Sunday, October 02, 2005

Pathways to God

This past Wednesday I was asked by the director of the Stonehill College Honor's Program to talk to the students about intelligent design. The title of my talk was "Why 'Intelligent Design' Is Not Science -- and Bad Religion."

Readers of Science Musings will not need to be told what I had to say about ID not being science. To us, the answer is so blindingly obvious that it hardly seems necessary to address the issue. In speaking to the topic, I spoke for the overwhelming majority of the scientific community.

As for why ID is bad religion -- well, that is a more personal matter, and I spoke only for myself with no desire to convert anyone from a different belief. Although I spoke for myself, what I had to say is part of an honorable and ancient tradition in all of the world's religions, including Christianity and even Roman Catholicism (Stonehill is a Catholic college).

It went something like this.

If I may generalize, there have traditionally been two pathways to God.

The first path -- followed by the overwhelming majority of believers -- looks for God in the exceptional, the miraculous. The stacked crutches at Lourdes. The raising of Lazarus from the dead. Making the blind see. The virgin birth. The resurrection of the body. Answered prayers. Not the natural, but the supernatural.

There was a time when everything was explained by supernatural agencies. The sun was driven across the sky each day by the god Helios in his golden chariot. Comets were divine portents. Plague was a sign of God's displeasure. Every spring, tree, mountain and stone had its spirit.

Then, in the eastern Mediterranean during the several centuries before the Christian era a new way of knowing was invented. Miracles were banished as explanations, the anthropomorphic gods sent packing. Instead, certain curious people began to look for patterns in natural events, and to express those patterns as predictive laws. Science was invented.

After flourishing briefly, especially in Alexandria, this new way of knowing was overwhelmed by the human predelection for the supernatural, and the great library of Alexandria destroyed by religious zealots. But the method did not die. It was revived at the time of the Scientific Revolution and became the basis for modern medicine, technology, and even, some might argue, through its handmaiden the Enlightenment, our political and religious freedoms.

But supernaturalism retains its hold on the human imagination. God's hand is sought in those things we don't yet fully understand: the big bang, the origin of life, the Cambrian Explosion, and so on. This the God of the gaps. The God of "intelligent design."

Well, fine. But gaps have a way of being filled. I would hate to think that my faith in God depended on scientists never figuring out exactly how the blood-clotting protein cascade evolved, or how the flagellum of a bacterium evolved, to mention just two of the so-called "irreducibly complex" aspects of life offered as evidence for intelligent design.

One can easily understand why the God of the gaps is so popular. By looking for God in our ignorance, we can make him in our own image, call him Father, call him person, speak to him as friend, claim a personal relationship, count on his protective intervention in our lives. It is a consoling thought to think that the creator of the universe -- those hundreds of billions of galaxies -- has me, yes me, as the apple of his eye.

There is a second pathway to God that looks to the creation as the primary revelation.

Saint Columbanus was typical of the earliest generations of Irish Christians when he wrote: "Who shall examine the secret depths of God? Who shall dare to treat of the eternal source of the universe? Who shall boast of knowing the infinite God, who fills all and surrounds all, who enters into all and passes beyond all, who occupies all and escapes all?" Those who wish to know God, he says, must first review the natural world.

This pathway to God has nothing to fear from science. With the discovery of the universe of the galaxies, the geologic eons, the wonders of evolution, and the dance of the DNA, our eyes are opened to a majesty and a mystery of far greater dimension than the Olympian deities of our ancestors -- and of most believers today.

Columbanus's God is the God of mystery, the Deus absconditus of the mystics, the hidden God who is not this and is not that, who evades all names and metaphors, even the pronouns "who" and "he," Rudolph Otto's mysterium tremendum et fascinans. It is not a God with whom we can have a personal relationship or who attends our personal needs. Rather, it is a God that soaks creation as water soaks a rag. It is a God we see though a glass darkly, whom we approach through the valley of shadow and the dark night of the soul, who always hides just beyond our reach. We don't discover this God though the bible-tumping of the televangelist or infallible pronouncements from Rome, but through the works of the great spiritual pilgrims -- Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Georges Bernanos, Sigrid Undset, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Simone Weil, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, to name just a few from the tradition I know best.

In his Spiritual Exercises, the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis speaks of the pilgrim's God this way: "We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have named this circle God. We might have given it any other name we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence. But we have named it God because only this name, for primordial reasons, can stir our hearts profoundly. And this deeply felt emotion is indispensable if we are to touch, body with body, the dread essence beyond logic."

The dread essence beyond logic is not diminished by science. Let me quote once more, this time from the Roman Catholic priest and cultural historian Thomas Berry: "Today, in the opening years of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in a critical moment when the religious traditions need to awaken again to the natural world as the primary manifestation of the divine to human intelligence. The very nature and purpose of the human is to experience this intimate presence that comes to us through natural phenomena. Such is the purpose of having eyes and ears and feeling sensitivity, and all our other senses. We have no inner spiritual development without outer experience. Immediately, when we see or experience any natural phenomenon, when we see a flower, a butterfly, a tree, when we feel the evening breeze flow over us or wade in a stream of clear water, our natural response is immediate, intuitive, transforming, ecstatic. Everywhere we find ourselves invaded by the world of the sacred."

Further Reading

My books Honey From Stone, Skeptics and True Believers and Climbing Brandon advance (in very different ways) the argument of this essay.

The quote by Thomas Berry is from the introduction to When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature by Thomas Merton.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.