When Copernicus showed that, despite appearances, the world was not flat nor the centre of the universe, we began to gain a much more accurate picture of the cosmos.
But his discoveries also created an identity crisis for humanity. If man was not the centre of the universe, with the heavens revolving around us, what were we? Were we just a bit of dross on the third stone from the Sun, lost among the infinite expanse of the universe?
It didn't really take all that long for "behavioural sciences" to emerge which treated humanity just that way. Human behaviour began to be seen as purely the result of causal factors beyond our control. Free will was an illusion. Ultimately, so was human responsibility.
Psychologist B.F. Skinner boasted, in the mid-20th century, "The only differences I expect to see revealed between the behaviour of rat and man (aside from enormous differences of complexity) lie in the field of verbal behaviour."
Rat and humanity on the same plane? How demeaning!
Yet, already by the time Skinner wrote, the notion of causation as similar to one billiard ball banging on another one had broken down in the physical sciences. The study of sub-atomic particles had led physicists to conclude that the most basic physical occurrences were marked by randomness and uncertainty.
It wasn't much longer before psychologists were remarking that there is a space between stimulus and response. In that space, choice can occur. Human beings were not necessarily the same as rats and machines, after all.
Man had inherent dignity and the potential to exercise that dignity by making choices and commitments.
One could go back to St. Augustine in the fourth century to see a refined view of that dignity. Augustine said that there are higher things such as God and the virtues. There are also base desires, a slavery to entertaining the senses. By choosing the higher things, a person is raised up. By living by one's base desires, a person is brought down.
Augustine had the notion that everything has its own "weight." While a stone falls, flame rises. "In my case, love is the weight by which I act," he wrote. "To whatever place I go, I am drawn to it by love. By (God's) gift – the Holy Spirit – we are set aflame and borne aloft, and the fire within us carries us upward" (Confessions, XIII, 9).
The human and physical sciences have taught us a lot. One thing they have taught definitively is that science cannot be ruled by theological preconceptions. Each science or form of activity has its own structure, its own autonomy.
They have that autonomy, however, because they have been created. God created them with their own order, truth and goodness. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says, "The more that human realities are seen in the light of God's plan and lived in communion with God, the more they are empowered and liberated in their distinctive identity" (n. 45).
Discovery and knowledge of natural realities is important. Yet the destiny of humanity and creation is infinitely greater than one can expect or imagine. If one loses sight of that, he falls into the slavery of intellectual pride.
The human person is called to go beyond himself through love. The human person is the only creature that cannot be fulfilled by turning inwards and focusing on his or her own needs. "Man fully discovers his true self in a sincere giving of himself," the Compendium says (n. 34) quoting the Second Vatican Council.
And for a person to be truly transformed in his relations with others, he must be progressively conformed to Christ. It is by living in communion with Christ that we most fully realize who we are meant to be.
Paradoxically, greater faithfulness to God does not lead us to turn away from reforming society and confronting social injustice. Faith leads to love and "imposes the obligation of bringing the appropriate remedies to institutions and living conditions" which betray human dignity (n. 42).
Humanity is not the physical centre of the universe as we once believed, but we do have a dignity that is unique. We are not solely the product of circumstances. We have free will and we are called to use that will to love without reserve.
(Fourth in a series of articles)