The Mystery of the Miracle

St. Romanos the Melodist wrote a hymn based on the Gospel lesson,  Matthew 14:14-22 , in which Jesus Christ feeds more than 5,000 people by blessing five loaves of bread and two fish.  His blessing multiples the small quantity of food into a banquet in desert land.  The Gospel narrative gives no description as to what exactly happened to the bread and fish or what people might have seen of the miracle.  Romanos is quite comfortable with admitting he has no idea how the event actually unfolded,  what the people experienced or what the event might have looked like to an observer.  The reality is we are entering into a mystery of God – God is revealed to us while the physical details are lost to us.  For Romanos part of the mystery and miracle is that the bread itself obeyed the Word of God to multiply.

See how, like lords at a table, Christ’s slaves waited

for Jesus the servant and found him at once.

For the Master blessed the five loaves,

saying to them with an unseen voice,

“Increase perceptibly and multiply

and now nourish all those present here.”

At once the loaves obeyed the Lord.

They gave birth invisibly,

as Christ told them to, he who is

the heavenly bread of incorruption.

No human mind can wholly reason out this wonder,

how the invisible loaves flowed on invisibly.

Where did their ineffable increase occur –

in the hands of the disciples or was it on the tables?

Since I do not know the manner of the inexpressible sight,

I keep silence at the wonder, while by faith I correct

my mind, for I do not apprehend the depth of the mystery,

as I now see the twelve baskets

filled with fragments, as he alone knows

the heavenly bread of incorruption.

So also multiply for us all the multitude of your compassion

and just as then, Savior, you satisfied with wisdom

and fed with power the multitude in the desert,

satisfy us all with justice.

Strengthen us in your faith, Lord.

Nourish us all, as you are merciful,

and give us your grace and forgiveness of offences

at the intercessions of the Mother of God,

because you alone are good and full of pity as

the heavenly bread of incorruption.

(On the Life of Christ, pp. 96-97)

For St. Romanos, the more than 5,000 people present experienced a multiplication of the fish and bread, but an even greater miracle is possible for us as God multiples His blessings on us – His compassion, His wisdom, His justice, His mercy, grace and forgiveness.  We may experience even more of a blessing  than those folks who had only their hunger relieved.

The Joy of Humility

Everything, absolutely everything in religion is ambiguous, and this ambiguity can be cleared only by humility, so that the whole spiritual life is or must be directed at seeking humility. The signs of humility: joy! Pride excludes joy. Then: simplicity, i.e., the absence of any turn into one’s self. Finally, trust, as the main directive in life, applied to everything (purity of heart, when man can see God). The signs of pride are: the absence of joy; complexity and fear.

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, p. 161)




Baptism and the Baptismal Garment

Baptism as re-entry into Paradise means that man has been restored as a liturgical being. It is significant to note that in the early Syriac tradition baptism was often interpreted as membership of the ‘kingdom of priests’. The baptized becomes the member of the community that worships God. The newly-gained freedom to praise God was frequently expressed as the ‘robe of glory’ or ‘robe of praise’, with which Adam and Even had, according to Jewish legend, been clothed in Paradise, but which they lost at the Fall. This robe, ‘the mantle of praise’ as Isaiah 61:3 calls it, is regained by the Christians at baptism. ‘Instead of fig leaves, God has clothed men with glory in the baptismal water.’ ” (Baby Varghese in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly: Vol. 56, Number 1, p 23)

Theology and Physics: Moving from Light to Darkness

Even in science it is the unknown that creates excitement.  Mystery elicits a strong interest to investigate, and there is a desire to discover the unexpected.  What Harvard Theoretical Physicist Lisa Randall

“is excited about is ‘dark matter,’ which—along with ‘dark energy’—makes up the vast majority of the known universe. The current estimate is that 70 percent of the universe is dark energy and 26 percent dark matter. Which adds up to 96 percent. Meaning that what we see and know adds up to a measly 4 percent.

Four percent! The invisible 96 percent apparently keeps the universe in gravitational equilibrium, preventing it from collapsing on itself or dissipating into virtual nothingness. But we know almost nothing else about it. The problem has been that the dark stuff doesn’t seem to interact with the 4 percent we know in such a way that gives us a clue to its nature.”   (Lisa Randall’s Guide to the Galaxy,  Smithsonian  June 2013)

This excitement in physics is moving from the known to the unknown, from light into darkness.   It is the experience of the new day beginning at sunset: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:5).

That is the same direction and movement we find in mystical theology.  We move from the known (this world which we can see, touch, hear, smell, measure, test) to the unknown (to the Divine, the eternal, the Resurrection and Ascension).   We move in mystical theology from light (what we can see in the empirical world) to the darkness which is the mystical experience of God (that which is beyond our sensory experience).

The same thing which is exciting and attractive about science – discovering mystery – is what makes theology and the mystical life attractive to believers.  The cosmos and the Creator both hold great mystery – knowledge we have not penetrated and even cannot penetrate.  We know the truth is there, but it remains beyond our ability to grasp, control or even test.

(See also my blog Journey into the Unknown: Science and Religion)

The Incarnation: Science, Mystery, Truth

“THE INFINITE GOD AS A MAN GROWS IN SPACE AND TIME” (Hymn of the prefeast of Christmas)


In the previous blog, Mystery: Beholding a Glorious Wonder, I began to explore the notion that both science and historic Christianity share a fascination with the notion of mystery: that in the universe there are things which both reveal truth to us while simultaneously revealing that there is mystery (things we do not or cannot know) which lie beyond what we can grasp.   Certainly Patristic writers and ancient Orthodox poets and hymn writers constantly expressed awe regarding the mystery of the incarnation and of the death of the Son of God.  They were comfortable with the fact that there are many things we cannot know and they did not feel the need to offer a systematic explanation for everything in the universe.  St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) writes:

“If, for instance, any one asks, ‘What was God doing before He made the world?’ we reply that the answer to such a question lies with God Himself. For that this world was formed perfect by God, receiving a beginning in time, the Scriptures teach us; but no Scripture reveals to us what God was employed about before this event. The answer therefore to that question remains with God, and it is not proper for us to aim at bringing forward foolish, rash, and blasphemous suppositions [in reply to it]; so, as by one’s imagining that he has discovered the origin of matter, he should in reality set aside God Himself who made all things.”  (Irenaeus- Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 3164-69)

Indeed there are questions we cannot answer, and mysteries we cannot explain.  Irenaeus emphasizes that even if we could imagine discovering the origin of matter, that won’t disprove the Creator.  We can discover scientific truth about the universe without it in any way threatening our faith in the existence of God.

His question resonates with a modern question that might be asked of physicists: what existed before the Big Bang?   Physicist  and astronomer Marcelo Gleiser says:

“If we keep going back, we quickly reach a time when energies were beyond what we have tested. So, whatever happened between the “beginning” and about a trillionth of a second after the bang relies on theoretical speculation.  …  This is where science meets the poetic imagination. And the best part is that it may be true. If only we could test it one day.”

BigBangScience does recognize mystery – and today physicists certainly recognize that there are some things we cannot know about the universe.  Some of what we cannot know may be due to our lack of instrumentation, but some things we now realize are uncertain and cannot be known.

There are legitimate questions we can ask about God or about the universe before the Big Bang, but the answers to these questions will remain in mystery because we cannot answer them.

St. Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD) writes in the 7th Century:

“They do not understand the principle of that wisdom which is revealed to all; that we should know and praise God through His creation and that by means of the visible world we should understand whence we came, what we are, for what purpose we were made and where we are going.”   (St. Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15155-58)

Maximos believed the physical world could tell us much about our physical selves – where we came from and where we are headed.  That in fact is the purpose of the visible world.  But these answers would not tell us everything that can be known about humanity or about the universe.  There still is mystery in the beginning of the universe whether we look at it scientifically or through the lens of Scripture.   The Mystery of the Incarnation, which is central to Christian belief,  challenges our thinking both scientifically and theologically. But then so too our scientists have found mystery in the known universe.

“’Dark matter is telling us there are fundamental things that we don’t understand about physics,’ says Van Waerbeke (University of British Columbia).  ‘Maybe we are at the beginning of a complete revolution.’”   (DISCOVER,  “The Year in Science: Top 100 Stories of 2012 Issue:  8) Mapping the Dark Cosmos”)

Mystery doesn’t mean we are wrong, but allows us to marvel and keep seeking for the truth.  In fact, we rejoice in mystery throughout the Christmas season in the Orthodox Church, as we see in this Hymn for the Nativity of Christ:






At the end of the Second Century St. Irenaeus comments that mystery involving God should not surprise us for we encounter mystery in our daily lives in common things.  He writes:

“And there is no cause for wonder if this is the case with us as respects things spiritual and heavenly, and such as require to be made known to us by revelation, since many even of those things which lie at our very feet (I mean such as belong to this world, which we handle, and see, and are in close contact with) transcend out knowledge, so that even these we must leave to God. For it is fitting that He should excel all [in knowledge]. For how stands the case, for instance, if we endeavour to explain the cause of the rising of the Nile? We may say a great deal, plausible or otherwise, on the subject; but what is true, sure, and incontrovertible regarding it, belongs only to God. Then, again, the dwelling-place of birds–of those, I mean, which come to us in spring, but fly away again on the approach of autumn–though it is a matter connected with this world, escapes our knowledge.

What explanation, again, can we give of the flow and ebb of the ocean, although every one admits there must be a certain cause [for these phenomena]? Or what can we say as to the nature of those things which lie beyond it?  What, moreover, can we say as to the formation of rain, lightning, thunder, gatherings of clouds, vapours, the bursting forth of winds, and such like things; or tell as to the storehouses of snow, hail, and other like things? [What do we know respecting] the conditions requisite for the preparation of clouds, or what is the real nature of the vapours in the sky?

What as to the reason why the moon waxes and wanes, or what as to the cause of the difference of nature among various waters, metals, stones, and such like things? On all these points we may indeed say a great deal while we search into their causes, but God alone who made them can declare the truth regarding them.”  (Irenaeus- Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 3140-52)

Most all of the mysteries which  Irenaeus believed could not be explained by science, have today been explained.  But science has also uncovered many more mysteries.  Irenaeus was not upset by the fact that there are things which we cannot explain or understand about the world, nor about God.  He was not afraid to admit that science (even in his day) offered explanation for things and that nature itself could be studied by science.  He was comfortable with a sense of mystery both theologically and scientifically.

Mystery is not the equivalent of ignorance, but is approached with awe and a desire to know the truth.  Science can raise challenging questions for theology, and theology can raise questions which science cannot answer.  The appreciation of mystery is one thing that makes us human.   Being human allows us to appreciate mystery.  Both theology and science have recognized the value of mystery in relationship to the universe.  Mystery opens the mind to possibilities beyond what we can see to truths that are still to be revealed.

You can find links to all the blogs I have or will post during this year’s Christmas season at 2012 Nativity Blogs.

Mystery: Beholding a Glorious Wonder

The Mystery hidden from eternity

And unknown to the angels

Is manifested to those on earth through you, Theotokos!

God being incarnate of you by union without confusion,

And raising the first-formed man,

Has saved our souls from death!

(Theotokion Hymn of the Orthodox Church)


It has been celebrated in Liturgy and hymnology by Christians from the beginning of our Church.   In the Christmas season we contemplate two of the most fundamental mysteries of Christianity: the incarnation of God in Christ and the Holy Eucharist in which bread and wine become that same Body and Blood of the Incarnate Lord.

Mystery reveals what we can know but also reveals there are things we don’t know or understand or even that we cannot know.  We proclaim that God’s plan of salvation hidden from all eternity is now revealed in the Incarnation.  Yet we can only marvel at how the Eternal God can be a little child or how God is contained in the Virgin’s womb.

We believe also that the Eucharist is Christ’s Body and Blood, and yet the truth is found in a mystery, for which there is no scientific explanation and is encountered only in faith.  God is being revealed to us but it is a marvelous wonder as to how this is possible.  God the creator of all that is brings into existence that which is “not-God” and then through the Incarnation becomes “not God” uniting all things divine and created, heaven and earth.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d.202AD) writes:

“If, therefore, even with respect to creation, there are some things [the knowledge of] Which belongs only to God, and others which come with in the range of our own knowledge, what ground is there for complaint, if, in regard to those things which we investigate in the Scriptures (which are throughout spiritual), we are able by the grace of God to explain some of them, while we must leave others in the hands of God, and that not only in the present world, but also in that which is to come, so that God should for ever teach, and man should for ever learn the things taught him by God?”  (Irenaeus- Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 3153-57)

Some knowledge is given to us about God, about God’s plan of salvation, about the scriptural revelation, and about creation.  Some knowledge will always be beyond us.  St. Irenaeus says that knowledge belongs only to God.  Scriptures give us spiritual knowledge, but sometimes that knowledge is hidden in mystery.  Irenaeus is comfortable with the fact that we may never fully know these truths even in the age to come.

St. Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD)  says the Incarnation of the Word is both mystery and revealer of mysteries:

“The mystery of the incarnation of the Logos is the key to all the arcane symbolism and typology in the Scriptures, and in addition gives us knowledge of created things, both visible and intelligible.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 14432-34)

St. Maximos says the truth of the Jewish Scriptures remained hidden in mystery until the coming of Christ in the incarnation.  Scripture reveals and Scripture conceals for Scripture is both part of the mystery of God and a record of the revelation of this mystery.  God keeps some knowledge in mystery, revealing mystery to us so that we are attracted to Him to come to know all the spiritual truth He has placed at our disposal.

But St. Maximos doesn’t limit the revelation of the incarnation to spiritual truths only for it also gives us knowledge of created things.  The mystery revealed in Scripture does give us knowledge of the created world.

Science for its part is ever trying to reveal the mysteries accessible to us and the knowledge they contain.  As we sing in the Akathist, “Glory to God for All Things””:

The breath of Your Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, scientists. The power of Your supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Your laws, who reveal the depths of Your creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of You. How great are You in Your creation! How great are You in man!

Scientists don’t debunk mysteries but reveal them as much as they are able.  In those scientific revelations we are awed by what we can know and tantalized by what knowledge is beyond our reach.

For example in the science magazine, DISCOVER,  The Year in Science: Top 100 Stories of 2012 Issue, we read about the newness of discovery in science and the awe it inspires:

“… physicists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva announced that they had discovered the Higgs boson, a particle so fundamental that without it there would be no atoms in the universe –  and therefore no stars, no planets, and no one to wonder about it all.  ‘It’s kind of profound,’ says Joe Incandela, a physicist at the University of California… ‘We’re still absorbing it ourselves.  We’ve touched on something now that really is way beyond anything we’ve done before.”   (“Higgs: What Causes the Weight of the World”)

In the universe as we know it, nothing material could exist without this Higgs particle which physicists have only this year found the hard evidence for existence.  Nothing physical could exist without the mysterious and minute Higgs particle.  No stars, planets or people – no incarnate Word, no Jesus Christ, no Christmas.  The Incarnation has everything to do with the physical universe, and so physics is revealing the intricate mysteries of the Incarnation and the very nature of the created world.

“God does not need space in order to exist…  Human beings, however, need physical space to move around in, to live in.”  (Adolfo Roitman, ENVISIONING THE TEMPLE: SCROLLS, STONES, AND SYMBOLS, p 11)

God doesn’t need space to exist – until the Incarnation at which point God takes on a new relationship to both space and time.  As one of the hymns from the prefeast of Christmas says:


Science is studying the same world which God so loved that He became part of this world.  Science is helping us to appreciate with awe the universe of mystery so that we can praise the Creator.

Next:  The Incarnation: Science, Mystery, Truth

The Mystery of the Incarnation

“For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”   (Ephesians 6:12) the Nativity Story in the Gospel According to St. Matthew we encounter King Herod who is disturbed by the news of the birth of the Christ child and plots to murder the child.  The baby Jesus is saved because Herod does not know exactly where the child is.

Herod was not alone according to some ancient traditions in wanting to destroy the Christ.  Since the salvation of the human race was being opposed by the forces of evil in the universe, all manners of evil spiritual powers were arrayed looking to disrupt God’s plan of salvation.  This is St. Paul’s point in the quote above – ultimately it is the spiritual powers who array themselves against God’s people.  However,  God Himself is able to keep from the eyes of these powers His plan of salvation so that they cannot disrupt His plan.  Salvation is being worked out in and through the people on earth and it is among people that the powers of darkness can work.  But these powers are not omniscient.  God’s plan remains a mystery, hidden from His enemies’ eyes,  until it was revealed to Magi, shepherds, and angels in and through the Virgin Birth and incarnation of the Word.

“One of the first characteristics of Jewish Christian Christology is that the mystery of the descent of the Son was hidden from the angels. The most primitive form of this idea is probably preserved in the Physiologos. The text runs as follows:

So our Savior, the spiritual lion sent by the Eternal Father, hid the signs of His spiritual being, that is His divinity. With the Angels He became an Angel, with the Thrones a Throne, with the Powers a Power, with men a man during his descent. For he descended into the womb of Mary, to save the race of human souls that had strayed. Consequently, they did not recognize Him in his descent from on high, and they said: ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ Then the Holy Spirit answered: ‘The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.’

This text is interesting because it gathers together all the themes to be found in any of the various texts where this conception appears. Attention should drawn first of all to the idea that the Word, descending to earth to take flesh, passes successively through all the orders of angels, a feature which is also present in the Ascension of Isaiah. The theological point is that the Incarnation remained hidden from the Angels, and this seems to have been a characteristic emphasis of Jewish Christian thinking. It is already to be found in St. Paul (1 Cor. 2:8, Eph. 3:10-12), and occurs again in a famous passage of Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107AD):

‘And hidden from the prince of this world were the virginity of Mary and her child-bearing and likewise also the death of the Lord – three mysteries to be cried aloud – the which were wrought in the silence of God’ (Eph. XIX, I).

Irenaeus (d. 202AD) was to say the same, with an allusion to the angels: ‘But because the Word came down invisible to creatures, He was not known to them in His descent’.”(Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, pgs. 206-207)

The Mystery hidden from eternity

And unknown to the angels

Is manifested to those on earth through you, Theotokos!

God being incarnate of you by union without confusion,

And raising the first-formed man,

Has saved our souls from death!

(Theotokian for the Feast of St. Nicholas)

Links to all of this year’s blogs related to the Nativity of Christ can be found at Christmas Blogs 2012.

The Mystery which binds Science and Religion

Pure atheistic materialists would claim that nothing exists beyond the empirical reality we encounter through our senses.  They endeavor to explain everything in the universe by causal relations with the rest of the empirical universe.  It is a self-contained system.  Sometimes discoveries emerge which cause the materialists to admit that there may be more to the empirical universe than previously acknowledged.  So their sense of the material universe does grow to include dark matter, dark energy, parallel universes, bubble universes and the like.   Theory or experience may lead to the conjecture about these unobservable aspects of the universe which remain beyond our direct observation but are suggested because current theory and knowledge cannot fully account for the known universe (as it turns out 70% of the universe is dark energy and 25% is dark matter while the to us observable universe is only about 5% of all that exists).

For example, physicists puzzle over why gravity is such a feeble force.  As noted in the July 2012 issue of DISCOVER MAGAZINE, it is not easy to explain how a small “magnet can pick up a paper clip even though the gravitational force of the entire earth is pulling the clip down.”   This led to speculation that perhaps there are other spatial dimensions, so far unknown to us, that affect the force of gravity.  Dr. Eric Adelberger of the University of Washington and colleagues have invented a pendulum, a torsion balance, which would be able to detect whether on some micro scale gravity breaks down.  So far they have not detected any unusual results in how gravity works.

Another scientist who acknowledged that there are things science cannot explain is Sir Andrew Huxley   who died in May of this year.  Huxley was a   neurophysiologist who was responsible for discovering how a nerve impulses work which opened the door for much of modern neuroscience.  Sir Andrew considered himself an agnostic and admitted “that there is no scientific explanation for the fact that we are conscious.”   That fact plays a significant role in Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.  Tallis, though an atheist himself, is not shaken by the fact that there are some things in the universe which science cannot yet explain.  He is willing to acknowledge that there are some things we do not know, and may never know.  His book is  a rebuttal to the claims that some atheists make about neuroscience proving there is no free will.  His take on the world is that realism demands even materialists to acknowledge that currently our state of understanding certain realities is incomplete and we in fact cannot explain everything purely from materialism.  It is dishonest to contrive theories denying for example, free will, just to maintain an atheistic belief.

As I was thinking about the above two points, I read with great interest an article by Fr. John Breck in the Number 4, 2011 issue of ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, entitled “God in a Quantum World.”  Fr. Breck explores some of the new science that is emerging which challenges long held beliefs by scientists; some of these beliefs were thought to be certain and non-negotiable.  The marvel of science is of course that new evidence requires new theories, and so “scientific truth” is something that becomes modified over time as new evidence demands new theories.  Breck says that especially in France new questions are being asked by scientists which challenge the established order of things in physics, evolution and the neuroscience of consciousness.  He offers a list of ideas that are being challenged in science today, but I’ll jump to his concluding comments for the sake of brevity.

“If a person cannot accept an ‘apophatic” approach to reality, declaring what it is not before seeking to affirm what it is, then there is little way of dealing with the givens of quantum mechanics and general relativity.”

Some of what the new scientific discoveries are showing is that there is built in the physics of the universe some indeterminacy or uncertainty.  There actually are things we cannot know – not because we lack the instruments but because of the very way things are.

One of the mysteries at the quantum level of the universe is that the conscious observer is needed for certain events to take place – they remain in an indeterminate state until observed.  Breck writes:

“On the quantum level, consciousness is also required  to ‘bring into existence’ elementary particles and, variously, to determine their mass, location and velocity.  This is scientific fact, demonstrated experimentally and repeatedly over the course of the last century.”

Here we enter into a most marvelous mystery of the universe: if a conscious observer is needed for certain things to exist on the quantum level, then in fact we humans as observers also are creating or bringing into existence things which before were not.   This means two important things: 1) we actually are co-creators with God in the world, and  2) absolute determinacy, which so many atheists materialist rely on as the basis of their own epistemology, is simply false.  At the quantum level at least determinacy makes no sense.  There is mystery in the universe, and free will is quite possible.  Strangely, even before we understood the laws of quantum mechanics, we were observing the quantum universe and thus bringing things into existence, even though we were unaware that it was our conscious observation that was making certain things exist.

“If we have the capacity to bring elementary particles into physical existence by the sheer act of observation, then perhaps something analogous occurs in the realm of God’s own being and activity . . . God, who creates not by modeling clay from a riverbed or from some pre-existing, unformed matter, but rather by an act of conscious perception that looks upon the world and ‘sees that it is good’ (cf. Genesis 1).

It might well be, then, that God creates ex nihilo and sustains the creation by employing the very quantum laws that he himself devised.”

For believers all of this means that we do not have to choose between science and religion, or between faith and reason.  For what may be emerging is that science is recognizing that mystery is part of the universe, and that there may be more to the universe than we can measure or observe or test in experimentation.

The Day of the Holy Spirit

The Monday after Pentecost is known as the Day of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Church.

Some of the hymns in the Orthodox tradition particularly speak to me or stick out in my mind.  This morning during Matins there was this ‘Sessional Hymn’:








It is the mixing of metaphors and images which is both entertaining and edifying.  The hymn moves between images of water and fire.

The “Fountain” of the Spirit rushes down to earth while being divided into flaming streams

The fire becomes a cloud of dew

The cloud enlightens.

Wonderful images which by their incompatible nature help us understand the mystery of God’s dispensation.  Those mixed metaphors drive away wooden literalism and open our minds to marvel at the mystery which is also God’s revelation.

God truly is ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, and incomprehensible as we pray in the Liturgy.  So no one image or metaphor can ever properly describe the Triune God.  The creative use of fire and water together help us understand the inadequacies of our language for understanding the Holy Trinity.

The Genetic Side of Being Human

This is the 4th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  The previous blog is The Mystery of Ourselves.  We are now looking at some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.   Le Fanu raises some serious questions regarding the limits of evolution to explain the how and why of genetics.   He argues that there really is much more mystery to being human than evolutionary theory admits.

“… there is not the slightest hint in the composition of the genes of fly or man to account for why the fly should have six legs, a pair of wings and a brain the size of a full stop, and we should have two arms, two legs and that prodigious brain. The ‘instructions’ must be there, of course, for otherwise flies would not produce flies and humans humans-but we have moved, in the wake of the Genome Project, from assuming that we knew the principle, if not the details, of that greatest of marvels, the genetic basis of the infinite variety of life, to recognising that we not only don’t understand the principles, we have no conception of what they might be. We have here, as the historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller puts it: one of those rare and wonderful moments when success teaches us humility…”  (Kindle Loc. 413-19)

One of Le Fanu’s insightful questions has to deal with “why?”   Whereas geneticists might be able to link a particular gene or series of genes with a particular body trait (2 arms, large brain, etc), still that doesn’t answer the question why it is so.   Le Fanu sees in humans, as well as in all creatures, an awesome mystery.  We have discovered genes, the genetic code, the genome, but we have no way of knowing the principles which govern how the genes “know” what it is they are to reproduce.  This is a mystery which causes Le Fanu to marvel, and to criticize science for not recognizing the awesomeness of what it built into nature.

“Why then, one might reasonably ask, is there not the slightest hint in the Human Genome of those unique attributes of the upright stance and massively expanded brain that so distinguish us from our primate cousins?”  (Kindle Loc. 545-46)

All genes for all living species basically are made up of the same few proteins.  Yet in those same  few chemical components are all of the codes which enable the genes to make not only a particular organ but to have it be in the exact right location of a particular life form.  But what makes it just so, remains a hidden marvel.

“So, while the equivalence of the human and chimp genomes provides the most tantalising evidence for our close relatedness, it offers not the slightest hint of how that evolutionary transformation came about – but rather appears to cut us off from our immediate antecedents entirely.”  (Kindle Loc. 874-76)

These are the questions which Le Fanu believes evolutionary theory and genetics cannot answer.  He sees this as a serious limit to the theory, but more importantly they raise issues whose explanation may lie far beyond what science is capable of answering.  They suggest that there are forces at work in the gentic code which are not physical/material but which are real and essential to life.

“The elegant spiral of the Double Helix, like Newton’s law of gravity, combines great simplicity with phenomenal power. But the practicalities of what it does, how it imposes the order of ‘form’ and all the complexities of life on the fertilised egg, are of a qualitatively different order – and for the obvious reason that ‘life’ is immeasurably more complex than ‘matter’.”  (Kindle Loc. 2112-15)

The amazing capabilities of genes give Le Fanu pause – is not life more than simply matter?

“This automated factory carries out almost as many unique functions as all the manufacturing activities of man on Earth … but with one capacity not equalled in any of our most advanced machines – it is capable of replicating its entire structure within a matter of a few hours.”  (Kindle Loc. 2137-39)

Of course science often responds to such claims of wonder and marvel with the words “yet.”   We cannot answer the questions “yet” but one day we will.   And many are convinced that the answers will be found in matter since the empirical world is the only world which exists.   The questions Le Fanu raises are sometimes thrown into a category of being questions that focus on the “gaps” in our knowledge, and believers often attribute these gaps in our knowledge to God.  Which causes some to characterize these doubts about evolution as the God of the gaps.  But then the scientists believe that in due time our scientific efforts  will fill these gaps.

And some scientists do marvel at nature.  The November issue of DISCOVER magazine (“The Bug with Built-in Sidekicks”) reported the marvel of the citrus mealybug, which contains within it the bacteria Tremblaya princeps.  Neither species can live without the other.  But then within this bacteria is an even smaller microbe Moranella endobia and again all three species are interdependent on each other for survival as they each contribute some of the amino acids that are necessary for all there to survive – no one of the creatures is capable of making all the amino acids necessary to live.   The scientists studying the bug-within-a-bug have no idea how this arrangement evolved or how it works.  “It’s a fascinating quirk of evolution,” said one.   Indeed, life in its most simple forms (Tremblaya has the smallest genome of any living thing) elicit wonder.

Next:  The Genetic Side of Being Human (II)