The Big Boo Boo (It really was a big one)

Posted by on 07.23.09 | 7 Comments
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I just got back from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which is doubtless of little interest to lots of visitors to the VTH. But, as is my wont, I began to ponder things as I was returning home. Even in the Episcopal Church it turns out that there are at least a few people who still feel the need to pit scripture against science, that is to say there are those who really truly believe that there is some kind of battle going on in this world between the bible and what we can discover by observation, testing, retesting and confirming. And in that battle, faith means siding with what we read in the bible over against what we can see, test, retest and confirm. And that made me think.

And mostly it made me think that this is a great pity. For it wasn’t always this way. In fact it wasn’t this way until quite recently in our history. For most of human history religious insight followed very closely what we could observe of the world, and our ideas about the gods and how they worked emerged directly from what we knew of the universe we inhabited. It was not, for example, that the ancients discovered Apollo and so believed the sun moved across the sky. It was that they saw what appeared to be the sun moving across the sky and so came to believe in Apollo. And again, they didn’t discover the river gods and then come to believe that the Nile rose and fell seasonally, they saw that the Nile rose and fell, and so came to believe in the river gods. For a very long time this was how we worked, and it made perfect sense. As a pre-scientific person you look at the world, both the exterior world and the interior world, and you develop stories, myths, legends, sagas, that help make sense of that world and the transcendent dimension of it that you can intuit but not really explain in mere prose. So religious and spiritual insight follow what we see, feel, taste, touch, experience, it follows what makes us happy and sorrowful, awestruck and bored. That is the way it was with humanity for, I don’t know, from the dawn of recognizably human endeavor until five or six hundred years ago.

At that moment something went haywire and ended up making us all crazy. At some mysterious point that I can’t identify the religious imagination of the western world ossified; we lost the ability to learn about God from the study of our environment and began a process of separating these stories from their very sources, our observation of the world. This was probably due to an effort to make these religious stories fit into the category of science, which was even as early as the fifteenth century beginning to make real inroads into the intellectual history of humanity, but I don’t know that for sure. What is clear now is that this deracination of our myths and legends and stories and sagas was devastating to our religious imagination. So much so that by 1633 Galileo’s “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” was condemned as heresy, he was forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest, all for the “crime” of telling us that in fact Copernicus was right, the sun is the center of the solar system, and the earth, along with the other planets, revolves around it. Imagine what might have happened if the pope had said: “Tell me more of this, this is wonderful, for it teaches us more about how God works and how wonderful is this universe.” That kind of response would have been in perfect keeping with the entire intellectual and spiritual history of humanity to that point. But because in that strange moment of confusion we lost the connection between our stories and the motives that caused us to invent them, we could not see that, and so it made perfect sense to the pope to declare that heliocentrism is “false and contrary to scripture.” NO IT IS NOT! Had we not gone mad we would have seen that heliocentrism could have led to new and wonderful spiritual breakthroughs, and the infant study of the world through the methods of science could have brought forth ever new insight and spurred the religious imagination of the western world in ways that we are only now beginning to recover. But the damage is done, and it has nearly destroyed the ability of religious people to talk about evolution, sexual orientation, genetic engineering, birth control and a host of other things without getting into a big fight. And the big loser in this fight is not science, but religion.

Fortunately, at least from my point of view, there are hopeful signs. Some spiritual people are once again learning from the world. The view of the universe from the Hubble telescope has left most of us utterly overwhelmed as we see star clusters larger than this galaxy spawned from giant gaseous clouds. Chaos theory and the Uncertainty Principle have begun to inspire a number of religious thinkers to the same kinds of insights reflected in scripture, and once again we are able to link stories like Job in his existential conflict to our own stunned silence at the utter unknowableness of the universe in all its fantastic vastness. This is good, it is very good. We made a big boo boo several hundred years ago, but we are beginning to recover from it. I won’t live long enough to see the fullness of that recovery, but the signs that it is there are encouraging. I still lament what we did to ourselves, and I lament the damage that continues to be done because of that boo boo. But I rejoice that we are beginning to understand anew that spiritual insight grows with our knowledge of the world we inhabit, not against it.




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