the mystery of being

Image: Viktor Kovács


There are other realities that, because they are not physical, do not cease to be realities.

“God does not exist”, estimated the physicist and astronomer Stephen Hawking who died in March 2018. I will reply with a medieval philosopher and theologian, one of the most perceptive, to the point of being called a “subtle doctor”, the Scottish Franciscan Duns Scotus (1266 -1308): “If God exists as things exist, then God does not exist”.

Both Stephen Hawking and Duns Scotus are right. The famous physicist and identifier of “black holes” moves within the bubble of physics, of what can be measured, calculated and made the object of empirical experimentation. Seeking God within this paradigm means not being able to find God because God is not a thing, with the characteristics of things, however minuscule they may be (a topquark or the Higgs boson) or by the larger ones that appear as a conglomeration of galaxies of incalculable size. The most that reason could say is that God is the "Being that makes all things", not being a thing.

So, from physics, it is valid to affirm that "God, in fact, does not exist". But physics is not the only window of access to reality.

There are other realities that, because they are not physical, do not cease to be realities. Thus, an earthworm will never understand a song by Villa-Lobos, nor will the coronavirus know how to appreciate a painting by Tarcila do Amaral. They are realities of a different nature.

Duns Scotus is also right because, when referring to God, he maintains, we are thinking of an ultimate reality that transcends all limits of physics, space and time or any other form of knowledge. It is the unnameable and the ineffable, the one that does not fit in any language or in any dictionary. God is not a fact of tangible reality that can be captured and spoken. By His nature He is beyond facts. He is the one to whom we must reverently be silent, expressing noble silence.

This is the true position of the radical thought expressed by philosophy and theology, so well elaborated in the writings of Duns Scotus. Emphasizing: He is the mystery that transcends any reality given, measurable or captured by human beings. This was clearly seen by the Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) in his famous Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1921) by saying: “Science studies how the world is; the mystic marvels at what the world is. Surely there is the ineffable. This shows itself, it is the mystical… About what we cannot speak, we must remain silent” (aphorism 6 .522).

Here resounds the famous phrase of Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716): “why is there being and not nothingness”? There is no answer to this question: it is the mystery of being, facing nothingness. Faced with the mystery of being, one should be silent rather than speak, because everything we say falls short of the mystery that is ineffable and inexpressible and already presupposes that we are in being.

But not being on the horizon of things, God is nevertheless on the horizon of meaning. That is why Wittgenstein asserts: “To believe in a God means to understand the question of the meaning of life. Believing in a God means realizing that not everything is decided with the facts of the world. Believing in God means perceiving that life has a meaning” (Id. ibd).

But let's go back to Stephen Hawking: all the great scientists, starting with Isaac Newton who introduced mathematics to nature, going through Albert Einstein and others, reaching the brilliant Englishman, were looking for a formula that would account for all of reality. The intent was a “theory of everything” (TOE: Theory of Everything) or also called “grand unification theory” (GUT).

There are two classic books that summarize the paths and de-paths of this great question: John B.Barrow, Theories of Everything: The Quest for the Ultimate Explanation (Zahar) and that of Abdus Salam, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, The unification of fundamental forces: the great challenge of contemporary physics (Zahar). Everyone ended up recognizing the failure of this attempt. In the expression of John Barrow: “All of everyday life, what moves human beings in their search for happiness and in their tragedy, do not fit the physical conception of “everything”.

The last one to take up this question again was exactly Stephen Hawking in his famous book A brief history of time (Ediouro). Tried in every way. In the end, he recognized the impossibility, stating: “If we really discover a complete theory, its general principles must, in due time, be comprehensible by everyone, and not just by a few scientists. Then all of us, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, will be able to participate in the discussion of why we and the universe exist. If we found an answer to that question, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason because then we would know the mind of God” (A brief history of time, p. 145).

It refers to God and his hidden mind. This God-mystery is found at the root of all existences, sustaining them and making them continually subsist, but always withdrawing from human sight. That is why the Judeo-Christian Scriptures affirm: “God lives in an unapproachable light that no human being has seen or can see” (1Tim 6,16; Ps 104,2; Ex 33,20; Jo,1,18; 1Jo 4,12 ).

So, it is really worth concluding: “if God exists as things exist, then He does not exist”. Apart from things, He exists, with a nature different from things, as the one who brought everything out of nothing and continually underlies everything that exists and can exist.

Leonardo Boff He is a philosopher, theologian and writer. Author, among other books, of Experiencing God Today: The Transparency of All Things (Voices).

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