Monday, September 8, 2014

Your Reward in Heaven

Wonder is the basis of worship
Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (I,10)

You are all stardust. 
You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded . . .
The stars died so that you could be here today. 
Lawrence Krauss

The ancient enmity between science and religion hides an impish affinity.  The awe that inspired simian beings, cowed by the immense vault of stars above them, to develop theology was also implicit in the nascent science postulated by the likes of Democritus, Anaximander, Ibn Yunus, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Zhang Heng, and others whom we are just now beginning to recognize, such as the unnamed Africans who developed the use of fractals.  Scientists are among the greatest heretics, but they are also Nature’s greatest acolytes, faithfully interpreting the mysteries of the oracle.  The awe that science inspired, however, posed a threat to the theology governing our thinking for centuries, because it offered no obvious niche to house human aspirations, no reflection in nature’s pool to assuage our vanity.  The terrifying, vengeful and imperial god of the Old Testament was still less terrifying than a universe in which he played no part.  Because even a Sky God, aloof, sublime, capriciously malevolent or beneficent, provided mankind with a kind of mirror in which the human scale was confirmed as a measure for the universe – this god after all was just man writ large.  The order of things remained consolingly anthropocentric.  But Science has displaced Man and God.  Its arguments gradually acquired such force and cogency that by the nineteenth century the philosophers pronounced God’s death.  The twentieth century simply provided an extended autopsy.  The twenty-first century, perversely zealous, has busied itself with reviving the corpse, setting the resurrectionists at each other's throats.
Entrenched beliefs don’t die along with the objects of their genesis.  Nietzsche’s übermensch, the new Adam who would recreate our values and reinvigorate culture, has indeed appeared among us, several times, but we have been slow to grasp their meaning.  What apostles can compare with Darwin and Einstein?  What gospel is more compelling than the great news of Evolution, the Curvature of Time and Space, the perpetuity of Energy, the infinitude of the universe, and the creation ex nihilo of the Big Bang?  The human imagination never conceived anything as marvelously intricate, terrifyingly vast, richly paradoxical, or fantastically sublime as this universe, of whose magnificent dimensions we have come to learn but a few.  In the wake of such ideas, one would think that religion could be regenerated, placed on a solid foundation, endowed with a new scope, and charged with a renewed respect and even adoration of Nature; but instead mankind persists in its slavish idolatry of paltry anthropomorphic schemes of creation, Intelligent Design, and, for the more secular minded, technological utopias like the Singularity.  The result is a persistent belief in the instrumentality of all Nature, with Man the Creative Brain as its motive force – not Woman, notice, because this would threaten the patriarchal norm of the anthropomorphism that animates all these schemes.  (Pachamama nonetheless bides her time, expecting her ritual recognition.)

Through us – and no doubt countless other beings scattered through the galaxies, as well as some of the species who ride along with us on this tilting ball – Nature becomes conscious of its laws, which seem to provide little quarter for our selfish aspirations, and therein lies our tragedy – and our comedy too, for we all slip on the banana peels that fate litters about us.  Yet even if the means whereby Nature achieves consciousness are ultimately inconsequential to its ends, we should not despair.  We are happy accidents, the astonished beneficiaries of a bit of Nature’s grace, heirs to a fortune whose riches were not intended for us.  The great good news here, the true gospel of Nature, is that Necessity is not so iron a law as we suppose: just as the Big Bang heralded a universe in which Chance converts Causality into its playfellow, so too each life is a playing field in which possibilities and improbabilities abound.  Error is not so much a sin as a signpost pointing a different direction.
And this is, perhaps, where Science falls short and betrays its inability to accommodate religious feeling.  Occam’s razor whittles Nature down; from a great tree, it carves a divining rod (the capitalist has his own sort of razor: with a power saw he whittles old forests into lumber).  The crude Darwinist sees nothing in the plumage of a bird but evidence of a generalized will to survive and pass on its genes.  The redness of a poppy is merely bee bait.  In this the scientist is no different from Wilde’s cynics, who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  Nature is perhaps an artiste manqué, whose palette of colors has fascinated philistines for the wrong reasons. 

There is nothing so valuable as unnecessary things – tribal rug weavers knew this, as they toiled on crude looms over their engsis and asmalyks.  The true value of those objects lay not in their function as rugs or coverlets, nor in their value as a dowry; – no, they were, simply and ultimately, the patiently woven dreams in wool of the woman’s sense of beauty, and beauty, like art, is quite useless. That is its saving grace.  Their use as rugs was simply a dodge in order to assert the supremacy of beauty in the lives of nomadic people whose love of gardens sanctified their desert existence.  And yet, it would be a mistake to think that the luxury of beauty and the aesthetics of Nature are mere excess, an inconsequential by product of more exigent and important processes.  Is the mockingbird a mere ventriloquist, or a jazz player riffing on birdsong?  Or both?  Who is to say that the mockingbird does not delight in his mockery?