Science and the Ascension of Christ

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A legion of publishers will attest that Father Stanley Jaki (1924-2009) did not suffer fools gladly, and under that category he filed virtually all editors. He wrote in perfect English but with a discernible Hungarian syntax so that his footnotes could be longer than the main text, and verbs often were fugitive. His patience with anyone who corrected the smallest iota was that of General Hunyadi dealing with a Turk. But like any remnant Magyar, his bloodline also breathed on occasion Liszt and Mindszenty. There are those who rank this Benedictine priest among those palmary cleric-scientists who radically changed the way the world understands itself: Nicholas Copernicus in astronomy, Gregor Mendel in genetics, Giuseppi Mercalli in seismology, and Georges Lemaître who proposed a “First Atomic Moment,” which detractors at first mocked as a “Big Bang.” But when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected background radiation and thus ushered in experimental cosmology, ridicule changed to astonishment.

So it was not only a challenge but also a privilege to have had him as a mentor and friend for about twenty years, and I have recorded some of this in my book Cloud of Witnesses. Not even popes escaped his deft scalpel, and his opening words in our first conversation were a complaint about the new Polish pontiff whom he already revered as a saint, but whose philosophizing he faulted for his “Achilles heel” of phenomenology. As a dwarf on the shoulders of such giants, I was subject to correction from him for treating the Big Bang as a theological statement. I may take the tone of his words to my grave, but I learned from it, and in retrospect it was a pale version of the way Father Georges Lemaître, inventor of that “First Atomic Moment,” politely corrected Pope Pius XII in 1951.

On November 22 of that year, the pope delivered a lengthy address to the Pontifical Academy of Science entitled “Proofs for the Existence of God in the Light of Modern Science.” A month earlier, the Holy Father had given his memorable “Address to Midwives on the Nature of Their Profession.” While indulging a tendency to discourse on various subjects as a polymath, nevertheless what the pope said was as brilliant and as prophetic as Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae published a quarter century later.

In the address on November 22, the Pontiff did allow with becoming modesty:

 

It is quite true that the facts established up to the present time are not an absolute proof of creation in time, as are the proofs drawn from metaphysics and Revelation in what concerns simple creation or those founded on Revelation if there be question of creation in time. The pertinent facts of the natural sciences, to which We have referred, are awaiting still further research and confirmation, and the theories founded on them are in need of further development and proof before they can provide a sure foundation for arguments which, of themselves, are outside the proper sphere of the natural sciences.

But the title of the address was provocative, and he continued:

Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, it has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the cosmos came forth from the hands of the Creator. Hence, creation took place in time. Therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists! Although it is neither explicit nor complete, this is the reply we were awaiting from science, and which the present human generation is awaiting from it.

Neither the “Big Bang” nor Lemaître was mentioned, though other scientists were cited, and he almost certainly relied on the British mathematician Edmund Whittaker. We do not know who drafted the speech, but it did not satisfy Lemaître. It is not known whether he spoke personally in audience with the pope afterward or sent comments to him through others, but he made clear that with the best of intentions, the text was muddling physics with metaphysics, failing to respect their boundaries. Pius XII normally avoided sentimentality and he disdained the confusing enthusiasms that can issue from imprudently speaking off the cuff, so he dropped the subject. In this he was as acute as John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Instead of wanting to make a mess, they sought ways to explain why the “Spirit of truth”is not messy (cf. John 16:13). Pope John XXIII appointed Lemaître to the presidency of the Pontifical Academy, and Pope John Paul II furthered the discussion in a letter to the head of the Vatican Observatory in 1988:

It would entail that some theologians, at least, should be sufficiently well-versed in the sciences to make authentic and creative use of the resources that the best-established theories may offer them. Such an expertise would prevent them from making uncritical and overhasty use for apologetic purposes of such recent theories as that of the “Big Bang” in cosmology. Yet it would equally keep them from discounting altogether the potential relevance of such theories to the deepening of understanding in traditional areas of theological inquiry.

Einstein admired Lemaître and was docile when Lemaître did not shy from offering a corrective to his general relativity field equations. You might say that Einstein, asserting that “God does not play dice,” was agnostic about agnosticism. He said cryptically: “If God created the world, his primary concern was certainly not to make its understanding easy for us.” Thinking more like Spinoza, he could be impatient with outright atheists: “The eternal mystery of the word is its  comprehensibility.” He would not say more without compromising the integrity of his own science. Saint Augustine chartered the course centuries earlier: “We do not read in the Gospel that the Lord said, ‘I will send the Paraclete to teach you the course of the sun and the moon’; in fact, He wanted to create Christians, not mathematicians.” In the seventeenth century, Cardinal Baronio, a spiritual disciple of Saint Philip Neri, epigrammed: “The Bible teaches us how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

This applies to the enigmatic “Shekinah,” the Presence of God, in the form of the cloud —“anan”—that accompanied the wandering Jews (Exodus 13:21) and appeared on Sinai (Exodus 24:16) and on Tabor (Matt. 17:5). Finally, the cloud—“nephele”—was seen at the Ascension (Acts 1:9). While this cloud could have been perceived by human senses, it was beyond physical analysis. Here meteorology yields to another dimension for which there is no human definition other than acknowledgement of its existence. The Christian response moves beyond analysis to rejoicing. When Saint Paul spoke of a man who had experienced a “Third Heaven” he could say no more than that (2 Cor. 12:2).

In the three accounts of the cloud at the Transfiguration, the apostles were “terrified,” not at the brightness of the inexplicable light that shone from Christ, but at the way the light had the quality of darkness “when they entered the cloud.” This was something from another dimension, a luminous darkness that Saint John of the Cross experienced as a “dark night of the soul” and which previously St. Gregory of Nyssa struggled to express in words. Dionysius the Areopagite managed to say: “Those who would see God must pass beyond the limits of creation, into a state which is beyond human knowledge and light and speech, and must therefore, from the point of view of created beings, be called one of ignorance, darkness, and silence.”

I knew a woman who, while Christmas caroling as a schoolchild, sang “Silent Night” outside Einstein’s house at 112 Mercer Street in Princeton. The professor appeared on the porch with his violin and, while not singing the words, played the music. This scene might be an arresting illustration of Father Jaki’s application of Godel’s incompleteness theorem to various attempts at formulating a “Theory of Everything.”

In a sermon of the year 388, Gregory of Nyssa first referred to a special Feast of the Ascension to celebrate the mysterious cloud predicted by the Psalmist. This was on the Fortieth Day; we lose the significance of time meeting eternity—“kronos” encountering “kairos”—when the feast is moved to the next Sunday for the convenience of hasty urban commuters and suburban shoppers.

At the Ascension, “two men clothed in white” asked: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” (Acts 1:11) What had been seen could not be comprehended by looking up, but it might have been apprehended by looking within, so they returned to the Temple. Saint Paul drew on his own cosmology when he invoked the poem “Phaenomena” to show the deficiencies in the pantheism of its author Aratus, a Stoic, whose notion of an impersonal “life force” would be congenial to lax thinkers today (Acts 17:28). But having once been blinded by God’s luminous presence, he proclaimed to those more inclined to consider what they know and what they do not know: “The Lord himself … will come down from heaven, and the dead who live in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore, comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:17-18).

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Fr. Georges Lemaître with Pope Pius XII. (Photo credit: Inters.org)

Fr. George W. Rutler

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Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016); The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017); and Calm in Chaos (Ignatius, 2018).

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