Sunday, April 23, 2006

When God is gone, everything is holy

In a posting a week or so ago, I stated that the central contribution of 20th-century science was the shattering of absolutes. There is a corollary: The importance of everything.

Once we reject the absolute truth of one thing, whatever it might be -- God, a holy book, a law of nature -- then everything, even the smallest element of reality -- an insect, a leaf, a grain of sand -- becomes infinitely interesting. The physicist Heinz Pagels put it this way: "The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty, is the attribute of an explorer. Centuries ago, when some people suspended their search for absolute truth and began instead to ask how things worked, modern science was born. Curiously, it was by abandoning the search for absolute truth that science began to make progress, opening the material universe to human exploration."

If one wanted to describe this in religious terms, it would go something like this: The absence of God makes everything holy.

But why use religious language when Pagels' quite satisfactory summation says it all?

Because for some of us, Pagels' summation is incomplete. We are -- for better or worse -- religious by nature. Whether by genes or from thousands of years of encounter with the world in wakefulness and dream we have a felt attraction to the suprasensual. We need not apologize for this. The suprasensual does not imply supernatural. The boundary between the mind and the world is infinitely fuzzy, and we are far from understanding the nature of consciousness. Nevertheless, we feel, with Newton, like children playing with pretty stones on the shore of a limitless sea. Any language that gives expression to our transsensual intuitions is religious.

But let me say clearly: All gods are idolatrous, especially any god we personify with a capital G. The great service to humanity of science has been to sweep the anthropomorphic gods away, or, at the very least, to show them for what they are, phantoms of the human brain. What we are given in their place is not Truth, but reliable empirical knowledge of the world, tentative and evolving.

When the slate of superstition has been wiped clean, what are we left with? Silence? Yes, there is something to be said for silence, for retreating into what Thomas Merton called "the prayer of the heart." The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis in his Spiritual Exercises writes of the thing that he --- hesitantly -- calls Spirit: "We struggle to make this Spirit visible, to give it a face, to encase it in words, in allegories and thoughts and incantations, that it may not escape us. But it cannot be contained in the twenty-six letters of an alphabet which we string out in rows; we know that all these words, these allegories, these thoughts, and these incantations are, once more, but a new mask with which to conceal the Abyss."

He writes: "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."

One might reasonably take issue with Kazantzakis. The word God is so burdened with idolatrous baggage that its usefulness is compromised for the scientific skeptic. Better, say, to adopt Rudolf Otto's "mysterium tremendum et fascinans," or Kazantzakis' own "dread essence beyond logic." But then, in the end, is any formulation of the transsensual less idolatrous than another?

Let it only be said that the world is shot through with a mystery that manifests itself no less in what is revealed by science -- the universe of the galaxies and the eons, the eternally weaving DNA, the electrochemical flickering which is consciousness -- than in the creations of poets, visual artists and musicians.

So we stumble forward, trying to avoid the dogmas of blind faith or scientism, We try to make ourselves worthy of the universe of which we are an infinitesimal part. We will not all agree on what worthiness consists of. For me, it is a mix of skepticism and celebration.

Kazantzakis, in the Spiritual Exercises, lodges his Ultimate Concern in the human heart.

A command rings out within me: "Dig! What do you see?"
"Men and birds, water and stones."
"Dig deeper! What do you see?"
"Ideas and dreams, fantasies and lightning flashes!"
"Dig deeper! What do you see?"
"I see nothing! A mute Night, as thick as death. It must be death."
"Dig deeper!"
"Ah! I cannot penetrate the dark partition! I hear voices and weeping. I hear the fluttering of wings on the other shore."
"Don't weep! Don't weep! They are not on the other shore. The voices, the weeping, and the wings are your own heart."
So this would be my creed: Strive for reliable knowledge of the world, which I take to be the tentative consensus knowledge of the scientific community. Distrust those who offer absolutes. Listen to poets. And pay attention, even to the least of things -- for everything is interesting.

Further Reading

Nikos Kazantzakis, Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises. A strange and wonderful little book, no longer in print, by the author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, two other books of interest to the spiritual seeker.

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