False Mystery, True Faith

Simon Kuang, Staff Writer

Where do babies come from? Psalm 139 in the Old Testament praises God for the mystery of life: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”The psalmist implores us to marvel at this question’s answer (or lack thereof). But the ancient Hebrews surely had not thumbed through a 9th grade biology text, or visited the human development exhibit at the California Science Center, or they would have known that humans start as an embryo, which divides, and specializes because the DNA etc. said so…what was formerly heavenly mystery is reduced to mundane fact! Surely modern biology suffices to undo our wonder at the origin of human life, and our reverence for God along with it.

This constitutes the conventional “God of the gaps” attack at the faith of the psalmist—that we would lazily ascribe to divine causation all that which we fail to understand. If this is the case, then there would be devastating implications for theology: if we take “God” to denote “all things that are impressive and ill-understood,” then the deity in question is terrifically unstable, for our every right and true effort to expand our scientific understanding is an effort to diminish God! Even worse, the supposed extrinsic foundations of religion are reduced from alleged poverty to bankruptcy—the man who would find divinity in his own agnosis dreams of God and worships himself.

The invalidation of Psalm 139 is just one manifestation of a greater alleged conflict between “faith and science”—more generally, between “knowledge” that humans can achieve without divine help, and “knowledge” (potentially dubious?) that they cannot. We might begin by visiting reason, science’s abstract epistemic predecessor—in its highest human perfection, philosophy. In the intellectual witness of Western history, thinkers have found profound agreement between contemporary philosophy on one hand and Christian theology on the other. Kierkegaard, in The Sickness Unto Death, organizes theological instruments such as sin and happiness within an existentialist concept of the self, deducing by logical strokes broad and deep that man is born in despair and cannot be rescued except by faith, whence he is restored to ideal relationship with his creator. Aquinas defends in his theological writings a buffet of crucial doctrines of God, such as his existence, immutability, and goodness, relying on an eclectic mix of common sense and Aristotelian metaphysics.

In this way we should accept that faith and reason are not strictly at loggerheads with one another, whence we might wonder if such a conclusion can be sustained across the quantum leap from philosophy to science—”natural philosophy” is its name. It begins with first principles, and moves to more powerful abstractions, but it develops them not by pure reason, but by observing and formulating the world around us. At first sight it appears to be a fool’s errand to reconcile science with faith: after all, the former is by its charter restricted to the natural world, whereas the latter is concerned most basically with the supernatural. What is the goal of such reconciliation? To find agreement? But it is a trivial fact that the “light of reason” and the “light of faith” (if they are the light they purport to be) should illuminate one unified, true reality. We endeavor to discover a deep transitivity—as harmonize science and philosophy and philosophy and faith, so should science and faith. Perhaps our insight of how things work shall point to the one who works all things.

I want to approach this question from an unconventional starting point. The text of Job stands out from the rest of the Hebrew Bible because there is no apparent historical connection with either the story of Israel (which unites much of the Old Testament) or the story of Christ (which unites much of the New Testament). Instead there is a razor-sharp focus on a single topic: what shall we make of suffering? Even though he is an upright man who seems to deserve better, he loses everything he has, and in lengthy debates with his cynical friends, he argues both that he has not done wrong and that God must be considered just. He is at the conclusion answered by the Creator himself, not with a philosophical dissertation but a flurry of rhetorical questioning, a magnificent show of divine power in its splendid, glorious mystery. Can you move the constellations in the night sky? and feed the lonely infant lion no man has ever seen? and tell the rain and lightning where to go at just the right time? Of course we can’t, yet God can, and all of nature, we would conclude, is mastered by God’s perfect wisdom.

The diatribe concludes with a cosmic show-and-tell of two powerful beasts of nature, Behemoth and Leviathan, traditionally understood as representations of evil as it is yet subject all-reaching, sovereign command of the Almighty. Behemoth and Leviathan, the carnal evocations of the Devil on land and sea respectively, appear in Aquinas’s Literal Exposition on Job as summarizing its powers over man: 

It can be said that just as the devil is compared to the elephant who lives on land because of the manifest effects which he causes in corporeal creatures on land, so one can compare the devil to the whale or balena living in the waves of the sea, because of the effects which he works in moving interior motions to and fro.

How terrible the diabolical master of the sea and all that is in it!

His sneeze is a resplendent fire and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. From his mouth, the lamps go forth like flaming pine logs. From his nostrils, smoke comes forth like pots of boiling water on the fire. His breath makes live coals blaze and flame comes forth from his mouth.2

Our post-Dante imaginations effortlessly figure the evil in this sketch. But prima facie it is not self-evident: Apocalyptic imagery recognizes “fire” and “smoke” but is alien to “sneeze,” “eyelids,” etc. How precisely does this imagery of a fiery whale conjure the Devil?

Aquinas skillfully commits a host of Aristotelian biological and physical science to answer this question. For example,

“From his nostrils,” which are principal organs needed for breathing,” comes forth, “by breathing,” “smoke,” that is, a burning air from the great heat which is necessary for this animal to move such great bulk. So he clearly says, “like pots of boiling water on the fire,” for the air which he sends forth in breathing was contained in his lung, where it was heated by the heat of the heart which is next to the lungs, like water is heated in a pot and boils when fire is applied to it.

Although there is a technical distinction between steam, the atomized liquid “vapor” arising from boiling water, and smoke, which is a suspension of soot from fire; and I am not sure Aquinas was aware of this; it should not be taken as a cause for complaint here. Aquinas’s reading is faithful to the analogy in Job—the hot smoke points to the intense energy (here construed as the heart) that the Devil conducts. And to what effect?

For he speaks in a metaphor of those who can make live coals by blowing under them saying, “and flame comes forth from his mouth,” because the vapor coming from this mouth is so hot and igneous that it can be rightly compared to a flame. By all these things he shows that the devil enkindles the fire of perverse desire in man by his hidden or open suggestion.

Aquinas uses the idea of heat to demonstrate how vigorously the Devil stirs men to rebellion against God, toward the flames of eternal punishment. His natural premises, are, however, without “scientific” basis:

Therefore as the becoming of a thing cannot continue when that action of the agent ceases which causes the “becoming” of the effect: so neither can the “being” of a thing continue after that action of the agent has ceased, which is the cause of the effect not only in “becoming” but also in “being.” This is why hot water retains heat after the cessation of the fire’s action; while, on the contrary, the air does not continue to be lit up, even for a moment, when the sun ceases to act upon it, because water is a matter susceptive of the fire’s heat in the same way as it exists in the fire. Wherefore if it were to be reduced to the perfect form of fire, it would retain that form always; whereas if it has the form of fire imperfectly and inchoately, the heat will remain for a time only, by reason of the imperfect participation of the principle of heat. On the other hand, air is not of such a nature as to receive light in the same way as it exists in the sun, which is the principle of light. Therefore, since it has not root in the air, the light ceases with the action of the sun.

This is, in my opinion, a tremendously circuitous way to observe what can only be regarded as evident fact: that water retains heat in a way in which air does not retain light. Although he exemplifies that metaphysics is no sufficient authority on matters of physics, his scientific shortcomings appear at worst of venial severity in this case, as his theological interpretation does not depend on his scientific details.

Nevertheless, at times Aquinas’s scientific foundations thoroughly undermine his theological process. Further on in the passage, it is said of Leviathan, “Power will reside in his neck”3. To Aquinas, the axis about which this phrase turns is not “power” or “reside” but “neck”:

Consider that, as Aristotle says, in The History of Animals II, “no fish has a neck,” except those who generate animals like dolphins. Whales also belong to this genus. So he begins to describe the strength of his neck when he says, “power will reside in his neck,” which is necessary for so large an animal to carry the weight of his head. Because the neck joins the head to the body, one can understand by the neck of Leviathan those through whom the devil exercises his evil against others, who are as powerful men as possible and whom the others reverence or even fear.

For in Book I of Aristotle’s text, “The neck is the part between the face and the trunk,” and the trunk is “extending from the neck to the privy parts.” In Book II he states without proof that fish have no necks. (In context, they are not mammals: “No fish has a neck, or any limb, or testicles at all, within or without, or breasts.”) Thus the exegetical logic goes something like this: because Leviathan’s neck is called strong, we know that Leviathan has a neck. Since Leviathan has a neck, it must be a mammal. (Aquinas depends on this idea when he reasons about its lungs.) Of the creatures of the sea, mammals are the largest—whence the animal image of Leviathan agrees with all of the other descriptions of its power.

Is it sound to develop a diabology based on the phenomenology of the neck? A skeptic might object: Between definition and observation it’s really not so clear that the idea of “neck” is well-defined. And we may yet permit ourselves to discuss necks, but only with the necessary caution in not knowing exactly what we are talking about. “The fish has a head” as well as “a belly, in the neighbourhood of which last are placed the stomach and viscera,” which is called a trunk. And of course there is something to a fish between the head and the trunk: call this a neck. Be it demonstrated that fish have necks—Q.E.D. What is neckness, after all?

A biologist does not care about the modality of neckness and headness and trunkness; he cares about fish! Theology subjected to theoretical biology is coram non judice, and badly so. It seems an inevitable conclusion that science has moved on, and faith is left in the dust.

I can only speculate that St. Thomas, a theologian whom I highly admire, reached such a fishy interpretation of Scripture not because he too little esteemed Scripture and its perfection, but because he so much esteemed the sacred text and its all-reaching truth that it was only fitting to harness every human truth, even fallible science, in its service. For as St. Augustine writes in On Christian Doctrine, “let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master,” Christians believe that truth, even as the fruit of natural science, must never be counted harmful, nay, useful, or at worst, irrelevant, in sacred inquiry.

The paradox is that science is constantly and rapidly changing, yet religious belief changes very slowly—and God, according to his believers, does not change at all. But this conflict is at worst superficial, for the advances of natural science abide in a noticeably different mode of knowledge than those of religion. One such knowledge pursues those truths that narrate and observe our physical surroundings—why does the reaction of caustic acids and bases result in a neutral substance? Why do heavy and light objects of the same shape and size fall at the same rate? What makes salt salty and sugar sweet? Of course these are questions that have captivated, and deceived, and at last, surrendered to scientists of history. But these questions are also such as can be restricted, if one so chose, to the 40-hour work week at the laboratory: they bear no lasting weight. Our answers, demonstrably correct as they be, are at last fungible and disposable.

Human knowledge is also able to speculate beyond our senses of sight, smell, touch, etc. Who am I? What do I truly enjoy? What is good for me to do—why should I do anything at all? Such questions strike so sharply at what it means to exist as a human that you cannot get by at this very moment without having some kind of an answer: they are by nature so dreadfully immediate, bordering on self-referential, that to dismiss any one of them constitutes an answer unto itself. They categorically transcend scientific experimentation and passive human experience.

We may search for a bridge between our disjoint and opposite domains of knowledge—observation and calculation on one side, faith and reason on the other—the finitary and concrete vs. the infinite and abstract—as humans, syntheses of “the infinite and the finite,” as Kierkegaard writes in The Sickness Unto Death. The Christian solution to this conundrum is revelation—to humans he has made himself known. God is truth itself, and he has given truth to humans both in nature (which is searched by science) and Scripture (which is searched by faith). Yet God is one, and truth is one: though irrelevant seem the two domains of truth, we can and must use either to interpret the other.

For this reason I believe that the overall project of Aquinas’s commentary on Job was a resounding success—no, not because it was a scientific interpretation of Scripture, but because it was a Scriptural interpretation of science. He did not understand the chemistry of oxidation reactions, but he must have singed his eyelashes by a candle, or burned his hand on the stove as a child, or stood outside a wooden house consumed in flames. The Christian faith is not indifferent to such vivid realities of “fire,” but saturates them with theological meaning, viz. e.g. the powerful Devil who sits in the shadow of an infinitely more powerful God.

And I think this is precisely the point of God’s monolog in Job. God pronounces his majesty as Lord of creation not by assembling theological primitives but by showcasing concrete images of nature (“do you know the way mountain goats give birth?” “does the lightning ask you where to strike?”). So diverse a parade of natural wonders refers us to look around to the splendid mystery before and behind us, on our left and right—yet the mortal hearer cannot help but gaze heavenward—toward the perfectly transcendent God. Indeed, the Christian religion is not a cloud of disembodied speculation, but warranted belief contextualized in our human experiences. Our highest good—the soul’s delight in knowing God—is similar to, yet infinitely surpassing, rich food and drink: Scripture points to such things4 not in order to circumscribe our already finite concept of the ineffable God, but to give direction to our feeble power of contemplation, that we might at least take to heart what in Scripture we are too feeble to experience.

So to illuminate that infinite gulf between man and God, and so to impress on man that joyful leap which God mercifully conducts—in this intellectual venture participates natural science, that peculiar glory of modern man’s self-perfection, and even dialectically so—not in irenic strength but striking weakness, for by its immense potential it loudly confesses its own limitations. For biology can explain how a human embryo develops into a newborn child. In 2018 we are no longer mystified by flesh and bones and neurons and lymph and the cells that make them up. But the true mystery of Psalm 139 is that which science has categorically resigned from elucidating—what is that critical catastrophe which differentiates mere self-sustaining flesh automaton from a living person, with thoughts and feelings?—how is that mysterious substance generated and infused which exits a man when he dies?—where does life come from?

“As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.”5 Here is the mystery of life, the vindication of the Psalmist, not in our cells but in our selves! Who can ever know the elusive human spirit? Only the living God, who makes himself known to us.

1. Psalm 139:13 English Standard Version
2. Job 41:18‒21, unidentified translation of the Vulgate
3. Job 41:22
4. e.g. in Pss. 23 and 34, as well as the Eucharist.
5. Ecc. 11:5


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