A Small Parenthesis in Eternity

Senior Editor’s Note: As by now you know, Michael Novak, one of the founders of The Catholic Thing, passed away peacefully in Washington D.C. on the morning of February 17.  Please read Robert Royal’s tribute to Prof. Novak at the National Catholic Register by clicking here. We ask your prayers for our friend and colleague, and his family. – Brad Miner

Like most people who inhabit planet earth, the world I know is a place where things are perceived in a pretty uncomplicated way. When I leave the house in the morning, for example, and drive a half-dozen miles to work, the sun shines brightly upon my brow. And when, at day’s end, I turn the car around and head home, I am once again facing the sun. What do my senses tell me? That the sun, oblivious to the fact that it is a star around which the planets in our solar system orbits, has spent his day moving from east to west. Is it wrong to think that way?

Was Dante wrong when, in the last line of the Paradiso, he told us that it was Love, the divine and eternal Eros itself, “that moves the Sun and other stars”? On whose axis do these heavenly bodies turn if not ours? We live as though the world really were geocentric, where all is both given and forgiven by Love.

We’ve been told since childhood, of course, that none of this is true, that it’s all moonshine. The world of Ptolemy is gone, thanks to the findings of modern science. His pre-critical view of things is no longer tenable, and it is stupid to think otherwise. If we persist in thinking the sun goes around the Earth, we probably need counseling.

So why do we persist in this naive way of taking the world in through the senses? Is it because this is the only world we physically know, whose textures we see and smell, taste and touch? And why must we be told to abandon a place where our ancestors felt perfectly at home? They weren’t lost in their cosmos. They took it all in through the portals of their eyes, rejoicing that the world was palpably present to them.

It was not the least bit unsettling for them to live on such terms, the proportions being as limited as they themselves. The entire design and detail of the place felt perfectly right, drawn to a scale suited to their needs and sensibilities.

Fr. Luigi Giussani

And it is the world whose length and breadth I traverse every day, taking it all in through the eyes given me by God. For me, therefore, it’s the only place to be. It remains, to quote Sir Thomas Browne, “but a small parenthesis in eternity.” And it’s the only parenthesis we’ve got. However high we go in our quest to reach beyond the stars, the journey begins here below, in this place and time, teeming with all that is most solid and real.

There is no shame, therefore, and much good sense, in not taking too seriously the modernist paradigm. It is never a bad thing to detach from a worldview unwilling to weigh the evidence of the human eye, disdaining the very order of the senses in which, after all, the loftiest of insights must first take root.

And, besides, the argument is not finally about physics at all. It isn’t about the achievements of modernity, which one would have to be fairly moronic to refuse. It’s about meaning, logos, and the things that endure.

So when we ask, “What is the meaning of my life?” – it isn’t necessary to genuflect first before the altar of science. Some believe the world began with the Copernican Revolution, but are not to be disbarred from the discourse of civilized men. That particular paradigm shift, the displacement of a geocentric with a heliocentric view, counts for absolutely nothing when it comes to meaning, to configuring the shape of the moral and spiritual life. For a heart in anguish, the latest discoveries in physics will not help.

“Mathematics, the sciences, and philosophy are necessary for the evolution of man as history,” Fr. Luigi Giussani reminds us, “They are fundamental conditions for civilization.” Even so:

. . . one could live very well without philosophy or without knowing that the earth revolves around the sun. Man cannot live, however, without moral certainties, without being able to form sure judgments about the behavior of others toward him. This is so true that uncertainty in relationships is one of the most terrible afflictions of our generation.

What Giussani is saying is that when we lose a sense of certainty about others, when the malaise of mistrust reaches into the most intimate relations of family and friendship, the unraveling that follows is far greater than the result of people failing to realize they live in a world redefined by Copernicus.

“We live as if we were seasick,” he continues, “with such insecurity in the fabric of our relations that we no longer build what is human. We might construct skyscrapers, atomic bombs, the most subtle systems of philosophy, but we no longer build the human because it consists of relationships.”

Like many others, I remain haunted by the events of 9/11 when, for all our vaunted technology, we could not prevent ourselves from falling victim to evil and mindless men intent on taking us back to the 8th century. Not because they wished to restore a Ptolemaic universe. By blowing up the Twin Towers they were promoting an inhuman ideology, not science.

“I will be able to be certain about you,” says Giussani, “to the extent that I. . .share in your life.” A large part of the contemporary world lost that certainty the morning those planes flew into the buildings like missiles launched from hell. And it has proven to be a far easier task to rebuild the area around Ground Zero than to rebuild the shattered fabric of the post 9/11 world.

For that to happen we will need more than Ptolemy, or Copernicus. We will need the grace of Almighty God.

Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of a half-dozen books, including, most recently, Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He lives in Wintersville, Ohio with his wife and ten children.