Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Naturalist’s Faith (20 October 2010)

"In my mind, a naturalist is someone who comes to understand the biological life and ecological relationships of a particular place with some depth and seeks to use this understanding to forge an appropriate relationship with earthly life." (14)
 - Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent (2006)

The polarization of faith and reason in our culture is unfortunate, as it limits our options and undermines our wholeness as human beings.  Those who have 'faith' seldom reason as well as they should, and those who live by reason seldom allow themselves to have any degree of (at least acknowledged) 'faith.'  For me, a naturalist perspective grounded in science demands just as much 'faith' as I needed when I was religious; it is just anchored differently and expressed more subtly.

There are two senses of 'faith' that must be considered.  Big 'F' faith is the kind of 'absolute trust' that fanatical religious and ideological cults demand of their followers.  This kind of Faith is all-consuming – as anyone who has been a "true believer" knows – and as such blinding.  Big 'F' Faith is the kind of 'trust' that can tolerate no doubt and no challenge to its subjective authority—as it is ultimately very weak, and as a result makes the person of Faith very insecure.  Therefore, they have to be constantly bolstering their Faith, making Big claims for it, and – sometimes even without meaning to – foisting it on others.

The second kind of faith – small 'f' faith – is what I mean when I allude to a Naturalist's 'faith.'  This is the kind of faith that manifests itself as trust in one's environment, in one's friends and family, and in the world as a place where, because we have evolved here and become more or less adapted to our world, we are able to survive.  The kind of faith that I have as a naturalist is a basic trust in the world as it is; as we have found it upon coming to consciousness as individuals.  Many of us are born into a world where there is more or less continuity; some degree of security and always new horizons to explore and move beyond.

Our species has been walking about on this planet for something like 200,000 years, and our ancestors – "proto-human species" for lack of a better term – have been ambling about, making a living out of their environments, and doing self-enriching things for somewhere on the order of 200,000 to 5 million years.  We are a fairly successful species, generally speaking, and as such – barring environmental catastrophes and despite the deplorable state of injustice that leaves some billions of our fellow humans in poverty while the rest live in more or less resplendent style – we are likely to survive for some time.  This, for me, engenders a kind of faith in our existence.  We are more or less well-adapted to the planetary environment in which we have evolved.

We are also endlessly creative and industrious, so it would seem changes in our planetary environment may well be overcome, providing we wake up in time and assuming they are not too disastrous or happen too quickly.  Now, if we could just correct the economic and social injustice in the world, develop a global ethic that would be workable for everyone, and find ways to make sure whole populations aren't starving, at war or under-valued, then we would have an even greater reason for faith in our situation.

As a naturalist, I also have faith in reason.  This is not the kind of Big 'F' faith that bestows worship on something, but rather the small 'f' faith that can be construed as 'trust-in' something.  I try to use reason to the fullest extent; to figure out the nature of reality, to come up with ways of living my life that are compassionate, creative and honest, and to work out my ethical responsibilities.  I also use the imagination to do these things, and I'm a very intuitive person as well; so I am not a "reason-monger" or a "reason only" advocate.  The emotions – with which evolution has invested us and which natural selection has not weeded out but rather preserved – are also poignant guides to the living of life, and I can say that, as a naturalist, I have a small-f 'faith' in these human faculties as well.  Intellect—Imagination—Emotions; these are all important tools.  It is important to always keep these different abilities (reason, emotions, intuition, imagination) in perspective, to know their place in the project of being human, and to acknowledge their limitations.

Faith – from this naturalist's perspective – is what produces solace and gives us peace; respite from existential angst (when properly placed) and a sense of dwelling in Earth & Spirit that is, in itself, humanizing.  I would argue, ultimately, that small 'f' faith is part of our existential toolkit as human animals, and that to 'deny' it's value is to be less prepared for living life to the fullest.

"We watch, hopefully.  We keep watching.  We fill out days with care, watching our words and minding our vision and our evolution continues.  We branch, we rise." (50)

-        Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent (2006)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Naturalistic Mysticism (17 October 2010)

"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence." (191)
-        George Elliot  Middlemarch
(New York, New American Library, 1980)

This quote speaks to what I often refer to as "naturalistic mysticism," an experience of the mystery inherent in the universe.  Not 'mystery' as a 'problem to be solved' or a reference to things as yet beyond our ken; but mystery as an affirmation that, no matter how much we come to understand the Earth & Cosmos, it will still be ‘mysterious’—something awe-inspiring and wondrous.

Elliot speaks here of opening to the ordinary; experiencing the depth and profound import of the daily—something sought by religious mystics in many traditions.[i]  The ordinary is a gateway into the mystery of all-that-is.  The genuine experience of the ordinary contributes to wisdom and self-realization. If we are unaware of our environs – our actual lived context – then we cannot act effectively.  As such, awakening to our place in Earth & Cosmos is necessary for a genuine spiritual praxis, which delineates proper action, thought and reflection. 

Elliot – like so many of the mystics – intimates that if we became truly aware of our surroundings; really awake and alert to our context and what was happening all around us – that it would be 'like' hearing the grass grow or 'hearing' the beating of a squirrel's heart.  These expressions are similes that speak to our 'deafness' to normal, everyday phenomena.  They imply how much there would be to experience – and the wonder we would experience as a result – were we to 'wake up;' i.e., metaphorically, if the 'scales' would fall away from our senses, enabling us to perceive our environs with clarity of mind and heart.

As a result of such a 'waking up,' we might well become conscious of the ROAR OF EXISTENCE; I love this phrase!  And this would inspire 'dread' – in that old mystical sense of being so overwhelmed by our experiential input that it would be 'like' a death.  She says we would "die" of the "roar" that would resound from "the other side of silence."  The ‘death’ she is speaking of here need not be literal; it alludes to the death of the ‘old self’ that was perfectly willing to lull-about in life, deaf, blind and dumb – completely insensate – to the wonders all around us.   The ‘silence’ she is speaking of here is the result of our ‘muting’ of ordinary reality; the ‘quieting’ of our normal, everyday surroundings.  

This ‘quieting’ is to some extent necessary if we are to carry on with life and do the routine things that we need to do to survive.  Too much input can be as deadening as too little!  Yet while perhaps necessary in a limited sense, we need to enliven our senses to be able to appreciate the reality of Earth & Cosmos.  In those moments when our 'vision' and 'feeling' become 'keen,' we may enter into a fuller apprehension of what-is.  And this is the naturalistic dimension of mysticism; the experience of the mystery of What-Is; the flux and flow of being-in-becoming and an appreciation of the wonder of it all!

This experience is not something 'supernatural;' it does not depend upon superstitious belief.  The mysticism Eliot implies here is perfectly natural; it is an emotional experience grounded in our neurology and interpretable by our intellect.  It is an experience that we have been equipped for by evolution, most likely by accident (though I might argue that mysticism has an evolutionary advantage).  However we came by the ability to have such profound experiences, it results in awe and wonder and can lead to such experiences as a ‘cleansing’ of our ‘senses’ and a radical realization of the ‘import’ of our surroundings—our being at-home in Earth & Cosmos.  These experiences have been known to mystics – both religious and non-religious – down across the centuries, and are a normal manifestation of our ability to engage with our surroundings in an open and accepting way.

An experience of naturalistic mysticism can also be transformative, regenerative and have a healing effect.  You are never quite the same after such an experience.  The mundane cannot hold sway over you; you know there is more to reality than what we experience in the state of “normal consciousness” as Abraham Heschel called it in The Earth is the Lord’s (1978): 

“Normal consciousness is a state of stupor, in which sensibility to the wholly real and responsiveness to the stimuli of the spirit are reduced.  The mystics, knowing that humankind is involved in a hidden history with the cosmos, endeavor to awake from the drowsiness and apathy and to regain the state of wakefulness for their enchanted souls.”

While framed in a religious worldview, I would suggest that this passage speaks to the same kind of 'awakening' as that to which Elliot was alluding.  To nurture this kind of mysticism is to contribute to our wholeness in a perfectly naturalistic sense; a psychological, existential sense—one that can be thought of in spiritual terms.

“To those who are awake, there is one ordered cosmos common to all, whereas in sleep each man turns away to one of his own,"
- Heraclitus 

[i] In the Christian tradition, Augustine, Brother Lawrence and other mediaeval mystics emphasized the importance of being in touch with the ordinary; of being able to appreciate the daily round and not allowing it to become merely the ‘mundane.’  Modern spiritual writers such as Joan Chittister (see e.g., Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, 2009) and Thomas Merton have also urged an awareness of the ordinary.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Science and Spirituality (1 October 2010)

"Does a scientific explanation of the world diminish its spiritual beauty? I think not. Science and spirituality are complementary, not conflicting; additive, not detractive. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality. Science does this in spades."
-        Michael Shermer Why Darwin Matters (2006)

“Science, like painting … has a higher aesthetic.  Science can be poetry.  Science can be spiritual, even religious in a non-supernatural sense of the word.” (27)
-        Richard Dawkins A Devil’s Chaplain (2003) 

These quotes say something that I am always trying to say; often meditating on—and seeking to understand.  They allude to a relationship between science and spirituality that is often overlooked, if not obscured, by our culture's biases.  There is a bridge between science and spirituality; each area of human endeavor can inform and guide the other.

As we explore the universe and the world around us in ever greater depth and particularity via the sciences, this question of the relationship between science and spirituality needs to be brought more to the fore, especially if we are eventually going to grow out of superstition and supernaturalism and get existentially grounded in the world as it is; not as we would simply like it to be.

The idea that science somehow diminishes our existence; that it 'robs' us of what is most important to us, seems to me to be the whining of those who are coming out of the closeted aesthetic and experiential existence that so often characterizes a religious or ideological worldview into the wider, brighter world that is our common home.

Of course, science will wreck any claim to truth that is inconsistent with what we are actually able to demonstrate to be true about the universe, ourselves and our world.  Such truth is based on empirical evidence and the extrapolations from evidence that ground the theories that the sciences have been able to construct and solidify through decades of research, observation and experimentation.

Certainly, for those who have lived within the ghettos of supernaturalist belief that are so characteristic of religion and ideology, it is quite a shock to realize that the world is not the way you once thought it was (I experienced this 'shock' myself, when I first turned from religious worldviews to a scientifically grounded one).  There can be a 'come down' off of imagined aesthetic, emotional and intellectual heights, as you leave the narrow confines of religious and ideological worldviews behind; yet this is but a temporary condition, at least for those who push on into the wondrous depths that the sciences offer up for meditation and reflection!

If spirituality is an affirmation of life and a search for ways to better live life; to develop practices, rituals and stories that engender wonder and lead on to self-realization, then science is certainly, as Shermer and others have said, a boon to spirituality; science and spirituality feed off of one another, each inspiring the other—ideally if not always actually. 

The quest to understand ourselves through what science is revealing to us about our biology and our place in the natural environment deepens the earthen seeker, and leads on, potentially, to wisdom (i.e., that kind of knowledge that enables us to best live life as the kind of beings that we are).  Spirituality grounded in science leads to awe and wonder _and to the discovery of the nature of what-is, and results in new 'highs' – emotional, aesthetic and intellectual – that embellish our worlding and inspire us once again to epiphanies; this time genuine ones not rooted in illusion and superstition.

The world as revealed by science is a beautiful, awesome; and it takes a lifetime to appreciate it.  _For this reason, and many others, science is a boon to spirituality.