Thursday, January 24, 2008

In the presence of ineffable mystery

An acquaintance who knows of my admiration for Thomas Merton sent me this quote, from Merton's A Search for Solitude:
I must get to know something of modern physics. Even though I am a monk, that is no reason for living in a Newtonian universe or, worse still, an Aristotelian one. The fact that the cosmos is not quite what St. Thomas and Dante imagined it to be has after all some importance. It does not invalidate St. Thomas or Dante or Catholic theology, but it ought to be understood and taken into account by a theologian. It is futile to try and live in an expanding universe with atomic fission an ever present possibility and try to think and act exclusively as if the cosmos were fixed in an immutable order centered upon man's earth. Modern physics has its repercussions in the monastery and to be a monk one must take them into account, although that does nothing whatever to make one's spirituality either simple or neat.
There is much to admire in this passage: the willingness of Merton to make himself knowledgeable about modern science, and his admission that what we have learned about the world since the time of Dante and Aquinas is of some relevance to theologians. It is also certainly true that knowing modern physics does not make leading a spiritual life any easier.

And of course modern science does not invalidate Dante and Aquinas. Dante remains a giant of literature, even as his Earth-centered cosmos has been rendered obsolete. Thomas remains an important historical figure in the context of his time.

But all of this is to miss what is central to the modern scientific way of knowing: the rejection of supernaturalism. Science has achieved its spectacular success by ruling out the miraculous as a mode of explanation. Countless events that were once thought to be supernatural -- the appearance of comets, the visitation of a plague, earthquake, or drought -- have been shown to be part of the natural order. And science knows of no reliably affirmed event, in the present or the past, that cannot have a natural explanation. This is the real import of modern science.

Which is to say, there is but one miracle, and that miracle is the natural order. Theology has been subsumed by science; creation is the primary revelation. Religion, of course, remains as important as ever, as a private or community expression of wonder, reverence, celebration, praise. It is religion in this sense that I admire in Merton. He attended with a keen sensitivity to the natural order. He felt a presence in his heart, an awareness of the ineffable Mystery that permeates creation. It was this that drew him to the mystical tradition of Christianity, especially Celtic creation spirituality, and to Zen.

He knew that science in and of itself was not an adequate door to a spiritual life. He wrote: "The way to find the real 'world' is not merely to measure and observe what is outside us, but to discover our own inner ground. For that is where the world is, first of all: in my deepest self. This 'ground,' this 'world' where I am mysteriously present at once to my own self and to the freedoms of all other men, is not a visible, objective and determined structure with fixed laws and demands. It is a living and self-creating mystery of which I am myself a part, to which I am myself my own unique door."