In my last post on God and creation, I ended by sharing three themes that emerge when we look at faith and science: Humility, Pilgrimage, and Fear of the Lord/Awe and Wonder. In the weeks ahead, I want to flesh out these themes, exploring how they can deepen a healthy dialogue between faith and science.
To begin with, I find an interesting parallel between the themes I mentioned earlier and the ascetical themes of truth, goodness, and beauty. Drawn from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, these themes have been reflected upon in numerous ways throughout the history of philosophy and theology. In regard to modern theology, two figures, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs Von Balthasar, stand out in their treatment of these categories. In both cases, Rahner and Balthasar affirm that these categories give us a glimpse into God who is the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Therefore, the exploration of these categories in the natural world are a type of metaphorical window through which we can glimpse the divine. The difference between Rahner and Balthasar is trying to understand which of these categories is the best starting point to enter into this exploration. For Rahner (and Kant), the proper sequence of this ascent is to begin with the true, move toward goodness based upon our exploration of the truth, which then leads us to “the Beautiful” (God). For Balthasar, he prefers to reverse this sequence, arguing that the proper starting point is beauty. Once we are grasped by beauty we are drawn to understand goodness and truth as an act of irresistible attraction to “the Beautiful” (God). For some, this may seem a little like “which came first, the chicken or the egg,” but there is some real merit in trying to make this distinction. Let’s explore what I mean and then apply this to humility, pilgrimage, and awe and wonder.
Back in seminary, then Fr. Robert Barron (now Bishop) would give the following analogy to demonstrate the difference between Rahner and Balthasar as it pertained to truth, goodness, and beauty. Imagine that the local art gallery in town is going to have a showing of Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” There are two ways you could prepare yourself to experience this great masterpiece of art. On the one hand, you could buy some books about Van Gogh, study his life, motivations, artistic influences, his significance in history, his battles with the Church, and so forth, helping you understand both the artist and what makes the work of this artist good and beautiful. At that point, you could go, see the painting first hand, and experience the beauty of the painting through your understanding of truth and goodness. This would be a “Rahnerian” approach to Van Gogh, first understanding what is true about The Starry Night, developing an appreciate for why this is a good painting, and then experiencing its beauty. Balthasar, on the other hand, would encourage you to first go and see The Starry Night, allowing the mind and heart to be taken by the beauty of this masterpiece. From this experience of beauty, you would then start to explore questions of what makes this a “good piece of art” out of an irresistible desire to deepen your understanding of truth, coming to a profound appreciation of The Starry Night.
With this as our background, let’s see how this applies to the categories of humility, pilgrimage, and awe and wonder. As I reflect upon Rahner and Balthasar, I see a parallel between truth and humility, goodness and pilgrimage, beauty and awe and wonder. In regard to truth and humility, the Latin root of the word humility implies that we are “brought low” or “to the ground.” I see this as a parallel with coming to know something as true. When we are brought low in a moment of humility, it usually stems from an awareness of how little we know about God, the world, or ourselves. In order to be “lifted up” from this experience of humility, we begin to explore anew the truth of who we are, the world we live in, and how that understanding deepens and enriches our understanding of God. If we allow humility to morph into humiliation, then we choose to live in ignorance, never pursuing that which can deepen our understanding. Therefore, humility and truth go hand-in-hand, allowing us to appreciate our lowliness, but also begins the ascent to a new understanding of ourselves, the world, and God.
This process of coming to a deeper understand of ourselves, the world, and God is what I am calling the “pilgrimage” aspect of faith and science. This understanding of pilgrimage coincides with the move towards “goodness” in Rahner and Balthasar, seeing in their thought not only a theology of superficial beauty, but also seeing a deep theology of goodness on the moral level, striving to live a “beautiful life.” This “beautiful life” is also applicable to the study of science from the standpoint that as we understand the truth of creation, we also learn what helps this creation maintain its goodness. An example of this would be how Pope Francis is calling the Church to be conscience of our ecological decisions, reflecting on how our use of natural resources can either promote human dignity or cause damage to our common home. In short, the more that humility leads us to exploration, the more we understand how to take care of our lives, our planet, and our relationship with God.
This pilgrimage brings us to awe and wonder or Fear of the Lord, being reduced by the unimaginable beauty of God. This experience of beauty can be of this world, as we gaze in wonder at extraordinary things like a spiral galaxy or a flower in the field. This experience of beauty can be internal, as we come to a deeper recognition of the person God has made us to be and how that person, despite our struggles, is beautiful in the eyes of God. Lastly, it brings us back “to the ground” as we realize that the beauty we discover in the world and in ourselves is merely a “mote of dust” (to borrow the oft-quoted sentiment of Carl Sagan) in our understanding of the transient beauty of that which is the source of all beauty: God. The literal icon of this beauty is the person of Jesus Christ, “The Beautiful” in the words of Hans Urs Von Balthasar. In his person, we see in the Incarnation the meeting point of the natural and supernatural, the beauty of this world commingled with the transcendent beauty of the Trinity, and an example of self-sacrificial love which is the highpoint of how we are to live a beautiful life: By laying down our life for our friends and enemies.
Reading this application, one might think that I am a “Rahner” in my application of these themes of truth, goodness, and beauty. However, I don’t know if I would feel comfortable pushing either as the definitive sequence of coming to know God, the world we live in, and ourselves. For example, I experience awe and wonder when I see NASA and VATT images of galaxies, nebulas, planets, and all the wonderful things of the universe. They are “beautiful” to me on a superficial level and bring me “to the ground,” wanting to understand the truth of these spectacular objects in more detail. However, there are times I can look at an individual star and think, “What’s so beautiful about a pinprick of light?” However, once I learn the truth about how you can understand star classification, the relationship between color and heat, and how the dimming of stars points to other Solar Systems outside of our own, suddenly these pinpricks of light are far more fascinating as I come to appreciate the beauty of the thing I am looking at.
I can also see a clear parallel between these experiences of night sky objects and my prayer life. I have had experiences of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament that have brought me immediately to awe and wonder before God. However, I have also had the dry experience of having to learn how to pray well. For example, ask any priest, religious, or lay person what they went through to learn the simple art of ribbon placement in their breviary so they could pray morning prayer and evening prayer (presuming they are not “cheating” by using a breviary app). Whether it be this experience or learning the components of the Mass, we can affirm that prayer can be both an immediate experience of awe and wonder, but also can be an experience of being drawn into beauty through first understanding what is true and good about prayer before it is experienced.
In conclusion, I am more comfortable seeing truth, goodness, and beauty as a cyclical relationship instead of a linear relationship. At the heart of this exploration is goodness that is experienced in beauty and learned through truth. I find this to be a beautiful parallel with the categories of humility, pilgrimage, and awe and wonder. At the heart of this framework to help us explore faith and science is pilgrimage or the journey we embark upon, experiencing awe and wonder, bringing us to the ground, which the sends us on a journey back to awe wonder, which brings us back to the ground, and so forth. What makes this exploration possible is our willingness to embrace the pilgrimage, just as goodness is the “hinge” that brings together truth and beauty.
Spiritual exercise: What are moments of humility that have brought you to the ground? What is the pilgrimage that you have been on as a response to these moments of humility? What is the beauty that you have discovered on this journey, reducing your heart to awe and wonder? And how does that experience bring you back to earth, calling you to pilgrimage again? Pray with these questions and, together, let us continue our pilgrimage, leading us into the heart of God.