Wednesday, September 9, 2009

SLJ: A Great Illumination: the Jews and Science

For our nourishment and edification and enlightenment today, let us hear of the richness bestowed upon Science (writ large) by the Holy Bible of the Jews, the only ancient people who actually "got it" when it came to Science. (Also see chapter 7, "The Beacon of the Covenant" in SLJ's Science and Creation.)
--Dr. Thursday
Job's answer to the sceptical objections of his three friends culminates in a reference to the wisdom evident in the universe as a creation of God. On hearing Job speak about the will of God that "gave weight to the wind and measured out the waters with a gauge" (23:25), only pedantic minds would claim that this is still not entirely a phrase characteristic of "Greek" rationality. When Job is once more seized with doubts, only a natural remedy is offered to him. He is reminded by God of the wisdom apparent everywhere in the universe. It is in that sense that he is referred to the position and course of the Pleiades, the Big Bear, and other constellations. The clouds and lightning are presented to him as unquestioning servants of God. He is told to think of the wonderful arrangements made for the mountain goat, the wild ass, the hawk, and the eagle, to say nothing of those made for the behemoth (rhinoceros) and for the leviathan (crocodile) (Jb 38, 39, 40).
This picturesque concrete style is not the only way in which the Hebrews of old, still uninfluenced by Hellenism, could look at the universe. In the third chapter of Baruch, certainly on hand prior to the great cultural transformation triggered by Alexander the Great, the Torah is defended as the storehouse of wisdom because it has the same Author whose wisdom is everywhere evident in creation. One of the signs of that wisdom is the firmness with which the earth has been set forever. Another is the unfailing obedience of the light and of the stars to God's order. In the book of Proverbs, three series of instructions about wise behavior are introduced with an encomium of the value of wisdom. The starting point is a reference to God's wisdom evident in the created realm. A chief indication of that wisdom is once more the stability of natural order, the firmness of the heavens, and of the earth in particular celebration of wisdom ends five chapters later with a personification of God's wisdom and with a renewed emphasis on the stability and orderliness of nature set by that wisdom on behalf of God the Creator:
When he fixed the heavens firm, I was there,
when he drew a ring on the surface of the deep,
when he thickened the clouds above,
when he fixed fast the springs of the deep,
when he assigned the sea its boundaries
- and the waters will not invade the shore -
when he laid down the foundations of the earth,
I was by his side, a master craftsman . . . (Prov 8:26-30)

This celebrated passage, dating from before the invasion of Palestine by Greek teachers accompanying the hordes of soldiers and administrators, is a bridge between the concrete and the abstract. It crowns the Hebrew part of the Old Testament in a manner which, though not a mirror image of Greek thought, is in striking harmony with it. The manner is naturally continued in a famed passage of the Book of Wisdom, composed outside Palestine in full Hellenistic times, and in Greek to boot. There "naturally stupid" is the epithet tagged on men who "from the good things that are seen, have not been able to discover Him-who-is, or by studying the works, have failed to recognize the Artifices" (Wis 13:1-2). Yet, if there is an excuse for them it is specified to lie in their being seized by the beauty of the cosmos which means enduring order. Tellingly, they are not urged to take that order lightly, but rather to see in it that perfection that alone can properly mirror the perfection of the One who created it. Much more reprehensible are found those who instead of the great Nature worshiped mere human artifacts. The latter are so many second-rate products, perishable and variable, unlike the work of the One "who arranged all things by measure, number, weight" (Wis 11:20).
This phrase contains the best which the finest Stoics could in their best moments utter about cosmic order or harmony. Of course, the One to whom the passage refers is infinitely superior to the one world (to pan or the physical cosmos plus the infinite void around it) beyond which the Stoic celebrations of the "One" never went in a convincing manner. It should not therefore be surprising that the same Book of Wisdom contains statements about stable cosmic order that, unlike the corresponding statements of Stoics (or of Platonists, Aristotelians, and Epicureans), are not tainted by the specter of periodic collapse into complete disorder (by conflagration or by some other "disorderly" means). The reason for this is that the One in question is an absolutely transcendental personal Reason, Power, and Love:
You love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence,
for had you hated anything, you would not have formed it.
And how, had you not willed it, could a thing persist,
how be conserved if not called forth by you?
You spare all things because all things are yours, Lord, lover of life,
you whose imperishable spirit is in all. (Wis 11:24-27)
That no such passage could come forth from within any of those distinguished sects shows something of the distinctness of biblical revelation. Within its milieu alone could mere humans think and speak as if they had been propelled to a height that would be classed purely human had not a Fall made it appear superhuman. The evidence about that milieu is the literary reappearance within it of the same uniquely elevated perspective about matters cosmic. In a book written by a certain Jeshua (Jesus), Son of Sirach, there is a reference to "the always perpetual moon" (Sir 43:6) as one of the several evidences that can be specified concerning "all the marvels which the Almighty Lord has solidly constructed for the universe to stand firm in his glory" (Sir 42:27). But, according to the same Jeshua, Son of Sirach, if the Lord "has imposed an order on the magnificent works of his wisdom," that is, a consistent continuity, it is only because "He is from everlasting to everlasting" (42:21). This is why the stars never "grow slack at their watch" (43:11), this is why "all things hold together" (43:28).
[SLJ The Savior of Science 61-64]

Having quoted this, I find that I must refer you to the very deep and insightful essay of Mr. Chesterton by which he introduced a 1907 edition of the Book of Job. Here is just an excerpt, possibly the strongest parallel to Father Jaki. It cries out for serious study - and meditation. Perhaps this too is worthy of a dissertation, or a journal article - or at least a hymn. I wish I had time to learn Hebrew...
--Dr. Thursday
When, at the end of the poem, God enters (somewhat abruptly), is struck the sudden and splendid note which makes the thing as great as it is. All the human beings through the story, and Job especially, have been asking questions of God. A more trivial poet would have made God enter in some sense or other in order to answer the questions. By a touch truly to be called inspired, when God enters, it is to ask a number more questions on His own account. In this drama of scepticism God Himself takes up the role of sceptic. He does what all the great voices defending religion have always done. He does, for instance, what Socrates did. He turns rationalism against itself. He seems to say that if it comes to asking questions, He can ask some questions which will fling down and flatten out all conceivable human questioners. The poet by an exquisite intuition has made God ironically accept a kind of controversial equality with His accusers. He is willing to regard it as if it were a fair intellectual duel: 'Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.' The everlasting adopts an enormous and sardonic humility. He is quite willing to be prosecuted. He only asks for the right which every prosecuted person possesses; He asks to be allowed to cross-examine the witness for the prosecution. And He carries yet further the correctness of the legal parallel. For the first question, essentially speaking, which He asks of Job is the question that any criminal accused by Job would be most entitled to ask. He asks Job who he is. And Job, being a man of candid intellect, takes a little time to consider, and comes to the conclusion that he does not know.
This is the first great fact to notice about the speech of God, which is the culmination of the inquiry. It represents all human sceptics routed by a higher scepticism. It is this method, used sometimes by supreme and sometimes by mediocre minds, that has ever since been the logical weapon of the true mystic. Socrates, as I have said, used it when he showed that if you only allowed him enough sophistry he could destroy all the sophists. Jesus Christ used it when He reminded the Sadducees, who could not imagine the nature of marriage in heaven, that if it came to that they had not really imagined the nature of marriage at all. In the break up of Christian theology in the eighteenth century, Butler used it, when he pointed out that rationalistic arguments could be used as much against vague religion as against doctrinal religion, as much against rationalist ethics as against Christian ethics. It is the root and reason of the fact that men who have religious faith have also philosophic doubt, like Cardinal Newman, Mr. Balfour, or Mr. Mallock. These are the small streams of the delta; the Book of Job is the first great cataract that creates the river. In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.
This, I say, is the first fact touching the speech; the fine inspiration by which God comes in at the end, not to answer riddles, but to propound them. The other great fact which, taken together with this one, makes the whole work religious instead of merely philosophical, is that other great surprise which makes Job suddenly satisfied with the mere presentation of something impenetrable. Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.
[GKC, preface to The Book of Job. S. Wellwood, 1907; Cecil Palmer, 1916; quoted from G.K.C. as M. C. 44-47]

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