You have opened this page on your web browser. Now you’ve got to close it. Find your shoelaces and start untying. I want you to take off your shoes. Moses approached the burning bush, the bush ablaze with God, and he took off his sandals. For St. Francis, the whole world was a burning bush ablaze with God, and so he never wore sandals. We, too, should take off our shoes. The world is a bush and it’s burning.
[Note: this essay was first published by Crisis Magazine and the Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.]
You wouldn’t know it, though, if you’ve fallen for the greatest spoof in history—the myth that the world is one big, wet, Godless machine. In a make-believe world made only of mechanical parts, people begin to think with pop scientist Sam Harris that religion is a mental illness and that theology is nothing more than a branch of human ignorance: “It is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions…Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings.”
According to theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, believing the brain is a computer will cure people of religion. In an interview, Hawking proclaimed this new mythology: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” Ethologist Richard Dawkins agrees: “There is no spirit-driven life force, no throbbing, heaving, pullulating, protoplasmic, mystic jelly. Life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information.” In the words of Dilbert, the creation of cartoonist Scott Adams, “Humans are nothing but moist robots.”
Can you hear the grinding of the analog computer as it processes such compelling electrical, mechanical, and hydraulic quantities to model the problem of existence? The noise is anything but beautiful. If the world is a bush ablaze with God, why is everyone wearing sunglasses and pretending they can’t see him? The reason is, in part, because we have bad metaphors. The popular imagination has exchanged what C.S. Lewis called the “discarded image”and Owen Barfield called the “discarded garment,” the vision of a Creator loving his creation, for the shiny metaphor of the machine. But an even deeper reason is found in our theory of a theory.
A Theory of a Theory
The wonderful, inconceivably intricate tapestry is being taken apart strand by stand; each thread is being pulled out, torn up, and analyzed; and at the end even the memory of the design is lost and can no longer be recalled.
—Erwin Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire
Too often we forget that, although sometimes helpful, to describe the universe as a machine is not to proclaim a deep truth but to employ a broken metaphor hammered out on the jumpy and stubborn typewriters of the modern era. As has often been pointed out, scientism is a religion, a “plausibility structure,” to use sociologist Peter Berger’s phrase. Nothing is wrong with scientific inquiry or technology, but we should not assume that this quest can be done outside the lordship of Christ, the Word, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. “Since every science…is concerned with the Trinity before all else,”wrote St. Bonaventure, “every science must necessarily present some trace of this same Trinity.” Our fault has been to compartmentalize the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, to segregate God’s activity on earth from our scientific inquiry of the very same earth. Hark! The herald angels sing, but the shepherds are splitting atoms and the wise men are in business school, and no one is listening.
So it is that the widely acclaimed, best-selling author and biologist Edward Wilson says babies are “marvelous robots.”He suggests in his On Human Nature (a strange title to issue forth from the laboratory) that the brain is a biological machine of ten billion nerve cells, a device for survival and reproduction. People are nothing more than “extremely complicated machines,” and in Consilience that “the brain is a machine.” What we call thinking is really just chemical and electrical reactions. We are the product of our own molecular architecture, which automatically steers our ethics, which happens to be the only thing that distinguishes us from electronic computers. Chance and environmental necessity created the species. God is our original idea produced by the genetic evolution of nervous and sensory tissues, an idea that ultimately finds origin in quarks and electron shells. Thus, “beliefs are really enabling mechanisms for survival.”
When I purchased Wilson’s On Human Nature, I stepped into a nearby coffeehouse. Within minutes a woman sat down beside me and exclaimed, “I love that book. Wilson is my hero. What do you think of him?” I said I thought he was a good writer who had a lot to say but that I was not too sure of his presuppositions.
“Huh,” she said, suddenly more interested in her espresso than me. We didn’t say another word. It was as if someone drew a curtain. I must confess I was a little relieved to be spared the possibility of continuing the conversation. Looking back, I imagine it would have continued the way most of these conversations do:
“Um, you believe in whom?” she would ask in honest surprise.
“Jesus,” I would repeat. The coffee shop would become suddenly quiet.
“But, like, haven’t you heard of biology?”
“But of course.”
She would nod. Then, with a flood of pity, she would lean over: “Actually, did you know the brain is really an appliance?” she’d whisper, inviting me to share her amazement. “It’s even fueled by biochemicals and capable of mass-producing ideas as big as God, you know.”
I would blink dreamily back at her and ask, “Is that all the brain is?”
If you’ve read my book, When Donkeys Talk: A Quest to Rediscover the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity, the book that would eventually lead to my conversion to Catholicism, you’ve met this woman before. She has exchanged the Discarded Image for the shiny mechanical metaphors of today’s poets.
Most of us do not read philosophy books on materialism. So how did we become materialists? The model created by academics filters down to the courtrooms, to the classrooms, and, finally, to popular culture, where it is absorbed by teens and children and ordinary adults who will never read a philosophy book. It becomes prejudiced and thoughtless habit. We might think we live in a world of pristine MacBooks and J.Crew sweaters, a world so advanced it need not bother with threadbare poetry and tattered religion. But this ideology is born out of a religion—even if it’s the religion of New York elitism, newscaster exaggeration, newspeak, Microsoft, McDonald’s, and MTV. Behind every science research journal, calendar, business model, children’s book, or pop song is a constellation of assumptions about the kind of creatures we are. Even if these ideologies claim not to be religious, they weave our religious narrative, for human beings are inherently religious.
Before the modern era, theories about how the world works were just that: theories. They called their data “phenomena,”which to them meant something like what we mean by the word appearances. The phrase that dominated astronomy in the Middle Ages was “to save the appearances.” A scientific model was valued because it was convenient or practical, not because it was what we today would call a fact. The idea was to work with the explanatory models or paradigms best capable of “saving the phenomena”(σώζειν τά φαινόμενα, sozein ta phainomena). An astronomer’s hypothesis was an arrangement, a prop, for saving the appearances. “Things appear to be this way,” he would say. “They seem to be thus and such; they give the impression of being so.” The scientists in the sixteenth century, who also happened to be bishops, did not disagree with Galileo for his use of the telescope or his spotting Jupiter’s moons. They disagreed with his theory of a theory. Galileo believed a theory is not a theory, but a fact. His hypotheses did not “save the appearances,” but claimed to state truth.
In his Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, Owen Barfield put it this way: “A representation, which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate—ought not to be called a representation. It is an idol. Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented.”
The notion that the models and stories we invent to explain the phenomena are actually deep truths was codified in the so-called Enlightenment of the seventeenth century and has since become unquestioned. Watching someone try to understand that the “law of gravity” is a man-made metaphor to describe the inexplicable is like watching someone wrestle a demon off his shoulders. People actually think “science” exists independent of or outside of the human narrative, the way a medieval thinker would think of God. Thus leading scientists can say things about evolving to believe in God, not biology: in the words Edward Wilson, “The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology.”
Catholics believe the incarnation is the key to human nature. Scientists under the spell of the mechanical metaphor believe that biology is the key to human nature. They mistake the window for the view, as if the glass were an end in itself. Theories are no longer acknowledged as man-made models, but as established facts. “When the nature and limitations of artificial images are forgotten,” writes Barfield, “they become idols.”
Serious historians are abandoning the absurd notion that the medieval church persecuted all scientists as wizards. It is very nearly the opposite of the truth.
—G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas
If Christ is not our starting point, something other than Christ is. The American Dream, for example. When we forget that the Incarnation has practical applications for every corner of human life, we (often unconsciously) stuff Jesus into a box and get on with ‘real life,’ by which we mean our cars, Walmart, the new business merger, and so on. We start to manage churches like businesses instead of churches. Our worship services imitate the liturgy of the megamall or the Super Bowl halftime show—not because we’re trying to reach the culture, but because we actually are the culture. We begin to wear sunglasses. The world doesn’t look like it’s burning with the presence of God anymore.
We have a choice between two worlds. The world of Christendom is a bright and burning with what St. John called the Light of the World. The world of contemporary pop-culture is cold and clicking with just bytes and bytes and bytes. Although there are similarities, by these two worlds I do not mean them to reflect what the British scientist C. P. Snow calls “the two cultures,”although his thesis illustrates the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities. I mean something more along the lines of what Augustine spoke of this in The City of God.
The longer we explore the differences between Christendom and contemporary pop-culture, the more we discover these outlooks on reality are in direct opposition to one another. One is the City of God, the other is the City of Man. Each city asks different questions. Physicist Paul Dirac gives this answer to the question of whether light is a particle or a wave: both, simultaneously. Light appears as a wave if you ask it “a wave question,” and it appears as a particle when you ask it “a particle question.” This reminds us that our observations will always be the observations of observers.
Science will always be a human science, a saving of the appearances. There is no such thing as a “pure science,” because our hypotheses hinge on what questions we ask. In the end, any scientist who chillingly determines to be “objective” will never really know the deep wholeness of a woman or a tree or a dog. Only affection and intimacy reveal to us the deeper qualities of creation. Only affection will bring us to our knees in epistemic humility. We see through a veil dimly, and as we shall explore later, how we know is shaped by how we love.
“Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Cor. 8:2–3). God is present everywhere, even in the material world, because we live in a world where God has spoken and Jesus has trod. “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”
The World is Burning
How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos.
—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
God walked in the garden, but we are of the garden. The space between the species and the specimen is not so great. In the world of contemporary pop-culture we are isolated from our surroundings. We “objectively observe” an “environment” in search of “facts.” In Christendom, however, we are invited to lovingly participate in creation, and so our fingers are always dirty. Unlike God, we are not able to step outside. Our five fallible senses, our invented instruments, our language, invite us to participate in creation as creatures. There is a ceiling to human knowledge, and only divine revelation can install skylights. Only in Christ does the riddle of creation cohere: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16–17).
The world is a bush and it’s burning. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” And if you seek his face, it will be your Purgatory, your process of preparation to enter the holy presence of the all-holy Trinity.
The paradox of biochemistry, the chemistry of life, is that it cannot define life. It can hardly study life. We must kill a cell before we can pick it apart. “It is typical of the mechanistic moderns,” said G. K. Chesterton, “that, even when they try to imagine a live thing, they can only think of a mechanical metaphor from a dead thing.”
It is truly strange that we think we are so advanced because of science and technology. The Nuremberg Code of medical ethics was not founded on a new biochemical discovery, but on an old and poetic conviction. Dr. Eduard Wirths at the Auschwitz concentration camp was a very different kind of doctor than Hildegard of Bingen at the monastery in Rupertsberg, and the difference is not that Wirths was more advanced or evolved. Science is but a tool in the hands of villains and saints; but can science discern which is which? On its own, biology can no more argue against human destruction and hate as it can defend human dignity and love. It must build its case for the value of human life from some other discipline: the discipline of taking off your shoes.