Tuesday, February 12, 2013

an imago retires



I’ve deeply wanted to do regular posting again, i.e., making time for it; no problem finding issues. One topic I desired to pursue—theology of Catholic objection to contraception—seemed too big for posting, so I shelved it. But the politics of this is worth detailed attention.

Then I noticed that another book on Habermas and religion is due out soon (not another one), so I thought I might de-shelve my interest—but changed my mind. Then, the Obama administration released a revised regulation on employer health services coverage for contraception that yielded further to the Catholic Church’s stance, while the Church, in some quarters, still objected; so, I saw good occasion again to dwell with the issue. The “rationality” of political Catholicism remains interesting, but… Now (yesterday), the Pope decides to retire, which may draw closure on an era of political ethics—further reason to shelve the issue.

But a Voice of America article had the header “Pope Benedict Places His Imprint on Catholic Church,” which is such an understatement it makes me giggle, recalling a context far more interesting than Catholic problems with contraception: “God” (always in quote marks, for me) and evolution. The primordial Christian claim—truly a profound insight 19-or-so centuries ago—is that all persons are created in the “image” of God. Now, we know that we are all results of evolution. The Church has had great difficulty living with this, yet it’s fascinating to see how it has come to do so.

But first—which turns out to be related—I’ve been interested in religious objections to anticipated results of bioscientific research and also wanted to re-do my discussion of Habermas’ “Liberal eugenics” essay. But I’ve shelved that, too. Yet, a feature of this context is, to my mind, a resonance between Habermas’ sophisticated discomfort with anticipated results of bioscientific research and the unsophisticated discomfort of some religious views. In particular, it’s said that we’re in danger of “playing God.” A paradigmatic example of this was the 2010 announcement by the Craig Venter team that they had “created a ‘synthetic cell’,” which is a short step from synthesizing “life.” There were even overtones of Venter himself claiming that his team had done so. That was an exaggeration, but clearly Venter aims for that, and other researchers have longed for it (the topic is even already a formal part of bioethics). It’s inevitable that biogenerative research (let’s call it) will come up with results that are clearly a creation of synthetic life.

“We” will do that, and the prospect bothers some folks terribly. If you Google ‘playing God’, the results presently include near the top a Wikipedia page on “playing God.” The discussion is short, but its single example of the issue is Craig Venter.

But there was an “External resource” cited: a link to the Holy See’s encyclical on the meaning of imago Dei, i.e., “in the image of God.” This is so interesting!

At the subtitle of the Holy See’s encyclical, there’s an asterisk linking to a footer which indicates that the July, 2004, document results from—it seems to me—the innermost sanctum of the inner sanctum:
The theme of “man created in the image of God” was submitted for study to the International Theological Commission. The preparation of this study was entrusted to a subcommission....[Later, t]he present text was approved in forma specifica, by the written ballots of the International Theological Commission. It was then submitted to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the President of the Commission, who has give[n] his permission for its publication.
What interests me is the result of searching the document for instances of ‘evolution’. There are 22 instances (“says” my browser).

The first instance of ‘evolution’ (I’m not going to address all of them) is in the following sentence: “...theologians want to acknowledge the truth that, in the light of human history and the evolution of human culture, the imago Dei can in a real sense be said to be still in the process of becoming.”

This is a remarkable confession, coming 24 paragraphs into the document (after extensive nesting within Catholic doctrine). I’m presuming that ‘still’ doesn’t mean “serenely unmoved,” like a stone in a stream; rather meaning “continuing to be.” Imago Dei continues to “become,” “in a real sense.” Indeed, the presence of God will be “shown” (40-or-so paragraphs later) to frame the scientific reality of evolution as the becoming of imago Dei in nature, it seems to me (or is it imago Dei as nature itself evolving? imago Dei: the itself of nature evolving?).

The encyclical provides direct endorsement of basic tenets of evolution in standard scientific terms (¶ 63). But ambiguities within evolutionary theory provide theology a chance to clarify matters (¶ 64), especially inasmuch as “those [theories] of a neo-Darwinian provenance…explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe.” It’s not enough for the Church to have been integral to Western cultural history. Its once-primordial insightfulness (viz., that all persons have ultimately equal value in the “eyes” of sacred valuing) is being left behind in modern reasoning, so the inner sanctum is trying to improve its fitness—its fittingness—in the evolving global ecology.

The 2004 encyclical was being developed (2002-2003?) shortly after Habermas published his essay against “liberal eugenics” (2001), a period when Cardinal Ratzinger and Habermas were in contact with each other. A reader might hear Habermas in the encyclical’s quoting of Pope John Paul II: “… ‘the conception of man…cannot be subordinated as a pure means or instrument either to the species or to society’” (¶ 64). “Pope John Paul’s message…insists on the relevance of philosophy and theology for an adequate understanding of the ‘ontological leap’ to the human which cannot be explained in purely scientific terms” (ibid.). Here, we have the classical problem of mind that’s addressed three years later by Habermas’ “ontological monism” that seeks to reconcile a “strong naturalism” and a “weak naturalism” toward mind-as-such within a conception of mind in nature.

But poor science: According to the inner sanctum, “The current scientific debate about the mechanisms at work in evolution ...sometimes implies a misunderstanding of the nature of divine causality.” Indeed, the “contingency” and randomness that’s admittedly part of natural selection is part of God’s giving of that to nature (¶ 69): “...[I]t is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. [Though d]ivine causality and created causality [i.e., what’s discerned by science] radically differ in kind and not only in degree,” the latter is to be conceived as caused by the former. Though created causality is awash in contingency, divine causality includes the granting of whatever contingency causes (you’ll “see” in a moment). Divine causality grants freedom to nature.

“Catholic tradition affirms that, as universal transcendent cause, God is the cause not only of existence but also the cause of causes” (¶ 68). In other words, the difference itself between divine and created causality is due to divine causality. “Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation” (¶ 69)—according to St. Thomas Acquinas, incredibly. After direct endorsement of the scientific terms of created causality, inconceivable to Acquinas, the explication of divine causality’s relation to created causality is via substantial quotation of Acquinas (because Acquinas is the effective cause of the Catholic reading of history, thus, now, of evolution).

Yes, folks, good ol’ St. Thomas Acquinas reveals to us, centuries before modern science, that revelation and tradition are not to be undermined by scientific reality: That scientific reality just proves the revelation, because God intended all becoming within becoming. The future difference between causalities was intended, so it’s no surprise that Thomas intuited this: “‘Therefore,’” quoting Acquinas, “‘whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency” (¶ 69). Says the See, following their quoting: “Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so” (ibid.).

This is delightful. So, one may reasonably infer that, since God gave freedom to our nature, and we are results of our development, then / therefore, we can, thank “God,” discern what is good by inquiry into our nature (e.g., Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness and other neo-Aristotelian approaches to ethical thinking).

Ultimately, relative to Catholic rhetoric, we are imago Dei because we are evolving. Both theology and philosophy can agree that we are evolving. What this means for particular advents of our evolving—such as results of biogenerative research—remains to be seen. (¶s 81-94 are overtly about bioethics—a treasure trove of good and bad doctrine.) Catholicism is an adaptive creation of Western cultural evolution; its global latticework will find ways to evolve in modernity, i.e., to better realize how “God” is in the Flow of Our becoming, not controlling It.

Indeed, We are reshaping the natural order (¶ 66), but the Catholic sense of “divine providence” is part of a Conversation of Humanity that’s greater than ontotheistic conceptions of Our evolving, though clearly the Church has a vital Place in Our world.

We are Our evolving, Our Sun is a younger star in The Local Region, and Our astrobiology is an infant.