, Bonaventure speaks of understanding the material world as shadows and vestiges. This language of shadows and vestiges rightly evokes the image of Plato’s cave, needing to be freed from the shadows of our intellectual shackles and experience inner liberation by the light hidden from our sight beyond the cave. Yet, to reduce Bonaventure’s approach to the natural world as a theological representation of Plato alone would be a rash oversimplification. Bonaventure also affirms the thought of Aristotle and the exploration of truth through tangible things. The importance of this is that Bonaventure’s language of shadows and vestiges is not a dualism that minimizes the importance of creation. Rather, Bonaventure draws upon both Plato and Aristotle (and aspects of neoplatonism) to affirm the importance of creation and the necessity of understanding the physical world as the beginning of the soul’s ascent to God.
To further understand creation, Bonaventure encourages the study of the sensible world in a way that is at home to the modern sciences: observe things, weigh things, measure things, number things, and compare things. As we do these basic measurements, there emerges a self-evident order and beauty. The more we study a thing in itself, it exhibits qualities that point to something beyond itself, ultimately pointing to its Origin. Key to understanding this process for Bonaventure is how we are able to internally process and reflect upon the order and beauty of things. As we understand and take delight in a thing we observe, we encounter the second set of wings of ascent, allowing the person to discern God’s image and likeness in this world of created things. In a real way, all things bear God’s image, but only humanity bears both God’s image and likeness. However, we should not read Bonaventure’s distinction as purely academic, but as being intimately tied to his own mysticism and that of the founder of his Order, Saint Francis. Pope Francis reflected upon this in his Encyclical Laudato Si’ when speaking of Saint Francis’ mystical view of creation.
Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled. (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’. 11)
As we read the words of Pope Francis, we begin to see the language of scientific examination and spiritual mysticism begin to blur with and separate from one another. To help us make clear distinctions is this math to mysticism, Saint Bonaventure makes a distinction between apprehension and comprehension. Fr. James E. Salmon, SJ in his series of lectures entitled The Intersection of Science and Theology: Evolutionary Theory and Creation states that, for Saint Bonaventure, “to apprehend is to grasp something of reality, but not be able to encircle it or define it. To comprehend is to grasp and be able to encircle something or define it like a mathematical theorem.” (Fr. James, Salmon, SJ, Ph.D. The Intersection of Science and Theology: Evolutionary Theory and Creation. Lecture 12) This helpful distinction shows us that as we study the physical world, there are those shadows and vestiges that we can comprehend, meaning we can understand them completely, leading to a clear definition that encapsulates the thing being observed. However, as we reflect upon image and likeness, the things we comprehend begin to take on a new dimension that points to something beyond the thing itself, like a footprint or fingerprint of the Divine, which also unites all things. This type of recognition is what Saint Bonaventure means by the term apprehend, meaning that we can grasp a thing’s reality, but cannot fully encircle or define all of its aspects. This distinction is not a mere recognition of gaps in scientific knowledge that will be closed someday. Rather, it is a humble recognition that scientific language has limits, able to occasionally point to the possibility of something beyond our natural world, but lacks, by its very nature, the ability to encircle or define that which is beyond nature. It is at this point that Saint Bonaventure introduces the final wings of ascent in the illumination of the soul, which is to understand the unique mystery of God’s oneness of Nature and Trinity of Persons, revealed to us through Divine Revelation.
As I reflect on Saint Bonaventure’s insights, I can’t help but think of recent social media claims that can be summarized as, “Science has confirmed God’s existence.” As odd as this might sound, my first reaction as a priest to these bits of cyber click-bait is deep skepticism. From a pastoral perspective, I want to make sure the people I serve receive the truth of our faith, free from over sensationalized claims that can do more harm than good to a person’s spirituality. On a personal level, I know the feeling of being duped by these claims, hoping that some monumental breakthrough has occurred in our understanding of the world, but come to find that I was nothing more than an innocent victim of someone’s attempt to stir up people of faith. One of these forms of cyber deception that is rather popular these days in the claim that scientist Michio Kaku has found definitive proof of God’s existence. When digging into this, I have come to two conclusions: Michio Kaku himself would probably reject this claim and the actual reflection of Michio Kaku fits nicely as an example of the first step of Bonaventure’s mystical ascent. Let’s explore what I mean.
When I was in seminary, I clearly recall the first time we explored St. Thomas Aquinas’ “proofs” for God’s existence. In an attempt to stave off any misunderstandings that could occur in this exploration, our teacher told us, “Now, these are not ‘proofs’ in the modern sense of the word, but better understood as ways of understanding how a logical creation points to a logical Creator.” The teacher also emphasized that Thomas is working through these proofs from the presumption that God exists. Therefore, the move for Thomas is not from no belief in God to belief in God, but rather Thomas’ proofs are logical demonstrations on how the order and beauty of creation, to borrow language from Saint Bonaventure, points to an origin to this order and beauty (A first unmoved mover, A first undesigned designer, etc.). Far are we, in these demonstrations, from an understanding of the God of the Old and New Testaments, the saving love of Jesus Christ in our lives, and the foundational movements of the Holy Spirit that are central to Christian belief. Rather, the point of the proofs is to demonstrate the logic of belief in a Creator.
This lecture came to mind watching scientist Michio Kaku’s Big Think video entitled “Is God a Mathematician?”, which is the video many websites have used to claim that science has definitely proven God’s existence. In this video, Dr. Kaku nicely lays out the development of physics and mathematics from Newton to String Theory. In the conclusion of the video, Dr. Kaku states that perhaps God is a mathematician and the mind of God is discovered through the music of strings resonating through the numerous dimensions of space. At this point we can ask the question: Has Dr. Kaku proven that God exists because of the science of String Theory?
To begin with, if it was the intention of Dr. Kaku to demonstrate a “proof” for God’s existence (which I doubt was his motive), this brief video will not ascend to arguments laid out by Saint Thomas. The reason I say this, however, is not because of Dr. Kaku’s presentation of science, but, rather, his demonstration lacks the logical sequence demanded by philosophy and theology to argue for such a proof. Nevertheless, I am intrigued that Dr. Kaku is essentially pointing out the core thesis that goes back to my reflection on Bonaventure that a logical, ordered, and beautiful universe points to something beyond this universe that is it’s ultimate Source. From this standpoint, we can affirm a consistency between Dr. Kaku’s presentation of String Theory and the first step of Saint Bonaventure’s ascent that observes, measures, weighs, and numbers the shadows and vestiges of creation, demonstrating a profound sense of order and beauty. However, Dr. Kaku’s final conclusion stops the ascent at this point and concludes that a good candidate for the mind of God is the resonating strings of String Theory. My first reaction is to simply ask Dr. Kaku, Where did the resonating strings come from? Can we not affirm that the order and beauty that is found in String Theory intuitively points to something beyond these resonating strings that ultimately points to the very grounding for the string’s existence in the first place? This curious final cadence in Dr. Kaku’s reflection on God being a mathematician also begs another question: What is the difference between a “proof” of God’s existence and answering the question, “Who is God?”
Revisiting my seminary lectures on Thomas’ proofs, it is always important to remember, as people of faith, that the logical demonstration of the existence of God is one thing, but it is a completely different exploration to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” As I did a little more research on Dr. Kaku’s thoughts on God, I was not surprised to find that the God Dr. Kaku argues physicists often affirm is the “God of Spinoza.” (Though I know physicists who would not agree with Dr. Kaku in reducing physicists’ faith to this assessment.) And who is the “God of Spinoza” referenced by Dr. Kaku? In Dr. Kaku’s words, this God is the God of order, beauty, and rationality. Again, we find ourselves back at the first stage of ascent in Saint Bonaventure’s exploration of shadows and vestiges. Therefore, we can see that modern science is not inconsistent with the spiritual ascent of Saint Bonaventure from the standpoint of the beginning of our ascent to God. However, the materialist tendency of modern science finds great comfort in simply affirming a soft agnosticism on the question of God with no further exploration into the topic. This, however, should not be a shock to us nor offend the serious Christian. Since the nature of science is to remain neutral on questions of God, then the most that science can affirm on this question is a soft agnosticism or the mere plausibility of a God. Therefore, as Christians try to demonstrate the reasonable arguments for God’s existence, we need to avoid an implicit reduction of our defense of God’s existence to only the scientific. We need to reaffirm, as a people of faith, that ascent of the human soul towards God requires inner reflection on how God’s image is present in creation, how God’s image and likeness resides within the human person, and how God has come to meet his people in the person of Jesus Christ, asking us to come and follow him so that the God of beauty and order can bring about beauty and order within our soul through God’s grace and a life of doing God’s will. Put another way, String Theory may someday demonstrate the plausibility of God in a way similar to Saint Thomas’ “proofs” of God’s existence, but these theories are only the first step in a lifelong exploration of who we are in relation to God and who God is in our lives.
Spiritual Exercise: Do we really open ourselves up to a spiritual ascent into God or do we limit ourselves, only seeking a Creator that is comfortable on our terms? As we pray for the courage to open our hearts to this exploration, let us give thanks that the modern sciences have continued to reveal to us the order and beauty of the created world. And from that foundation, may we seek God’s image and likeness in our lives, allowing God’s presence to be known to us through the gift of God’s illuminating grace.
Much of the biographical and theological points of Saint Bonaventure are a summary from the article, Saint Bonaventure from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.