Faith and Reason
It’s good to be back on Traces. For the past several months, I’ve been working on a book-length project, but with a first draft completed, I can now return to posting on occasion.
It’s a wonderfully cool Sunday morning here in Atlanta. We’ve had rain this week, and you can almost hear the trees and plants sighing with contentment. In a bit, some of my neighbors will be heading to church. I won’t, though I freely acknowledge that my heart swelled a little when I read this morning that “my” denomination, the Episcopal Church, has just elected its first black presiding bishop, and that he will succeed a woman who has served in that position for the past nine years.
In any case, I had occasion recently to sit and watch with my mother a few installments of a series called Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason, a series of interviews that the longtime journalist filmed in 2006 with people such as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Mary Gordon, Colin McGinn, and others, who had gathered in New York for something called the PEN World Voices Festival.
Here are a couple of excerpts that I want to consider:
BILL MOYERS: Are you betraying reason when you pray?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: No. I’m acknowledging that reason has only some functions in my life and not others. Reason has a sister. She’s very beautiful. But, she has a very ugly name. Her name is unreason. And she’s a friend of writers. She’s been a friend of writers since the very beginning.
BILL MOYERS: Unreason is the muse of writers?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: That’s right. And to love unreason is to trust intuition, is to trust the transcendental, is to trust the essential mystery of life, is to trust, also, that emotional part of our life that is not reasonable, for example, love. Love is not reasonable. Love defies reason. And in so far as writers are interested in those emotions, that darkness, those shadows. We are not in league with reason. We are in league with reason’s sister, unreason.
Really? Why? Doesn’t the highlighted statement by the writer Richard Rodriguez imply that people are fundamentally unlovable? Or that it’s not in our own interest to love? I don’t understand that. I don’t want to believe that. What am I missing?
Now here’s Moyers talking with atmospheric physicist and evangelical Christian Sir John Houghton:
BILL MOYERS: Are you as certain of the existence of God as you are certain of the reality of global warming?
SIR JOHN HOUGHTON: They are two different sorts of certainty in a way. I mean, one is a scientific question. The other is a much bigger question. But, if you say am I certain about the existence of God, I ask myself that question quite often and say, “Am I kidding myself? Is this all a great construct of my mind or something in imagination that is unreal?”
But then I you reflect on that. I say, “I cannot escape, no way can I escape from believing God is there because He’s very real to me in many ways.” And– I believe He comes into my life and my thoughts and my prayers. It’s not simple the way this occurs. It’s hard to describe very often in ways that are not too personal to describe. But, it’s a very, very strong, very strong, you know, feature of my life. I could not imagine being without that.
Are you struck by the same thing that strikes me? John Houghton could not be a more superbly credentialed and decorated scientist. And yet, he’s just said something like this: I do sometimes worry whether God is simply a figment of my imagination. But the fact is, my imagination does not allow me not to believe that God is — in ways for which I cannot find words — involved personally in my life.
BILL MOYERS: So you take one part of the Bible [i.e., Christ’s resurrection] and interpret it literally and take the other part of the Bible [the Genesis account of creation] and put it over there for poetical transcription. And that’s the conflict that people experience. If you don’t believe that Jesus was literally resurrected, it’s okay to believe that Genesis was just figuratively speaking. But if you believe that Jesus– if you believe that Genesis was figuratively speaking, isn’t the story of Jesus symbolic and figurative?
And the fact is, Houghton doesn’t really have a cogent answer to Moyer’s question. (You can read the transcription here.)
Many years ago, I dated a young woman whose father was a nuclear particle physicist at Johns Hopkins University. He also believed in the existence of a divine creator of the universe. Why? Because, he said, the fundamental nature of the universe is too orderly, too rational, too beautifully structured to allow him to infer anything else.
Throughout the interviews on his program, Moyers assumed the existence of a conflict between faith and reason. Actually, I wonder whether he got it exactly wrong. Maybe it’s entirely rational to believe in a supernatural being who created the universe and exists both outside and inside it, as it were. It seems that human beings have been believing something like that since we evolved (or were endowed with, if you prefer that language) our intelligence. Maybe it depends on what one means by “reason,” but that fact alone suggests to me that it’s perfectly reasonable to believe in a god or gods.
Here’s what I really want to get to: people “of faith” like to talk about the “mystery of faith.” But if you’re interested in mystery, isn’t it more truly mysterious why this (see photograph below) should exist without there being some grand plan, without it having been the creation of a supreme being?
This star cluster is 20,000 light-years away from Earth. Which I think means that it’s 1,173,918,614,400,000,000,000,000,000 miles away. What could be more mysterious, more obviously irrational than that Westerlund 2 should exist while I am dropping off my laundry at the cleaners or flossing my teeth?
I don’t know where my thoughts will be a year or five years from now. But for now, I think I’m probably closer to Druidism than anything else. Without the human sacrifices and cannibalism, of course.
Anyway, I sense I’m losing the thread here, so I’ll close with this. When it comes to belief and the separate question of religion, I was charmed by this paragraph in a New York Times travel piece from today’s paper. It describes a people living in central Turkey, the Alevi. Maybe I should check to make sure my passport is still good and board a plane:
Alevi men and women worship together, preach tolerance for all religions and don’t seek converts. They reject Sharia law as rigid and overly focused on external displays of piety, while they value instead an inner spiritual development, which is mainly practiced by treating people with kindness and generosity, rather than through ritual. This is not just a nice idea that the people in Munzur agree with in theory, then ignore; it is a fundamental element of the culture that flows effortlessly from the people …