Unnamed, complete, unanswerable

I would not have been a poet except that I have been in love alive in this mortal world, or an essayist except that I have been bewildered and afraid, or a storyteller had I not heard stories passing to me through the air, or a writer at all except I have been wakeful at night and words have come to me out of their deep caves needing to be remembered. But on the days I am lucky or blessed, I am silent. I go into the one body that two make in making marriage that for all our trying, all our deaf-and-dumb of speech, has no tongue. Or I give myself to gravity, light, and air and am carried back to solitary work in fields and woods, where my hands rest upon a world unnamed, complete, unanswerable, and final as our daily bread and meat. The way of love leads all ways to life beyond words, silent and secret. To serve that triumph I have done all the rest. Wendell Berry – from the poem 1994 HT: Writer’s  

Ideology & Free Inquiry

Obama just announced his selections for the White House Office of Science and Technology and NOAA. His picks are good, solid choices. But what impresses me the most is Obama’s perspective on science itself, which is a near-180 shift in perspective from the current administration.  Says Obama, he has selected “leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respect the integrity of the scientific process. Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources — it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology.”  Of course, political ideology, left and right, can and does obscure scientific enquiry. Let’s encourage Obama to allow science to speak for itself, relatively free of partisan  

Inescapably Fish

I’m getting very old. If I were a mutt in dog years I’d be seven, not stray so far. I am large. Tarpon my age are often large but they are inescapably fish. A porpoise my age was the King of New Guinea in 1343. Perhaps I am the king of my dogs, cats, horses but I have dropped any notion of explaining to them why I read so much. To be mysterious is a prerogative of kingship. I discovered lately that my subjects do not live a life, but are life itself. They do not recognize the pain of the schizophrenia of kingship. To them I am pretty much a fellow creature.  – Jim Harrison, from Returning to  

Transcendent Trane

My friend Scott sent me this great video of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps with typewriter-like musical notation. For whatever reason, the notes appearing on-screen remind me of emerging theological conversations – a complex string of notes (ideas) put together to make music, to be enojyed as beauty and truth in the moment. Ultimately, music isn’t meant to be captured and studied like a lab animal. Nor, I would offer, is spirit. Both should be practiced and enojyed in the flow of the eternal present. And while certain elements of music, like theology, can be parsed and catalogued, the truly life-changing experience given by both music and spirit transcends rational understanding and touches a common place in us all – the shared  

Playing on the Seashore

A few days ago, I blogged a demographic survey of TED Conference attendees. There’s a buffet of 65 categories — you’re given a choice of 10. Very few selected any kind of religious affiliation (e.g., Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.9%, Buddhist 1.6%, etc.). You’ll need to create a TED account to access profiles. You can create your own TED profile here. While few conclusions can be drawn from this, it brings up some interesting questions. We know that over 80% of the world’s adult population considers themselves religious or spiritual in some manner. This percentage holds true for the U.S.A., as well, with roughly 76% calling themselves Christian and another 10 million or so divided between Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, spiritual-but-not-religious, etc.. TED’s presenters tend to exhibit a high concentration of academic rigor. Bill Gates once commented, “I wasn’t prepared for this conference to be so profound. The combined IQ of the attendees is incredible”. Based on the TED demographic data, one might be tempted to conclude that increasing academic focus correlates with decreasing interest in religion or spirituality. A while back, I looked into the correlation of academics on spiritual orientation. I was surprised to find a number of studies available, the most rigorous of which is UCLA’s Spirituality and the Professorate: A National Study of Faculty Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behaviors. The UCLA study surveyed over 40,000 faculty members at 421 colleges and universities, seeking to characterize the role of religion and spirituality in their personal lives. The results? Commensurate with world and national averages, 81% of professors considered themselves a “spiritual person” and 70% describe themselves as “religious.” The 40,000+ academics were then asked if their spiritual life has a place in the academy. A significant percentage said yes, though weighting varied by discipline with roughly 50% of hard scientists and 60% in humanities answering in the affirmative. In another study, 2,000 medical doctors were surveyed about their spiritual life. Nearly 80% of MD’s were found to maintain an active spirituality and 90% said they attend religious services at least occasionally. In yet another recent study, professors at elite doctoral-granting schools were seen to be more skeptical of spirituality than professors at other schools. But even among the most elite academies, over 60% affirmed a personal faith or active spirituality (belief in God, a higher power, etc..). The Ecklund Study released May 2010, claims that “the ‘insurmountable hostility’ between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliche, perhaps useful as a satire on group-think, but hardly representative of reality.” While a person gifted with greater reasoning capacity may exhibit finer nuance in their understanding of spirituality, a growing body of recent studies show that elevated intellect and advanced academic training has little influence on a persons religious/spiritual inclinations. Spiritual belief and practice, as abstraction, remains generally constant throughout the intellectual spectrum. (As an aside, the Harvard study also noted that an overwhelming majority [95%] of university faculty did not consider Intelligent Design a serious alternative to Darwinian evolution. Despite a small vocal group of ID proponents, most today acknowledge the profound evidence (genomics, etc.) to support some manner of evolution. I personally see great beauty, design, and a kind of “natural intelligence” in biological evolution. Our universe remains no less a mystery and miracle in its ability to evolve. A far more interesting conversation is focusing on the origin of life itself — the seemingly spontaneous appearance of RNA and proteins roughly three billion years ago. A significant community of evolutionary scientists remains unmoved by the hypothesis of spontaneous appearance [via lightning, etc] of RNA.) One paper noted that in surveys of leading academies (such as the National Academy of Science) there is a significant decrease in public acknowledgment of spiritual or religious association. As the Harvard and UCLA studies infer, such data is likely biased by peer pressures of the academy and other elite in-groupings. I’ll call it the TED Effect. Clearly, many top academics are taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell” position for fear of career reprisal. Recent books from authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have led many to conclude that virtually all scientists are anti-spiritual, yet major academic surveys show just the opposite to be true:  a prominent majority of academics embrace some manner of spirituality. Physicist, astronomer, and atheist Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) weighed in recently on the war between science and religion. He warns fellow scientists that they are becoming “as radical as the religious extremists, as inflexible and intolerant as the movements we seek to exterminate by our oh-so-crystal-clear-and-irresistibly-compelling rationalizations”. Gleiser admits that science cannot offer humanly essential qualities such as hope, peace, charity, and compassion. He concludes, “It is futile and naive to simply dismiss the need people have for spirituality — either science will teach us humility and respect for life or we will exterminate this most precious cosmic jewel. I am optimistic that scientists will teach people these lessons, instead of simply trying to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.” This blog exists, in part, because of my desire to see greater consilience between science/technology and spirituality. Numerous science / spirit resources can be found in the sidebar. I’ll conclude this long post with an excerpt from quantum physicist Freeman Dyson’s 2002 NYT book review. I share many of Dyson’s wonderful thoughts on the interplay of spirit and science and I encourage you to read the entire review. I am myself a Christian, a member of a community that preserves an ancient heritage of great literature and great music, provides help and counsel to young and old when they are in trouble, educates children in moral responsibility, and worships God in its own fashion. But I find Polkinghorne’s theology altogether too narrow for my taste. I have no use for a theology that claims to know the answers to deep questions but bases its arguments on the beliefs of a single tribe. I am a practicing Christian but not a believing Christian. To me, to worship God means to recognize that mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension. When I listen to Polkinghorne describing the afterlife, I think of God answering Job out of the whirlwind, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?… Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding…. Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? Or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?” God’s answer to Job is all the theology I need. As a scientist, I live in a universe of overwhelming size and mystery. The mysteries of life and language, good and evil, chance and necessity, and of our own existence as conscious beings in an impersonal cosmos are even greater than the mysteries of physics and astronomy. Behind the mysteries that we can name, there are deeper mysteries that we have not even begun to explore. Little has changed since Newton said this: I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. The potentialities of life and intelligence in the universe go far beyond anything that we have imagined. Religion and science should both begin by recognizing the vastness of the ocean of truth and the pettiness of our search for smoother pebbles. Or, as the Sufi poet Rumi would remind us, “Sell your cleverness and buy  

Jill Taylor’s TED Talk

This is an absolute must-watch. Set aside 18 minutes and prepare to be floored. Consensus among TED’sters is that this may be the most memorable and important TED Talk ever. It was certainly the most talked-about presentation among those at TED2008. Enjoy and share with others. And let Jill’s experience inspire, motivate, and change the way you look at  

Songs of the Soul

On a dark night, Inflamed by love-longing— O exquisite risk!— Undetected I slipped away. My house, at last, grown still. Secure in the darkness, I climbed the secret ladder in disguise— O exquisite risk!— Concealed by the darkness. My house, at last, grown still.   That sweet night: a secret. Nobody saw me; I did not see a thing. No other light, no other guide Than the one burning in my heart.   This light led the way More clearly than the risen sun To where he was waiting for me —The one I knew so intimately— In a place where no one could find us.   O night, that guided me! O night, sweeter than sunrise! O night, that joined lover with Beloved! Lover transformed in Beloved!   Upon my blossoming breast, Which I cultivated just for him, He drifted into sleep, And while I caressed him, A cedar breeze touched the air.   Wind blew down from the tower, Parting the locks of his hair. With his gentle hand He wounded my neck And all my senses were suspended.   I lost myself. Forgot myself. I lay my face against the Beloved’s face. Everything fell away and I left myself behind, Abandoning my cares Among the lilies, forgotten.   From Dark Night of the Soul (16c) – St. John of the Cross Translation Mirabai Starr    


May there be some beautiful surprise Waiting for you inside death Something you never knew or felt, Which with one simple touch Absolves you of all loneliness and loss, As you quicken within the embrace For which your soul was eternally made. May your heart be speechless at the sight of the truth Of all your belief had hoped, Your heart breathless In the light and lightness Where each and every thing Is at last its true self Within that serene belonging That dwells beside us On the other side Of what we see. – John O’Donohue, “poet, priest, philosopher” John passed away January 3, 2008. from John O’Donohue’s The Question Holds the Lantern The journey shows you that from this inner dedication you can reconstruct your own values and action. You develop from your own self-compassion a great compassion for others. You are no longer caught in the false game of judgement, comparison and assumption. More naked now than ever, you begin to feel truly alive. You begin to trust the music of your own soul; you have inherited treasure that no one will ever be able to take from you. At the deepest level, this adventure of growth is in fact a transfigurative conversation with your own death. And when the time comes for you to leave, the view from your death bed will show a life of growth that gladdens the heart and takes away all