- Paul and Bill are proud to present this encore episode featuring the Science and Religion Initiative featuring the Science & Religion Initiative program conducted by the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. In 2019, we interviewed Chris Baglow, Ph.D., director of the program, which equips Catholic high school educators with big-picture insights and detailed tools to communicate effectively regarding the complementarity of faith and reason, science and religion.
- We spoke with Prof. Baglow about topics covered in his recently published book, the second edition of Faith, Science, & Reason. He will be keynote speaker at the 2021 conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists, scheduled for June 4–6 in Washington, DC. Find information about the conference
- We also spoke with Jay Martin, Ph.D., a scholar in systematic theology who was the Science & Religion Initiative’s assistant director and is now Assistant Teaching Professor in Notre Dame’s Department of Theology.
- The initiative, with support from the Templeton Foundation, encourages a coordinated approach to educating young Catholics, helping them to avoid the trap of a focus on science as an exclusive source of truth and “real” knowledge. Such a focus can drive students away from the Catholic Church’s wisdom and values if it dismisses religious faith as meaningless—not worth serious engagement in their minds and hearts.
Bill and I are excited to bring you an episode about the archeology and secular history of the time when Jesus was born, grew up, and preached. Fuller notes to come on our episode with Dr. Jean-Pierre Isbouts, author of In the Footsteps of Jesus.
- Jean-Pierre Isbouts, Ph.D., is a best-selling author, historian, and filmmaker who has invested decades of work in to understand and explain the Biblical foundations of Christian faith from an interdisciplinary perspective. His career as a humanities scholar began with his doctoral degree from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He is a professor of human development at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, CA.
- Isbouts’s latest book, published in 2017 by National Geographic, is In the Footsteps of Jesus: A Chronicle of His Life and the Origins of Christianity. In addition to reading his books, you can take his course, “The History and Archaeology of the Bible” through the Great Courses library of products. He has made several notable films, and he recently has posted a series of videos embodying his new book, available by searching his name on Vimeo.
- Isbouts talked with Paul and Bill about key findings that help to increase public understanding of the historical context of Jesus’ life and how he loves to deepen that understanding through visual images of lands where Jesus taught, plus explorations in maps, art, archaeology, and more. His book features a beautiful collection of images.
- The discussion with TSSM looks into Jesus’ background, which is much more extensive than the typical label of “carpenter.” He notes that Jesus’ role in rebuilding the city of Sepphoris presaged his message of action and solidarity aimed to build the Kingdom of God. The times during which he taught on earth were filled with social and economic chaos, when the rule of Herod and his son decimated the economy of Galilee and displaced thousands of peasants in severe poverty.
- These historic times, Dr. Isbouts points out, resonate with readers today during a period of pandemic and polarization. We need to hear again Jesus’ call to come together as citizens of the Kingdom to practice basic principles of the Torah—compassion, social justice, and total faith in God as Father. Dr. Isbouts himself says his studies have drawn him closer to the figure of Jesus and “what fired his ministry.” The application of various fields of scholarship helps to tear down walls that many people today see dividing the worlds of science and faith.
Paul and Bill discuss some of the ways in which human minds go wrong. Paul wonders aloud whether the state of spiritual disconnection called "original sin" is specifically manifested in the ways parents relate, or don't relate, to children and the problems that follow from that for the rest of our lives. We discuss Henri Nouwen (a little) and Eckhart Tolle (a little more) and his ideas on how enlightenment has cropped up here and there throughout history but gets suffocated by social conformism.
- Paul and Bill discussed a number of resources for pondering the nature of sin and how it affects our lives—as well as how people act based on their perceptions of sin in themselves and others. Without the Church’s wisdom and reliance on Christ’s grace, behaviors based on a misunderstanding or dismissal of sinfulness can distort our lives as individuals, in our minds and hearts, as well as our lives in society.
- The co-hosts concluded that we need to invest time throughout our lives to discern how sin—and a need for forgiveness and grace which is poorly grasped in secular society—in integrated in our mental and spiritual health. We cannot just set aside the matter of original sin and our ongoing inclination toward evil. We tapped into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially the paragraphs around #400 and beyond, for guidance to sort this out.
- Such guidance is important in countless cases, such as reflection on Jesus’ teaching on separating the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.
- We discussed The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.
- Paul spoke of being pointed toward books by Henry Nouwen and commentary by Eckhart Tolle, a popular proponent of new-age syncretism with echoes of Christianity and Buddhism. He also spoke of exploring life-solutions propounded in EMDR therapy.
- He mentioned having found useful insights when exploring that therapy through Francine Shapiro’s Getting Past Your Past.
- Paul and Bill talk here about a mix of psychology and societal dilemmas in light of Catholic values.
- Twelve-step programs have experience with an interpersonal phenomenon often called “taking someone else’s inventory,” Paul points out. This entails one individual assessing another through a facile psychological analysis of supposed characteristics underlying comments made or behavior shown; it can be prone toward unfortunate intimations of contempt, based on emotional reaction. This has gotten worse in these days of snap judgments which assume the worst, not the best, about complex people in complex situations.
- Often, people fail to make a distinction between the actions and the basic characteristics of a person. Paul mentions The Betrothed, a novel which talks about circumstances where different sorts of reactions to evil actions were possible, for good or ill.
- The film Rudy includes a conversation where one hears the aphorism, “I’ve learned there is a God, and I’m not Him,” Bill mentions. The twelve-step programs have recognized that it is an awful prospect to have to play the role of God without having the abilities of that Higher Power, as Paul points out.
- Subsidiarity as a centerpiece of Catholic Social Thought makes sense not only as an aid to effectiveness of solutions, but also an aid to greater peace of mind about one’s agency and responsibility in addressing problems, your co-hosts agreed.
In this last episode of 2020, Bill and I discuss how attention, focus, and distraction are shaping us and being engineered in our media-saturated culture. We can't pay attention to everything, and in this environment, it seems that censorship is becoming a politically acceptable option for tech companies, as the Trump election corruption allegations became forbidden topics on many platforms.
- Co-hosts Paul and Bill agreed that the film—and Broadway play—called “Network” shows foresight in its reflections about human dignity and corporate values in competition on an individual and global scale.
- Pope Damasus changed the dominant language of the (Roman) Catholic Church from Greek to Latin (what would have been called the vernacular language in that time and place).
- John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty and helped to advance the authentically liberal project of freeing up human creativity and truth-seeking in the marketplace of ideas.
- Many U.S. citizens (and people in general) are reverting to tendencies toward self-centeredness in human communication and civil society—tendencies against which common-good principles of the United States have served as societal guard-rails with remarkable success during much of our history.
- The self-centeredness runs counter, too, to the zeal for connection-making which drives many messages from Pope Francis. By the way, that drive is a factor leading to the long length of the Pope’s encyclical, like his most recent document, Fratelli Tutti.
- Communication (and communities like those in social media) tend toward exclusion of unwanted information, rather than a greater spirit of inclusion.
- The Distracted Mind, recommended by Paul, is an academic book that is timely reading in what Bill calls this media world of “information inflation.” That inflation leads toward a purposeful or kneejerk limitation on attention—one cannot consume everything from today’s firehose of data!—and even what Paul described as weaponization of attentiveness.
- To the degree that a sense of exceptionalism guides us, history may justify some adoption of that in our thinking about the principles and aspirations of the United States. But it can be risky if it shuts off our thinking about, or respect for, the uniqueness and dignity that individuals around the world bring to the idea marketplace. We can’t reduce our thinking to dismissive judgments against them as merely packages of entirely good or bad ideas.
- Pope Francis writes for a present moment that needs a strong sense of right and wrong but also a realistic, holistic, transparent vision of the earthbound state of human thinking around the world. Paul notes that this can lead toward a sense of hopelessness, but both Paul and Bill say the papal messages—and the faith behind them—can offer a hope based on reliance on God’s operation in daily life. The messages include his annual teachings for World Communications Day.
- That’s a better approach than a video-game philosophy favoring destruction—and deconstruction—before a rebuilding in line with modern principles and atomistic priorities, as Paul points out. The better approach allows for fuller embrace of complex, reflective thinking, of “adulting” with a sense of moderation and responsibility to individuals and the common good, to the past as well as the future. Bill points out that the U.S. Constitution is one earthly source of insight from the past There are other such sources, too, Paul notes. GK Chesterton spoke of a population’s respect for the wisdom of its predecessors as a “democracy of the dead.”
Paul and Bill spoke with Aida Ramos, Ph.D., an associate professor of economics at the University of Dallas. Prof. Ramos’ research and teaching at that private Catholic university include topics in economic development and Catholic Social Thought and their implications for public policy. She is the author of a book (Shifting Capital: Mercantilism and the Economics of the Act of Union of 1707 ) in the “Palgrave Studies in the History of Economic Thought” series.
The Vatican’s first direct foray into issues of justice in economics and the relationship of capital and labor came from Pope Leo XIII in 1891 in his encyclical Rerum Novarum. Pope Pius XI added to the Church’s economic analysis 40 years later in the encyclical Quadragesima Anno; it focuses on the different systems of economic organization. The Vatican has spoken out about economic organization and justice in various additional ways over the years, including such encyclicals as Saint Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. In general, both capitalism and socialism have received mixed reviews in terms of their virtues and problems.
At the core of economic decision-making—discernment about the systems from which we choose and how we implement them—is the balancing of rights and responsibilities. The Church strongly proclaims a variety of economic rights held by human persons. It also insists that humans and corporations go beyond a limited notion of responsibility focused only on maximization of income and wealth. The Church asks, what is the economy for? What is my duty to God and other human beings as it is to be exercised through human economic behavior?
The universal destination of goods is a Catholic principle that the reason the economy exists is for the good of all human persons. The preferential option for the poor is a principle which states: If any action makes the poor worse off, do not pursue it. The Church also teaches that we all have a responsibility to uphold the common good. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, the totality of social and economic conditions is intended for human beings to achieve fulfillment and authentic happiness.
Pope Franics’ new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, reminds the faithful to pursue fraternal relationships of compassion and love with people all over the world, which helps the human ecology to reflect and build the common good. This taps into principles of Catholic Social Teaching including solidarity and respect for the dignity of each unique individual created by God. This global consciousness coexists with a local consciousness guided by the principle of subsidiarity—which instructs that people at the level of smaller communities should have responsibility and authority to address all issues they can address, free of intervention by higher authorities unless those greater resources must be called upon.
Catholic Social Thought, or Catholic Social Teaching, has been called the Church’s best-kept secret, partly because its principles are prospective meeting grounds for broader public consensus; they are drawn from the Gospel and Church wisdom through the ages, but they have rarely been proclaimed as a package to be consistently understood, discussed and applied in unison.
Your TSSM coverage of the 2020 US election with the unique perspective Bill and Paul provide. Be sure to let us know your ideas for the presidential hopeful cage match reality show that we clearly need to augment or replace the primary election system here in the 21st century... hit us up with your proposed names and formats using the links to the right. As always, God bless America (all of it, not just the US...).
Paul and Bill focused on the 2020 elections as a point of tragically little focus in discourse or reasoning—but a good starting point for wide-ranging conversation about humanity’s desperate search for balance, hope, and sustainability in our hearts and minds. The desire for a higher wisdom—a happy medium, a golden mean—has always been complicated by our focus on ourselves and our temptation to believe that we know best, the co-hosts pointed out. Bill pointed out that “fake news” was said to have made its first appearance in the Garden of Eden, courtesy of the serpent; that comment was made by Pope Francis in his 2018 reflections for World Communications Day.
Society is operating in a state of radical uncertainty and unsustainable indebtedness among persons, but we forget the stabilizing recognition that we share an indebtedness to God—a responsibility to Him as our source and our only reliable resource. We have forgotten a lot about this, leaving us not only lost, but facing a steep price to pay as God’s children, Paul said. He referred to the story of King Josiah’ realization that he and his people had strayed from the laws of the Torah.
People seeking personal goodness and the common good know we have made serious mistakes on our journeys and have perpetuated ignorance and poor judgment. Each successive generation has been left unprepared and unable to make difficult decisions that would point toward healing. Bill recalled G. K. Chesterton’s call for a nation’s responsibility to wisdom that whatever wisdom was being handed down via what he called “the democracy of the dead.”
But such respect for tradition is not one of humanity’s strong points. Paul pointed out that our podcast’s name points to a second millennium whose second half was marked by major departures from tradition for the sake of greater human creativity. The co-hosts discussed how any attainment of a golden mean has been lost in the pursuit of collaborative innovation—even though we fail to hone our ideas as humble learners and listeners. Meanwhile, any instinct to hold fast to the tried and true only traps us in cocoons of misguided, comfortable assumptions. The artificial “communities” we belong to through our digital culture are places not of roots which allow us to grow, but of simplified labels which mimic understanding, Bill said. He was drawing upon concerns about internet trends voiced by Pope Francis in his 2019 message for World Communications Day.
Our political system does not encourage any sustained, constructive dialogue between the old and the new or between fresh, authentic perspectives. Paul pointed out that we are not presented with real choices despite the fact that parties and partisans paint themselves as sharply different. And Bill pointed out that one are of common ground so many leaders share is the use of pessimism and fear. He recalled the presidential campaigns where candidate Biden spoke of a dark winter ahead and candidate Trump portrayed himself as the alternative to anarchy and economic despair.
When an incomplete knowledge of history leads to despair about the past and present of a society, it can seem like the structures undergirding that society are held up more by mass psychology than real accomplishments or aspirations, the co-hosts said. Our culture likes to exalt creativity in principle, but have we made it easier to see connectivity and possibilities, Paul asks. Bill, proving his fascination with papal teachings for World Communications Day, would point out that the 2020 message of Pope Francis highlights our need to pass along hopeful stories from generation to generation that begin with our dynamic, hopeful relationships with God. Paul reflected on how our childhoods do not always prepare us for the kinds of pursuits entailed in the career pursuits and panoramic interests of adulthood. In a world of limited, utilitarian perspectives, it is hard to find happy wanderers with big ideas looking for life’s happy mediums.
- Brad Stalcup joins Paul and Bill in this episode to talk about his recent entry into the world of Catholic education. He began teaching religion to high school freshmen and sophomores in this fall semester of 2020—a time that Paul describes as a “baptism of fire” because of Covid-19 and today’s unusual circumstances overall.
- The vast majority of the approximately 120 students in Brad’s various classes is learning in-person, but there are several who are “live-streamers,” participating in the courses through distance-learning. The school is located in the region around Cleveland, OH.
- It’s a labor of love, not overwhelming, and “I’ve got great students,” Brad says He has not surveyed the classes to find out which ones identify themselves as Catholic, but the vast majority are Catholic and probably 50 percent are practicing Catholics in the sense of weekly Mass attendance. There is definitely a Catholic identity in this high-powered school, “which I’m grateful for,” Brad says.
- There is an eagerness to learn, especially among the freshmen, he says. He recalls that his own freshman year was a bit of an iffy time, and he wanted to help young people not fall into the trap of a slow start in high school, perhaps accompanied by theological doubt. The bottom line for sophomores is that they try to predict and give the teacher the “right answer.”
- Two key messages to Brad’s approach to the freshmen: God does stuff. And your life matters. Because of scientific materialism, there’s a temptation to think life doesn’t matter because humans are actually reduced to a tiny bit of matter drifting through space. For the sophomores: God desires your happiness. And He invites you into relationship. Church only makes sense in the context of relationship, Brad points out. His principal goal is to rid them of “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” which already shows up in students’ papers—when they say, “God is there for you,” for example
- Brad says he likes using poetry, particularly “The Hound of Heaven.” It makes both of the two points he wants to focus on with freshmen. He adds that it’s important to present certain things as true while also leaving room for questions. Or else they will build a wall around their heart. Thomas Aquinas himself asked the question, “Does God exist?” so it’s a worthy question to think about. Ceasing to believe in God drives a wedge between science and God. Today’s focus on science is for things that happen on earth and God is for my spiritual fulfillment. When they start conflicting, our culture encourages scientistic This involves incorporating faith and reason together in a healthy way—leaving room for questions, having them think about life in non-scientific ways.
- Learning science involves asking questions just like learning religion. The tendency in students is to think they can memorize answers, in both, but there are more constructive ways to teach both.
In this episode, Paul and Bill are back together for a conversation that catches up on past episodes which pondered big problems in science, government, the economy, personal well-being, and more. The pondering focused on solutions as matters of step-by-step processes, but as our conversation starts, we’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems, their quantity and complexity. Society relies more and more on government, which has proven it does not perform long-term planning very well. And it doesn’t really have the needed resources and insights it claims to have.
Ultimately, the solutions are at the individual level and in communities and communion. Paul recommends Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Church does have amazing resources for building up faith and hope in ourselves and others—with insights at the local and global level. Of course, the Church too is in a vulnerable and broken position in its circumstances as a human institution. Paul and Bill wonder how the Church can exercise influence in the nature of evangelization and civic duty at a time when the world needs better problem-solving that respects but transcends our various individual differences and weaknesses. Collectively, intellectuals are a tiny minority, and God must love rednecks (literally with red necks) because these are the working people. Here’s an inspiring story about rednecks. We must aim to do much of our work, with God’s help, in small steps and initiatives that growing corporations and growing empires of power will consider small and off-the-radar. The reference to “Let’s Get Small” looks to Steve Martin and an old “Saturday Night Live” performance in which he left a message that stuck with Bill.
A big part of the answer is Catholic Social Teaching. These principles can give us approaches and motivation and starting points for conversations about a sense of purpose to unite us. Again, it entails humility, not pontification, because at the individual level we need to act in our families and communities to get involved in bringing these principles to life—perhaps by going into politics, or getting involved in a civic organization, or simply accepting responsibility to assist some kind of repair work on one of society’s obvious wounds. This may involve joining groups, like the Knights of Columbus, to fight for many causes including racial justice. If we join the Democratic Party, our role would be to push for reform and renewal—but then again, the Lord would require us to do the same thing in the Republican Party.
Hilaire Belloc said the defining feature of the self-proclaimed “practical man” is his inability to reason back to first principles or forward to final consequences. Our politics are likewise defined by politicians thrashing about myopically trying to win individual elections. We need to provide our own grass-roots strength for each other, through solidarity, that gives us confidence to approach the public square with the particular abilities we may have to help. Often, this participation is best done at the local level, through family and community and small groups where we can make a distance and experience people’s needs, strengths, and dignity. This is the principle of subsidiarity.
Overall, the solutions and principles point us toward small, not huge solutions. Paul and Bill have talked in the past about how the fields of science and government, for instance, are hobbled in handing us solutions because there is little capacity for long-term planning or even long-term thinking at those grander scales. Many gaps appear in such an entrepreneurial macro-setting: Why did we fail to plan for this or that? Why did we not see this coming? We must be thinking small but thinking big. This is the economy of God and a strength of the Catholic Church, whose purview is local and global, individualistic and cosmic.