Rorate Caeli

A Conversation on Faith and Reason, Nature and Science

Father Wolfgang Buchmüller, DrTheol, is a distinguished member of the venerable Abbey of the Holy Cross (Heiligenkreuz), the famous Cistercian foundation near the Austrian capital, a place highly loved and admired by all serious Catholics -- he is also a Professor at the Abbey's world-renowned Benedict XVI College of Philosophy and Theology (Philosophisch-Theologischen Hochschule Benedikt XVI).

A couple of months ago, Father Buchmüller was interviewed by the German opinion and news website Die Freie Welt on matters that should be our everyday concern -- truly matters that are never old or dependent on the interests of the moment. We are glad to be able to provide a translation of this interview.

Galaxy NGC 6744, a galaxy highly similar to the Milky Way

"Thinking Deeper -- This is What Believing Is"

Do faith and reason contradict each other? No, says Professor Wolfgang Buchmüller, O.Cist. 
Freie Welt spoke to him about science and the future of Catholic intellectuals.

FW: Recently you argued strongly in favor of the Catholic intellectual. Could you briefly lay out your thought?

Pater Wolfgang Buchmüller: In sociological research the refrain is that there’s no such thing as “the Catholic intellectual” anymore -- at the very least, no one wants to "out" oneself as Catholic. That’s dismal, because the Catholic Church is the largest religious community on the planet and possesses an immense potential. My concern is to show that, now as in the past, the question of faith is the great human question, and that immersing oneself in the fullness of the Catholic Church is incredibly enriching.

FW: You have observed that in science, the question of God is obviously more frequently not regarded as completely absurd. Do you see a trend?

WB: I was surprised that a scientist [mathematician Alain Connes] presented a lecture at the Institut de France, in which he dared to assert that the boundary between science and transcendence had become permeable. His discovery, which takes its lead from a German physicist in the nineties, is rather staggering: it confirms Einstein’s thesis that, in the world of quantum physics, we come upon a second form of eternity.

Thereby is raised the question of the Big Bang—of the beginning of all things. This question necessarily has religious implications, because the origin of all things must be of a wholly different order than things themselves. It must be immaterial and eternal, outside of time — which could be God. Yet, the really surprising thing about the conference is that this question was proposed to scientists without anyone making fun of it. This shows us how these superb scientists have reached the limits of measurable reality and are therefore forced to ask philosophical and religious questions.

We are allowed to think about the Big Bang

FW: People who aren’t connected with the scientific field—which is almost everybody—aren’t privy to all this. They’re constantly being told that faith is irrational and can’t be unified with scientific knowledge. Why isn’t this changing?

WB: I personally wonder if the atheistic worldview holds up only because of numerous intellectual restrictions [lit. thought-embargoes] in the media. We’re told that the question of the beginning can’t be asked, since the answer lies beyond what can be answered within the framework of the scientific worldview. To me that just shows how awkward the situation is. If I cannot pose the question of questions—namely, why is there something rather than nothing?—then I consign myself to a sort of self-stultification.

Indeed, after forty years, during which the word “metaphysics” was forbidden, the question of the First Cause is somehow making its way back into physics. It will remain a burning question because human existence cannot be answered in any other way.

FW: Who is imposing these intellectual taboos and what is their platform?

WB: The crux of the New Atheism a là Richard Dawkins is that he absolutizes his own preconceptions, leaving no quarter for metaphysical questions. Certainly, every scientific discipline must confine itself to the methodological restrictions proper to its own field, but outside the methodology there’s a gray area. 

Nevertheless, the question of truth as a whole exceeds any one scientific discipline.

This is a burning question, which cannot be answered by the New Atheism, which is in fact ethically vacuous. By looking into the depths of science we detect that, in the uttermost depths of human existence there is something else to behold. We get the feeling that within man’s being there is a longing for meaning, which also has something to do with goodness itself. Humans are called to experience something of the good, and to bestow it upon others. Whoever does not shut out this awareness enjoys a totally different view of the world and our life.

FW: Dawkins has spoken about the selfish gene, and in so doing, derives a distinct anthropology from his occupation as a biologist. What picture of humans are you endorsing? 

WB: We are aware that nature shows us something beyond the purely egotistical. What is interesting about humans is that they are always reflective and do not behave automatically, because they also have a sense of beauty. This shows how a human being is a rational being: each of us has an intellectual soul, which is open to metaphysical appreciation and aware of the fact that we can only find ourselves by bringing out the beautiful side of our selves.

Beauty is connected to goodness. We see this in the way a person outgrows himself, or sacrifices himself for some cause. There is greatness and heroism in people, which isn’t something biology can easily explain. That’s why I hesitate to reduce humans to a selfish gene.

Nature is not egotistical

FW: My impression is that physicists are more open to the question of God than are biologists, who are dyed-in-the-wool atheists like Dawkins. Does that have to do with the subject?

WB: The questions that biology asks also have to do with the good, which is one place where humans are very vulnerable. According to the principle of non-contradiction, which is a basic part of human nature, goodness comes by doing and evil by omission. Humans transcend the merely creaturely, which is why they can ask if some action is good or bad, whether it harms another or makes him happy. People ask these questions because they have the feeling that they have a duty to increase the good in this world. Without this feeling, people lose their drive to live.

Normally people don’t wish to give into despair about the meaningless of human existence. In the concentration camp, Viktor Frankl saw that only persons who believed in meaning were not, for inexplicable reasons, destroyed, but, rather, developed a kind of supernatural strength. Frankl concluded from this that the question of meaning is the decisive factor in human life. In other words, people only find their center when they are also in touch with a religious dimension.

FW: Which raises the question of God.

WB: Yes, because if everything is just a blind accident, and if life is led without compassion and grace, that’s grim. If, by contrast, with faith I can hold onto the hope that there is perspective which transcends the present world, then I can get a sense of the project of my life. The beautiful thing is that, in Christianity, God personally approaches humans. He is the center of the cosmos, a personal counterpart, and not merely an impersonal law.

FW: Science is only possible when one proceeds based on definite assumptions, which cannot be questioned: a definite picture of humans, God, and the world. Can these pictures of humanity, God, and the world be altered in the course of life?

WB: I believe that people are normally born with a primitive sense of belief. Faith is not something that can be instilled. The primitive trust in the larger whole, and that there is someone accompanying us—this is part of human nature. We can see this primitive sense of trust in all religions and at all times.

In adolescence one must reflect on what is good, because critical inquiry is meant to purify one’s own thinking and to hold the question of absolute truth up to the light. As adults we must rediscover the basic sense of trust we had as children, which, in a Christian context, is called “being born anew.” A renewed faith allows one to be “born anew” by being accepted by God.

Science confirms faith

FW: Is there a bridge between atheistically grounded science and science on a Christian basis, or is that an unsurpassable ditch?

WB: The Catholic Church has made itself very clear on this front, having always maintained that science—when it is a true scientific endeavor carried out without biases—confirms her faith. Benedict XVI also emphasized the complementarity of faith and reason. Interestingly enough, from the dawn of the twentieth to the twenty-first century, the fact remains that an appreciable majority of scientists are believers.

The idea that faith and reason can be united is the basic impetus for doing theology. Theology means using the tools of philosophy to think more deeply about the faith. That is in a certain sense a Christian phenomenon, because Christians do not merely regurgitate revelation, but think through it and make it more accessible to people. That this happens differently in every generation shows us that the divinity is greater than all revelations. I think that not only examples like Einstein show how this fits together, but there also people who think that they find traces of the divine in science via cosmology.

It can be astounding for a physicist to find that there are three kinds of eternity, which some say parallel the Christian Trinity. Whether he accepts that parallel or not, is not the decisive point. In every domain of knowledge there are points where one reaches the limits of exploration. It is at these points where one senses that human history has begun once again to think more deeply and to rethink—which is to say, to believe.

FW: You mentioned Pope Benedict. Can we refer to him as a Catholic intellectual?

WB: Josef Ratzinger was elected pope because the Church wanted to resume the dialogue with intellectuals which had been broken off in the 1968 revolution. Benedict extended his hand to atheists to encourage them to think through things more deeply. “1968” was a watershed for ideology, but an unbelievably great number of questions were put into motion and critically unveiled. A lot of things tottered, but beyond the critiques there was a glimpse of the whole on the horizon. Benedict was very good at putting that into words. As he said: we are not approaching the nothing, but rather someone.

FW: When Benedict was pope, all [media] resources were at his disposal, but the Catholic Church needs more than an intellectual. How do you see the role of the Catholic intellectual in our society?

WB: The classical model of the intellectual was that of the humanists. They helped humanity to find its own identity, and provided space in which it could find various images which spoke to humanity at large. They gave a new, Christian significance to the myths of the classical world, reshaping them in a deeper sense. They also reinterpreted all aspects of human experience, affording mankind an existential habitat, because humans are perpetually in wonder.

As for the role of intellectuals in our day, we can take up the lovely image of the angel’s two trumpets, which Augustine of Hippo coined: one plays what is true and beautiful in Greek philosophy, while the other is the Word of God and Sacred Scripture. Catholic intellectuals understand how to play both instruments. They must do the same today, because they are in constant renewal.

FW: Thank you for speaking with us.

[Source: Die Freie Welt]