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    Koan: science and theology


    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┬áreality 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.

    Comment Pages

    There are 5 Comments to "Koan: science and theology"

    • Bravo! A poet without physics has no words to say. A physicist without poetry has no reason to say anything. And thanks for reminding me that heresies are typically attempts to step off the knife-edge of paradox.


    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul, I think I can agree with a substantial measure of what you say, to at least this extent: (a) I recognize there are paradoxes, such as one you mention, the divinity/humanity of Jesus, also the Trinity, and in the natural realm, the nature and characteristics of light. (b) There are limits to human knowledge, including, obviously, my own. (c) The ineffable is more pronounced in the “spiritual” realm.

      However, I think it is still necessary to have SOME “concreteness” to our beliefs, even religious ones, lest we be merely “floating along.” Certainly in the natural realm we believe in chairs, tables, and computers and their various operations to be having such a conversation (though some aspects of computers are to me ineffable!). Beyond that, however, to call ourselves Christians, as opposed to Buddhists or other “belief systems,” there must be some things we can say “for certain.” (In fact, even if Zen says things are unknowable, that itself is a statement about the nature of reality.) In particular as to Christianity, we “anchor” ourselves on such objective realities as the fact that Jesus really did live, die, and rise again; that God is the type of being who can communicate with us (and has done so), etc. So, while we should be humble and recognize our limits, this does not change various “objective” realities even in the realm of the religious, upon which we may anchor our ships.


    • Scott Pyron says:

      Nicely and incisively said, Paul. I identify with your perspective and wish I could say it as well. Thanks for introducing me to the concept of “koan.”


    • Don Hammonds says:

      Thanks so much in the ways you challenge me to move “off the edge” in my thinking. I remember Clarence Jordan saying that we place so much emphasis on the divinity of Jesus that we forget about his humanity. At times we do not even get to “enjoy” the challenge of the paradox. I also want to thank you, as Scott has, for sharing the new concept of “koan” with me.


    • Well said, Paul. Richard Rorty wrote something like this, “Truth is what we agree upon together so that we can have a conversation.” On some days I’m convinced that reality itself is a social convention.



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