Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas with Jaki and Duhem

My very best wishes for a happy and holy Christmastide to all members of the Duhem Society, and readers of our blogg! As a kind of gift, here are two excerpts for your consideration.

(Yes, I am posting this on the second day of Christmas - we are also Chestertonian and so have a larger view of such things.)

--Dr. Thursday

On the level of nature death begins with birth. Only the supernatural given most concretely in Christ has ever provided hope that birth would not be the start of a process leading to irrevocable death. Science is no exception to this rule. As long as great creative minds in pursuit of science rested on the level of nature, science ended in stillbirths. Only when supernatural light led those minds was science given the chance for the kind of viable birth which is followed by uninterrupted growth. The latter can go on with no reliance on supernatural light which, however, remains indispensable to keep it beneficial, a blessing and not a threat. The light in question, the Christian dogma of the creation of the universe out of nothing and in time is not in itself a supernatural mystery. Unlike the mysteries of Incarnation and Trinity, the idea of creation out of nothing and in time can be glimpsed by natural man. But natural man - the Chinese and Hindu sages as well as the great Greek philosophers are the proof - could not gain a firm hold on the natural truth of creation out of nothing and in time until he was seized by the vision of a birth that came in the fullness, the completeness of time. It was the moment when Joseph reached David's town "to register with Mary, his espoused wife, who was with child. While they were there, the days of her confinement were completed."

So states Luke who in recent years has been dragged over "scholarly" hot coals for his alleged readiness to accept old wives' tales about the Nativity. Had this been the case, he would have produced another of those apocryphal gospels which have one thing in common: their prolixity characteristic of hollow chatter. Instead, Luke offers the utmost of reserve befitting one conscious of his full responsibility. About the most stupendous birth ever he states with maximum conciseness: "She gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger."

Those of Luke's readers who expected details typical of a natural birth had to be naturally disappointed. But Jerome, already quoted, saw into the essence of Luke's conciseness: Mary did what no woman weakened by regular childbirth would do. This is not the only case in Luke's nativity narrative where a miracle is hinted at by a diction which, as if by intent, avoids miraculous details. For that birth, miraculous as it could be, was never to deprive man of his tragic ability to ignore the always gentle light of divine evidence.

When seen in that light, the coming into light of the Babe becomes part of the vision about the woman clothed in the sun. Here too Blake was most original. In his rendering of it the Devil in the form of a huge dragon fails to note the woman though she, wrapped in the rays of the sun, lies under his very feet. Indeed, Blake's paintings of Mary give the same impression as Augustine's encomium of her, delivered on Christmas day, in which sublimity and realism are woven into a breathtaking texture:
A virgin conceiving, a virgin bearing a child, a virgin pregnant, a virgin fruitful, a virgin forever. Why should you marvel at this? For God had so to be born if He condescended to become a man.
The same alternative of not seeing and seeing the obvious holds true also about the birth of science. Theories about the birth of science are a dime a dozen and even more numerous are the efforts to ignore the problem posed by that birth and the stillbirths that preceded it. Historically, Buridan and Oresme may seem to be a far cry from Copernicus, from Galileo, let alone from Newton. It is not likely that Whitehead's imagination would have caught fire had he known about the third volume of Duhem's Leonardo studies published in 1913. It contained an advance glimpse of what became available in print when in 1954 the sixth volume of Duhem's Système du monde saw print after almost forty years of delay and after as many years following Duhem's death in 1916.
[SLJ The Virgin Birth and the Birth of Science 25-28]

Earlier references in this book to the lay vocation which Duhem saw in his pursuit of the perfection of physics may now appear in their strongest light which is the light of Duhem's very Christian soul. In the spectrum of that light, a spiritual light that is, a chief trait was the simplicity and the childlike character of his faith. One aspect of that character, a most Gospel-like trait, was his fondness for traditional, well proven forms of piety. At Christmas night in 1910, after he had spent almost three hours in church, attending two masses, he was unable to fall asleep, half-frozen as he was. He decided to write to his daughter about the liturgy in the nearby church of the Franciscan nuns: "They parted with their mass where Kyrie, gloria, credo were a potpourri of popular, nay vulgar tunes; instead, they chanted a mass to tunes just as bad but less ridiculous. During the second mass we had [the old tune] of 'sweet star, oboe, bagpipe' and other old memories." His letter was finished in the evening after he returned from solemn vespers in the Cathedral.
[SLJ, Scientist and Catholic: Pierre Duhem, 108]

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