Category: Theology

Profile of Polkinghorne

Discover offers a look at Anglican priest and particle physicist John Polkinghorne:

“When he describes his line of work, John Polkinghorne jests, he encounters “more suspicion than a vegetarian butcher.” For the particle physicist turned Anglican priest, dissonance comes with the territory. Science parses the concrete: the structure of the atom and the workings of the brain. Religion confronts the intangible: questions about ethics and the purpose of life. Taken literally, the biblical story of Genesis contradicts modern cosmology and evolutionary biology in full.

Yet 21 years ago, in a move that made many eyes roll, Polkinghorne began working to unite the two sides by seeking a mechanism that would explain how God might act in the physical world. Now that work has met its day of reckoning. At a series of meetings at Oxford University last July and September, timed to celebrate Polkinghorne’s 80th birthday, physicists and theologians presented their answers to the questions he has so relentlessly pursued. Do any physical theories allow room for God to influence human actions and events? And, more controversially, is there any concrete evidence of God’s hand at work in the physical world?”

Read here.

Martin on Sheed on Sanity

Catholic World Report offers an interview with Hampton University’s Dr. Joseph Martin about Frank Sheed, the Catholic writer, and his conviction that reason finds its fulfillment in the Faith:

Sheed’s apologetic anthem was animated by a counter-rhetoric of Christian Realism, one he grounded in a bass line of “Sanity.” With the onset of modernity Christians were faced with the accusation they dealt in an unreal idealism – pie-in-the-sky sentimentalism, versus real life. Sheed cried “foul”, turning the charge on its head. Christian Faith isn’t escapism: it provides the one alternative that conveys a convincing narrative. And it is the Catholic Church, he maintained, despite centuries of hypocrisies and failings, that remains the custodian of the Christian Gospel, and is thus the rightful home of the “honest lover of truth.”

“Nothing is rightly seen save in the totality to which it belongs; no part of the universe is rightly seen save in relation to the whole,” Sheed explained. “But the universe cannot be seen as a whole unless one sees God as the source of the existence of every part of it… The man who does not see God may have vast knowledge of this or that section of being, but he is like a man who should know all about the eye never having seen a face. His knowledge is of items in a list, not of features in a face. The shape of things, the proportion of things, the totality of things, are unseen by him, indeed unsuspected by him.”

It was this “shape and totality” of things to which Sheed gave his life to understanding and unfolding. His entire apologetic was what G. K. Chesterton called “The Outline of Sanity.”

Read here.

Lewis, MacDonald, Krauthammer & the Soul

You’ve probably come across this quote before:

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

I am glad to discover that the source of this quote is not, as is commonly claimed, C. S. Lewis, but rather his literary hero, George MacDonald. I am glad to know that Lewis would not make such a mistake, but surprised that MacDonald would. This post at First Things has more. In response to the reduction of materialism, and given the unconscious, dominant Cartesianism of our society, the quote strikes many Christian ears as right and as a fitting statement of the Christian position, over against materialism. In fact, though, the quote is wrong, and does not accurately convey the classical Christian teaching. A more accurate statement would be: You do not have a soul or have a body, you are a soul and a body. A soul is, by definition, the form of the body. You cannot have one without the other. To separate them is incoherent.

To the materialist claim that the soul is some sort of ghostly woo, unsupported by any empirical evidence, then, the proper response is: the evidence is right before your eyes. The evidence for the soul is just as present as the evidence for the body, which no one denies. The argument that the soul exists is not an argument that there is something over and above the body, or some ethereal thing in addition to the body, for which evidence must be produced. The evidence for the existence of the soul arises from rightly considering the evidence of the body.


Which leads us to our second point, also discussed further in a post atKrauthammer_Final2 First Things. As a Christmas gift, I received a copy of Charles Krauthammer’s recent book of collected columns, Things That Matter, and though I do not agree with all he writes, he is a superb columnist with a great talent for addressing topics thoughtfully and distilling his thoughts concisely with great clarity and force. Nevertheless, in his essay on stem cells contained in that book, he makes a fundamental mistake right out of the gate, declaring that the question of the personhood of the unborn child, or what he calls “ensoulment”, is a “metaphysical” question, a “question of faith”, and such questions are beyond secular consensus. He repeats these claims in a recent National Review column that is discussed at the First Things link.

There are two problems with this. The first is this: it is impossible to stake a neutral claim on this question; or, at least, the supposedly “neutral” postion in this case clearly favors one judgment over the other. We simply cannot avoid taking some metaphysical position on this question. If we say that since we are not sure whether the unborn is a person, we will not restrict the taking of the unborn’s life, we simply to choose to treat it as if it is not a person. It is not a neutral position; it is, practically, a metaphysical decision against personhood.

But the error in fact lies deeper than this. Dr. Krauthammer’s concerns about “ensoulment” are irrelevant. Let us set aside all theological concerns; let us simply stick to the biology. To identify a human being we need do no more than identify a living human body, and the unborn child is just a living human body. On this question it is the Catholic pro-life position that is one of hard-nosed materialism. The soul is the form of the body; find the living body, there is the soul. Reason needs no more than this. It is the other side, with its hand-wringing over defining the beginning of some vague notion of ghost-in-the-machine “personhood”, that invokes the mystical, unscientific woo.


Some follow-up on Stephen Hawking’s black hole comments: New Scientist presents a basic overview of the questions involved; and, from what I can tell, this view seems to be the most sensible.


christ-in-the-garden-of-gethsemane-1584Suppose you asked, about a mass shooting, “How could this happen?” In response, someone offers you a straightforward, scientific, factual forensic report on the various angles and types of weapons used. Although it does, strictly speaking, answer your question, it isn’t quite the answer you were looking for. Philosophy and theology offer answers to the problem of evil, but as skeptics like to note, they’re never quite satisfactory. That is, while they do offer logical and reasonable answers, they don’t really get to the point. Evil and suffering is not a logic problem. Though a logical answer is necessary and a helpful part of understanding the problem, just as a physical answer is a part of understanding something like a mass shooting, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. But the heart of the matter is not a question of science, or logic, or reason. Thus I recommend this excellent essay from Martin Cothran, “How Literature Solves the Problem of Evil”:

The problem of evil is, to steal a phrase from The Hobbit, a “riddle in the dark.” And philosophers do not do well in the dark. They fly by day. When darkness comes, pure intelligence is of little avail. Darkness requires wisdom, and wisdom is of the poets. I don’t think Hegel meant it this way, but it is perhaps why the Owl of Minerva, the symbol of wisdom, flies only at dusk.

When people look for a solution to the problem of evil in its rational or logical form, they are looking for a resolution to a technical problem. But this question—the rational question of evil—is not the real problem of evil. At least it is not the question with which people who experience suffering actually struggle. In fact, the vast majority of those who actually struggle with evil couldn’t even tell you what the logical question was. And even if they were aware of the problem—and even if they knew the answer to it—they would not be satisfied.

How would the answer to a logical question assuage their grief? Their grief is not a logical problem. The logical dilemma of evil would not be satisfying to anyone but a logician—and it would only satisfy him as a logician; it would not satisfy him as a human being.

Read here.


And finally, China’s rover trip to the Moon is proving to be short-lived, as Yutu seems to have suffered from a failure that looks increasingly fatal.


Images: Washington Post; Paolo Veronsese, “Christ in the Garden of Gethsamane”, 1584.

Feser on the Soul

Edward Feser answers some questions on the nature of the soul:

Remember, the Thomist allows that in the intellect’s normal state, corporeal activity is necessary for its operation — it’s just not sufficient for it, which is why intellectual activity is essentially incorporeal.  Even if corporeal activity were necessary full stop, and not just under normal conditions, it wouldn’t follow that the Thomist’s arguments for the intellect’s immateriality are undermined.  Hence it wouldn’t follow that the soul does not survive death.  What would follow is only that it would be inert after death.  So the reader is just mistaken to think that the dependence of intellectual activity on the brain threatens to ‘ruin [the] argument… for its survival after bodily death.’  At most it threatens the claim that the intellect can function after death.  A proponent of the ‘soul sleep’ theory of personal immortality could happily accept that, and argue that the intellect functions again only when the body is restored to it at the resurrection.

Now of course, the Thomist does not accept the “soul sleep” theory.  He holds that the intellect does function after death.  How can this be?  Remember that I said that corporeal activity is necessary for the intellect’s operation under normal conditions.  But as Aquinas argues in the article linked to above, it is not necessary full stop.  The intellect functions one way when it is in its normal state — that is, when conjoined to the body — but in another way under the abnormal circumstances when we are no longer ‘in the flesh.’”


Martin on the Idea of God

Regis Martin writes at Crisis:

“The answer, of course, is that the idea of God has no particular source, no genesis one could trace back to the point of origin. Anymore than, say, the idea of geometry, or music, or speech, the movements and rhythms of which are simply of a piece with being human, belonging therefore to the deepest operations of head and heart. And because the idea of God is both real and unique, abiding in both mind and will from the beginning, there is nothing in science or history or ideology that could possibly have put it there. Secularism can no more generate this light than it can succeed in putting it out. It was from the beginning and will always be simply there. Like a sudden flash point of eternity into time, whose unforeseen illuminations have come to light up the night sky of our lives with the absolute certainty of hope. Only God can account for the idea of God.”

Read here.

Pigliucci, Dawkins, Transubstantiation, & Samuel Johnson

Institution of the Eucharist (Sassetta)

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci writes a post at his blog Rationally Speaking regarding the supernatural, and discusses some specifically Catholic ideas in so doing. Now, Pigliucci is also a naturalist (of the philosophical sort; i.e., one who thinks that only the natural exists, not the kind that collects rocks and beetles), and so he also rejects claims of the supernatural. However, he critiques the arguments that some of his fellow naturalists use against belief in the supernatural, citing Richard Dawkins’ arguments against the Virgin Birth of Christ and transubstantiation as specifically poor examples. Pigliucci notes of the so-called “scientific” objection to the doctrine of transubstantiation that it is an argument that would “move no fervent Catholic, nor should it.” Of course, Pigliucci rejects these doctrines as well, and he offers his own objections, which are far more substantial and repectable than the polemical, popular sort of atheistic arguments. This is the sort of intellectual atheism that is respectable in comparison to the sophomoric variety that seems to dominate on the shelves of the science section of the bookstore.

That being said, Pigliucci’s argument against transubstantiation, although he is not trying to lay it out rigorously here, goes fundamentally amiss. If you believe that every aspect of everything that exists is held in existence by God, it surely isn’t strange to accept that God could cause the appearance of a thing to be different than its substantial identity. Pigliucci says that transubstantiation “violates the basic law of identity in logic” by saying that something is not that same something, that brand and wine are flesh and blood. But transubstantiation doesn’t say that; it does not say that the Eucharist is bread and body—it says it is body, period. It does not say we have wine and blood on the altar, it says we have blood, period. No laws of identity are violated. Wine is wine, and blood is blood, and when one becomes the other, the former is gone and the latter comes into being. What is said to be miraculous is not some superposition of identities, but merely the provision of an appearance and an interaction that is miraculously different than the identity, even down to the smallest level. Of course, if the naturalist were to object that this there is no reason to conclude that this strange claim is true, the Catholic would agree, except for authority. This is a “difficult and unacceptable teaching.” Unless you already accept the authority of the Church, then of course there is no reason to think that transubstantiation actually happens. It is a claim that cannot be independently verified, and I wouldn’t expect any non-Catholic to accept it as a stand-alone idea, apart from the question of the Church’s claim to teach truth.

The critic might go on to suggest that the very idea of accepting that some things are entirely other than they seem, through the miraculous power of God, dangerously undermines any confidence in the ability to rationally investigate nature. But again, the miraculous transubstantiation of the Eucharist is not a normal thing. Catholics don’t claim that the sort of thing that happens in transubstantiation happens in the ordinary, everyday world. Indeed, it would be perverse to reason to suggest that God regularly goes about muddling up the connection between things and their appearances. It is only because of the singular, sacramental nature of the Eucharist and its role in the spiritual life that an exception is made in this case, and it is only because of acceptance of the Church’s teaching, and not because of independent investigation, that any Catholic should accept the particular doctrine of the transubstantiation of the Eucharist.

I am also, apropos, more inclined than Pigliucci to give Samuel Johnson the benefit of the doubt with respect to his famous “refutation” of Berkeley. I don’t, in fact, think that  with his kick Johnson was attempting to say something much other than what Pigliucci says here—that  Berkeley’s scheme may be logically unassailable, but it is also, in the world of stones that may be kicked by any man out on a stroll, unbelievable. I suspect that Johnson was not so much contradicting Boswell as agreeing with him, in his usual eccentric way.

Now it might seem that these two sentiments contradict: acceptance of the “unbelievable” teaching regarding the Eucharist while rejecting Berkeley for similar unbelievability. But the difference is that Berkeley’s doctrine was a universal doctrine about the nature of everything, which did in fact undermine altogether the ability of the mind to get to know the reality around it. On the other hand, the teaching regarding the Eucharist is not about the general nature of metaphysics, but is a particular, miraculous case. Berkeley is unbelievable because his system is divorced from the very sorts of observation from which all rational investigation must begin.  The Eucharist, however, follows not from any assertion about the universal nature of things, but from a specific teaching about a specific case, derived from a particular source that is counted as an authority and ordered towards a particular goal, the obtaining of grace in the sacramental life. It does not, like Berkeley, say to the rational investigator, “Nothing is what it seems”; it says instead to the believer, “This one particular gift has been made sublimely and infinitely better.”

Fr. Griffin: “Pope defends faith as a way to truth”

I am looking foward to reading the new encyclical Lumen fidei, issued by Pope Francis and started by Pope Benedict. For now, here is some commentary from MercatorNet by Fr. Carter Griffin. The topic of the enyclical, faith and its role in our modern “rational” world, is of definite importance for understanding science’s place in our lives. — MB


Pope defends faith as a way to truth

by Fr. Carter Griffin

Pope Francis has written an encyclical on faith, Lumen Fidei, not only for those who struggle Pope Francis ( believe in Christ, but for those who struggle to believe anything at all. The starting point for this encyclical is that contemporary men and women have painted themselves into a philosophical corner, too confident in their vision of truth to see its inadequacies, too skeptical in their vision of faith to see its possibilities.

Building on the work of his predecessor Benedict XVI, Francis offers a well-timed and well-aimed letter to those yearning for a life of faith built on foundations of objective truth.

The Pope expresses the modern dilemma about faith and truth as follows. “In contemporary culture,” he says, “we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how, truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. Nowadays this appears as the only truth that is certain, the only truth that can be shared.”

Read more →

Br. Consolmagno on Science and Faith

Br. Guy Consolmagno, of the Vatican Observatory, discusses science and faith in a recent TED talk.

The Catholic Thing: One God

My latest article is up today at The Catholic Thing:

“An ancient Chinese myth tells of ten Suns that existed in primordial times. Prideful and intemperate, as pagan gods are often wont to be, these Suns rode together over the surface of the Earth each day, their combined heat scorching it. Insensitive to the plight of the mortals, the Suns refused to take turns in the sky, and were eventually struck down until only one Sun remained.

I was reminded of this story when I read yet again another example of an atheist inviting religious believers to go “one god more” when critically evaluating their beliefs. For instance, here is noted skeptic Michael Shermer at a recent debate about science and belief in God: “Ten-thousand different religions, a thousand different gods. Our opponents agree with us that 999 of those gods are false gods. They are atheists like we are atheists. What I’m asking you to do is just go one God further with us.”

Read here.

Monday Links

Pitch drop (U. of Queensland)


Gene therapy cures diabetes in early dog-based trial;

and Francis Phillips argues that virtuous atheism is not enough;

and the University of Queensland is still performing the world’s slowest experiment.



Links: NewScientist, Catholic Herald, and University of Queensland
Image: University of Queensland