Nuns Mapped the Stars in the Early 20th Century

From Catholic News Service:


Homily for Tuesday of the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: The Muses of our Theology


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*The following homily was delivered on October 13, 2015. Homilies are written in a conversational style and do not follow traditional writing conventions. 

As many of you know, the religious world is buzzing about how we, as people of faith, ought to deal with the environmental crisis. And of course, its great time to be Catholic because we have seen many theologians and pastors of our Church face environmental issues head on and serve as leaders in the crisis. Elizabeth Johnson’s book, Ask the Beasts;  and of course, Pope Francis’ encyclical  Laudato Si have started conversations among many different groups, both religious and secular, and I think their work has left many of us trying to figure out just how  we as Christians ought to relate to our common home…the earth.

In our first reading Paul helps us to do just that:  he describes our common home through a sacramental lens. Listen again to what he says:

“Ever since the creation of the world,

his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity

have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.”

In other words, to use the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins: “the world is charged with the grandeur of God…” You see, Paul is saying that by looking at creation, we can know something of God. Perhaps when we look at a lion, we can know something of God’s majesty. Or when we look at a dove, we can know something of his meekness and purity, and so on.

And ultimately this gives us an ethic: an ethic to protect the Lord’s creation. Because if creation speaks to us about God, then to destroy creation destroys the muses of our theology: the muses being that lion that helps us understand God’s majesty, or that dove that helps us understand God’s purity, or that massive awe-inspiring landscape that helps us understand that there is indeed a creator, and that I am but a creature.

But aside from just giving us a way to understand creation in a positive sense, Paul also gives us a warning. Listen again:

“While claiming to be wise, they became fools

and exchanged the glory of the immortal God

for the likeness of an image of mortal man

or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes.”

Here Paul describes idolatry. Because if our work toward protecting and respecting the earth becomes divorced from God it becomes mere activism, and to repeat Paul’s words, we exchange the glory of the immortal God for the glory of the birds or four-legged animals, or of snakes, as Paul says. We start worshiping creation, and can easily neglect our own humanness—both in the vertical sense: which hungers and thirsts for God, and in the horizontal sense: which suggests that human beings have a special dignity in creation and that humanity’s more immediate interests need to be addressed, too.

On the other hand, if we ignore creation, how easily we can exchange the glory of God for the glory of human beings: with our skyscrapers and our technology and all those things that have contributed so much to the health and well-being of the human race. But without creation, it is so easy to become convinced that we are the one’s who are the master creators, and not God–that we have ultimate control; and we make a god out of ourselves.

So today, as we as a Church continue to try to understand our place and role on the earth and the universe, lets remember Paul’s warning to us: that we indeed have a responsibility to take care of the earth, lest we turn in on ourselves and make ourselves God. And lets remember the reason for our ecological outreach. By protecting the environment, we give glory to God.

Homily for Holy Thursday: Altruism and the Mandatum


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*The following homily was delivered on March 24, 2016  and is based off of Fr. David Tyson, C.S.C’s 2010 Holy Thursday homily at the University of Notre Dame. Homilies are written in a conversational style and do not follow traditional writing conventions. 

One of the big questions in the world of the behavioral sciences these days concerns the concept of altruism. So a whole bunch of big wig scientists are asking questions like: “Why do we see so many examples of people who give up their own comfort, their own pleasure, their own power, or even their own lives for other people in need? Why do people give of themselves like this, especially since our biology tells us that we are supposed to protect ourselves so that we can pass on our genes to the next generation? Why do we see so many examples of altruistic people?”

And we do see examples of this, right? Think about the response of so many people after big natural disasters, or terrorist attacks like we just witnessed in Belgium—the countless people who are willing to reach out and help total strangers.  What is it in us, or about us, that gives us this instinct to reach out to others? To give of ourselves in this way?

So to try to answer these questions, geneticists are trying to find an altruistic gene, and behavioral ecologists are studying chimpanzees to see if this all evolved from the successful practice of communal child rearing, and the list of studies goes on and on. Well tonight, we might get a little glimpse into another, more theological, answer to this question from our Gospel.

So tonight we hear the story about how Jesus insists upon washing the feet of his disciples. Now, I don’t think some of the disciples liked that idea: as Jesus begins pouring some water into a basin, Peter lashes out in his usual, impulsive manner: “Master, you will never wash my feet.”

Now, I don’t think Peter was trying to be mean here. He wasn’t trying to be stubborn or obstinate. After all, Peter sees Jesus as his master, and everyone at that time knew that master’s don’t wash the feet of subordinates! It should be the other way around! But  Jesus responds to Peter with these haunting words: “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”

Huh….so Peter doesn’t really get it. He hasn’t really grasped who Jesus is; and he hasn’t really grasped what is about to happen. And this ritual action that Jesus performs can only be understood once everything has come to its fulfillment. You see, Jesus’ actions here–when he washes his disciples feet–isn’t  just a little reminder for the disciples to be kind. Of course, it is that too. But ultimately it’s a symbol to bring comfort to the disciples and to help them understand.

Because later tonight, the disciples will see their master crying tears of blood in the garden. And tomorrow, they will see their beloved master being scourged and mocked and ultimately hung on a tree in terrible agony until he breaths his last.Because tomorrow their master will die and the disciples won’t know how to make sense of it. The master isn’t supposed to die like this.

But you see, the washing of the feet–not to mention the breaking of the bread which we also celebrate tonight; these things tell us ritually that all that happened to Jesus mattered, and that ultimately all of his pain and suffering was an act of service: for us, for me, for you. Because ultimately it’s saying that Jesus isn’t master in the way Ceasar is master, through power, and might, wealth, and honor. Instead, Jesus is saying that he is master through self-giving, self-offering. In other words: Jesus is master through agape. Love. Jesus’ actions tonight are an interpretive key:so that when we are faced with the horror of the crucified Christ, we don’t see failure, or meaningless violence. Jesus is telling us that when we gaze upon the cross, we should see what the love of God looks like. This is what the breaking of the bread, this is what the washing of the feet ultimately mean: Its preparing us to understand what the next couple of days are really about: that our God is a God of love, of agape, of altruism. That he is doing all of this for us.

So lets for a moment return to the question we raised in the beginning: How is all of this an answer to the question we raised above? Theologically speaking, how do we make sense of our altruistic impulses.

Well, it’s because of who Jesus reveals God to be by washing his disciples feet, and through the breaking of the bread.  It’s because our God is love. It’s because our God is one who is willing humble himself and give of himself completely in love by taking on a human nature. It’s because our God is one who is willing to humble himself through selfless service in his ministry to the leper, the lame, the blind, the widow and orphan. Its because God is one who is willing to humble himself to the point of death, death on a cross.

And, very importantly now, because God is love, because he is one who by his very nature gives of himself in love, and because we are created in this God’s image and likeness, we all share this part of him. We are all naturally inclined toward love; toward picking up our own crosses on behalf of others. And so essentially what Jesus says tonight to Peter is this:  “Be who you are created to be. Act according to your nature. Be altruistic. Pick up a pitcher. Pick up a towel. And follow my example. Wash the feet of your brothers and sisters.”

Now, this by no means discredits or undermines the work of the great scientists mentioned above. It’s very important that we continue to try to understand the created world. But, as Christians, we believe that there is more to life and human nature than observation of the material world can reveal. We know that our natural impulses toward altruism aren’t just “facts” that we can either follow or ignore based on our own will. Instead, we know that these good impulses, when guided by revelation, call us to obedience and fulfillment. So let’s remember who God is. Let’s remember whose image and likeness we share. And let’s follow his example.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C: “The Seeing Eye”


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*The following homily was delivered on February 27, 2016 and is based off of C.S. Lewis’ eponymous essay, “The Seeing Eye.” Homilies are written in a conversational style and do not follow traditional writing conventions. 

Cf. C.S. Lewis. The Seeing Eye and Other Selected Essays from Christian Reflections. New York: Ballantine Books, 1967.

Many of you may remember the year 1961 when the Soviet Union sent the first human being into space. From what I understand, the whole world was watching, and for a number of reasons: After all, the United States was in the thick of the cold war. But more importantly, people were astonished and amazed that a human being could actually orbit the earth in space. Incredible.

Because up until this time, space was spoken of as “the heavens.” It was a place shrouded in mystery; a place no human being had ever gone before. And so people were wondering: What will the soviets find up there? What will they see when they are floating among the stars?

Well, when the Soviet’s returned to Earth, Nikkita Kruschev, then the leader of the atheistic Soviet Union shocked the world when he said:

“The soviet’s flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.”

For the soviets, technology and science would replace God..

Fast forward to September 11, 2001, when, among other things, terrorists fly two planes into the World Trade Center. Shortly after the attack, a group called “the four horseman of the New Atheism” were formed: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet. These guys took a similar line to Kruschev, proclaiming that we don’t need God. “We can understand everything through science and technology,” they said. And so they publish a whole bunch of books and have a whole bunch of debates online and so forth.

And you know, I think these lines of argumentation make a lot of us Christians a bit nervous….How do we understand God in a scientific age? How are we to respond to these atheists? How would we respond to Kruschev, or Richard Dawkins, or maybe even to a relative or friend who think God and science don’t mix? I think we all know people like this, don’t we? How do we talk to them about God? Well, I think our first reading can give us a little help today. It’s one of the most famous stories in the bible:

So Moses is taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep when he stumbles across the mountain of Horeb and then, miraculously, a bush starts on fire. But the bush isn’t burning; it’s not damaged by the fire. And God introduces himself to Moses as the God of his ancestors. And then Moses boldly asks God his name, and he asks:

“When I go back to the Israelites,what should I tell them?  Who should I say that you are?”

And God gives him an answer:

“I am who Am”

What a puzzling response…huh?  At first it kinda sounds like a non-answer, like he is avoiding the question. And I think in some ways that’s exactly what’s going on. Why?Because to give someone a name is to categorize that person; it’s to put that person into a box.

“’re a Kennedy
….your family is known for such and such
… you must be that way too?”

We all know what that’s like…heh?  Again, to name someone is to categorize him. But God can’t be categorized. So in one way, God is avoiding Moses’ question. But in another way, God isn’t avoiding the question at all. Because by saying that his name is “I am who Am” he is saying that he is being itself. We use the phrase ipsum esse in theology
…I am being…I am who Am…And what does this mean?

What it means is that the Soviet’s attempt to find God in space is like you or me trying to find the character J.R.R. Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings story, or it’s like trying to find Shakespeare as a character in Hamlet. And, as most of us know, Tolkien isn’t a character in the Lord of the Rings like Frodo or Gandalf. And Shakespeare isn’t a character in Hamlet like Horatio or Claudius. Similarly, God is not a character in the drama of the history of the Universe. He is not one thing among many. He is something totally other- utterly transcendent.

In other words: God is less like Frodo, and more like Tolkien; less like Horatio, and more like Shakespeare. God is an author. Not a character. He is the author of our existence.

So again, what does this mean? Does this mean that we can’t find God in this world?

Absolutely not. Because by reading the Lord of the Rings, I may not find the character J.R.R. Tolkien, but I do learn something about him, just as I learn something about Shakespeare when I read hamlet. So it goes for the “story” of creation: By looking at the world, at the universe, I learn something about God.

So when I look at a lion, I learn something of God’s majesty…..
When I look at a lamb, I learn something of God’s mercy and meekness…
When I look at an owl, I learn something of God’s wisdom…

And when I look at the heavens–to the sky–I learn something about God’s beauty, his order, his all encompassing stature. And ultimately, as Christians we believe that God, for a time, indeed became a Character in the great drama of the history of the universe because God became a character in his story in the person of Jesus Christ.

This is why Christmas is such a big deal, and ultimately this is why Lent is such a big deal,  because we remember how the great “I AM,” the one who is greater than the cosmos, the one who is totally other and totally transcendent, allowed himself to be whipped, and spit upon and nailed to a tree…all on our behalf. And by doing so, we came to know Him who was previously unknowable.

Solets get back to the question we asked at the beginning:  If you were to meet Nikkita Krushchev, and he said to you: “My soviet cosmonaut flew into space…and he could not find your God,” what would you say to him?

Well, let me tell you what I would say to him.

I’d say: “Mr Krushchev….you’re right. Your cosmonaut couldn’t find God in space.
But you know what? God can’t be found that way. Because God is not a character, but an author. And yet, at the same time, if your cosmonaut couldn’t find God in space, maybe it also means that he didn’t have the eyes to see….”

Brothers and sisters,

As continue on our Lenten journey, lets open our eyes to see God in all that is around us
and let us give thanks for the gift of Jesus Christ, the great “I AM”, the one who is totally other made flesh as a character in the drama of human history for us.

‘Ask the Beasts’ and Original Sin


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A few months ago I was reading Elizabeth Johnson’s book, Ask the Beasts. Her work is an attempt to understand the great Christian mysteries in light of Darwin’s magisterial work, The Origin of Species. In other words, Johnson implicitly asks the question: How are we to understand our Christian faith in light of evolution by natural selection? Now, I should note that her work goes well beyond a simple attempt at synthesis of these two understandings of reality: she is also trying to respond to Lynn White’s famous essay in Science Magazine which decried Christianity and its theology as contributing to the ecological crisis as we know it today. But here, I want to put that latter concern (and others she raises) aside in order to focus on one point in Johnson’s work that left me underwhelmed: her attempt to make sense of the violence (I know, a charged word) of the evolutionary process in light of a theological understanding of creation as “good.”

But before I get there, a little bit of background is necessary to grasp the conundrum I hope to highlight. Johnson claims that in the early years of Christian theology, theologians were concerned with three things: God, man, and the cosmos/creation. Each of these reflection points served analogously as a leg to a stool, and we all know that a three legged stool is well balanced and is well suited for sitting on. But Johnson notes that as history progressed and humanity became more self-reflective, theology began to neglect one of these legs in favor of emphasizing the others: theology became increasingly more anthropocentric, and creation took a back seat. Thus, ecology and the drama of the created world was ignored. The stool became imbalanced and Christians lost sight of the importance of caring for creation. Thus, one of her main tasks is to ensure that the third leg of the stool is recovered.

All good up to this point. However, the water gets murkier when Johnson tries to elevate the dignity of creation when faced with the question of evolution by natural selection. After all, natural selection is a violent process. Organisms not well adapted to their environment will suffer (and Johnson claims that many animals are conscious and do indeed suffer) and die before they are able to reproduce, while the strong ones live to pass on their genes. This process ensures that only those genes that are best suited to a given environment are passed on to the next generation.  Johnson uses the famous example of the pelican and her two chicks to showcase just how violent this process can be.

Now, this is fine from an evolutionary point of view. But how do we understand this in light of Christian faith, which makes the bold claim that God created the world and called it “good.” Of course, if creation has no inherent dignity and serves only instrumentally (as the anthropocentric theology of, say, Thomas Aquinas, might maintain), the suffering of a pelican chick or that of a deer being eaten alive by wolves raises no problem. But if all of creation does have such dignity, and if God decided to bring new life into the world by such a violent mechanism, how can we call this God, let alone his creation, good?

As Johnson notes, this question is not new to theology. The greats of the Christian tradition have been wrestling with this question since the beginning. It’s what theologians call “theodicy.” How do we make sense of an all good, all powerful, all knowing God in the midst of suffering? Well two solutions have come to us from antiquity, one from Augustine and the other from Irenaeus.

Augustine, and much of the Western theological tradition after him, blamed suffering on the original sin (Adam, Eve, the apple…you know the story). This at least explains the suffering of the human being. We suffer because we live in a fallen world. And if creation has no dignity, we don’t really need to try to explain the suffering of a pelican or a deer. All that really matters is the suffering of the human being. Irenaeus, on the other hand, believed that God created an imperfect world to provide room for growth in virtue. Either way, both theologians were essentially concerned with human suffering. Now, both thinkers’ solution to this problem still has limps: Augustine relies on a belief in an original justice, a garden of Eden where death and suffering were not part of the created order. This doesn’t jive with our evolutionary world view. Irenaeus’s theory, on the other hand, meshes well with an evolutionary world view, but we are still left with the problem of a “good” creation.

So how does Johnson address this issue? For the most part, she dismisses it. She says that attempting to answer such a question often does injustice to those who are actually in the midst of suffering, among other things. There is truth to this: it doesn’t help to hear that a child who died from Leukemia did so due to sin. Nor does it help to believe that God let the child suffer and die to help us–and the child–grow in virtue by means of such suffering. Yet, to not address the problem at all still leaves us with a gaping hole in our understanding of God as creator.

Now, I said that Johnson dismisses the question “for the most part” because she does, in one paragraph, state that God could have created a world in which creation had a radical freedom which naturally “evolved” by chance to bring about new life forms.  This answer raises a whole bunch of questions about the role of chance in creation and the nature of creation’s freedom and God’s providence, questions that we won’t address here. But regardless: if this is her answer, it does not assuage the concern. At least with Augustine and Irenaeus the goodness of creation was still somewhat protected (through an original justice in Augustine and by a preordained path to virtue by Irenaeus). With Johnson’s solution, there is no possibility in understanding the goodness of creation since there is no original justice, and nor is there a preordained path to virtue: just chance which ends in terrible suffering for the conscious created world.

So, up this point:

  1. Evolution by natural selection is a violent process
  2. Johnson’s elevation of creation to a greater dignity raises series questions about the suffering of non-human creatures.
  3. Any attempt to answer these questions is considered an act of violence toward victims.

Therefore, we are left with the remaining questions: How do we consider creation “good?” What does this understanding of goodness say about God?

Now, I don’t want to sell Johnson short (who am I to do so, anyway?).  Johnson’s project has helped me realize the theological troubles surrounding the Roman Catholic doctrine of original sin. As I’ve already stated, if one were to follow the Thomist strain of Catholic theology–if one were to leave out that third leg of Johnson’s theological stool–one would not need to explain the suffering of animals, since for Thomas animals do not have an inherent dignity. However, when attempting to address the theodicy question regarding human beings, the Western Church historically (and according to Church teaching, definitively) sided with Augustine. It said that God did indeed originally create a world in a state of original justice, and that through a single act of disobedience we experienced a fall from grace.

At first glance, this looks great. It helps protect the goodness of creation (and therefore God), and at the same time it explains why there is so much unjust suffering in the world today (in the beginning, there was no pain or death or suffering: that all came after the fall). But when looked at from an evolutionary worldview, how can we with intellectual honesty hold onto this theory? We know that evolution began far before humans came on the scene. Was all peaceful until the arrival of the first human being, who then sinned and caused all of the violence and suffering of evolution to all of a sudden emerge? Or maybe, if we stick with the anthropocentric worldview and assume that the only suffering that matters is human suffering, we can say that the fist human being on earth was free of suffering and all concupiscence and decided to sin, causing all humans after him or her to suffer the consequences of that action. I don’t know. Sounds like mental gymnastics to me.

So what are we left with regarding a Catholic response to this question? I think we are left with a crisis concerning the doctrine of original sin, a crisis that Johnson’s work doesn’t really help solve.

Let me just conclude my rambling by saying this: I think one of the great tasks facing theology today is the question of the Catholic Church’s doctrine of original sin. Sure, you might be thinking that by making such a stink about this, I am beholden to a premodern world view given this insistence on preserving a several hundred year old doctrine. Maybe that’s true. My concern is how we are to understand God and the mechanism of creation given what we know of evolution. If we raise creation to a greater dignity in order to provide a more convincing Christian ecological ethic, this question becomes intensified. But even if we don’t, we are still left with a big question mark.

Anyway, as I (and hopefully we!) continue to look into this question, I think the question we have to keep raising is: What does this synthesis of evolution and Christian cosmology say about God?



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This post was originally a paper submitted for a class in Spring, 2015. 

Since the times of Galileo, religious believers and scientists alike have argued over the relationship between science and religion. The Christian Church has a dark past in this regard, at times devaluing scientific thought and punishing those who were bold enough to contest the Church’s cosmological claims found in the bible: that the earth was the center of the universe (geocentrism) and that God created the world and all living things in six days. The rise of the Enlightenment as a rejection of ecclesial authority and embracing of the scientific method put flame to the fire and furthered the polemic in Western culture. And this polemic continues into the present day as evidenced by the rise of the “Four Horsemen”[1] of the “New Atheism” and their clash with American fundamentalist Christianity.

In an attempt to quiet this polemic and bring peace between the two disciplines, evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould proposed the heuristic of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) to describe the relationship between science and religion, claiming that each subject has its owrocksofages_thumbn method and means of inquiry and discussion, and that the two cannot overlap: science concerns the facts of the natural world and contains no implied ethic or value, while religion concerns values and ethics and ought not make claims about the natural or factual world.

In this paper, I will argue that the NOMA principle, while helpful conceptually, falls short of adequately respecting the religious or theological discipline. Toward this end, I will examine two critiques of the NOMA principle, one by scientist and new-atheist Richard Dawkins and the other by theologian and would be future pope Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), showing that as a consequence of this principle, religion becomes disconnected from the material world and is left to reside purely in the subjective sphere, ultimately robbing it of its foundation. I will then propose a new model reflecting Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of theology’s proper place within the academy, showing that religion and science can both be respected without relegating religion to the subjective sphere.

 Gould’s Argument

In 1997 Stephen J. Gould, an influential and widely read evolutionary biologist from Harvard University, wrote an essay entitled “Non-Overlapping Magisteria”[2] for Natural History Magazine,  a050520_stephen_gould_vsm.grid-4x2nd later wrote a book based on the article called Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. In these two pieces, Gould argues that the conflict between science and religion—a conflict that has been recognized for a millennia—is “a debate that exists only in people’s minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these entirely different and equally vital subjects.”[3] In other words, these different modes of understand do not conflict, but both contribute important, but different types of knowledge that allow humans to live full lives on earth.

To argue for this point, Gould proposes that his readers adopt a principle of “respectful noninterference” between the two disciplines, and to do this is to adopt the NOMA principle: Non-Overlapping Magisteria. The phrase is, in some ways, self-explanatory. Science and religion are both important to living human life on earth, but they obtain different spheres of knowledge. And though it is common to attempt to synthesize and unify knowledge, Gould believes that “many crucial problems in our complex lives find better resolution under the opposite strategy of principles and respectful separation.”[4]

The phrase “magisteria” here is not to be understood as a calling to absolute obedience, nor does it infer ideas associated with dominance. Instead, Gould defines magisteria as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution. In other words, we debate and hold dialogue under a magisterium…”[5]

Therefore, both science and religion belong to a magisterium: Science to facts about the natural world, and religion about human values and ethics. Science ought not attempt to define what is right and wrong, or to discover the meaning of human actions and relationships, while religion ought not attempt to define the natural laws of the universe, or how the world words via natural means.

This separation between science and religion, Gould argues, came to him after reading an encyclical by Pope Pius XII entitled Humani Generis.[6] The encyclical was written in 1950 with the subtitle “concerning some false opinions which threaten to undermine the foundations of Catholic doctrine” and was an attempt to respond to modernity in all its forms, including evolutionary theories creep into the theological task. After reading the document, Gould was surprised to see that Humani Generis mentioned that evolution was a possibility—even if he said it begrudgingly—and that Catholics could in good conscience entertain the idea. However, he said that what was not permitted was the belief that the human soul finds its provenance from something other than God.  In other words, God creates each and every individual soul, even amidst evolution. John Paul II, in his “Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution”[7] in 1996 reaffirmed and strengthened Pius XII’s claims in Humani Generis, furthering Gould’s inspiration for the NOMA project.


Gould’s NOMA principle has been criticized on all sides of the debate. Of significant note on the scientific side is Richard Dawkins criticism of Gould’s theory. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist from Oxford University and the face of the New Atheism movement, makes a simple argument: “Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.”[8] In other words, because religions make claims about the universe—that it was created, that natural laws can be broken via miracles, and that God imparts a soul into each living being—it is de facto stepping on science’s turf.

To expand on Dawkins’ claim, Gould’s NOMA principle only makes sense if religion is understood solely as relationship to a god of some sort. The minute this god becomes enfleshed or tries to act in the world, it is stepping on a different turf, and these claims must be analyzed according to the methods of this earth. Therefore, NOMA might be appropriate when understanding the god of the Deists, but when relationship with a god takes the form of religion, NOMA becomes a much more difficult principle to abide by, since it implicitly makes claims about the cosmos, about the human person, and implicitly makes claims about the world. In the Christian religion, the virgin birth is an obvious example. The moment that the Christian claims that a baby boy was conceived by a virgin, religion has entered into the realm of biology, and thus can’t move forward. Thus, for a good majority of religions, it is difficult to square their religious understanding within the NOMA principle.

While Dawkins is most concerned with religion’s encroachment on science, Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI is concerned with what this principle would mean for religion. In his book, Truth and Tolerance, Ratzinger responded not necessarily to Gould, but to another scientist who raised a similar idea in the early 20th century: Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg tells of a dialogue he had with a couple of young physicists who were open to religion, because “natural science dealt with two completely different spheres, which were not in competition with each other: in natural science it was a matter of things being true or false; in religion, of their being good and bad, valuable or worthless.” [9] Gould makes a very similar argument. Gould writes: regarding science, “we seek information with potential “yes or no” answers…” where religion is “about ethical ought.”[10] He continues to say that many religious questions “cannot be answered, or even much illuminated, by factual date of any kind.”[11] In this way, Ratzinger’s critique of the young physicists and Gould are fairly similar.

Ratzinger argues that religion cannot be relegated to a narrow sphere of inquiry: that of value and ethics. He argues that Heisenberg ultimately is relegating religion to the subjective sphere, thus making it “not amenable to the criterion of true or false.”[12] Therefore, under the NOMA structure, the thinking person’s religion remains a subjective decision, one that merely guides one through the pains, struggles, anda4c16317353c4d86499e8cd7c118fa9ec8d2f32d ethical considerations of everyday life. This, in some ways, defines Gould’s own life. One of Heisenberg’s young physicist friends describes it well when he says: “Even if I am an atheist, I would at least like to live like a saint.”

Amidst this distinction, Ratzinger’s task is to liberate reason for the religious believer, showing that faith and reason are not separate values, and that both faith and reason involve the whole person, including grounding in the Truth. This “Truth” contains both the truths of science and religion. Therefore, religion cannot be relegated to the sphere of the subjective. Instead, agreeing in part with Dawkins’s ideas, Ratzinger is unafraid to say that religious Truth contains claims that have implications in the spheres of cosmology, physics, and biology. And these truths in the sciences do indeed have significant implications into religious faith. It is these factual truths that help guide and shape Catholic ethics and values. Otherwise, religion as a basis of ethical knowledge loses its vital force, and likewise scientific reason loses its humanity: “if a religion can no longer be reconciled with the elementary certainties of a given view of the world, it collapses.”[13] Thus, in Ratzinger’s words: “the present-day crisis is due to the fact that the connecting link between the subjective and objective realms has disappeared, that reason and feeling are drifting apart, and that both are ailing because of it.”

Ratzinger’s words dispute Gould’s claim that religion and science belong to “non-overlapping” magisteria. Indeed, God, at least in the Christian ideal, is in harmony with the world. This principle is firmly rooted in Catholic theology’s insistence on natural theology, a belief that the natural world and its mode of functioning speaks of a creator: it speaks of God.

Ratzinger demonstrates this link by arguing, as many other have, that Science was birthed in the West due to the Christian cosmology and that the Logos was made flesh. He writes:

“All our ideas about natural science and all practical applications are based on the assumption that the world is ordered according to rational, spiritual laws, is imbued with rationality that can be traced out and copied by our reason…Any thinking that goes beyond this connection, that tries to look at reason in itself or to see it as preceding the present world, is contrary to the discipline of scientific method and is therefore utterly rejected as being a pre-scientific or un-scientific way of thinking.”[14]

If Ratzinger is right, then this means that science cannot remain absolutely distinct from a religious worldview or cosmology, and that it indeed is indebted to it as the historical starting point for the scientific worldview. 51TQE21K70L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_

But all of this raises many questions for Ratzinger’s arguments: how does one know whether one’s religion is appropriately responding or postured towards Truth? Ultimately, this question is too massive to address here. But by rejecting, or at least nuancing Gould’s claim, this question can indeed be asked by analyzing religion according to scientific knowledge and, perhaps better stated, by looking at religious worldviews and critiquing them with what we know about the natural world. This task, while it may appear discriminatory against religious pluralism, is essential for liberating religion out of the mere subjective sphere and bringing it into concert with reason.

This being said, the question remains: If Gould’s NOMA principle is not the answer for the appropriate relationship between science and faith due to its demotion of the realm of religion to the mere subjective, then what is? Here, I will argue that Tomas Aquinas’ hierarchy of the sciences can help answer this question.

Thomas’s Hierarchy of Sciences

Before heading into an explanation of Thomas’ hierarchy of sciences, a brief exposition of his understanding of the word “science” is in order. The word science was not understood by Thomas the way we think of it today. Science, or scientia, is simply any discipline that seeks knowledge. Therefore, biology is a science, just as philosophy or literature or theology is science. To better understand this, the German tradition of Wissenschaft may be helpful.  Wissenschaft was a term that defined learning in the German universities in the 19th century. It defined science as a “legitimate area of study oriented to a particular object, and possessing appropriate methods of investigation.”[15] This understanding of learning is still used today, and accurately describes the model of learning in the Middle Ages and the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

When confronted with the multitude of sciences in the middle ages (mathematics, theology, philosophy), Thomas Aquinas makes the claim that theology sandro-botticelli-st-thomas-aquinasis the “queen of the sciences.” Therefore, it is not simply one method to be put alongside biology and physics, but stands above them as an encapsulating discipline. This special status of Theology was originally earned, in part, because it dealt specifically with revelation: the revealed word of God in the scriptures. What can be a higher task than studying God’s own self-communication to the world?

But this is not the ultimate reason why we might affirm Thomas’ understanding of the hierarchy of sciences today. Ultimately, for our purposes, theology can be considered queen of the sciences because it encapsulates and makes use of the finding the other disciplines. We see this already amidst the sciences today: in order to do biology meaningfully, the biologist has to be steeped in chemistry and physics in a way that a person studying the solar system does not have to be aware of the intricate details of a kidney. The same may be said of theology’s relationship to biology: biology does not need theology in order to do its work, but theology does indeed need biology, especially if the Roman Catholic theological method is true: that the created order is an analogy of God, and thus that creation is imbued with communication from the creator.

Note that this hierarchical relationship does not speak of domination: theology is not the queen of the sciences because it determines the outcomes of biological research. Instead, it is a hierarchy based on wholeness: theology embraces the other disciplines in order to make sense of revelation, and therefore God. This leaves us with a certain hierarchy of sciences, with Theology being followed by the other humanities, followed by the hard sciences. Thus, biology is left fully in tact to go its own direct route, and so has an unlimited independence from Theology.

This being said, the hierarchal model then allows for the all of the benefits of Gould’s NOMA theory, without claiming the problematic phrase: non-overlapping. Religion is then liberated form the realm of pure ethics and meaning and is allowed to search for Truth, and so can once again make claims about the Universe that are indeed consistent with science. At the same time, religion is also given a massive task: it must learn when to stay true to Revelation and when to yield. For instance, a Christian theologian must maintain that God is the creator of the Universe, and that miracles are possible.


In conclusion, I have attempted to analyze the basic thrust of Stephen Gould’s NOMA theory, suggesting that the theory does not allow religion to treat itself on its own terms: that it relegates religion to the subjective realm, ultimately divorcing it from its grounding in the natural world as a communicator of God and of its cosmological foundations.

In place of this theory, I proposed a re-examination of the hierarchy of the sciences proposed by Thomas Aquinas, which argues for a hierarchy based not on domination or authority, but based on the holistic nature of the discipline. This leaves theology as the Queen of the Sciences, since it can encompass all other forms of knowledge, including the humanities and the sciences. On this basis, religion is not relegated to the subjective, but is able to ground itself in the natural world.

This being the case, this principle does not allow religion to use subjective claims as a defense. It can no longer ignore the findings of the scientific world, and so are charged with the task of making sense of them in light of revelation. For example, the discovery of the evolutionary basis of living beings has sent shockwaves through the religious world. While many religions, including the Catholic Church embrace such a discovery, they are not left with a task of understanding how God can still be understood as the creator of the universe. All too often religious people ignore such questions and go on with their religious life without examining these important details, or without letting the scientific worldview implicitly critique their assumptions about how God works in the world. Thus, the hierarchal model gives theologians much work that will surely continue into the future.



[1] Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Samuel Harris.

[2] Stephen J. Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (1997): 16–22.

[3] Stephen J. Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Publishing, 1999), 3.

[4] Gould, Rock of Ages, 4.

[5] Gould, Rock of Ages, 5.

[6] Gould, Rock of Ages, 74-89. Cf. Pius XII, Humani Generis (1950),

[7] Cf. John Paul II, “Message to the Pontifical Academy of Science on Evolution,” (1996),

[8] Dawkins, Richard (2006). “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”. Huffington Post.

[9] Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 138.

[10] Gould, Rock of Ages, 53-55.

[11] Gould, Rock of Ages, 55.

[12] Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 139.

[13] Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 143-144.

[14] Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 156-183.




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Originally written for a class project in January, 2014.

In his little book, ‘In the Beginning…,’[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger expounds on the Catholic understanding of creation through a collection of four catechetic51LaTULerPL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_al homilies delivered in 1981 at the Liebfrauenkirche cathedral in Munich. Though dated, Ratzinger’s reflections remain relevant as ever in the 21st century American religious climate that is fraught with debates between biblical literalism and scientism, fundamentalism and rationalism. Ratzinger rejects these “-isms” in favor of a more balanced and nuanced view that both recognizes the truth of the images of the biblical creation stories, and at the same time avoids a literalist interpretation that disrespects the wealth of scientific discovery into the origins of the universe and the human species. At their core, Ratzinger’s reflections do not attempt to make scientific claims about the universe; though there is tension, science and religion answer different questions. Rather, he connects creation to the great questions surrounding the human person: Who are we? Where are we from? In these reflections, Ratzinger demonstrates the necessity of a strong creation theology rooted in biblical imagery to ground the truths of the human person: inter alia, the human person and creation are both dependent and exulted, and that our reason can begin to approach God and the universe.

Ratzinger’s work has many implications for connecting faith and reason today. Of great significance is the debate surrounding interpretation of the biblical creation accounts and the Christian’s relationship to science. The last century has seen great strides in scientific understanding, raising questions for the Christian who tries to make sense of the biblical stories of creation in light of these discoveries. Faced with this challenge, some Christians have unfortunately retreated to a fundamentalist view of creation that claims the bible to hold scientific truth. Others have retreated from belief in the biblical images (seven days of creation, humans made from clay, and so forth) to a rationalist position that exclusively stresses authorial intention in light of Christian experience.[2]   The intent of the creation stories, the rationalists’ posit, is to show that God created the world, freeing reason to allow humanity to approach God. While this position allows science and religion to peacefully coexist in their quests for truth, Ratzinger claims that it is not enough.[3] There is indeed truth in the images of the creation stories, and their abandonment impoverishes creation theology’s implications for the human person and his or her way of being in the world. This provides the framework for the rest of Ratzinger’s exploration of the biblical creation accounts.

Before heading to his conclusions about the human person, Ratzinger stresses a method of biblical interpretation that prevents fundamentalist, and therefore distorted, readings of the scriptureratzinger-desks. Ratzinger emphasizes that the creation stories, whether in Genesis or the Wisdom literature, must be read as a whole. This “whole” is not limited to the genre of creation literature or the Old Testament, but must focus on Jesus Christ as its center. A proper interpretation is one that looks forward instead of backward. Therefore, when focusing on the images of the creation accounts, the Christian cannot interpret them apart from the saving works of Jesus Christ.[4]  This being said, Ratzinger uses the images from the creation stories to expound on topics that get at the nagging questions that humanity has struggled with for centuries, including today.

Ratzinger’s conclusions offer concrete applications for 21st century faith. For example, Ratzinger’s analysis of the image of the creation of human kind provides a framework for both an understanding of the human person, and a praxis following from that understanding. In the Genesis creation account, the human being is said to be created out of clay, or dust. This biblical image both humbles and exults us. It humbles us because we are faced with our “creatureliness.” It exults because, unlike other creation images, we are not created out of dragon blood[5] or an evil spirit. In recognizing our “creaturliness,” we necessarily recognize that we are not the creator; we are dependents. Every human being, then, whether king or pauper, freeperson or slave, shares in this “creatureliness” and, hence, are rooted in a fundamental equality.[6] Ethically, then, it is our duty as Christians to express this innate equality through our actions and our voices; whether it be through preaching, social justice activities, or small acts of charity. Ratzinger goes on to flesh out more biblical images, from the creation of the world out of nothing,[7] to humanity being created in imago Dei,[8] to the basis of original sin in relationship.[9] All these principles, which stem from biblical images and offer humanity an ethic, show the importance of maintaining the truth of the biblical images instead of dismissing them in retreat of scientific thought.


“The Big Bang” and Ratzinger’s Creation Theology

Current scientific theories of the creation of the universe center on the Big Bang. The scientific account of creation provides a starting point for the dialogue between science and religion. Ratzinger touches on the theory in his book, though it should be noted that science has progressed since his books publication. Nevertheless, his theological accomplishment remains relevant. Ratzinger’s theology both melds and is in tension with current Big Bang theories as laid out in the television documentary “The Big Bang.”[10]

Before heading into a comparison of Ratzinger’s work with the documentary, it is important to point out what Ratzinger and the documentary did not say.  Ratzinger does not attempt to offer a scientific account of the creation of the universe, nor do the scientists on the documentary suggest an anthropology or metaphysics from their discoveries. Thibigbangs does not mean that science is concerned with the objective, and religion with the merely subjective; Ratzinger insists that the principles drawn from the biblical images are indeed objective statements about a reality that can’t be observed or measured. [11] Rather, science answers the question about the facts of the empirical world, while religion answers the question about the human place within it.[12] This being said, the documentary and Ratzinger’s theology still serve as dialogue partners, finding both points of agreement and tension.

The temporality of the universe is consistent with both Ratzinger’s theology and the theories produced by contemporary science. This was not always the case, however. The Enlightenment scientific theories painted a picture of a universe that had no beginning or end. All energy was conserved in a closed system, and the universe was fixed. However, with the discoveries of the theories of entropy, relativity, and the Big Bang, the idea of a static universe without beginning or end was turned upside down.[13] The Big Bang describes the origin of the universe from nothing, and the theory of entropy explains that the universe will end, perhaps through the dissipation of all energy back into nothingness. These discoveries brought the Christian account of creation and the scientific account closer together. Of course, Christianity holds the doctrine of creation ex nihilo,[14] God created the world out of nothing, and that there will be an end.

Despite this similarity, Ratzinger’s and the documentary’s accounts are in tension around a few points.  One such dissonance is the description of the universe as a cosmic struggle. The documentary pointed to two points of struggle in the universe connected with both the universe’s creation and its end. The beginning of the universe consisted of the struggle between matter and “anti-matter.” Matter and anti-matter are oppositely charged and so destroy each other upon contact. These two phenomena made the early universe a “battleground.” Whichever “army” had more “troops” would win this battle, and would leave the universe either full of “stuff,” or matter; or would lead to a big empty space. Luckily for us, there was more matter than anti-matter, and all the molecules of the universe were created, including those that make up the human body.

Another source of struggle is bringing the universe to its end. This source is called “dark energy.” Contemporary science says that the Big Bang is the cause of the universe’s expansion. Thus, the big bang is still going on; the universe is emanating and radiating out from “ground zero.” Science has recently made another discovery that the universe is actually speeding up as it emanates. The cause of this speeding up is dark energy. Little is known about this phenomenon, but many theorists suggest that it is speeding up the death of the universe. Again, when looked at metaphorically, one can imagine the battle of two forces: the universe vs. dark matter. One would have to look at the universe through a valueless system, which is the goal of many scientists by the way,[15] to see it otherwise.

These two points are in tension, if not conflict, with Ratzinger’s theology of creation. He states that according to the biblical images (which is the focus of his book), the “universe is not the scene of a struggle among dark forces but rather the creation of his word.”[16]  According to the documentary, Ratzinger’s claim, if taken literally, is simply false. There even exists a literal “dark force” called “dark energy” that is indeed in “struggle” with the universe. Perhaps, however, one should not take Ratzinger’s words so literally. The biblical images are grounding the world in a value system, something that science cannot do on its own. So faith in these biblical images can still be true—the universe is not a struggle—if values are not being placed on the forces described by science. This is where faith informs the believers understanding of the universe. After all, according to Ratzinger, reason searches in faith and finds everything it is looking for.[17]

Another point of tension deals with the chance and necessity of the creation process. Science is coming to a greater understanding of chance in the order of the universe. The documentary showcased one scientist who did experiments on the influence of gravity on creation. This scientist speculates that we were simply lucky that the universe had just the right amount of gravity, and that perhaps other universes have been created with different levels of gravity. Some contemporary theologians like Elizabeth Johnson[18] and Garcia-Rivera[19] have acknowledged the role of chance in the creation of the universe, and have attempted to reconcile it with their faith.

Ratzinger, on the other hand, using the work of scientist Jacques Monod as a reference, implies that such a theory is “absurd,” and that a simpler answer would be God. The reason for mentioning Monod, however, was not to disprove his work. He doesn’t even attempt it. What he attacks instead is a method that refuses to acknowledge God or a creator as an even possible option. The method itself is flawed, or in his words, “pathetic.” Again, to say that Ratzinger is in flat out contradiction with contemporary science would be to hyperbolize. But Ratzinger’s words do raise questions about the meanings surrounding the origins of the universe, though he does not answer them in this little book.

In conclusion, Ratzinger’s theology of creation offers a balanced view of the relation between science and religion. He does not retreat into fundamentalism or rationalism, but maintains the truth of the biblical images offered in the creation stories. From these biblical images he reveals that God is the creator of the universe, that the universe is reasonable, and that the human person is both dignified and humbled. Several questions remain in light of science’s new appreciation of chance and struggle in the universe, which some believe would conflict with the Christians understanding of a creation of purposeful love. These questions charge the theologian to search for new ways to engage scientific discovery in the light of faith.



[1] Joseph Ratzinger, ‘In the Beginning…:A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, trans. Boniface Ramsey (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1995).

[2] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 4-5.

[3] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 6.

[4] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 8-10.

[5] Ratzinger expounds on the Enuma Elish story of creation and contrasts it and its implications with the Judeo-Christian account. Cf. Ratzinger, In the Beginning,10-12.

[6] Ratzinger, In the Beginning,42-44.

[7] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 10-12.

[8] Ratzinger, In the Beginning,44-50.

[9] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 61-64.

[10]  How the Universe Works, season 1, episode 1, “The Big Bang,” originally aired April 25, 2010, on Discovery.

[11] Ratzinger, In The Beginning, 82-92.

[12] For a deeper discussion on the relation of science and metaphysical analysis: Cf. Rivera, The Garden of God, 8-10.

[13] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 22-25.

[14] For an explanation of this doctrine and its biblical roots (or lack thereof), see: Neil Ormerod, Creation, Grace, and Redemption (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2007), 3-6.

[15] For a brief commentary on science and its claim of objectivity, and at the same time its pushing of value claims on religion, see: Rosemary Ruether, Does Science Have a Creation Story,” in Gaia and God, (Publishing info not available), 36.

[16] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 25.

[17] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 21.

[18] Johnson connects the element of chance with “Divine creativity.” She writes: “But chance occurring within law disrupts the usual pattern while being held in check, and over millions of millennia the interplay of the two advances the world to a richer state that would otherwise be possible.” Cf. Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God (Bedford Square, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007), 193-196.

[19] Garcia-Rivera describes “chaos” not “in terms of warring principles,” but as a “dynamism akin to spirit.” She writes: “It is the dynamism of a powerful love where chaos and order find reconciliation by forming ensouled bits of matter manifest as dynamic forms of striking beauty.” Cf. Alejandro Garcia-Rivera, “At Home in the Cosmos,” in The Garden of God: A Theological Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 12-13.