On Sunday last. 4th October we celebrated the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment. In this article, Joachim Ostermann OFM is convinced that the vision and insights of St Francis have something important to teach our scientific world.
How might St. Francis matter to scientists? His religious worldview is not what people expect to find when they hear a scientist talk. However, something like it will often be there. “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” was famously said by Albert Einstein. But we must be careful with these words. Einstein spoke of the awe and wonder inspired by the sight of the closed system of abstract mathematical laws at the foundation of the world. But the personal God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is nowhere to be found there. Neither is the human person found there. Neither faith in God nor the human person is found in mathematical physics and the modern sciences that build on it.
The challenge of faith in a scientific age has led to many books, even far too many books. Whole libraries could be filled with books about faith and science. When people ask me what they should read on this topic, then I barely know what to say. There is so much already out there. And it is mostly the same message: there is no conflict, faith and science get along just fine, there is no need to choose one over the other. We can study both alone and then bring them together. But if you know the medieval scholastics, then you can see the problem. These books attempt a revival of the old Aristotelian-Thomistic compromise: Embrace scientific materialism, add souls to it, and thus our metaphysical doubt shall disappear.
Gobbledygook! Whether we choose to impose meaning on objective facts or observations to quantum states or souls to zombie bodies, none of this restores the understanding of living beings in the world. An arbitrary spiritual addition to a material world that seems to function just fine without it convinces nobody. No wonder that faith is on the retreat in our scientific age. To make sense of faith as well as science, we need to remember where knowledge begins and then we can make sense of what we have gained in the modern age.
We celebrate the Feast of St. Francis. This is an excellent opportunity to give a Franciscan response to the relationship between faith and modern science.
For St. Francis, there could only be one starting place to make sense of the world, and this was through seeing a brother or sister. It begins with Jesus Christ, the Lord of all creation, who reached out to him as a brother in need of loving care. Francis saw brothers and sisters firstly in other human persons, but also in any creature that God had made. Fraternal relations is how he made sense of the world. Persons and their relationships was what he saw first, and nothing could make sense without them.
We learn what it means to be a person from those who love us. We learn how to act like a person by loving those who love us. And we learn how to apply ourselves more completely as persons by sharing this love in fraternal relations with all. This, in a nutshell, is the world according to St. Francis. This is the complete world, with complete persons and complete creatures.
In this world, science is merely an abstraction, as real and reliable as an architectural sketch of your family home but just as far removed from your family’s life as this sketch.
Just think of what happens when we talk about the insights from mathematical physics. To speak of them, we use human language, human experiences, and human ways of making sense of the world. All of human language and all of human sense-making is already there when we start to speak of science. The moment we take science out of its purely formal context, our own lives and our own experiences are already presupposed through our use of human language.
What St. Francis gives us is neither criticism of science, nor an alternative to science, nor a transformation of scientific knowledge into mysticism. But he does give us a proper and very real context for all knowledge: the context of fraternal relationships. Now the awe and wonder inspired by science need not lead to a remote and disinterested deity, but to awe and wonder about the comprehensibility of the world and its creator. The power of scientific study to draw people into shared understanding, no matter who they are and where they are from, becomes a sign of the unity of knowledge. It is knowledge of the world that we can put to good use in a truly human and personal way without the abuses of creation by technocratic hubris. With this knowledge, we can act more like Christ and let us be drawn into his life.