What Pope Benedict Taught About Science and Reason

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Pope Benedict steps down from the Chair of St. Peter today. The inveterate intellectual, his papacy has been marked by a strong defense of reason. This despite the assurance of so many modern atheists that the pursuit of reason and the religious faith that Pope Benedict championed are incompatible. For the question of science and reason, which concerns us here, Benedict is interested chiefly not to show that some particular scientific argument supports the faith, but rather that faith in God provides the ground for the reason that underlies all of science as a whole. “The Bible is not intended as a manual of the natural sciences; it wants to help us understand the authentic and profound truth of things,” he said recently. Likewise, he writes in Jesus of Nazareth, “Faith in the one God is the only thing that truly liberates the world and makes it ‘rational.’ When faith is absent, the world only appears to be more rational. In reality the indeterminable powers of chance now claim their due; ‘chaos theory’ takes its place alongside insight into the rational structure of the universe, confronting man with obscurities that he cannot resolve and that set limits to the world’s rationality.” This is the the first lesson that should be remembered from Benedict’s teaching: that it is the Faith, not materialism, that justifies trusting in reason. Only if reason and order lie behind the material world is science, as a pursuit of true knowledge, possible. As he had written previously in Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, “It is an obvious fact that the rational character of the universe cannot be explained rationally on the basis of something irrational! This is why the Logos that is at the origin of all things remains more than ever the best hypothesis, although this is of course a hypothesis that demands that we give up a position where it is we who are in charge and that we take the risk of assuming the position of humble listeners.”

The second key point of Benedict’s teaching that bears on science is his insistence that Creation is good. It is of course true that science gets into trouble by denying the reality and possibility of sin, as when ethical and moral concerns are set aside for the sake of technical accomplishment. On the other hand, the study of the natural world is often motivated by a basic human wonder, a sense that what is is in some mysterious way good and beautiful. Benedict assures us that this is indeed the case: “Creation is therefore directed towards the coming together of God and his creatures; it exists so as to open up a space for the response to God’s great glory, an encounter between love and freedom….To say that God created light means that God created the world as a space for knowledge and truth, as a space for encounter and freedom, as a space for good and for love. Matter is fundamentally good, being itself is good.” This point is easy to overlook, but it underlies the dynamic nature of Christianity and the centrality of love. Monism, of either the pantheistic or materialistic variety, lends itself to fatalism and stoicism. If what is is just some necessary evolution of matter or a devolution of some abstract “All”, then whence comes that freedom we experience in ourselves, and more importantly, whence enters love? In a recent Wednesday audience, Benedict expanded on this idea: “The fundamental truth that the stories of Genesis reveal is that the world is not a collection of contrasting forces, but has its origin and its stability in the Logos, the eternal reason of God, who continues to sustain the universe. There is a design of the world that is born from this Reason, the Spirit Creator. Believing that this is at the basis of all things, illuminates every aspect of life and gives us the courage to face the adventure of life with confidence and hope. So the Scripture tells us that the origin of the world, our origin is not irrational or out of necessity, but reason and love and freedom. And this is the alternative: the priority of the irrational [and] of necessity, or the priority of reason, freedom and love.”

The alleged conflict between science and faith is based in a stunted view of reason and a misguided skepticism, not one based in the nature of either reason or faith themselves. Pope Benedict has responded to the challenge of the partisans of “reason” by providing reason with a stronger and deeper justification than the skeptics philosophies can give it. He has responded to the claim that the church is opposed to science and reason not by clinging to one particular scientific theory, but by embracing and defending reason itself unabashedly. As he moves into a life of prayer, a life which I suspect may be even more beneficial for the universal Church than we may ever know this side of eternity, and a new Bishop of Rome takes on the leadership of the Church, I have no doubt that the body of Benedict’s teaching will be bearing great fruit for the Church’s intellectual life and her wholehearted embrace of reason for years to come.