Tag Archives: Dialogue

Book Review: Particles of Faith

Particles of Faith, by Stacy Trasancos, is a must-read for Catholics (and others of good faith) who are weary of the vitriol in the faith-science dialogue. What follows is my review of this book. Disclaimer: I have received no compensation for the following review, save only for an advance copy of the book.

Yes, scientism is one of the 13 “isms” discussed in this book too.

As in all times, there are a variety of ideologies which oppose themselves to Christ and His Church. It is perhaps easy to blame this on the various “bad Christians” who exist, though we are all to some extent bad Christians. Nor is the admonition that to follow Him, we must each take up our cross daily an especially convenient, easy, or enjoyable task to pursue. Whatever the human cause or causes, the ideologies which and ideologues who place themselves against the Church, her teachings, and her Head are legion.

Many of these are more or less casual ideologies, though widely followed. I am thinking especially of hedonism, utilitarianism, and post-modernism. Some people may believe in these philosophies of life, or may even use them to convince themselves to stay away from religion in general and Christian religion in particular. However, these are philosophies often embraced after a decision against religion has already been made. Other ideologies may be embraced by a smaller and more fanatical cross-section of society to convince their ideologues to stay away from the Church. Some examples include feminism [1], Marxism and communism [2], or environmentalism [3].

Scientism caricatured. Image source.

There is at least one ideology [4] which in our present time has both the broad appeal and the seemingly solid intellectual claims to undermine the faith of many a believer. This ideology is in many ways the successor to rationalism, and even to modernism: it is scientism, the belief that all knowledge must be scientifically derived or scientifically verifiable. While this assertion alone seldom undermines the faith of the average Catholic, it comes with a variety of smaller claims which are more insidious. One such claim is that there is a conflict between science and religion, in particular that the Church undermines or even outright prevents scientific progress from taking place. Another such claim is that as science progresses, the realm to which belief–in God or in miracles or in the supernatural—is relegated must steadily shrink until it vanishes. Scientism underlies the question, “How can you reconcile being a religious believer with being a rational scientist?” It is in this assumption that a conflict between science and Christianity lies. Scientism asks, perhaps cynically: How do you reconcile faith with reason, belief with data, myth with facts [5]?

We are called to give an accounting of the hope which lives within us, and a part of that accounting is to address the questions and to meet challenges posed by scientism. This is especially true in our present milieu, where scientism is particularly pervasive. In discussing these questions, Dr. Stacy Trasancos poses a separate set of questions to those of us who are Catholics:

What is the first thing you would say if someone asked you about the relationship between faith and science?

Would your first reaction be to point out that faithful people can also be people who love science? To assert that many Catholics were scientists as evidence that even Catholics can do science? To point to this or that conclusion in science as evidence that science supports faith?

This is largely the gamut of common Catholic (or broadly orthodox Christian) responses [6]. Dr. Trasancos questions each of these reactions in turn:

If so, stop and examine those reactions. Why does a person of faith need to his or her ability to love science or to be reasonable? Why single out that Catholics can be scientists? Of course we can be reasonable, and of course we can be scientists! Why point to any particular scientific conclusion as if it could prove the existence of God? We hold religious truths in faith and certainty because they are revealed by God, not because scientists give them the nod.

Nicene-CreedThis last point is one of the key themes of Dr. Trasancos’ book: that our religious beliefs cannot be undermined (or proved) by scientific discoveries because it is by revelation that we know them and faith we hold them. This is to say that no human endeavor, whether scientific discovery or reasoned inquiry, can ultimately disprove or prove that special knowledge revealed to us in faith by God about Himself, ourselves, and the relationship between us and Him. In his essay Our Awesome Creed: The Faith Is No Excuse for Bigotry, the philosopher Charles de Koninck states:

“If we truly appreciated the mysteriousness of the truths that faith enables us to accept, and how inscrutable is this power to accept them, we could never show anything but understanding towards those who cannot join us, a humble gratitude for the light in which they do not share and which we ourselves have in no way deserved….

“The things which we Christians embrace by divine faith, and which are not to be received except by that faith, are humanly incredible. They are incredible for two reasons, two reasons paradoxically opposed: first, because they are so far above us, because they make it so plain that God is remote, infinite, and mysterious beyond all imagining; second, because they bring that inaccessible Begin so close, involve the two of us in each other, show us how much we mean to Him who is above all, how each of us is the preoccupation of Wisdom Itself, as if God has no other one to care for.” [7]

Reason can help to flesh out the meaning of revelation. Reason can help us make sense of a given dogma and can shed light on revealed mystery, but unaided reason will seldom reach so high as the mysteries of our Faith. Dogmas are conclusions, but they are not the end of thinking. Rather, as Chesterton has noted, they are like firm foundations on which we can build with the materials provided by reason, scientific discovery, or rational discourse (etc.).

Dogmas give us the truth, and then science gives us some of the facts which can surround that truth or help us to make sense of it. Faith gives us the words, and reason helps us to understand their meanings.

Similar imagery is used in the book itself at one point. Image source.

There are in this book three other themes of importance, and all are related to this first theme. The first of these three is that science and the truths we hold by faith are never at war with each other, but that science and the Catholic religion can be (and should be) in dialogue: conversation, not conflict, is the state which should exist between science and the Faith. The second is that while science can enlighten the Faith, the Faith ultimately also sheds light on science. The third is that if a scientific discovery causes a person to question his faith, then he may be looking at it in the wrong way, and conversely, if a person’s faith is preventing him from accepting as valid a new scientific discovery, then it is likely that he misunderstand what the Faith teaches or what the discovery means. Likewise (and tying back into the first theme), if science if being used to attack the Faith, then either the Faith is being misconstrued or the science is being misrepresented, or both. In Dr. Trasancos’ own words, “Faith and science are to different manifestations of the same reality. When they seem to have conflicting conclusions, it is because our knowledge is not complete.”

This last statement is a sort of crux for understanding (and navigating) any hypothetical or imagined conflict between science and the Catholic Faith. Indeed, it is the key to understanding and resolving many hypothetical or imagined conflicts between dogmas which we hold by faith and conclusions which we reach via reason. The Thomistic philosopher Dr. Edward Feser suggests this in his discussion of the dogma of the Holy Trinity, which is a long (for a book review or book discussion) but helpful exercise in understanding how to navigate supposed conflicts between faith and reason. He notes that:

“Something could be unintelligible in itself, or unintelligible only for us. What is unintelligible in the first sense has no coherent content; what is unintelligible in the second sense has a coherent content, but one which, given our limited cognitive limitations, we are incapable of grasping. Trinitarianism [or any other dogmatic ‘mystery’] would be falsifiable only if it were shown to be unintelligible in the first sense, but not if it is unintelligible only in the second. Indeed, that it is ‘unintelligible’ in the second sense is exactly what Trinitarian theologians mean when they say that the doctrine of the Trinity is a ‘mystery.’ They do NOT mean that it contains a self-contradiction, or that it is unintelligible in itself, or even that we cannot have any understanding of it at all. They mean instead that the limitations of our minds are such that, though [the mystery] is perfectly consistent and intelligible in itself, we cannot adequately grasp it.”

limits-of-a-limitless-scienceIndeed, as the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki points out, science itself has a fundamental limit in it knowledge. Physics is generally acknowledged as the most fundamental of the sciences, with the other hard building on its (and each other’s) principles and discoveries. Physics, in turn, is a very mathematical science, so much so that math may be said to be the language of physics; and the principles of physics can generally be expressed as equations, often very simple (in appearance, at least) ones of the sort that may be easily printed on a t-shirt or coffee mug.

This is perhaps the greatest strength of physics, that it can make the natural world a more knowable place (at least with practice—these equations can be very difficult to master in practice). But it sets a limit to physics in particular, which extends ultimately to the other sciences in general: these govern only the realm of the quantitative. And, being a quantitative,”emperiometric” [8] science, physics is ultimately limited in s second way—it can never have a complete theory of all things, even all quantitative things, which can be proven to the the complete theory of all things [9]. This is a consequence of Godel’s incompleteness theorems, which are a sort of proof that no non-trivial system can contain he proof of its own correctness.

What, then, should we do when the conclusions of Faith and the findings of science are in apparent contradiction? Dr. Trasancos gives us a way to navigate would-be conflicts between the Faith and science. She does this in three steps:

1. Find out what the Church teaches. (pp. 48-52)
2. Begin to learn the science. (pp. 52-55)
3. Sort out the “system of wills.” (pp. 55-60)

All three steps are important, and if the first two seem self-explanatory, the third needs a bit of explanation. In short—for this is already a very long book review—the system of wills refers to the fact that there is a hierarchy to nature. The supreme authority is God, Who holds all things in existence and who wills the laws of nature into being. But between God and these (rather deterministic) laws, there is a whole hierarchy of wills, from angel to human to animal, which are largely free to act and thus to affect the course of nature.

A scientist, when formulating his theories or studying nature via experiment, will attempt to work within an isolated (and controllable) system as best he can. Indeed, he will often attempt to isolate merely physical effects from the system, for ease of calculation and prediction (consider that free-fall motion is much easier to analyze than motion with fluid resistance, for example). Such an isolated system must discount, among other things, the presence and action of the will, both his and others’. Yet, the very act of conducting an experience is itself an act of free will, for which neither physics nor any other emperiological science can account.

“There is no mathematical accounting for free will in the isolated systems of chemistry and physics…The isolation of physical systems needs to be appreciated in the faith and science dialogue. For physical scientists trained to think this acutely, this mechanical mindset is hard to escape. Remember this when you consider the theories of scientists. They speak in terms of isolated physical systems….

God created physical matter, and God created free agents, so together these form the whole systematic universe. The laws of physics may cover the whole of time and space, but as [C.S.] Lewis puts it, ‘what they leave out is precisely the whole real universe—the incessant torrent of actual events which make up true history.’

…What is a miracle then? St. Thomas calls a miracle something God does outside the order of nature ‘which we know.’ To us, it may seem like breaking laws of physics, but miracles do not break the supreme law. In addition, if God wills to move particles, it cannot be modeled or predicted with human calculation, which is why physics cannot study miracles.”

tape-measure
Because this is limited, we therefore conclude that ontology is null and void. Image source.

While not precisely a theme of the book, this process of sorting through potential faith-science conflicts reappears throughout later chapters. It is also reminiscent of the physicist and self-trained Thomistic philosopher Anthony Rizzi’s observation concerning quantum mechanics and some of its interpretations and their implications. In his book The Science Before Science, Dr. Rizzi writes,

“The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics says that objects have no properties of themselves, but claims that properties exist only in conjunction with measuring devices and not until measured (observed). One may now quickly realize this as another example of taking an emperiometric theory as giving the real directly [e.g. it is an example of taking an isolated system—albeit a big one—and calling that system the whole of reality]. In particular, one notes the implicit belief that measurements, which are readings taken from a sensor and processed to appear as digits on a computer screen (which are, in turn, interpreted by an interconnected web of emperiometric theory) are the arbiter of what is real. Stanley Jaki has been in the forefront in trying to rally physicists and others to see that the inability to make exact measurements does not equate to the inability for something to exist in a definite state or change in a definite way….

You may note that Bell’s theorem is parallel to Godel’s theorem in the following way. If one thinks al he knows are his ideas, not things (by ideas), he can via Godel’s theorem come to doubt all truth. Similarly, if one thinks all he knows is the emperiometric (and thereby forgets the basis for the emperiometric), he ca, via Bell’s theorem, doubt being itself, and hence the whole arena of things which he proposes to study.”

Particles of Faith is organized in three parts. The first part sets up these themes, interspersed with autobiographical anecdotes. It ends with this three-step process to navigating questions of potential conflict between faith and science. The second and third parts are to apply the principles and develop the themes established in the first part. Thus, Part II is about the relationship between the Faith and the physical sciences, and Part III is about the relationship between the Faith and the biological sciences.

In Part II, Dr. Trasancos discusses the doctrine of creation in time ex nihilo in the light of the Big Bang—and also the Big Bang in the light of the doctrine of creation. She then considers the atomic realm of matter—and the sub-atomic realm (quarks and electrons, photons, etc.). Throughout all of this, she considers the wonderful order and symmetry which underlies nature, in the light of the Scriptural verse that God has “ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight” (Wisdom 11:21). Finally, she discusses the apparently indeterminate nature of quantum mechanics and considers where (or not) this offers “proof” (or, alternatively, “disproof”) of the concept of free will. Much of the focus in this is what we can know through science and what we can know through revelation, that is, what we know by faith and what we know by reason. Suffice it to say that there is no contradiction between the two, and that each actually complements the other.

While this discussion is quite exhilarating, there are some omissions from this section which make it feel incomplete. In particular, there might have been a fourth chapter to discuss matter and form and the body-soul relationship, which fits somewhere between the discussion of the atomic word and of quantum mechanics. Likewise, and though it has been addressed by other thinkers (Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Augustine in particular), I was somewhat surprised to not see a discussion of the resurrection in light of the world of atoms. For not a hair from our heads is to be forgotten, and our bodies are to be restore to us in the resurrection—this would have been a very interesting discussion in the light of atomic theory, for our bodies are made of atoms, and indeed of shared atoms and even decaying atoms.

In Part III, Dr. Trasancos is primarily concerned wth the theory of evolution, and whether it is guided by random chance or by fate or by Providence. She also considers two inadequate answers to evolution—Creationism and Intelligent Design—before asking whether a Christian can in good conscience accept the theory of evolution (she argues that the answer is yes). Finally, she turns to bioethics to address one of the hot-button culture-war issues, that of when human life begins.

As Michael Flynn captioned it, “Mitochondrial Eve, which is the night prior to the Feast of Mitochondrial.”

Again, there is considerable discussion of what we know by faith and what we know by reason. Science, for example, can trace back humanity to a common set of ancestors, for example a mitochondrial Eve and a y-chromosmal Adam, which existed many thousands of years in the past (the approximate date of both is 200 000 years ago, though originated in separate populations of approximately 10 000 people each). We should be able to marvel at that feat of science, without demanding greater precision over such a long period of time—and recognize that this neither proves nor disproves what we hold be faith, namely, that all of humanity has a common set of ancestors leading back to the first man and woman [10], that we are all endowed with powers of intellect and will, that we are all created by direct action of God (Who alone can create a soul), or that we all come into this world with the stain of Original Sin in our souls.

The organization of the book is in general simple and easy to follow. Each chapter builds on previous chapters (for the most part—though Parts II and III could be read out of order). I do, however, have two criticisms of the organization, both relatively minor. The first is that the book would benefit from including the different sections within a given chapter in the table of contents. The second is that some chapters end with a summary of the main points of the chapter, and others rather end with a conclusion.

This book is neither quite a polemic work nor exactly a autobiography, though it is a sort of scientific memoir. Dr. Trasancos states in her introduction that the book is largely her attempt to bring a missing element into the science and religion discussion: that is, the human element.

I could have made these points in a more aseptic style, but it would not reflect either the way I think or the way I communicate with my friends and family on the Internet or around my kitchen table. I notice something missing in the faith and science dialogue, and that something is the human person. Science involves people. Faith involves people. Whatever challenges and controversies arise, they arise because of people. Therefore, I seek to show how a Catholic person works through these questions of faith and science.

With Particle of Faith, Stacy Trasancos as largely succeeded in putting the human element back into the science and religion dialogue.

 

—-Footnotes—-
[1] N.B. I am not claiming that only a small number of people will claim to be feminists. I am claiming that only a small number of particularly radical feminists will recognize their feminism as a reason to not be Christian.

[2] There are again some people who believe that Marxism and Christianity can be reconciled, though Christian socialism is a much more popular position than outright Marxism, and communism is practically a joke anymore.

[3] Again, there are Christian environmentalists, and ecological conservation does indeed fall under the pervie of Christian (and earlier, Jewish) thought. One of the first tasks given to mankind was to be good stewards of creation. I am again referring to hte radical element, the Gaia-worshippers and the earth-firsters who would see civilization burn and humanity eradicated (or at least sharply curtailed) for the sake of flora and fauna.

[4] I can think of others (progressivism, for example), but this review is not the place to discuss them

[5] It rather pointedly avoids the misstatement of demanding a reconciliation between “theology and theory,” and only very tenuously considers asking for their to be a reconciliation between truth and facts (the two being intertwined in most peoples’ minds) by replacing “truth” with “myth.”

[6] A fourth reaction might be to turn to the “separate magisteria” defense and to treat the two as entirely unconnected spheres of knowledge.

[7] Charles de Koninck, “Our Awesome Creed: The Faith Is No Excuse for Bigotry,” Saint Joseph Magazine (Oregon), Vol. 5 (1964), No. 10, pp. 16-19. Later in this same essay, Charles de Koninck writes that

“Our Faith is assuredly no easy matter and can move us to protest. Not only because it tells of mysteries that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived; but also because it penetrates every corner of life, because it will leave no part of our day untouched. That this is indeed a great reason for the difficulty of the Faith was proved by the reaction of so many good Catholics to the prospect of the solemn definition of the Assumption. When Pius XII proclaimed this truth, there were murmurs. Why? Oh, of course, because of the unnecessary stumbling-block again set in the way of the nonCatholic…. Nothing could be more natural than such feelings. We all hold the instinctive attitude that there ought to be some limit to what we are asked to take n faith, some acceptable frontier. But where are such bound to be set? Shall we confine our assent to the Incarnation, for example, with no reference to the Child’s mother or foster father? If we could manage these matters ourselves, we would all feel inclined to suppress such facts as that God was hungry, tired, thirsty, that He perspired, that He rode on a donkey, that He died.

“Yes, let divine truth be as lofty as you please; let it be glorious, sublime, awful, but let it not become human, pedestrian, ordinary, just me and my dull little life, for then it shocks the intellect.”

[8] Jacques Maritain, I think, coined the term “emperiological” to describe modern sciences, with the life sciences being “emperioschematic” and the physical sciences being “emperiometric.”

[9] Theory of all things is not to be confused with the common phrase “theory of everything,” which is basicaly only a theory which would unify gravity with the other fundamental forces and reconcile quantum mechanics with relativity.

[10] This belief in a single man and a single woman, Adam and Eve, as the common ancestors of all humankind is binding but not dogmatic.

Disqus or Dining Room: Choosing Battlefields

Last month, I wrote about the new virtue I’ve created which enables us to restrain our responses, tame our tongues, and control our selves. I am calling this new virtue “Nicstrength” for obvious fiscal and copyrighting reasons. In the aforementioned article, I showed readers how they can avoid the exhaustion and hypertension that comes with diving facelong into every argument and debate that we find both online and in everyday life.

As if that alone wasn’t worth the hefty fee I’m going to charge to tell people more about Nicstrength©, this month we’re going to delve down even deeper. I’ll show you how Nicstrength®© can also guide you in the risky process of choosing your battleground. I’d like to suggest that there are better places to fight our battles than Facebook, Twitter, and Disqus, and I’m offering a platform that is perfectly suited for the exchange of ideas and aptly formatted to handle the confusion that comes as a necessary part of the learning process.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, let’s all go into our brain castles for a second and picture a scene. You’re getting ready to go pick up your kids from school. You’re just about to close your laptop when–BOOM–you see it: an ignorant comment a Facebook wall. You feel it rise up in you. The aghast exasperation at the realization that someone thinks that way. You glance at your watch, then at the screen, then at your watch, and you begin typing. Sure, there’s the one-frame, flickering memory of waiting children and their well-being, but they’ll totally understand when you explain to them how dumb this guy sounds.

Knowing you don’t need take the time to consider the dumb guy’s (DG) side because you already “get it”, you fire off a crippling reply in a matter of seconds, hit “post”, and close it up. When you return, you do all the necessary chores around the house, making sure everyone and everything is copacetic; all the while, the running ticker in your brain is eager for confirmation that DG has read your post, taken it to heart, and switched all political, religious, and funny animal video affiliations. You log in and find that, on all fronts, he has not. Oh well.

Another scenario: your spouse/kids/friends are all otherwise disposed. You have all the time in the world. Your finely-tuned opinion is now paired with the hours it can take to make this issue clear to others. You engage in a debate reminiscent of Gandalf and the Balrog, spanning multiple social media forums over many hours. At some point, you both realize that you’re spinning your wheels and you can no longer justify the amount of fiberoptic trees that had to die to host your epic debate. You log out, secure in your rightness and unsure why Gandalf can’t see your point and let you pass already.

Situations like this are so common that it can be hard to envision the meeting of the minds in any other forum. From tweeting to texting, we have come to accept the virtual world as the most fitting means of relating, conveying, and interacting. And why not? It’s quick, painless, inexpensive, and you can turn the conflict off at any point, which is the grown-up equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and humming loudly.

Catherine_Ray_flexes_a_bicep_(1903) (1)Granted, in some cases, that might be the wisest thing. If you find yourself bogged down in the mire that happens when two people have a one-sided argument with each other, a good dose of Nicstrength™®© can extricate you right quick. I’m not saying that digital media can’t bring people closer together and enlighten and unify. Not at all. I’ll be the first to utilize all forms of media for every inch I can get out of it and I know that people are touched and made better by the internet every day. I can’t imagine my life before Google, to be honest.

A while back, however, I started to ask myself if I was going about this whole human interaction thing in the right way. Whether it was seeing the 9,000th re-post of a condescending political talking head or the 9,001st “Amen” to an opinion so-and-so already agreed with, at some point I became deeply unsatisfied with our collective approach to each other and began looking for a different, possibly better, way.

Surprisingly, when I found it,  it was literally right there in front of me all the while, staring me in the face.

Humans!!! Someone else – an Other Person (OP)! In the same room with me. My face facing their face as they faced me. It was the craziest thing! I would say something and OP would either agree with me or disagree, just like on the intrawebnet, but then I had to continue seeing OP in the room with me. Sometimes OP would disagree with me, which felt like online, but then I’d notice that OP had the familiar grimace of a headache and I’d think, “Gosh, headaches stink. I think I’ll give OP some painkiller or a shoulder massage.” I soon realized that shoulder massages made OP uncomft, so I backed off on that.

Sometimes OP would berate me and call me all kinds of hateful words like “uninformed” and “stubborn” and “condescending”, and I’d want to lash out; but then I’d realize that I had been standing in OP’s way in the pasta isle at the grocery store and talking as if OP was a 3-year-old, instead of the 35-year-old with a 3-year-old of his own that he was, and he was pressed for time and stressed for funds.

Suddenly, OP was everywhere and if we truly wanted to meet each other on any significant level, I had to continuously keep OP’s humanity at the forefront of our discussion. The trillions of factors that actual make up OP’s life were forced to come into play, and that was frustrating. It was also liberating.

Sure, I couldn’t turn off the conversation with a click. Sure, I could no longer mistake his tone for one of rudeness, because he was right there and I could hear the sincerity in his voice. Sure, I had to set aside at least an hour in order to really allow OP and me to see, hear, and care for each other while exchanging opinions and thoughts. Heck, I even had to deal with the hassle of re-scheduling due to illness.

OP was harder to forget once I knew about his childhood.

It was harder to disregard her anger when she told me why she was angry.

And, hopefully, vice versa.

Friends, choosing your battlefield is staggeringly important. Aquinas said that to love is to “will the good of the other”. Well, willing the good of OP might actually mean avoiding the conversation until it can be done in a mature way that respects OP’s dignity and worth, if ever. If you’re tempted to say, “I only have like five minutes”, then consider waiting until you can give OP the time required to affirm his or her goodness and to force OP to remember yours. Everyone is always worth more than five minutes and a flippant response.

Let’s get out of the trenches. If we choose slick, murky, sticky, putrid space to wage our wars, we shouldn’t be surprised when we end up fallen, clouded, caked, and reeking. On the other hand, if we fight the time constraints and bear the weight that comes with upholding every human’s dignity, we may cover less digital ground, but we will have gone a mile in OP’s shoes.

Basically, consider moving the scuffles from Disqus to your dining room table. That way, your faces will face, and when the talk is done, you can at least make OP do your dishes.

 

Faith and Mystery

“The things which we Christians embrace by divine faith, and which are not to be received except by divine faith, are humanly incredible. They are incredible for two reasons, two reasons paradoxically opposed: first, because they are so far above us, because they make it plain that God is remote, infinite, and mysterious beyond all imagining; second, because they bring that inaccessible Being so close, involve the two of us in each other, show us how much we mean to Him who is above all, how each of us is the preoccupation of Wisdom Itself, as much as if God had no other one to car for” [].

These words were penned by Dr. Charles De Koninck in an article about the importance of mystery to the Faith and about the dangers of taking the mysteries of our faith for granted. Familiarity may at times breed contempt, but a possible danger facing those of us who were raised in Christian home or general and Catholic homes in particular is that of complacency.

There are any number of mysteries to which we must give assent, but for those who have heard these mysteries repeated and explained as a matter of course since youth can easily forget that these are first and foremost matters of faith and not merely of understanding.

This is not to say that faith precludes all understanding, or that any amount of understanding precludes faith. Rather, it it is to acknowledge that there are some contents to our faith which are beyond understanding—these are mysteries, and they do preclude complete understanding.

A mystery is that which we cannot fully understand, or fully grasp, and yet there are some mysteries which we believe to be revealed to us by divine revelation, and as such they demand the assent of the faithful. They may seem at a glance to be contradictory, but closer examination and greater understanding reveals that are not self-contradicting.

The philosopher Edward Feser explains this respect to the mystery of the Trinity:

1. The Father is God.
2. The Son is God.
3. The Holy Spirit is God.
4. The Father is not the Son.
5. The Father is not the Holy Spirit.
6. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
7. There is exactly one God.

…The Trinitarian theologian maintains that the Trinitarian propositions (1) – (7) listed above are perfectly consistent when rightly understood, so that if any reading of them seems self-contradictory, then that reading is mistaken, and does not accurately convey what the doctrine says. Hence if the doctrine “appears contradictory” to you, you have by that very fact misunderstood it and are not really entertaining it at all. At the same time, if you give these propositions an alternate reading on which their consistency is entirely transparent, you have no doubt fallen into some heresy or other.

What Dr. Feser is getting at is that the Trinity is ultimately mysterious, that is, beyond our total comprehension, yet at the same time it is not a doctrine which is completely unbelievable. The doctrine cannot be proved, can not even be shown and thus known in the same sense as, say, the existence of God per St. Thomas’ Five Ways []. As the bishops note in one of their catechisms [], “The mystery of God is not a puzzle to be solved. It is a truth to be reverenced. It is a reality too rich to be fully grasped by our minds, so that while it continues to unfold, it always remains mostly beyond our comprehension.”

That is to say, the Trinity is a mystery which belongs to the deposit of our faith, and this doctrine (dogma, in fact) must be believed by all Catholics, yet we cannot understand it fully. Nevertheless, we can contemplate it, and we can come to understand the doctrine more fully []—for example, by learning what it does not entail, as is so often the case [].

This very mysterious doctrine may be called the center of our religion as Catholics, indeed as Christians. Nor can we deny that other central mystery, which is the the Incarnation. These mysteries may be rightly called, as one of them is called by St. Paul, a “stumbling block”, a “folly,” or even a “scandal” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Herein lies the very dilemma of the Faith. We are bound to believe all that is revealed to us, and must accept it on faith and on authority. We lose sight of the difficulty in accepting the truly mysterious, precisely because it is familiar. On the other hand, too many abandon these mysteries, precisely because they cannot be fully grasped (to say nothing of proved).

We all want a sense of certitude where none is granted, and we all want to place a limit on what we must accept without proof. As Dr. De Koninck notes elsewhere in his essay:

“Our Faith is assuredly no easy matter and can move us to protest. Not only because it tells of mysteries which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived; but also because it penetrates every corner of life, because it will leave no part of our day untouched.

We all hold the instinctive attitude that there ought to be some blessed limit to what we are asked to take on faith, some acceptable frontier.

But where are such bounds to be set? Shall we confine our assent to the Incarnation, for example, with no reference to the Child’s mother or foster father? If we could manage these matters to suit ourselves, we would all feel inclined to suppress facts such as that God was hungry, tired, thirsty, that He perspired, that He rode on a donkey, that He died.

Yes, let divine truths be as lofty as you please; let it be glorious, sublime, awful, but let it not become human, pedestrian, ordinary, just like me and my dull little life, for then it shocks the intellect.”

Of course, that knife of limitations cuts both ways. There are plenty who will believe that Jesus lived and died as a Man—that is, that He did all of these things which make up the equivalent of each of our own “dull little life”—and who conclude for that very reason that He was nothing more than a Man. They note that the Incarnation of God as a Man is impossible simply because that Man did so many things that ordinary men do.

We might well be shocked that He did—yet what more evidence could we ask for concerning His humanity? You can’t win them all.

—Footnotes—

[] Charles De Koninck, “Our Awesome Creed: The Faith is no excuse for bigotry,” Saint Joseph Magazine, Vol. 65, no. 10, pp. 16-19 (1964).

[] Summa Theologica I.Q2.A2-3. Note that although St. Thomas’ demonstrations are often translated as proofs, they are only meant to show as far as human reasoning can go that God exists. There is a limit to human reasoning, and the Five Ways are often misunderstood above and beyond this. The proofs are discussed in more detail on, for example, Dr. Feser’s blog, and Mike Flynn is currently in the process of

[] US Catholic Catechism for Adults, pp. 51.

[] An analogy can be made here between our faith in the eternal mysteries revealed to us, and (of all unexpected thing) of science. Both have their beginning points—in the Faith, it is a revealed truth which is the starting point, in science a few assumptions such as the reliability of observation and method; both then have a nearly limitless exploration which can be undertaken, and neither can ultimately lead to complete understanding of the thing contemplated. We have our mysteries, and we have Godel’s theorem.

[] For example, we can learn what the Church teaches against such heresies as modalist-Sabellianism, Arianism, Nestorianism, etc. These various heresies make one or another oversimplification concerning one or more of the Persons of the Trinity, or about the Trinity as a whole. See also Summa Theologica I.Q2.A2-O2.