Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Can Man Understand?

Can the human being really understand God? The verse from the Bible that comes to mind is from Isaiah, Chapter 55 (NAB at USCCB):
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.
This is not to say we shouldn't try to understand God in some way. It is not right to shrug our shoulders and say that if we can't know Him we might as well move on to some other interest (science, for example). We have to juggle a little, and not let a concept either dominate us or be immediately rejected. Pope John Paul II wrote a very interesting encyclical called Fides et Ratio. He describes the interaction between faith and reason, and it is well worth reading.

I've been reading Church history about the reaction of the magisterium concerning evolutionary theory. Though I started in Darwin's time, the relation of science and philosophy to Christianity actually goes much further back and I'm becoming increasingly aware of its relevance to my interests. So I'll just give a very general overview here.

When philosophy began in the West, some 600 years before Christ, it was an attempt to understand things in terms of reason, not mysticism or mythology. It therefore included the study of nature which we now consider science. The first Greek philosopher was Thales of Miletus who lived around 600 BC. The famous Greek philosophers followed in this order: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who died in 322 BC. Aristotle worked out a "Natural Philosophy" in which the natural world was defined in terms of movement (in rather complicated interactions of place and time) .

Greek philosophy became known to scholars throughout the ancient world. It did not take very long after Christianity spread for someone to try to combine the understanding of Christ with this Greek thought. Frederick Copleston, in A History of Philosophy, Vol. 2, lists Marcianus Aristides as one of the first to do so in about 140 AD. Then came Justin Martyr who used philosophy even more openly, and Clement of Alexandria, a scholar who lived in Alexandria, Egypt between 150 and 215 AD. He headed a school for teaching Christian theologians known as the Catechetical School of Alexandria. Pope John Paul considered St. Augustine, who elaborated on Plato's philosophy about 400 AD, to be the first to truly produce the "first great synthesis of philosophy and theology" (Fides et Ratio, sec. 40).

St. Thomas Aquinas combined Aristotle with Christian understanding in the 13th Century. Others disagreed with their speculations, and there has been wrangling throughout history on the importance of reason in contrast with faith. In particular, a monk named William of Ockham placed more emphasis on faith than intellect in order to know God (as I understand it). Ockham, though, seems these days to have the reputation of cutting away faith altogether in favor of science, in which case he is misunderstood. He was concerned that Aquinas, in his effort to incorporate what Aristotle called Universals, limited the free will of God. (Universals were supposedly essences of things which existed outside physical things, such as "red-ness" for all things that look red.) If God could only create according to Universals, Ockham felt He would be limited in choice.

Well, philosophers and theologians have wrangled for centuries about God and our relationship to Him and how we understand Him. Of course, with the scientific revolution, people have wondered more and more if we could "cut away" God altogether and be left with nothing but the material world. Many indeed have done just that in their personal worldviews. But now biology is showing that some things cannot be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry, at least as we know them now.

Many think that physics and chemistry will never be able to explain the codes of DNA, and how the DNA is arranged in ways that resemble the computer systems created by human intelligence. Many, however, believe scientific research will eventually be able to explain everything.

This, in a very condensed version, is where we stand now.

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