There is a quiet communion about the world as it is meant to be. I write this while sitting in a pasture, llamas in the distance, gentle winds overwhelming the wheaty grasses of the Central Valley of California. Not connected to anything, even the Internet (I will upload this later), my back against a metal fence that is just the right balance of sturdy and sufficiently comfortable. There are bird sounds and trees reacting to winds, the sun bearing down under mixed clouds that threaten an eventual sullying of this dried landscape. Bugs hover and dive amongst the grasses, perhaps subtly aware that they have just a few hours until rains will temper fulfillment of their tasks.
Today, they tell us that the oceans are so full of garbage that there are spare airplane seats in the flight-paths of missing jets that are not from those jets. That it’s perfectly reasonable to expect all kinds of discarded material to show up in the sea, since we’ve been leaving it there as long as we can remember. Our species has so blatantly disregarded the gifts we have been given that we don’t consider them gifts anymore – the only gifts we can accept are those we give ourselves. We have lost a sense of perspective, of balance, of harmony. We don’t sit in pastures anymore, trying to describe what we’re missing. We think everything we’re missing is on the Internet.
And yes, I’m aware of how both (1) unoriginal my comments are and (2) how ironic it is that they are appearing on the Internet. The Internet offers us wonderful things as well, like the ability to connect with others from a field with just the minimum of time-delay.
Nonetheless, I have to think that we lost our way, collectively, when science split from religion. Or vice versa. Surely there were crimes committed on both sides, as there always are in human disputes. Conflict is nothing if not mutually assured on my home planet. But when the scientists stopped being interested in God and the religious stopped being interested in solving mysteries, then surely something was irrevocably torn asunder. How anyone can accept the answers offered by one group in total ignorance of the other eludes me daily.
(As though to taunt me, a wireless network has just been found by this laptop. Or maybe a metaphor about ability to make connections from remoteness or the seeming lack of connection? You decide.)
In any event, we can all look to extreme examples and see the absurdity. Science reducing all human existence to a collapse of uncontrolled synapses, eliminating free will and indicating that all human existence and creation is a lie, while pleading endless randomness in the face of the most wondrously perfect system ever built or discovered. Religion claiming that God will decide all and answer all, that those who die are meant to, while those who are afflicted should not fight but simply resign themselves to a fate larger than themself. A similar abdication of free will, a similar destruction of meaning, a similar breakdown in the purpose that ought drive human existence, both on a macro scale and the individual level. How are these examples not sufficient to get everyone to attempt to strike a middle-ground? Even atheist scientist friends are uncomfortable with the elimination of free will altogether, and certainly don’t live their lives like they believe it’s true. Even religious zealots seem to assert themselves as though they have the ability to change something around them. So why all the trouble seeing across the divide?
Surely the closest society to holding these interests in balance was the first society to settle on my home continent. Or series of societies. There was wide-scale recognition of higher powers behind every aspect of the universe they saw, as well as interest in developing and advancing to higher levels of understanding of that universe. The respect that was afforded each of these concepts led to the development of a minimally invasive culture, with much time for contemplation and communion.
But it was not a culture designed to particularly assert control or dominion, and it is a telling lesson about my species that this is one of the few cultures upon which an all-but-complete genocide has been visited in recorded history. The very idea of trying to learn more from the land than one was taught was so reprehensible that its adherants were forced to either change or die.
My wife, Emily, is not particularly spiritual, not much of a believer. About half of our conflicts for the more recent half of our marriage so far have evolved from some sort of discussion about this topic. I struggle with reconciling my love of Emily and my respect for her intellect with the fact that she not only doesn’t overtly believe in God, but finds the question to not be fundamental to existence on the planet. It should be noted that most of my friends feel this way as well, and while this also concerns me, one’s identity is far more wrapped up in a spouse than a friend. It feels like more of a reflection of oneself when one’s own life partner rejects something so fundamental to one’s own perspective.
And yet, Emily says that she feels something whenever she is isolated out in nature. That connecting with animals, with the basic forces of the natural world (wind, water, flora), simply being “out there” is enough to get her thinking about the bigger picture and often feeling some conviction that there is something greater afoot. She often remarks, either in nature or when confronted by amazing constructions of human hand that she finds less impressive, that she has never seen something made by humanity that can measure up to the lowliest product of nature. While this sometimes surprises me, grandson of an engineer who learned about bridge-building and to differentiate styles of columns before most anything, I think she has a telling route map to those who are otherwise disinclined to believe. What makes us (collectively, as a species) think we’re so great? Why do we even bother scarring the Earth’s surface with our contributions when nearly everything impressive is already there?
It’s a competition, in part, or even an offering as an aprentice. That we have something to contribute which can hope to allude to the grandeur and beauty of what we already found when we first opened our eyes. Look ma, no nature. I did it all by myself. Like a crude reflection of the world around us for taping on the refrigerator with a quietly pitying love. And just as high-quality, just as worthwhile in the face of the real thing, as a four-year-old’s lazy finger-painting.
Which is not to say that there’s nothing worthwhile in the Pyramids, the Internet, language, or art. But compared to the systems and understanding implicit in your average field, your average patch of non-garbage-infested ocean, your average rainforest? I think the metaphor flies.
Part of what I’ve never understood about the pitched battle between science and religion is the respect that each have for order. Science even calls the discoveries it makes about the universe’s order of operations “laws”, the same word religion uses to indicate its principles and guidelines for living. Science interprets the world around it with a presumption towards order, towards compacting what it finds into a series of laws that are never abridged, or at least never contravened except where another identifiable law overrides. And indeed this bears out – we hardly see gravity working some of the time in Iowa and then failing to at random times. But somehow, science is disinterested in a source of all this order and law and perfectly behaved matter, insisting that all order came from one moment of complete chaos. This theory itself fails to stand up to science’s own presumptions and policies of rigorous study – were it about anything other than something in impenetrable pre-history, it would be rejected on face. But because there’s no other explanation available without resorting to the three-letter no-no, it is offered as fact. How can science not feel that every additional law that holds up, every extra consistency and element of order that is found, how are these not evidence for God?
The only explanation is that religion has mangled God into seeming arbitrary, somehow the opposite of order. Because in its rejection of scientific practice, many religions have tried to ascribe unending magic and mystery to the figure of God. Mysterious ways, inexplicable methods, something that cannot and should not be known. This idea is just as dangerous and worthless as atheism. Perhaps moreso, for it rends people’s conception of the most important aspect of the universe from the reality of that aspect, thus nullifying it for the interpreter far more thoroughly than mere denial would. This resorting to inexplicability is just as senseless as resorting to the Big Bang – for wont of explanations, those who expect themselves to seamlessly explain everything appeal to something wholly inconsistent with the rest of their theory. And then wave the crutch of paradox or the rest of their intellect about to try to fend off naysayers.
The truth, of course, is that science can prove God with all of its order, and thus God is knowable. God is not mysterious and inaccessible and hopelessly oblique – God is in the systems that work every day to maintain life in its countless manifestations. God is the laws and rules and policies and structures that keep it all just so in ways that humanity fails laughably to imitate. How is it that humans have never made a computer that can’t break down, and yet life on the planet persists from well before humanity to (likely) long after it?
But perhaps this would rend the people who pursue science and religion from what they’re really after – power. If they were not maintaining some sort of supremacy in their ability to properly interpret God or the laws of the universe (truly the same thing), what use would there be in the respect they are accorded in our hierarchies? And if they did not do battle, how could they build their power by tearing each other’s down, by fighting for followers, by bringing the urgency of a following and extreme loyalty out because of the urgency of a false conflict? You think nation-states are the only ones that can raise a false-flag to ask unthinkable sacrifices of their minions? No, only by mystifying and cloaking the fundamental and simple realities of their alleged domains can scienctists and religious leaders exert their authority over those they attempt to mislead.
Perhaps not always with such a nefarious intent, I’ll grant. But certainly with that level of nefarious effect.
So what is to be done? How do we get to a place where people recognize the order in the universe as the signifier of something greater than themselves rather than the converse? How do we make peace between scientist and religious leader before it is too late to fish the garbage from the ocean, or worse, before it is after anyone cares about such things? Like all of the important realizations, it cannot be forced or likely even persuaded. It must be found within each person, of their own volition.
In the meantime, I spend time in the pasture, contemplating a day I have long dubbed Mortality Day, a reflection of a larger scientific/religious order I find in the planet’s course of movement through the same space every 365 days. A day laden with symbols (6), the memory of an unbelievably significant mass-murder (D-Day), the steady approach of a day when the planet is held in balanced opposition to itself. It is vital to neither dwell in the anticipation of death nor to ignore its daily possibility, but for me, setting aside a holiday of sorts to recognize the mortality of myself and others, has worked well. Eighteen years to the day after the death of my mother’s father, I continue this personal tradition, sometimes to the fear of those around me. But fear not for me in the context of death, for I have conviction that it would be merely a step, and probably ultimately a relieving one. I have not felt less that way than now for some time (about the relief), and yet I still can recognize that no matter how much I personally desire to cling to this planet and help it out, there are wonders beyond my imagining ahead, other planets and other learning to be had.
And whenever this faith wavers in the slightest, as it sometimes trembles like the trees in the wind, bending with the difficulty of a given circumstance or a cold black fear, I come back out to nature. And the wind itself reassures me, reminds me of what I know even in the worst challenging moments. How can you look upon the world, upon an “ecosystem” or a “valley” (whichever you prefer to call the same thing) and not be awed by the presence of God? How can you understand the depths of human understanding and think this is all for the purpose of one isolated planet, 60 or 80 years only?
Go out into the fields. Walk. And then come tell me it’s all random, happened for no reason, that there’s no purpose to anything we do or try or contemplate. Tell me all these rules are either figments or coincidence. And tell me that, somehow, the pursuit of a means of exchange or sheer hubris is worth destroying it all.
A plane tears through the sky, close enough to hear but not to see. Through the clouds that are darkening the sky and escalating the threat of rain. Rain that will not be enough to wash it all away.