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Culture

Date: 
2002
DOI: 
10.17421/2037-2329-2002-GG-1

I. Introduction. 1. Meaning and Use of the Term. 2. Present State of Facts. - II. Towards an Understanding of the Meaning of Human Culture. 1. The Need for a Renewed Understanding of Culture. 2. Value and Limitations of the Notion of Culture. - III. Culture and Cultures. 1. Elements for a Unbiased Appraisal of Cultures. 2. Cultural Conversion and the Process of Accepting Cultural Values. - IV. Science, Faith and Culture. 1. Human Knowledge and the Role of Science in Culture. 2. The Antinomies of Scientism. - V. Relationships between Different Kinds of Knowledge and the Openness of Culture to the Notion of Wisdom. 1. Wisdom, Knowledge, Culture. 2. Science, Philosophy, Metaphysics and Human Culture. 3. Religious Faith and Other Sources of Knowledge. - VI. Concluding Remarks: Christian Thought and its Cultural Appraisal of Science.

I. Introduction

1. Meaning and Use of the Term. I do not want to develop here a generic discourse on culture, but a specific one on “scientific culture,” in the context of the relationship between science and faith. The meaning of the terms and concepts, therefore, will be chosen within the perspective of scientific culture to enhance, in an adequate and appropriate way, the potentialities of scientific knowledge and activities. As regards the term “culture,” given the great variety of definitions, I will begin by discussing the more general distinction of culture meant in a strict sense (strict conception) and in a broad sense (broad conception). In the strict sense it indicates the “whole of the more elevated productions of the human spirit.” It is also said learned, classic, humanistic, educated culture, etc., and criticized by some as intellectualistic, classicist, elitarian, etc. In a broad sense it indicates the “whole of the vital manifestations of peoples and groups.” It also signifies culture in the anthropological, vital, or existential sense, and is criticized by some as popular, populist, etc. Such conceptually irrelevant criticisms are, however, surpassed by more recent systemic approaches. We also speak of culture as a total system, defining it as global, general, or total, that is, considering it as a context which includes all expressions of human-social life; we distinguish it from culture understood as a partial system, also called sectorial, specific, or partial, to indicate more specific and limited expressions (arts, science, sport, etc.).

These distinctions show the complex reality of culture, which is dynamic and changeable, indicating that the study of its definitions, distinctions and divisions will never end. Acknowledging these distinctions as not only conceptual, but as real, we can utilize their more valid elements, avoiding limits and ambiguities. The strict conception of culture highlights the “whole of knowledge, mental and social dispositions, and of human qualities, that allow each subject to benefit and exchange knowledge, communication, and information.” Under this aspect, culture includes the more significant spirit and the more constructive contents of classic, ancient, medieval, humanistic-renaissance and modern thought. The broad conception, on the other hand, was adopted by two of the most significant and influential cultural Institutions on the global level: the Catholic Church and UNESCO. The Roman Catholic Church affirmed in a document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes (1965): "the word 'culture' in its general sense indicates everything whereby man develops and perfects his many bodily and spiritual qualities; he strives by his knowledge and his labor, to bring the world itself under his control. He renders social life more human both in the family and the civic community, through improvement of customs and institutions. Throughout the course of time he expresses, communicates and conserves in his works, great spiritual experiences and desires, that they might be of advantage to the progress of many, even of the whole human family" (n. 53). This is one of the most ample, detailed and complete definitions of culture.

In the Declaration of Mexico City (1982), the Organization for the United Nations UNESCO describes culture as the "whole of the distinctive features, spiritual, and material, intellectual and affective, that characterize a people or a social group, which include, besides arts and literature, also ways of life, the fundamental rights of human beings, systems of values, traditions and beliefs." Seventeen years later, such a declaration summed up the contents of Gaudium et spes in a way that both the spiritual and moral dimensions of men and women constitute the base, center, and summit of culture. It expresses, therefore, the way in which people and communities grow, and develop their own liberty, responsibility, creativity, moral and spiritual values, customs, habits, attitudes, beliefs, ways of life, actions and sense of belonging. This explains why communities and societies, in order to be born, preserve themselves and develop, always need a culture (cf. Gaudium et spes, 59; cf. also Gismondi, 1993, pp. 220-222).

2. Present State of Facts. The two definitions indicate the dynamism and changes that ensure the vitality of culture. These are connected, today, to those processes of complexification and globalization that are intensifying and involving all cultures, and which render obsolete the strict conceptions of culture. This does not happen for those broad definitions as the following: "Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artefacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand as conditioning elements of further action" (Kluckhohn-Kroeber, 1952, p. 357). Although it was criticized by some, this definition also had the merit, as the two preceding ones, of enhancing the most important characters of culture (integrity, sistemacity, unity, symbolicity, etc.), always open to future explicitations and integrations, whose worth and usefulness appear in the most diverse historical contexts (cf. Gismondi, 1993, p. 17-18, 112-113; Bernardi, 1991, pp. 31-33; Febvre, 1930).

The quoted text of Gaudium et spes, for example, is found in the great events of the 20th century and in their historical, cultural and social consequences: exhaustion of modernity, disintegration of ideologies and utopias (scientism, Marxism, etc.), return of irrationalism (weak and post-modern thought). It shows, in short, that the solutions of cultural problems demand the contributions of many disciplines. Scientific disciplines provide indications for method and analysis; history and philosophy supply critical reflections; ethics and theology furnish their proposals concerning the ends of human activity and the ultimate values. In so doing the various sources of knowledge (the sciences, philosophy and theology) should find ways of dialogue and collaboration, overcoming the misunderstandings and conflicts that have arisen in the Modern Age. The new relationship between science, philosophy, faith and theology should be rigorous, serene and constructive, to evaluate those elements useful to the elaboration of a true scientific culture. Critical reflections should also develop more deeply the reasons of why three centuries of modern science seem to have favored the development of an ideological scientism, more than a true scientific culture.

Today, the need for a true scientific culture is still more urgent because of the actual processes of “complexification” and “globalization” that involve all cultures. A true scientific culture would prevent the followers of scientism from persisting in diffusing misunderstandings and inadequate images of science. Though the decline of deterministic, mechanistic and physicalist dogmas of the 17th-18th centuries have now weakened the artful images of a universe conceived as a machine, or that of human beings assimilated to automatons, ideological views of science have not been replaced by post-modern thought. Actually, post-modern irrationalism, with its relativism and nihilism, lacks the principles and conceptual instruments necessary to tackle realities and problems which now strongly emerge in the new scientific thought, like quality, finalism, complexity, relationality, etc. They concern both the physical and the biological world, and also involve the social sphere, giving rise to urgent problems difficult to solve. In the history of science, the emergence of complexity indicates a decisive step, because it indicates that to account for the richness of the real world, it is necessary to have recourse to many models. It is no longer possible “to explain” the world by means of a reductionist approach, that is, on the level of singular entities and elementary phenomena, because it is now clear enough that the whole is more than the sum of its parts (cf. John Paul II, Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 31, 1992, n. 2).

II. Towards an Understanding of the Meaning of Human Culture

1.The Need for a Renewed Understanding of Culture. The new perspectives brought about by the philosophy of time, such as complexity, hyper-complexity, finality, irreversibility, etc., make the traditional approach to “origins,” or to “critical time transitions,” much less adequate than before. Unrepeatable, surprising or unforeseeable events demand a scientific culture and an epistemological-heuristic statute much more elaborated, specific and profound than those actually adopted by the physical, natural sciences. In addition, for the even more significant human, social and cultural phenomena, we can no longer refer to "universal laws having an eternal validity, necessary and necessitated laws, framed within a rigorous causal scheme" (Ferrarotti, 1983, pp. 43-44). Scientific rigor has to be united with interdisciplinary research that, in addition to the contribution of the physical, natural and mathematical sciences, requires the enhancement human, social, moral and religious sciences. It is the whole of all disciplinary fields that form the common cultural patrimony (cf. John Paul II, Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 29, 1990, nn. 1-2). The excessive extension of purely causal and quantitative models degraded into scientism. The discovery of complexity, instead, pushes the physicists to speak of a “universe open to many possibilities.” The old “certainties” that induced laicism and secularism to consider faith and religion outdated, seem to have collapsed together with scientism. Such “unfounded certainties” have been replaced by the post-modern “well-founded uncertainties” that, in part, have now rendered science less pretentious in asserting and more cautious in manipulating reality. On the other hand, such “uncertainties” have made science more insecure, underlining the partial, provisional, conjectural, and falsifiable nature of its knowledge.

Another relevant contemporary outcome is that historical research and epistemological reflections cannot, at this point, be separated from the development of scientific knowledge. In its very beginnings, modern science carried out its research in a loose order. As it developed, there emerged the necessity of better analyzing and interpreting its “how” and “why,” the meaning of its knowledge, the relationships with other knowledge and with human intelligence itself. When a new disciplinary field arose, the necessity of a rational legitimization increased accordingly. At the height of scientific commitment, it became indispensable that science question itself and investigate more accurately its own relationship with more general fields of knowledge. Recently, science has also experienced the demand of social legitimization, associated with the obligation to contribute to peace, and to the integral development and fraternal solidarity of different peoples. All these issues have prompted a more profound reflection on the meaning of the techno-scientific research in the context of human culture (cf. John Paul II, Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 29, 1990, nn. 3-6). Thus, the epistemological developments of the 20th century have made it necessary to have new indications about the meaning, finality and worth of scientific knowledge and activity, which may come only by philosophy, metaphysics, religion, ethics and theology. Again, the indications of Gaudium et spes reveal themselves to be useful in helping the various fields of human knowledge surpass the difficulties inherited by the Modern Age or re-introduced by contemporary “weak” thought.

The cultural contradictions and consequent personal anguish and social anxieties, require hope, both personal and social, that may help people and groups to be protagonists of a new culture, joining their desire for autonomy with a sense of responsibility toward men and women, history, and the world. Only an authentic hope can help men and women to recognize their integral vocation to take care of themselves and of the reality that surrounds them (cf. Gaudium et spes, 55-57). In order to achieve that, Gaudium et spes encourages culture, both in the strict sense (refinement of the spiritual, moral and intellectual capacities) and in the broad sense (transformation of nature, environment, society), to produce actions, works and objects and to transmit ends, meanings and values. In this way, the care for cultural problems completes and integrates the attention that Christian thought turned to social problems during the 19th and 20th centuries. Both concerns offer together valid elements to tackle the socio-cultural challenges of the 21st century and of the third millennium (cf. Gismondi, 1993, pp. 33-34, 102). In this perspective, evangelical message and culture have to synergize their semantic, hereditary and integral aspects. Semantic aspects make of Gospel and culture languages suitable for personal inter-relations and specific for the styles that unite people and communities. Hereditary aspects confer continuity, duration and profundity to values, traditions and institutions that establish the communities, becoming an essential component of them. Integral aspects increase the value of, and qualify, the different elements of which the same culture consists (cf. Fides et ratio, 31; cf. also Bernardi, 1991, p. 31).

2. Value and Limitations of the Notion of Culture. The three preceding aspects shed light on the complex relationships existing between the numerous components of culture: ideas, symbols, feelings, languages, attitudes, meanings, finality, values, tendencies, actions, works, objects, things, institutions, etc. This makes it even more difficult to study the relationship between knowledge, culture and society. This difficulty has pushed a number of scholars to also apply to culture the concepts and principles typical of the “systemic” approach. Considering culture in its broad sense, according to the definition given by the cited text of Gaudium et spes, both as a “global” system and as a “partial” system, problems emerge that demand a meaningful dialogue between the scientific, philosophic, and theological disciplines. The first question is why, in each epoch and geographic area, have human beings elevated themselves from the more urgent, material needs, to the plane of spiritual and symbolic values (assiology) and to the search for ultimate answers (metaphysics and religion). For Christian thought, the answer is that "different cultures are but different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. And it is precisely here that we find one source of the respect which is due to every culture and every nation: every culture is an effort to ponder the mystery of the world and in particular of the human being. It is a way of giving expression to the transcendent dimension of human life. The heart of every culture is in its approach to the greatest of all mysteries: the mystery of God" (John Paul II, Message to the Assembly of the United Nations, October 5, 1995, n. 9).

This sheds light on the reciprocal roles of religions and cultures. Religions constitute the foundation, the force of edification and the transcendent dimension that animate each gesture, expression and progress of culture. Cultures elaborate, coordinate, preserve and transmit to new generations and to all humankind their fundamental beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviors. Human beings show their nature and cultural identity, by pursuing their cultural aims, which are more elevated than purely natural ones. In this regard, Goethe indicated the necessity of the respect of what “is above” to establish and safeguard what is “equal” and what is “inferior.” Since the most remote antiquity, culture and religions confirm that the respect of what is above establishes and sustains the other two. The error made by scientist ideology and by many authors of the Modern Age has been to reverse this relationship by trying to establish human life and culture on what is inferior. The historical and socio-cultural consequences of this “bottom-up logic” have become evident in the tragic events that overshadow the whole 20th century. This confirms the necessity of a testimony and a memory that keep alive, in each culture, the great values of transcendence. This is the primary task of religions. Christian faith contributes to that with two other fundamental demands: discernment and prophecy, aimed at keeping alive the ultimate sense of reality and the ultimate sense of humanity, which lie in a final salvation (eschatology).

This biblical and Christian perspective is essential to evaluating the authenticity, functionality and positivity of all the elements which constitute a culture: a) the commitments, projects and works aimed at liberating and promoting peoples; b) the human, social, historical and earthly development oriented to the final fulfillment of humankind; c) the knowledge appropriate to safeguard environment; d) the knowledge capable of a more profound reflection on the sense and destiny of humankind, of the cosmos and of history; e) ideals and hopes to be transmitted to new generations. In brief, the great cultural task of the Christian faith is to put the human being, and the relations of love and solidarity, at the foundation of each culture (cf. Pontifical Council for Culture, Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, May 23, 1999, n. 3).

III. Culture and Cultures

1. Elements for an Unbiased Appraisal of Cultures. The elements just put in light greatly emphasize the limits and the negative aspects that afflict cultures. They operate by rendering cultures incomplete, subject to errors, prejudices, external constraints, attitudes and behaviors which, with or without awareness, are contrary to the good. A cultural interchange can help to discover these gaps, to surpass the limits, to correct the errors and repair the evil. However, to point out the negative aspects, a criterion of evaluation is necessary. The idea of a “neutrality” of culture is today much less current. In fact, invisible or unconscious evaluations are always present, often hidden in the more common forms of interest, liking, attention or preference for its own culture (ethnocentrism) or for the others (allocentrism). The presumed neutrality, or non-valuability of cultures, therefore, does not avoid evaluations, but renders them more artful, as unconscious and surreptitious. Global evaluations are not possible, while partial evaluations (that is, evaluations confined to some specific sectors) are difficult, because of the diversity of cultures. Sectors are not equivalent or do not have an identical meaning. In short, actual pluralism does not permit hierarchies of values, since there is no hierarchy common to everyone. Today, much hope relies upon the development of an “ethics of human rights,” still in elaboration, that could bring common criteria of evaluation (cf. John Paul II, Speech to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, January 9, 1989, nn. 4-6).

Human rights are nevertheless linked to some fundamental Christian values that have profoundly influenced culture in the course of the centuries. I will here highlight only some aspects regarding culture. The demand of human rights springs from secularized and lay cultures, in countries of ancient Christian tradition. Actually, these cultures have obtained from Christianity some concepts and ideas which nourished their philosophical reflections for a long time. Once the rationalist optimism which saw history as a victorious advance of reason, liberty and happiness, reached its limit, then reason illuminated by faith regained its place (cf. Fides et ratio, 91; Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, n. 23). According to reason not extraneous to faith, human rights are a natural outcome rooted in the truth of the inalienable dignity of the person. This dignity, in turn, is rooted in the unique, personal vocation of every human being, since each one has a specific role in the project of God (cf. Veritatis splendor, 38-41). Analogously, we could speak of a “truth of the culture,” when acknowledging the dignity, unity, vocation, and historical meaning, that each culture has in the divine plan. In addition, in order to provide an authentic evaluation of human rights, the “relational perspective” elaborated by Christian social thought, which looks at relations as to the essential basis to comprehend all reality, turns out to be of greater importance.

Christian social doctrine maintains that people, societies and cultures exist not only for themselves, but for and with the others, confirming the demands of dialogue and reciprocal exchange (cf. Donati, 1997, pp. 314-330). By these characteristics, human rights appear suitable to, and appropriate to, establishing a culture and an ethics of science, something that has become more urgent because of the processes of globalization which push towards a planetary culture, called to surpass scientism, economicism, materialism and secularism, still predominating in Western techno-scientific societies. The 20th century has also shown the failure of Marxist socio-culture, which gave rise to processes of degradation and disintegration that provoked experiences of humanitarian interference. It is thus necessary to foster a new culture of relationality, solidarity, subsidiarity and reciprocity, open to a responsible, free and respectful dialogue between all human groups (cf. Gaudium et spes, 54; Centesimus annus, 50-51).

2. Cultural Conversion and the Process of Accepting Cultural Values. To this purpose, two “strong” ideas, having notable analogies, acquire importance: the idea of “conversion,” typical of Judaeo-Christian faith, and that of “acculturation” (i.e., accepting cultural values or becoming cultural) typical of anthropology. They both express a tendency to good and to truth, and a progress towards unity. Because of its theological nature, conversion is a spiritual, universal and transcultural value, that allows interesting cultural applications. It can, in fact, orient acculturation since each particular culture is open to what is universal (cf. Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, n. 10). According to Judaeo-Christian faith, conversion indicates the return to God, Life and Supreme Good. To go away from Him signifies to die; to go toward Him signifies to return to true life and true good. Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), in his work Civilization on Trial (1948), noted that cultures are subject to death and revival. Christian thought sees in that the characters of contingency, fragility and changeability, while the universality of faith offers new possibilities of life, fecundity, rebirth and renewal (cf. Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, n. 4). Their future, however, cannot be merely deduced from scientific predictions, based on extrapolations which presuppose that all conditions and laws remain unchanged for the time being. Nor do the more daring forecasts and philosophical speculations offer indications, expressing only possibilities, probabilities and/or potentialities.

The only force realistically capable of opening horizons toward the future is “hope.” To be authentic, hope must be transcendent, theological and eschatological (cf. Gismondi, 1995, pp.149-162). It can be recognized only by “a sagesse, a learning open to wisdom.” The concept of hope has always been present in cultures and religions. It developed all its theological fullness in Christian Revelation, founded on the universal salvation of Christ and on the power of the Holy Spirit. Theological faith and hope can orient human intelligence and scientific-philosophical reason to a full wisdom and knowledge, surpassing the limits of rationalism and irrationalism, both modern and post-modern (cf. Gismondi, 1993, pp. 182-190). In the light of biblical faith and hope, all cultures are instruments of true spiritual, ethical and intellectual progress, if they put at the base of each of their projects the truth and dignity of the human being (cf. Gaudium et spes, 53; Veritatis splendor, 38-41; Fides et ratio, 88). To this truth and dignity they need to orient all their historical, anthropological, social and conceptual dimensions. In this sense, “acculturation,” as integration of reciprocal values, can enrich the diverse “cultural roots” with new styles of thought, models of life and criteria of judgement (cf. Evangelii nuntiandi, 19-20, 29, 62). By contrast, the fundamental importance of cultural roots is revealed by the negative consequences of “cultural uprootment,” that destroy human beings, deprive them of their own cultural identity, and make them "easy prey for dehumanizing business" (Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, n. 8). It was such uprootment which led to the widespread violation of human dignity and to the repeated negations of cultural dignity which occurred in the 20th century. To avoid that, it is necessary to develop dialogue, promote collaboration and inter-cultural solidarity, all decisive factors for the future of humanity, taking into account that only the spiritual and ethical dimensions render cultures capable of humanizing people and society. These principles were also accepted by the Declaration of Mexico City of UNESCO on cultural politics, subscribed to by more than one hundred States in 1982.

IV. Science, Faith and Culture

1. Human Knowledge and the Role of Science in Culture. The general analysis outlined above turn out to be indispensable to deepening the specific relations between science, faith and culture. Since, as we have seen, scientific knowledge influences both other knowledge and the very “roots” of culture, it is worthwhile to appraise it, taking into account what historical and epistemological criticism have ascertained about science. Scientific knowledge, however, is hypothetical, partial, provisional, always confutable (that is, always verifiable, and thus falsifiable) and never “definitively” true. Moreover, contemporary epistemology and history have highlighted the limits, errors, gaps, incoherences and some negative consequences of science. Nevertheless, awareness of all this has not yet been the object of reflection in schools, public opinion, popularization of science and mass media. In these cultural areas, the image of science continues to be different. Science is thought to be an exhaustive and adequate representation of the world, a true knowledge ruled by a criterion of absolute truth, a rigorous account of the ultimate explanations of the origin of the universe and the functioning of the whole of reality... By using all-encompassing conceptions, each reality is “scientifically” presented to the public: the universe, nature, life, the human being, society, etc. The “systemic” perspective helps us to understand how science, considered as a “system of knowledge,” diffuses in all cultures such views, often associated with some negative consequences.

Considered as a “global system” constituted by the whole of its institutions, enterprises and research activities, science conditions, conceptually, socially and economically, all cultures. Considered as a “partial sub-system” of the global cultural system of all peoples and societies, science interprets and transforms reality, always giving rise to new problems. In this way, it changes the “roots of culture,” that is, its criteria of judgement, values, interests, lines of thought, beliefs, models of life, etc. (cf. Evangelii nuntiandi, 19-20). To obtain these effects, science employs some particularly powerful, operative instruments. Among them, there are “systems of representation,” i.e., conceptual or symbolic systems with which it interprets reality; “systems of expression,” linguistic patterns by which it conditions meanings and norms; “systems of norms,” creating new values with which it determines particular choices; “systems of actions,” that is, technological mediations with which science orients the practical activity of peoples (cf. Gismondi, 1993, pp. 83-102; 1995, pp. 109-119). By all these “systems,” scientific culture provokes positive effects, new values and possibilities of new achievements, or, also, negative ones, such as ethical conformism and lack of humanism in economically advanced countries, as well as ethical and cultural decline in those less advanced. All these elements must be taken into account to orient science toward positive developments, so that an authentic scientific culture can be put into effect.

All this raises numerous question about what the core of the “global system of science” is and its functional roles. What is essential or has priority? The system of knowledge? The methods and programs to acquire understanding? The activity of people and Institutes? The research programs? The organization of human, cognitive, and financial resources? Which kind of priorities have to be set forward: cognitive, operative, explicative, hermenutical, sapiential? The answers to these questions will condition how we elaborate a scientific culture. However, it ought to be coherent with the limits and boundaries of scientific knowledge, as previously discussed here. Moreover, it should be remembered that presuppositions and the foundation of scientific knowledge admit only a philosophical, not a scientific, demonstration. The scientific conceptions and visions of reality contain, not only data, but also their interpretation, and, therefore, they remain conjectural and subject to revision.

2. The Antinomies of Scientism. All the previous considerations about the role and the import of science result from a critical and a careful comparison between scientific knowledge and other sources of knowledge. The lack of the latter would leave scientific theories uncontrolled, allowing a mere pragmatic and functionalist usage of technique, thus impeding the transformation of the values of science into authentic cultural values. It is important to avoid all that precisely because science, as “partial sub-system,” with its knowledge, structures of research, financial and industrial organizations, by now of world scale, strongly conditions the “global system” of society and culture. “To condition” and “to bind” are very different from a healthy interaction. The influences exerted by the “system” of science are many. As a professional agency, it conditions the projects of research and the necessary resources; as a managerial firm, it conditions public authority, and State and private firms, in order to obtain the economic-financial resources necessary to its own demands; as a financial and industrial enterprise, it carries out its researche and creates its products according to the laws of profit and of marketing, and to the logic of competition; as an information and advertising agency, science conditions public opinion through the mass-media; as an educational agency, it influences schools, universities, publishing, etc. This multiform and diffuse conditioning influences even the roots of culture, creating, transforming, or destroying the components of various cultures (cf. Gismondi, 1993, p. 130; Bernardi, 1991, pp. 94-97).

The disintegrations carried out by scientist ideological culture derived from many factors. Among others, there were the denial of the fundamental and unifying role previously played by ethics and religion; the refusal of the metaphysical discourse and the abandonment of some fundamental philosophical concepts; the separation between the “systems of representation,” typical of science, and those “systems of meanings and values” which establish and sustain every culture; the failure in integrating the new scientific images of reality with traditional culture, in their existential but also learned dimensions; the interruption of significant connections of the present with the past and future; the denial or underevaluation of meanings, ends and values; the interruption of the relationship between the activity of science and the sources of meaning. The point to be emphasized is that all these factors impeded the more authentic subjective values of scientific commitment in expressing their socio-cultural import: the desire for knowledge, rigor and objectivity, exactness and competence, honesty and intellectual humility. Among the objective values, the objectivity of knowledge was particularly undermined, since it was interpreted as “exclusion of the subject.” This hindered the appraisal of inter-subjective (relational) values, as occurs when different subjects, who repeat the same experiment, give diverse interpretations of it. Other scientific values, such as autonomy, conceptual discipline, control of purposes and objectives, once elevated to an absolute level, became abstract and illusory. It was precisely the “systemic perspective” that would clarify that the aims and the autonomy of a system are never absolute, but are always correlated with the whole system and its sub-systems.

The systemic correlation proposes also an ethics of scientific work, able to enrich the sciences and also ethics itself with positive contributions, like: the increased knowledges of natural processes; the widening of the possibility of intervention; the extensions of the ethical field; the formulation of new problems; the expression of new values; an increasing in social responsibility; the execution of procedures more relevant to specific situations and more adequate to ethical purposes (cf. Gismondi, 1997, pp. 80-93; Agazzi, 1992, pp. 231-240). Today, the illuminist and rationalist enthusiasms for a science capable of reaching the complete control of reality on the basis of pure reason, and those positivist and evolutionist excitements for a science able to offer unlimited progress, perfect civility and happiness of life, are exhausted. World conflicts, tyrannical dictatorships, genocides, mass exterminations and environmental tragedies of the 20th century brought to rise anti-science movements and to the accusation that science would have served inhuman interests, damaging the human person and environment, and degrading cultures (cf. Gismondi, 1999, p. 147).

Christian thought, without indulging in such accusations nor allowing ingenuous apologies, proposes a more realistic and balanced vision. First of all, regarding the problems of knowledge, it puts in the first place the role of intellect and intelligence, whose task is the one expressed by the Latin word intelligere, which means “to read between,” “to choose between,” to discern, to intend, to think, to judge, to perceive. Intelligence, therefore, is structured to confront itself first with reality, the being and its relations, rather than with ideas or representations. This unites together knowledge and understanding, in their more ample sense. In this respect, Thomas Aquinas’ thought considered intellection as the act according to which the mind picks the principles that reason (Lat. ratio) will then utilize.

V. Relationships between Different Kinds of Knowledge and the Openness of Culture to the Notion of Wisdom

1. Wisdom, Knowledge, Culture. Intelligence is an end, while reason is only an instrument. Intelligence, therefore, according to its own demands, can always elaborate new instruments of knowledge and comprehension. Its more noble and elevated expression is “wisdom.” This, for vastness, profundity, spiritual and moral dignity, is the highest grade of the knowledge of things, of which it seeks the essence, discerning their nuances and distinguishing the evil to choose good. The idea of wisdom is particularly esteemed in the ambits of living (religions) and knowing (philosophies). Immediately after wisdom, sagesse (learning, expertising) follows. The latter is the ensemble of forethought, experience, shrewdness, prudence, to resolve ordinary or complex problems. Wisdom and sagesse were considered the basis, center, summit and the “bearing structure” of culture. Their minimized form is “reasonableness,” or well balanced use of sound reason, conforming to good sense. The Modern Age neglected them and accepted reason only, which, in turn, was reduced to pure rationality of formalisms, logics and methods. Consequently, reason was considered only as “reason of the systems of rationality,” and, therefore, limited, partial, imperfect and changeable.

These limits render scientific rationality difficult to be inserted into the global context of intelligence, wisdom, reasonableness, reason, and culture. Today we have to add to these difficulties a growing mistrust in reason, often radical and generalized. However, such a comprehensible reaction to the excesses of scientism do not offer any solutions. It is not enough to point out the negative consequences of scientific activity. It is necessary, rather, to enhance its cultural and humanistic contributions: unceasing research which involves people and communities; experience and capacity of critical interactions with reality; cognitive-operative elaboration of principles, problems, hypotheses, forecasts, and projects. A rigorous critical discernment, instead, must be applied when someone claims to obtain directly from science exhaustive and all-encompassing visions of the universe, life, humanity and history. Three centuries of history demonstrate the failure of attempts to develop global conceptions of reality which begin with single theories (mechanism, determinism, evolutionism, relativism, indeterminism, etc.) or individual disciplines (logic, physics, cosmology, biology, etc.). In so doing, we produced only conceptual hybrids, lacking in true scientific value, which were also incorrect from the heuristic, epistemological and philosophical points of view, something that had nothing in common with knowledge and culture (cf. Gismondi, 1999, pp.77-78).

Such visions extrapolated from the natural sciences, by ignoring their limits and partiality, neglected the contributions of other sciences (human, social) and of religion. These views overlook the fact that the assertions of the sciences acquire real meaning and cultural value only in a more rigorous and ample discourse on the sciences, one elaborated by epistemology, philosophy, and history. However, the sectoriality of scientific knowledge renders the previous indispensable of-on passage still insufficient, since every partial and fragmented approach contrasts with the demands of interior unity of the human being and of culture (cf. Fides et ratio, 85). It is necessary, therefore, to re-organize and re-structure such knowledge in its whole, by a more general philosophical reflection that involves gnoseology, anthropology, hermeneutics, and metaphysics. The object of philosophy, in fact, is to provide a correct interpretation of phenomena collected and analyzed by science and to achieve a synthesis and an integration of the different sources of knowledge. Thanks to these passages, the epistemologically heterogeneous and heuristically incommunicable knowledges are made suitable for a coherent dialogue, culturally homogeneous and significant on the ethical, religious and theological level. Indeed, prompted by the very logic of their reasoning, scientists use meta-scientific concepts, the nature of which must be accurately specified, in order to avoid misunderstandings, undue extrapolations and ideological affermations, that is, the denial of a true culture (cf. John Paul II, Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 31, 1992, n. 2).

In such dialogue, the Judaeo-Christian Revelation has a specific role that distinguishes it from any other knowledge or culture. In the first place, the biblical message sustains the ends, senses, meanings and ultimate values that establish people, societies, cultures and knowledge, and which are the basis of all scientific research or philosophical reflection; it proposes wisdom, reasonableness and reason to the human intelligence, and opens the horizons of Divine Revelation and Salvation. The greater contribution that scientific research gives to the elaboration of great cultural themes does not come so much from its answers, as these always remain partial, provisional, changeable; it comes, rather, from its questions, the expression of its always new and inexhaustible problems. The same applies to philosophy. Enhancing the persisting demand of human thought to question itself and the surrounding reality, science, philosophy, metaphysics, ethics and theology can surpass old misunderstandings and incommunicability raised during the Modern Age and must proceed together to create a new culture and a new techno-scientific humanism (cf. ibidem, n. 3).

2. Science, Philosophy, Metaphysics and Human Culture. Just as no individual person can avoid the radical and ultimate questioning noted above, there is similarly no culture that can elude it. Ultimate questions, in fact, represent for each culture the source of a structured energy and a font of vital and inexhaustible dynamism. Science, philosophy, and theology are nourished by such questioning, but they deal with different systems of specific questioning which do not overlap. For this reason, they can complete each other in a respectful dialogue and integrate themselves to elaborate a new culture. The indispensable role of metaphysics is to put everything, the “totality of things,” itself included, and the ultimate, total, and definitive reality, into question. Other fields of knowledge can put only “partially” into question, that is, the parts of the whole. Science can put only the immediate and partial aspects of reality, but not itself, into question. To do this, we must rely on other knowledge. In order to elaborate an authentic scientific culture, therefore, it is necessary to question in depth the very basis of science and its theories. These theories are the core of scientific knowledge and activity. Their key role for the development of a true scientific culture depends on the fact that they have both the value of highly ingenious descriptions of reality and the defect of being limited, provisional and conjectural formulations, that always necessitate corrections and substitutions. As with the theories, this also occurs with scientific categories, models, principles and concepts.

To this indispensable critical-rational discernment, Christian faith adds the demand for a theological discernment. Compared to lay thought, faith necessitates a more profound and rigorous critical judgement, since it is not enough to surpass agnosticism, relativism, concordism, unjustified refusals or ingenuous optimisms, nor can faith be content with purely immanent solutions. Such rigor is of the maximum usefulness to science and scientific culture, because it makes possible an explanation of those major potentialities of scientific knowledge, that scientism, immanentistic and lay thought, are not able to highlight (cf. Fides et ratio, 5). Theological reflection illuminates and makes known that “supplement of meaning” and sense of “native experience,” which are implicit both in human experience and in all scientific activity. Thus, it reconnects scientific knowledge to the wonder and admiration that were typical of classic philosophy, and to that wise contemplation found in all religions. Moreover, it reinforces the same scientificity, presenting it as a discourse proper to its own sphere. This helps to surpass the actual foreignness and incommunicability of different areas of knowledge, without damaging their specificity, to reconcile their autonomy, liberty, specificity, socio-cultural competence and relational-communicative dimension. In this way, the various disciplines, by dialoguing together and with other knowledge, can better define how the meanings of their research contribute to the fundamental themes of culture. Recent developments of thought of and on science offer the best elements for such dialogue. The new scientific vision of a universe in which order and disorder, necessity and chance, complexity and chaos are no longer absolute laws, but balanced ingredients that express a projectual information and an ordering intelligence proposes, in a new form, those perennial problems which belong to the highest humanistic and cultural level. However, to be able to deepen their metaphysical, religious and theological richness, it is necessary to also face their epistemological, heuristic and gnoseological complexity. Such richness allows putting into light the noteworthy ethical and heuristic content of some characteristic attitudes of scientific commitment, such as intentionality, finality, liberty, responsibility, historicity, contextuality, sociality, culturality, solidarity, justice and the development of its own capacity.

Thus, the living scientific experience serves as testimony that reality is intelligible, immensely rich, varied and complex. It is cognitively inexhaustible and allows unlimited prospects of interpretation and understanding. This means that each disciplinary sphere and each kind of knowledge, expressing only one of the many possible intimate perspectives, can grasp only an extremely limited aspect of an immense and inexhaustible reality, which allows us to multiply, rather than limit, the perspectives and cognitive instruments (approaches, hypotheses, ideas, ends, concepts, and methods). In addition, the growing perception of the far-reaching intelligibility of the real, and of the unlimited perspectives of research of the various kinds of knowledge, show that these ought to interchange, as much as possible, their acquisitions. They must also seek increasingly to perfect their models, logic and cognitive methods, and consider the naturalistic, impersonal and objective approaches as insufficient to resolve problems tied to the emergence of life, the nature of intelligence, and the essence of the human being. As the Galileo affair has shown, and, later on, the results of historical sciences, the emergence of new ways to face the study of natural phenomenon always imposes on the whole of the disciplines a clarification to better delimit their own field, their methods and perspectives of approach, as well as the exact import of their own conclusions, and asks for a more rigorous consciousness of their own nature and role. Theology and Christian thought, on their own side, have to consider, without uncertainty or haste, those data that seem to possibly contradict some truth of faith. Beyond partial and contrasting visions that provoke reciprocal incomprehension, history teaches that a more ample vision seems to have always emerged, capable of reading in a new light the disagreements and of surpassing them (cf. John Paul II, Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 31, 1992; cf. also Poupard, 1994).

3. Religious Faith and Other Sources of Knowledge. The reductionistic approaches of modern science turns out to be still more insufficient when our object of study deals with relations among peoples and relations between people and environment, an area that greatly challenges research. We have already seen that Christian thought emphasizes the personal perspective, centered on the truth and dignity of the human being, on the aims, meaning and values of human commitment in the world and in history. It also underlines the relational perspective, considered as the essential component of the structure of reality. Starting from the fact that nothing exists in reality and society if not in relationship, Christian thought also gives a major significance to the comparison between science and other forms of knowledge. When the relational perspective is properly applied, the various disciplines enrich each other, respectful of each other’s specific function; they better connect their statements and theories —changeable and temporary— with the sphere of ends, meanings and ultimate values —constant and everlasting; finally, they overcome the excessive pluralism of philosophical reflections, helping philosophy to turn again to the ultimate and global questions. In this way, human intelligence, with its unceasing demands for truth and sense, aware of its own finiteness and precariousness, can also open itself to faith. It is only religious faith, indeed, that informs each knowledge and culture that the “reason” or “intelligence” that presides over the universe, as intimate nature and profound law of all the things, is not only rationality, but also liberty, justice, ethics, goodness and love.

“Personal” reality, therefore, does not come from below (world of things), but from above (Intelligence). The Logos, as intelligence-wisdom-reason, precedes human beings, knowledge and things, transcends history and envelops creation, from its first origins to the final end (cf. Acts 17:28; Rom 1:20; Jn 1:14). Once understood in this way, faith introduces the human being, universe and knowledge, into the theological hope of the ultimate future, that is, of eschatology. Faith, hope and Christian wisdom also help to better understand the value that metaphysics has for science and the meaning that science has for metaphysics; they confer an ethical and cultural value to the more typical aspects of scientific commitment and knowledge: intentionality, finality, liberty, rationality, responsibility, historicity, contextuality, sociality, culturality, solidarity, justice, capacity of development, etc. The theological and sapiential reading provided by Christian wisdom and hope highlights the ethical and cultural values of science which the instrumental and utilitarian conceptions of scientific work would be unable to comprehend. Metaphysics, centered on the truth and dignity of the person, renders the physical-natural sciences significant for human beings and cultures (cf. Veritatis splendor, 1, 47; Fides et ratio, 88). The philosophical reflection brought about by the Anthropic Principle, for instance, seems to show that it is the human being who gives sense to the universe, and not vice versa. While the physicist-naturalist perspective consented relatively limited cultural reflections, the personal and relational perspectives raise problems of high humanistic and cultural value. They concern the ends, the meaning, and the value of human conscience, experience and knowledge, freedom and responsibility, but also the challenge of complexity and the presence of evil.

Cultures and societies mainly regard the sphere of subjects, characterized by interpersonal relations, conscience and interiority, about which the naturalistic, physical and biological logic might say very little. It is true that the infinitely large and the infinitely small, the immense energies of the universe, the highest velocities of particles and the deepest complexity of living beings, all raise extremely fascinating problems. However, it is the hyper-complexity of people, society and culture which raise the more meaningful cultural problems (cf. John Paul II, Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 27, 1998, nn. 1-3). Culture is a historical and social reality; scientific commitment, on the other hand, also has a social dimension, since it touches problems regarding the development of the cultures and societies (nuclear war, peace, bioethics, quality of life, health, the moment of death, etc.). Scientific commitment is thus interwoven with the great human aspirations regarding dignity, liberty and life. This is why the living forces of science and religion are called, not only to avoid conflicts, but also to collaborate in sustaining individuals and groups in confronting the great challenges of the integral development of human beings; they each have to unite their spiritual, intellectual, moral and technical competence (cf. John Paul II, Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 29, 1990, nn. 5-6). In this field, also, in fact, Christian faith is urged to proclaim the meaning of the salvific, dossological and eschatological announcement, whicg regard the human being, as well as the universe and history. Christian faith speaks of Jesus Christ as the Incarnated Logos, the divine-human (teandric) Love that frees human beings and the cosmos from the negative consequences of harmful human projects (egoism, violence, sin), antagonist of the divine design of alliance-love-salvation. To those who suffer anguish and distress, faith announces Christ as He who orients the evolutive dynamics of creation, regenerates a new humanity and saves cultural values, leading all things to the splendor of eternal divine glory. To those who fear suffering and sorrow, Christian faith testifies that the Redemption and the Kingdom of God do not act in an ideal world, but in a world which knows the consequences of egoism, violence, regression, arrogance and abuses of power, all things that constitute the history of each human being, society and culture (cf. ibidem, nn. 4-5).

VI. Concluding Remarks: Christian Thought and its Cultural Appraisal of Science

In the light of this announcement and testimony, the reflections made on knowledge, faith and culture acquire depth and an enriched currency: a) culture harmoniously integrates wisdom, learning, knowledges, arts, techniques and social organizations; b) the more specific these elements are, the more they demand integration; c) in culture and knowledge, the whole is essential to comprehending the parts and the parts are essential to understanding the whole; d) each cultural synthesis is never a simple sum of the preceding efforts, but a complex and profound re-elaboration, according to new perspectives; e) new insights and new cultural perspectives do not emerge by a simple build-up of data nor do they originate from the more rigorous formalisms; rather they need new intellectual light and original inspirations; f) cultural commitment must harmonize critical sense and faithfulness, creativity and hope; g) renewals of culture are not painless, because they have to clash with knowledge and dominating interests, and with the more inveterate criteria, axioms and habits of thought. Regarding all these problems, the NT presents very suggestive images: the creation that moans and suffers in labor pains (cf. Rom 8:22), a generative anguish that does not bring death, but life and glory (cf. Jn 11:4); the conversion (gr. metánoia) that provokes radical changes (cf. Mt 3,2); the understanding and comprehension that do not come from “flesh and blood” (from below) but from the Spirit (from on high) (cf. Mt 16:17).

These figures point out the fact that universe, human beings and history move toward something that science and philosophies do not know how to tell us about. Biblical Revelation and Christian faith, on the other hand, reveal to us that these move toward Someone; but, still more, it is this Someone who first moves toward us. This revelation surpasses and fulfills the fundamental demands for both a genuine humanism and an authentic scientific culture; it enhances the immense virtuality of scientific knowledge and carries out a serene and regular dialogue among forms of knowledge (science, philosophy, ethics, theology). In such a context of dialogue, those points that still seem to cause friction between science and faith must be examined: among them, the relationship between creation from nothing, continued creation and evolution, the dynamic global evolution of the universe and role that the human being plays in it, the relationship between the philosophical-theological concept of eternity and the space-time structure of the physical universe. Christian thought knows that highlighting the cultural value of science is not an easy task. However, it will be achieved only by a serious and serene dialogue of all knowledge on the many themes indicated above, but still more on those regarding culture and life, both of a general type (meaning, aim, truth, dignity and value of the universe, the human being and history) and of a more specific kind (intelligence, Revelation, reason, metaphysics, ethics, religion).

If the second half of the second millennium was characterized by exclusions, incomprehensions, divisions and conflicts of the different kinds of knowledge, among themselves and with respect to human culture, the new century that opens a new millennium may be characterized by its passionate search for inclusions, comprehensions, and reconcilliations. Methods and instruments are not lacking. The climate seems more favorable to new interpretations of reality and to a calmer dialogue between science, epistemology, history of science, philosophy, ethics and theology. The elaboration a new culture is a significant and stimulating commitment for everyone: believers, non-believers, philosophers, theologians, and scientific and cultural operators. The elaboration of a techno-scientific, humanistic and mystical culture is a much greater commitment. It implies leading human beings to once again recognize their transcendence. It means teaching ourselves to return to the path that begins with intellectual and human experience and reaches up to the knowledge of the Creator, wisely using the best acquisitions of modern science, in the light of an honest reasoning and an awareness that science alone cannot catch the essence of human experience, nor the more intrinsic reality of things.

This great challenge and demand of the third millennium will not become utopia if the protagonists of all disciplines and cultures will constructively confront, and loyally cooperate to a reciprocal and harmonious integration. To knowledge and cultures that look for their meaning and destiny in many directions, often without finding it, Christian Revelation, tempered by a plurimillennial comparison and dialogue with cultures, societies and knowledge of all times and places, offers hope, in the light of Wisdom and in the power of the Logos.

Documents of the Catholic Church related to the subject: 

Abbreviations and complete titles of the documents

Lumen gentium, 17Gaudium et spes, 53-62Ad Gentes, 11, 15, 22, 26Apostolicam actuositatem, 7Nostra aetate, 2Sollicitudo rei socialis, 46Veritatis splendor, 53Fides et ratio 70, 71, 85. John Paul II: Address to UNESCO, “Man’s entire humanity is espressed in culture”, Paris, 2.6.1980, ORWE 23.6.1980, pp. 9-12; Letter for the Institution of the Pontifical Council for Culture, 20.5.1982, ORWE 28.6.1982, pp. 7 and 20; Discourse to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps, Rome, 9.1.1989, Insegnamenti XII,1 (1989), pp. 60-71; Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: 29.10.1990, Papal Addresses pp. 319-324, Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: 31.10.1992, Papal Addresses pp. 336-343; Message to the Assembly of the United Nations, New York, 5.10.1995, ORWE 11.10.1995, pp. 8-9. ITC, Faith and Inculturation, 8.10.1988, EV 11, 1347-1423; Pontifical Council for Culture, Towards a pastoral approach to Culture, 23.5.1999, Vatican City 1999

 

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