I enjoy reading Edward O. Wilson much more than Richard Dawkins, and recently I started to ask myself why this might be. Both are good writers and present difficult scientific concepts in easy-to-understand language. Both work in the controversial area of sociobiology and the evolution of human beings. Both are post-Christian thinkers with little interest in the nuances and delicacies of theological reasoning. What separates these two men? And, even when we don’t agree with him, what makes Wilson so appealing and interesting? I think it comes down to the fact that, while Dawkins is a biologist, Wilson is a naturalist.
In Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist, he tells the story of his development as a scientist, focusing particularly on his vigorous fieldwork from an early age. He vividly describes his first encounter with nature as a boy of seven:
I stand in the shallows off Paradise Beach, staring down at a huge jellyfish in water so still and clear that its every detail is revealed as though it were trapped in glass. The creature is astonishing. It existed outside my previous imagination. I study it from every angle I can manage from above the water’s surface.
He continues with many, many stories about his early encounters with the natural world—not always benign!—and ends by asking:
Why do I tell you this little boy’s story of medusas, rays, and sea monsters, nearly sixty years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I think, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder . . . Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist.
While Dawkins may have an excellent grasp of various biological concepts, theories, data, and systems, Wilson has what I think St. Thomas would call a certain level of wisdom—the organizing and ordering aspect of knowledge that leads one deep into the truth of the world. Wilson has spent incalculable hours in the field, watching and observing, collecting and synthesizing, and the result is a superior knowledge of living things. He demonstrates this integrated knowledge not only through his detailed drawings and observations (quite good for a non-artist!), but also in such creative work as “The Anthill Chronicles,” a sort of Homeric epic found in his first novel, Anthill. Again, E. O. Wilson is not just a biologist; he is a naturalist.
In analogous sense—if the reader will pardon the comparison—we might say that St. Thomas is not just a theologian; he is a supernaturalist. And this is one reason he has had, and continues to have, such a profound impact on Catholic theology.
In the Second Article of the First Question of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas considers whether theology is a science—“science” being used here in the philosophical sense of “sure and certain knowledge derived from perfectly known principles.” He answers,
Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. (ST I, 1, 2)
Sacred science, or theology, is a science for St. Thomas because it has sure and certain first principles. But these first principles are not grasped by human reason—that would make theology, at best, a sort of philosophy—but by faith and in the light of faith. The principles of theology are, in fact, the knowledge of God and those blessed ones (the saints and angels) who look on God in the beatific vision. We, wayfarers along the journey of life, cannot see the principles of theology with complete clarity because we cannot see God before we enter into his glory. We can, however, have certain knowledge of theological truths, like the Trinity and the Incarnation, by means of faith—the acceptance of the revelation of God on the authority of God. And this revelation is found most completely in the person of Jesus Christ.
Thus, for a follower of St. Thomas, theology cannot be a matter of natural reason alone. The virtue of faith is essential to doing theology in the truest sense because only God and the blessed know these things certainly and entirely. So, while one who reasons through theological issues without the light of faith might be called a “theologian” in some limited sense, he is far from doing theology, properly speaking. It is the supernaturalist, I would claim—one who has the virtue of faith and continues to develop this faith through prayer, meditation, and the graces of the sacraments—who is the real theologian.
I like to think, then, that if St. Thomas were here with us today, he would find a kindred spirit in Professor Wilson—though of course he wouldn’t agree with all of his conclusions. Perhaps, developing this spirit further, he could even introduce Wilson to the wisdom beyond human understanding that is sacred doctrine. “Theology,” he might say, “does not destroy the naturalist, but brings him to perfection.”
Image: E.O Wilson (Photo: Frans Lanting)