Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Ultimate X

Spry little x, with its feet planted firmly on the ground and its arms uplifted in surprise, is our emissary to the unknown.

Rene Descartes, in his book on geometry in 1637, first used X to stand for the undetermined variable in mathematical equations. Since then we have trotted out x as a place keeper when the true identity of a thing is unknown: the mysterious Mr. X, the creature from Planet X, secret ingredient X.

When in 1895 Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen discovered penetrating radiations of an unknown nature, he called them x-rays.

We love our mysteries. When Roentgen announced his discovery, the news spread like wildfire. "Wondrous rays." "See the bones in your hand." "Count the coins within your purse." Now Roentgen's magical rays are commonplace. So we turn to other sources of mystery. Black hole X-1. Television's X-Files. X marks the spot.

Which brings me by a curious Cartesian arc to -- to God.

I have recently read two scientist authors who do their best to reduce the idea of God ad absurdum: Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion). They go at religion like B-movie slashers armed with Ockham's razor, and by the time they are finished not much is left but the gory shreds of superstitions.

But I won't go where Harris and Dawkins would take me. Something is amiss with their shock-and-awe atheism. If I can switch metaphors -- and turn the new one on its ear -- Harris and Dawkins throw out the bath water with the baby.

In my inverted cliche, let "the bath water" stand for the mind-stretching, jaw-dropping, in-your-face mystery of the universe itself. Water, as much as anything in our environment, is an appropriate symbol of the creative agency that forges atoms in the hot interiors of stars, fuses oxygen to primeval hydrogen, and wets the Earth with the stuff of life and consciousness -- surely an agency worthy of attention, reverence, thanksgiving, praise.

However, in most religious traditions the "bath water" of mystery is encrusted with formalisms, misplaced pieties, triumphalism, intolerance of "infidels," supposed miracles, and "supernatural" imaginings. These cultural accretions we can take as "the baby," metaphorical products of human invention that have been invested with false assumptions of objectivity.

So, yes, toss out the baby.

What then of those other scientists who have recently authored popular books -- Francis Collins and Owen Gingerich -- theists who opt for (in Stephen Jay Gould's term) "non-overlapping magisteria"? Their magisteria are science and -- what shall we call it? -- wishful thinking. If the authors had been born in China, say, or India, their science would be the same, but their wishful thinking would very likely be different.

For myself, I choose a single magisterium, because I assume a single, non-dualistc reality that can be known empirically, however imperfectly. At this moment in human history, it seems to me, the most credible magisterium is science.

Yet I think of myself as Roman Catholic -- in the same way that I am a Tennessean, an American, a Caucasian of European descent, an English speaker. Born and raised. And although I try to rid myself of the prejudices and superstitions that I inherited as accidents of birth, I am proud to honor the best of my heritage, as I honor the best in the traditions of others.

So I read too, say, James Carroll's Toward a New Catholic Church, and although I greatly admire Carroll as one of the finest ethicists (and journalists) of our time, and although I would not gainsay his proposed ecclesiastical reforms, which would go far to bring the Church into the modern world, he does not get to the root of the conflict between science and faith -- the viral metaphor that infects his every page, and, for that matter, every page of Harris, Dawkins, Collins, and Gingerich.

God as person.

God in our own image. God invested with human qualities: justice, love, will, desire, jealousy, artifice, and so on -- in short, attributes of human personhood. The ultimate idolatry.

In his Spiritual Exercises, the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis wrote:

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 the heart profoundly. And this deeply felt emotion is indispensable if we are to touch, body with body, the dread essence beyond logic.

I have quoted this passage before with approval, because it seems to aptly express the deus absconditus of the mystics, the thing seen through a glass darkly, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the numinous flame that burns in every atom, every flower, every grain of sand, every star. But after reading the new flurry of books on faith by scientists, I wonder if Kazantzakis is wrong, and that for primordial reasons "God" is precisely the wrong word for the "dread essence beyond logic," at least at this point in our cultural evolution. The word is almost irretrievably burdened with personhood. Our Baal, our idol. A divine Person is not seen through a glass darkly but in a mirror brightly.

Child psychologists, such as Jean Piaget, tell us that children instinctively give animate, personal characteristics to inanimate objects -- draw a face on the Sun, for example. Anthropologists tell us that all prescientific people are animistic in their religious beliefs, investing every tree, brook and celestial body with personhood. What could be more natural? What metaphor is more ready to hand than the thing we know best: our self. For all of its grandeur and refinement, the idea of a transcendent monotheistic personal diety who acts in the world is only the most recent manifestation of primitive animism.

So by all means toss out the baby -- the personhood of God, offspring of human imagination. But for myself, I fiercely cling to the water of refreshment -- to attend, honor and praise that which cannot be named, the thing I encounter in Schrodinger's Equation, in the phoebe in her nest, in the songs of poets and mystics, beautiful and terrible, diminished by any spoken word but deserving of our undiminished attention, the abiding, intuited Ultimate X.

I will leave it to others more qualified than me to sort out the biological and cultural origins of religion. A sense of the sacred seems to be part of our biological heritage. I suspect that the Ultimate X will defy our comprehension for a while longer yet, maybe forever. In the meantime, in my most attentive moments, I hear Kazantzakis speak as if to me alone: "We are one. From the blind worm in the depths of the ocean to the endless arena of the Galaxy, only one person struggles and is imperiled: You. And within your small and earthen breast only one thing struggles and is imperiled: the Universe."

Further Reading

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004).

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006).

Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006).

Owen Gingerich, God's Universe (2006).

James Carroll, Toward a New Catholic Church (2002).

Nikos Kazantzakis's The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, translated by Kimon Friar, was published by Simon and Schuster in 1960. It does not seem to be any longer in print.

As I wrote the final paragraph above, I imagined the voice of my mother, the English teacher, saying: "Chet, 'than' is a conjunction, not a preposition. It requires the subjective." Sorry, Mom.

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