Reflections of a Catholic Academic
Vincent McBrierty: Physicist and researcher:
My professional life began in 1967 when, as a new member of staff, I first entered Trinity College, passing the twin sentinels of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith, two of the College’s most distinguished graduates.
In the late 1960s, Trinity was deemed to be a Protestant college for Protestant students, a view that was reinforced by the ban imposed by the then CatholicArchbishop of Dublin on Catholics attending Trinity College at that time. As the first Catholic academic member of staff in the Physics Department, not once during my long career did I experience even a hint of prejudice or ill-will. Rather, over the years I gained a profound respect for countless colleagues of diverse faiths and backgrounds. I had a comparably enriching experience some years later during a career break in the Islamic Sultanate of Oman.
Traversing the cobbled stones of Front Square in the footsteps of Bishop George Berkeley, William Rowan Hamilton, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Walton and Samuel Beckett instilled a sense of privilege and responsibility, as experienced, no doubt, by each new generation of academics and students who assumed the stewardship of the College’s intellectual and cultural traditions.
I ventured forth with a heightened sense of responsibility that went beyond the core duties of teaching, research and administration. Like others of my generation who had experienced the troubles in the North at first hand, I was aware that pernicious and prolonged unemployment was an underlying root cause. The upshot was a personal commitment to direct whatever talents I had to the relief of unemployment, at least to the extent that my new-found profession and vocation would properly permit. Fortuitously, and without immediately recognising it at the time, a paradigm shift was emerging across the globe with new knowledge destined to become a dominant strategic force for positive economic change and consequent job creation. As such, my career spanned one of the most interesting periods in global history, dominated by the sheer enormity for humanity of new discoveries.
Challenges arose as a research scientist which brought the relationship between science and belief in God sharply into focus with contrastingly different responses among the scientific community. My own view mirrored that of my former colleague and mentor in Trinity College, Professor Ernest Walton (Nobel Laureate), who asserted that ‘We must pay God the compliment of studying his work of art. … A refusal to use our intelligence honestly is an act of contempt for Him who gave us that intelligence’. The contrasting intellectual insights of other respected scientists, notably Professors Dawkins and Wolpert, has led them to reject the existence of God, principally citing the absence of direct scientific proof as the basis of their convictions.
Reflecting upon my professional life reveals a progression from a steadfast inherited faith, to a perception of that faith which has blossomed with the passage of time; and which is reinforced, in turn, by the influence of many other scientists and non-scientists, past and present. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair noted that ‘science did not replace moral judgement; it extended the bounds within which moral judgements were exercised.’ Sir William Rowan Hamilton, Ireland’s most influential scientist of the nineteenth century, adopted a more eclectic view of the underpinnings of creativity in considering scientific discovery as but one manifestation of creativity, akin to poetry, or literature, or music, having the power to lift the mind above the earth.’ Albert Einstein argued that science itself cannot have all the answers, noting that ‘it would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.’ He famously stated that ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’
Ernest Walton was an ever-present exemplar of Christian ideals in the way in which his Methodist faith defined his approach to his work as researcher and educator. He believed that our present state of knowledge could not do without faith adding the rider that belief should continue to be subject to examination, in accord with the dynamic nature of one’s perception of God alluded to above. Like Einstein, he argued that the human mind was not satisfied with material things alone. Nor did he believe that science and religion were in conflict: Scientists, he argued, seek truth, Christians seek truth, and in the end truth cannot conflict with truth.
I recall attending a Council of Europe conference in Japan in 1986 where Prime Minister Nakasone asserted that scientific discovery was spreading across the globe, ‘carried forward by a universality that no political power or ideological creed has even begun to approach.’ Developments in information and communications technology in particular, profoundly affected day-to-day living by empowering the citizen with instantly accessible information in a way that would have defied credibility a mere few decades earlier: a ‘global consciousness’ had been created.
This burgeoning growth of new knowledge empowered people in a multitude of different ways. Wolfgang Frühwald, former president of the German Science Research Council, believed that science and scholarship, if used wisely, were the instruments that humanity has shaped for our survival. But new knowledge was in reality a double-edged sword with deficits continuing to outweigh the benefits in many spheres of society with little sign of redress. This was due in large measure to an underlying breakdown in social governance which subverted the social values of ethics and civic responsibility. We each have a personal responsibility to identify and to respond to those ethical gaps, which are often cloaked in a cloud of comfortable compromise. Lecturing and publication facilitated a personal contribution in this regard, notably in an invited contribution to the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin (2012) along with Fr. Gerry O’Hanlon S.J., which highlighted the catastrophic social and moral downsides of the global economic meltdown.
Faith and trust remain essential elements of my life in dealing with the imponderable questions that cannot be answered with human logic. But it is not a blind faith: It is a faith which draws upon the life of Christ on earth, on sacred scripture, on inspired homilies (our modern day parables), and on an ever-growing sense of convergence towards the oneness of God and creation. The poet John Keats alluded to the wondrous complexities of life, recognising that the beauty of creation is bound up with the mystery of creation, the unsolved wonders, the unknown, the uncertainty that is a fundamental aspect of human life – in short, ‘unfathomed complexity linked to perfect order.’ In dealing with the uncertainties of life, Keats further remarked: ‘When man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason … the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration’. Keats, I must confess, is one of my great heroes and sources of inspiration.
In dealing with day to day problems, I recall one inspiring homily in which the preacher told the story of the sculptor who had created a most perfect sculpture of a horse. When asked how he achieved such perfection, he simply replied: ‘I chipped away all the unnecessary bits.’ This in a way is a metaphor of our everyday life, particularly when in our darkest moments of depression, or worry, or faced with difficult decisions sorely in need of guidance and inspiration. In my mind’s eye, I try to pare away all the insignificant and confusing trappings of our material world and look at the core essentials, particularly an unswerving trust in God, for faith must be twinned with trust to have full meaning.
Now in retirement, I can reflect upon a career in Trinity College with some satisfaction as lecturer, professor, Dean, Bursar and Fellow of the College, having achieved to some degree much of what I set out to do as an educator and researcher in promoting the social dimension of my Christian belief, in interfacing the strengths of College to the wider community with the direct and indirect creation of significant additional employment along the way.
A personal sense of awe, wonderment and depth of perception of God became increasingly more evident to me through my experience of the cut and thrust of academic life; through my interaction with students; and through the different conclusions drawn from my exposure to a broad range of faith and non-faith contexts - Islam, atheism, agnosticism, and Christianity in all its diversity, and their fusion with my faith within the fold of Mother Church.