by ILIA DELIO
For the ancients, the study of nature was essential to knowing the real. We know not simply to navigate but to narrate our lives, to give reason for the hope which lies within us. The ancient psalmist captured the wonder of the cosmos when he wrote, “when I look at the heavens and the stars which You arranged, what are we that You keep us in mind?” We postmoderns, worn down by complex lives, financial insecurity, interpersonal conflicts, and the persistent threat of terrorism, often look to science and technology as our escape route: there is an implicit belief that science will save us from our own demise. But even when we are in the best of health and have the latest gadgets, the deep yearning within us for more being and life is not satisfied by the wonders of science. The deep core of the human person clamors for life because this core is created for the infinite, for absolute love, and cannot rest until it rests in God.
The ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle did not believe in a personal God but they did maintain that a deity was the prime cause or mover of the universe. They developed their philosophies based on observation of the natural world, seeking to know why we are here and what we are created for. The study of nature was in the service of truth. We exist to know the truth and in knowing truth we are liberated into our true existence.
The path to true knowledge consisted of careful observation of the cosmos which was a mirror for human action. The cosmos influenced what one ought to be and what one was to do. Justice was the result of the agreement between cosmos and humanity, as Remi Brague writes: “Cosmology had an ethical dimension. In turn, the task of transporting such good into the here below where we live enriched ethics with a cosmological dimension.”1 The celestial influence on terrestrial life led Greek thinkers to posit a cosmologization of history, that is, an understanding of history subject to the architectonics of the cosmos itself.2 The word “catholicity” was coined to describe a consciousness of the whole order of things, to which the human was connected but also distinct from; cosmos was the source for guiding human action. Catholicity was not a physical order or a spiritual one; it did not connote geographical extension. Kath’ holou (according to the whole) was not the same as kata pantos (according to all things); catholicity belonged not to the phenomenal and empirical but to the noumenal and ontological plane; it described the essential nature of reality, not the external manifestations. Catholicity for the ancient Greeks meant awareness of belonging to the whole wherein the movements of nature guided the movements of human life.
Up to the twentieth century it was believed that Aristotle constructed an understanding of metaphysics that was influential on western thinking. Recent scholarship, however, has shown that the eleventh century Islamic philosopher Avicenna studied Aristotle’s philosophy and shaped it into a study of metaphysics that influenced the thought of Thomas Aquinas.3 Because God is the end of metaphysics for Avicenna, metaphysics also contains a theology. It was Avicenna who explicitly described the “transcendentals,” including “the one and the many,” potency and act,” “universal and particular,” and “possible and necessary.”4 Avicenna’s ontology prepared the way for the philosophical study of theology, which included consideration of God, the procession of creatures from God, and the return of human creatures to God.”5 Avicenna distinguished between two kinds of agent causes: an agent that acts through motion and a divine agent that is a giver of being. On the basis of the ontological distinction between essence and existence, he argued that all beings other than God (in whom this distinction disappears) require a cause in order to exist. Since existence is not part of the essence of things, it needs to be explained by a cause extrinsic to the thing that exists; and, ultimately, there must be an Uncaused Cause. Although Aquinas differentiated his own position on essence and existence from that of Avicenna, he, too, thought that the science of metaphysics is able to demonstrate that all things depend upon God as the cause of their existence. Joseph Kenny OP states that Thomas’ most important borrowing from the Arab philosophers is the explicit recognition of a real distinction between essence and existence outside of God, likewise that everything depends on an exterior cause for the continuation of its existence.6
For Aquinas the “act” of creation is not a kind of medium between God and creatures by which God brings creatures into existence. With respect to God, the act of creation is God himself: “Creation signified actively means the divine action, which is God’s essence.”7 With respect to the creature, creation does not signify the passive reception of something since, in the event of creation (unlike the event of motion or change where, for example, a piece of clay can acquire a new shape), there is no passive potentiality already somehow “there” to receive the new actuality. Creation in the creature rather implies only “a certain relation to the Creator as to the principle of its being.”8 Only God can create, Aquinas insists, for “producing existence absolutely, not merely of this thing or of that sort of thing, belongs to the meaning of creation…. [And] among all effects the most universal is existence itself, which should accordingly be the proper effect of the most universal cause, which is God.”9 By adopting Avicenna’s distinction between essence and existence and formulating a doctrine of God whereby essence and existence are the same, Aquinas was able to employ the Neoplatonic doctrine of causality to describe God’s action in the world as bestowal of being thereby granting creation a divine order with the capacity for participation in perfect being. Thus he unified natural philosophy, metaphysics, and theology in a truly “catholic” way, envisioning a unified theocentric cosmos.
Cosmogeny and Evolution: Teilhard’s Vision
The connecting thread between nature, philosophy, and theology for Aquinas and medieval writers was metaphysics. Understanding the science underlying all other sciences, including theology, provided an order of being in tandem with the cosmos, giving rise to a cosmogeny or architectonics of the whole. Change in the order of being evokes change in understanding being, in relation to the whole. Hence when the Copernican cosmos was introduced with the rise of modern science and the empirical study of nature, theology was not ready for the shift. The inability to develop a new metaphysics in the face of emerging empirical science left a gaping hole in modern thinking. The human person lost the central position in the cosmos and a vision of the whole. Teilhard de Chardin called this “artificial separation” between humans and cosmos the root of our contemporary moral confusion
The rise of modern science and the inability of theologians to reflect on a new God-world relationship gave rise to two distinct worldviews and, in a sense, two metaphysical orders: Science and Religion. One sees the problem in the classic anecdote of the Marquis de la Place. When asked by Napoleon what the role of God was in his system, the mathematician replied: “Sir, I no longer have need for such a hypothesis.” It is the separation of Science and Religion in the modern period that gave rise to the problem of “divine action” in a way that would have been foreign to the thought of Avicenna or Aquinas. For the ancients, divine action was divine essence: God does what God is and since God is Being itself, God is the goal toward which all changeable being is directed. In the modern period, however, God became the efficient craftsman, not the goal or the reason for Being itself, but the mechanical cause of being. This shift from final causality to efficient causality was gradual and subtle but the consequences were enormous.
Teilhard’s vision returns us to the catholicity of the ancient philosophers. As a scientist and Jesuit, he devoted his energies toward seeing the whole. He composed his opus, The Human Phenomenon, not as a work of metaphysics, still less as a theological essay, but simply as a scientific treatise.10 What Teilhard contributes is a renewed scientific methodology that connects cosmos with logos and science with eros in a way that impacts the whole social order and in turn, the direction of evolution. He realized that science is not the panacea, the cure to all our ills but the illumination of being through the understanding of nature. Evolution, he maintained, is neither theory nor particular fact but a “dimension” to which all thinking in whatever area must conform.11 There is an intrinsic dynamic or impulse in nature that impels nature to transcend itself onto higher levels of complexity and consciousness, as if the entire cosmos is in personal formation. Evolution proceeds through the spheres of matter, life, and consciousness. This process requires a center, which is also its energizing goal. He suggested there is within evolution a centrating point of unfolding unity which he called “Omega,” empowering evolution from within and yet transcendent to the process. From the perspective of Christian faith and Scripture, Omega is God, the personal source of creation who is deeply immersed in evolution and its goal.
The Illusion of Science
We have become so accustomed to the power of knowledge and the ability of science to explain the workings of nature that we are taken aback by its limits. Anyone who has worked in experimental science knows that research builds on models of accepted ideas that form paradigms of reality. Although science often gives the impression of having concrete answers, it is never linear or cumulative; it never arrives at a complete picture of things or final answers. Scientific research is based on a set of heuristics which include intuition, imagination, and thoughtful reasoning, together with known data, prevailing models, and instrumentation. Often it is a repetitive process that yields little results. Research requires a passionate faith that a solution to a problem does exist somewhere and will reveal itself to a persistent search. “The most daring feats of originality,” Michael Polanyi wrote, “must be performed on the assumption that they originate nothing but merely reveal what is there.” This is how Teilhard the scientist described his own experience of the mysterious depths of nature. He wrote toward the end of his life that he had “invented” nothing, but was simply a sensitive “resonator” to vibrations which were everywhere in the air and needed only to be amplified and expressed.
Teilhard knew that the best of science develops when one believes that a new theory can provide a more comprehensive and coherent picture of reality. A newly proposed theory does not present itself with incontrovertible experimental proof but stems from an intuition based on preliminary data, challenging scientists to make a choice based on rational coherence and fertility; the ability of a theory to provide overall structural understanding of the data which can suggest and inform further research. The path to original and creative scientific thought is not one of logically connected steps; there is no gradual step-by-step transition possible from one basic paradigm of nature to another. Rather testable hypotheses are sometimes leaps across logical gaps between the established system and an, as yet, untested, largely ineffable intuition of possible relationships. Such leaps require passion, courage, and faith to motivate it.
Teilhard realized in mid-twentieth century that if science is to survive, it can no longer do so as an exclusive domain of knowledge. He came to this insight not based on scientific data but on the complexities of socialization. He realized that science, like theology, had become increasingly disconnected from the realm of the emotions and moral sphere, increasingly elite and specialized, no longer satisfying the search for truth nor leading us toward virtuous action. Polanyi too realized the social emptiness of modern science when he wrote:
“Science can no longer hope to survive on an island of positive facts, around which the rest of man’s intellectual heritage sinks to the status of subjective emotionalism. It must claim that certain emotions are right; and if it can make good such a claim, it will not only save itself but sustain by its example the whole system of cultural life of which it forms a part.”
Today the scientist cannot afford to reserve judgment on moral questions which affect society. The skeptic and the agnostic’s alleged hesitation to adopt a proposed system of values until convinced by better evidence is a mere pose. A person’s every thought, word, and action stems from an underlying hierarchy of values, conscious or unconscious. Life constantly forces us to act one way or another. Not to adopt a given system of values is to positively reject it and to act on some other system instead. There is no neutral position.
Science is not neutral and thus the values it imparts are not neutral. Although many scientists would hold that evolution is without direction, since it merely describes mechanisms of special variation and complexity, Teilhard could not help but stand back and observe the cosmic sweep of nature from the Big Bang to the rise of homo sapiens; evolution, he said, has direction towards greater complexity and consciousness. What accounts for this direction became integral to his scientific search for meaning. He began to see a fundamental force of attraction at the heart of nature and spoke of love as the essential energy of life. By love he meant not the emotional surge but a deep energy of attraction that is related to consciousness itself. Love requires awareness of another and will stretch out toward the other either by way of attraction (eros) and/or self-gift (agape). Teilhard too said that love is a fundamental force of attraction that complexifies elements in a creative union. By describing love as the fundamental physical energy of life, he saw love-energy operative at every level of life, from matter to mind. Love energy draws elements together toward greater unification and complexity. As life becomes more complex, he noted, consciousness rises.
Teilhard’s insights on love-energy as the core energy of evolution provides a new basis to understand cosmic nature. If being is intrinsically relational then nothing exists independently or autonomously. Rather, “to be” is “to be with.” Reality is “being with another” in a way open to more union and more being. Since being is existence towards another, being is relational and exists for the sake of giving. I do not exist in order that I may possess; rather I exist in order that I may give of myself, for it is in giving that I am myself. Cosmic life is intrinsically communal. Being is first a “we” before it can become in “I.” There is no being who can stand up and say: “I did it alone.” Rather, the universe is thoroughly relational and in the framework of love. By reversing the relationship between being and union, Teilhard overturned classical metaphysics and unveiled a new principle of reality: hyperphysics. Existence is for the sake of giving. Union is always towards more being so that evolution is directed toward the future fullness of life. Whereas metaphysics is the principle of static being, hyperphysics is the principle of more being. Metaphysics connotes “sameness” while hyperphysics connotes “more-ness”—more life, more being, more consciousness. In an incomplete evolutionary universe which is open to the future, the principle of life is not support from below but from the future.
Returning Love to Science and Beauty to Discovery
We have lost sight of love in our modern age as the unifier of truth, goodness, and beauty, where beauty is not simply that which lies in the eyes of the beholder but what Alfred North Whitehead called, the harmony of contrasts. If science is the search for truth, then love is integral to the scientific search. The scientist is not only drawn toward the study of nature but is drawn by that nature beyond its immediate perception. Behind the veneer of the analytical mind is the mind drawn to what it loves. Perhaps a key question for scientists today is not what theory are you working on, but what do you love? What is drawing you to what is not yet seen?
Modern science has turned (ever shifting) data into false absolutes, which promise much more than they can deliver. The nature of nature, however, is not itself physical and measurable; rather, it transcendent and erotic, pulling us towards it by a force that eludes the logical mind. It is not in bits and pieces that nature has meaning but in the relationship of the parts to one another and to the whole. Or as Teilhard wrote, “Is it not the peculiar difficulty of every synthesis that its end is already implicit in its beginning”? Analytical science can elaborate the intricate mechanisms of nature to an extent but scientists are beginning to realize that the complexities of nature require explanations of synthesis beyond analysis, a new methodology that includes consciousness and subjectivity.
Teilhard grasped the implications of modern science and realized that if science is to impart insight to human life, if it is to offer a meaningful narrative, then its methods of analysis must be organized around some type of synthesis. Here he brings together his faith in absolute divinity at the heart of matter, Omega, and the nature of matter to organize into greater complex unions. Religion is not opposed to science nor is faith in divinity separate from science. Teilhard’s belief in the incarnation, divinity at the heart of matter, led him to realize it is not a question of faith and nature but faith through nature.
If science is to provide us with an understanding of the whole, ourselves, and the world together, we must look higher up the ladder of synthesis and into the future, toward the unknown, that is, toward the whole pulling us towards it. This is the task of the emotional right brain, attentive to what is drawing us as transcendent unity, what inspires passion within us, what impels us to seek deeper knowledge. Without this combined method of wholeness and inquiry, our analysis of a complex universe dissolves the human into abstract mathematical symbols and leaves us isolated in a strange, cold universe of matter. Analysis needs synthesis and therefore something unified that draws the analytical data into a creative vision of meaningful existence. There is no doubt that Teilhard’s Christian faith impacted his scientific method but what he shows us is the necessity of faith for science. Even for the atheist, the question is one of belief. If not God, then what is the whole that inspires intellectual pursuit?
Teilhard realized that the totality of the cosmos can be fully understood, and its antinomies resolved, only when it is seen from its end summit where all its lines finally converge. In other words, our universe can be completely known only from the point of view of God, the absolute wholeness of love, truth, unity, wisdom, and beauty. Instead of trying to comprehend the lower by analogy with ourselves, we should try to find analogies which will open our understanding to that which is on a qualitatively higher level than our own. Here the risk is no longer to attribute too much to the lower, the parts, but to fail in attributing enough to the higher, the whole which enkindles our love and draws us to seek it in the particularities of nature. Through a dialectic of analysis and synthesis, intellectual discovery no longer terminates in abstract theories or wild speculations but is now part of creative evolution. When science is opened up to transcendent wholeness, it contributes to the whole by sharing its insights with theology and philosophy, thus moving us toward new social patterns, ethical action, and co-reflective consciousness. In doing so, knowledge becomes wonder, purpose is restored to being, and the mind stands in the heart, as that infinite core of being within us stretches forth unbridled into the heart of Love where unity, truth, and beauty mark the infinite thirst for life.
1. Rémi Brague, The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought, trans. Teresa Lavendar Fagan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 121
2. Brague, Wisdom of the World, 98. By using this term, Brague suggests that, for the Greeks, the celestial bodies influence the earth and their circular movement governs the linear temporality of human history. Christian polemics against astrology will verse this relationship and speak of a historization of cosmology.
3. See R. E. Houser, “Avicenna and Aquinas: Essence, Existence, and the Esse of Christ,” The Saint Anselm Journal 9.1 (Fall 2013): ; David B. Burrell, “Thomas Aquinas and Islam,” Modern Theology 20.1 (January 2004): ; John F. Wippel, “The Latin Avicenna as a Source for Thomas Aquinas’s Metaphysics,” Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie 37 (1990): 65
4. R. E. Houser (“Avicenna and Aquinas: Essence, Existence, and the Esse of Christ,” The Saint Anselm Journal 9.1 (Fall 2013): 2
5. Houser, “Avicenna and Aquinas: Essence, Existence,” 3
6. Joseph Kenny OP, Thomas Aquinas, Islam and the Arab Philosophers,” www.dhspriory.org/kenny/ThoArabs
7. ST I, 45, 3, co. Aquinas’ works are cited from Thomas Aquinas, Opera omnia ut sunt in Indice Thomistico cum hypertextibus in CD-ROM [ITOO], cur. Robert Busa, SJ, (Trend, 1996)
8. ST I, 45, 3
9. ST I, 45, 5
10. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, trans. Bernard Wall. New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 29
11. Robert North, Teilhard and the Creation of the Soul (New York: Bruce, 1966), 49
Ilia Delio, OSF is a Franciscan Sister of Washington, DC and American theologian specializing in the area of science and religion, with interests in evolution, physics, and neuroscience and the import of these for theology. Ilia currently holds the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University, and is the author of seventeen books. Her full bio and more information about her work can be found HERE.
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