Sunday, December 30, 2007


As a Catholic (adjective) ex-Catholic (noun), I should take note of Pope Benedict XVI's recent encyclical, Spe Salvi ("in hope we are saved"), his second, a document which has things to say about science.

The pontiff's subject is hope, which he understands to be closely related to faith. Only Christian hope makes life bearable, he says, and hope is guaranteed by the promise of union with God.

He begins with a discussion of hope and faith in the early Church, and contrasts the God-centered faith of the first Christians with the "philosophical rationalism" that prevailed in the Roman world. "Philosophical rationalism had confined the gods within the realm of unreality," writes Benedict. "The Divine was seen in various ways in cosmic forces, but a God to whom one could pray did not exist." And indeed this is a fair description of the work and writings of people such as Galen, Lucretius, and especially the Alexandrian mathematicians, geographers and astronomers who laid the classical foundations of modern science.

Philosophical rationalism is not enough, insists Benedict. "It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs...the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love -- a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word."

The pope then outlines an opposition that continues to resonate in our own time: philosophical naturalism vs. faith in a supernatural reality.

Christian hope and faith direct our attention outside and beyond the world of material elements, says Benedict, and find their culmination in eternal life. What exactly eternal life is he has some difficulty saying. He is smart enough to know that we won't be walking on streets of gold for an eternity of time; to continue living as we live now endlessly will seem to many "more like a curse than a gift." He concludes that we have no idea what eternal life consists of, but it has nothing to do with time as we know it. Rather, it is "like plunging into a sea of infinite love" -- whatever that means. He does not mention the doctrine of the resurrection of the body (at least not until late in the document, and then only in passing); all those eternally beating hearts presumably introduce a troubling notion of temporality.

Benedict then turns to the revival of philosophical naturalism in modern times, which he ascribes principally to Francis Bacon, and in particular to a new alliance of science and technology. For Bacon and his successors, hope anticipates a banishment of the world's woes through the application of human knowledge and creativity, says the pope. Baconian hope is reinforced by faith in progress: the Kingdom of God replaced by a Utopian future of science and praxis. What Bacon offers is what on this site and elsewhere is sometimes called religious naturalism -- what Benedict calls a "transition from ecclesiastical religious faith to rational religious faith."

The pope acknowledges the undoubted material benefits of science and technology, and notes chillingly (and rightly) that scientific knowledge can lead as quickly to the atom bomb as to penicillin. He suggests that unfettered philosophical rationalism culminated in the terrible excesses of the French Revolution and Marxism. "Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science," says Benedict, and in this he is surely correct. Every generation, including our own, must continue the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs. And here philosophical naturalism and Christian charity come together: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. "It is not science that redeems man; man is redeemed by love," writes the pope. To which the philosophical naturalist can only say amen.

The principle point of divergence, then, between the message of the encyclical and religious naturalism is this: for Benedict, the proper ordering of human affairs can only come with faith in a God who has "a human face" and who loves us to the end, and in his son Jesus Christ who offers eternal life; for the religious naturalist, a basis for ethical action is looked for in the primary revelation which is the universe itself.

In practice, the good Christian and the good religious naturalist want the same just society on Earth, and we pretty much agree on how to achieve it: love of our fellow humans. We differ in our sources of knowledge. Benedict struggles, valiantly I think, but ultimately unsuccessfully, to contrive a Christian message suitable for the 21st century while bearing a crushing baggage of prescientific dogma.

There is another troubling aspect of the encyclical for the religious naturalist: the exclusivity of the Christian avenue to salvation as described by Benedict. Running like an invisible thread through the document is the bedrock assumption that true hope and faith can only be found in communion with Jesus Christ and his earthly representatives in Rome. This is the sort of exclusivity that religious naturalists abhor, and which the notion of the creation as primary revelation soundly refutes. The search for goodness and love is common to all people. Our common genes predispose us all to both good and evil, and our common neuronal complexity bestows upon all of us a de facto freedom to order our affairs in any way we choose.

Benedict writes: "While we must always be committed to the improvement of the world, tomorrow's better world cannot be the proper and sufficient content of our hope." For the religious naturalist, that better world of tomorrow for which we earnestly strive is our fondest hope.

Further Reading

The encyclical Spe Salvi, issued on November 30, 2007, can be found on the web at here. The pope's first encyclical was on faith. The next presumably will be on charity.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.