Monday, December 29, 2008

Knowing the mind of God

This photo appeared in Nature (or was it Science?) some months ago. Pope Benedict blessing Stephen Hawking on the occasion of the October meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The subject: "Scientific Insight into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life." I dragged the photo onto my desktop, where it has been sitting ever since. I know it means something. I have not been able to figure out what.

Which is to say, I've been trying to sort out my own reaction to the photo, which seems to reside somewhere between unworthy cynicism and congenial approval.

The most powerful and revered religious person on Earth laying his hand upon one of the most brilliant minds in the history of humanity -- a mind locked in a body almost totally incapacitated by motor neuron disease. Which way is the energy flowing? Or does it flow both ways? Intellectuality and spirituality meeting and merging at that spot where thumb meets forehead.

In his chair, the author of a book titled The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. Standing with his left hand on Hawking's voice synthesizer, a man who understands himself to be custodian of the essential story of the origin and fate of the universe. Both men profess to be interested in knowing the mind of God. For Benedict, God's thoughts have been revealed directly in scriptures and tradition, and it is his responsibility as successor of Peter to see that the content of revelation is transmitted intact to future generations. For Hawking, God's thoughts will be discerned with increasing clarity by the ongoing theoretical and empirical pursuits to which he has given his remarkable life.

Alas, as we know, there is an uneasy tension between the two readings of the mind of God. It would be lovely if we could forego all claims to knowing God's mind, and discern in the photograph a complete circle from pope's right hand to Hawking's mind to Hawking's voice-synthesizing computer to the pope's left hand to the pope's mind -- always-advancing empirical cosmology circling endlessly with the Christian message of human love.