The Tender Edge of Mystery
March 18, 2018
In early March
the doves mourn
as each new dawn
I sit, looking over
the barren field
an owl flies from
dark woods to perch
on a bare branch
his round unblinking
eyes stare into mine
though who knows
what he sees, or what,
if anything, it means,
but life is like that,
isn’t it, the way it
sometimes when least
expected breaks wide
open, and what appeared
as lost is found.
From Alister McGrath, “The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World.”
McGrath, a famous atheist who eventually converted to Catholicism tells this wonderful story for St. Patrick’s Day. “And Englishman visited Northern Ireland, went out on a Saturday night and was confronted by a group of young men with baseball bats, and they asked him: ‘Are you a Protestant or a Roman Catholic?” He paused and thought, because he realized his actual life might depend on the answer he gave. He said, ‘I’m an atheist.” There was a slight pause. ‘Are you a Protestant atheist, or are you…’
For McGrath, at the time, a prominent natural scientist and, as he states, at the time he believed: “A good scientist is an atheist. Science simply disproves the existence of God, and that is the end of the matter. No further discussion needed.”
But, some years back, he wrote quoting Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptics Society: “Never in America’s history has God been so significant in public life.” Why he wondered. This was his answer:
“Number one, because people want to believe in God, and they lead such sad and unimaginative lives that they really need something to give them dignity, to give them meaning, to give a sense of locatedness and position. They project their longings onto some kind of imaginary, transcendent screen and they call the result God. However, since there is no God, we have to assume that there is some kind of mental misfiring going on.”
But is that necessarily so, McGrath asks:
Is wishing something to be so and it being so make it inconsistent?
“Just think of a hypothetical experiment. I want you to imagine that you have a leading atheist hilosopher sharing this platform with me, and both this philosopher and I are challenged to prove our beliefs. I would try very give you the reasons why I believe in god, and…I would do it reasonably well. However, I would not be able to prove my case with knock-down certainty, but neither would my opponent. The whole argument – whether there is or is not a God – would be stalemated as it has been for so many years. That brings us to the position that the person who says there is a God and the person who says there is no God are actually taking their positions as a matter of faith…on the basis of a set of beliefs that actually cannot be proven.”
From Terry Eagleton, on Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion in The London Review of Books, October, 2006
“ For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. … Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’. Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole-queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.
Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration. Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. This is not to say that religious people believe in a black hole, because they also consider that God has revealed himself: not, as Dawkins thinks, in the guise of a cosmic manufacturer even smarter than Dawkins himself (the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator), but for Christians at least, in the form of a reviled and murdered political criminal. The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God, but this does not mean that after debating the matter at a number of international conferences they decided to endorse the scientific hypothesis that there existed a supreme architect of the universe – even though, as Genesis reveals, they were of this opinion. They had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.”
From Reza Aslan: GOD: A Human History , 2017
“…More often than not, whether we are aware of it or not, and regardless of whether we’re believers or not, what the vast majority of us think about when we think about God is a divine version of ourselves…this is not to claim that there is no such thing as God, or that what we call God is wholly a human invention. Both of these statements may well be true, but that is not [my] concern…I have no interest in trying to prove the existence or nonexistence of God for the simple reason that no proof exists either way. Faith is a choice; anyone who says otherwise is trying to convert you. You either choose to believe that there is something beyond the material realm—something real, something knowable—or you don’t. If, like me, you do, then you must ask yourself another question: Do you wish to experience this…know it…If so then it may help to have a language with which to express what is fundamentally an inexpressible experience.”
THE TENDER EDGE OF MYSTERY
There’s a “God-shaped hole in many people’s lives,” said John Polkinghorne. He’s right, at least about there being a hole in our lives. To call the hole “God-shaped” begs the question, for the affliction of our times is that we have no satisfactory image of God that rests comfortably with what scientists have learned about creation. As we launch ourselves into the 21st century, many educated people in the Western world long wistfully for something akin to traditional religious faith, but they know there can be no turning back to divine fiats and penny miracles. As Polkinghorne (Faith of a Physicist, 1994) we can neither accept the idea of God nor quite leave it alone.
I am one of those people. I am less pessimistic than most, however, that science and religion must remain in conflict. I prefer to think that science is part of a religious quest for what some call God.
A vital religious faith has three components: a shared cosmology ( a story of the universe and our place in it), spirituality (personal response to the mystery of the world) and rites/rituals/liturgy (a public expression of shared experience). Most of the antagonism between science and religion centers on the cosmological questions: what is the universe? Where did it come from? Where is it going? Where do humans fit in? What is our fate?
We have always had answers to these questions – stories, tribal myths, scriptures, traditions. All are derived from some primordial experience. All contain enduring wisdom, but for many of us, most of “us” perhaps, these have been superceded as public knowledge by a scientific story of the universe…often without, I hasten to suggest, understanding that it is a story – one commentary on a situation of which we have no final, absolute, irrefutable assurance.
Chet Raymo, a now-emeritus physics prof at Stonehill College in Vermont, once suggested that there are two postures we often adopt to these questions, two that represent a fault-line in our culture, an attitudinal chasm more profound than differences in politics or religious affiliation.
He says we are Skeptics or True Believers. According to Raymo, skeptics are children of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They are always a little lost in the vastness of the cosmos, but they trust the ability of the human mind to make sense of the world. They accept the evolving nature of truth and are willing to live with a measure of uncertainty. Their world is colored in shades of gray. They tend t be socially optimistic, creaetive, confident of progress. Since they hold their truths tentatively, they are tolerant of cultural and religious diversity. They are more interested in refining their views than in proselytizing others. If they are lapsed or closeted or aesthetic theists, they wrestle with their God in a continuing struggle. They are often plagued by personal doubts and prone to depression.
True Believers, on the other hand, are less confident that humans can sort things out by themselves. They look for help from the outside—from Gods, spirits, etc. Their world is black and white. They seek simple and certain truths, provided by a source that is more reliable that the human mind. The prefer a universe proportioned to the human scale. They are repulsed by diversity, comforted by laws, rules and dogma, respectful of established authority. They go out of their way to offer (sometimes forcibly administer) their truths to others, convinced of the righteousness of their cause. They are likely to be “born again,” redeemed by faith, apocalyptic. Although pessimistic about the world, they are confident something better lies beyond the present moment.
Now, not all religious people fit into this category. If a skeptic is one who is willing to live with a measure of doubt, the Job, Jesus, Pascal, Graham Greene, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dag Hammarskjold, Martin Buber and many others have been skeptics. And, those scientists who are invincibly certain of the authority of their science must be counted as True Believers.
Some constancy of belief is essential for any way of knowing but science is, by definition, driven by research, open to growth and even to revolutionary change. I remember an article in Time magazine where John Bahcall, a physicist from Princeton, expressed confidence in the reliability of current theoretical models of what happens at the center of the sun; then he added, “But that’s why you do experiments. Because, what you think you know might turn out to be completely wrong.”
One theme remains, however: We are a culture divided at its heart. We warmly embrace the technological and medical fruits of science but often hold beliefs that stand in flat-out contradiction to the scientific way of knowing. We celebrate that science has been spectacularly successful as a way of understanding the world but are increasingly aware that we are ephemeral, contingent parts of a silent universe that is vastly larger than ourselves and faced with an overwhelming moral terror (as Charles Kingsley said,
Sermon, “The Meteor Shower”, 1866) of what science has created.
I am today a thoroughgoing skeptic who nonetheless believes that words like God, soul, sacred, spiritual, even sin and grace can retain currency in an age of science and I hunger for a faith that is open to a new cosmology—skeptical, empirical, ecumenical, ecological—without sacrificing the historical vernaculars of spirituality and liturgical expression. Science of a sort can be aloof, arrogant, destructive, blind to the ambient mystery that animates knowledge. I agree with Raymo that “A fusion of knowledge with religious feeling need not weaken the rigor of scientific practice; it can, however, help stitch science back into the larger fabric of our emotional, intuitive, aesthetic and sensual lives.”
Taped to the printer next to my computer is a quote I found many years ago. I don’t know where I found it but just this weekend learned (the miracles of Google!) that it was written by William MacNeill Dixon: “If there be a skeptical star, I was born under it, yet I have lived all my days in complete astonishment.”
Science, I hold, is founded on the twin cornerstones of skepticism and astonishment. Skepticism is the critical reluctance to take anything as absolute truth, even one’s own most cherished beliefs. Astonishment is the ability to be dazzled by the commonplace. “Nothing is too wonderful to be true,” said the 19th century physicist Michael Faraday.
That is astonishment. But, of course, everything wonderful need not be true, and that is skepticism. The thoughtful person will walk the line between drop-dead amazement at the wonder of creation and cautious skepticism about the finality of our present knowledge.
One morning last fall, I went walking in Door County through meadows made misty by the heat of the rising sun. As I rounded a stand of trees and stepped onto a footbridge over an inlet to Kewanee River., I startled a great blue heron that stood not ten feet away. The heron startled me, as well. It heaved into the air with bed-sheet wings – whoosh, whoosh –Neck crooked, pennant head-feathers flying, legs dangling behind like loosened mooring lines. Thesize of it! The fierce eye, pterodactylian beak. A prehistoric effect. I just stood on the bridge and applauded.
I know very little about herons, like all birds, a close relative of dinosaurs – feathered birds that first fluttered in Jurassic times. There is nothing esoteric about my knowledge, nothing specialized beyond what National Geographic prints. Reliable knowledge, public knowledge, knowledge that enhances experience and increases wonder. But everything I knew about herons was subsumed in that epiphanic moment when the bird lifted into the air, trailing its toes in the black water of the brook. Its six-foot wings spanned continents; their beats marked eons of geologic time. In every cell of the bird’s body, coiled strands of DNA performed a dervish dance that can only be imagined in the mind’s eye—spinning, unraveling, copying themselves – a kinetic miracle of life.
In earlier times, myths and totemic religion would have provided the bird with a context of human belief. Today only science weaves the heron into a tapestry of larger meaning. And what knowledge it is. A story of sublime dimension. Tentative, evolving, not always comfortable, carrying us in our imaginations to the farthest reaches of space and time but hedged about with death and oblivion. Scientific knowledge enlivens our every experience and tunes us in to the deepest mysteries of creation, the hidden rhythms of a world that evades our limited senses. Science cannot nor should it be a religion, but it can be the basis for spiritual experience. And so it was with the heron. As the dinosaurian relict pounded the air, I stood, gaped, then walked on along the tender edges of mystery into a world not altogether my own, totally skeptical, completely astonished.
One of the formative books of my theological development was Martin Buber’s poetic and contemplative I and Thou, published in my time in 1958 (before that in 1930). What Buber offered me was a vocabulary for understanding what I felt, a naming of two kinds of experiences – I-It and I-Thou. The experience I have staring at my PC belongs to the I-It, the basis for a practical agenda of living: putting on my shoes, changing the oil in the car. Buber says “Without IT man cannot live, but with IT alone is not a man.” We require experience that is relational, mutual, transcending – a shiver up the spine, exhilaration, fear.
With the heron, for example, I see a sheet of feathers in a shock of light, a splash of blue shotthrough with silver, streaming droplets of gold. Movement: wings against air. I can embroider the bird in physics, chemistry, biology, pure mathematics – an object in space and time. An It. But it can also happen, if I have both will and grace, that with the heron I am caught up in an unbidden relationship, struck through by a power that resides in the bird, that finds resonance in me – a power nameless, all-inclusive, a strange spiritual union in which we are both subsumed into the greater mystery. The heron is no longer an IT. Unasked for, unexplained, a primordial religious experience.
Buber says “Men do not find God if they stay in the world.” The skeptics knowledge alone will not touch the Divine. But neither will we find it if we leave the world, imagining as True Believers might that mystery alone will suffice. We must leave the secure shore of knowledge and walk the shore where knowledge is lapped by the tender edges of mystery.
“At its heart most theology is autobiography,” I’ve heard said. St. Paul, Aquinas, Luther, Barth, Tillich, even Billy Graham, working out their systems in their own ways and in their own language, are all telling us stories of their lives. And, if you press them far enough, even at their most elegantly cerebral, you’ll find a flesh-and-blood experience – a something that happened once. What happened once may be no more than a child falling sick, a thunderstorm, a dream, yet it made for something which no words can entirely convey, and although between experience and idea much intervenes, despite all books or sermons or inventive ideas, in many ways the idea and the experience and the image remain inseparable.
I cannot talk about “sin” or “grace”, for example, without at the same time talking about those parts of my own experience where these ideas became compelling and real.
One summer, years and years ago, as a teenager, I lay down in the Bermuda grass at home in Phoenix, expecting somehow, for a variety of reasons, a miracle. Something was going to happen. The time was ripe for a miracle. My life was ripe for a miracle. Even yet, I’m surprised I did not by strength of conviction make it happen, but the sunshine was too bright, the air too clear, some nagging skepticism within too sharp for me to see angels among the tamaracks or voices in the buzzing flies. Nothing like what I expected happened all. That might have been the end of faith for me—my faith exposed as superstition (which in part I suppose it was and is), my extravagant hope exposed as childish (which in part I suppose it was and is)—but it was not the end.
Something other than what I expected did happen. The tamarack branches swish swished against each other – “the dry [breeze] of the world’s tongue at the approach of splendor”(Frederick Buechner, might say)—that I hear even now as the occasional, obscure whispering- through of grace. The muffled presence of the Holy. A sense, a vision, always broken, partial, blurred, of the Divine.
A vision such as that after Easter of the men at Emmaus at suppertime see the Risen Lord but just the cracking of crust as the loaf came apart in his hand and he “vanished from their sight”—whoever he was, whoever they were. Whoever we are.
Life is like that, isn’t it?
what [one] sees, or what,
if anything,t means,
… life is like that,
isn’t it, the way it
sometimes when least
expected breaks wide
open… (Sarah Rossiter)
And all is found and is, at least for a moment and perhaps for a lifetime, enough.
True. I can talk of faith only when I talk of what somehow happened and continues to happen to me. I have given up certainty that I know the truth. Having chosen to negotiate the life with only a heron or swishing tamaracks and grasshoppers above me, faith no longer matters to me so much as attention, celebration, wonder and praise.
That much is enough.