Science in the Service of God: St. Albert the Great

creation, creator, creature, genesis

Is it true one cannot be a scientist and a Christian? Some believe it is foolish to believe in God because what we learn from science supposedly contradicts our Christian faith. That would seem to make scientist Takashi Nagai, whom I wrote about last month, somewhat of an oddity.

The belief that science and religion could not possibly mix is an old way of thinking. It was common even in the 13th century when the patron saint of scientists lived. According to St. Albert the Great: Champion of Faith and Reason by Kevin Vost:

In his day Albert was blasted by some who believed that science threatened the Christian worldview.

This Dominican friar proved that worldview wrong. He spent his life proving the compatibility between science and faith.

Some writers say St. Albert knew everything there was to know. Kevin Vost gives examples of the broad range of Albert’s knowledge. This saint “refined Aristotle’s theories of metaphysics, causation, astronomy, and physiology.” He wrote treatises on the Eucharist and the divine graces of the Virgin Mary. Vost tells us St. Albert also “records with great joy the habits of the squirrel and the defining characteristics of the flowers in the local woods.”

St. Albert is considered one of the greatest scientists of his day. His “almost encyclopedic knowledge” of sciences included physics, biology, and astronomy. He wrote about minerals, plants, animals, and studies of the heavens. He used an early form of what we now call the “scientific method.”

Where did his extraordinary brilliance come from? A legend explains that after joining the Order of Preachers, young Albert had some difficulties with his studies and decided to leave the Order. When climbing a ladder during the night to slip over the monastery wall, Our Lady appeared to him. She “gently chided him for not asking her help” and promised that he would possess unequaled learning. She added that would lose his knowledge not long before he died, returning to God with the innocence of a child.

Whether legend or fact, we do know that his desire to learn and to teach came from his love of God. Vost writes:

For him, science served as a means to understand God through His creation, to deepen our awareness of His majesty in the glorious wonders of the universe that is His handiwork.

In St. Albert’s lifetime, a common belief was that there were two different kinds of truths. Something could be true according to faith. According to reason, the contrary could also be true.

Albert realized that because God had created an orderly world, His creation could be studied scientifically. What we learn from science does not contradict the teachings of our faith; there cannot be one truth for science and another for faith.

This is in agreement with the teachings of the Church. Paragraph 159 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.

St. Albert is considered “great” because of his many accomplishments. Yet his true greatness was his service to God. His studies were a result of his devotion to God. For example, according to Vost:

For St. Albert, the instrumental power that derives from scientific knowledge of the world was not a means to move away from God or to make man a god, but a way to better conform man to God’s image.

St. Albert’s genius extended to teaching. He gained a reputation in several institutions. St. Albert attained the title of Doctor from the University of Paris, considered at that time to be the greatest learning center in the world. He taught there as well; it is where he met his most well-known student, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas was quiet and modest, leading some of his classmates to think he was not very bright. They gave him the nickname “The dumb ox.” St. Albert understood the intellect of Aquinas and correctly said, “We call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world!”

According to Kevin Vost, when Aquinas first became Albert’s student, “he rejoiced exceedingly at having so quickly found that which he had come to seek, one who offered him so unsparingly the fulfillment of his heart’s desire.” One can only speculate on the difference it made to Aquinas, and hence to us all, to have such a teacher as St. Albert.

Steeped in sciences, Albertus Magnus had a good grasp of how things work. This made him the perfect Bishop for a troubled diocese.

Pope Alexander IV appointed St. Albert as Bishop of Regensburg after receiving letters begging to have the previous Bishop replaced.  On arrival, the saint found his predecessor had left the diocese deeply in debt and with moral problems.

Albert put together a team to fix the finances of the diocese. Spiritual reform, however, was his main goal. He walked from town to town throughout his diocese, visiting both clergy and laity. This earned him the name “Bishop Boots.” He resigned two years later, leaving the diocese in a good financial and spiritual condition.

Albert was a prolific writer. After his death, his works were assembled into 38 volumes covering a variety of subjects, including scientific, philosophical, and spiritual works. His best known spiritual work is On Cleaving to God. In this book he says:

One should bear in mind the difference between the contemplation of faithful Catholics and that of pagan philosophers, for the contemplation of the philosophers is for the perfection of the contemplator himself, and consequently, it is confined to the intellect and their aim in it is intellectual knowledge. But the contemplation of the Saints, and of Catholics, is for the love of him, that is of the God they are contemplating.

True to the legend, as his life neared its closing St. Albert began to lose his memory. At first philosophical principles became difficult, but Albert retained his memory of Scripture and of texts of Aristotle. He was able to continue teaching and celebrate Mass until close to the end.

During this same time, St. Albert became more of a recluse. He spoke little, even to those who came to see him. His failings were becoming more apparent. Kevin Vost writes about a visit to St. Albert from the Archbishop of Cologne, who:

…when greeted by Albert during a visit in the saint’s twilight years, heaved a great sigh and burst into tears, proclaiming to the others that Albert’s words were true: “Albert was once here, but he is here no longer.”

Vost then describes a saint who, at the end of his life, turned from his fascination with creation and now only desired his Creator.

The boots that had carried Albert all over medieval Europe now haltingly trod the paths of the garden cloister, their wearer silenced and turned inward to prayer and meditation. Those boots also carried him daily to the site he had selected for his final resting place of his body, as he prayerfully and peacefully prepared for the imminent and inevitable day of his death. His spirit strove solely to cleave to God.

St. Albert died surrounded by his Dominican brothers. In his last moments, he expressed it had been good to be a Dominican. Then he left to meet the Creator he had so desired to serve. His feast day is the day he died, November 15.

In his book On Cleaving to God, St. Albert wrote: “the goal of Christian perfection is the love by which we cleave to God.” Albertus Magnus showed the world that science does not and cannot contradict our Catholic faith. Then he reached his true greatness: he attained “the goal of Christian perfection” and is cleaving to God.

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