Sunday, December 28, 2008

Capax Dei

I'm just getting around to reading Pope Benedict's brief remarks to the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the occasion of their Vatican meeting in October on "Scientific Insight into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life." I try to keep abreast of these things because of my enduring affection for the church into which I was born and raised.

On the whole, the pope's remarks are far more sympathetic to the scientific enterprise than what might be expected from Protestant evangelical Christians, Islamic religious authorities, or, for that matter, the Roman Catholic Church of my youth.

He accepts in principle the scientific account of cosmic evolution, while reserving a role for an eternal agent who causes the world to be and who continuously supports evolutionary history. Except for the personal pronoun, which may represent a bit of anthropomorphic overreaching, this is a formulation that even the most empirical scientist might reasonably accept. Benedict calls it "God." The religious naturalist might call it the mystery of why there is something rather than nothing, and why the something is "legible" (the pope's word).

Benedict approvingly refers to Galileo's notion of "the book of nature" whose meaning we "read" according to the different approaches of the sciences. Here he is close in spirit to many modern Catholic theologians -- Thomas Berry, for example -- who see nature as the primary revelation. He also thanks the natural sciences for having "greatly increased our understanding of the uniqueness of humanity's place in the cosmos."

He insists that what makes us different from the other animals is our capax Dei, or yearning for God. A kind of spiritual hunger does seem to be part of our biological nature. He diverges from the spirit of science, however, when he insists that every soul "is created immediately by God -- it is not 'produced' by the parents -- and also that it is immortal." But he also suggests that this notion of the soul invites exploration by modern thought.

Which brings us to the Creed.

A few weeks ago I attended a celebration of the 50th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood of a dear friend. The evening began with Mass, and my friend preached a sermon of such theological subtlety, spirituality and natural grace that I was about to join the audience in Communion. Then the congregation recited the Creed -- born of a virgin, rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father, awaits the resurrection of the dead, etc. -- and I was dumped back in my chair. Does anyone really believe that the Creator of the universe is right handed? And if that's just metaphor, why not the other stuff?

If the book of nature is revelation, how is it that after almost two millennia of reading the book the Creed remains the same? Have we learned nothing? Really, dear friends within the Church, isn't it time to call a new council -- a Second Nicaea, so-to-speak -- to reformulate the Creed in language more consistent with both the substance and spirit of modern thought. An "intelligible," "rational" (the pope's words) order does not require miracles. Surely there is more incitement to awe -- more nourisnment for our capax Dei -- in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photograph or the molecular machinery of a single cell than in the miracle-ridden, spirit-haunted world of 4th-century Nicaea.

How about something generously inclusive like this:

We believe in God, the source and animator of heaven and earth, and all that is seen and unseen.

We honor the personhood of Jesus Christ, light of the world, who gave his name and inspiration to the Christian fellowship, and who taught us to love all women and men as we love ourselves. For us he made the ultimate sacrifice, that we might live more freely and graciously.

His spirit lives on, in the mystical body of the Church. Together, in his name, we celebrate the mystery of life, and await the time when his dream of universal peace is fulfilled.

With the water of Baptism we affirm our desire to wash away our sins and live the love he exampled in his life. In remembrance of him, we share together the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and invite all persons of good will, regardless of faith, to join our table.

We commit ourselves for as long as we shall live to the continuance of his message of charity and hope, to provident stewardship of the planet, and to the fulness of life in the terrestrial world to come.


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