Monday, July 30, 2012

Cosmology and Catholic thought

A few reflections on cosmology and Catholic thought, prepared at the invitation of my colleague Professor Glenn Sauer, Biology, for his Templeton-funded project that brings the discussion of science and religion to parishes in our diocese. 

1.  We begin the discussion of cosmology by recognizing that Catholic theology has always had a theological understanding of the distance between humanity and God, and our inability to name this.  Thus, words like "eternity" and "infinity," as divine predicates, don't name really large instances of chronological time and dimensional space, but aspects of the divine that transcend our measure.  In a similar way, there is an interpenetration of meaning between the words "transcendence" and "immanence:" God's immanence is God's transcendence -- and vice-versa.  Otherwise put:  To be God is to dwell within the world in a way that isn’t bound by it.

2.  The point about the physical world that is equally difficult to comprehend is that we exist within space and time, these are not concepts that are separable from physical existence, nor are they separable from each other.  Time isn't ticking along and then suddenly chunks of stuff show up.  This is probably the most basic point, from the physical sciences, for our consideration.  Time and space are products of the big bang, not building blocks, they characterize our cosmos, they don't precede it.
William Stoeger, S.J., has a good summary of the science claims at issue from the perspective of cosmology (so, on the beginning of the cosmos) in his “Key Developments in Physics Challenging Philosophy and Theology,” in Richardson and Wildman, eds., Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue (New York:  Routledge, 1996), 183-200.  And he has a good summary of the science claims at issue from the perspective of eschatology (so, on the end of the cosmos) in his “Scientific Accounts of Ultimate Catastrophes in Our Life-Bearing Universe,”in Polkinghorne and Welker, eds., The End of the World and the Ends of   God:  Science and Theology on Eschatology (Harrisburg, PA:  Trinity Press International, 2000) 19-28.
3.  To understand the Catholic perspective, we need to have a good sense of the deep structure of this vision.  It relies on a notion of sacramentality -- a sense that creation itself reflects the God who gives it life; that creation is therefore good, and, more pointedly, that creation itself CAN mediate the divine (thus, the formal sacraments of the Church require things like water and oil and wheat and human bodies to be effective, not just pious thoughts!).  

The way in which this sacramentality permeates Catholic theology is already generously present in the work of the second-century Irenaeus of Lyon (the quick overview here is found in detail in Catholicism by Gerald O'Collins and Mario Farrugia).  Irenaeus affirms the extension of catholicity by insisting that the Catholic faith can unite many peoples and languages (horizontal catholicity), it is also connected to the past (so, a sort of vertical catholicity, as Irenaeus rejects Marcion's desire to cut Christianity off from its Jewish source).  Irenaeus claims that sin damages but does not destroy the imprint of Creator on creation, and that the entirety of creation is implicated in the great theological sweep of redemption (see also ITC, 2004).  Finally, Irenaeus affirms the goodness of bodily life, arguing that Mary's humanity is capable of being "Mother of God" and that, against Gnosticism, the world itself is good, not something to be discarded on the way to "spiritual" growth.

Catholic life is worldly in the best sense, both connected world-wide through ecclesial structures that stretch across the globe and link over time.  It is also deeply immersed in that world, through the riot of devotional life and sacramental practice and bodily disposition.  To be Catholic is never to despise the world, but to join with it in praise and thanksgiving, singing already with the communion of saints of the salvation that is being made here and now.

4.  Catholics therefore read Genesis not as a chronology of events, but as a story of the drama between humanity and God, a story that limns carefully the breadth and depth of this engagement.  This means two things:  a) Catholics are not biblical fundamentalists, they do not see the literal sense of Scripture as the only sense.  But this further means b) Catholics don't see creation as simply a text, as if "the world" were just the stage or the backdrop for the story of humanity and God.  We read scripture sacramentally.

SO.  When a development like the "discovery" of the Higgs boson comes along, what to think?  

On the one hand, there will always be those who have a naive understanding of Christianity who will either reject the rigorous scientific account that supports this, or who will find this to be another "proof" that Christianity is untenable (scientism).  This is a zero-sum game (In Ian Barbour's 4 models of science and religion, these perspectives give rise to the conflict and independence models).

On the other hand is the account above, that tries to see both of these in more nuanced ways, as asking different questions yet both pushing for the most foundational account possible.  To the extent that one has a commitment to the discovery of a single comprehensive perspective, one is pushing for Barbour's notion of integration.  This is difficult.  For some, the answer is to argue that dialogue is the best we can do here, as beings that are both created by God but created (finite) nonetheless.

There's a third issue, for our own day, which is that our (contemporary, western) understanding of religion and religious faith is increasingly seen as a private and spiritualized phenomenon.  So, for example, we tend to find outward signs -- posture, gesture, etc. -- to be merely a sign of the real movement of faith, which is "in my heart," it is inner, spiritual.  (So, I don't have to go to church on Sunday, I can walk on the beach and think about God instead.)  

And, even when we do embrace outward manifestations of religion, the impulse to do so is still privitized, because it's seen as an individual choice -- "she's into that, it's her thing."  Both of these sensibilities work against the sacramentality mentioned above, which is communal and material, it has (specific) extension in space and time.  "Stuff" matters to the Catholic sensibility, there are specific gestures and materials and words that, we hold, really do "call down" divinity into our created world (we say "epiclesis"), a world already restless with the divine image.

5.  One more point about the physical world.  I mention above the "totalizing" account that is the story of the big bang.  There is also the "end" of the cosmos to consider, which may happen in several ways, but will certainly happen.  It is interesting to me that, just as both cosmology and Genesis play out an account that seems to require a "first point", both Revelation -- that wild and baggy tale -- and the variety of "ends" possible for this world seem to both be curiously open-ended.  We seem much more fixed on the past as dogma, while comfortable with much more ambiguity and speculation when it comes to the future.  This may bear further consideration in the future.

An interim summary, for a discussion to be continued.  Both Catholic thought and our unfolding understanding of our universe and its origins are accounts that purport to be "total" accounts.  They have the same inner impulse:  to trace the pattern of what is most real, and to think and live through that as faithfully as possible.  They both hold that, in some (perhaps quasi-)foundational way, their account is the most true; it is the most comprehensive understanding of the order of things.  They both, interestingly, at their best RESIST the drive to fundamentalism, they both have an inner dynamism in creative tension with their foundational claims.  My purpose in trying to lay out these two "systems" is simply to demonstrate how comprehensive (in an extraordinarily nuanced way) each is -- which is why trying to integrate them is so difficult.  Yet that is the question for both, as each of these systems has an extraordinarily powerful inner drive toward integration, a drive which is centered on the human person and our capacity to know ... and yet, wonder.

And finally, the Higgs boson ring-tone!  You know you want it.