Once again I’ve been leafing through Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: a beautiful book, perhaps my favorite novel. Tonight I came across this from her protagonist John Ames. He is an old man writing to a six-year-old son he will not see grow up.
If God is the Author of Existence, what can it mean to say God exists? There’s a problem in vocabulary. He would have to have a character before existence which the poverty of our understanding can only call existence. That is clearly a source of confusion. Another term would be needed to describe a state or quality of which we can have no experience whatever, to which existence as we know it can bear only the slightest likeness or affinity. So creating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem.
So my advice is this — don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within your conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. “Let your works so shine before men,” etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying the doubts and questions must be your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.
Oh my goodness, what warm baths are these new Apple adverts! With candles and incense! Is that harp music I hear?
Does Apple have no shame?
Apple is not the first company to take itself too seriously, of course. And it is no stranger to over-the-top ads, but they’ve always seemed disciplined somehow, by humor or irony or some such. But this latest wave of ads is way too much. I wonder: Is this because Jobs is gone? That dear man knew that restraint is a virtue that carries a high rating. Has his strict minimalist approach kept this nonsense at bay all these years?
The above ad came on during a Braves game a few nights ago. It made me think, as so many things in this life do, of Walker Percy. For those who don’t know, Percy was a Southern writer with a wry view of life. The theme that runs through all his work is the displacement of the self in an increasingly technological age. (He died in 1990. I often wonder what he would have to say to us about the Internet.)
Perhaps his strangest book is Lost in the Cosmos. In it, in contrast to his novels, he treats his theme directly. He says that we each have a self. Further, he says this self must be conceived and located. Doing so successfully is one of our major tasks as human beings. Traditionally, religion has made this possible: totemism (Aleut Indian: “I am Bear”); Eastern pantheism (Hindu: “I am Atman, which is Brahman”); theism (Christian: “I am a self with you under God, both created in God’s image”). In all three cases, the self is reconciled to the world by being located relative to it, and this location defines and eases the self’s interactions with the world and with other selves.
We have a need for identities, is the terribly simple point.
But, Percy writes, “in a post-religious technological society, these traditional resources of the self are no longer available.” What alternatives do we have? Mainly, to just be in the world, Percy says, immanent and inherent to it. But how to do this? There are two extremes:
On one extreme is Homer Simpson: “the compliant role-player and consumer and holder of a meaningless job… the anonymous one in a mass society.” This one pretty much reacts mechanically without thought or understanding to the automatic forces of the society in which s/he is immersed: “the backfence gossip or the Archie Bunker beer-drinking TV-watcher.”
At the other is found what Percy calls “the autonomous self, who is savvy to all the techniques of society and appropriates them according to his or her discriminating tastes, whether it be consciousness-raising, consumer advocacy, political activism liberal or conservative, saving whales, TM, creative cooking, moving out to country, moving back to central city, etc.”
With this one I always think of The Most Interesting Man in the World from those (hilarious) Dos Equis ads. He appropriates the world to himself and never makes a wrong choice: “He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels.” He is a man of the world: “He speaks French — in Russian.” He has the best of everything: “Cuba imports cigars from him.” He knows when to say no: “He has never filled up on chips.”
The thing about this Apple ad is: It suggests that buying an iPhone makes you the Most Interesting Man in the World, when the truth is it makes you Homer Simpson. You feel as if you have truly discriminating taste to select such a fine piece of technology but you’re just reacting automatically to this feeling, this urge to be saved, post-religion, by anything, anything at all. You’re being manipulated, plain and simple. It’s not new to advertising, which is probably the deadliest (legal) industry in America, but rarely is it this silly or this obvious. These ads are so bad I can hardly believe they’ll work.
(BTW, in Percy’s view there’s not much difference between the extremes: both Homer and the Most Interesting Man in the World are drowning in the immediate and the immanent, fully in it and of it, “sunk in everydayness.” That one has better taste is neither here nor there. D’oh!)
I am typing this on a MacBook and I have an iPhone in my pocket. But these ads, along with that nice roomy Microsoft outlet at Lenox Square, make me wonder how long I’ll be sticking with technology “Designed by Apple in California.”
Frans Lanting, Camel Thorn Trees (2011). This photograph is currently on display at NMNH
Last month Elizabeth and I celebrated our 22nd (!) wedding anniversary by visiting one of our favorite cities: Washington, D.C. She had some work there (including a meeting with John Lewis) but we had some time for ourselves too. Back around the turn of the 00′s we spent a few summers there and were pleased to return and visit some old haunts and discover some new ones. Evenings we visited Dupont Circle and days we walked downtown among the museums. As usual I loved the art: Munch, Hopper, O’Keeffe. Also memorable: At the National Portrait Gallery there was a display of the winners of a national portrait competition.
Art can be exhilarating and challenging and fun, yes. And last month it was all of these. But when we walked into the National Museum of Natural History I felt instantly happy. Walking through the old Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit (which is about to be closed and updated) put me in a happy and expansive philosophical mood, just as it always has. Elizabeth and I started from the trilobites and worked clear around to the Tyrannosaur. We covered therefore about 500 million years of (very) prehistoric life in about an hour.
We re-entered the atrium and glimpsed a new sign, over on the other side of Henry the Elephant. It read “Nature’s Best Photography 2012.” Curious, we walked in and were blown away. We had just stepped through hundreds of millions of years of natural history and now stood face-to-face with nature as it is today.
The photographs are amazing. You really should see them. Here’s a link to the exhibition but the tiny jpegs don’t do justice to the brilliant 3-foot by 4-foot images at the museum. I could go into great detail about the dalmatian pelicans, the proboscis monkey, the southern pig-tailed macaque, the camel thorn trees, but really, where to start? Where to end?
To see such a exhibit is to be overwhelmed, knowing that what you are seeing is such a tiny fraction of what there is see now, today. And to then imagine these variations — and so many more — on life’s great theme rolling back through countless forms over hundreds of millions of years, well. What a happy overload that is.
Such a view of creation is challenging because we like to think that things are pretty much about us. I don’t mean us as individuals but us collectively, human beings. We are the ones made in God’s image after all, so aren’t we pretty important? God was incarnated in a human being, not a trilobite or a macaque. Isn’t that suggestive of some kind of favorable rank order?
Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. One of the great lessons of the Bible, it seems to me, is: What is marginal to us is not marginal to God. We are told to look to the margins of human society to find Jesus: to the hungry, the imprisoned, the naked, the weak. So maybe the Creator may be found at the margins of creation: the remote, the impossibly tiny, the vast, the strange, the alien and inhuman.
Job is one of my favorite books of the Bible. Near the end of the book after poor shaken Job has been taken on a crash tour of the created order, God points him toward the wilderness and asks, “Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass?” (38.25-27)
God is with us, you and me. God knows us. God takes joy in us. But God also takes joy in reviving parched landscapes human beings will never see. God takes joy in each and every one of those oddball creatures that came and went long before we showed up, the ones who lurched through primordial swamps and flitted through Triassic skies and slithered silently across ancient ocean floors.
I just find that to be a total relief somehow: It’s not all about us. It really isn’t. God so often speaks to us through things that have nothing to do with us. At the museum, as I stood in front of Jed Weingarten’s White-headed Langurs my mind relaxed, my breath became regular, I remembered this from Anthony de Mello: “We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us,” and I was grateful.
Marc Chagall, Elijah Touched by an Angel, from the Bible suite, 1958. Image source: The Jewish Museum, New York
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
– 1 Kings 19.1-9, NRSV
Elijah lived his life mostly in solitude, marginal to the popular religion of the day, marginal to the power politics of the day. It was from the solitary margins that Elijah recentered the life of Israel. For people schooled in a biblical imagination, the [modern-day] fascination with numbers and goals as a sign of efficacy is strange indeed. Virtually all the men and women who prepared the way of the Lord, which became the way of Jesus, worked at the margins of their societies and cultures. Elijah is conspicuous but is in no way unique. The story of Elijah is told from nine site locations. Only one, Mt. Carmel, provided a public stage for a crowd of people. All the others were out-of-the-way and marginal.
This is important. Elijah appeared from time to time without fanfare and then disappeared from public life without notice. Basically, he lived a solitary life in obscurity, but his formative impact on how we as a people of God understand responsibility and witness in society is inescapable and irreversible. It never goes out of style and by God’s grace is replicated in every generation. The essence of the way of solitude is that it counters the world’s way, the culture’s way. What Elijah did, and what his contemporary progeny does, is purge our imaginations of this world’s assumptions on how life is lived, on what counts in life, and on where power comes from.
– Eugene H. Peterson, from his introduction to Annemarie S. Kidder‘s book The Power of Solitude: Discovering Your True Self in a World of Nonsense and Noise
Earlier this week my dad had a major round of chemotherapy that totally wiped out his immune system. And yesterday he received a dose of his own stem cells, harvested about ten days ago, that will regrow his white blood cells. But in the meantime he will be spending a lot of time alone. He has to, so that he won’t get sick. For at least two months or so he’ll be away from his church and his friends who love him, and away from his family too for the most part. Though he is loved by many, he will pass these days in silence and at the margins of life. So I’m thinking about what that would be like. Tonight I’m thinking about solitude.
It doesn’t get a lot of press these days, but solitude has been a major deal within Christianity for centuries. Richard Foster calls it one of the central disciplines of the faith. And it’s good for us to listen to voices from the margins, voices purified in the flame of silence. Here is a sample of such voices. All have something to tell us about solitude and the interior life. Not all of these will speak to everyone, but perhaps there is at least one good word here for each reader.
1. DROWNING IN COMMUNITY, Annemarie S. Kidder, from The Power of Solitude: Discovering Your True Self in a World of Nonsense and Noise (2007). Building connection, maintaining friendship, nurturing fellowship — all are considered building blocks in the emergence of a healthy self. But the popular emphasis on community and relationship has blurred the boundaries between a personality that is self-differentiated and interdependent and one that is dependent on others for self-definition. Often the participation in and belonging to a certain community covers up and overshadows the soul’s need to develop an autonomous self. By over-identifying with the community, the soul is drowned by external demands and unable to hear its own pulse and life. Stepping back from these external demands, taking stock of where community ends and the “I” begins will require solitude. Reflection, soul-searching, self-examination are needed for the autonomous self to emerge that is aware of veiled projections, irrational expectations, and blurred boundaries. When the need to belong overpowers our need to become and simply be, we give greater importance to externals than internals, to public image than to personal growth, to others’ voices than God’s voice whispering in the soul.
2. THE VEIL OF WORDS, Thomas Merton (Cistercian, 1915-1968), from Thoughts in Solitude. The solitary life, being silent, clears away the smoke-screen of words that man has laid down between his mind and things. In solitude we remain face to face with the naked being of things. And yet we find that the nakedness of reality which we have feared, is neither a matter of terror or of shame. It is clothed in the friendly communion of silence, and this silence is related to love. The world our words have attempted to classify, to control and even to despise (because they could not contain it) comes close to us, for silence teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled it.
3. SOLITUDE IN THE CITY, anonymous Desert Father (5th century), from Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Amma Matrona said, “There are many in the mountains [in solitude] who behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is better to have many people around you and to live the solitary life in your will than to be alone and always longing to be in a crowd.”
4. COMPANY WITH GOD, William of St. Thierry (Benedictine, ~1077-1148), from The Golden Epistle. The man who has God with him is never less alone than when he is alone.
5. THE NOISE AMONG OTHERS, Thomas à Kempis (Brethren of the Common Life, ~1380-1471), from The Imitation of Christ. The greatest saints guarded their time alone and chose to serve God in solitude. Someone has said, “As often as I went out among men, I returned less of a man.” We often experience this when we have spent a long time in idle chatter. It is easier to be completely silent than not to be long-winded; it is easier to stay at home than to be properly on guard outside the monastery. A person whose goal is the inward, spiritual life must cast his lot with Jesus and not follow the crowd.
6. WHAT ONE MAY FIND IN SOLITUDE, Guigo I (Carthusian, d. 1136), from Carthusian Customs. Jacob, having sent ahead everything over the ford of Jaboc, remained alone and saw God face-to-face (Gen. 32.23-30). He was rewarded by a blessing and by a change of name [and by a lifelong limp! -pw]. He gained more in one moment alone than a whole lifetime in the company of others.
7. THE NEED FOR BALANCE, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran, 1906-1945), from Life Together. Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… let him who is not in community beware of being alone… each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.
8. THE PORTABILITY OF SOLITUDE, Richard Foster (Quaker), from Celebration of Discipline (1978). Solitude is more a state of mind and heart than it is a place. There is a solitude of the heart that can be maintained at all times. Crowds, or the lack of them, have little to do with this inward attentiveness. It is quite possible to be a desert hermit and never experience solitude. But if we possess inward solitude we do not fear being alone. In the midst of noise and confusion we are settled into a deep inner silence. Whether alone or among people, we always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart.
9. EACH OF US HAS BEEN ALONE WITH GOD OUR WHOLE LIVES, Thomas Merton (Cistercian, 1915-1968), from No Man is an Island. Secrecy and solitude are values that belong to the very essence of personality. A person is a person insofar as he has a secret and is a solitude of his own that cannot be communicated to anyone else. If I love a person, I will love that which makes him most a person: the secrecy, the hiddenness, the solitude of his own individual being, which God alone can penetrate and understand. A love that breaks into the spiritual privacy of another in order to lay open all his secrets and besiege his solitude with importunity does not love him; it seeks to destroy what is best in him, and what is most intimately his… If I cannot distinguish myself from the mass of other men, I will never be able to love and respect other men as I ought. If I do not separate myself from them enough to know what is mine and what is theirs, I will never discover what I have to give them, and never allow them the opportunity to give me what they ought.
10. THE INNER AND OUTER LIVES, Meister Eckhart (Dominican, ~1260-1327), from On Detachment. Now you must know that the outer man may be active while the inner man remains wholly free and immovable.
11. ON LIMITS, Marie of the Incarnation (Carmelite, 1566-1618), from The Relation of 1654. There is no limit to the interior life.
Image source: brucespringsteen.net
It’s Ash Wednesday, and I’ve been listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska lately. Which is appropriate, IMO.
I was a DJ at my college radio station in the late 1980′s. We played R.E.M. and the Smiths and the Silos and Jane’s Addiction. As the vinyl spun we’d sit in the studio and talk music. On many points we were, as a group, in full agreement: Talking Heads’ Little Creatures was a masterpiece; R.E.M. was better when you couldn’t understand Michael Stipe’s lyrics; the world needed more Replacements and less Lionel Richie; Kevn Kinney’s red Mosrite was badass.
But when it came to Springsteen, I was alone. This was, you must know, during the years just following the galactic-scale commercial success of Born in the U.S.A. It had been four or five solid years that you could not turn on the radio without hearing the title track, or “Cover Me,” or “Darlington County,” or “Dancing in the Dark.” Never mind that Tunnel of Love, a distinctly low-key and introspective album, had been released in the midst of those years. My friends at WPLS would have none of it. The Boss was Way Commercial. Which meant he was Way Not Cool.
I would not be moved. As a freshman at Young Harris College I had discovered Nebraska. Maybe it was the confluence of that music and that place, but Nebraska made me a Springsteen fan for life. Here was music that was intimate, astute, haunting, and pessimistic (in the best philosophical sense). It was sensitive yet extremely hard-edged. It resonated with my loneliness in a way that made me feel less, well, lonely.
The thing is, Nebraska made such an impression on me that to this day I can’t listen to any Springsteen song without hearing Nebraska pushing its way up through the drums and guitars. Even let’s-get-it-on party songs like “Pink Cadillac” and drenched-in-hope rockers like “What Love Can Do” carry for me, somewhere near their centers, the frustration so evident in “Used Cars,” the biting irony of “Reason to Believe,” or the stark loss of “My Father’s House.” This is why I defended Born in the U.S.A. at the radio station, but I didn’t (couldn’t?) articulate this at the time.
But with Nebraska the note of loss is exposed, naked really. There’s no hiding it. It’s right there. It can be hard to listen to at times, but other times not so much.
This all fits because Ash Wednesday is that day of the Christian year when nakedness is on the agenda. It’s about taking the varnish off, as a pastor friend of mine used to say. No fig leaves, no disguises, no distractions. It’s the season in which we’re called to consider the terrible truth of our lives. It’s when we are called to acknowledge, in the words of “Atlantic City,” that “everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.”
Nebraska helps me remember that as Christians, our number one job is to die. That’s all we have to do, really, in a hundred different ways. And faith, I suppose, is trusting God to do the rest.
Hellraiser: The Breakfast Club‘s John Bender, played by Jud Nelson
Note: This is a reworked version of a post published back in 2011. If all goes well, this version will be showing up at Huffpost later this week.
A few posts ago I discussed the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit. This is the idea, held by some atheists, that humanity is growing up from an infancy characterized by belief in God. Under this conceit the God fantasy must be sloughed off because it is untrue and unhelpful. Reason and empirical science have now emerged as the only principles worthy of a fully awake and grown-up humanity. The giving-up of religion and the full embrace of reason is the trading of a childish dream for reality. It is a happy signpost along the way to humanity’s majority.
So goes the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit.
I believe this idea is no more than a convenient fiction, but I’m not interested in attacking it directly (others have done that already). Instead I’d like to simply propose an off-the-cuff alternative model. It is at least as plausible as the Goat Herder. My point is not that this alternative is right and the Goat Herder is wrong. Instead, I wish to say only that it’s easy to manufacture interpretations of history that seem compelling, especially to those who already believe them.
Like the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit, my model is based on the theme of growing up. I call it the “Breakfast Club Conceit.”
The Breakfast Club, for those who don’t know, is a movie by John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Home Alone; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles). It was released in 1985 and chronicles one day in the life of five teenagers. Each hails from a different clique — Brian’s a geek, Allison’s a recluse, Claire’s a princess, Andrew’s a jock, John’s a rebel — and they spend a long Saturday in detention, cloistered in their school’s library. They laugh, cry, make out, dance, smoke dope, and talk. They talk a lot. They talk about their different social scenes, they talk about their friends, they talk about their parents, they talk about themselves, they talk about each other.
None of them trust the way they were brought up, and all of them end up trusting each other. Two points stand out: (1) their new social worlds, in sharp contrast to the worlds of their parents, are utterly absorbing to them; and (2) their parents’ values — that is, their own values up to roughly the date of their detention — are questioned and, in the end, judged to be inadequate to the realities of their lives.
What we see in The Breakfast Club is a well-documented piece of psychology: Once a human being learns a new intellectual or social skill, it has a way of rearranging the mental furniture. The new arrangement is centered on the new skill. Old arrangements and skills are devalued. And the new skills, for perfectly valid developmental reasons, are actually overused. It is necessary to overuse them, to test them and to find their limits.
We see the awakening of social skills in The Breakfast Club. In the clear light of a new understanding, life under parental and institutional standards appears dopey and restricting and just plain wrong. And, as the film shows, it feels really good to push the new skills. Kind of like freedom, kind of like release, kind of like growing up. Plus it’s fun, like rearranging your living room around a new sofa.
So what I’m thinking is, maybe religion is like what our parents taught us when we were kids. And science, only a few hundred years old and still growing, provides an exciting new understanding by which our religious upbringing may be judged. But perhaps in our exuberance — look, we can do the physics and predict an eclipse and build a bomb! we can vaccinate for polio and sequence our genes! — science gets overvalued. Perhaps in our search for its limits we overemphasize it.
Indeed, why worry over outdated metaphysics and ancient rules when we can clone sheep? When there’s stuff to learn? When the final frontier awaits? Why hang out with Mom and Dad at home when there’s a football game, and pizza, and a party? And a road trip to the beach in the morning?
But if this is the way things are, then it’s wrong to say that science is good and religion is bad. After all, there is no more evidence to say that religion is a useless and hurtful artifact of our past that must be jettisoned wholesale than there is to say that everything Claire Standish‘s parents ever told her was a flat-out deception.
Plus, when Claire hits adulthood she may be surprised to hear her parents’ words coming out of her mouth. And what may be most surprising is the discovery that she means what she says.
So under the Breakfast Club Conceit, science is a relatively new and powerful skill, like a teen’s social awareness, that has come to dominate part of humanity’s consciousness. And like the teen’s overused social skills, empirical science will one day be seen as just one important tool among others. And those atheists who want to rid the world of religion altogether are like hellraising kids who, for very good reasons, want to just forget everything their parents ever said or did.
Hellraisers notwithstanding, we will eventually come to see our religious and scientific lives come into balance, just as teenagers eventually grow up and learn to balance the dual influences of authority and peers, of restraint and exuberance.
I could work this idea harder, and it might be fun. But frankly I don’t care if the Breakfast Club Conceit is right or wrong.* Why? Because my point is broader and more modest: The Breakfast Club, like the Goat Herder, goes down easy if you basically believe it already. Heck, I’m starting to warm to it myself.
Anyone can come up with an idea and sell it. And if it fits some group’s preconceptions, or if it serves their political or (a)theological agenda then there will be no push by anyone in that group to question it. And then you might end up with a lot of people believing a lot of nonsense. Which, truth be told, is not a phenomenon unique to religion.
*I do in fact think that the Breakfast Club has more insight to offer than the Goat Herder. But it has problems. One is that it characterizes religion as conservative and authority-based and science as iconoclastic and intellectually liberating. Both statements are partly true but are taken by themselves misleading about both religion and science.
There are more severe problems. Like the Goat Herder, the Breakfast Club suffers from one unfounded assumption: That human history should be understood in terms of an individual’s development, and, even more problematic, that it should be described in terms of progress at all.
Pia Stern, The Improbable Duality of Being, 2012. Used with permission of the artist
Twice in my life I’ve had the experience of learning something I already knew. But that’s not quite right, of course. What I mean is, twice I’ve encountered subjects that were truly new but felt old. In both cases I had no idea I had ever thought about these things in any way, but the strong shocks of recognition indicated otherwise: “I’ve been thinking this way my whole life!”
The first time was when I took physics as a college sophomore. I had wondered about motion a lot as a kid and teenager but never realized that motion is what I had thought about. So learning physics was like putting on a pair of shoes that were somehow worn and soft in all the right places, like I had been wearing them for years. Yet they were new. It was a happy discovery and it was fun to go through college and graduate school learning to look at the natural, exterior world as a physicist. As a teacher I’m still learning how to do this and it’s still fun.
The second time came much later, as a 40-year-old in seminary. This is when I read the Christian mystics for the first time. And I am completely serious when I say it was not fun but frightening and ultimately liberating. It was like these people — Denys, Meister Eckhart, Marguerite Porete, Nicholas of Cusa, all of whom lived centuries ago — knew me. I had read Thomas Merton and he had gone deep but these folks shot straight into the most interior and central part of me and laid bare all the stuff I could not verbalize. They showed me that God is not only about reality but also — and just as fundamentally — about identity.
So these are the two utterly real poles of my life: the reproducible and the poetic; the exterior and the interior; the immanent and the transcendent; the dynamic and the eternal. The apparent incongruity sometimes leads me to despair and look for ways to resolve the paradox and get on to another subject. But taken together science and theology produce a tension that I’m not sure should be gone. It reminds me of something I read lately about heresies: they have almost always been rooted in a desire to resolve and flatten a necessary paradox, e.g., the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ.
Borrowing from Zen, for me science and theology work together kind of like a koan, a paradoxical question or image used to encourage doubt and humility on the way to enlightenment. Koans are designed to push the student beyond what he knows and in the end to relativize what he once had been pleased to call knowledge.
In this way, science and theology — taken together — move me right out to the boundary of everything I don’t know and even push me a little over that line. And while my drive to resolve the paradox is an expression of a good desire for rational coherence, I think it’s ultimately for me a temptation to retreat to safer and better-mapped territory. There are few enticements stronger than security, intellectual and otherwise.
But I’m out here now, and I think I’ll stay a little longer.
Here’s to a happy Wednesday.