Stanley Jaki OSB, RIP: Committed to Reality
Michael-John Galbraith FAITH Magazine May-June 2009
Father Michael-John Galbraith is Parish Priest of Jedburgh, Hawick and Kelso
Jacques Maritain once noted that, "in the realm of culture science now holds sway over human civilization". The problem is that the dominant perception in human civilization is that modern science owes its success and historical development to its emancipation from the shackles of Christian culture. According to this reading of history, Galileo, Bruno and Darwin, amongst others, are merely particular instances of this general trend. Only when the great minds were liberated from the biblical accounts of creation and the controls and censures of ecclesiastical authorities were they able to make a qualitative leap in scientific progress, bringing about the un-fettered birth of modern science.
In the last 40 to 50 years, there have been few academics more intent upon holding this critique of modern science to account than the late Fr Stanley Jaki OSB, who sadly died on Tuesday 7th April last. A prolific writer on the theological, philosophical and ethical issues related to the faith-science debate, Jaki's work can safely be summarised as the intentional repudiation of the modern, secularist agenda which seeks to place science and Christian faith in radical, philosophical and historical opposition. As he notes in his intellectual autobiography:
"The resolve to deny any tie, factual or possible, between Christianity and science, has become essential to modern secularism. Whatever concessions it might be willing to make, modern secularism will not yield an inch on that point, which serves as the basic rational foundation of its radical rejection of the supernatural".
Jaki's battle with the secularist critique of modern science has been relentless and very fruitful. Born in Hungary in 1924, he joined the Benedictines and upon completion of his training was sent to the Pontifical Institute of Sant' Anselmo, Rome, where he obtained his doctorate in Systematic Theology in 1950. Although he had been interested in science from a young age, it was while teaching dogmatic theology in the United States that he became increasingly fascinated with the connections between his own subjects and those of science and philosophy. Perhaps as providence would have it, an unsuccessful tonsillectomy robbed him of his voice for the best part of ten years. Being unable to teach, he devoted his time to the study of advanced physics and completed a doctoral thesis in particlephysics under the guidance of Victor F. Hess. It was not long after this that he undertook the historical investigations for his seminal work, The Relevance of Physics - a work that displayed his mastery of science, history, philosophy and theology and scholarly attention to detail.
Since then he has published dozens of books and numerous articles on connected themes concerning faith and science. For the majority of this time he has been on the Faculty of Seton Hall University, New Jersey. He won the Lecomte de Nouy Prize, received the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, lectured in many of the most prestigious universities throughout the world and obtained several doctorates in honoris causa. Added to this, he was made an honorary member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by Pope John Paul II in 1990.
The primary thesis for which Jaki became well known was that of the historical dependency of modern science upon Christian culture for its only viable birth. With devastating, scholarly detail, Jaki turns the whole Enlightenment project of separating Christianity from science upon its head. Analysing the isolated success of science in the other great cultures of the world, he demonstrates how their long-term failures (or 'stillbirths') were invariably connected to the dominant philosophical or religious mindset of the given culture, especially the pervasive influence of eternal cycles and other tendencies towards fatalism. These were never conducive to sustained, experimental investigation.
The extraordinary phenomenon of the sustained birth of modern science in Western culture, however, is linked with meticulous investigation to the cultural influence of monotheism and the Christian doctrine of creation exnihilo - a doctrine which both upheld the contingent, linear development of creation and its rationality through the existence of the physical laws of nature, or 'secondary causes', without thereby undermining God's omnipotence. It was this cultural backdrop, Jaki consistently argues, that was essential to creating the necessary cultural environment for sustained, experimental investigation to be encouraged.
He always happily admitted to being profoundly influenced by the monumental but largely ignored work of Pierre Duhem, the French scientist and Catholic, especially 'Le systeme du monde'. Jaki went on to tease out the effect that a more specifically christological monotheism had upon Western culture and the birth of science, namely, an even greater emphasis upon the doctrine of creation, the contingency of matter and its ordered nature in the providential plan of God.
For Jaki, then, there was always a real historical sense in which Christ was the saviour of science as well as the saviour from sin.
Nevertheless, if in the realm of science Jaki experienced with Pierre Duhem a 'meeting of minds', the moderate or 'methodical realism' of Etienne Gilson became his "philosophical lifebelt". This became a gradually more influential factor in Jaki's writings; one which made his own mind focus more clearly on the subtle but crucial influence of Christian philosophy upon the development of science and also on the fortunes of natural theology, in particular, the influence of a realist epistemology. The doctrine of creation assumed the existence and essential dependability of external reality and the doctrine of the Incarnation practically anchored a realist epistemology as an essential philosophical prerequisite of Christian faith. True, thiswas only really worked out as part of a philosophical system with the scholastics in the thirteenth century. It was St Thomas who would define truth as adequatio rei ad intellectum within his systematic theology, but this was also the century to which Duhem had traced the beginnings of modern science. The convergence of the cultural impact of Christianity, the historical development of science and the presumed epistemological realism of the Christian faith were too much for Jaki to pass-off as mere coincidences.
With this renewed enthusiasm forThomist realism Jaki began to discover that, "whenever a great creative advance took place in science, one could notice that those chiefly responsible for that step cast their vote, however unconsciously, for a realist epistemology. But the converse of this was also amply revealed by history: whenever a method of science was proposed that ran counter to or excluded a realist epistemology...a real or potential threat was posed to science". Jaki discovered the same to be true for the fortunes of natural theology, especially during the last three to four hundred years where the extremes of empiricism and idealism were a constant threat. Both science and natural theology affirmed the essential reliability ofexternal objects and the ability of the mind to grasp them. If this first step in human knowledge is fundamentally called into question then the scientist undermines the process of scientific enquiry and the theologian empties the significance of the Incarnation and the objectivity of all other concrete acts of God in history. Theology and science have a common friend in philosophical realism.
This is not to say that Jaki only wrote on the historical origins of modern science. He has not been shy from venturing into biblical exegesis, artificial intelligence and even Newman studies. However, he has always been keen upon marking out the respective limits of science and philosophy as well. Invariably using a topical issue in faith and science, he would lay bear the inconsistencies and contradictions at the heart of many populist writings on faith and science. Jaki always drew attention to the inherent incompleteness of science as a discipline. Even a Grand Theory of Everything will not be the last word in science and the need for representing the faith in synthesis with the knowledge of the day will always be with us.
Nevertheless, it is the need to uphold an epistemological realism in both faith and science that came to dominate his works. It was little surprise, then, that Jaki never became a darling of the Catholic academic establishment during his lifetime. True, the polemical nature of his writings may not have always helped his case. As a Catholic blogger noted on the day of his death, 'he did not suffer fools gladly'. Furthermore, he did also have the tendency to repeat himself from one publication to the next and, rather infuriatingly, failed to engage systematically in the finer points of thomist realism and any possible development of it in the light of modern science. See our Letters and Road from Regensburg columns for a discussion upon whether Gilson's late philosophy ofscience manages successfully to connect his earlier realism with the emerging discovery of the inter-related character of the natural world.
However, when Catholic theology of the 1960s to the 1990s largely aligned itself with transcendental Thomism or other influences rooted in epistemological scepticism, Jaki could only scream in horror from the sidelines. Knowing that science now held sway over human culture; knowing that science itself only came to viable birth within Christian culture; knowing that Christian culture was inherently realist in its philosophical predisposition; and knowing that this realism had perhaps been the most significant factor in the sustained development of science itself, it must have seemed like intellectual suicide
and one of life's tragic ironies to see Catholic theology align itself with a philosophical tradition that was the very antithesis of the tradition that had led to the most dominating factor of modern culture: science.
Along with others, notably Cardinal Ratzinger, it was of no surprise to Jaki that these theologies and the catechetical programmes based upon them studiously avoided all theology of creation. If there is scepticism about external reality, why use creation as one's theological point of departure? Instead they focused upon the subjective perceptions and internal anxieties of the human person as their point of departure, which for Jaki was all very well as a second step in theological dialogue but not the first. It is the external reality of creation that impresses itself upon the mind that must always be the first step in theology. For Jaki, it was not for nothing that the dogma of creation was the first article of the creed and the firstbook of the bible: "without Creation, and a Creation by God who is Father, there is no possibility of a discourse about Incarnation, Redemption, and the final consummation in a New Heaven and Earth".
For a long time, Jaki's warnings went unheeded. Indeed, it is arguable that those who write in the field of faith and science have deliberately ignored much of Jaki's work. Nevertheless, his critique of the development of modern science does slowly appear to be being accepted - in no small part due to the work of Paul Haffner, whose study in the thought of Stanley Jaki is still by far the best introduction. It may be that a lot of effort is still required for Jaki's insights to become common knowledge and the received explanation as to the origins of modern science. If it does, there would have been no one less surprised than Fr Stanley Jaki. He was quite conscious that "a Catholicintellectual must be ready to swim against the tide which will flow against him until the end of time".
Notwithstanding this observation, and in memory of a great mind, "Catholic intellectuals, but especially theologians, would do well to acquire a thorough familiarity with Jaki's works. They constitute a pivotal tool - historical, philosophical and theological - in the great task of turning science into a blessing, natural as well as supernatural, for humanity". May the Lord of Creation grant him eternal rest and reward for his labours. ■
JAKI, SL., A Mind's Matter, Eerdmans 2002, p.x.
JAKI, SL., A Mind's Matter, Eerdmans 2002, p.88.
JAKI, SL., A Mind's Matter, Eerdmans 2002, p.93.
Cf, RATZINGER, J., 'In the beginning...': A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, T&T Clark, Edinburgh 1995, p.ix.
JAKI, S.L., Cosmos and Creator, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh 1980, p.556.
Cf, MCGRATH, KB., A Scientific Theology, vols 1-3, T&T Clark, Edinburgh 2001 -2003, which in a thousand pages only grudgingly makes a passing reference to Jaki. Other references are made to Duhem but not to the only person to write a monograph on the life and works of Pierre Duhem: Stanley Jaki. There are numerous other such examples in other authors.
HAFFNER, P., Creation and Scientific Creativity, Christendom Press 1991.
HAFFNER, P., Creation and Scientific Creativity, Christendom Press 1991, pi 30.