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Revelations of the Incredible Shrinking Man

Drawing on B movies and high poetry, an archbishop examines the possibility of reconciling faith and science

BY Archbishop Charles Chaput

October 4-10, 1998 Issue | Posted 10/4/98 at 1:00 PM

 

The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars held their 21st annual convention in Denver Sept. 25–27. The following is excerpted from the keynote address of the convention.

I. THE VOICE FROM THE WHIRLWIND

I believe the Holy Father is right when he says that no fundamental conflict can exist between science and religious faith, whatever the appearance to the contrary. Truth can't contradict itself, and both science and faith are means to discovering truth about creation. But their estrangement is often still very real. Why is there a “disconnect” between them, and how do we fix it? …

[First] I'd like to talk about the theology of B movies. … Some of you may also remember the films. I don't mean the big-screen, Cadillac releases like Ben Hur. I mean the low-budget, black and white titles like The Blob, which starred a giant, man-eating amoeba; Them, which starred giant, man-eating ants; and The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, which starred a giant, taxi-crushing Amazon. … In most of the B movies of the 1950s, a scientific accident — usually involving radiation — triggers an outof-control monster who's defeated only by luck, or by an even more ingenious scientific countermeasure. Each of these movies points to a deep popular ambivalence toward science. We desire the power science brings. But we also fear its consequences, because deep down we instinctively realize that we lack the ability to control what we unleash. Like Pandora, we've opened a box filled with surprises — and not all of them are welcome. We've released a whirlwind of change that threatens to unhinge all our notions of coherence. …

One of these films stands out as a very interesting anomaly. How many of you have seen The Incredible Shrinking Man? Does anyone remember the ending? It's pretty unusual.

Here's the plot: The hero is an average, innocent, middle-class fellow who, one day, gets hit by a random burst of cosmic radiation. That's all the explanation we ever get. A few days later, he notices that his clothes are a bit loose. Gradually he discovers that he's actually shrinking. He goes to the doctor. The doctor does tests, gives him a shot, and reassures him that science will find a cure. But it does-n't. He continues to shrink until he's the size of a mouse, and then an insect. At this point he has a fairly standard, B-movie, life-and-death struggle with a house spider — which now seems the size of an elephant, by his scale. He kills the spider, but the effort exhausts him. He falls into a deep sleep, and when he awakes, he has evaporated to virtually nothing. In the movie's final scene, he drags himself to a basement window and looks out — and then upward — through a forest of grass, to a night sky blazing with stars. And this is what he says:

“I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe — worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry — spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. … All this vast majesty of creation had to mean something — and then I meant something too; yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero.”

It sounds familiar, doesn't it? Let me remind you where we've heard that message before: Job 38 and 40.

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: … Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place… ? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his … ?”

And this is my first point. The appropriate posture of man and woman before God, and science before God's creation, is humility. … Science uninformed by modesty in the face of its own limitations will end by dehumanizing the humanity it intends to serve.

Pride, including scientific pride, kills the human spirit. The evidence of this century is irrefutable. We are not gods. We will never be gods. And to be in right relationship with nature, we must never seek to be gods. …

Science will regain its soul and grow to work with faith to serve truth and advance human dignity through the witness of intelligent believers.

II. THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM

The first point leads to my second: Human happiness is not a function of worldly knowledge, including scientific knowledge. Knowledge sometimes creates as much misery as comfort. We all know hundreds of facts which really add nothing to our lives. Does it help you to know that the surface temperature of Venus will boil lead? … No, happiness flows from meaning, the discernment of which requires wisdom.

Let me share with you another story. … [In Taylor Caldwell's book Dialogues with the Devil] Lucifer describes a room in the afterlife reserved for scientists who have knowingly and willfully rejected God. It has no demons. No fires. No instruments of torture or discomfort of any kind. In fact, just the opposite. Every tool of scientific inquiry is immediately available. So is every reference book. So are unlimited data about anything which any scientist would ever hope to know. Only one thing is missing: purpose. In rejecting God, they've rejected the One Being who gives context and meaning to all knowledge; the Whole who completes all the fragments of information which science laboriously acquires and studies. That's their eternity. They know everything … and yet they also know it's empty without the one priceless piece they've thrown away forever. …

I have one final, cautionary thought about science, and it has to do with its bloodline. “Science” is an interesting word. It traces itself back to the Latin verb scire (to know) and the Latin noun scientia (knowledge). … What science has done in the 500 years since Francis Bacon lived and wrote, is to provide living proof for his claim that “knowledge is power.” Bacon is the earliest salesman for today's “knowledge societies.” Knowledge works. It's useful. American technology is a global witness to it. Scientific knowledge has brought us many tremendous benefits, from antibiotics to electric lights. But the spirit of utility at the heart of applied science is something with which none of us should feel entirely comfortable. … Today's science and technology, in fact, have an ambiguous family history. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis reminds us that, “The serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor are twins.” …

“For the wise men of old,” he says, “the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: The solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious. …” If this sounds alarmist, let's remember that eugenics; partial birth abortion; physician-assisted suicide; cloning; cross-species experiments; and genetic manipulation were all just crazy ideas for low budget, B-grade horror films when C.S. Lewis was writing 40 or 50 years ago. Now they're here. Now they're real. …

Listen to these verses from Sirach 1:11 and 12: “The fear of the Lord is glory and exultation, and gladness and a crown of rejoicing./ The fear of the Lord delights the heart, and gives gladness and joy and long life.”

It is natural for the human heart to find joy in “the fear of the Lord.” And by fear I mean the awe we instinctively feel in the presence of something great, mysterious, and beautiful. The universe is more than dead matter and impersonal equations. Wisdom enables us to see this. And wisdom is what we lack when reason separates itself from faith. …

III. I AM THE ALPHA AND THE OMEGA

In his statements on Galileo, evolution, and in a hundred different other environments, Pope John Paul II has recognized the legitimate autonomy science must exercise in its pursuit of truths about creation, and as recently as his Wednesday audience of Sept. 16, he stressed again that the Church is the friend of any sincere and ethical human research. This merely echoes what Vatican II taught so articulately in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes):

“[M]ethodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are” (36).

From the perspective of science, of course, the rationalist-materialist prejudices which scientists inherited from the Enlightenment continue to drive many of them away from the deeper truth found in religious faith. But … times are changing as the “argument from design” has gained new strength. Anyone who hasn't seen the August 1998 issue of Scientific American should … listen to the following quotations from the article “Beyond Physics: Renowned Scientists Contemplate the Evidence for God":

“'The science of the 20th century is showing us, if anything, what is unknowable using the scientific method — what is reserved for religious beliefs,’ [says] Mitchell P. Marcus, chairman of computer science at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘In mathematics and information theory, we can now guarantee that there are truths out there that we cannot find’…

“'The inability of science to provide a basis for meaning, purpose, value and ethics is evidence of the necessity of religion,’ says Allan Sandage [one of the fathers of modern astronomy] — evidence strong enough to persuade him to give up his atheism late in life.” …

This brings me to my final point. The way science will regain its soul, the way science and faith will begin one day to work together to serve the truth and advance real human dignity, is through the witness of intelligent women and men of faith, like yourselves. The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars has come a long way in a short time. Believe me when I say that God is using all of you as missionaries to a new Areopagus, where people have a desperate need for God but don't have the language to even ask for your help.

Your faith in Christ crucified — as scholars and writers, teachers and scientists — is a very powerful form of evangelization. You preach the Christ who is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of all things; the One in whom the natural and the divine, the spiritual and the material, science and faith, are reconciled. … There's a poem by Rainer Marie Rilke — it's called Evening— which captures so beautifully some of the things we've been talking about tonight. … Listen just to the final verse:

To you is left (unspeakably confused) your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears, so it, now hemmed in, now grasping all, is changed in you by turns to stone and stars.

This is the human predicament: part clay, part glory; a story told crudely in low budget films and elegantly in high poetry; studied and measured by science; redeemed by God's son … and lived by each of us. The reconciliation of faith and science, I suspect, takes place first in our own hearts. And it begins when we say “I believe” — and we mean it.

Archbishop Charles Chaput has led the Denver Archdiocese since 1997.