Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Science in Evangelii Gaudium

The apostolic exhortation published by Pope Francis yesterday has received widespread scrutiny already, with two foci being its critique of unbridled market capitalism and its equally sharp-tongued critique of the Church’s shortcomings and a call to greater mercy and closeness to all. Both of these topics are close to my heart and I hope to return to them in due course.

Instead, I’d here like to focus on the references to science that Francis made in Evangelii Gaudium - effectively as a follow-on to an analogous analysis I applied to his interview given to Jesuit publications some months ago. As I noted there, Francis placed science on par with theology, both as informing the Church from within, and I was curious to see how that - to my mind daring - positioning would hold up in this formal exposition of his vision for the Church.

The first mention of science comes up early on in the document and is well in line with the sketch from “the” interview:
“The Church [...] needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth. It is the task of exegetes and theologians to help “the judgment of the Church to mature”. The other sciences also help to accomplish this, each in its own way.”
Science - in fact, “the sciences” - is placed explicitly among the sources of understanding that the Church needs to take advantage of, even in the context of making sense of revelation. Francis follows this up by stating that:
“Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.”
The sciences and their “differing currents of thought” are shown here to lead to a nuanced, varied understanding of a multi-faceted reality. In fact, towards the end of the exhortation, Francis makes a very important point about the Gospel - and by extension reality too - being like a polyhedron:
“Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the centre, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness.”
Returning to the presentation of science in Evangelii Gaudium, the strongest point is made about half-way through the document, where science is even positioned as “an instrument of the Spirit for enlightening and renewing the world,” in the context of its capacity to shed light on Jesus’ message. This is very strong stuff and, I believe, part of a much broader move by Francis to emphasize the ubiquity of God’s speaking to us. Also in the context of inter-religious dialogue, Francis proclaims that non-Christian religions too “can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up” - again a very bold claim, like in the case of science. In effect, Francis is saying not to look for God only in the zones explicitly demarcated for it, but to realize that He can be accessed in many more ways. In fact, his words about non-believers round out this picture very clearly: “We consider [all who sincerely seek the truth, goodness and beauty] as precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building peaceful coexistence between peoples and in protecting creation.”

Next, Francis returns to the key point from “the” interview - that theology and science need to work in tandem:
“It is not enough that evangelizers be concerned to reach each person, or that the Gospel be proclaimed to the cultures as a whole. A theology [...] which is in dialogue with other sciences and human experiences is most important for our discernment on how best to bring the Gospel message to different cultural contexts and groups.”
However, it is a relationship among equals that he is after - among all the sciences and rational modes of equiry and thought, which is in contrast with an absolutization of positivist science in the form of scientism:
“Dialogue between science and faith also belongs to the work of evangelization at the service of peace. Whereas positivism and scientism “refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences”, the Church proposes another path, which calls for a synthesis between the responsible use of methods proper to the empirical sciences and other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, theology, as well as faith itself, which elevates us to the mystery transcending nature and human intelligence. Faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason, since “the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God” and cannot contradict each other.”
Again, this is not a new position - drawing explicitly on John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio - but an important facet of Francis' vision of how science is part of a Christian world-view.

Finally, Francis re-iterates the fundamental compatibility of Christianity and science, by underlining the goodness of scientific progress. At the same time he warns against an ideologisation of science too and against a jumping to conclusions or an overconfidence in emerging theories:
“The Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith. At times some scientists have exceeded the limits of their scientific competence by making certain statements or claims. But here the problem is not with reason itself, but with the promotion of a particular ideology which blocks the path to authentic, serene and productive dialogue.”
In summary, I find Francis’ views on science deeply positive and see them as both building on his predecessors’ emphasis on rationality and going beyond even the extent to which they saw science as a good. To declare science as an instrument of the Holy Spirit is to give it the highest possible accolade.