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Robert E. LauderMay 13, 2015

Over 50 years as a priest I have read many profound books of theology and philosophy, from Jean Mouroux’s The Meaning of Man to Jacques Maritain’s True Humanism to Romano Guardini’s The Church and the Catholic and The Spirit of the Liturgy. These books deeply affected me because they were invitations not only to what Bernard Lonergan, S.J., identified as an intellectual conversion, a radical change in worldview, but also to what he called a moral conversion, a change in lifestyle, and to a religious conversion, a deepening of relationship with God. The books were challenging me not only to think differently but to be differently.

Yet I do not know whether any of these books influenced me as profoundly as John Haught’s What Is God? How to Think About the Divine (1986).

I came upon Haught’s book while preparing to teach a course at Saint John’s University with the unfortunate title “The Problem of God.” My plan was to construct the course around three books: one a selection of readings from influential theists and atheists, a secondary source on religion and atheism and a third book presenting a contemporary view of God. Having chosen the first two books, I did what a professor should never do: I selected the third book even though I had not read it, relying on an advertisement in a Catholic journal. It was What Is God? The book, a philosophy text, not a theology text, not only changed my view of God but my view of self, of neighbor and of religion.

Haught, whom I met in 2008 when he held a visitor’s chair at St. John’s University, does not demand of the reader any previous religious commitment. He identifies five experiences that everyone has and wishes to have more of: depth, future, freedom, beauty and truth. He argues that Rudolf Otto’s classic description of the holy as mysterium tremendum et fascinans—a mystery that is awesome and frightening but also fascinating and seductive—can be used to describe each of these five experiences. Each chapter follows the same pattern: first an analysis of the experience; second an explanation of why this very experience can seem to suggest that there is no God; and third, if it is true that the experience is of the divine, what are the implications for religion?

The Depth of God

The first chapter on depth may be the easiest to illustrate Haught’s method and some of his insights. My life may have been more introspective than most. During my six years as a major seminarian I spent countless hours reflecting on my experience, attending Mass, going to confession and regularly meeting with a spiritual director. During my decades as a priest, introspection and self-reflection have also been important regular activities. Yet I still do not understand myself completely; and I never will, because there is depth to me that is inexhaustible. I have a close friend for over 60 years, but I will never understand him completely either, nor he me.

This is also the reason why no human community or society will ever be completely intelligible. New scientific theories appear regularly; but no theory will completely grasp nature’s depth, because the depth at the root of persons and nature is God.

If this depth is so present, why do some people doubt the existence of God? The elusive nature of depth, that it is not a being but the horizon of all beings, can lead some thinkers to atheism or agnosticism. The experience of depth, which is simultaneously an experience of abyss and ground, seduces and invites us. Haught writes:

The reality of God is no less capable of immediate validation than is the dominion of depth that underlies all the impressions that the world makes upon us. Therefore that God is not easily accessible to our senses or to our whims and wishes should be no more of a scandal than that the dimension of depth is incapable of being brought under our comprehending control.... The realm of objects that we are able to objectify or focus on is too narrow to contain the reality of the transcendental horizon of our experience.

If depth is an experience of the divine, Haught argues, then the role of religion is to help people search for this depth, to name it when it is recognized and to celebrate it. This is what we should be doing when we celebrate the Sunday Eucharist.

Haught presents the same three-step treatment to future, freedom, beauty and truth. He employs insights of thinkers like Paul Tillich for depth, Ernst Bloch and Karl Rahner, S.J., for future, Jean Paul Sartre for freedom, Alfred North Whitehead for beauty and Bernard Lonergan, S.J., for truth. His treatment is clear and succinct as he arranges the insights of these thinkers so that they interact and build on one other.

Haught’s treatment of beauty has a special importance because of the use he makes of it in other books on science and theology. He stresses that we need to surrender to beauty in order to experience the beauty of nature, of another person, of an artistic masterpiece or of some extraordinary event. He writes:

This experience of being grasped by the beautiful is one of the clearest models we have for expressing what is involved in the intuition of the divine. In fact it is more than a model. We may even say that our ordinary experience of the beautiful is already an encounter with ultimacy....

We are implicitly aware of the chasm that lies between the beauty embodied in any particular object of aesthetic delight and the unlimited beauty for which we long in the depths of our desire. This abysmal distance is a mysterium tremendum from which we shrink back.

We long for unlimited beauty, but sometimes we fixate on aesthetic objects and by doing so we anesthetize our profound need for a fuller and wider beauty.

Theology and Scientism

In later books Haught has explored the relationship between science and theology. Having taught philosophy for over 45 years, I have become accustomed to the widespread view among college students that empirical science is the best way of knowing. Though they may not be able to name it, they have embraced the philosophical position known as scientism. Scientism holds that only statements of empirical science are meaningful and true. Haught rejects any reduction of human knowing to only empirical science. Yet he is equally strong on refusing to equate, even indirectly, theology with empirical science.

He defended the distinction in a national setting during the so-called Dover trial in Harrisburg, Pa. (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District), where he testified on the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. As Haught reports in God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, there was a demand that I.D., which had strong support from evangelical Christians and Muslims, become part of scientific explanations of the cosmos. Haught pinpoints the problem:

What is so controversial about I.D. is not that some people find it essential to invoke the idea of divine intelligence as the ultimate explanation of life.... Rather it is the demand that “intelligent design” should become part of scientific explanation as such, and furthermore, that it should be material for science classes and biology textbooks.

Haught testified that to require the teaching of intelligent design would “compel public school science teachers to present to their students in biology class information that is inherently religious, not scientific, in nature.” Many college students have told me that their high school science teachers embraced the philosophy of secular humanism. Haught is equally opposed to teachers in biology class teaching religion. Science should be taught in science classes, religion in religion classes.

No doubt Haught’s testimony disappointed many conservative Christians, but it should not be interpreted as a surrender to materialist biologists. His writings attempt to convince theologians, both Catholics and others, that science’s discoveries over the last 50 years should be looked at as a challenge to adjust and re-interpret our view of God.

Points of Contact

In Science and Religion Haught suggests there are four principal ways to think about the relationship of religion to science. The first he identifies as the conflict position, which is held by those who think religion is opposed to science. The second he calls the contrast approach, which holds that while science and religion are both valid, they are so different they should be rigorously separated. The third he identifies as the contact approach, which sees points of interaction between science and religion. The fourth is the confirmation approach, which stresses the positive way that religion, without interfering with science, supports science in its adventure of discovery. Haught writes:

The confirmation approach may be stated as follows: religion’s claim that the universe is a finite, coherent, relational, ordered totality, grounded in an ultimate love and promise, provides a general vision of things that constantly nurtures the scientificquest for knowledge and liberates science from association with imprisoning ideologies.

Haught clearly states his preference:

I think that the “contact” approach, supplemented by that of “confirmation” provides the most fruitful and reasonable response to the unfortunate tension that has held so many scientists away from an appreciation of religion, and an even larger number of religious people from enjoying discoveries of science.

Haught views the universe as fundamentally a cosmic story of restless searching for new forms of order. He argues that we do not have to separate this story from the history of salvation and the realm of freedom. He sees religion as an exciting adventure as theologians, indeed all of us, embrace the truth that our own stories are part of the cosmic story. Christian revelation sheds an illuminating and beautiful light on evolution. Haught’s daring and provocative insight is to interpret evolution in light of God’s living self-communication. He believes that cosmic evolution is a sacramental revelation of God’s personality, that it is the narrative representation of God’s self-gift to the cosmos. We live in an unfinished universe.

Haught points out that in its finitude the cosmos cannot receive God’s self-gift in any single moment; even though the universe may seem unfathomable, it is not expansive enough to contain an infinite love. The cosmos is therefore invited to evolve. He writes in Mystery and Promise:

Christians...may understand the decisiveness of Christ as the moment in evolution when God’s promise and self-gift, which has been continually and creatively present to the cosmos from its birth, are embraced by a human being without reservation. In Christ, the vision of God for the universe is accepted fully, and the significance of cosmic process eternally guaranteed.

Haught stresses that it is especially in the crucifixion of Jesus that Christians recognize God’s humility. Through Jesus’ death faith discovers the complete outpouring of God’s selfhood into the world. Haught suggests that creation might be understood not so much as God’s self-expression but rather as God’s “self-limitation” allowing the world to exist distinct from its creator. Haught writes: “The cross reveals to faith the self-sacrificing of God out of whose limitless generosity the world is called, but never forced, into being.”

Haught believes, as he writes in God After Darwin, that an evolutionary theology can help “us to feel with Saint Paul the Spirit of God sharing in nature’s own longing for the consummation of creation.” Recognizing the courage and adventure of classical spirituality, he writes:

I am convinced with Teilhard de Chardin that by conceiving the world’s sacred Alpha as also an Omega beckoning all things toward a transcendent future up ahead, we shall forfeit none of the tension, courage, and passionate longing of the classical spiritual ways. If anything, a sense of life and the entire cosmos evolving through immense depths of time toward what is radically new and utterly surprising only intensifies the religious drama. Religion here becomes more an ongoing voyage of discovery rather than recovery.

For 30 years John Haught has been engaged in his own voyage of discovery, one that builds upon the Catholic tradition and ventures forth in new and unexpected directions.

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Paul Ferris
9 years ago
I have purchased some if not most of John Haught's books. I appreciate this article very much. Thank you Rev, Robert Lauder
Onn Foo
9 years ago


Bruce Snowden
9 years ago
I see as Second only to the NT Resurrection accounts, John Haught's revelations about Faith in God, delivered by Fr. Lauder in crystaline clarity. I believe Haupt successfully debunks atheism’s illogical conclusions, making denial of the existence of God intellectually dishonest. John Haught with profound spiritual insight wedded to cosmological verities points out that “Christian Revelation sheds illuminating and beautiful light on evolution,” God’s principal tool I might suggest, in creation’s methodology. He also recognizes that “cosmic evolution is a sacramental revelation of God’s personality” further calling evolution God’s “self-gift” to the cosmos.” Adding that God “invited” the cosmos to evolve.” Wow! All of this says to me that, God is an Evolutionary Being and the cosmos, I mean material creation, is Trinitarian. Just as Father, Son, Holy Spirit “proceeds” one from and by the Other, I venture to suggest that “proceeds” could accurately exist side by side with,the word “evolves” without beginning, or end, everlastingly one from and by the other, providing thereby a new understanding of the Trinitarian mystery. I’ve long held that belief mostly quietly, being non-credentialed hesitant to venture forth on a topic which even angels cannot fully grasp. It’s exhilarating to discover that John Haught has given “incarnation” to insights I have only theoretically entertained. Being evolutionistic from start to finish, I find delight in realizing that God also is. Yet I am cautiously aware of Paul’s rhetorical question, “Who has known the mind of God?” Hopefully I’m not too far off track. As an addendum, let me add that John Haught also said that the cosmos (creation) is "unfinished." This has led me to wonder if cosmological unfinishedness might at least partially explain natural disasters, creation "groaning" as it were, awaiting "deliverance" to the finished work, the "new creation" Scripture mentions.
JR Cosgrove
9 years ago
What is so controversial about I.D. is not that some people find it essential to invoke the idea of divine intelligence as the ultimate explanation of life.... Rather it is the demand that “intelligent design” should become part of scientific explanation as such, and furthermore, that it should be material for science classes and biology textbooks.
Father Lauder, You should know that you and John Haught have a false understanding of Intelligent Design. I have been following it for almost 20 years and find its critics routinely misrepresent it. Few ID supporters want it taught in the public schools. What they want is Darwin out of the schools. Darwin is bad science and is just as philsoophically oriented as Haught claims ID is. A close examination of the science of life and cosmology would come down on the side that we really do not know how life forms changed over time nor do we have an explanation as to why the universe is so finely tuned. That is what student should be taught in every school. Then let them ponder God but not from a false understanding of the world that Darwin and his advocates provide.
Steven Reynolds
9 years ago
Thank you Fr. Lauder and America's editors for a piece on the work of John Haught. I very much value his book What is God? and have followed his later work in the science-religion space, which are discussed in the article. I was fortunate to have had the privilege of taking two of Mr. Haught's classes at Georgetown in early '80s. He was a wonderful teacher and has become an important American Catholic theologian over all these years. Good to see his work getting such a thoughtful review.
James Griggy
8 years 12 months ago
Fr. Lauder, at what level is this book written? Does one need a strong background in theology or philosophy to appreciate it? I am always looking for new things to read to strengthen and deepen my faith.

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