On his blog and in a recent Catholic Herald piece (9.9.16) Bishop Robert Barron offers some excellent reflections upon a recent Pew survey looking at reasons why young people are leaving Christianity in droves. He well shows how Roman Catholic leaders and teachers are dangerously underestimating this crisis. But he seems to deny what for us is a key cause, the misinterpretation of science. He begins his survey of the survey this way:
‘Many evidently felt that modern science somehow undermines the claims of the faith. One respondent said: “rational thought makes religion go out the window,” and another complained of the “lack of any sort of scientific evidence of a creator.” Well, I’m sure it would come as an enormous surprise to St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, Blessed John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Joseph Ratzinger—all among the most brilliant people Western culture has produced—that religion and reason are somehow incompatible.’
Four of the names who he claims are likely to be very surprised by the 'science undermining religion' claim lived after the 17th century advent of modern science. At least three of them saw major challenges for the Church in the intellectual milieu, at least two explicitly focussing on the influential interpretations of science. They saw a serious needed to develop Christian philosophy (ultimately of science) in order to be able to do what Barron is asking for. Before quoting them on this it’s worth pointing out that Barron is clearly missing this for he goes on:
“And to focus more precisely on the issue of ‘scientific evidence,’ the sciences, ordered by their nature and method to an analysis of empirically verifiable objects and states of affairs within the universe, cannot even in principle address questions regarding God, who is not a being in the world, but rather the reason why the finite realm exists at all … …. There simply cannot be ‘scientific’ evidence or argument that tells one way or the other in regard to God.”
Blessed John Henry Newman noted with trepidation the beginnings of the revolution:
"The assailants of dogmatic truth have got the start of its adherents of whatever Creed; philosophy is completing what criticism has begun; and apprehensions are not unreasonably excited lest we should have a new world to conquer before we have weapons for the warfare." (Introduction to The Development of Christian Doctrine). His Grammar of Assent and Philosophical Notebooks show his attempt to seed the urgently needed philosophical development.
In The Abolition of Man C.S. Lewis put the reactions to the New Science of Bacon, Descartes and their respective successors in an appropriate context. He suggested that the pre-Enlightenment popularity of an “abstract” metaphysics was “an unhealthy neighbourhood and an inauspicious hour” for the advent of “the modern scientific movement”. He called for “a new Natural philosophy”, adding “I hardly know what I am asking for”, though “I also suggest that from science herself the cure might come.” (The Abolition of Man, Fount, pp. 47-48).
Pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger) often spoke about this theme. Here he is to participants in the plenary assembly of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 10th February, 2006:
“scientific advances have sometimes been so rapid as to make it very difficult to discern whether they are compatible with the truths about man and the world that God has revealed. At times, certain assertions of scientific knowledge have even been opposed to these truths. This may … have made the proclamation and acceptance of the Gospel difficult.… Consequently, every study that aims to deepen the knowledge of the truths discovered by reason is vitally important …We must have no fears about facing this challenge: Jesus Christ is indeed the Lord of all creation and of all history. The believer knows well that "all things were created through him and for him ... and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:16,17).… This commitment is crucially important for the proclamation and transmission of the faith in the contemporary world. … a serious evangelizing effort cannot ignore the questions that arise also from today's scientific and philosophical discoveries ….”
We would give the last word to St. Augustine.
Concerning “the earth, the heavens ... the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth”, he stated that “it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics which he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. ” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, AD 394 – our emphasis).
The temptation today is stronger and more dangerous than ever.
July/ August 2019
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