By Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist.
Special to The Texas Catholic
We typically associate the word “invention” with modern scientific breakthroughs, brilliant and painstaking achievements by geniuses producing civilizational advancements and mastery over the forces of nature. Human ingenuity has produced astonishing developments, from the printing press to the combustion engine to the Internet, with new inventions, some of them promising to alter the very fabric of humanity, on the horizon.
This modern usage of the word faithfully conveys its original Latin sense. The passive participle inventum comes from the verb invenire – to come upon, find out, discover. Thomas Edison never claimed to have devised electricity; he discovered a means of harnessing it for practical use in the light bulb. Marie Curie was not the creator of radioactive isotopes; she simply came upon a way of domesticating them in X-ray machines. Albert Einstein never boasted that he was the founder of relativity; he understood that his mind merely detected some marvelous harmony between itself and the mysterious cosmos. The creativity of such inventors presupposes the prior creativity of a greater Mind. Einstein expressed this truth with a splendid analogy:
“We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God.”
A second common usage of “invention” constrains the word to refer to something we make up, as opposed to what we discover. The word is sometimes invoked in a mocking tone to assert that religious faith is “a pious invention,” “a cleverly devised myth” by believers who leave their brain at the door when entering the Church. This usage reflects the common prejudice that modern science offers superior truth to any religious claims about truth beyond the limits of our calculations and experiments. An effective example of this pervasive and reductive jesting about faith is found in the origins of the familiar children’s phrase Hocus pocus: it equates the consecration of the Eucharist in Latin (Hoc est enim corpus meum) with magical fantasy.
Declaring that religion is a pious invention makes a correct etymological point, but for the wrong reason. Einstein, among the greatest of scientific geniuses, was aware that he discovered his own limits by uncovering the vast mysteries of the universe’s laws. He did not believe in a personal God, and indeed regarded the Judeo-Christian vision of history as a human fabrication; but by acknowledging the dim perspective of his own genius, he indirectly demonstrates the credibility of the God who created us not simply to discover the laws of nature, but to be found by Him as well. We have not invented God; God has invented us.
According to Christian theology, Jesus Christ is the bridge between human reason and divine revelation, between our tenuous search for truth and God’s dramatic search for us. In spanning the chasm between His divinity and our poor but noble humanity, Christ allows us to discover that we desperately needed Him only after He redeemed us by His love. Our religion, then, is our response to the liberating discovery that God has allowed us to find what we could not discover by our limited intellect alone.
Thanks to the Incarnation of Christ, we recognize that we were made both to invent (that is, discover) the truths of our material universe and to be invented (that is, found) by the God who pursues us when we fall into sin. Saint Paul derives great comfort from this truth: “For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:8-9). Our greatness, then, lies not only in our ability to conform our minds to what we find in the objective world, but also in the noble privilege God has bestowed on us; as the third Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass puts it, “that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may be found [inveniamur] one body, one spirit in Christ.”
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.