Saturday, December 3, 2011

Science & Religion: What truth looks like when it hits the ground


Two summers ago, I read a rather rough review of a book called: Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People With Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority. It was written by Prof. Steven Shapin, and apparently does precisely what its title says it will do. (The reviewer was disappointed, though, about the lack of info on Hooke’s sex life.) This review and book prodded a portion of my brain and made a connection I hadn’t considered before.
When people find out that I'm "religious" and that I enjoy talking about religion, they say lots of interesting things. Many of these are phrased as questions, accusations, or accusations-posing-as-questions. One of my favorites is, "So how does it feel to be part of a church that started just because Henry VIII wanted to screw a different woman than his wife?" Now, of course this is a gross simplification of the origins of the Church of England (and the Anglican Communion, of which Episcopalians are a part). My quick answer to this question is:  "Henry VIII's divorce was simply the political event which allowed for a structural change to occur; Thomas Cranmer and others had already been working towards and effecting theological, liturgical, and ecclesiological reform; they simply took advantage of this opportunity." So the quick (oversimplified!) answer is that the break with the Roman Catholics had more nuance and depth to it than a lustful monarch.
And what’s my longer answer?
Well, for those who are religious and not interested in history, or for those who are history-lovers but not interested in religion (or even "spirituality"), the discovery that such gritty contexts are the cradle for universe-encompassing beliefs can be upsetting. It can even color the world of "Religion" as a corrupt and fully earth-bound (and therefore worthless) endeavor. I think this is often the feeling of the folks who challenge me about the origins of the Church of England.
Of course, this question—How can you be a part of something that pretends at transcendent truth when it is rooted in the dirty earth?—can be asked of any of the world's major religions, as well as most of its minor ones. And you can ask it of not only specific institutions, but even that amorphous "spirituality" which many claim (e.g. "I'm not really into organized religion, but I'm spiritual"), since the way this spirituality walks and talks is inevitably influenced by the way all the "organized" kinds walk and talk.
The reason I don't find this troubling—in Anglicanism, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, all the sorts of Islam, all the sorts of Judaism, and all the sorts of Hinduism and of Buddhism—is maybe similar to the reason that scientists don't find Prof. Shapin's book troubling. I don't find this "creatureliness" upsetting because I believe it to be inevitable—a given when it comes to human life and humanity's encounters with transcendent truth.
Truth does not (praise God!) require a perfect human in order to be seen. And simply encountering truth does not (alas!) perfect us to the level of truth's perfection. That is, meeting God does not necessarily make me God-like through and through. Even if truth exists independently of us, when it manifests itself it must do so in our world: our physical surroundings, our embodied beings, our insufficient minds. But the brilliance of these truths (often, occasionally, sometimes) shines past the creatureliness of their embodiment.
As a proverb (taped to the wall in St. John’s Abbey, Minnesota) says: "After enlightenment, the laundry".
Now, the nature of what Science calls “truth” is a bit different from what St. John of the Cross might call “truth.” But the similarity is that there can be value in the things which flawed, skewed, strange, normal, weak or powerful people discover—and that these contexts do not necessarily negate what was discovered.

Figures on the roof of the cathedral in Milan.
Note:  A version of this post was originally published on the blog “Discuss in any manner which you see fit.”

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