Scientists and theologians

There is a clear analogy between the limitations on the scientist and those on the theologian. The scientist must submit his mind to the data of experiment, the theologian must submit his to the data of revelation. The word “data” means “the things that are given.” Both the religious person and the scientist accept givens. The givens may perplex. They may seem difficult to bring into harmony with each other or with what is known on other grounds. They may throw all our theories into confusion. But accepting the data must come before progress in understanding. That is why the words of St. Augustine apply, in a way, to the scientist as much as to the theologian: credo ut intelligam , “I believe in order that I may understand.”

So we see in science something akin to religious faith. The scientist has confidence in the intelligibility of the world. He has questions about nature. And he expects”no, more than expects, he is absolutely convinced”that these questions have intelligible answers. The fact that he must seek those answers proves that they are not in sight. The fact that he continues to seek them in spite of all difficulties testifies to his unconquerable conviction that those answers, although not presently in sight, do in fact exist. Truly, the scientist too walks by faith and not by sight.

The scientist is convinced that there are certain acts of insight, which he has not yet achieved, and which indeed no human being may ever achieve, that would satisfy a rational mind on the questions he has raised about nature. Faith in God is an extension of this attitude. The believer in God is convinced that reality is intelligible, not merely on this or that point, but through and through. There is some all“embracing act of insight that would satisfy all questioning and leave no further questions to be asked. Such an infinite and perfect act of insight is the state of being of God, indeed for the Christian and Jew it is God. In the words of the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan, God is the “unrestricted act of understanding” that grasps all of reality, all of being.

The materialist imagines that a religious mystery is something too dark to be seen. But, as G. K. Chesterton noted, it is really something too bright to be seen, like the sun. As Scripture tells us, God “dwells in unapproachable light.” The mystery is not impenetrable to intellect or unintelligible in itself ; rather, it is not fully intelligible to us . And reason itself tells us that there must be such mysteries. For the nature of God is infinite, and therefore not proportionate to our finite minds. The mysteries of the faith primarily concern the nature of God, or they concern man in his relationship to God and as the image of God. They concern, that is, what is infinite or touches upon the infinite. Consequently, religious mystery hardly concerns, if it concerns at all, the matters studied by the physicist, chemist, or botanist. The things they study are quite finite in their natures and therefore quite proportionate to the human intellect. That is why there is nothing in Jewish or Christian belief that implies or suggests any limit to what human beings can understand about the structure of the physical world. Although the writings of scientific materialists are filled with hostility toward religious mystery, in fact religious mystery has never acted as a brake upon scientific progress.