Pentecost and the Meaning of Nature


Pentecost tells us that we are sent into the world and that we can go out without fear. We are given what we need so that we can truly speak, speak the words that have transformed the world and continue to transform it. God’s Holy Spirit is with us. We can speak the words that bring peace, healing, and reconciliation to all. For this, we are sent into the world.

We, here, are truly where the challenge is the biggest. We are a community of men and women whose professional lives are the natural sciences, but we are also a community of Catholic Christians.

Even though science and faith cannot possibly be in real opposition, they nevertheless express the biggest opposition imaginable in the way we understand life, in the way we understand our existence, and in the way we understand our place in nature.

This is how I summarize the modern, scientific, secular worldview: It is the false conviction that living bodies are just physical things, as meaningless as the atoms of which they are made. It is the false conviction that natural being has no meaning in itself. It is the error of parting nature and meaning.

By the error of this parting we, human persons in nature and creatures in the world, fear to be nothing but strangers in a strange land, homeless wanderers between heaven and earth.

We do not need to say that science is a reason to believe in God. We do not even have to say that science is not an argument against belief in God. Most people get this. They do not really need to hear it again. What they do need to hear is that science is no reason to question the reality of human persons as the image of God in the world. For this is where there is doubt. It is the doubt that begins when we mistake scientifically understood nature for actual nature.

Great harm is caused by this doubt. In bioethics, when the dignity of the human being is forgotten. In our relationship to nature, when the dignity of non-human creatures is not seen. In our social relationships, when the duties inherent to our place in life are forgotten. When all meaning is separated from nature, then all meaning is ours to determine as we wish. We can act as we wish. One has to have a lot of trust in human goodness to believe that this will end well.

In this time, when such thought is possible and even wide-spread, our voice matters a very great deal. We are scientists of nature; we are supposed to make sense of the world. Let us do so. But let it make sense as God wants it to make sense, as God has written sense into the Book of Nature.

We have this duty. Remember the last words from the Gospel today. What we forgive, we forgive; what we retain, we retain. This is not just about the Sacrament of Reconciliation; it is a universal call to bring forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.

All are meant to be forgiven, all are meant to be saved, all are meant to be brought into communion with God. The sins we retain, the ones we cannot heal, these become our failures.

We are called to heal, and what we need to heal are the wounds caused by the scientific-technological culture. They can only be healed by a new understanding of nature, one that satisfies our search for meaning.

Our message must go out to all the world. And the Christian message of salvation is much more than a message about better living through science and faith. It is a message of a new cosmos, a new creation, a transformation of all that there is. All of it is meant to become the Body of Christ. Think of what Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians: “in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.”

The fullness of real being is God. In philosophy, God is the first principle, the act of being itself, but in the faith of Christ, God is a community of persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The tri-personal God is the first principle, the act of being itself.

If this is what we believe, how can we be in doubt about what is real in the world of creatures? What is the most self-evidently real among creatures? Is it atoms or persons?

Do not let yourself be drawn into a naïve materialism that thinks that persons are a mystery but matter is easy to understand, as we have physics to tell us all that there is to know about it.

Yes, physics has its own integrity and completeness and simplicity and logical clarity that sets it apart from other forms of knowing. But why is it possible—why can material things be understood by way of physic’s mathematical abstractions—this is where there remains much mystery!

We need to remember where natural human knowledge begins! Long before we know physics and the atoms of which it speaks, we know human persons in the world. We know love and care before we know power and use.

What we know of human persons in the world is primary. It is what we know first of the world. It is what constitutes our real environment, the real material world in which we live and where our being has material form.

Of course, we grow up and learn, our knowledge differentiates and matures, and we learn that there are a multitude of beings of different kind in the world. But we always understand them against the backdrop of what we understood first—that the human faces that showed us care disclosed to us their personal self.

When we remember this, then we can see that our knowledge of material things is always an abstraction from this first knowledge of persons. We know being from our own being. We know life from our own life. We distinguish between beings that we recognize to be persons, and beings that are alive, and beings that are just there.

Now we know how to see meaning, and degrees of meaning, and our knowledge of meaning is grounded in material reality with unquestionable certainty. We just have to start at the right end—with persons, not atoms.

All creation proclaims the glory of God. All creatures give praise to God. This is not some kind of modern fusion of environmental ethics and Christian faith, but a fundamental understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The glory of God is meant to be proclaimed by all creatures. And the Spirit of God whose presence in us we remember today is meant to draw all together into one, into unity with God.

What makes the human person the image of God in the world is not a property, such as consciousness. Through consciousness, we gain the ability to hear the word of God, to receive God’s spirit, and let it transform us so that we can proclaim the word of God.

But we are persons as material beings. We are made in the image of God in the world as the material being that is meant for the Word of God, irrespective of how well we can live up to the potential of our human existence. The meaning of the human body, irrespective of its state in development or proximity to death, is that it is meant to hear the Word of God, to receive the spirit of adoption into God, and proclaim the Word of God. Whether this body will do so is not important. What is important is that it is meant to do so, that its meaning is in it, and that it is endowed with inviolable dignity through this meaning.

In the value of our own lives, we can see the value of life even when it is not personal life. By abstraction from the meaning of our own existence, we can see meaning elsewhere in nature. We can see the dignity of animals in their own life. We can see the meaning of their lives. They do now own their own lives, which is something only persons can do, which is why their rights are of a lesser kind. But there is dignity in them, and meaning, and a call on us to respect this meaning. And by further abstraction from meaning as we see it in our own being, we can continue this and find meaning in all creatures and in all creation.

This is not the meaning of an idealized nature from which all human presence has been removed, as if nature would be meaningful if human beings were not part of it. But neither is it an imposition of meaning on account of human need, on account of human supremacy over creation. Instead, it is meaning that acknowledges that creation proclaims the Glory of God, and that persons such as we are called to recognize it and proclaim it in a personal response so that the Glory returns to where it belongs.

Remember the mystery of matter. Remember the meaning of material creatures. Remember the dignity of the human person, as a human being, as a body.

Think also about what we will pray in a few moments. “[T]his is my body which will be given up for you.” Later, I will ask you: “the Body of Christ?” and you will respond: “Amen.” It is true. We will receive the Body of Christ, to nourish us in our bodily existence, so that we, too, become the Body of Christ, as material and embodied creatures.

If you want to be a philosophical realist, if you want to affirm the reality of material being, then begin by being a realist about this. If you want to speak truthfully, affirm the truth of this. If you seek understanding, begin by trying to understand what it means.

When you have understood matter in this way, when you appreciate the meaning of material being, then go out into the world and proclaim the Good News!

(This is the homily that I preached at Pentecost Sunday mass together with attendees of the 3rd annual meeting of the Society of Catholic Scientists)


About the author

His intellectual formation includes a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Munich, but now most of his writing is about faith and science. After a career in universities and biotechnology companies in the US and Canada, he changed course. He became a Franciscan Friar in 2008 and was ordained a priest in 2014. His scientific research interests were the mechanism of intracellular protein transport and the use of proteomics to understand disease mechanisms. Now they are the relationships between modern science, the Franciscan view of nature, and Christian faith. His ministry is in Montreal, with an emphasis on outreach to young adults and all others who try to understand their faith in a scientific-technological culture. His most recent publication is "Remembering Francis: Making Sense of Modern Life", available at Franciscan Institute Publications.

Last updated: November 22, 2021

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