The Book of Nature and the God of Science

The Book of Nature and the God of Science

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Metaviews 054. 2000.06.02. Approximately 3113 words.

Below is a recent talk by Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti from the PontificalUniversity in Rome on The Book of Nature and the God of Scientists.Tanzella-Nitti discusses John Paul II’s Encyclical Fides et Ratio andits implications for science and religion. The talk was presented inVatican City at the Jubilee for Men and Women from the World ofLearning on May 16th.

– Editor

From: Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti <>Subject: The Book of Nature and the God of Scientists according to theEncyclical Fides et Ratio

G. Tanzella-NittiPontifical University of the Holy CrossFaculty of Theology, Rome-ItalyE-mail:

The Book of Nature as the First Stage of Divine Revelation

John Paul II’s Encyclical Fides et Ratio (14.9.1998) dedicates amplespace to the issue of natural knowledge of God, as both anascending pathway of reason towards faith (implicit in the questionabout truth, explicit in nn. 24-35) as well as a descending pathwayfrom Revelation toward the universality of reason (treated in nn.16-19), simultaneously offering a link between the two routes ( 34). This teaching proposes again, on a deeper biblical basis,what was already indicated by the First Vatican Council constitutionDei Filius (1870). In addition to the usual reference to the Epistleto the Romans – since the creation of the world his [of God]attributes are clearly seen being understood through the things thatare made (Rm 1:20) – Fides et Ratio now adds a large quotation fromchapter 13 of the Book of Wisdom. The human capability of a naturalknowledge of God was also maintained in other documents of theCatholic Church issued after the First Vatican Council, namely theanti-modernist encyclical Pascendi (8.9.1907) and the declarationSacrorum Antistitum (1.9.1910). The theme was again mentioned, butnot thoroughly treated developped, by the Second Vatican Council inits constitution Dei Verbum (1965), and was later touched upon inrelation to the task of the theologian in the document DonumVeritatis (24.5.1990). From the point of view of the terminologyused, we are reminded that the fathers of the First Vatican Councilexpressly chose the verb to know (cognosci) rather than todemonstrate (demonstrari), a verb that will be used later, in theantimodernist writings, but one that does not appear at all, in thiscontext, in Fides et Ratio.

But, we ask, what kind of knowledge is this? In the 20th centurytheology, some authors proposed a minimalistic interpretation ofthe natural knowledge of God as presented by the magisterium of theCatholic Church. According to them, the magisterium spoke of thiscapacity in terms of a possibility of reason, but a possibilitywhich never came into effect in human history precisely because ofthe presence of sin. Such interpretations originated from observingthat both the Vatican I and II made a reference to Thomas Aquinas’doctrine about the moral convenience of the divine revelation ofthe existence of God, that is such revelation was convenient, becauseof sin, though theoretically unnecessary. Moreover, it was alsonoticed by those same authors that the classic biblical passagesabout the natural knowledge of God (see Wis 13:1; Rm 1:21; Acts17:27) present the context of a humanity which, despite the capacityto recognize the Creator by observing the creatures, was not able todo so, historically speaking. For it’s part Humani Generis (1950)mentioned two reasons for which not all men arrive at a naturalknowledge of God, namely the profound psychological and existentialweight of the theme at stake, and the necessity of properintellectual formation.

The encyclical of John Paul II seems to rule out a minimalisticinterpretation of that knowledge. Fides et Ratio speaks of acapacity, but a capacity that has to be seen historically in act.It speaks of a reason that, though wounded by sin, is able to knowthe Absolute; a knowledge, however, that can be partially, or eventotally obscured, only if human beings remain in a state of sin, andallow their will be attracted by the concupiscence for finite andlimited goods. Fides et ratio drives home the idea that human reasonhas the capacity to discover the existence of God. The verb todiscover – quite common in the work of scientists – is largely usedand applied by the Pope about thirty times, either to the discoveringof God, the discovering of the Truth, or to the discovering of themeaning of our lives. Observing that the problem of God is thecentral object of philosophy and the notion of God lies at the heartof every religion and culture, Fides et Ratio argues that theexistence of God represents a conclusion adequate for the humanintellect, a knowledge that goes beyond sense experience, butsomething that man discovers at the end of the two classicphilosophical routes towards the Absolute: the cosmological path (orouter path) and the anthropological path (or inner path).

A further point is worth being emphasized here. Fides et ratiopresents a clear dogmatic development when it explicitly speaks ofcreation as the first stage of Revelation. Until now the magisteriumof the Catholic Church preferred to reserve the term Revelation torefer to historical-supernatural word of God only; when speaking ofcreation or nature other attributes were used, such as testimony,witnessing or manifestation of God. Commenting on chapter 13 of theBook of Wisdom (13:1-5), John Paul II affirms: This is to recognizeas a first stage of divine Revelation the marvelous book of nature,which, when read, with the proper tools of human reason, can lead toknowledge of the Creator (no. 19).

Creation itself is the initial stage of Revelation because of itsdirect relation to the Word, by which creation took place, andbecause of that Christological dimension which permeates the createdworld as a whole, a world made through him and for him (cf. Col1:16). If creation can be said to be the Revelation of God, then itmust have the capacity to appeal, to bear meaning, to incarnate anend. Man can not limit the experience he has of creation to theaesthetic level, but must ask himself about the Author of beauty (seeWis 13:5). For those who have not received the historical revelationof God, the word of creation can play the role of a truly salvificrevelation, to work in place of the historic and prophetic wordthanks to its link with the humanity of Christ, the center and thescope of creation (cf. Col 2:9; Eph 1:10).

Theology is invited to re-open the Book of Nature, a book that inprevious centuries many had, in a way, suggested closing: becauseit was too difficult to read, because it would deal only with auncertain knowledge, a knowledge always subject to revision, orbecause after Galileo and Darwin, that book was primarily considereda source of trouble rather than a source of positive speculation.That the reading of the Book of Scripture, in order to be wellunderstood, had to be associated with the Book of Nature, was abelief shared in the past by many authors: from the ApologeticFathers to Basil; from Gregory of Nyssa to Augustine. By the words ofSt. Augustine: It is the divine page that you must listen to; it isthe book of the universe that you must observe. The pages ofScripture can only be read by those who know how to read and write,while everyone, even the illiterate, can read the book of theuniverse (Enarrationes in Psalmos, 45,7). In medieval times greatstrides were made in this area by St. Bonaventure.

Galileo Galilei resumed the use of the metaphor of the two books inthe context of his defense of the compatibility of the heliocentricsystem with Sacred Scripture. As is well known, in his Letter toMaria Cristina of Lorena (1615), Nature and Scripture are presentedby Galileo as two books that proceed from the same divine Word; theglory of God can be known by means of the works that He has writtenin the open book of heaven. Some years later he would write in TheAssayer (1622): Philosophy is written in this immense book that iscontinually before our eyes, the universe, but that it cannot beunderstood if we first do not learn to understand the language, andthe very letters with which it is written. Johannes Kepler,contemporary of Galileo’s, would also speak about the Book of Natureas a book where God is revealed just as much as in the SacredScriptures, a book that has it’s own priests, that is, those who bystudying it, pray and give glory to God.

However, beginning with the scientific revolution, the history of thetwo books developed independently. The easiest way to affirm theircompatibility was, unfortunately, to recommend their completeseparation. The attempt to reconcile the two Books, brought aboutespecially by apologetics of the 18th century Anglican theology, didnot offer a credible explanation, but, paradoxically, gave place to adrift towards Deism and later, in the 19th century, towards Atheism.The course of events during the 20th century and the newopportunities that have arisen in the last decades for a new dialoguebetween the two books, are known by everyone and our presence hereis problably a major step of this very interesting intellectualprocess. The position adopted by Fides et Ratio concerning the Bookof Nature is also a part of this process. Bur the encyclical evengoes beyond the relatonship between science and theology. Itindicates that the Book of Nature is a field of dialogue among thereligions of the Earth, because through the language of creation allhuman beings are capable of hearing, in the past as well as thepresent, the Word of the one true God.

The God of Abraham and the God of philosophers and scientists

The natural sciences are not the primary speakers in Fides et Ratio.Instead it is philosophy that leads the discussion. Although modernand contemporary thought is essentially analyzed within the frame ofhistory of philosophy, giving attention to its relativistic andnihilistic outcomes, the encyclical contains a number of interestingreferences to the sciences. Despite the occasional criticism ofscientism (cf. n. 88), that is in fact a philosophy, the naturalsciences are generally mentioned in a positive manner, oftenemphasizing the way in which they participate in obtaining aknowledge of the truth (cf. nn. 25, 29, 31, 96, 106). That part whichwe hold noteworthy for our theme is when John Paul II states: Theunity of the truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, asthe principle of non-contradiction makes clear. Revelation rendersthis unity certain, showing that the God of creation is also the Godof salvation history. It is the one and the same God who establishesand guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the naturalorder of things upon which scientists confidently depend, (29) andwho reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (no. 34).The footnote (29) associated with this passage refers to a speechgiven by John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences andquotes a passage of Galileo from one of his letters where hefrequently refers to the divine Word as the sole Author of Scriptureand Nature.

To admit that the same God, who founds and guarantees theintelligibility and reasonableness of nature – the object of studyfor scientists – is the same God who is revealed in Christ, brings tomind the classic confrontation between the God of Abraham and that ofphilosophers and scientists, stigmatized by Paschal’s words in hisMemorial and used afterwards in theological discussion, probablybeyond the intentions of the French philosopher and mathematician.This is nothing but another way of posing the question about therelevance of the philosophic notion of God for the intelligibility ofRevelation, or searching for a connection between the Book of Natureand the Book of Scripture.

It does not go unnoticed by theology that some philosophicalreflections proposed by the scientists themselves have returned inrecent times to raising the notion of God. The question is without adoubt complex, because the claim for that notion can be read in manydifferent ways .

Nevertheless, the fact that we can now speak of issues such as Godand the New Science or, if you prefer, Science and the NewTheology, is a sign of a new intellectual climate that I will try toformulate in the following way: in the context of today’s scientificthought there is a surge of ultimate questions, the kind of questionswhich can be properly and thoroughly formulated only on a philosophiclevel, but the kind of questions which, already on the scientificlevel, the researcher recognizes as reasonable and meaningful: theproblems of the origin and of the end, of the whole and of the scopeof everything, the problems of the foundation of knowledge and of theultimate cause of being, etc.; in other words, the kind of questionsthat open up the possibility for a discourse about God . In thissituation, theology can move along two possible paths. On one hand ,it could retain that the notion of God glimpsed by the sciences doesnot have anything in common with the God of Abraham. In other words,theology is not intersted in that God, who establishes andguarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the naturalorder of things upon which scientists confidently depend – spoken ofin Fides et Ratio. In doing so, it would subscribe an exclusivelyapophatic (that is silent) approach to the Absolute. Human reason hasno words to speak of God, and science has even less.

But on the other hand – and this is the second possible path to movealong -theology could courageously examine the question of God thathas arisen in the context of scientific rationality, though afterperforming some necessary epistemological clarification: that is, ifthe universe of science is real, then it must necessarily be the sameuniverse that God created. This last route is certainly moredifficult to navigate because of the stumbling blocks of Deism andPantheism, but it would assure theology some room, a link ofintelligibility, to render its discourse about God more meaningfulfor scientific rationality – a discourse, we add, whose ultimatejustification always lies in Revelation.

An indirect proof of the importance of this link is the split thatsome scientists perceive between the unconventional God, whosenotion finds place in their reflections, and the image of aconventional God, associated with traditional religions. I guessthat when theology presents the descending, revealed image of God assomething detached from the human ascending search for truth –
scientific truth included – , then it runs not only the risk of a newfideism, but also pays the price of a new deism, as the only wayout left to reason.

A notion of God conceived as a foundation and guarantee ofintelligibility and of reasonableness in the order of nature doesnot mean a new kind of onto-theology, endorsing the image of asubstantial Being, or a sort of Super Being. That notion of Godwould, instead, remain open to a progressive awakening of ever newlevels of intelligibility, according to that search without endtypical of every truly scientific spirit. In addition, this notion,or this room for a notion of God, would be recognized by science asa gift, because science realizes that it does not have the ultimatereason for the existence of nature and for why it is so and so andnot otherwise. The notion of God we approach, starting from the studyof nature, is not necessarily that of a stopgap or that of a Deusex machina. Instead it transcends the rationality of science. Thelogos that the scientist perceives has not only the meaning of aratio (i.e. order, rationality), but also that of a verbum (i.e. aword which calls), because creation possesses a dialogic structure,capable of revealing and appealing. It is a logos whose calloriginates out in nature but ends in the person, beacause it givesrise to questions and experiences at the existential level. To affirmthat the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God ofphilosophers and scientists does not penalize the Biblical image ofGod, because we are not maintaining the identity of an image, but theidentity of a subject.

Concluding Remarks

I will conclude by saying that a re-evaluation of the Book of Natureand of the unity of scientific and theological truth does not respondto a strategy, nor to an apologetic motive. In the first placethis re-evaluation is necessary for theology itself. The appeal toGod who created the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that iswithin it, which appears as a refrain not only in the FirstTestament, but also in the apostolic preaching in the New Testament(cf. Acts 14:8-18 and 17:22-31), is necessary to understand theintelligibility of Revelation. The events that took place at Listraand Athens spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles are clear enough.Without a reference to God that made heaven and earth, the Apostlescould by no means explain who this God is whom they now said hadbeen revealed in Christ. Many Fathers of the Church did the same. Inthe words of Saint Basil (IV century): In believing in God thereis a knowing of the existence of God that is preliminary; and wedraw this knowing from the created world (Epistles, 235, 1: PG33,872B). It is worthwhile to note that Fides and Ratio underlinesexactly the same idea: To make themselves understood by the pagans,the first Christians could not refer only to Moses and theprophets; they had to also appeal to the natural knowledge of Godand the voice of the moral conscience in every man (no. 36).

Regarding the dialogue between Christian faith and natural reason, wecan say that faith has nothing to fear from a reason that understandsitself as capable of knowing the truth; but also reason has nothingto fear from a faith that speaks of God not as a private or unknownsubject, but as He who made heaven and earth.

Prof. G. Tanzella-NittiPontificia Universita’ della Santa CroceFacolta’ di TeologiaP.zza sant’Apollinare, 4900186 Roma – Italy

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