Biology and theology

Homily for the thirtieth Sunday of Year B. Jer 31:7-9; Ps 125; Heb 5:1-6; Mk 10:46-52

As you may be aware, this year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. Since that time, the study of biology has often been seen as a kind of battleground in which notions of God's action on nature are fiercely debated. Yet, taking the broader perspective, biology in general, that is, the ordered study of living things, has had a profound and positive impact on Catholic thought. Furthermore, some of those who have contributed most in history to the development of biology were themselves Catholics, suggesting that there has been a two-way interaction between the biological sciences and theology. Inspired by some references in today's First Reading and Gospel, I would to explore these themes in today's brief homily.

Some preliminary indications of the importance of living things to theology comes from Scripture, especially the parables of Jesus. Jesus frequently uses biological images, such as the barren fig tree or the sower sowing seed, to illustrate the various ways in which a person receives the Gospel. Furthermore, Scripture often describes success in the Christian life in biological terms, such as 'bearing fruit' or 'fruitfulness' or the 'Fruits of the Holy Spirit'. Other indications of the association of biology and theology come from the history of Christian thought. The pagan philosopher whose thought eventually became most influential on theology was Aristotle, the man who, along with his student, invented biology. The person who is widely regarded as the greatest Catholic theologian, St Thomas Aquinas, was a student of St Albert the Great, the greatest natural scientist of his day. Furthermore, the first person to propose any systematic theory of evolution was not, in fact, Charles Darwin but Jean-Baptiste Lamarck nearly half a century earlier, a French Catholic trained by Jesuits. Finally, the man who founded the entire science of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was a Catholic monk.

Such interactions in the history of biology and theology suggest that there might be at least some underlying principles that are beneficial in both these fields. An example of such a principle, articulated by Aquinas, is that God has given his creatures the dignity of being causes. Such a principle might seem simple to state, but it has profound implications for science and theology. If creatures can be causes, then any living being is not simply a robot or machine executing instructions, but can originate change within the limits of its nature. Even plants have some spontaneity in their growth, and even non-human animals act in a voluntary fashion - as you can see if you ever watch a cat play with a ball of wool. Human beings, furthermore, have the extraordinary gift of free will, which also enables us to be originate, to be creative and to love. A second important principle, articulated especially by Newman, is that the Church develops in what one might call an 'organic fashion'. The Catholic Church today is not exactly like the Church of the early Christians, any more than a plant at a later stage of its growth does not always resemble its seed or early form. Nevertheless, there is an organic and historical continuity between the Church today and the Church in the early centuries. So, for example, the special role of the Pope among the world's bishops has its origins in the special role that Christ gave to St Peter among the twelve apostles and early bishops of Rome exercised in the early Church. We can therefore say with confidence that we are part of the same Church as the early Christians, albeit at a later stage in its development and we therefore enjoy the same opportunity to become saints. Finally, livings things also teach us how God produces holiness, namely by cultivation rather than manufacture. Jesus teaches us that God plants his grace in us and cultivates this grace: dead branches fall away and even the living branches are pruned to make them bear more fruit. Indeed, at this present time in England, Catholicism resembles a pruned branch, just as the Jewish people in today's First Reading have become a remnant. In England, there is an especial poignancy to our condition, because we live as a remnant in a country largely created by Catholicism - as our most ancient histories, laws, cathedrals, universities and ruined monastries testify. Indeed, even the Houses of Parliament, designed by the Catholic architect Pugin, were modelled on medieval cathedrals. Yet even in this reduced or pruned state, this remnant can suddenly burst forth into life again, like fresh spring growth.

So what, then, are the practical implications for our own lives? First, that if true holiness is cultivated like a living thing, and not manufactured, then we need some of the virtues of the farmer to reach our fulfillment in heaven. We need regular watering, sunlight and patience. This is why daily personal prayer, Mass at least on Sundays and regular Confession, to restore us when we have been cut off from our roots, are so important for attaining true happiness. If we do these things, our growth in holiness will not, in general, be spectacular or fast, but will be steady and ultimately fruitful. Second, that we should not be overly alarmed if, now and again, God prunes us, perhaps through some kind of loss or personal suffering: such things, too, can be fruitful over the longer term. Finally, it is not 'survival of the fittest' which counts in the Christian life, but 'survival of the faithful'. Indeed, in today's Gospel, it is a blind man, someone who lacks a certain fitness in the categories of eugenics, who shows the greatest faith and who follows Christ along the road to Jerusalem.

So may God strengthen our living faith in connection to Christ and his Church. May we never fall away like a dead branch and may we bear much fruit for everlasting life.

 

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