Inherit the Wind

I wonder what us “religious folk” are so afraid of.  This is not to say that all who profess a certain faith system have this white-knuckled trepidation, but there are plenty who are unable to let go of ideas that keep them blinded to the full view of what the universe has to offer.  One area that is particularly shunned by those with a more fundamentalist religious bent is science.

Parker Palmer once shared how he came to become a Quaker.  He was at a meeting when a woman suddenly began speaking and said:

“Many of us seek unity amid human diversity.  But we seem to think the the way to get there is ‘upward,’ into abstraction, where our differences get blurred and we can harbor the illusion that we are one.  But instead of becoming one, we lose our identities, our unique stories, and cannot forge meaningful relationships because we do not show up as who we are.

The way to unity is not up into abstraction, but down into particularity.  If each of us will go deep enough into our own story, into the well of our own experience, we will find ourselves drinking from the same aquifer of living water that feeds all the wells.  That’s where true unity is to be found . . . .”

It doesn’t come as much surprise to me that those who shun scientific discovery are also those who would deny themselves the self discovery that comes from contemplative practices; those who wouldn’t dare going “down into particularity.”  It is as though the very thing that they fear knowing about the cosmos is the same thing they fear discovering within themselves.  This isn’t to say that we don’t all carry that fear with us in some way.  

This diatribe is by no means a criticism of those who adhere to a more “traditional” dogmatic.  What perplexes me is why anyone would deny themself the opportunity to know God and oneself more intimately.  If we claim that God created the heavens and the earth, then don’t we want to experience every facet of that creation more deeply?  Isn’t God big enough to have created life beyond this world?  Isn’t the Divine creative enough to have used science as a vehicle for generativity?

It doesn’t seem that those who would consider themselves secular atheists are as allergic to religious practices or conjecture as it is the other way around.  When atheists Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (dubbed the Four Horsemen) sat down for a two-hour unmoderated discussion, the common themes that arose were: how unwilling very religious folk were to dialogue about faith and science, and how the four of them saw the value in religious practices for the human condition.

Perhaps it is that science shows us the what and the why while religion shows us the how.  That is, for so long, religion has been used to explain what happened, why God allowed it to happen, and how God will comfort those whom God caused to suffer.  To let go of such conflictual thinking is to let go of the idea of an angry, vengeful God who we created in our image.  What if instead we allowed science to show us how things work and the causal relationships that make it thus while letting the rituals of religion bring us solace in the midst of it all?

We cannot prevent a freak accident that takes the life of a loved one.  But we can prevent the destruction of our planet that comes from ignoring science.  We can’t stop some cancers from killing those dear to us.  But while advancing scientific discovery so that we can cure those cancers, we can also have healthy religious rituals to help us find comfort there in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The conversation does not lead to an either-or summation nor is it a zero sum game.  It is both.  Henry Drummond reminds us of this truth in Inherit the Wind, as he defends the teacher who dared to teach evolution in a Tennessee classroom based on the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.  When the reporter E.K. Hornbeck is shocked to see that the staunch defender of rationale and logic has a Bible in his briefcase he says:

“You hypocrite.  You fraud.  The atheist who believes in God.  You’re just as religious as he was.”  

Then, after Hornbeck claims that the whole trial had no meaning, Drummond admonishes him:

You have no meaning.  You’re like a ghost pointing an empty sleeve and smirking at everything that people feel or want or struggle for.  I pity you . . . . People love an idea just to cling to . . . . You’re all alone.  When you go to your grave there won’t be anyone to pull the grass up over your head.  No one to mourn you, no one to give a damn.  You’re all alone.”

Hornbeck replies, “You’re wrong Henry.  You’ll be there.  You’re the type.  Who else would defend my right to be lonely?”

Yes.  That.  The truth that dwells in the middle.  We don’t have to fear scientific discovery.  We don’t have to turn a deaf ear to the cheers of scientists who are gazing upward and discovering new planets, nor to the geneticists who are are looking deep down to new awakenings about our genome.   

Our upward gaze to find life on other planets will not lead to abstraction any more than our inward gaze to find God within us.  By holding the two gently together we can in one hand celebrate every new scientific advancement and discovery as another wonder of creation while in the other hand love the mystery that dwells within us and just beyond our grasp.

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