Sunday, May 01, 2011

CHET RAYMO: Religious Naturalist

The bright side of cleaning house -- even if you do it a square foot at a time, as I do -- is that you find things.  Sometimes things you lost and sometime things you never knew you had.  So this time I was moving my short stack of books about Time and saw a book by Chet Raymo that I bought because it was organized according to the liturgical hours of the clock: three-hour intervals twice around twelve.  The Baptist church next door bongs them out for me with a hymn.  (On the hour and the half-hour I only get Westminster chimes  between 9AM to 8PM.) 
Raymo declares himself a religious naturalist -- that is, he uses religious language to talk about natural things in the sensory world. Here’s his blog blurb.  Chet Raymo's weekly Science Musings appeared in the Boston Globe for twenty years. The column offered informed and provocative meditations on science as a creative human activity and celebrated the grandeur and mystery of the natural world.
“Now Raymo's essays take to the web at His postings will appeal to visitors who value reliable empirical knowledge of the world, yet retain a sense of reverence and awe for the complexity, beauty, and sometimes terror of nature.”
The book I found is entitled “Honey from Stone: a Naturalist’s Search for God” and is about a peninsula on the west coast of Ireland, beginning with the plate tectonics that formed the country and proceeding up through the evolution of life as far as we are conscious enough to know.  This is the way modern thought about religion has evolved, beginning with the fossils in this very region and questions about how they came to be there.
Here’s a YouTube connection so you can see the man and hear him talk.  He’s one of those people who stays in one place and thinks deeply about it.  But, oddly and paradoxically, most of his books are about Ireland, not Massachusetts where he walks to work as a prof at Stonehill College.  It was his youth that happened in Ireland where he was besotted with the Catholic church, which he describes in Philip Larkin’s phrase as, “that vast moth-eaten musical brocade.”  Now his task is to overwrite, embroider, tear more holes in the original fabric in order to restore it to usefulness.
The key to the man appears to be the same as the key to this woman I am -- the fact, FACT, that the human mind cannot encompass the world, much less God.  God is that than which nothing can be greater.  Literally in-conceivable -- so where do you get birth out of it?   He provides a lot of nice quotes and reflections, but the bottom line that I agree with is  “Sit down and shut up.  Now what’s that growing in front of you?”
He walks right into my seminary preoccupation with liturgy, which I see as a sensory connection to place and idea, the poetry of material culture.  He says, I loved the whole physicality of the liturgy, the colored vestments, the candlelight, the incense, the bread and wine, the bells. I carried something of that sacramental theology into my secular life -- the stuff of the world as visible signs of invisible grace. Not supernatural grace, to be sure, but the grace implicit in a universe we will never fully understand.”
Tim accuses that I deny there’s anything beyond this life, but that’s not quite accurate.  I simply deny that we have minds that can grasp more than this life.  He also suspects that I have a weak sense of Evil, which is probably true.  I mean, I can name Evil and probably Raymo could, too, but I suspect that Raymo -- like me -- sees it abstractly.  Tim’s vision is up close, personal, glamorous and licking its lips with a long lascivious tongue.
Liberals don’t like that kind of evil, though their children do.  Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, baby !    Raymo remarks:  “The dominant Judeo-Christian tradition has understood the material world to be intrinsically evil, stained by sin, in need of salvation.”  And salvation comes through suffering.  Both sin and suffering are animal/creature phenomena.  Stars neither sin nor suffer.  So Raymo doesn’t say much about sin or suffering -- more about stars. 
But Howard K. Bloom, a rock ‘n roll publicist says a lot about sin.  The Lucifer Principle is a book by Howard K. Bloom. It "explores the intricate relationships among genetics, human behavior, and culture" and argues that "evil is a by-product of nature's strategies for creation and that it is woven into our most basic biological fabric".  It sees violence as central to the creation of the 'superorganism' of society and the inevitable 'pecking orders' and hierarchies inherent in human social groups.”  [This is Wikipedia inevitably quoting someone else as it spreads its own version of sin and suffering  with “published” accusations.  Do not mistake this Howard K. Bloom for the learned Yale snob whom the bourgeois love because he is so certain and so upper class.]
This is the nucleus (as far as I can understand it, which Tim says isn’t far) of S and M -- it’s sin and then atonement through suffering, which releases the love, whether or not you interpret that as endorphins.  It’s an experienced liturgy.  It is a solution to theodicy, the problem of a good God that imposes Evil suffering and sin.  A father who punishes nearly to death and then embraces -- as has been so longed for.   Abraham and Isaac.
Unitarians love Chet Raymo as much as they love Mary Oliver, but even though some of them identify with Lucifer, who is -- after all -- Darth Vader, the fallen angel, they don’t much want to know what Harold K. Bloom thinks.  (I’m getting more curious by the moment!  I’ve ordered the book.  89 cents on Amazon.)   Sometimes I assure Tim that Unitarians and their ilk will understand Tim’s world, but lately I lose faith.  Maybe most of them have never suffered enough to release endorphins, although I remember a woman, a mid-life minister, telling me about being a terrible auto accident and lying on the wet highway asphalt afterwards feeling so very comfortable, so loved.  Almost blissful, though far away she could hear the emergency responders saying she was nearly dead.

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