Redeemer of Man – reflections of a Physicist on “unrepeatability”

Guest Post by Dr Jim Clarage, Physics, University St Thomas (from his blog, Fides et physica, here)One single word used by John Paul struck me as I read Redemptor hominis afresh this week in prep for next week’s seminar. That word is “unrepeatable”. There are several occasions he uses the term, each time with a fuller meaning. I’ll list them, along with paragraph numbers in brackets. First John Paul writes:

1. Christ, the Redeemer of the world, is the one who penetrated in a unique “unrepeatable” way into the mystery of man and entered his “heart”. [8]. And then later,

2. Jesus Christ becomes present with the power of the truth and the love that are expressed in him with unique “unrepeatable” fullness in spite of the shortness of his life on earth and the even greater shortness of his public activity.. [13] These initial uses are for Jesus the Christ. But then the usage bleeds into mortal man himself:

3. Her solicitude is about the whole man and is focussed on him in an altogether special manner. The object of her care is man in his unique “unrepeatable” human reality, which keeps intact the image and likeness of God himself. [13] Then his usage of “unrepeatable” is obviously instantiated in us all:

4. We are speaking precisely of each man on this planet, this earth that the Creator gave to the first man, saying to the man and the women: “subdue it and have dominion”. Each man in all the “unrepeatable” reality of what he is and what he does, of his intellect and will, of his conscience and heart. Man who in his reality has, because he is a “person”, a history of his life that is his own and, most important, a history of his soul that is his own. [14]

Why do I find this word “unrepeatable” so fascinating? Perhaps it is because, as a physicist by vocation, the word has such a rich meaning in the modern physics parlance of complex systems, where disparate parts or members of a many-body system can exhibit rich unpredictable patterns. Yes the members in the larger Body are at some level (genetic, atomic) identical, but when interacting in service of a larger Body, and higher calling and term, they each settle into a unique and precious behavior. An “unrepeatable” path. A vocation. Please understand I’m not pretending to reduce the sacred to the material. Rather I’m pointing out harmonies I note in what we know in ancient faith and modern physics of bodies and organisms composed of manifold members. In fact John Paul even invokes the word “organism” : In this way, turning to man and his real problems, his hopes and sufferings, his achievements and falls-this too also makes the Church as a body, an “organism”, a social unit perceive the same divine influences, the light and strength of the Spirit that come from the crucified and risen Christ, and it is for this very reason that she lives her life. [18] And then as the encyclical unfolds John Paul pulls all these notions arising from the interplay of member-body, note-symphony, one-many, together in his exposition of “Vocation.” To explain this “vocation” he invokes and unifies a slew of related terms: body, organism, “unrepeatable”, singular, uniqueness, principle, rule, proportion (all these terms having serious meaning in the physical study of complex systems):

5. We must however always keep in mind the truth that every initiative serves true renewal in the Church and helps to bring the authentic light that is Christ insofar as the initiative is based on adequate awareness of the individual Christian¹s vocation and of responsibility for this singular, unique and “unrepeatable” grace by which each Christian in the community of the People of God builds up the Body of Christ. This principle, the key rule for the whole of Christian practice-apostolic and pastoral practice, practice of interior and of social life-must with due proportion be applied to the whole of humanity and to each human being. [21] Finally, befitting John Paul¹s respect and adoration of Mary we find his last and most potent use of “unrepeatable” in describing the truly singular vocation:

6. Not only is the dignity of this Motherhood unique and “unrepeatable” in the history of the human race, but Mary’s participation, due to this Maternity, in God’s plan for man’s salvation through the mystery of the Redemption is also unique in profundity and range of action. [22].

1 Comment
  1. Jim — Pope John Paul II said the following in Gospel of Life: Man is no longer able to see himself as “mysteriously different” from other earthly creatures; he regards himself merely as one more living being, as an organism which, at most, has reached a very high stage of perfection. Enclosed in the narrow horizon of his physical nature, he is somehow reduced to being “a thing”, and no longer grasps the “transcendent” character of his “existence as man”. He no longer considers life as a splendid gift of God, something “sacred” entrusted to his responsibility and thus also to his loving care and “veneration”. Life itself becomes a mere “thing”, which man claims as his exclusive property, completely subject to his control and manipulation. (EV §22)

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