Before I entered the Dominican Order, I taught an introductory statistics class at a small college founded by Dominican Sisters in my hometown. Since the school was too small to have distinct departments for each scientific field, all of them, including mathematics, were housed in St. Albert Hall, a building named for today’s patron saint. A fitting attribution—for the thirteenth-century German Dominican friar was an expert not only in philosophy and theology, but also in several natural sciences: constructing an early greenhouse, discovering the chemical element arsenic, and developing experimental methods that would later become standard in modern science. For his integration of scientific domains and the newly-rediscovered philosophy of Aristotle with the study of divine revelation in theology, Saint Albert the Great is fittingly honored as the Doctor Universalis, the “teacher of everything.”
In today’s academic climate, however, a “teacher of everything” is hard to find. Departments and disciplines have become so specialized that lectures given on one topic are often barely understood by others in the same department, and whole conferences and journals are devoted to the narrowest of subfields. In learning to be an expert in one area, other fields are ignored, to the point that scholars in the sciences can deem theological claims to be either over their heads or not worth their attention. Without a unifying vision of all knowledge, one may even reach the conclusion that science and theology contradict each other, as seen in the debates between random evolution and intelligent design, for example. How can a seeker of truth resolve this dilemma?
One scholar, the evolutionary biologist and agnostic Stephen Jay Gould (d. 2002), proposed a solution: that of “non-overlapping magisteria.” In this model, which he described in a 1997 article, both science and religion have separate domains over which each has competency, and neither one impinges on the other. As he writes:
The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch clichés, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.
The separation of domains of teaching authority, or “magisteria” as Gould appropriates the word, seems attractive; Christians believe that God created the human race directly in His image and likeness on theological grounds, for example, and biologists hold that humanity came to be through a long evolutionary process of many random mutations on scientific grounds. The dignity of the human race as being in the image of God is primarily a moral statement, while the origin of the species is a theory based on empirical data, and the two explanations seem to fall into disparate domains.
Yet, the various magisteria do, in fact, inevitably overlap. Another evolutionary biologist, the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, replies:
It is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science’s turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.
In other words, if God is held to be the Creator of the universe, then He has a direct effect on all that exists (namely, He bestows existence on it), and everything studied in science, or art, or history, can be considered in relation to God. While Dawkins’ analysis limps in asserting that claims of existence are scientific, for many things exist that are not subject to natural science, he properly identifies that theology does exert an influence on science.
To investigate how these bodies of knowledge overlap and interact with each other, it helps to examine the work of St. Albert’s most prominent student, St. Thomas Aquinas. He explains that theology “has no concern to prove the principles of other sciences, but only to judge of them” (ST, I, 1, 6, ad 1), and that it “can in a sense depend upon the philosophical sciences, not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer” (ST, I, 1, 5, ad 2). To continue with the example, theology tells biology that it cannot exclude divine activity in forming the human race (especially with regard to the immaterial soul by which we reason and choose freely), while biology provides the details of how the human body was formed from the earth. Both fields, taken together, give a fuller and more robust understanding of what is to be known. By considering the relationship of theology to the other sciences, we can see how each field of study aims at the same truth according to its own method.
In this, we should follow the example of St. Albert the Great, who saw in everything that he studied the God who made it and to whom it is ultimately ordered. Surely, as Pope Leo XIII remarked, “Truth cannot contradict truth”; hence, let us join the “teacher of everything” by allowing everything we study to lead us to the contemplation of God, the Supreme Truth.
Image: Tommaso de Modena, Saint Albert the Great