Actual tensions between “science and religion” (pt. 2)

2.) Viewing nature as sacramental vs. seeing it as a machine. I’ll start with definitions:

Sacramental: Nature is viewed as God’s communication with human beings. On this account, a significant event or natural phenomenon – a crop failure, eclipse, happy marriage, flood, birth of a child, sickness, massacre, bumper crop, birth of a king, etc. are viewed primarily as God communicating to us. What exactly God is saying is not always obvious and admits of competing theories and degrees of expertise or incompetence, but there is no doubt that God is telling us something. Because of this, what is most significant in the universe is what affects human life. The striking, colorful, out-of the ordinary, and what fits into a compelling narrative are all given pride of place in human consciousness, and they are above all what one means by “the universe”.

Mechanical:  At the basis of mechanical accounts of nature is the axiom that nature is what it does within intentionally contrived circumstances. The universe is nothing more than what it does in various situations that we have set down in advance. What is most significant in the universe is the experimental, the operationally defined, the predicable, etc. We call this mechanical because anything we make that runs more or less of its own is a machine, and we see nature is something that runs of its own but is identified with intentionally contrived circumstances we have set down in advance.

So defined, the tension between science and religion is whether we see the universe as a divine or a human logos.

Now, of course, the mechanical account of nature does not mean that we start thinking that human beings make the planets spin or uranium radiate, but only that we see these phenomena as having, in principle, no reality apart from a reality that could arise in a circumstance controllable by us, e.g. there is nothing in a planetary orbit than in the factors in play in  or Newton’s Mountain or the orbit of a space station. Nature is defined by its ability to be controlled by us, that is, by its openness to be a conduit for human intention. But to the extent that this is true, nature cannot be already determined by a non-human intention. And so there seems to be a zero-sum game between the sacramental and mechanical view of the universe as a whole.

Because of this, any apologetic for the value of science will point to the practical results. Practical results are nothing but success in control, and paying attention to controllable things is the only winning way to find ways to control things. It would be impossible even to touch upon all the practical success that this mechanical view of nature has achieved. Neither is it possible to isolate practical success from theoretical truth to such an  extent that we can be blasé or skeptical about whether it casts light about the truth of things.

But to see the mechanical method as a reform or enlightenment of the sacramental view is to claim that the latter failed at a game that it was never even trying to play. True, mechanism does something sacramentalism doesn’t, but there is obviously more to a doctrine than what it does not do. Sacramentalism is an attempt to see the intrinsic meaning and significance to the events of nature, and this is hardly a negligible good. What good is it, one might imagine a sacramentalist saying to a mechanist, to control the whole universe if the universe itself has no significance? “Yes”, the Medieval peasant might say, “I lived for 30 years in squalor, malnutrition, disease, and I had to see a third of my children die – but at least these events meant something. You live for eighty years in sanitized cities, with powerful medicine, and with the expectation that none of your children will die, but you see any meaningful narrative of all this as so much mythic bosh or irrational chance. All my deprivations has spiritual meaning; all your prosperity is ultimately hollow.”

This is not to defend the peasant, or even to say he has a case that can keep up with the mechanist’s case,  but simply to notice that we won’t understand our situation so far as we see no tension between the sacramental and mechanical views of the universe. It is as pointless to tell purely progressive narratives about banishing superstition and ignorance as it is to tell purely regressive narratives about the horrors of the collapse of Christendom.

It’s probably a safe bet that we have to find some balance between sacramentalism and mechanism. But experience shows that it is a very difficult balance to hit on.


  1. May 12, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    Hey, is St. Thomas contemptuous of nature by making heaven purely intellectual by (1) considering man’s highest happiness to consist in “sole contemplation of God seen in His Essence” and (2) by considering the body to be merely an inessential component that the soul “misses”, such that one’s heavenly happiness “overflows” into it?

    I mean, the human “trinity within” is will + intellect + body. The body is a means by which humans exercise power over the world. And we can easily link the Father with the intellect, the Son with power, and the Holy Spirit with the will. It seems that the body is not just a this-world-only appendage but something definitively Godlike.

    The very effect of Christ’s resurrection was that the souls who were sleeping in Limbo were awakened and embodied (thus ceasing to be ghosts and becoming human again), and everyone who dies now is embodied immediately and therefore, remains conscious in wherever he finds himself in the afterlife.

  2. June 7, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    “He who disdains the fall in infant mortality and the gradual disappearance of famines and plagues may cast the first stone upon the materialism of the economists.” (Mises, Human Action, 193)

    It’s better to be rich and full of grace than poor and forgotten by God.

  3. June 7, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    Here’s one answer to my first question: St. Thomas writes: “But the blessed possess these three things in God; because they see Him, and in seeing Him, possess Him as present, having the power to see Him always; and possessing Him, they enjoy Him as the ultimate fulfillment of desire.”

    “Possession” comes under comprehension, power, and body. So, for him, then, this intellectual possession of the vision of God is the substitute of the bodily power or control over nature.

    In renting my apartment, I do not own it but own its services each month upon payment of rent. Thus, the blessed do not own God as a consumer good but own the “services” that seeing God provides to them.

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