Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you are God. (I would have proposed myself, but really, I am too shy.) Ask yourself some obvious, apparently simple questions about the universe that you have created. For instance, when did the idea of creating a universe first occur to you? And how long has it been since you began to put it into existence?
Was it created, literally, ex nihilo – out of nothing – or were there stages to be passed through?
Or to express this another way, did something like a Big Bang actually occur? And if so, did it happen at the beginning, or was it instead an evolutionary stage?
Was life, especially “intelligent” life, part of the original conception, or was it, as it were, an afterthought, once the material dimensions had been laid down? And was life designed uniquely for our planet, or are “life forms” (whether smart or stupid) to be found elsewhere?
Could you give us an approximate chronology, from the beginning of things? And also, to the end of things, if there will be an end? (The earth, and human life on earth, should be fitted into this diagram.)
By the way, is the Catholic religion essentially correct? Or are there bits that need correction?
Now, gentle reader may have more questions to add to this short list, and indeed I would have more, on biology alone; but I don’t want to fill the whole column just yet. The questions above might, however, serve as a “conversation starter.”
I’m assuming gentle reader is, or was, a “science kid”; and if he is one still, perhaps he is struggling with a homework assignment.
Angels, devils, the Persons of the Trinity, might all come into this, and verily, the whole of the Catechism could be employed in forming queries, by converting every positive statement into an interrogative.
The exercise, however, will probably be abandoned before it has reached that point. For if the reader is NOT a science kid, and has rather come to adult years, he will discern that this inquiry is ridiculous. Not only will he not be able to supply bright answers; but if God Himself replied, we wouldn’t be able to understand Him.
This is the chief problem with “science,” as it is presented today, and was yesterday. How do you get answers to silly questions? And to whom are these silly questions to be asked? For by the current arrangement, the questions are asked to no one in particular, and having no one to answer, they can’t be checked. Every theoretical answer may be revised tomorrow.
At most, we can hope to find things that are incidental to the real questions we wished to ask. For either there is God, who doesn’t answer such questions in prayer, or there is no God, in which case, there are no answers. For in either case, we are asking a question which – not probably, but actually – can’t be answered in human or in any other terms.
The questions themselves cannot be formulated in an answerable way. They expose what could most politely be called our naivety, in thinking that God or some divine agency can give answers not adapted to the limitations of our knowledge.
Or perhaps we could put this more decisively. These are asinine questions. My whole point in imagining them asked, as if to God, was to reveal this plainly. To even a reasonable child (I am told there are some) we would have to draft an answer that played with his childish understanding and expectation. How much greater the gulf to the divine?
Or more decisively, all science consists invariably of asinine questions. They can only be answered when the questions are rudely truncated – made very finite and specific, and anticipated in the question itself. The truly big cosmic questions, such as I began to ask above, have no place in physical science, and only the shadow of an answer in theology.
But the theological approach is more practical than the approach from “science.” The answers accommodate truth as it must be, rather than mere demonstrated fact. Our departure is from what is given to the eyes of faith, and we see a little farther by the tactic of contemplation.
Science works in a much different way. It cannot take anything for granted. Its conclusions are not fixed but dependent on what was known, formerly. It is “progressive” in this sense, and like anything that advances progressively, it may suddenly vanish as an illusion.
My questions were also silly because they depend upon progress. Behind each is a series of “discoveries” – things assumed to be true – that lead to the final comprehensive question. For instance, I could not even ask about the “Big Bang” had it not already been postulated, and shown to be plausible, for our moment in time. In another instant it might be forgotten. (The sun’s revolution around the earth once seemed even more secure.)
But that is not to say science is useless. It is to say that the use of science is different from what most of us were taught. We think it can, at best, give answers to the questions we ask, but in reality, its value is in the development of questions. Each discovery leads to many more questions, as those who practice science and have made discoveries can attest.
Our learning frees us from the childish naivety with which we inevitably started. We learn to ask less childish questions, although still posed entirely for our benefit. It is through them that our understanding matures. We ask more and more wisely.
Perhaps, the prayer of science should be, “Teach us to ask intelligent questions.” For when we do this we improve morally, even more than intellectually. As we learn to phrase our questions, more justly and knowingly, we escape from the tyranny of ignorance. God may even answer to our questions, through them.
*Image: Benediction of God the Father by Luca Cambiaso, c. 1565 [Museo Diocesano. Genoa, Italy]
You may also enjoy:
Randall Smith’s The Absurd Magnificence of It All
St. Augustine of Hippo’s The Beauty of Creation