Pope John Paul II: Science as an encounter with God

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Pope John Paul II on Scientists growing in faith 13 Nov 2000

On 02 April 2005, Pope John Paul II, died. His was the third longest pontificate in the Church’s history. He led a sincere dialogue between the realms of culture and scientific research, and the documents he authored in this field represent the most extensive teachings ever produced in a single pontificate and involve all the principal spheres of rapport between science and the faith.

In an address to the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 13 November  2000, he said, he reminded us scientists on the importance of growing in our personal encounter with God:

“Every scientist, through personal study and research, completes himself and his own humanity. … Scientific research constitutes for you, as it does for many, the way for the personal encounter with truth, and perhaps the privileged place for the encounter itself with God, the Creator of heaven and earth. Science shines forth in all its value as a good capable of motivating our existence, as a great experience of freedom for truth, as a fundamental work of service. Through research each scientist grows as a human being and helps others to do likewise. “

St. Cyril: “God’s command was but one…”

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Today, on 18 March, is the liturgical memorial of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. In one of his catechesis on baptism, St. Cyril wrote:

“From one and the same earth come creeping things, and wild beasts, and cattle, and trees, and food; and gold, and silver, and brass, and iron, and stone. The nature of the waters is but one, yet from it comes the substance of fishes and of birds; whereby as the former swim in the waters, so the birds fly in the air […]. God’s command was but one, which said, Let the earth bring forth wild beasts, and cattle, and creeping things, after their kinds (Genesis 1:24): and from one earth, by one command, have sprung diverse natures, the gentle sheep and the carnivorous lion, and various instincts of irrational animals, bearing resemblance to the various characters of men” (Catechesis on Baptism, 9).

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William Buckland: Geology not contrary to revealed religion

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William Buckland DD, FRS was born on 12 March 1784. He was an English theologian who became Dean of Westminster. He was also a geologist and palaeontologist. He wrote the first full account of a fossil dinosaur, which he named Megalosaurus.

“Geology has shared the fate of other infant sciences, in being for a while considered hostile to revealed religion; so like them, when fully understood, it will be found a potent and consistent auxiliary to it, exalting our conviction of the Power, and Wisdom, and Goodness of the Creator.

Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1836), Vol. 1, 9.

John Ray: Inexhaustible Glory of the Creator

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On 17 January 1705, John Ray (1627–1705) died in Black Notley (Essex, England). He was an English naturalist, sometimes referred to as the father of English natural history. He published important works on botany, zoology, and natural theology. His classification of plants in his Historia Plantarum, was an important step towards modern taxonomy. Ray rejected the system of dichotomous division by which species were classified according to a pre-conceived, either/or type system, and instead classified plants according to similarities and differences that emerged from observation.

He was the first to give a biological definition of the term species:

“… no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species… Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa”. (History of Plants 1686)

In his time, Natural Sciences and Natural theology were not yet clearly divided. In 1691, he also wrote the book The Wisdom of God in the Works of Creation. It was a treatise on natural theology based upon his botanical and zoological observations that was destined to exert a profound influence many scientists and theologians of the 18th century. He influenced William Paley who clearly, as we would see it today, overemphasized the idea to see God’s direct intervention in every beautiful creature in this world. William Paley’s theological concept was already challenged in his time by theologians like John Henry Newman.

“The treasures of nature are inexhaustible…If man ought to reflect upon his Creator the glory of all his works, then ought he to take notice of them all and not to think anything unworthy of his cognisance.”

John Ray, English Naturalist (1627–1705), from The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (London, GB: Samuel Smith, 1691), 130.

Pavel Alexandrovich Florensky: Scientist and Orthodox Priest

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Nesterov_Florensky_BulgakovOn 15 December 1937, Pavel Alexandrovich Florensky (1882–1937) died. An Orthodox priest, he was one of the most versatile and emblematic figures among the Russian intellectual believers of his time.

He was born in 1882 of Russian and Armenian ancestry and grew up in the Caucasus Mountains where he developed a mystical affinity for nature that never left him, and which may be taken as a key to his writings, as he suggests in the posthumously published work, “To My Children: Recollections of a Youth in the Caucasus” (1992, in Russian). A brilliant mathematician, physicist, engineer, and inventor, while at the same time a distinguished linguist (who knew more than a dozen languages). art historian, theologian, and philosopher, Florensky graduated with the highest honors from Moscow University in 1904 with a thesis (“On the Peculiarities of Flat Curves as Places of Interrupted Discontinuity”) so extraordinary that he was immediately offered a position on the mathematics faculty. Instead, he chose to enter that same year the Moscow Theological Academy, from which he graduated in 1908, soon accepting a position at the Academy as senior lecturer in philosophy, his first position in what became an illustrious academic career. He was ordained an Orthodox priest in 1911, and insisted on wearing his cassock, cross, and cap while conducting his university lectures and scientific research, even throughout the period of the Stalinist purges. For this, and for his written work, he was arrested and first sent to the labor camps in Siberia in 1933, and eventually to the infamous Solovetsky Islands Gulag on the White Sea, where despite his captivity, he conducted scientific research on the production of agar and iodine from seaweed, while ministering to his fellow prisoners. In 1937 he was transferred to Saint Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) where he was sentenced to execution.

Further reading: Graham, Loren, and Jean-Michel Kantor. “Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity.” (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 256 pgs. http://amzn.to/2BIIXel

Picture: Philosophers Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov, a painting by Mikhail Nesterov (1917). Florensky is on the left. (wikipedia)

Albertus Magnus as scientist

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Albertus Magnus 2

Can you imagine having all the theological, philosophical and scientific knowledge at your fingertips? Nowadays, you may be an expert in one discipline, or most likely, in a small part of your discipline. To know everything that was known, was possible in the 13th century, or better said it was possible to one person: a Dominican monk, Albertus Magnus (1193 (?) – 1280). Many may know him as teacher and later friend of Thomas Aquinas. He started to incorporate Aristotle into philosophy and theology, thus starting the Scholastic school, an effort that was completed by Aquinas.

But there is more. He was also called the Doctor Universalis, “Universal Doctor”. After joining the Dominican Order, he studied and taught at Padua, Bologna, Cologne and other German convents in Hildesheim, Freiburg, Ratisbon, Strasbourg, and Cologne. He then came to Paris around 1241, completed his Master of Theology In 1245 and remained there as teacher. While in Paris, he started to write on the entire body of knowledge, natural science, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, ethics, economics, politics and metaphysics. In 1248, he returned to Cologne to direct and shape the newly instituted Studium Generale (General Studies). In 1254, he was nominated as a provincial of the Dominican Order in the German-speaking area and fulfilled the duties of the office with great care and efficiency. He visited all monasteries in the area — more than 40 – and in all of this he proceeded in accordance with the Dominican rule: he learned from nature by careful observation during these long journeys. In his book De mineralibus, he even describes that he visited stone quarries for purposes of study. In 1260, Pope Alexander IV appointed him Bishop of Regensburg (Ratisbon) in Germany. It was a difficult assignment, since the previous bishop had been so hopelessly corrupt that the pope had removed him from office. Albert restored order and governed the diocese until 1262. Then, after the acceptance of his resignation, he volunteered to resume the duties of a professor in the Studium Generale at Cologne. The announcement of the death of Thomas Aquinas at Fossa Nuova was a heavy blow to Albert, and he declared that “The Light of the Church” had been extinguished. Albert died on November 15, 1280, in the Dominican convent in Cologne.

Albert was the first to comment on virtually all of the writings of Aristotle, thus making them accessible to wider academic debate. The study of Aristotle brought him to study and comment on the teachings of Muslim scholars, notably Avicenna and Averroes, and this would bring him into the heart of academic debate.

He applied experimental methods to the Alchemy of his time. In his time, alchemists were mainly interesting in magic and in finding the “Philosopher’s Stone”, which would be able to transform other metals into gold. Albertus Magnus, in contrast, emphasized that gold can be purified and enriched from minerals, but cannot be derived from other metals, since gold has its own specific substantial form:

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