Mystery and materialism

The idea of philosophy is mediation; Christianity’s is the paradox. … It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand, and what those things are. … The paradox is not a concession but a category, an ontological definition which expresses the relation between an existing cognitive spirit and eternal truth. —Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments

America, the first real democracy in history, was a product of Enlightenment values—critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences. … Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an enlightened nation? —Garry Wills, adjunct professor of history, Northwestern University, in the New York Times.

The Enlightenment Project was supposed to move us away from superstition, myth and religious mumbo-jumbo. It was supposed to usher in an era of rationalistic freedom and learned enlightenment. As the sciences unraveled the mysteries of human life and the physical universe, as Providence was pushed aside by Progress as the agent of social improvement, the church of the Enlightenment fell out of favor, and the faithful found themselves ridiculed for their continuing allegiance to those old stories.

First Europe, then America, embraced Materialism as the new god for a new era. All things could be explained by resorting to experiment and observation. All was material, from the tiniest division of a human cell to the fiery nebulae where stars were born. In the view of many intellectuals, “God” had always been shorthand for “I don’t know,” and now, with increasing rapidity, Science did know, and what things it did not know lay just across the event horizon, just a few more experiments away from discovery.

But a funny thing happened as we embarked on our journey to secularize all of life as we know it—a few brave souls (or ignoramuses, depending on your point of view) refused to board the train.

And another funny thing happened just a few hours into the journey. This train, this high-speed Utopia-bound French TGV, was diverted onto a siding and stopped cold. Unbelievably, it was discovered that the tracks hadn’t been completed, crucial bridges hadn’t been built, and the engineer, having never driven this route before, was wondering if Utopia might not be off in a different direction altogether.

Confusion reigns. The children are hungry and wailing. We should have been there by now, but Utopia is still somewhere off in the far away distance.

Taking advantage of the confusion, those weird religious types threaten to undermine the whole experiment by insisting on The Virgin Birth and The Bodily Resurrection of the Dead and Life After Death. They buzz around the intelligentsia like an irritating swarm of mosquitoes, getting in the ears, stinging the skin, making life utterly miserable.

Enlightened Europe has stayed the course. Its churches have been razed, its religious books crated and locked in the basements of libraries, its priestly class scorned and marginalized.

But America, the world’s greatest economic and military power, where genetically-engineered trees are so laden with the fruits of Materialism that their branches bend to the ground, America has found itself in retrograde motion, slowly but steadily distancing itself from the Enlightenment Project.

America has become the laughing-stock of the nations by clinging to the belief that there is Truth beyond the reach of scientific inquiry.

As if this weren’t bad enough, Science has found itself puzzled in recent years by dozens of “anthropic coincidences,” small but crucial tweaks and tunings of celestial mechanics that are critical to the existence of the universe as we know it. They are called “anthropic” because without them, life could not exist. These “coincidences” seem anti-intuitive and anti-science in the sense that they do not follow the rules—they are anomalous data, outside of the range of what we would have predicted by virtue of our understanding of how the universe works.

And yet, they exist. They stare us in the face, refusing rational explanation, mocking our intelligence. They look for all the world as though some outsider, some Master Chef, tasted the soup time and again, adjusting this, adding a touch of that, simmering instead of boiling, until the soup was not merely edible, but award-winning, one-of-a-kind, utterly delicious.

(You can read a very fine article on the subject of Anthropic Coincidences by the physicist Dr. Stephen Barr on the website of the journal First Things. I plan to do another essay on this subject in the near future.)

As Kierkegaard says, “the paradox is not a concession but a category, an ontological definition which expresses the relation between an existing cognitive spirit and eternal truth.” There are paradoxes that Science cannot resolve. There are material truths, and there are transcendent and eternal truths. To acknowledge this is not to embrace fairy tales, but to acknowledge that science has limitations.

Science is a material discipline, and as such, it is only skillful at rooting out material principles. It cannot tell us anything about the non-material world, if one exists, and it cannot even tell us whether it makes sense to talk about a non-material world. Scientific enquiry exists in a prison of time and space. It cannot tell us what, if anything, lies beyond time and space, nor can it even claim to know if such claims make any sense at all.

Honest science does not claim to know anything about the immaterial, because it cannot know what it cannot know.

All our praise rises to the One who is strong enough to make you strong, exactly as preached in Jesus Christ, precisely as revealed in the mystery kept secret for so long but now an open book through the prophetic Scriptures. All the nations of the world can now know the truth… —Romans 16:25, 26a, The Message (the apostle Paul writing)

Then Jesus was filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit and said, “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding the truth from those who think themselves so wise and clever, and for revealing it to the childlike. Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way. —Luke 10:21, NLT

Faith is not an anti-science proposition. Faith is not anti-intellectual. Faith is about the quest to understand the paradoxical. It is about the possibility that the God who saw our material limitations has reached down from beyond space and time and revealed to us what we could never discover for ourselves.

Give a child a box of red crayons and ask him to draw a green frog, a brown puppy, and a blue whale. Give him all of the time he needs, but no matter how long he works at it, his every drawing will come back to you looking red.

Unless God reveals himself and his truth to us from beyond the material world, our material sciences with their material tools and material methods of inquiry will always return the same answer to every metaphysical question: Your guess is as good as mine.

Faith is a Mystery that the Material cannot comprehend; it is a Paradox that the Material hasn’t the tools to unravel.

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