Fr. Glenn: The Curious Mind

By Rev. Glenn Jones
Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church
Los Alamos

Had a minor illness last week, and the ol’ brain started wondering: “Hmmm. How does the immune system fix this? Think I’ll look it up.” Or you might see some device and think: “Huh. I wonder how that works.” And then off to the Internet or to the library or to the toolbox you go … seeking explanation.

Intellectual curiosity—something not lacking in THIS town. Perhaps we with science and engineering backgrounds have this propensity more than most. “Wait! YOU have a science background?!” Yup; B.S. in engineering from UT Austin; it’s not MIT, but still a pretty fair school. “Then how can you be religious, much less a priest?! Aren’t religious people toothless, ignorant, backwoods rubes?” This tends to be the (often disparaging) assessment of many persons in our day … and yet our churches in Los Alamos and White Rock are filled with whom? Scientists, engineers, doctors and the like. “But I refuse to believe in anything I can’t discern with my senses!”… usually on command, no less. Ah … and there’s the needless limitation with which so many burden themselves.

But … how can a blind man perceive the stars? How to explain a symphony to a person born without hearing, or the rose’s scent to one without smell? We are sense creatures; our perceptions come through our senses. But what if the senses are inadequate to detect an existent phenomenon or, perhaps … a being? Then there is inevitably poverty of perception, much less understanding.

A blind man hears birds singing, but how can he know what actually makes all that twittering unless one alights on his person? That is sort of what God is like. We can perceive glimpses of Him in His creation, but He Himself remains veiled. As Dante writes in his “Purgatorio”, God is  “…that Power which wills its secret not to be revealed…” (Canto III, 32f). Yet … as the bird might periodically brush against the blind man, God “brushes” against the world periodically to give us some (minute!) perception of who He is, and we necessarily rely on trustworthy testimonial experience of those against whom the bird brushed.

Religion and science need not to be opposed. How many Christian scientists and engineers have there been? Perpetually is cited the hackneyed example of the erroneous treatment of Galileo to advance a false premise that religion is “anti-science”. But for one thing, one ought remember that Galileo worked during the Renaissance, when science and its methods (and its validity) were still essentially nascent in their development. And yet … limiting ourselves to a short list of just Catholic scientists and mathematicians, we could boast of Galileo himself (who remained a devout Catholic despite all), Copernicus, Gregor Mendel (a monk), William of Okham (of “Okham’s razor” fame), Avogadro, Fr. Georges Lemaitre … Fermi Foucault,  Fermat, Fresnel and Fibonacci … Cassini, Pascal, Pasteur, Descartes, Braille, Louis de Broglie, Fr. Stanley Jaki … Ampere, Coulomb and Volta (I’m shocked!) … and many, many others generally lesser known. Our Catholic church’s congregation here in Los Alamos is filled with scientists, doctors and engineers. Next year our archdiocese will be ordaining to priesthood a seminarian who is a Ph.D. nuclear physicist. The Vatican Observatory is dedicated TO science.

To a Christian at least, science is simply discernment, description and utilization of God’s material creation—that which is perceivable by our limited senses. The skeptic who thinks Christians disregard science might find the encyclical “Fides et Ratio” (“Faith and Reason”) of Pope John Paul II rather enlightening, if not surprising … beginning with its opening line: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth.” So, rather than reject science, the Christian celebrates it, always remembering also St. Paul: “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:20)  But where senses fail, we rely upon the testimony of the witnesses of those whom God has “brushed against”—the apostles, prophets and others in scripture—their veracity proven through their acceptance of even persecution and death testifying what they witnessed—and in His movement in our lives.

So, to the sceptic of religion I would ask: Are religious persons wrong … or, rather, are you missing something? Have you activated that intellectual curiosity about this mysterious thing they call “faith”? We’ll keep on whistling through our toothless gums as you ponder these things … and know that you are in our prayers.