Sunday, August 12, 2012


From the beginning there was natural theology, which at that time was thought to be the study of the creation in order to figure out what the Creator was like, know the artist by his art.  There are many streams of thought in any world but this one began in the Western Abrahamic world (i.e. Europe, North Africa, and then later America and Australia where it was layered over the indigenous beliefs).  When the European Pope, modeled on the Holy Roman Empire, gained much power and credibility by claiming to be the earthly representative of the Pope of All Popes, “God”, he served the useful function of mediating among the warring demographic factions of that continent.  After peace finally came (more or less) he was displaced by the printing press which was the foundation of Protestantism, which kept asking,  “What page is THAT on??”  Pretty soon came Enlightenment.

Science, much fueled by the rediscovered Arabic expertise in math, began to flourish and soon challenged the Pope, who was by nature a conservative entity so was always a little behind the curve.  And then science took on the Bible.  Pretty soon science began to merge with humanism, which was also a stream of thought from the beginning.  “If we don’t need the Pope to tell us what’s what, why do we need God?” they asked.  "Let’s just do it.”  So they did.  

The machine of the printing press was soon joined by all the machines of the Industrial Revolution which shifted wealth, population, and the very earth until we all began to suffer.  God left (some said died) -- the phrase is “deus absconditus.”  The watchmaker felt it was not on his watch.  Worse, the world grayed out, drained of spirituality like a movie where the film loses color.  National Geographic went out to see where the color went.  They found scraps.  Then came war.  Again.

After the wars settled down, people began to talk about the “re-enchantment of the world” and peace through spirituality, which was thought to have been preserved in nature and by the Asians and Africans who were never that interested in a deity in the first place, except maybe locals.  Though some Westerners were astounded at the idea of a religion without a God, they went back to their lab benches and this time studied how life works.  What they found this time was enchantment, mystery, complexity, and a thing called “emergence,” which is the idea that the life-force is immanent, that it unfolds from within creation, self-creating.   (“The force that through the green fuse drives.”) 

But it was terrifying.  What did the world need US for?  (There goes humanism.)  Clearly the more we found out, the more we were reduced to tiny specks in an immense universe.  We didn’t matter.  Waves of speciation and evolution and enormous die-outs had swept the world and removed so many beings, so many creations.  Were we next?  War and bad weather had brought down one empire after another.  We sat in our living rooms watching the sexy television recreations of dead empires who believed in God.  The Pope was appalled.  The nuns were busy.

Then came the biologists, like Ursula Goodenough, who embraced the mystery and complexity of the world and even claimed a traditional Lutheran church (her father had been a Methodist pastor and she had previously belonged to a Presbyterian congregation for fifteen years) as her “holding community” while still identifying with the terrifyingly complex sphere of all we know, especially about ourselves.  She was not daunted and she wrote a beautiful lyrical book, published in 1998:  “The Sacred Depths of Nature” with immense Galapagos tortoises in the cover like figures out of “The Dark Crystal.”  This book is both a prayer manual and a book of spells for biologists.  It is like Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, Diane Ackerman.  Her guides are William James and Mozart.

Beginning at the beginning, Goodenough (love the name!) explains how the planet came to be, how life formed on it, the beginnings of cells and their evolution which is arguably much more important than the evolution of creatures which Darwin observed among the tortoises (though he was actually thinking about the Galapagos finches).  Then the long dance through biodiversity as life fitted itself to the surface of the earth -- indeed, life partnering with ecology to adapt, enmesh, even as it changed things. Sometimes humans pulled the long grasses out from under our own feet -- like inadvertently acidifying the ocean to the point of dissolving the coral reefs that Goodenough’s father admired as metaphor for cooperation.  It was something like bringing smallpox to the North American people.  But she doesn’t linger on the dark side of the planet.

Instead she moves into the human skull and addresses the evolution there that has brought us a salvific awareness of our participation in “emergence.”  Emergence is the appearance of something new, possibly unanticipated, from what was already there, simply by interaction and adaptation, without intervention from outside.  No one can predict emergence and only a few can link intention to its alchemy.  But we can all take notes -- maybe on video instead of paper -- and we can each develop our own story of emotional and sexual adventures among what is reliable and what is delightful.  

One of the very old principles about the relationship between creator and creation, back before we realized they were the same thing and so were we, it was suggested that it was the obligation of each creature to do what it was best suited for.  The diggers should delve, the fliers should soar, the singers should warble.  So the question then was what should humans do?  What are humans best suited to do?  The answer in those days was “glorify God and enjoy His creation.”  

Nowadays, especially since we are aware of gender fluidity, we might phrase it a little differently.  But we are still capable of gratitude, laughter, and participation -- so that’s what we should do.  Because Emergence is not through with us yet.  It’s clear that our consciousness is evolving.  For Goodenough, this movement is towards mysticism -- not away from it. The more we learn, the less we feel alienated and alone, the more we realize that ancient tortoises R us.  The more we realize that meteor showers R us, the more wonder there is.   And the more flash orchestra “Odes to Joy” there are.  I like this:

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