Biologist Dr. Dan Toma delivered a lecture to the Christendom community on Friday, February 7, titled: “The Deification of Matter: The Material Universe as a Liturgical Structure.” The talk is the first Faith & Reason lecture of 2020.
Christendom’s Faith & Reason lecture series exists to help form an educated Catholic laity, prepared to make an impact on the culture at large. Born of the spirit of Faith & Reason, the academic journal of Christendom College, the series is another opportunity for students to further supplement their on-campus education and fall deeper in love with the true, the good, and the beautiful.
(Dr. Tsakanikas) Welcome to everybody, praise be Jesus Christ now and forever. So, it is the great pleasure to introduce to you Dr. Daniel Toma, a behavioral geneticist from Minnesota State University Mankato. He is a full professor in the department of Biology. In Theology 302: New Evangelization and Apologetics, we’ve been reading his journal article for several years in the opening of the course. The journal Logos, a journal of Catholic faith. And the article inside it that we’ve been using is “A Dionysian/Thomistic Framework for the Integration of Science and Catholic Tradition.”
More recently, he’s really expanded that work into a book: Vestige of Eden, which really develops so many themes that the journal article doesn’t leave enough space inside of. I think we’re going to get a lot more of that this afternoon.
I wanted to talk about that book, Vestige of Eden, and some of the reviewers at the major centers of faith and reason. Fr. Guilio Maspero, the professor of theology at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, talks about the book being an original book filling a gap in the market. “Advocating for the importance of a hierarchical view of beings, it shows how a materialistic approach has strong limitations that make for difficult interdisciplinary dialogue between different sciences. In our postmodern time, such difficulty poses a big problem to research, and because of that it requires an answer. Vestige of Eden, Image of Eternity [the fuller title] is clear, coherent, and effective in addressing these issues.”
From Fr. Andrew Pinsent, the research director at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford, had this to say: Vestige of Eden “shows that scientific (and philosophical) rigor does not have to entail a bleak vision of the cosmos as nothing but atoms interacting in a void. In this book, Daniel Toma offers an inspiring alternative, in which our union with divine grace can help draw our perception of creation into that of a heavenly liturgy.”
Matthew Levering, of the James N. and Mary D. Perry Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary had this to say: “Dan Toma, a geneticist by trade, is the kind of writer that few of us can ever hope to be: clear, brilliant, and captivating.”—Dr. Toma teased in class that you can pay anyone to say anything, but that was genuine compliments from professor Levering. He says, “I am struck by the love and wonder with which he views things”—and I admit, I feel the same way when I read his stuff and listen to him talk. “Whether small things, such as a stream or unfathomably rich realities, such as God the Trinity. He is a born questioner. The serenity and joy that attend his quest, and the clarity and depth with which he explains the answers he has found, make this book a rare delight. This book nourishes the soul in every way.”
So, this is a picture of the book: Vestige of Eden, Image of Eternity: Common Experience, the Hierarchy of Being, and Modern Science. I want to say, Dr. Toma, thank you so much for putting a plug in the front, in the acknowledgements, to Christendom College. We appreciate it very deeply. With that said, the title of this talk today as listed on the screen: “The Deification of Matter: The Material Universe as a Liturgical Structure.” Would you please welcome Dr. Daniel Toma.
(Dr. Toma) Well thank you for that introduction. I’ve know Dr. Tsakanikas for several years now, we got to meet in Minnesota. I’d like to also thank Dr. Greg Townsend and the administration of Christendom College for inviting me, and the theology department as well. My wife is probably one of the biggest fans of your founder and original president, Warren Carroll, she’s read just about every word he ever wrote. I’ve read some of his works, but nothing to the degree that my wife has. I just took a picture of his grave out there and sent it to her and she really thought that was great. Again, thank you for having me.
This talk has its genesis in a couple of things, and I’ll see if I can touch on those, but I want to lead off with this quote, this is from one of the big Harvard evolutionary biologists, Richard Lewontin. Focusing on the bold there, he’s speaking on behalf of scientists and the scientific community. He says that because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism: “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
His candor, I think, is very refreshing on behalf of thinkers like him, and what he’s basically saying is, the facts of science really don’t compel one to hold to materialism. It’s the philosophical structure. So this is really about a war of philosophical structures, and not so much about the scientific data. What I want to try to show in here is that you simply lift the data of science out of its materialistic framework—and it’s just a slight of the mind, like a slight of the hand in magic—and put it in the Catholic framework. It’s very explanatory.
Part of the problem I want to address is that I think we have lost our ballpark for explanation. We tend to agree with Lewontin, even the best Catholics, we want to operate in his ballparks. If any of you are baseball fans, like I was growing up, the home team wins in its home ballpark, not the away ballpark. And what the tendency of Catholics to do is to fight this fight in the away ballpark of the enemy. We don’t know what our tradition is on this, and that’s sort of the genesis, how it came about with me. I’m a scientist by training and at about 25 years old, I read from cover to cover—my dad was a Southern Baptist and my mom was Roman Catholic and I was raised through secular schools, and I started recovering my Catholic faith in college.
So, I started reading on my own and at about 25 years old, I came across the collected works of John of the Cross—it hit me like a ton of bricks, I thought, “what is this? No one has ever presented Catholicism like this to me.” And then someone tipped me off to a fellow by the name of John Arintero, who’s a Spanish Dominican in the process of canonization. He wrote a tome on the mystical life called The Mystical Evolution. Evolution not having to do with biology in that sense, but meaning development as sort of the “tour de force” of the tradition of the Church and the mystical theology. And he mentions in there, he says that one of the big problems is that we’ve forgotten our purpose, as Christians, so—excuse me, I’ve been talking all afternoon and I’m getting a little bit—so, it was with his work and John of the Cross that really got me thinking about this. So I started asking what was our tradition that we missed, or is there a tradition that we missed. That was my first point of inquiry. Is there something that the Church has revealed—you know, we talk about the natural knowledge of God and the revealed knowledge of God—is there a revealed knowledge of the universe and all of creation?
And so, what is the revealed Christian tradition regarding the nature, structure, and order of the universe? That gets to the question of what is the purpose of the Incarnation? This is one of my favorite pictures, it’s in St. Catherine’s monastery on Sinai, this is called “Christ of the Two Faces,” so the left side as you’re looking at Him, that’s the calm eye of the divinity, and the right side is the surprised eye of the humanity. It’s the notion of the Divine coming in contact with human nature. And so, what is the purpose of the Incarnation—as I’ve been informed here, most of you are a little more educated on that than a lot of places you go to—and that is Deification or Theosis. Arintero talks about this, he says this is primarily what we’ve forgotten, particularly in the Christian West, this notion of deification or Theosis.
He talks about the Ephesians where St. Paul would say: “have you forgotten about the Holy Spirit?” The Holy Spirit is who we attribute deification to. It’s sort of the same thing. And he says we’ve done the same thing, we’ve forgotten our tradition on this. This is really the central and core teaching of the applied Christian tradition of the Fathers, this notion of deification.
>And so, just a couple quotes from Scripture and the Catholic Catechism. “He has bestowed on us precious and very great promises so that, through them, you may come to share in the Divine Nature.” So, St. Peter talks about sharing in the very nature of God. And the Catholic Catechism, sort of echoing what Arintero was saying about the Fathers: “the ultimate end of the whole divine economy is the entry of God’s creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity.”
And then, Catechism 460 (Monsignor Stuart Swetland, a good friend of mine, said that he gets calls on his radio show about this all the time, asking if this is heresy, and he says “no, it’s not”). It says: “
And so, we’re called to become God by participation. I think John of the Cross develops this in a more radical sense than just about anybody. He says very striking statements. He says, “the property of love is to make the lover equal to the object loved.” And then he says “Just as God loves nothing outside Himself, he bears no lower love for anything than the love He bears for Himself. With God, to love the soul is to put her somehow in Himself and make her His equal.” Which is a very profound, striking statement.
This is one of my favorite icons—I’m an Eastern Catholic, by the way. My wife was born and raised Eastern Byzantine Catholic and I switched rites after I got married. This is my photograph of the icon downstairs (you can see my thumbprint in the way). You can find other ones, but I like this particular one because the eyes are [unintelligible] real well. And I think, if you reflect on this, this is really an encapsulation of deification because, if you think about it, God becomes this baby and He’s in His mother’s arms and staring into her eyes and vice versa. He enters into the very guts, the very intimate aspect of the human family. You can think of the home at Nazareth—I have kids and they’re small, they crawl into bed with you and they play between you and your wife, jumping around (you’ve probably done the same thing)—and they sat around in the evening together and so forth. And so, He enters into the very very heart of the human intimate relations. And I think the lesson that we learn is that He’s calling us to that in the Trinity. John of the Cross goes on to say that He’s really calling us into the very generation of the Son, to participate in the very generation of the Son from the Father and the Spiration of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son as well.
And this is not just confined to humans. One of the points I want to make is that it is confined to the whole universe. The incarnation has impregnated the whole of matter—Christ took spit and dirt and did a miracle with the lowest thing, and He used that to convey the Divine power to cure people with. He made the clay with His fingers and smeared it on the person’s eyes. And so, the whole of material reality is being called into the body of Christ.
What is the reality of this now? Where this is occurring is the Church, the Church is the new creation. Right now, it’s the baptized faithful and those who are in Heaven and those who are in purgatory. The Catholic Catechism again says that “the Church is the Body of Christ.” (CCC 805). “By communicating his Spirit, Christ mystically constitutes as his body those brothers of his who are called together from every nation” (CCC 788).
And so, the Church is the new creation. Again, in the Catholic Catechism, the Church is “’that Jerusalem which is above’ (CCC 757) and “the world reconciled” (CCC 845). So, not just people, but the world reconciled. And then, from Revelation (21:1-2 on the board): “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” So, it’s the whole of reality.
This is an icon of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Again, the whole notion of all of reality. And then, from the Christian East, there’s a really beautiful way of thinking about this that, I think, actually needs to be thought of a little bit more in theology and by people. This is the—again, St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai—this is the original icon that people can find of the Transfiguration. So, the Divine rays going out from there. And several of the Church Fathers, Easter Fathers have noted, in a very beautiful way, that in the Transfiguration, the light going out from Christ (the uncreated light of Divinity going out from Christ. God is above time, and so Christ is above time as well. He’s in time and above time). This light of Tabor went out to all of creation: before Christ, Christ’s time and in the future. And all the beauty that you see in the universe comes from the light of Tabor. And the Holy Spirit sort of collects all these rays of the light of Tabor and draws them back into the Church. And when that’s complete, when all the beauty that has gone out of Christ is fully concentrated back in the Church, that will be the end of time.
I think this is represented, this is a very famous Eastern saint over on the right, St. Seraphim of Sarov. He was from the northern Russian forests. This is a famous account of his with Molotivov, who was a Russian layman who came and visited him for spiritual direction. It’s interesting, in the mysticism of the East, there has only been one Eastern mystic who has ever gotten the stigmata. All Eastern mystics, instead, receive the uncreated light of Christ at Mount Tabor and they glow with that instead of the stigmata. And so, he glowed with this divine light when he wanted to let it out. And so, the story is—here’s the picture of the Trinity and then the Holy Spirit is this tiny little dove right here—so, he’s in the forest and Molotivov comes to him and asks “what is the purpose of the Christian life?” And Seraphim says “to acquire the Holy Spirit,” in other words, divinization or theosis. [Molotivov asked] “How can I do that?’ [Seraphim replied] “Well, you’ve already done that partly. You’re already a child of God; you’re already baptized.” And then his eyes started glowing and opened up Molotivov and he could see his own soul glowing and the whole forest was transformed, glowing with the divine light of Christ as well.
So, there’s this deep notion, particularly in the Christian East, that the whole of reality is impregnated with this divine light of Christ. And so, He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. The purpose of reality is this divinization or theosis and this is sort of the core of the story I’m trying to structure here for the Catholic structure of the universe.
Again, we said that the Church is where this is occurring, and the heart of the Church is the liturgy—so the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed and the font from which her power flows. The Fathers of the Church talked about three generic parts of the liturgy: union, illumination and purgation. For those of you familiar with mystical theology, these are the three stages of mystical theology, of the spiritual life. As Dionysius, I think, was the first to really historically synthesize all this together, this is Maximus the Confessor who developed this idea.
The liturgy has three generic parts: purgation, you walk into the liturgy—like you had here at 11:30—you hear the readings and the Gospel and that orders you away from the concerns of the day. It purges you from your concerns with material reality. The Nicene Creed occurs, that teaches you (16:50 STOP)