FAITH Magazine November-December 2009
A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology
by Alister E. McGrath, Westminster John Knox Press (available from Alban Books), xvi + 262pp, £26.99
Judging the book by its title, I was expecting just another account of the various 'coincidences' found in the fundamental laws and constants of the universe, which seem amazingly carefully chosen to allow the emergence of life, and which therefore point to the existence of a Cosmic Designer who brought the world into existence for just that purpose. What I found was much more thoughtful, and correspondingly more valuable as a contribution to the contemporary debate between science and Christian faith. McGrath divides his book into two equal parts. The second part is indeed given over to an account of such fine-tunings, largely taken from the realm of biology; but it is the first half which makes the more original and thought-provoking contribution.
The book starts by considering the concept of natural theology, noting that this very notion is conditioned by prevailing scientific attitudes. In ancient times it denoted a form of thinking based in the real world rather than in myths. 'Classical' natural theology sought to demonstrate the existence of a transcendent realm from a neutral examination of nature: a mode of thought which reached its zenith in Enlightenment England with such characters as William Paley. McGrath suggests a new reformulation of natural theology, seeing its task as offering an interpretation of nature based on Trinitarian faith, including an account of human engagement with nature in the moral and aesthetic dimensions as well.
For McGrath, natural theology should not attempt to prove the existence of God; its aim is more modestly to show the consistency or 'resonance' between a Christian worldview and what we observe scientifically. In this regard it follows the same form of reasoning as the natural sciences do themselves: not providing infallible inferences which compel assent, but creatively and insightfully - and provisionally - seeking the best explanation of the observed data.
It is here that I took issue with McGrath. I agree that science does not proceed by irrefutable deductive logic; but whilst some scientific ideas are indeed provisional, others surely command certainty. Must I really retain some doubt about the existence of atoms or that bacteria cause diseases? Perhaps the sun really does go around the earth after all! Is it not possible, therefore, that we could achieve certainty about the existence of God from nature? Certainly Catholic dogma asserts the possibility of such reasoning.
I also had some concerns about how objective McGrath considers explanations of scientific data to be. At times he speaks of theologians and scientists 'discerning' or 'having insight' into nature; natural theology has explanatory power because it corresponds to how things really are (p. 40). But elsewhere he says the construction of meaning is the creative work of the human mind (p. 4); natural theology looks at the world through particular spectacles (p. 22) -expressions which are at least open to a subjectivist interpretation.
However I was much happier with McGrath's observation that a Trinitarian worldview fits in very well with a comprehensible universe (since the world and the human mind both come from the Mind of God); with an evolutionary cosmos (following Irenaeus' idea of God's 'economy'); and with the existence of evil as well as good (due to the Fall).
Perhaps McGrath's greatest contribution to the debate is to demonstrate how well St. Augustine's theology of creation provides a foundation for contemporary natural theology. In particular his idea of rationes seminales (causal principles embedded in creation from the beginning, which emerge in due time under God's providence) can be happily accommodated to modern evolutionary cosmology and biology.
The second half of the book gives a good but brief review of the scientific evidence for the universe being fine-tuned for life. McGrath gently states that the evidence is clearly supportive of the existence of God, which is preferable to the alternative explanations of mere chance or observer selection effects. He rightly states that the multiverse hypothesis fails to make God unnecessary, since the multiverse is subject to the same fine-tuning arguments as the universe. However, some deeper discussion of this would have been welcome.
Particularly valuable in part two were the chapters on the persistence of teleology in biological discourse despite its political incorrectness, and the insights into reality being multi-layered (e.g. microscopic and macroscopic; chemical and biological), requiring different sciences to have different methods, and calling for a renewal of metaphysics to incorporate the insights of modern science.
McGrath concludes by remarking, "The extent to which the musings and reflections presented in this volume constitute an argument for God's existence ... must be left to others to decide" (p. 221). If it is the job of a reviewer to make such decisions, I suggest that he has presented abundant evidence which could be worked into such an argument. However, the greater achievement of the book is that its readers should have a deeper insight into what sort of thing such arguments are and how they work.
St. John's Seminary Wonersh
God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science
by James Hannam, Icon, 320pp, £20
Dr Hannam wishes to temper, if not completely destroy, two longstanding and fallacious notions about the medieval period in the writing of this work. Firstly the idea that little of scientific consequence occurred during the period due to a mindset that was 'darkened' through a belief in God, and secondly that the Catholic Church held back scientific progress in this period for it only to be liberated through the advance of a more 'scientific' and secular age. For the general reader Hannam achieves this and far more besides. God's Philosophers is lucid and engaging throughout due to his ability to guide the reader to a broad appreciation of philosophical trends that have led to scientific advance, while lucidly bringing to life the fascinating personalities involved.
According to Hannam the denigration of the Middle Ages began with the humanists of the sixteenth century. Writers such as Hobbes and Bacon caricatured the period partly due to an anti-Catholic bias combined with the fashion to abandon Latin and a rigorous logic in philosophy. Such attitudes were compounded with the philosophers of the eighteenth century writing their own 'whiggish' version of scientific history in which the rejection of the Church provided the counterpoint to the rise of science. In the nineteenth century such an interpretation was popularised by thinkers like Thomas Huxley and Andrew Dickson White in an era in which the formal separation of science from natural philosophy was confirmed. In more recent times it is not difficult to find this narrative alive and well in thepopular press and modern media.
Much of Hannam's narrative rests on an understanding that the Church was the environment in which a scientific mindset was actively sponsored and given room to grow: "The popular image of the medieval Church as a monolithic institution opposing any sort of scientific speculation is clearly inaccurate. Natural philosophy had proven itself useful and worth supporting. It is hard to imagine how any philosophy at all would have taken place if the Church sponsored universities had not provided a home for it." The flourishing of free enquiry rested on the very Christian assumption that there was something inherently good and comprehensible to be investigated and pondered, and that man's rational powers were there to be used.
Hannam attributes great significance to the fourteenth century as a period in which fertile ground was prepared for modern scientific advance. This was due to a combination of factors including the assimilation of the mathematical treasures of the eastern world and the acceptance that the Aristotelian corpus might not be infallible when it came to the truths of the physical world. The attitude of John Burridan (c.1300-c. 1361) was typical of the era: "it is evident to us that every fire is hot and that the heavens are moved, even though the contrary is possible by God's power. And it is evidence of this sort that suffices for the principles and conclusions of natural philosophy." This attitude, assuming the ordered and discoverable nature of the world also allowed for God's extraordinaryor miraculous intervention in history. Using the advanced mathematics of the period Burridan and Nicole Oresme (c. 1325-1382) amongst others had to conclude that previous ideas on motion and gravity introduced by Aristotle were false according to observation and reason.
It was natural for the medieval thinker to see purpose and order in creation because of their theistic and teleological worldview. Rather than retard the progress of science, such a vision provided the philosophical foundation that enables 'modern' empirical investigation. Whether it be Thomas Bradwardine's (c.1290-1349) assumptions that mathematics and philosophy belong together or William of Conches' (c. 1090-?) understanding that secondary causes did not threaten the omnipotence of God, such medieval thinkers were aided, not hampered by being within a Catholic Europe.
Hannam also contributes to the dismantling, some myths about the inquisition and the debate on heliocentrism. The inquisition was the result primarily of the increasingly pious twelfth century masses taking heretics 'into their own hands.' The inquisition was a rational and controlled response aimed at achieving justice on the basis of evidence rather than hearsay. The result was a reasonable sanctuary for the falsely accused and a legal system "that remains the basis of criminal law in Europe today."
Hannam explains that at the publication of Copernicus' heliocentric theories, no dramatic suppression occurred; in fact the works were dedicated to Pope Paul III. Any opposition that a heliocentric view provoked at the time was due to a lack of scientific evidence and was from fellow natural philosophers rather than Church authority. Hannam then goes on to show that Galileo was not treated as a heretic nor as someone who had done anything especially wrong. Instead the Church ruled his theories to be a "mathematical hypothesis" rather than a reality that could threaten how some interpreted doctrine. It was a complex mix of envious peers, a personally offended Pope (Urban VIII), fear of uncontrolled heresy, high politics and Galileo's own arrogance that produced his unfortunate censorshipas a writer. While we can blame senior figures in the Church for suppressing a theory partly due to ignorance and personal feelings, according to Hannam Galileo is just as much to blame for conspicuously ignoring the request of the inquisition and provoking the reaction that followed.
Hannam concludes by destroying the idea of a particular "scientific revolution", happening between Galileo and Newton, claiming that the term is "one of those prejudicial historical labels that explains nothing." Hannam's case is eloquently reasoned throughout and his narrative compelling. Any reasonable Christian without a detailed knowledge of this period should consume this book without hesitation.
St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, Passionate Lovers of Life
by Sister Clare Agnes OSC, St. Paul Publications, 188pp, £J.9Jp
This is a paperback with a bright cover and rather charming children's-book style illustrations showing plump nuns in patched habits and cheerful monks with round faces and round tonsures. It is simply written and clearly has the aim of introducing the story of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare to the modern reader. I enjoyed it, and found it most informative: I had, like most people who have a vague idea of the story of St. Francis (radical change of heart of rich young man, life of poverty, miracles, stigmata, brings new vibrancy to the Church) little real knowledge on the subject and had always failed to place him in properly in context.
Sister Agnes does an excellent job of setting the scene: an era of social change, an awareness of a need for reform in the Church but those attempting it mostly drifting off into schism or heresy. And she explains the life of St. Francis very well - revealing, for example, that the process of change was a gradual thing and that it began with simple gifts to the poor and a real commitment to prayer, and the more dramatic events such as the encounter with the Crucifix at San Damiano came only after this preparation.
Is this book written for children? Clearly so, from the style and the illustrations - but frankly I think it would appeal to many adult and teenage Catholics today. Sister Clare Agnes is a former teacher and deputy head of a Catholic comprehensive school - after becoming a Poor Clare sister later in life she is able to use her skills in communicating the Faith to good advantage in this book. You hear the voice of the teacher -things are well explained and events set in context so that their real significance can be understood - but the style is not too formal or didactic.
The author is clearly drawn to the person of St. Clare, and writes about her with affection and enthusiasm. There is an emphasis on Clare's very winning personality, her genuine ability to be humble and to serve others, her dislike of anything approaching a sense of superiority or pride. This last is a central message of the book: Francis and Clare saw themselves as being at the service of God and their fellow men and in a special way of the poor.
I like the descriptions of Clare's style as Abbess: her concern not to have favourites, her sense of the community being a family, her way of drawing all into decisions that needed to be made. There is an absence of any cloying sentimentality in the writing style: it is simple and direct, has no clichés, and manages to bring the extraordinary events of several hundred years ago into our reach.
We are living at a time when many people don't read much, and where information is skimmed lightly from the Internet.
School projects degenerate into a few clicks on a computer and some material downloaded and pasted on to sheets of paper in a plastic folder. Knowledge is acquired in bite-sized chunks and noise is everywhere. So it is perhaps a very Franciscan thing to offer a fresh and rather humble approach: a cheerful paperback, readable by anyone and everyone, written in simple direct prose.
"The contemplative spirituality of both Francis and Clare can be summed up very simply. They would say to us: root yourself in Jesus' love for you and desire him with all your being. Empty out of your system all other desires that have a hold on you, put everything down, so that there is room in your heart for him and for others." There is more, but that's the start, and it's a challenge that renewed the Church in the 13th century and still has the capacity to do so.
After reading this book I understood for the first time why some one might want to enter a Poor Clare convent and follow that Franciscan path.
New Maiden Surrey
Mystery of Faith: Amazing Nearness
by Father Tadeuz Dajafer, available from Eucharistic Renewal Books, www.eucharisticrenewal.org, 113pp & 97pp, each £6 JO including p&p.
Father Tadeusz Dajczer who died on Our Lady's birthday this year, graduated at Warsaw and the Gregorian Universities and was for many years Professor of studies at Warsaw's Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University. He was a tireless researcher. In this first of five books now available in English, he makes the audacious claim to have explored undiscovered land in an unknown world. The more one reads, meditates and prays with these truly astonishing writings, the more one realises he makes no false claim.
Over fifty years ago, the late Father Edward Holloway inspired me towards making spirituality a top priority. Daily meditation became essential; he saw that dogmatic theology needs never to be viewed in isolation from the moral and spiritual; radical Christian life and witness is the interpenetration of ex opere operato and ex opere operantis; effective expressions of faith and liturgical rites call for fervent inner spiritual life. Faith is never stagnant; it is dynamic and on-going. It is natural to explore beyond the distant hills; spiritual telescopes can regularly pierce through the clouds and mist to focus with greater clarity in infinite regions; theology is constantly developing. It is all very exciting, compelling and revealing.
Dajczer meditates upon how our infinitely loving Eucharistic Lord tirelessly pines from eternity, waiting for each of us as an unrequited lover. He just has by nature to love each of us individually in a way that nobody else can ever begin to do. His love is amazingly personal and unconditional; Our Saviour has not left us orphans; He comes really close to meet us in the Eucharistic Memorial and in every tabernacle. God is infinitely hungry and thirsty to come into our lives. The more we respond, the more our daily love and friendship moves away from the superficial to become warmer and more sincere. So stale and lifeless marriages are able constantly to revive, priesthood avoids instability, boredom and loneliness. We need to share this love and friendship. Others look to us to give tothem what we are quite unable to give without the input of infinite love. Umpteen variations of egocentric attitudes block our transmission of the soundest and deepest theological thought in church and school unless we humbly adore before the infinitely powerful One.
These books need to be our regular companions; they are the summary of a deeply God-centred man's lifetime, thought and spiritual explorations. The underlying themes of these meditations spell out with clarity how to sustain marriage and priesthood and reveal the poverty of Christian life and witness without the unique insights of devoted celibacy. I know from my many exchanges with Father Holloway that he would applaud such writings. I owe him too much not to make them known. More than fifty years later, I am also indebted to Father Tadeusz Dajczer.