Chet Raymo: What Is God?

October 6, 2010


In his popular Science Musings Blog, Professor Emeritus of Physics and renowned science writer Chet Raymo recently wrote about Catholic religious inquiry and John Haught's book "What Is God?" which he believes is a good place for students to begin with in their exploration of "the God question."

Raymo's weekly Science Musings appeared in the Boston Globe for twenty years. The column offered informed and provocative meditations on science as a creative human activity and celebrated the grandeur and mystery of the natural world.

Now Raymo's essays take to the web. His postings appeal to visitors who value reliable empirical knowledge of the world, yet retain a sense of reverence and awe for the complexity, beauty, and sometimes terror of nature.

Science Musings Blog

What Is God? -- Part 1

posted by Chet Raymo, October 5, 2010

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame in 1954-58, we were required to take a theology course every semester for four years. I can't remember the names of the courses, but I assume they were similar to the required courses at Stonehill College during the same period, for which I can find a catalog description here in the college library: Apologetics I and II, Moral Principles, Christian Virtues, Christian Life and Worship I and II, Catholic Dogma, and Christian Marriage. No electives. All good orthodox doctrine taught by priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

Sometime during the next decades -- the decades of Vatican II and the Counter-cultural Revolution -- all this went out the window. (John XXIII talked about opening the windows of the Church, but more went out than went in.) Theology Departments became Religious Studies Departments. Required courses were cut back to two, which could be chosen from a broad slate of electives. Catholic faculties embraced teachers from other faith traditions. Today, a student can graduate from Stonehill without ever encountering a course grounded in Catholic tradition. We now have courses in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, The Mystery of Evil, Violence and Sex in the Bible, Religion in Film, and so on. Not an apologetics course to be found. Of course, there are ample possibilities for exposure to Catholic tradition too -- if a student inclines in that direction.

Today, it seems there is a feeling among administrators and trustees that maybe liberalization has gone too far, and that a college that calls itself Catholic should at least require some sort of exposure to Catholic intellectual tradition. There has been some push-back from students and faculty, but a compromise appears to be in the works: a single required course, offered from a variety of disciplines and departments, that would "explore Catholic theological questions." Presumably these courses might treat of anything from the stories of Flannery O'Connor to matters of faith and science from a Catholic theological perspective. The college would be careful about proselytizing non-Catholic students, and the proposed requirement would not apply to any present student.

And fair enough.

Want a good Catholic place to start with the God question? How about reading John Haught's little book, What Is God?. Haught is a Roman Catholic theologian at Georgetown University, who has established himself as an eminent American Catholic authority on faith and science. He has been a valuable voice in keeping creationism and intelligent design out of the public schools, and takes religious fundamentalism and the "New Atheism" equally to task. What Is God? makes no mention of all that. It is, simply, in my opinion, a good place for any nominally Catholic undergraduate student, or indeed any student, to begin a religious inquiry.

I'll have more to say about the book tomorrow.

What Is God? -- Part 2

posted by Chet Raymo, October 6, 2010

Here's what I like about John Haught's What Is God? as an introduction to religious inquiry.

It clears the deck. It doesn't start with a holy book or revelation. It looks for the divine in human experience. Haught seeks a universal intuition of the divine beyond any formalized religion or sect. What this generously offers is a place from which a student could go in any direction, filling out the story with, say, orthodox Catholic theology, or paring back into agnostism.

Note that the book is called What Is God? not Who Is God?. Haught believes that any transcendent reality that does not possess qualities such as intelligence, feeling, freedom, creativity, etc. will not adequately inspire trust or reverence in human beings. At the same time he recognizes that personality does not fully express what God is either. Perhaps Haught is trying to have his cake and eat it too, but at least he is emphasizing the inadequacy of all metaphors to express the divine. And he admits up front that, because of this, the God of believers is frustratingly elusive, so elusive as to inspire atheists with their disbelief.

Where then do we encounter the divine? Haught suggest five ways we confront the divine in our daily lives: the experiences of depth, future, freedom, beauty, and truth. I'll not comment on each of these thoughtful chapters, except to note the obvious (momentary) absence of love, but here surely are the very kinds of experience for which religions generally have sought a transcendental context.

Haught's conclusion: "To say that God is ultimately mystery is the final word in any proper thinking about the divine...And it is also necessary to evoke in us a cognitive "feeling" of the inexhaustibility we have pointed to by way of our five metaphors." By mystery he does not mean lacunae in our knowledge that can be filled in by science, but rather something that grows larger and more incomprehensible as science advances. "It is the region of the 'known unknown,' the horizon that keeps expanding and receding into the distance the more our knowledge advances." Haught ends his book by asking what justification we might have for calling this mystery "God."

And that, it seems to me, is a pretty good place to begin one's spiritual journey. There is nothing explicitly Catholic in the book, but -- hey, it's by an eminent Catholic theologian. Sounds to me like a fine text for that one required course in Catholic theology.

Of course, it's where one goes from there that matters, and I would like to think each student would then set out on his or her own intellectual adventure. Certainly, Haught and I ended up in different places, and I will comment on the difference tomorrow.

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