“Dawkins… seems to suffer from a ‘god in the sky’ childhood Bible indoctrination. “ — excerpt from a colleague referring to Richard Dawkins
“From the oscillating universe beating like a gigantic heart to the puzzling existence of antimatter, order — in a human sense — is at least partially an illusion. Ours — in reality — is the order of a time, and of an insignificant fraction of the cosmos, seen by the limited sense of a finite creature. Behind the appearance — as even one group of ‘primitive’ philosophers, the Hopi, have grasped — lurks Being unmanifest, whose range and number exceeds the real. This is why the unexpected will always confront us; this is why the endless frontier is really endless.” — from The Unexpected Universe of Loren Eisley
If my cryptic, mystical, lyrical language with oblique references is off-putting, I humbly and respectfully request that readers scroll down to where I’ve separated this article into two parts… with a string of hyphens. You can leave out most of what I say about “God” here… if you want to get active anew, without chewing on my blah blah. Without any problem from me, I promise. Words — too often — are beaten to death in lieu of our doing anything about what we’re talking about.
We are more dangerous than we seem and more potent in our ability to materialize the unexpected that is drawn from our own minds. “Force maketh Nature more violent in the Returne,” Francis Bacon had once written. In the end, this is her primary quality. Her creature man partakes of that essence, and it is well that he consider it in contemplation and not always in action.
There are all kinds of violence, not just what we see easily, but what’s in the wings and dangerously growing. Not talking here about the clear threat of our nuclear dynamic and the like, but — rather — the ungodly fact that Silicon Valley is engaged in projects that are tantamount to fitting the entire world’s population into Texas using the population density of Manhattan as their point of departure. Talk about a Manhattan Project! They’re not actually doing that at the moment, but I’m saying that they are constantly working at creating the most ridiculous, destructive products and dehumanizing projects, bringing them to fruition if they can… no matter what the Big Picture cost, intuition absent, the Sacred no consideration whatsoever.
You try to tweak Mother Nature to fit your purposes, says Bacon, and you get bopped on the head.
Mother Nature and the Big Mystery — not the obsolete “god in the sky” — in the end this is their primary quality. In Christian terms, one can embrace the thrust of Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away… without resorting to falling on one’s knees, shivering before that “god in the sky,” which has been so easy for people with no brains (some with brains and talent too!)… and/or those with no sensitivity and/or no depth of consciousness or appreciation of Being to make jokes about, and condescendingly talk to others about to be one-up on them. Ego doesn’t wear well in an authentic Christian context OR in the terrifying template imposed by Being in its mysterious territory… where the unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture rules intermittently.
Arrogant logical positivists, though, just want to show you The Truth and get on with their seemingly self-serving lives.
The creature man of Mother Nature and the Big Mystery and early Christ-driven conception, however, partakes of the violent essence I speak of here. Loren Eisley says that “it is well that he consider it in contemplation and not always in action.” And I trust that the silly project of Silicon Valley which I delineated above speaks to the reader as being an example of violent action, attempting to tame the universe, be in control of our lives in an appropriate way, overly concerned with vulnerability, unnecessarily in deep angst. But to the unexpected nature of the universe, man owes his being, and that being begs to be humbled, respectful of something outside of itself.
How does “Do Your Own Thing”… “Just Do It”… “Follow Your Passion” and the like fit into that? Variations of which infect folks ‘cross the board, including those in the activist realm.
More than any other living creature,, man contains, unknowingly, the shapes and forms of an uncreated future to be drawn from his own substance. But the unhappy history of the sappy and sick last several centuries should prove a drastic warning of his powers of dissolution, even when directed upon himself. Enlightened self-interest has not ruled, and the chickens are coming home to roost, you might say. The thing is, we don’t see that we see God through a glass darkly
“It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped,” Emerson had noted in his journal, “the discovery we have made that we exist.” That discovery is called The Fall of Man by some. Many. And ever afterwards we suspected our own sacred instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly, that we see through a glass darkly.
Wisdom infused with compassion should be the consequence of that discovery, for at the same moment one aspect of the unexpected universe will have been genuinely revealed. Grace would have come to the mind of Flannery O’Connor, for sure. Encouraging us, enabling us to step outside of what’s viciously and stupidly in vogue.
The aspect of what I’m calling the “unexpected universe” which will have been revealed dwells deep, hidden in the human heart, and not at the peripheries of space, the race therein making a mockery of our souls, boldly declaring look out there, not within. Sin by any other name….
Both the light we seek and the shadows that we fear are projected from within. It is through ourselves that the organic procession pauses, hesitates, or renews its journey. “We have learned to ask terrible questions,” exclaimed Emerson in the dawn of Victorian science, somehow knowing that… perhaps… it is just for this that the Unseen Player in the void has rolled equally terrible dice. But do not despair. Out of the self-knowledge gained by putting dreadful questions onto the cosmic table man achieves his final dignity.
This is not to denigrate all dogma and pinpoint the importance of whatever one wakes up with by way of inspiration on a given day with a pat on the back to go ahead an play tennis without a net, banging the collective ball all over the universe as one sees fit in a given fit. It is, rather, to say that we cannot stay on course with our current diet of self-importance and/or blind obedience directed at us by deaf and dumb monks.
The skunk in the works must go, as it is smelling up the place short of High Heaven. Ego, habit… there are lots of sources of interference which preclude a good look through a glass darkly.
But all of these cryptic, mystical, oblique touches might be a bit much for most. Permit me to get down with more mundane language. To get to the activist point I want readers to turn on.
There are notorious problems associated with proving scientifically the significance of environmental destruction. My concern is with the wisdom of using as our primary weapon the rhetoric and logic of the very entities we suspect of causing our problems in the first place. Corporate execs are perfectly comfortable with it, and corporate philanthropists give their dough to environmental organizations that speak it. Unfortunately, it also has the consequence of turning environmentalists into quislings, collaborators, and virtuous practitioners of a cost–benefit logic figured in songbirds.
It is because we have accepted this rationalist logos as the only legitimate means of debate that we are willing to think that what we need is a balance between the requirements of human economies and the “needs” of the natural world. It’s as if we were negotiating a trade agreement with the animals and trees unlucky enough to have to share space with us. What are your minimum requirements? We need to know the minimum because we’re not likely to leave you more than that. We’re going to consume any “excess.” And then it occurs to us to add, Unless of course your taste good. There is always room for an animal that tastes good.
We use our most basic vocabulary, words like “ecosystem,” with a complete innocence, as if we couldn’t imagine that there might be something perilous in it. What if such language were actually the announcement of the defeat of what we claim we want? That’s the worm at the heart of the rose of the “ecologist.” Would people and foundations be as willing to send contributions to The Nature Conservancy or the Sierra Club if the leading logic of the organization were not “ecosystems,” but “respect for life,” or “reverence for creation?” Such notions are for many of us, compromised by associations with the Catholic Church and evangelism, and they don’t loosen the purse strings of philanthrophy. “Let’s keep a nice, clean, scientific edge between us and all religion,” we protest.
But there would be nothing inappropriate or undesirable were we to understand our relation to nature in spiritual terms or poetic terms or, with Emerson and Thoreau, in good old American transcendental terms… BUT BUT BUT there is no broadly shared language in which to do this. So we are forced to resort to what is in fact a lower common denominator: the languages of science and bureaucracy. These languages have broad legitimacy in our culture, a legitimacy they possess largely because of the thoroughness with which the discredited Christian religious discourse in the 18th and 19th centuries.
That said, it should be noted that many babies were thrown out with the bath water of Christian dogma and superstition. One of those being… morality. Even now, science can’t say why we ought not to harm the environment except to say that we shouldn’t be self-destructive.
Another of these lost spiritual children was our very relation as human beings to the mystery of Being as such. As the philosopher G.W. Leibniz famously wondered, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” For St. Thomas Aquinas, this was the fundamental religious question, and with non-religious Eastern counterparts the same question rears its head… and is answered in non-scientific terms.
In the place of a relation to the world that was founded on mystery, we have a relation that is objective and data-driven. We no longer have a forest; we have “board feet.” We no longer have a landscape, a world that is our own; we have “valuable natural resources.” [Pause.] People who have “board feet” tend to be boring, and to bore others… and — unconscionably, with questionable consciousnesses — continue to bore for minerals in the sacred earth.
Even activist writers trying to address this mess of a mindset, as Steven Gorelick did today, tend to miss the depth of our depravity, our desolation that’s a function of science and technology. His focus is very narrow, and caters to the mundane enlightened self-interest touched upon above. But it does so ignoring technical aspects of the advances of science and technology which would be unpopular (hence, difficult) to discuss, and it is clearly not concerned with issues which are virtually verboten today in Silicon Valley… which far too many educational institutions and media outlets can trace their financial underpinnings to. Who can afford to turn down their “donations” as a trade-off for silence these days?
But back to language. And the vision it represents, the soul it reflects.
You cannot defeat something that you imagine to be an external threat to you when it is in fact internal to you, when its life is your life. And even if it were external to you, you cannot defeat an enemy by thinking in the terms it chooses, and by doing only those things that not only don’t harm it but with which it is perfectly comfortable. The truth is, our idols are actually a great convenience to us. It is convenient that we can imagine a power beyond us because that means we don’t have to spend much time examining our own lives. And it is very convenient that we can hand the hard work of resistance over to scientists and tech experts, our designated national problem solvers.
Rather than taking the risk of challenging the roles money and work play in all of our lives by actually taking the responsibility for reordering our lives, the most prominent strategy of environmentalists seems to be to “give back” to nature through the bequests, the annuities, the Working Assets credit cards and long distance telephone schemes, and the socially responsible mutual funds advertised… and proliferating across the environmental movement. Such giving may make us feel better, but it will never be enough.
But it is the ungodly, popular way to go… contributing to our demise, surmising that our being here can only be a silly, sad affair… which only seems to be self-serving.
In accepting science as our primary weapon against environmental destruction, we have also had to accept science’s contempt for religion and the spiritual. This is the unfortunate legacy of science’s two-century-old confrontation with what it has always called “religious dogma and superstition.” But this attitude is myopic; it is science at its most stupid, not even taking notice of the new embrace of the discipline in the Vatican’s quarters.
Environmentalism should stop depending solely on its alliance with science for its sense of itself. It should look to create a common language of care (a reverence for, and a commitment to the astonishing fact of Being) through which it could begin to create alternative principles by which we might live.
Activists have an obligation to review segments of, say, Laudato Si’, the Church’s hair-raising history notwithstanding, and without feeling any obligation to convert. Or to engage with others in different religious or spiritual circles, addressing their outlook on the proper role of science today.
Or stay away completely from any religious or spiritual realm, if you must. Simply tune into exactly what your view of science and technology is, and determine whether or not it acknowledges the mystery of Being. Which through a glass darkly you must.
Rachel Oxman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.