We often assume, I believe, that the most perennial battle in human history is that which occurs between faith and reason; that always and everywhere, people of faith have been at war with the philosophers and scientists. And it is certainly true that wherever you look in human history, you will find something analogous to our modern struggles, such as the execution of Socrates for being an “atheist.” However, I think this rather overstates the case. Socrates was executed for atheism because he denied the Pantheon, the great hall of the tribal gods of the Greeks. But this rejection of a particular constellation of gods was not a rejection of the divine in itself; for Socrates, the universe was suffused with divine purpose and meaning.
What does happen, in most times and places, is that faith and reason are held together in tension with each other, rather than being in a war to the death. That is to say that most of our contemporary battles over this issue would simply be unintelligible to the men of other times and places. For what is asserted by the modern world is that everything will be science, and hence there will be (given enough time and funding) no further need of faith, a claim which leads to the counter-claims of fideism. We think of this fight as characteristically modern but in fact the battle has its origins with the scholastics of the high Middle Ages, and specifically with the assertion of Thomas Aquinas that “the same thing cannot be both seen and believed.” He continues, “Hence it is equally impossible for one and the same thing to be an object of science and of belief.” Hence, science and faith are directly opposed to each other so that the more of the one must mean the less of the other. Thomas of course comes down on the side of faith, but only as a stopgap. As we expand our knowledge, more things will pass from the shadowy realms of faith to the clear light of science until eventually, perhaps at the Beatific Vision, everything will be knowledge while faith, like the communist state, will simply wither away, having no further function to perform. This is indeed a grand vision and no one can be faulted if they wish to speed up the process a bit and bring all things or nearly all under the domain of science as quickly as possible. But this leads to the fundamental error of the modern world.
And what is this fundamental error? It is the belief that there exists a purely secular space, divorced from the moral order. Now, this makes a certain degree of sense if one confines one’s gaze to the physical parts of the cosmos. One need not, indeed cannot, allow moral considerations to color a computation of the orbit of Venus or the refraction of light. And this “non-moral” view has proved powerful; few of us would be willing to abandon the marvels of the modern age. However, I think this piecemeal vision fails when we turn our attention from the parts to the whole. When we look at the cosmos as a whole, we see order and beauty, and can only understand them through an aesthetic view. While the parts are governed by a strictly deterministic rationality and can be understood through knowledge of the causes, the whole is governed by order and beauty, and one that cannot be rationalized. The cosmos is cosmetic and like all things cosmetic, it escapes the purely rational in favor of pure contemplation. What it does not invite is some reduction of cosmic order to the four causes, the endpoint of all rational analysis. That is, the cosmos escapes rationalism.