Sunday, September 2, 2012

Unapologetic Paths to God

I was ambling around hyperspace this week -- can't even remember what I was looking for -- and came across the following on Jane Goodall's wikipedia page:

When asked if she believed in God, Goodall said in September 2010: "I don't have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I don't know what to call it. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that's bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it's enough for me."
That immediately struck me in its similarity to a bit of Francis Collins' description of his coming to faith. I'm a great fan of Francis Collins. I was lucky enough to interview him in 1989 after he and fellow geneticist Lap-chee Tsui (along with others) discovered a key gene in cystic fibrosis (the cystic fibrosis transmembrane regulator). Collins was already known at the University of Michigan as a man of faith. He famously volunteered (by putting an ad in the campus newspaper) to talk to any students about faith -- outside of his office hours (so it couldn't be deemed a violation of separation of church and state).

Collins would go on to lead part of the massive endeavor to sequence the entire human genome; to head NIH's Human Genome institute; and he now heads all of NIH. Through it all Collins has maintained his humility, delightful sense of humor, and accessibility to the people around him. Or at least he still did when I was at NIH six years ago.

In 2007, Collins continued his "coming out" as a Christian in his book, "The Language of God," in which he describes how his faith developed. Late in the book, after going through all the rational arguments he had considered for and against the existence of God, Collins writes:
I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall,  hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.
For both Collins and Goodall, the real sense of the truth of the existence of God came not through logic, reason, and rational proof, but from a sudden spark of feeling sensed amidst the wonder and beauty of nature.

Kahlil Gibran observed: “Faith is an oasis in the heart which can never be reached by the caravan of thinking.” Jonathan Haidt, writing that most human activity is governed by our automatic, emotional reactions would probably agree with Gibran and not be surprised by Collins' and Goodall's descriptions of their ineffable encounters leading to spiritual belief.

I suppose I did have a moment when I almost got to the brink of such an encounter, albeit much more mundane--this is not going to make anyone's top 10 lists of rousing testimonies. It would have been in the early 1990s after I had just moved to what turned out to be quite a dangerous neighborhood. The neighbor on one side warned me that the neighbor's house on the other side was a cat house and a crack house. "But don't worry, I have a gun."

At that point I started worrying and decided to get to know the neighbors in the back yard -- a Methodist church. I began attending regularly and continued, if for no other reason than the people were friendly and I really didn't know -- or much want to know-- anyone else in the neighborhood.

I don't remember the name of the first pastor I met at the church -- he was only there for part of my first year in Hyattsville. But some months into my regular attendance at Ager Rd. United Methodist, he invited me to join. In a brief exchange with him I said I wasn't sure -- I couldn't honestly say that I heard the voice of God or put much stock in accounts of Biblical miracles from the Guy in the Sky reaching down to touch human lives. The pastor invited me just to consider whether perhaps I believed in transcendence.

I'm not sure if it was that day or after that I walked to the church through the back yard as my cherry tree was in glorious bloom in the brilliant spring sunshine. The beauty took my breath away. Beauty. Yes, there was more involved there than just photons of light bouncing off my retinas and triggering neuronal impulses... More than just the ancient evolutionary dance of flowers and pollinators... Yes, there was transcendence here; there was more to life than met the eye, more to life than what science could measure.

As I was thinking this morning about scientists connecting with the Creator through their awe in Creation (and there are many more examples than Collins, Goodall and my cherry tree) my Dear Husband called my attention to a passage from a book that will be released this week by Francis Spufford, called "Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense." The Guardian ran a long excerpt that convinced both DH and me that we need to get this book.

Doubtless I'll have more to say when I've actually read more than just this excerpt, but Spufford basically seems to be throwing up his hands on logically proving God's existence. He can't know God and neither can you or the New Atheists, he says. But what he does know is that there is something very recognizably human, something emotionally right going on in religion.

"Stop worrying about God and enjoy life" (a slogan plastered on busses by activist atheists) might be good for the few people left in the world who aren't enjoying life due to their fear of a disapproving God. But it just doesn't cut it for the rest of the world:
... suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, you are povertystricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or social services have just taken away your child. The bus tells you that there's probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, and now the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood. What it means, if it's true, is that anyone who isn't enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. What the bus says is: there's no help coming.
Spufford doesn't invoke miracles or any other mechanism for how God might help at this point (I'll be interested to see what the rest of the book has to say) -- only that taking away hope is a very cruel version of reality, if reality it is. For Spufford, like Collins and Goodall, it is emotional reaction that affirms his faith. But in his case, it is not Nature that is the trigger; it's Mercy, as detected in the beauty of the middle (adagio) movement in Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, heard in a cafe after a horrible awful no-good night spent fighting with the Missus.
The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigmaroles in your mind, and it has this in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness. Shut up and listen, and let yourself count, just a little bit, on a calm that you do not have to be able to make for yourself, because here it is, freely offered. . .
. . . So to me, what I felt listening to Mozart in 1997 is not some wishy-washy metaphor for an idea I believe in, and it's not a front behind which the real business of belief is going on: it's the thing itself. My belief is made of, built up from, sustained by, emotions like that. That's what makes it real.

Reasoning and thinking to support the emotions come limping along well after the emotional recognition, Spufford says, before slightly apologizing for the logical, rational defence--but not for his very human, emotional embrace of spirituality:
I am not in the habit of entertaining only those emotions I can prove. I'd be an unrecognisable oddity if I did. Emotions can certainly be misleading: they can fool you into believing stuff that is definitely, demonstrably untrue. Yet emotions are also our indispensable tool for navigating, for feeling our way through, the much larger domain of stuff that isn't susceptible to proof or disproof, that isn't checkable against the physical universe. We dream, hope, wonder, sorrow, rage, grieve, delight, surmise, joke, detest; we form such unprovable conjectures as novels or clarinet concertos; we imagine. And religion is just a part of that...


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