Tantum ergo Sacramentum

A good friend asked me the other day, while we were walking to the pub past the steps at the great west door of St. Paul's cathedral, whether I had ever heard God speak to me in a direct voice. And I could only say that it had happened once when I had been on my knees before the sacrament during a service of veneration and Benediction. Hearing voices, God's or otherwise, is no prerequisite for faith of course. But that had been an important moment in my faith journey, and it is a service which I find incredibly moving.

As luck would have it, the church in our neighbouring parish offers Veneration and Benediction as part of Sunday Evensong for high days and holy days. During the service, while we are praying before the Real Presence and waiting to be blessed, it is traditional to sing verses of Pange Lingua, a Medieval Latin hymn by Thomas Aquinas:

Down in Adoration Falling, Lo! the Sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing; newer rites of grace prevail.
Faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail

The final line struck me as a fascinating way into what we think about the human condition and into how we 'do' science as people of faith. Original sin, a great favourite of the western church as taught by St. Augustine of Hippo, states we have been ruined since the Fall when Adam, led on by Eve, messed up and we were ejected from the Garden of Eden. At the Fall we lost  that close and intimate relationship with God our creator; there was now distance and we had to work /have the gift of grace and faith in Jesus Christ to get back to that position again, depending on which part of the church you laid your hat. But whether catholic or protestant, we had been spoilt.

Surprisingly perhaps, in the sixteenth century what you thought happened to human beings in the Fall became a motivation for science.

One group, following Thomas Aquinas, believed that human rationality had not been affected by the Fall, and therefore that it was possible for us to think our way to the truth –  that is, the truth about how God had created the world. In this group we can include Leibniz, Spinoza and Descartes, who went as far as rejecting the value of scientific experimentation and concentrated on the project of getting to truth about Creation via reason alone. 

The other group agreed with Augustine, arguing that the Fall had affected human reason and that it was no longer possible for humans directly to use their mind to get to truth. Therefore, to understand God’s Creation, experiments had to be conducted to get the rough gist of what God had designed. An outcome of this approach and theology is that it is possible to say that God is not restrained in his Creation by the limits of the human mind. This was the position of Galileo, Newton and Boyle, as well as English philosophers such as Bishop George Berkeley and John Locke .

These concerns are perhaps less pressing today and science's religious motivation all but forgotten by most. But even if you are not actively doing science in your day job, how we come to delineate between different kinds of knowledge is important. Is God slotted in to theories 'where the feeble senses fail'? Does he fill in those still vast areas where science has not yet gone? Or will our 'defects' stand in our way of a complete knowledge of the world? 

It depends on what you count as knowledge. My experience of a 'voice in my head' was real to me and remains a part of how I understand God, but could never be externally verifiable now or at the time. Yet for me it goes into the big bag of stuff which I count as evidence for God and is used alongside my faith.

The use of personal experience of God has been at the bedrock of Christianity so we should not be ashamed of it. Happily for those of us who like an -ism, it is associated with a branch of philosophical existentialism called Personalism. This school of thought which goes back to Plato but has a fine heritage throughout the enlightenment and beyond, holds that our personality, and experiences, can be used to uncover knowledge, both theological and philosophical. Human beings are intrinsically and individually, valuable particularly as we exist in community. This had obvious ethical implications. But it is also an interesting and vital philosophical school for considering the knowledge used in both science and religion. It challenges the view of scientism that knowledge about the world can only be found in the rational processes of science. Our individual experiences can also give knowledge about the world and God. For some, the rational proofs of God are a deal clincher, for others in is their personal experience, for others something else. Our experience are not just our own, but part of the community of ideas.

John Henry Newman wrote  "I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God...but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice."

So for me, its partly the beauty and lawfulness of the natural world; its a little bit that voice I once heard; its life experienced considered through a lens of faith; its love; its so many things. But the distance of the Fall is always there, and ''Till he returns or calls me home', my explanation will always be founded on faith too. But find it comforting and liberating to recognise that my experience of life, whether voices in the head or friendship in the pub, can teach me about the divine love of God.