In his book Mastery, Robert Greene discusses the process of how human beings master a particular skill or craft. He examines the lives of different “masters” throughout history including Leonardo DaVinci and Charles Darwin. Greene analyzes human achievement from a purely secular viewpoint. There is no discussion in his book about God’s grace or divine Providence. Nevertheless, I like the book so far because it contains seeds of truth, including the idea that mastery is a process of transformation which is akin to a journey.
Though his approach is secular, Greene alludes to God, perhaps unknowingly, when he writes that during the beginning stages of mastery the apprentice must “submit to reality”(Greene, 57). Essentially, Greene is saying that when we are learning something new, we should intensely observe the environment we are studying and accept it as it exists to absorb as much information about it as possible.
As I read Greene’s book, I am also reading The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. In Part Two of his book, Merton talks about humanity’s universal desire to know God. “God gave man a nature that [is] ordered to the supernatural life” (Merton, 185). Merton says that our supernatural nature is a gift, but also notes that man cannot perfect his own nature without God’s help. We are able to perfect ourselves through another gift, the gift of God’s grace.
Merton goes on to talk about God as “aseitas,” a Latin word, which means that God exists from himself and from no other cause. From there, Merton concludes that God is being per se, which means God is existence. God is reality.
Regarding atheists, Merton believed that many of them simply misunderstand who God is. He also takes note of intellectuals who spend significant amounts of time experiencing and appreciating Catholic cathedrals, art, liturgy, etc., i.e., Catholic culture, without ever actually coming into the Church. Instead “[t]hey stand and starve in the doors of the banquet — the banquet to which they surely realize they are invited — while those more poor, stupid, less gifted, less educated, sometimes even less virtuous than they are, enter in and are filled at those tremendous tables” (Merton, 192).
As I read both books, I wondered, how is it possible that someone like Darwin, a gifted scientist, could be so immersed in studying God’s Creation, but fail to recognize God in Creation! I believe the answer lies in Greene’s statement telling us to “submit to reality.”
In Mastery, Greene tells us the story of Charles Darwin. Charles was not a good student. He had trouble in traditional classroom environments. This disappointed his father, Robert, who wanted Charles to become a doctor or, ironically, a member of the clergy of the English church. With much effort, Darwin earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1831. Soon after that, he rejected his father’s wishes and left England to become an unpaid naturalist.
During his five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin obsessed over discovering, collecting and cataloguing the many new animal species he encountered in remote and exotic locations in places like South America. Darwin worked so feverishly and became so focused on his work that he did not care about anything else. He had discovered his passion and lost himself completely in his work. Darwin’s immersion in his work is sometimes referred to as being in a “flow state.” Some say that during a flow state people become so tuned into their work that they fall into what is like a trance. It is during flow states that masters do their best work. It is the time when innovations and breakthroughs happen.
Being absorbed in one’s work is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it seems that Darwin never stepped back from his work to meet the Creator of the world that he found so beautiful. Instead, he seems to have spent his energy on the activities of collecting, cataloguing and theorizing. Perhaps Darwin did pause now and again to reflect, but when he could not catalogue God and “place him in a box” the same way he was able to catalogue and preserve the scores of animals he discovered, he simply gave up and went back to his work.
In Fides et Ratio, the Church says “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves” (FR). Faith (knowing truth through divine revelation) and reason (knowing truth through human intellect) are both necessary. If we apply reason alone, we focus on measuring reality empirically relying solely upon man-made instruments. If we apply faith alone, then we fall into fundamentalism, e.g., discarding proven science for a literal reading of the entire Bible. Both extremes lead to error.
As Merton tells us, all human beings have a supernatural nature and a desire to know God. God gives us grace to perfect our soul since we cannot do it alone. God is being (Ex 3:14). He is reality (John 18:6). We come to know God through faith and reason. Both are necessary. Focusing too much on one or the other leads to error.
God cannot be “placed in a box” like a biological sample nor can he be fully understood from an intellectual perspective. If God could be measured with human tools or fully understood by the finite human mind, then he would not be God. In that case, the atheists would be correct.
If we want to know God, we must have faith. “By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, ‘the obedience of faith’” (CCC 143).
Voluntarily submitting to anything requires humility because when we submit we acknowledge our limitations. All of us submit to different things every day. We submit to our spouse, to our children, to our friends, to our employer, to the civil authorities, to airport security and so on. Submitting to these flawed people and institutions comes easily to almost all of us. Yet, some of us still resist submitting to the most Perfect of all. The only One who is truly worthy of our submission!
Greene is correct in saying that we must submit to reality, not just to learn a new skill or craft, but also to know God who is reality. This total submission of intellect and will we call the obedience of faith. Should we refuse, then we may find ourselves starving, invitation in hand, at the open doors of a great banquet.
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