Order of Friars Minor Franciscans of Canada

Two Orthodoxies?

Two Orthodoxies?

 

How could there be such a thing—two orthodoxies, rather than one, or two proper ways of speaking about and encountering truth, which can only be one? But what about science and theology, or speaking of nature, and speaking of God? Each has its proper way of speaking, each is an orthodoxy, but how do they relate? I am posting this while in Chicago for the weekend, and it is my first visit back to a country in which I had lived for ten years, in the 1990s. Back then, I was an active research scientist, first at the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York and then at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. I would have known of only one orthodoxy, the sciences. Their meticulous and systematic approach towards understanding seemed to grasp all that is within reach of human reason. Or so I thought.

Marc Chagall, America Windows (detail, The Art Institute of Chicago)

Back then, my intellectual interests were pretty much limited to the sciences, and especially my own research program. These were exciting times, with big successes and equally big failures. Good years, but I have no regrets of having moved on, to new challenges, and a very new way of living. Learning theology in preparation for my vows as a Franciscan friar was a wonderful opportunity to start anew, in mid-life, and learn an entirely new way of thinking. There is nothing like starting a new course of studies in a completely unfamiliar field to broaden one’s horizon.

The occasion for coming to the US again is the first meeting of the Society of Catholic Scientists. We have Stephen Barr from the University of Delaware to thank for it, as he took the initiative to bring a enough people together to give this project a chance of success. There are many ambitions for this society. The first is to show that faith and science are very much compatible, and that talk of conflict between them is really just bad philosophy. Then there is the need to offer a support structure for young Catholics who want to embark on a career in the sciences. Here is my own ambition for this project: the authority of science, the possibility of science as broadly-accepted consensus knowledge among all people, should open our minds for faith.

Keith Ward, a respected scholar of faith and science, once told me that what he tries to do is to open people’s minds for the possibility of divine revelation. He felt that this is how far one can take people by arguments alone: to establish the possibility of revelation, to prepare the ground for recognizing revelation, and then leave it to people to see properly and accept the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Marc Chagall, America Windows (detail, The Art Institute of Chicago)

I am convinced that science is, indeed, an encounter with truth, and but it can only give us an approximate and potentially misleading glimpse of the truth of God that is revealed to us. It comes to us in the grandeur of astronomy and the absolute rationality of the mathematical formalism that describes it. It is the beauty of the mathematical universe. But this can be misleading, and it is when we think that science can stand alone as a starting point for human understanding. The human person is the proper starting place of understanding the world. All else we know, and especially what we learn by way of science, is derived by way of abstraction. It is abstracted from the human experience of individuals existing in community and their lives. Science is not more but less real than our lives.

This will be the thought that I will explore in my talk at this conference, and I hope that I can get my point across. But when we accept that the human person is the starting point for understanding science, then we can also see that the revelation of God must be as a human person. This opens our minds to Jesus Christ, and it lets our hearts accept him. And it is the way we can draw it all together, faith and science, in one true orthodoxy.