Father Cantalamessa's 1st Advent Sermon

"The Christian Answer to Atheist Scientism"

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 4, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is the Advent reflection delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Pontifical Household, for Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia. The talk was titled: "The Christian Answer to Atheist Scientistism."



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"When I look at thy heavens, the moon and the stars, what is man?" (Psalm 8:4-5)

The Christian Answer to Atheist Scientism

The three meditations of this 2010 Advent are a small contribution to the need of the Church which led the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, to institute the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and to choose as the theme of the next ordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops the topic "Nova evangelizatio ad cristianam fidem tradendam" -- the new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith.
 
The intention is to single out some background nodes or obstacles which make many countries of ancient Christian tradition "immune" to the evangelical message, as the Holy Father says in the motu proprio with which he instituted the new Council.[1] The nodes and challenges that I intend to take into consideration and to which I will seek to give an answer of faith are scientism, secularism and rationalism. The Apostle Paul would call them "the bulwarks and fortresses that rise against the knowledge of God" (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:4).
 
In this first meditation we will examine scientism. To understand what is meant by this term we can begin with the description made of it by John Paul II: "Another danger is scientism; this philosophic conception refuses in fact to admit as valid ways of knowing different from those that are proper to the positive sciences, relegating to the confines of mere imagination either religious conscience and theology, or ethical and aesthetic learning."[2] We can summarize the main texts of this current of thought thus:
 
First thesis. Science, and in particular cosmology, physics and biology, are the only objective and serious ways of knowing reality. "Modern societies are built upon science. They owe it their wealth, their power, and the certitude that tomorrow far greater wealth and power still will be ours if we so wish .... Armed with all the powers, enjoying all the riches they owe to science, our societies are still trying to live by and to teach systems of values already blasted at the roots by science itself."[3]
 
Second thesis. This way of knowing is incompatible with faith that is based on assumptions which are neither demonstrable or falsifiable. In this line the militant atheist R. Dawkins goes so far as to define as "illiterate" those scientists who profess themselves believers, forgetting how many scientists, much more famous than he, have declared themselves and continue to declare themselves believers.
 
Third thesis. Science has demonstrated the falsehood, or at least the lack of necessity of the theory of God. It is the affirmation which has been greatly highlighted by the world's media in past months, because of an affirmation of English astro-physicist Stephen Hawking. The latter, as opposed to what he had written previously in his last book "The Grand Design," maintains that the knowledge attained by physics now renders useless belief in a creative divinity of the universe: "Spontaneous creation is the reason why something exists."

Fourth thesis. Almost the totality, or at least the great majority of scientists are atheists. This is the affirmation of militant scientific atheism which has in Richard Dawkins, the author of the book "The God Delusion," its most active propagator.

All these thesis reveal themselves to be false, not on the basis of a priori reasoning or of theological arguments or arguments of faith, but from the analysis itself of the results of science and of the opinions of many among the most illustrious scientists of the past and present. A scientists of the caliber of Max Planck, founder of the quantum theory, says of science, what Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Pascal, Kierkegaard and others affirmed of reason: "Science leads to a point beyond which it can no longer guide."[4]
 
I do not insist on the refutation of the theses enunciated that has been done, with far greater competence, by scientists and philosophers of science. I mention, for example, the specific criticism of Roberto Timossi, in the book "The Illusion of Atheism: Why Science Does Not Deny God," which includes the presentation of Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (Saint Paul Publishers, 2009). I limit myself to an elementary observation. In the week that the media published the mentioned affirmation, according to which science has rendered useless the theory of a creator, I found myself in the need, in the Sunday homily, to explain to very simple Christians, in a town of the Reatino, where the background error of the atheist scientists rests and why they should not allow themselves be impressed by the outburst sparked by that affirmation. I did so with an example that perhaps it would be useful to repeat also here, in such a different context.
 
There are nocturnal birds, such as the owl and the little owl, whose eye is made to see in the dark of night, not in the day. The light of the sun would blind them. These birds know everything and move at ease in the nocturnal world, but know nothing of the daytime world. Let us adopt for the moment the genre of the fable, where the animals speak among themselves. Lets suppose that an eagle makes friends with a family of little owls and speaks to them of the sun: of how it illuminates everything, of how, without it, everything would fall into darkness and cold, of how their nocturnal world itself would not exist without the sun. What would the little owl answer other than: "What you say is nonsense! I've never seen your sun. We move very well and get our food without it; your sun is a useless theory and therefore it doesn't exist."
 
It is exactly what the atheist scientist does when he says: "God doesn't exist." He judges a world he does not know, applies his laws to an object that is beyond their scope. To see God one must open a different eye, one must venture outside the night. In this connection, still valid is the ancient affirmation of the Psalmist "The fool says: there is no God."
 
2. No to the scientism, yes to science
 
The refusal of scientism must not of course induce to the refusal of science or to diffidence in confrontations of it, as the refusal of rationalism does not lead to the refusal of reason. To do otherwise would be to wrong faith, even before wronging science. History has painfully taught us where such an attitude leads.
 
The new Blessed John Henry Newman has given us a luminous example of an open and constructive attitude to science. Nine years after the publication of Darwin's work on the evolution of species, when not a few spirits around him were disturbed and perplexed, he reassured them, expressing a judgment that anticipated the Church's present one on the compatibility of such a theory with biblical faith. It is worthwhile to listen again to key passages of his letter to canon J. Walker, which still retain much of their validity: "I do not fear the theory [of Darwin] […] It does not seem to me to follow that creation is denied because the Creator, millions of years ago, gave laws to matter. He first created matter and then he created laws for it –laws which should construct it into its present wonderful beauty, and accurate adjustment and harmony of parts gradually. We do not deny or circumscribe the Creator, because we hold he has created the self acting originating human mind, which has almost a creative gift; much less then do we deny or circumscribe His power, if we hold that He gave matter such laws as by their blind instrumentality moulded and constructed through innumerable ages the world as we see it […]. Mr Darwin’s theory need not then be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill […]. At first sight I do not see that ‘the accidental evolution or organic beings’ is inconsistent with divine design –It is accidental to us, not to God.”[5]
 
Newman's great faith allowed him to look with great serenity at present and future scientific discoveries. "When a deluge of facts, ascertained or presumed, are showered on us, while an infinite number of others already begin to be delineated, all believers, whether or not Catholics, feel called to examine the meaning that such facts have."[6] He saw in such discoveries "an indirect relation with religious opinions." An example of this relation, I think, is precisely the fact that in the same years in which Darwin elaborated the theory of evolution of the species, he enunciated, independently, his doctrine of the "development of Christian doctrine." Referring to the analogy, on this point, between the natural and physical order and the moral order, he wrote: "As the Creator rested on the seventh day after completed his work, and yet he still operates,' so he communicated once and for all the Creed at the origin, yet still favors its development and provides for its development."[7]
 
Concrete expression of the new and positive attitude on the part of the Catholic Church in confrontations with science is the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in which eminent scientists of the whole world, believers and non-believers, meet to express and debate freely their ideas on problems of common interest for science and faith.
 
3. Man for the cosmos or the cosmos for man?
 
However, I repeat, it is not my intention to involve myself in general criticism of scientism. What I am urged to bring into the light is a particular aspect of it which has a direct and decisive influence on evangelization: it is the position that man occupies in the vision of atheist scientism.
 
It is at this point a competition between non-believing scientists, above all between biologists and cosmologists, to the point of affirming the total marginality and insignificance of man in the universe and in the great sea of life itself. Monod wrote: "The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty."[8] "I have always thought" says another, "of being insignificant. Knowing the dimensions of the universe, I do but realize how much this is indeed so ... We are only a bit of mud on a planet that belongs to the sun."[9]
 
Blaise Pascal refuted this thesis ahead of time with an argument which still keeps its force: "Man is only a reed, the most frail of nature, but a reed that thinks. It is not the case that the whole universe is armed to annihilate him; a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him. However, even when the universe would crush him, man would be, nevertheless, ever more noble than that which kills him, because he knows about death, and the superiority that the universe has over him, while the universe knows nothing."[10]
 
The scientific vision of reality, together with man, even takes Christ away from the center of the universe with one blow. He is reduced, to used the words of M. Blondel, to "a historical incident, isolated from the cosmos as a false episode, an intruder or a lost soul in the crushing and hostile immensity of the Universe."[11]
 
This vision of man also has practical reflections at the level of culture and mentality. Thus are explained certain excesses of ecologism which tend to equate the rights of animals and even of plants with those of man. It is well-known that there are animals that are looked after and fed much better than millions of children. The influence is perceived also in the religious field. There are widespread forms of religiosity in which contact and syntony with the energies of the cosmos has taken the place of contact with God as way of salvation. What Paul said of God: "In Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28), is said of the material cosmos.
 
In certain aspects, it is a return to the pre-Christian vision which had as its scheme: God -- cosmos -- man, and to which the Bible and Christianity opposed the scheme: God -- man -- cosmos. The cosmos is for man, not man for the cosmos. One of the most violent accusations that the pagan Celsus addressed to Jews and Christians was that of affirming that "[t]here is God and, immediately after him, us, from the moment that we were created by Him to his complete likeness; all is subordinated to us: the earth, the water, the air, the stars; everything exists for us and is ordered to our service."[12]
 
There is, however, a profound difference: in ancient thought, above all Greek thought, man, though subordinated to the cosmos, has a very lofty dignity, as the masterful work of Max Pohlenz, "Greek Man," brought to light [13], today instead they seem to take pleasure in lowering man and stripping him of every pretext of superiority over the rest of nature. Beyond an "atheist humanism," at least from this point of view, it seems to me that one should speak of an atheistic anti-humanism.
 
We now come to the Christian vision. Celsus is not mistaken in making it stem from the great affirmation of Genesis 2:26 about man created "in the image and likeness" of God.[14] The biblical vision has its most splendid expression in Psalm 8:
 
"When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and stars that you set in place,
What are humans that you are mindful of them,
Mere mortals that you care for them?

"Yet you have made them little less than a god,
Crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them rule over the work of your hands,
Put all things at their feet."
 
The creation of man in the image of God has implications on the concept of man that the present debate drives us to bring to light. All is based on the revelation of the Trinity brought by Christ. Man is created in the image of God, which means that he participates in the intimate essence of God which is a relationship of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is obvious that there is an ontological gap between God and the creature. However, through grace (never forget this specification!) this gap is filled, so much so that it is less profound than the one that exists between man and the rest of creation.
 
Only man, in fact, in as much as person capable of relations, participates in the personal and relational dimension of God, he is His image. Which means that he, in his essence, even though at a creaturely level, is that which, at the uncreated level, are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in their essence. The created person is "person" precisely because of this rational nucleus that renders it capable to receive the relationship that God wishes to establish with it and at the same time becomes generator of relations towards others and towards the world.
 
4. The Force of Truth
 
Let us try to see how one could translate this Christian vision of the man-cosmos relationship on the plane of evangelization. Taking up the thought of his teacher, a disciple of Dionysius the Areopagite enunciated this great truth: “One must not refute the opinion of others, nor must one write against an opinion or a religion which does not seem to be good. One should write only in favor of the truth and not against others." [15]
 
This principle cannot be absolutized (sometimes it can be useful and necessary to refute false doctrines), but it is true that the positive exposition of the truth is often more effective than the refutation of the contrary error. I believe it is important to keep this criterion in mind in evangelization and, in particular, in confronting three mentioned obstacles: scientism, secularism and rationalism. In evangelization, more effective than controversy against them is the positive exposition of the Christian vision, relying upon the intrinsic force of it when it is accompanied by profound conviction and is done, as Saint Peter inculcated, "with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:16).
 
The highest expression of the dignity and vocation of man, according to the Christian vision, is crystallized in the doctrine of the divinization of man. This doctrine did not have the same prominence in the Orthodox Church and in the Latin Church. The Greek Fathers, surmounting all the encumbrances that the pagan use had accumulated on the concept of deification (theosis), made it the fulcrum of their spirituality. Latin theology has insisted less on it. "The aim of life for Greek Christians -- one reads in the Dictionary of Spirituality -- is divinization, that of the Western Christians is the attainment of sanctity ... The Word became flesh, according to the Greeks, to restore to man the likeness with God lost in Adam and to divinize him. According to the Latins, he became man to redeem humanity ... and to pay the debt owed to God's justice."[16] Simplifying it to the utmost, we could say that Latin theology, after Augustine, insists more on what Christ came to take away -- sin --, the Greek insists more on what He came to give to men: the image of God, the Holy Spirit and divine life.
 
This comparison should not be forced too much, as is sometimes done by Orthodox authors. Latin spirituality expresses sometimes the same ideal even if it avoids the term divinization that, it is worth recalling, is foreign to biblical language. In the Liturgy of the Hours of Christmas Eve we will hear again the vibrant exhortation of Saint Leo the Great who expresses the same vision of the Christian vocation: "O Christian, recognize your dignity and, made participant of the divine nature, do not desire to return to the abjection of yore with unworthy conduct. Remember of what Head and of what Body you are a member."[17]
 
However, certain Orthodox authors remained firm in the controversy of the 14th century between Gregory of Palamas and Barlaam and seem to ignore the rich Latin mystical tradition. The doctrine of Saint John of the Cross, for example, according to which the Christian, redeemed by Christ and made son in the Son, is immersed in the flow of Trinitarian operations and participates in the intimate life of God, is no less lofty than that of divinization, though it is expressed in different terms. Also the doctrine on the gifts of the intellect and of wisdom of the Holy Spirit, so dear to Saint Bonaventure and to Medieval authors, was animated by the same mystical inspiration.
 
However, one cannot but recognize that Orthodox spirituality has something to teach to the rest of Christianity on this point, to Protestant theology even more than to Catholic theology. If there is, in fact, something that is really opposed to the Orthodox vision of the Christian deified by grace, it is the Protestant concept and, in particular, the Lutheran, of the extrinsic and juridical justification, according to which redeemed man is "at the same time just and sinner," sinner in himself, just before God.
 
Above all we can learn from the Eastern tradition not to reserve this sublime ideal of Christian life to a spiritual elite called to follow the way of mysticism, but to propose it to all the baptized, to make it the object of catechesis to the people, of religious formation in seminaries and novitiates. If I think of the years of my formation I perceive an almost exclusive insistence on an asceticism that pointed everything to the correction of vices and the acquisition of virtues. To the disciple's question on the ultimate aim of the Christian life a holy Russian, Saint Seraphim of Sarov, answered without hesitation: "the real end of Christian life, is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As regards prayer, fasting, vigils, almsgiving and every other good action made in the name of Christ, they are only means to acquire the Holy Spirit."[18]
 
5. "Everything was made through Him"
 
Christmas is the ideal occasion to propose again to ourselves and to others this ideal common patrimony of Christianity. It is from the incarnation of the Word that the Greek Fathers derived the very possibility of divinization. Saint Athanasius did not tire of repeating: "[t]he Word was made man so that we could be deified."[19] "He became incarnate and man became God, because he is united to God," wrote in his turn Saint Gregory Nazianzus.[20] Restored or brought back to the light with Christ is that being "in the image of God" which founds man's superiority over the rest of creation.
 
I noted above how the marginalization of man brings with it automatically the marginalization of Christ from the cosmos and history. Also from this point of view Christmas is the most radical antithesis to the vision of scientism. In it we will hear proclaimed solemnly: "[e]verything was made through Him and without Him nothing was made that exists" (John 1:3); "All things were created through Him and in view of Him" (Colossians 1:16). The Church has taken up this revelation in the Creed which makes us repeat: "Per quem omnia facta sunt": Through him everything was created.
 
To hear these words again while around us there is nothing but the repetition: "[t]he world explains itself, without the need for the theory of a creator," or "we are the fruit of chance and of necessity," undoubtedly causes a shock, more than a long apologetic argumentation. The crucial question is: will we be capable, we who aspire to re-evangelize the world, of dilating our faith to these dimensions of dizziness? Do we really believe, with our whole heart, "that everything was made through Christ and in view of Christ"?
 
In your book Introduction to Christianity of many years ago, you, Holy Father, wrote: "'It is only in the second section of the Creed that we come up against the real difficulty -- already considered briefly in the introduction -- about Christianity: the profession of faith that the man Jesus, an individual executed in Palestine round about the year 30, the Christus (anointed, chosen) of God, indeed God's own son, is the central and decisive point of all human history. It seems both presumptuous and foolish to assert that one single figure who is bound to disappear farther and farther into the mists of the past is the authoritative center of all history."[21]
 
To this question, Holy Father, we respond without hesitation as you do in the book and as you do not tire of repeating today, in the dress of Supreme Pontiff: Yes, it is possible, it is liberating and it is joyful, not by our efforts, but by the inestimable gift of faith that we received and for which we render infinite thanks to God.
 
NOTES
 
[1] Benedict XVI, Motu Proprio "Ubicunque et semper."
[2] John Paul II, "Parole sull'uomo," Rizzoli, Milan, 2002, p. 443; cf. also Encyclical "Fides et Ratio," No. 88.

[3] Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, translated by Austryn Wainhouse, New York, 1971, p. 146.

[4] M. Planck, "La conoscenza del mondo fisico," p. 155, (quoted by Timossi, op. cit., p. 160).

[5] John H. Newman, Letter to J. Walker (1868), in The Letters and Diaries, vol. XXIV, Oxford, 1973, p. 77.

[6] J. H. Newman, "Apologia pro vita sua," Brescia, 1982, p. 277.

[7] J. H. Newman, "Lo sviluppo della dottrina cristiana," Bologna, 1967, p. 95.

[8] Jacques Monod, op, cit., p. 180.

[9] P. Atkins, quoted by Timossi, op. cit., p. 482.

[10] B. Pascal, "Pensieri," 377 (ed. Brunschwicg, n. 347).

[11] M. Blondel and A. Valensin, "Correspondance," Aubier, Paris, 1965.

[12] In Origen, "Contra Celsum," IV, 23 (SCh 136, p. 238; cf. also IV, 74, (Iibid., p. 366).

[13] Cf. M. Pohlenz, "L'uomo greco," Florence, 1962.
 
[14] In Origen, op. cit., IV, 30 (SCh 136, p. 254).

[15] Scolii a Dionigi Areopagita in PG 4, 536; cf. Dionigi Areopagita, Lettera VI (PG, 3, 1077).

[16] G. Bardy, in Dct. Spir., III, col. 1389 f.

[17]St. Leo the Great, Discorso 1 sul Natale (PL 54, 190 f.).

[18]Dialogo con Motovilov, in Irina Ggorainoff, Serafino di Sarov, Gribaudi, Turin, 1981, p. 156.

[19] St. Athanasius, "L'incarnazione del Signore," 54 (PG 25, 192B).

[20] St. Gregory Nazianzus, "Discorsi teologici," III, 19 (PG 36, 100A).

[21] J. Ratzinger, "Introduzione al cristianesimo," Brescia, 1969, p. 149.

[Translation by ZENIT]