In Christian theology, the mystery of the human is grounded in the mystery of God. In the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa observed that human beings are in the image of God. Our nature mirrors God’s nature. If God is inexhaustible mystery, then what we are must always remain a mystery to ourselves. Otherwise, our knowledge of ourselves would serve as something of a key for us to figure God out, a kind of theological Rosetta stone.
What does this have to do with recent science? Some think that science finds facts and dissolves mysteries. McGinn suggests as much. He thinks that theology’s insistence on human mystery serves as a useful check on the de-mystifying pretensions of science.
I agree with McGinn about the theology of essential human mystery. But I disagree that science has a tendency to erase mystery. Sure, many people see science that way. But look again. The more we learn about human origins, the more we find that any clear notion of a distinct human species seems to unravel. The more scientists merge human and nonhuman organisms or blur the distinction between human and machine, the more we make ourselves mysterious.
If I am right, science increases mystery. At least that’s what I tried to suggest in the brief article I contributed to Science last February. For more, see my post for October 12, below.
That’s why I think McGinn is not quite right when he say this:
“If God is the ultimate mystery, man’s image-nature implies an essentially negative horizon, or limit, to all that can be scientifically discovered about humanity, however original, illuminating, and productive these findings may be. From this viewpoint, growing scientific information (i.e. more and more facts) about human nature (biological, psychological, and sociological) will always be limited by the realization that the true meaning of human existence rests in its status as an inexhaustible mystery. Scientific contributions to the deeper understanding of human nature are welcome and often useful in the task of human self-realization, but they take on a different color when viewed from the sapiential perspective of the “learned ignorance” (docta ignorantia) that recognizes the limits of what can be known and quantified about humanity. This recognition of the limits of science may not be an easy message for contemporaries to appreciate, enamored as we are by the amazing discoveries about homo sapiens made during the past century; but it is one of the most significant challenges that image dei anthropology offers to the present.”
McGinn’s essay is entitled “Humans as Imago Dei: Mystical Anthropology Then and Now.” It appears in Sources of Transformation: Revitalising Christian Spirituality, 2010.