Thursday, October 25, 2007

God, creation, meaning, and purpose: A jazz-like improvisation on a riff laid down by Fr. Oakes

Fr. Edward Oakes, S.J., who is a professor of theology at Mundelein seminary, which is the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago, over on Observations & Contentions, posted a piece entitled Purpose: Biological, Biblical, or Both? about meaning and purpose according sacred scripture.

The form of Christianity that is the target of the worst attacks of critics, like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett is what Fr. Oakes calls “one-dimensional fundamentalism.” Like the critics, as Catholics we also reject such a narrow literalist reading of sacred scripture. Nonetheless, we believe in a Creator God about whom we confess that "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen”. Our basis for such a belief lies in both revelation and reason. Scripture tells us, from beginning to end, that God is the origin and destination of all that is. Hence, we look to many passages throughout the sacred library we call the Bible, passages like, "In the beginning, God created . . ." (Gen. 1,1); "He created everything according to its kind' (Gen. 1,11); "He upholds the universe by his word of power' (Heb. 1,3); "You have made him [man] little less than God" (Ps. 8,6); "All things were created for him [Christ]" (Col. 1,16); and "Subdue the earth" (Gen. 1,28). We also learn from scripture, as well as from Aristotle, that "what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse" (Rom. 1,19-20).

So, we are good ground. Nonetheless, the authority of the Bible, which we revere as revelation has to factor in at some point in the discussion. Since we reject biblical literalism, especially as it relates to certain genres of literature we encounter in scripture, like the creation stories of Genesis, what authoritative claim does the Bible have over us? In seeking to examine this question, Fr. Oakes injects two papal statements into the discussion. The first statement is from Pope Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu:

"“the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their ideas,
did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we
use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries.
What those exactly were the commentator cannot determine as it were
in advance, but only after a careful examination of the ancient literature
of the East.

The second, by Pope John Paul II, is taken from a written message from the late Holy Father to scientists and theologians:

"If the cosmologies of the ancient Near Eastern world could be purified and assimilated into the first chapters of Genesis, might contemporary cosmology have something to offer to our reflection upon creation? Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology, the meaning of the human person as the imago Dei, the problem of Christology—and even the development of doctrine itself? What, if any, are the eschatological implications of contemporary cosmology, especially in light of the vast future of our universe?"

These two statements taken together in isolation, according Oakes, "make it seem that the Bible is being hit from two directions at once: the sciences of archaeology and history determine the Bible’s past meaning, and contemporary sciences, biology and cosmology primarily, determine what we are allowed to find credible today." This sets the stage for the question about the authority of the scripture, "how and where is the Bible allowed to speak on its own terms?" It is at this point that he introduces arguments from a recent book written by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, OP, the archbishop of Vienna, who served as chairman of the drafting committee of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I will not go into. Suffice it say that scripture does speak with an authority of its own. However, in order for scripture to speak clearly we must read it properly which means, among other things, understanding the genre of the book of scripture we are engaging. As I have stated several times before, when we read, say the creation stories found in Genesis (there are two distinct stories), we make a grave error by reading them literally, as if we are reading an actual history of creation, just as many mistakenly think that the mystery of the Trinity consists in somehow explaining that 3=1, which, of course, it does not. The worst result of this grave error is that the narratives lose much of what they seek to communicate. I gave another example in a homily last week, one of the readings for which was the Book of Jonah: "it is necessary to point out that the author of the Book of Jonah does not record, or even pretend to record, actual events. Hence, instead of getting bogged down with silly questions, like how can a person survive inside a big fish for three days, we should focus on the divinely inspired message that the author is trying to convey through the telling of the story. After all, Jesus' parables were not about things that actually happened. Are they any less true, or applicable to life for that? "

It is in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes that we find at least a provisional answer to this quandary, which states:

"methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God. Indeed whoever labors to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, even though he is unaware of the fact, is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity. Consequently, we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed".

Fr. Oakes brings his post to a conclusion by stating that "the most significant statement that the Bible can say to science" is that "Everything that comes to us is pure gift, precisely because it has been gratuitously, graciously, and freely created by God. If you want purpose in your life, don’t look to biology, look to creation, that gracious bestowal of existence from which all other blessings flow, including life in all its splendid biological complexity." In other words, Truth, Beauty, Goodness are transcendentals. Hence, they are metaphysical, over and above physics. We get so bogged down with facts and act as if facts themselves give us Truth. Facts are not value neutral, especially when facts are linked together in narrative fashion in order to explain a theory, which is precisely what science does.

Take the so-called Big Bang as an example. We know the story: A piece of very dense matter exploded in space. From this explosion the universe, or, as is now fashionable among some cosmological physicists- multiverse- was born. This narrative certainly takes account of all the facts, as far as we are presently able to discern them. There is no reason to doubt the veracity of this story, this narrative, which is told in order to explain the theory. There are several things for which this theory does and cannot account, like, What is the origin of the dense matter? What caused the explosion? Now, physics either does or probably can account for these questions, but even if that is so, the question physics can never answer is why, or to what end did any of this occur? Of course, the response of many is why does there need to be a reason? Of course this is an odd question coming from a scientist who has dedicated his/her life to inquiry. Fr. Oakes gives us a rather good answer to this question about meaning and purpose, an answer rooted in the nature of the human person. Writing about star atheist and Darwinian champion Richard Dawkins' frank admission that nobody in their right mind would want to live in a society governed by the principles of Darwinism and that such a society, like Nazi Germany, would inevitably be a facist state, Oakes observes that Dawkins' "ethical critique of Darwinian dystopias itself testifies to man’s uniqueness, specifically his possession of a conscience independent of evolutionary forces. And once conscience asserts its independence, it’s but a short step to establish that the same holds true of man’s natural desire for God". Such an answer gives us not only hope, but confidence that we can intelligently discuss meaning and purpose in light of faith, while, at the same time, accounting for all the facts.

I apologize for this post being a bit of a jumble, but in light of yesterday's post and given my limited time, it is the best I could string together this morning.


  1. I'm reading this with interest.

    So would it be fair to say that, based on the independence of conscience, the question is not why anyone should believe in anything at all, but rather, in fact, why does not everyone believe in the same thing?

  2. Conscience of necessity has to be independent in the sense that conscience cannot be coerced. I am not dealing with th question everyone doesn't believe the same thing, but how our quest for meaning and purpose is answered by God's revelation and exploring, at least to a small extent, the relationship between religion and science, faith and reason, Truth and knowledge.

  3. Ah, I see that you're way ahead of me.

    I was still muddling through whether it's certain that we can believe anything at all, and if so, why doesn't everyone believe the same thing.

    But I don't want to slow you down. Please continue.

  4. It is certain that we can believe something. In fact, it is a 100% certainty. Everybody believes something. If you say you don't believe in anything, you actually believe something. Instead of atheism or agnosticism being the default settings of human reason a la Descartes, it really is belief. Even in secularized Europe close to 90% of people believe in God. So, the issue there is more of who is this God in whom you claim to believe?

  5. I take your point that everyone believes in something. But this admission, I think, only reaches as far as an agnostic position.

    It goes like this: yes, it seems that everyone must believe in something but there is no agreement on the object of that belief. If I place my trust in belief in general than I can become a devout relativist but not much more. N'est-ce pas?

  6. That everyone believes in something, even if that something is a belief that the universe is random and pointless, is an atomic statement. More troubling is that you reaffirm that agnosticism is the default setting of human reason. For many it is, this is the Cartesian, or modernist/enlightenment, legacy.

    We've moved passed modernism to what we call, for a lack of better term, post-modernism. This is the mindset that gets us back to the idea that everybody believes in something and that all beliefs have equal status. So, whether you believe in the God of biblical revelation or the flying spaghetti monster it doesn't matter.

    The Christian answer to both these mindsets is that, as regards the first, the method of doubt, it simply isn't true because, despite our hesitancy to trust, especially religious authority, we do find meaning in the universe and in our own lives over and above any meaning we try to manufacture, or that anyone seeks to impose on us. In other words, we are struck by beauty, we recognize good, even if only in reference to evil. These are the beginnings of the recognition of truth. As Msgr. Giussani pointed out The Journey To Truth Is An Experience.

    As to the second, the superiority of Christian belief can be demonstrated when directly contrasted to other ways of believing, other ways of explaining meaning. Just think of the two most fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith: Trinity and the Incarnation. These are consonant with everything we know from human investigation and have great explanatory power, when correctly understood and applied, which is what theologians try to do.

  7. I take it that atomic means irreducible: a first principle.

    I guess I'm guilty as charged: I do see the agnostic position as being inescapable. This leads to the "leap of faith". Etc. Etc. Etc.

    Now, I'm going to digest your two last paragraphs.

  8. Yes, irreducible is a good description of atomic- meaning that it is a given. Of course, you are not alone in seeing agnoticism as the deafult setting of human reason. This mindset has a lot to do with the milieu in which we are brought up and educated.