Faith, Hope, and Charity are what the Church teaches, urbi et orbi, from day to day to cities and worlds embittering themselves by their attempts to deny Christ. But what first attracted me to Catholic teaching, from far off when I was young and still un-Christian, was the teaching on Reason. This wasn’t the church around the corner I was glimpsing — goodness knows how discouraging that was, for it was in the charge of some “liberationist” priest who avoided any potential conflict between Faith and Reason by ignoring both.
No, it was the Church of the High Middle Ages that I was glimpsing, and from an unusual angle — approaching from behind it in time. For, as a young man with philosophical interests (a surprisingly high proportion of young men have them — and women too, I am told), I had decided to make Aristotle my master. I would study methodically, in every free moment, everything that went into Aristotle, what was processed therein, and what came out.
Soon enough, with a program like that, one discovers a certain Thomas Aquinas: not as a Catholic Saint, but as a commentator on Aristotle — and, as it turns out, the most lucid commentator I could find. Moreover, he was unlike modern commentators, for he wrote as if what Aristotle said mattered; as if it were of more than academic interest. The idea that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” is an extremely exhilarating one in the mind of a young man, or in any human being who is not morally and intellectually obtuse.
Not the Catholic Church as it was (the heap around the corner, which struck my jaded eyes as a dungeon of ignorance), but the Catholic Church of my mind became some distant beacon. For implicit in every well-considered word of St. Thomas was the notion that we must keep our faith compatible with our reason. To do less is to shirk.
Once upon a time I had also been a science kid, fascinated with math and physics on the one side, and by all the phenomena of biological life on the other. Aristotle, the hawk-eyed observer of nature, made an immediate appeal.
His allergy to math was a disappointment. St. Thomas was no mathematician either, but an uncompromising philosopher rising to theologian. At a certain point in his commentaries, we see him wrestling with Aristotle’s notion that our universe exists perpetually in time, and St. Thomas seems pained by the conflict with what Christian theology must inevitably dictate: that this universe is finite in time. He appears to succeed in locating the Unmoved Mover outside the time series, but to a mind vaguely acquainted with 20th-century physics, and thus with math and observations that point to a true singularity — to an “Alpha” behind the “Big Bang” — this will not do.
There was a famous controversy between Rev. Georges Lemaître, the Belgian priest who first presented the “hypothesis of the primeval atom,” and Pope Pius XII, who leapt upon the idea as evidence that science had proved God. Father Lemaître warned the pope not to put his faith in transient empirical science.
Among those taking Pope Pius’s side of this controversy is the great American physicist Frank Tipler. His recent book, The Physics of Christianity (Doubleday) is the latest of three (The Physics of Immortality , and before that, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle , co-written with John Barrow) in which he develops the notion that a candid view of quantum mechanics enables us to hypothesize not only an Alpha but an Omega point to our actual universe, and further requires the existence of a vast number of parallel “multiple universes” pointing toward a third singularity, completing the set. (Three-in-one and one-in-three.)
I leave the interested reader to struggle with his contentions alone. What most interests me in Tipler’s works are not his worldly interpretations of physical theory, but his core argument. For he is saying (apparently, along with Galileo) that our universe (or “multiverse”) must be all of one piece, and that all of the (often extraordinary) claims of the Christian religion can be made compatible with unchanging and knowable physical laws.
That is where we find the thrill of Reason. For it is the Catholic contention that “God does not contradict himself,” and in discovering a cosmology, arising from mathematical physics, in which even the miraculous occurs without defying God’s own physical laws, we may be en route to another grand Catholic conjunction of Faith and Reason.