14 January 2007

Essay: Explicable, and sacred

Just because you can explain it doesn't mean it's not a miracle.
-- Terry Pratchett

I'm building a career in explaining things. It's what scientists do: we poke at the incredible spinning mechanism of the universe around us, trying to figure out how it works. And, perhaps not surprisingly, this makes some people (religious people, usually) angry.

This is puzzling to me in part because I'm religious, and I don't think I'm doing religion a disservice by figuring out how Creation works. As far as I can tell, though, religious people who don't appreciate science are chiefly upset because scientists try to explain things, things that they (the religious people) firmly believe are God's doing.

Where did we get the idea that what God does must be humanly inexplicable? Or, rather, how did the term "miraculous" come to mean "beyond any eventual human understanding"? (Maybe it always has) The difficulty, of course, is that if we assume that (1) miracles are evidence of God's existence and involvement with our universe and (2) miraculous = inexplicable, then we're naturally going to be hostile to folks who try to figure out how miraculous things like the beauty, diversity, and complexity of life on Earth came to be, because they're chipping away at our evidence for God.

2006.03.12 - desert sun
2006.03.12 - desert sun,
originally uploaded by Jeremy B. Yoder.
What I know is this: I can explain (or look up explanations for) much of the history of Joshua trees, citing the history of the genus Yucca in general, and how it has been shaped over millions of years by yuccas' dependence on a group of small, drab pollinating moths; but when I look out over a Mojave desert landscape, with the sun shining through the strange, spiky branches of a Joshua tree forest, I feel something that has nothing to do with natural selection.

Science ultimately aims to explain everything in human experience - it's actually not possible for scientists to define areas of experience that we cannot now and will never explain. There are two ways that religious people can respond to this: they can choose to reject the scientific worldview altogether, or they can embrace it and seek the spirituality of the explicable.

An extreme example of this might be Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit paleontologist/philosopher. He posited a universe that was evolving toward union with God, in which any gain in understanding of the physical world's workings was a step toward greater spiritual perfection, too. Teilhard is a bit too optimistic for my taste - the history of humanity doesn't seem, to me, to bear out the hypothesis that greater scientific knowledge is correlated with greater moral/spiritual understanding.

I see a better option represented in an action most Christians perform every day: saying grace over food. But why do we do this? Recall the episode of "The Simpsons" when, asked to bless a meal, Bart once prays, "Dear God, we paid for all this ourselves, so thanks for nothing." And technically, Bart has a point.

Why do we thank God for a meal we've bought and prepared ourselves? Turn the question on its head for an answer: does God have to make food appear our our plates in a flash of light for us to give Him credit? The answer, of course, is no. Even after preparing my own dinner, I bow my head over it for a moment before I eat. Under this view of the world, everything in human experience is sacred, a cause for gratitude infused with spiritual meaning in spite of (or even as a result of) our understanding of its mechanics. So, when I see a beautiful sunset, knowing as I do that it's the light from a ball of fusing gases 93 million miles away, my soul fills with gratitude.

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