June 2, 2005
-- Jim Foorman
"Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." This quote from scientist J. B. S. Haldane came to mind at a recent meeting of the Martin Marty Center Advisory Board, as we discussed whether the articles published in this journal are sufficiently diverse.
The conversation moved from the usual "horizontal" considerations of right vs. left, liberal vs. conservative, fundamentalist vs. interpretive, to topics that lie more on the "diagonal," such as existence, meaning, and knowledge. I characterize these topics as diagonal because they accommodate compelling positions that are not necessarily antithetical, and often they intersect the horizontal themes more commonly discussed in Sightings. At the meeting, we asked whether Sightings should entertain some disparate voices on the subjects of what we're doing here, how we got here, what it means, and what we might comprehend about any of it.
The modern tendency is to leave out the diagonal when considering the horizontal, and vice versa. Note, for example, the widespread reluctance to grant science any jurisdiction over considerations of theology, and the reverse. But theology is inflected by prevailing perceptions of phenomena; agree with him or not, Darwin has influenced public conceptions of the relation of people to God (or to ultimate concerns) more powerfully than any theologian in the last 150 years.
Science informs us that the universe might have started from a tiny filament of vibrating energy/matter about 13.7 billion years ago, and that life on this planet life began sometime before 4 billion years ago. The rudiments of humanity were assembled about 3.9 billion years back, according to biologist Lynn Margulis, from the symbiotic mergers of "postbacterial cells with erotic habits anticipating our own." Echoing Walker Percy, we might now ask, "What are we -- erotic bacterial progeny -- doing here, slack jawed, at 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, trying to get the upper hand on our constituent bacteria?"
Are inquiries along these lines within the domain of science, or are they best left to religion and its relatives -- poetry, philosophy, and history? Lately, there's been some hankering after a resolution of these different perspectives, as, for example, in Edward O. Wilson's book, Consilience, and Charles H. Townes's Wall Street Journal article "Our Special Universe" (Friday, March 11, 2005). Both of these argue that religion and science are different ways of looking at the same existence.
That proposition is appealing, but perhaps too much so. We ought to consider the possibility that religion and science aren't just different modes of approach -- that we live among jagged fragments that cannot be joined by even the most acute imagination. Contemplation and interrogation of these conundra are worth the while of Sightings.
So I recommend that Sightings invite commentary on the subject I've touched upon here, and on other root subjects bearing on the nature of our existence, what we know about it, and what it means. Some other such subjects and questions that come to mind are:
-- The Jewish and Christian idea of a universe unfolding over time vs. speculative, cosmological investigations into the possibility of parallel or multiple universes (that might grow out of one another, but are comprised by a spaceless eternity).
-- The limits of logic and human imagination, and the religious impulse to surmount those limitations, or to subvert them as an absolute constraint on human perception.
-- The difficulty, or impossibility, of conceptualizing nothingness and infinity.
-- Is existence fundamentally unified or fragmented -- or is the very question the result of inadequate terminology? Some contemporary religious thought seems to yearn for a natural state that is unified; the scientific search for a "grand unified theory" that reconciles relativity, quantum mechanics, and gravity might spring from a similar urge. Where do complexity theory, emerging phenomena, and the like fit in?
-- Is consciousness only material and mechanical, or is it a quality that exists distinct from its constituent parts? If the latter, is it limited to the subjective -- each to his own -- and otherwise illusory, except as a material phenomenon? What if one part of my individual subjective consciousness reflects on another part (for example, in the exercise of conscience)? Is the part reflected on illusory?
Some readers may consider this list just a catalog of popular science or philosophy topics, well covered in the New York Times and numerous excellent books and articles -- or too likely to attract facile introspections. But they are part of the public domain, and therefore warrant rigorous, provocative, and perhaps even disturbing, treatment by a journal considering religion in the public sphere. I may be wrong, but I think Augustine and Anselm would agree.
Jim Foorman is a member of the Martin Marty Center Advisory Board.