The Courtyard of the Gentiles

Courtyard project ParisThe purpose of Pope Benedict’s initiative, which he calls “The Courtyard of the Gentiles,” is to promote communication with human cultures, sciences and institutions. It is a practical implementation of what Pope Francis is calling “a culture of encounter.” Although its first meeting was in Paris in 2011, it is the kind of thing that Christians have been doing since the beginning when Paul praised the Athenians for their worship of the Unknown God (Acts 17: 22). “The Courtyard of the Gentiles” came to mind as I read about Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book, Living with a Wild God (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2014).

In his speech founding the Courtyard project Pope Benedict noted, “I consider most important the fact that we, as believers, must have at heart even those people who consider themselves agnostics or atheists. When we speak of a new evangelization these people are perhaps taken aback. They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission or to give up their freedom of thought and will. Yet the question of God remains present even for them, even if they cannot believe in the concrete nature of his concern for us. … We must be concerned that human beings do not set aside the question of God, but rather see it as an essential question for their lives. We must make sure that they are open to this question and to the yearning concealed within it. Here I think naturally of the words which Jesus quoted from the Prophet Isaiah, namely that the Temple must be a house of prayer for all the nations (cf. Is 56: 7; Mk 11: 17).”

The Pope concluded: “Today, in addition to interreligious dialogue, there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.” (Address to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2009)

When she was 13 years old, Barbara Ehrenreich had the following experience:

The world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with the ‘All,’ as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.

Was this a religious experience? I don’t know. In an April 14, 2014 Time magazine interview with this scientist, defender of the poor, and atheist, she spoke of this fascinating event. And judging from her interest in publishing a book about it, the experience is still important to her.

And here’s one of two things I want to point out: the experience is important to her not in spite of her scientific training (she has a PhD in biology) but because of it. Her account of the experience and why she has refused to dismiss it should be of interest to those in the Courtyard project or anyone concerned with the relationship between religion and science.

Question: “Are you worried that people are going to think you’ve gone off the reservation?”

Answer: “I’m more worried that people will say I’m crazy. But I was educated as a scientist, and one of the things I learned was that you do not discard anomalous results. If you have a result that doesn’t fit your theory, that falls way off the curve in your graph—I’m sorry, you don’t get to erase that. You have to figure out what’s going on. I’m just opening up the conversation. If in the process I completely ruin my reputation as a rational person and end up in a locked ward, that’s the chance I’m taking.”

Notice that the questioner makes the predictable secularist assumption: religion and science are incompatible because religion is irrational. If you think such an experience is important, you must be leaving the rational world of science. But also notice how Ehrenreich refuses that presumptive cliché: the authentic scientist does not discount what is exceptional. Unlikely things do happen, and they fall within post-Newtonian scientific theories, which search for probability and not necessity. The dismissal of such experiences as Ehrenreich’s is not science but ideology. The task is, as she knows, to interpret it, not to prejudge it as impossible or meaningless.

Here’s the second thing I want to say: in the Christian theology of the Trinity there are two missions. The more familiar mission is the Outer Word, the Logos incarnate, sent by the Father into human history as Jesus of Nazareth. But there is also the pre-verbal, pre-conceptual Inner Word that we call the Holy Spirit, sent into the hearts of all human beings. Tad Dunne has sums up the role of the Spirit this way:

The “Spirit” very seldom is reported in Scripture to deliver a message; rather, it disposes men and women to receive a message. At times this “Spirit” is portrayed as seeking, groaning or wondering. …It seems, then that the mission of God’s “Spirit” is experienced in our inner and immediately-felt wonder, be it the suffering kind that still searches or the enjoyable kind that appreciates the meanings embraced. God is present to us in the unmediated fashion that our own dynamic wonder is.[*]

Thank you, Barbara Ehrenreich, not only for your relentless work in defense of the poor but now, for “opening up the conversation” about your experience. Perhaps your book will give others who feared that they would be branded as unscientific or even crazy the confidence to heed Hamlet’s words:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy. 

David Hammond teaches theology and church history for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

[*] Tad Dunne, “Trinity and History” Theological Studies 45 (1984), 147.


To Be or Not to Be

“Worthy are you, Lord our God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things;
because of your will they came to be and were created.”

(Revelation 4:11, from today’s First Reading)

God is no magician with a magic wand, as Pope Francis correctly pointed out recently. However, Scripture and Church teaching affirm that, at will and out of nothing, God monreale_adam_eve600x3001created the world and all that it contains, visible and invisible, in their entire substance, at the very beginning of time. (See, for example, the following: Rev 4:11 above; Gen 1; Isaiah 45:12 and 48:12-13; 2 Maccabees 7:28; the Fourth Lateran Council, Chapter 1, with proper translation, including that of simul; and Vatican 1, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Chapter 1, Canon 5.) Two of the more common approaches among faithful Catholic theologians concerning creation in respect to revelation and science are theistic macroevolution and special creation. (By special creation, I do not intend to discuss special transformism of monogenistic theistic macroevolution, the inherent problems of which I cannot address in this space.) According to theistic macroevolution, the first divine fiat was the creation of matter from which the Big Bang came. The expanse of the universe and macroevolutionary development of life—from molecules to man—were all guided by God’s providential design. Because this model predominates at this time, I will briefly present, in the following paragraphs, a rationale to embrace special creation according to a representation of its advocates.

Evolution often is presented in two different ways; this distinction is very important but often is blurred, engendering confusion. “Microevolution” is adaptation, or a change in gene frequency (genetic drift). It shows how a species genetically reduces into various subtypes through genetic isolation, inbreeding, natural selection, etc. It is a scientific fact—therefore the Church, at least theoretically, embraces it, for truth is one.

“Macroevolution,” however—especially from research and discoveries in the past two decades—seems unscientific. The macroevolutionary belief contends that one species can genetically change into another species. There are several reasons that macroevolution seems (or is) contradicted by science itself. Just three examples are the following.

First, macroevolution requires the emergence of positive or “information-adding” mutations. However, this has never been observed and would require something beyond nature to create it. Mutations are negative (harmful) or neutral—neutral can include protective mutations, but never an instance of acquiring new genetic material that previously did not exist. Genetic changes in context involve loss of material, never additional genetic stuff. Even cross-breeding adds nothing new. Gene duplications do not, either; they usually degenerate, and regulating them to elicit a new function requires a naturally impossible simultaneous genetic contextual development. Two examples of internationally renowned geneticists who advance this position against macroevolutionary belief are Dr. John Sanford, inventor of the gene gun, and Dr. Maciej Giertych, a Catholic.

Second, the fossil record still shows massive gaps that should not exist if macroevolution occurs. Attempts to show (strikingly few) transitional forms in the fossil record—

e .g., Ambulocetus Natans, Archaeopteryx, and Tiktaalik—have failed in several ways. Concerning macroevolutionary hominid to human transition, the supposed pre-Adamic hominids were arguably completely human: “Neanderthal Man” had a brain capacity that at least equals that of modern man, and he buried the dead and played the flute—hardly pre-human. “Homo Erectus,” possibly a more slender variation of the Neanderthal, possessed a brain size within human range. Hence, no evidence really exists that humans evolved from “apes.”

Third, in the past two or so decades, chemical paleontological technology often has been able to detect soft tissue—e.g., blood vessels (on a T-Rex in 2005), collagen, skin, and muscle—on dinosaur remains. According to the two scientific studies on soft tissue longevity, these dinosaurs cannot be more than thousands of years old. This detection and analysis seems to completely eliminate macroevolution from consideration, because the youngest dinosaurs would have to have become extinct about 65 million years ago for mammals to survive and further macroevolve into us.

Theologically macroevolution is problematic, too. Polygenism is the only apparent way it could work (if it were scientific), but this contradicts Scripture’s numerous references to Adam as the first man—and Adam and Eve as the first couple—from whom the human race came (see, for example, Romans 5:12; Tobit 8:6; 2 Maccabees 7:28). It also contradicts Church teaching articulated by Humani Generis and the doctrine of original sin and redemption. In addition, the literal/historical sense of Scripture cannot accommodate a macroevolutionary time scale without inventing and imposing special symbols, and without changing aspects of infallible teachings, e.g., concerning death as a consequence of original sin.

In addition to Church teaching on the divinely decreed creation of all things in their entire substance at the very beginning of time, the unanimity of the Church Fathers (about thirty) teaches explicitly that the universe was created in six days or less (i.e., St. Augustine, concerning the latter view). We can add other great Doctors of the Church and saints, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Maximilian Kolbe, in support of this teaching, which is exegetically tenable. The Hebraic use of yom in Gen. 1, the relationship of Gen. 1 to Gen. 2, new insights into genre and dating Genesis, a careful look at Exodus 20:11, and other exegetical considerations present a six day creation.

Obviously, a major objection is the age and constants of the universe according to the dominant scientific view of our time. However, many scientists are now seriously challenging tenets of this paradigm, e.g., speed of light as a constant, as articulated by physicist/cosmologist Joao Magueijo, among others. Though new theories may be helpful to better understand the natural order, we should remember that God’s supernatural creative activity “in the beginning” transcends science. We were not there at creation to observe as scientists; even if we were, we could not verify by scientific experiment the hypotheses formed by our questions from this observation. All we can know about the beginning is what God has revealed…

Concerning special creation, then, and theistic macroevolution, and other positions related to this issue, I shall be open-minded, seeking the truth with my colleagues and students within authentic Church teaching.

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.