In Memoriam: Father Stanley Jaki

By Robert Mauro

Father Stanley Ladislas Jaki, OSB (1924-2009), Distinguished Professor of Physics at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, since 1975 and one of the world’s leading historians of science and its relationship with religion, died in Madrid on April 7, 2009, reportedly of a heart attack, at the age of 84 (the photo shows him just a few days before his death, in Rome in March of this year ). He will be buried on Wednesday in his native Hungary.

Jaki was a prolific writer, authoring dozens of books, articles and essays covering everything from the metaphysics of the Eucharist, to the primacy of the Apostle Peter, to exactly where and how Charles Darwin went woefully wrong. In short, Father Jaki was one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century and his contributions to Catholic thought and culture will be difficult to quantify.
One of the central questions he dealt with was this: How is it that science became a self-sustaining enterprise only in the Christian West? Jaki believed the answer lay in the Christian faith, in belief in the Incarnation, and his life work was to show why this was so. The American writer Walker Percy, a convert to Catholicism, formulated the position Jaki came to espouse this way in his novel Lost in the Cosmos : "

As Whitehead pointed out, it is no coincidence that science sprang, not from Ionian metaphysics, not from the Brahmin-Buddhist-Taoist East, not from the Egyptian-Mayan astrological South, but from the heart of the Christian West, that although Galileo fell out with the Church, he would hardly have taken so much trouble studying Jupiter and dropping objects from towers if the reality and value and order of things had not first been conferred by belief in the Incarnation."

 

Jaki affirmed that Christianity prevented a slide into pantheism because the doctrine of the creation was bolstered by faith in the Incarnation. Pantheism is invariably present when the eternal and cyclic view of the cosmos prevails. The uniqueness of the Incarnation and Redemption, Jaki held, dashed to pieces any possibility of the eternal and cyclic view; for if the world were cyclic, the once-and-for-all coming of Christ would be undermined. The uniqueness of Christ secures a linear view of history and makes Christianity more than just one among many historical factors influencing the world, Jaki argued. The dogmas of the Creation and Incarnation mean "an absolute and most revolutionary break with a past steeped in paganism,” and the enunciation of these dogmas and their historical impact is "an uphill fight never to be completed," he said.

A relentless scholar, Jaki studied the religious thinking of G. K. Chesterton, the works of the French physicist and historian of science Pierre Duhem, and the life of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th-century theologian who famously converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. Jaki is probably best known, however, for works like The Relevance of Physics (1966) and Science and Creation (1974), in which he argued that the scientific enterprise did not become viable and self-sustaining until its incarnation in Christian medieval Europe, and that the advancement of science was indebted to the Christian understanding of creation.

Father Jaki was a beloved and much-sought after "Chestertonian," and a true follower of the Rule of St. Benedict in every way imaginable — he was always teaching. He only had to be invited to speak once to the annual American Chesterton Society Conference….after that he would simply call Dale Ahlquist in advance and announce his topic! Such graceful moxie is very rare these days and those of us who have known him, learned from him, and loved him, have all been blessed and bettered by his initiative; it will be a palpable loss not to have this spiritual and intellectual giant in our midst any longer.

Born in Gyor, Hungary, Father Jaki attended the school run by Benedictines in his native town from 1934-42. There, he fed his deep desire to read and learn with an extensive amount of mathematics as well as multiple languages. He says that his drive for education was "for a higher purpose: to understand, propagate, and defend my Roman Catholic religion."

His tutelage with the Benedictines greatly influenced his call to the priesthood, which he felt from an early age. He joined the Benedictine order in 1942 and was ordained in 1948.

During the war years, Father Jaki stayed in the Archabbey of Pannonhalma. (Photo below: an aerial view of the abbey, one of the oldest historical monuments in Hungary. Saint Martin of Tours is believed to have been born at the foot of this hill, hence its former name, Mount of Saint Martin ( Márton-hegy in Hungarian), from which the monastery occasionally took the alternative name of Márton-hegyi Apátság. This is the second largest territorial abbey in the world, after the one in Monte Cassino. )

This proved to be a trying time, having several close calls with Soviet soldiers. In his typical scholarly fashion, he spent his free time memorizing the letters of Saint Paul, and much of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

He came to the U.S. in 1950 and began teaching systematic theology at the seminary attached to the St. Vincent Archabbey in Pennsylvania.

In 1953, following several health complications associated with a tonsillectomy, Jaki was deprived of the full use of his voice for the next ten years. No longer able to continue his lifestyle of teaching and monastic life that demanded a constant use of his voice, he enrolled in Fordham University’s graduate program in physics. He studied  under Nobel laureate Victor F. Hess, the discoverer of cosmic rays. He received a doctorate in 1957. Of Jaki’s doctrinal dissertation on theology, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger once stated that he kept a copy in a "place of honor" in his library. (Years later, in 1990, Father Jaki was made an honorary member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.)

From 1960-1965, he stayed at Aquinas Institute, the Catholic chaplaincy of Princeton. The idea for his book The Relevance of Physics came to him while on the steps at Princeton’s post office. At the age of 42, the University of Chicago Press bought his book The Relevance of Physics . Walter Heitler in the March 1967 issue of "American Scientist" suggested that it become compulsory reading for all physicists.

After this time, he was invited to lecture at Seton Hall — a seminar a week — which worked well with his vocal injury and afforded him the opportunity to continue writing many major publications. During this time he received the Lecomte du Nouy Prize for Brain, Mind and Computers from Rockefeller University. In 1973, the University of Edinburgh invited him to deliver the Gifford lectures. He was the Gifford Lecturer at Edinburgh University in 1974-75 and 1975-76.

The Gifford Lectures were established under the will of Lord Gifford and provided for lectureships in natural theology at four Scottish universities. A few of the many eminent thinkers who have given the Gifford Lectures include: Alfred Ayers, Karl Barth, Henri Bergson, Neils Bohr, Herbert Butterfield, Frederick Copleston, John Dewey, Etienne Gilson, Werner Heisenberg, William James, Gabriel Marcel, Reinhold Niebuhr and many others. Father Jaki, on this subject, wrote the book Lord Gifford and His Lectures (1995, Scottish Academic Press).

In 1987, he received the Templeton Prize, and rejected a possible position with Harvard, so he could continue his writing.

The Templeton Prize brought him world recognition. Established by the late Sir John Templeton, the prize is given annually to a person chosen for his or her affirmation of the spiritual dimensions of life either through discoveries or in other ways. The Templeton Prize award is traditionally larger than that given for the Nobel Prize. In 1987, the award to Father Jaki was $330,000; now the Templeton Prize winner is awarded more than $1 million. Father Jaki gave the monies awarded him to the Vatican for the benefit of Hungarian Benedictines who left Hungary after Stalinist suppression of religious activities in that nation in the late 1940s. He said, "I hope it will be used as a trust fund in times of need."

Father Jaki was a world traveler. In 1971, during a routine trip to Hungary to visit his mother, he picked up some of his old books. One such book contained a note with cross-word type scribbling. This caught the attention of the Communist border-guard as possible coded messages, which was compounded by the fact that he carried a half dozen undeveloped film rolls from his library research. While searching through Jaki’s personal belongings the guards found an article of Jaki featured in a prominent publication. Fearing bad press, they released him.

Father Jaki lived through many interesting world events and never failed to give commentary — the rise and fall of Communism as well as the changes in the Catholic Church following Vatican II.

He recognized the philosophical underpinnings in every activity from a game of cricket to the social interaction of a luncheon.  In his book, A Mind’s Matter: An Intellectual Autobiography , Father Jaki gives an insight into himself, "Whether I uttered some truths moderately well, or whether I fought wisely, should seem less important than the fact that I did not shy away from fighting."

Father Jaki died on April 7, 2009, at about 1:15 PM (MET) in Madrid (Spain) following a heart attack. He was in Spain to visit friends on his way back to the USA, after delivering some lectures in Rome, for the Master in Faith and Science of the Pontificio Ateneo Regina Apostolorum.

He will be buried at the Archabbey of Pannonhalma, which was established in the 10th century, after a funeral Mass on Wednesday, April 29, at 2:30 pm local time. (The Benedictines seemed at first intent on cremating Fr. Jaki prior to transporting him back to Hungary until Father Jaki’s brothers and friends made clear that they believed it would have been Father Jaki’s wish to be buried bodily at the monastery, and that any expenses involved would not have to be paid by the order.)

Jaki is survived by two brothers, both priests, Rev. Zeno Janki and Rev Theodore Jaki, both of whom live at the Archabbey of Pannonhalma.

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I became acquainted with Father Stanley Jaki because my nephew, a Columbia University graduate, did graduate work at Princeton University, and while there became a part-time assistant to Father Jaki, who was based in Princeton. Father Jaki was clearing out some of his vast library, and gave some books to my nephew, who in turn set up a library for some  of these books in my office about 45 miles from Princeton. I thus — by coincidence — have some books by Father Jaki which may not be on all of the  lists of books by Father Jaki that one might find on internet websites.

I also had a chance to hear Father Jaki at some of his lectures in the New York area. At one lecture — to the usual overflow crowd — he discussed Lourdes. He had slides to show on a screen at some of these presentations. He was not only very informative; he was highly entertaining at these lectures, particularly in question and answer sessions.

I invited Father Jaki and my nephew to dinner in Princeton once and had a chance to talk at length with him. He was very polite. He had strong opinions. He was very informative. He was very entertaining. He gave me an autographed book which was very gracious on his part.

One of his books, which may not be on most lists on the web sites, is The Only Chaos and Other Essays , (1990, University Press of America). In Chapter 10, entitled "Evicting the Creator," he critically discusses the very well known Professor Stephen W. Hawking, and his book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988, Bantam Books). Professor Hawking is or has been a member of The Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

One of my friends, William Doino, also a contributor to Inside the Vatican , knew Jaki, and sent me this note: "Father Jaki had a profound sense of the supernatural, and never hesitated to take on its opponents, backed with profound scholarship. He was fearless, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. I once asked him a couple of innocent questions about modern science, and the challenge it presented to Christianity, and he said to me, sternly, ‘You have things backward. The challenge is to the atheists. Never let your opponents set the rules or the playing ground.’ He sent me a list of 10 or 12 books to read. ‘Looks good, but I don’t know if I have time to read them all, Father,’ I replied, with typical youthful insouciance. ‘No!!’ he exploded. ‘You must read them — you cannot be uninformed! We have too many uninformed Christians. Ignorance of the faith is forbidden, young man — it is forbidden — it is a sin, a sin!’"

An internet blogger wrote recently: "I have no idea what arrangements will be made for his funeral Mass, but I know what the ‘responsorial Psalm’ verse ought to be: God ‘disposed everything according to measure and number and weight’ (Wis 11:20). Nearly every one of his books quotes this line. It may sound unbelievable to hear, but there was a certain line of Chesterton’s which I first read in one of Jaki’s books (the one on Chesterton, of course!) because at that time I did not own the Chesterton book. It ought to be carved in his tombstone: ‘The rebuilding of this bridge between science and human nature is one of the greatest needs of mankind.’ (G.K. Chesterton, The Defendant , 75). I believe Father Jaki was the pre-eminent builder of that bridge…"

May Father Jaki’s soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

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Father Jaki helped establish Real View Books as his publishing arm. The Real View titles include publications such as: The Bible and Science; Shakespeare and the Old Faith; The True Story of the Vatican Council (this is Vatican Council I, by H. E. Manning).

Here is an abridged list of his books:

1966. The Relevance of Physics . University of Chicago Press.
1969. Brain, Mind and Computers . Herder & Herder.
1969. The Paradox of Olbers’ Paradox . Herder & Herder.
1973. The Milky Way: an Elusive Road for Science . New York: Science History Publications.
1974. Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe . Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
1978. Planets and Planetarians. A History of Theories of the Origin of Planetary Systems . John Wiley & Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
1978. The Road of Science and the Ways to God . Univ. of Chicago Press, and Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press. ISBN 0-226-39145-0
1978. The Origin of Science and the Science of its Origins . Scottish Academic Press.
1980. Cosmos and Creator . Scottish Academic Press. ISBN 0-7073-0285-4
1983. Angels, Apes and Men . La Salle IL: Sherwood, Sugden & Co. ISBN 0-89385-017-9
1984. Uneasy Genius. The Life and Work of Pierre Duhem . The Hague: Nyhoff.
1986. Chesterton, a Seer of Science . University of Illinois Press.
1986. Lord Gifford and His Lectures. A Centenary Retrospective . Edinburgh: Scottish Academis Press, and Macon, GA.: Mercer University Press.
1986. Chance or Reality and Other Essays . Lanham, MD: University Press of America & Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
1988. The Absolute Beneath the Relative and Other Essays . Lanham, MD: University Press of America & Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
2000 (1988). The Savior of Science . W. B. Eerdmans. ISBN 0-8028-4772-2
1989. Miracles and Physics . Front Royal. VA.: Christendom Press. ISBN 0-931888-70-0
1989. God and the Cosmologists . Regnery Gateway Inc.; Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
The Purpose of it All (alternate title for God and the Cosmologists)
1990. The Only Chaos and Other Essays . Lanham MD: University Press of America & Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
1991. Scientist and Catholic, An Essay on Pierre Duhem . Front Royal VA: Christendom Press.
1998 (1992) Genesis 1 Through the Ages . Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
1996. Bible And Science . Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press. ISBN 0-931888-63-8
2000. The Limits of a Limitless Science and Other Essays . Intercollegiate Studies Institute. ISBN 1-882926-46-3
2008. Hail Mary, full of grace: A Commentary . New Hope, KY: Real View Books. ISBN 978-1-892539-06-9

To order any of Jaki’s books, visit www.realviewbooks.com or call, in the US, the toll-free number: (888) 808-2882. The mail address for orders is: P.O. Box 10, New Hope, KY 40052.

Here’s a link to the home page: http://realviewbooks.com/index.html

Jaki’s intellectual autobiography, A Mind’s Matter , is available.

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