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Graven Images, Science, and Faith

May 7, AD2013


Here’s a thought piece for anyone who fears that religion is irrelevant now that it has been superseded by science. I am going to suggest that to the extent that either religion or science is in any danger today, that danger lies in a restricted and psychologically inaccurate conception of what it means to know the real world.

It’s a mystery to me that Catholics and Christians are stereotypically depicted by artists and media figures as somehow putting up obstacles to truth; and it is a mystery to me that the anachronistic phrase “dark ages” is still used to wrongly accuse the Catholic Church of stunting intellectual development and delaying the inevitable march of progress when it was the Church herself who was the greatest benefactor of science. As I recall it was the famous Thomistic philosopher Josef Pieper who said the real dark ages began during the Renaissance, when the criteria of truth were corrupted by a stunted and partial reading of scholastic theology.

I say it is a mystery that we are viewed as the disruptors of science because I happen to believe that Catholic scientists possess a special talent for science precisely because we tend to look at the world differently. We have habits of mind that condition us to see more in what is there because we instinctively believe that the parts of nature are only fully comprehensible in light of the whole. I also have a hunch that the Judeo-Christian anthropology itself, which humbles our minds, and prohibits the construction of graven images of things that are greater than we are, i.e., God, prepares us better for scientific discovery.

Let me focus on the prohibition against graven images. Aside from its spiritual significance, the practical wisdom of the prohibition of images is profound: if you wish to grasp the most abstract intellectual notion, the most error-prone approach is try to reduce it to a finite image, to visualize it, even though every instinct in us wants to do just that.

A fascinating story line in the history of science makes the point. To get more out of the story, you should ask yourself right now, do parallel lines intersect?

The great mathematician Euclid himself postulated that parallel lines do not intersect. We tend to agree because, for example, we can imagine railroad tracks going out into the infinite distance, with the rails never crossing.

Euclid was a clever fellow. He seemed to have had nagging doubts about whether what his imagination suggested  to him was really the case. Over the centuries, many great minds were drawn to the challenge to prove once and for all that Euclid’s fifth postulate was in fact true. An important effort was by a Jesuit Priest named Girolamo Saccheri, who in 1733 proved that Euclid’s fifth postulate was in fact untenable! The impressive aspect of his work was not just that he proved it, but that he proved it by a method of contradiction. He made no attempt to visualize the situation; rather, he treated the postulate as true and simply followed the truths of mathematics and logic wherever they led. If they led to a contradiction, which they did, he had to admit that Euclid’s fifth was false: parallel lines need not intersect.

While there are debates about what role Saccheri\’s proof played in the birth of modern geometry, it is no small detail to note that the brilliant modern physicist Roger Penrose credits Saccheri with the discovery of hyperbolic geometry. Science buffs will know that non-Euclidean geometry played a decisive role in Einstein’s theory.

Again, while I do not wish to argue the details of whether Saccheri’s being a Catholic was decisive in seeing the impossibility of Euclid’s fifth postulate, I do want to suggest from personal and professional experience that some of the best thinking is done when one stops trying to imagine.

To know the most difficult truth takes detachment from our narrow perspective, and it takes confidence to trust in the sheer explanatory power of dogmatic truth, whether we can imagine it or not.

Perhaps I can illustrate what I mean by the dogma of the Holy Trinity.

In my Catholic training, I was rightly taught that the Holy Trinity is a mystery of faith. The dogma states that there is one God in three persons. The persons are distinct from one another in their relations of origin. Yet the three persons are co-eternal and consubstantial.

The dogma of the Holy Trinity appears as a contradiction in terms. But if we can avoid getting snared by imagery, we can grasp a dimension of reality that is accessible only with difficulty even to the holiest of the prophets.

In the common sense view, we tend to see things like dogs and cats and Frisbees as real things, and the relations between them as accidental. My dog Teddy is a substantial thing, but the state of affairs “Teddy-catching-Frisbee” is an accidental relation that happens to characterize Teddy here and now, even though the relation is non-essential to the substance of Teddy.

The truth of the Holy Trinity does something quite breathtaking with the common sense view. Are you ready? It tells us that relations and relationships are not an accidental quality of reality, that they are objective and essential. Relationship is part of the fabric of the universe itself.

Human nature is inherently relational. In fact the relationships of this life have the imprint of the Holy Trinity in the sense that our objective status with respect to one another is a reciprocal status.

Reciprocity is the structure of all that exists. It is the linchpin of the universe. This is very heavy stuff so I will leave you with a couple of references to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate in which he described how “relationships between human beings throughout history cannot but be enriched by reference to this divine model. In particular, in the light of the revealed mystery of the Trinity, we understand that true openness does not mean loss of individual identity but profound interpenetration.” Later he affirms that interpersonal reciprocity is “the heart of what it is to be a human being.”

Indeed it is.

Grant yourself the dogma as given, and see what astonishing truths unfold about us and about God. This is how great thinkers move forward.

© 2013. Jeff McLeod. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

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About the Author:

Jeff McLeod holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He works as a data scientist, researcher, statistician, psychometrician, and software developer. His passion is to express the tenets of Catholicism without compromise, faithful to the magisterium, in confident dialog with the modern world. In his spare time he is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Mary's University of Minnesota, and teaches at the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute in St. Paul. He and his lovely Catholic convert wife have been married for 25 years and share their home with two exceedingly accomplished children.

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  • Jim

    Jeff, nice take by Paul. It must have been frustrating at times for
    Jesus, having to impart a ‘new commandment’ and understanding of the
    Torah and other theological concepts, to an audience with very limited latitude. The Church also faces reticence as it strives to relate the good news from a distant source. I’m sure we 21st century Catholics would be hard pressed to grasp, revelations that are unknown to us at this time, as we head into the 3d millennium.

  • Jim

    … It tells us that relations and relationships are not an accidental quality of reality, that they are objective and essential. Relationship is part of the fabric of the universe itself.

    ergo: the theory of the six degrees of separation

    In my 12 years of parochial education I never had a problem with
    the concept of the Trinity. It seemed natural in context. However,
    I do have reservations with other Church concepts because I believe they need to be triangulated through the lens of other doctrines ie: Judaism and eastern deism in order to be fully understood.

    • Jeff McLeod

      Hi Jim, great comment. Six degrees of separation certainly discloses our inner sense of relatedness. The reality is far beyond our ability to grasp. The fact we have an urge to grasp how things are connected is a fascinating disclosure of our nature.

      I also like your point about Church dogma being projected through the lens of ancient faith. Catholics have always insisted that Judaism anticipates Christianity — is inseparable from it, hence the Judeo-Christian tradition. We believe that Christianity reveals what was latent not only in Judaism but ancient deism.

      The Apostle Paul, in an electrifying moment in Acts 17:23, gathered an audience of philosophers and followers of the ancient religious traditions and announced: “what therefore you worship unknowingly, I proclaim to you.”

      This is language of unity, fulfillment, completion, not division!

      Catholics believe that Christ fulfills the ancient faith traditions. He illuminates what was inchoate or latent in them, what could not be understood in them.

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