Sunday, January 03, 2016

Science and the Case for God

(Epiphany 2016: This homily was given on January 3, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 2: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Epiphany 2016]

“Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God”

That was the title of an article by Eric Metaxas that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Christmas Day 2014.  He begins it by saying, “In 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story asking: Is God Dead?  Many have accepted the cultural narrative that he’s obsolete—that as science progresses, there is less need for a ‘God’ to explain the universe.  Yet it turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature.  More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place—science itself.”

Metaxas then mentions astronomer Carl Sagan, who said (also in 1966) that he believed there were just two important requirements that needed to be met for a planet to support life: the right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star.

Which means that there would be about a septillion planets in the universe capable of supporting life!  (Septillion, incidentally, is 1 followed by 24 zeros!)

The only problem is, Dr. Sagan was wrong.  Sagan thought there were only two conditions that needed to be met for a planet to support life, but since 1966 scientists have discovered many others.  As Metaxas said in his article:  “Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart.  Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit the Earth’s surface.  The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.”

In fact, according to the laws of probability, my brothers and sisters, even we shouldn’t be here.

Nor should the universe itself!  As Metaxas wrote, “Astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces—gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ nuclear forces—were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang.  Alter any one value and the universe could not exist.”  He later continued, “The odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all ‘just happened’ defies common sense.  It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row.”

He concludes by quoting some contemporary scholars like Dr. John Lennox of Oxford, who has said, “The more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator … gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.”

I’m sure that all of this does not come as a surprise to many of you.  It’s exactly what you, as believers, would expect.  Well, it wouldn’t have been surprising to the Magi either—these mysterious men who paid a visit to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago and brought him special gifts.

It would not have surprised them because they were men of faith and at the same time men of science.  They were also the very first non-Jews to adore Jesus Christ.  In that sense, they prefigured all those Gentiles—all those non-Jews like us—who would worship Jesus in future generations. 

In this we are reminded of the fact that our Lord came into this world to save everybody—Jew and Gentile alike.

They came “from the east” according to St. Matthew’s Gospel.  Now that covers a lot of ground—literally; but in all likelihood they came from ancient Persia, an area of land now known to the world as Iran. 

They are not identified as “kings” in the Bible—at least not directly.  That idea comes from today’s responsorial psalm—Psalm 72—part of which says, “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.  All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.”

This prophecy predicts that even non-Jews (and non-Jewish leaders) will pay homage to the Messiah when he comes.  And since the Magi (as I said a few moments ago) were the very first non-Jews to adore the Savior, many believe that this prophecy was fulfilled in them when they visited the baby Jesus after his birth. 

But that doesn’t mean they were kings themselves, and they probably weren’t.

However, in all likelihood, the Magi were the teachers of kings—the teachers of the kings of Persia.  They took on that role in their country because they were so highly educated.  They were skilled in philosophy, in medicine, and in the natural sciences. 

They were also star-gazers, who mixed a little science with a little astrological superstition.  But that’s understandable, since this was an era of human history when most people believed in astrology.

Obviously their scientific knowledge was primitive by 21st century standards.  However there was one very important truth that they understood which many of our sophisticated 21st century men and women do not understand (or perhaps don’t want to understand!).  The Magi understood that science and religion ARE NOT NATURAL ENEMIES!

You young people, most especially, need to hear this, because at some point in the future you will probably be taught in school that religion and science are irreconcilable enemies—and that’s a lie!

The Magi were learned men who saw no contradiction whatsoever between their scientific study of the universe, and the truths of Jewish biblical prophecy!  In that sense, they were men of science AND men of religion!

Today, of course, the implication is that you have to choose to live in one camp or the other.  Either you have to say, “I’m a religious person, so I reject modern science”; or you have to say, “I’m a rational, scientific person who rejects anything rooted in religion.”

To this, the Catholic Church says no!  The Church says this is a false dichotomy.  The Church says that when it comes to religion and science, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and!

As Catholics, therefore, we should say yes to good theology (like the theology we find in the Catechism), and yes to good science!

On the other hand, we should say no to bad theology (theology, in other words, that’s not compatible with Church teaching), just as we should say no to bad science!

That last point, incidentally, is the real crux of the issue.  The Church is often portrayed as the enemy of scientific inquiry, but what she’s really the enemy of is BAD SCIENCE: science, in other words, that’s used to destroy human life; science that undermines the dignity of the human person.

That’s what the Catholic Church is against—and that’s what every Catholic should be against.

Let me conclude now by coming back to Eric Metaxas’ article.  The key point to remember about it is that the data of modern science—when looked at objectively—points to the existence of an intelligent Creator (not an impersonal “force” like we see in the Star Wars movies).

But that still leaves one issue unresolved: Has he revealed himself?  Has this awesome, powerful, intelligent Creator revealed himself and his will to us mere mortals?

As Catholics we say, “Yes, he has!  He’s revealed himself most completely in Christ and in the teachings of Christ, as witnessed to in places like the Bible, and the Catechism, and the sacraments.”

And the good news is, if we follow the message given to us in places like the Bible and the Catechism, that message will do for us what the star did for the Magi 2,000 years ago: it will guide us to the Creator—our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ—only this time not in a manger in Bethlehem, but rather in a kingdom that will last forever.