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Stanley Jaki, OSB – The Priest Who Questioned the Plausibility of a Theory of Everything (TOE) — 8 Comments

  1. Thank you for your article. I had the honor to hear Fr. Jaki give a presentation at George Fox University in the 90’s. His clarity of thinking was amazing, though his lack of patience with the Evangelical crowd who kept demaninding a merging of Genesis and science was a bit off putting (to say the least) for his listeners.. But, for the four Catholic seminarians like me in the audience, it was a magnificent articulation of the history of faith and science. I will always remember his argument for the need for scientists to maintain the integrity of their work by being faithful to their field of study and leave other fields for experts their respective fields.

    Both science and faith seek the same thing: truth. Each has its proper genre, language, and boundaries. If both are being done properly, then each would ultimately compliment each other. But, we must be careful, as Fr. Jaki would probably affirm, that we don’t use one tool of science to do another or assume that we are experts about fields of study of which we are not competent. Physicists must stay within the bounds of their expertise, that is of the physical world, measurement, observation, and things of the material world. Their expertise is not in metaphysics which is the field of philosphers who ponder on being, meaning, substance, and knowing. Philosphers should also leave physics to the physicists. Fr. Jaki was an expert in both fields, a combination rarely found today.

    From the Church, two great saints come to mind who help much in this area. First is St. Augustine who wrote in his Literal Commentary on Genesis, that the Bible and Natural Philosophy (aka science) do not contradict each other. Next is St. Thomas Aquinas who reiterated this when he said that any apparent contradictions that appear in science or religion indicates an error in one’s understanding of either science or religion.

    So, both have their place and both should work within the proper boundaries of their expertise. I doubt any of us would want a dentist to do our open heart surgery.

    As for me, a priest, I will readily admit that astronomy is a hobby and that I am no expert. So, I must always qualify myself when speaking about astronomy and physics and bow to experts of these fields who are better studied than I. But, both the theology and philosophy I have studied have helped me appreciate the little science that I know and the beauty that all these fields bring to reflection upon creation. So, they compliment each other, and I am thankful for Fr. Janki’s caution which always resonates in my mind.

    • Fr. Holtzinger. Thank you for your thoughtful reflection! As someone who has only read a portion of Jaki’s thought, it is nice to receive some “first hand” feedback on this priest’s thought. Is there anything further from your experience of Fr. Jaki that I didn’t cover that you feel needs to be mentioned?

      • Your article did a great job reflecting on Fr. Jaki’s points about the difference between theology and science. This is one of my issues with Stephen Hawking’s argument that God is not needed now that he has demonstrated that the universe could have come from nothing. That line of thinking moves into metaphysics which Hawking is not qualified. Of course, I am barely qualified to critique this argument myself, since I do not understand his theoretical physics. But, philosophically speaking, nothing comes from nothing. And while Catholicism holds that our universe came ex nihlo (from nothing), we are speaking in terms of creation did not come from another form or part of creation. We hold firm that all that is has come from God… God who is not just something, but existence itself. This line of speaking is metaphysics and is not the realm of physics.

        To argue, as Fr. Jaki did, that theology should not be called a science, can be rather shocking to the theologically and pholsophically trained mind. Theology is defined as a type of science in the Catholic Encyclopedia. However, if I understand Fr. Jaki’s point, he is referring to the problem that, given our current cultural milieu, mixing these two terms together leads to more confusion. Confusion leads to misunderstandings. Misunderstandings leads to conflict, something which these two fields do not possess, as they are not in competition. I am so thankful for Fr. Jaki’s writings and talks. He has challenged many including myself, and we are better off because of him.

        Fr. Jaki is also known for his argument that only via a Judeo-Christian view of the world could true science have been born. Fr. James, I believe you have heard this before, yes? I would love to read your thoughts on this aspect of Fr. Jaki’s reflections. It is challenging to describe to the average listener.

  2. When I was a professor of chemistry at Brigham Young University and taught students about the roles of faith and science, I often used a statement by Henry Eyring, probably the most prominent Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) scientist, that “My religion never asks me to believe anything that isn’t true.” It has struck me that that perspective puts a higher demand on theology than we Catholics sometimes expect. As Father Paul Gabor pointed out in his homily at the Mass he celebrated during the first Faith and Astronomy workshop in 2015, God allows scientists to engage in a unique conversation with Him about how He created the universe. Scientists provide insights into how God created the Universe, theologians provide answers as to why God would have created. I don’t have any problem with the position that science can’t tell us why, but it does seem that theologians do need to have some understanding of what current science suggests about how, because how the Creator works in the physical universe does tell us something about the nature of the Creator. My understanding is that Aquinas did exactly that — he built parts of his systematic theology around the science, especially the biology, of Aristotle. Perhaps I’m misreading the intent of Father Jaki, but it seems he advocated for a compartmentalization of the two with the hopes that sometime in the future they will come into congruence. I think a more active engagement is required for that to happen. It’s my understanding that Sr. Elizabeth Johnson spent more than a year in intensive study with biologists as she prepared her book: Ask the Beasts, Darwin and the God of Love. I wish there was more encouragement of theologians to grapple with the science and move the theology along in ways that are grounded in Scripture and Tradition, but allow for development of doctrine that incorporates new insights about the hows of creation. That, of course, requires an ongoing engagement because science is always revealing a more complicated and nuanced view of creation.

    Thanks for taking the time to research these topics. I’d never heard of him before.

    • Very good points Juliana! One of the points I came across time and time again with Fr. Jaki was his emphasis on “exact science.” In the articles I read, the reference points to Fr. Jaki’s reflections that speak specifically to physics. In my reading as a non-scientist priest, Fr. Jaki’s statements seem to be more of a caution to those who try to create a “theo-science” like the ID movement. That being said, I do agree that theologians need to have an understanding of how the natural world works in order to be well informed in their theological work. It is also important, however, to understand the limits of science to avoid some predictable pitfalls.

  3. In case anyone may be wondering if Kelvin really did ask “what is electricity?” (for such stories often turn out to be legends), I did a little digging to see if I could find evidence for Kelvin really saying something like that. And indeed I did:
    From 1902 — what appears to be “Electricity” magazine, Vo. 22, #1, January 8.

    As you can see (third column, near the top), Kelvin is reported as asking just such a question. So, the story is a valid one!

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