F. Peter Bejnar
Allow me to summon the superpower which is mine by right of being a Regent College graduate student–Nuance–to reconcile Benj and Alex. When Benj summons Paul Teel and Michael Foster to critique the Alex’s defense of incomprehensibility, he argues “it is the Christian affirmation of creation of creation which paves the way for modern science.” However, on my read of the Foster thesis and Western Intellectual History, the kind of affirmation of creation which leads to modern science is in no way incompatible with Nyssa’s incomprehensibility. In fact, Nyssa’s love of science, which I see no reason to discredit, naturally flows out of how he understand incomprehensibility.
It’s not that Nyssa doesn’t think we can know things; it’s that he doesn’t think we can ever get to the bottom of anything or God, that we could name its essence in a way that would mean that we knew everything there is to know about that thing. Because the created world is created by God in a free act, it is contingent and not necessary. Therefore, pure abstract reason, a la the Greeks, is inadequate. If something is necessarily the case then I can use my reason to understand it, because it would be inconceivable for this necessary thing to be otherwise–if it could be otherwise it wouldn’t be necessary. But things in this world are contingent, then we must examine them to see how God actually made them.
As Christians affirm creation as created (and not necessary), they affirm scientific observation. My read on Nyssa, then, is that he sees the world as incomprehensible because the most important thing about things in the world, their essence, is defined by “God’s mode of presence to the world and his agency within it.” Since we cannot define (that is limit) God or his actions in the world, things ultimately are incomprehensible–we cannot grasp them in our hands or in our heads in such a way that God is not able to do something we didn’t think He could or would. Miracles are possible.
Yet, furthermore, because God has not given us direct access to the essence of everything, we must actually observe and experience with the world around us and not just apply pure, abstract reason in order to know what God has in fact given to us.
As a final comment, I would like to suggest that Alex’s comment regarding what theology has to offer science was perhaps a little careless. Science as a practice must have some kind of theological or atheological grounding in which scientists make sense of the meaning and purpose of what they are doing. For example, not only are the atheistic/a-telelogical claims made by some prominent evolutionary biologists way out of line for a number of reasons, but so is the certitude with which some scientists hold to their theories, particularly those concerned with the past. Why should the science of our day look any less ridiculous in 300 years than 300 year old science looks today? Even as we keep learning, the world remains ultimately incomprehensible.