Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Catholic identity -- a reprise

I had some challenging responses from colleagues regarding my essay a few Sundays ago on the search for identity in Catholic higher education. One common response boils down to this: Accommodation with the scientific story of creation is of course necessary -- for instance, there is no need to take the Genesis story of creation literally -- but the Nicene Creed remains an inviolate core of faith and any definition of Catholic identity must affirm it.

Why not take the six-day creation literally? I ask. My orthodox colleagues reply: Because the authors of scriptures were writing out of a world view that is different than our own. But then why is the 4th-century Nicene Creed sacrosanct? Weren't the authors of the Creed also expressing the mysteries of their faith within the understanding of their time -- a time when gods, spirits and miracles were commonplace?

We are scientifically literate enough to dispense with a six-day creation, but hold firm to virgin birth? We wink at limbo, but make "the resurrection of the dead" an article of faith? Is religion then a parsing of improbabilities? Where draw the line?

Some of my colleagues accuse me of scientific reductionism. No regular reader of this blog is likely to do so. Let us begin, then, with the contemporary, tentative, always-evolving, non-miraculous, naturalistic consensus of science as the most reliable collective, public knowledge of the world that we are likely to find. Science is only an sketch of what is, but it surely gives us a more reliable approximation to reality than was available at Nicea in the 4th-century. With the scientific world view as a platform, let us construct our religious responses to the Ultimate Mysteries, embracing the insights of artists, poets, saints and mystics of past and present.

The biologist E. O. Wilson writes: "The spirits our ancestors knew intimately fled first the rocks and trees, then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative." Creating a scared narrative -- for the 21st-century universe of the DNA and the galaxies -- should be a defining element of Catholic higher education.