Today, as I write this, my brother-in-law way across this country in Oregon (some 2,500 miles from central Ohio) is having surgery on his heart. Doctors do this kind of thing regularly, but still! I’m thinking of him and my sister and wishing I would have called her more often. “But what’s a poor boy to do?” as Mick has sung (“with the same old rock’n roll band…”). I’m way over here in Ohio, and always working on this darn blog.
My other sister, Marty, who drew the logo for NatieRel, she started talking last night — not coincidentally — about how to say “The Hail Mary”. She hadn’t done it in ages and forgot its words. Both of us being rather thoroughly Catholicized in our youth, she asked me. No problem. It is the words by which the Angel Gabriel addressed Mary when informing her she would be “the mother of God.” The Annunciation. In fact, a Blessed Virgin Mary, or the BVM as she is sometimes humorously and sacrilegiously referred to.
Hail, Mary! Full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among woman, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Amen.
I used to be able to crank those out, ten at a time, but now I cannot bring myself to do a single one.
Yet, I feel the need to do something; to express something, to help, from way over here in Ohio.
I came across this poem a number of years ago. It is about Prayer and kind of a prayer itself: The Divine Image by William Blake, written in about 1789.
Before you read it, I must warn you that in the second stanza pronounce “DEAR” with an accent to be like DARE, then it will rhyme with “care”. In stanza three, pronounce “DRESS” with an accent to be like ‘drace’ so that it rhymes with “FACE”. To excuse the last stanza, I think we need to realize that in 1800, much of the world was alien and mysterious to Europeans. Jewish people were always ostracized in Europe and thought of with great bias, similar to what they thought of “heathens” and “Turks”. But note, here, all the above are in possession of “the human form divine”. (SORRY, WordPress site will not allow me to get the spacing right for this poem! It loses all the stanzas–every 4 lines)
Importantly, God and Humans are equated through the mediation of Four Virtues:Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, says Blake. These virtues are as much human as divine. Humans acting in accord with these virtues, as much as ‘God’, arethe thing we pray to when in “Distress”, says the great poet.
The Divine Image
BY WILLIAM BLAKE
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear.
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew,
Where Mercy, Pity, Peace dwell
There God is dwelling too.
Nice poem! Deep. When I am in distress, I have developed a little routine where I start with my thumb at the tip of my forefinger and say “To Mercy”, then to the tip of the next finger and say “To Pity“, then…”To Peace”, and finally at my little finger, “To Love.” The next round is simpler: “To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love” moving through my fingers. Silly of me, to like that finger part, I think of it like closing a circuit. Letting the “Positive Energy” flow here at the naturereligionconnection!
HANG TOUGH, BRO. WE ARE THINKING OF YOU ! You too, sis! Love ya.
P.S. By the time I published this and then revised it and published it again (with a fair amount of stuff in between), I had received word that the surgery was about over and was going very well!
(This is the Second Post for this new blog, naturereligionconnection.org. Thank you for your curiosity concerning this curious topic. What are the boundaries between Nature and Religion? Can traditional religion offer us anything of value in our world of science? Here some opening arguments are considered in this debate. Please comment, your thoughts are appreciated! GregWW)
I almost stumbled into a theological debate the other day. It was prevented by my not frequently used sense of tact. At a family gathering, a young in-law was commenting on his course in theology and surprisingly, he said he liked it! As an incoming freshman at the catholic University of Dayton (Ohio), it is a required course. He liked the logic of it and its abstract thoughtfulness, he said.
An older in-law chimed in saying that he too took that course many decades previously. He is a graduate of U.D. and slightly religious, but mostly he is a very practical man; a successful business owner and a person not inclined to obtuse thought of any form. Yet, one idea from the course stuck with him, he said: “that in the beginning there was nothing, and now there is something; God was necessary to get something out of nothing.”
I declined to respond to that particular idea. I was under strict orders (from the wife) to keep things light; so instead, I remarked that other theological arguments were of interest too, like the argument for God from design, or even the “ontological proof,” and that is where the discussion pretty much ended.
And there is something of interest in some of these ‘proofs.’ The argument from design,
for example, contends that all the fancy, complex interconnections in the world around us (including us) is evidence of a supremely capable designer, God. That contention is akin to the “something from nothing” argument. How do you get all the marvels of today from, if not exactly nothing, then from the interaction of only heat, chemicals, and gravity, for example? It seems to many people an insufferable gap—a metaphysical leap—between non-life and life, insensate matter and consciousness, a universe of only atoms and a universe of goodness and evil, beauty and the abhorrent.
“The vast majority of life is gravity and electromagnetism pushing around electrons and nuclei” contends the physicist Sean Carroll in his widely read The Big Picture, On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. In this post, we will try to provide an answer to that ‘smaller’ part of life that seems to be a bit more than Carroll’s four components from above.
The Traditional Answer
The traditional answer to these conundrums is to impose some magic: A divinity must intervene. A grand creator is necessary. Some ‘breath’ (the Greek noumena) must be added to the “dust.” Some ‘spark’ must be applied; a spark like a common earthly spark—in some ways—but much more potent because of its immaterial character. You need to add some ‘spirit’ to matter; some supreme intelligence must be at work, it is said.
Concerning “something from nothing,” the answer I could have given my theistic relative is this: “You have painted yourself into an intellectual corner. In common experience and scientific research, we never discover the predecessor of a thing to be nothing, or the working components of a thing to be nonexistent (no insides!). Yet this is how you have framed your problem—‘how from nothing, something?’ It is little wonder that you need to go fishing and come up with an equally baffling idea for an answer: God.”
“In reality what we always find is a series of things leading to another thing or originating in another thing. In a larger thing, we always find smaller parts. So, in general, it’s processes inside of processes inside of processes; cyclesinside of cycles; parts made of parts; all the way ‘down’ (smaller) and all the way ‘out’ (larger). This, and not theism, is the most reasonable philosophical belief for today,” I could have concluded.
That is a satisfying answer, certainly suitable for any free-wheeling family get-together discussion; but in our current context—here at the Nature Religion Connection-–it needs an addendum for a more complete understanding.
When the processes in processes and the cycles on top of cycles come together in a new way and create a new thing, new qualities and abilities emerge in that object. “ ‘Emergent’: important word that,” says biology theorist, Richard Dawkins. In other words, where did these qualities and abilities in this new thing come from? Is their appearance some deep mystery that needs more than a physical explanation to understand? Is it a ‘leap’ as unlikely as “getting blood from a turnip,” as the old saying puts it?
Getting More From Less
No, it is not a metaphysical leap, but it is getting more from less. Though we cannot get something from nothing, Evolution* can get more from, well, less. And, in this sense, we do need a special explanatory principle. Evolutionary Theory is how we explain the origin and existence of complexity; it is how we explain “Climbing Mount Improbable,” says Dawkins. “The basic Darwinian motif” is “in the beginning there was some relatively unstructured and unsophisticated raw material; mutations of one sort or another occurred; and out of this emerged something novel,” contends the philosopher and cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett. This novel thing that is produced will be more structured; it will be the outcome of a more sophisticated organization, a more designed “raw material.” That is how to get more from less, enhance the design!
The so-called ‘leap’ in ability and character that appear in the new object may be as humble as the combination of two gases to get a liquid-–two hydrogen atom and one oxygen to get a water molecule. This ‘leap’ from gas to liquid does not shock us, though maybe it should considering it is a precursor of more startling things to come. For example, it seems that the proper combination of six chemicals can create life! To add insult to injury for those confounded by this possibility, for around $100 you can buy materials containing five of these chemicals (in their proper proportions) at your local hardware store and obtain the sixth by distilling urine!
Of course, all the ‘magic’ is in the recipe—how can you put these six elements together to allow them to live? It’s like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein! Various biochemists around the world are working at this very moment to do this, and, though they have made some significant advances, to date they have failed. To some people this leaves the door open: ‘there are gaps unbridgeable by science between not only non-life and life but also matter and consciousness, and caused events and free will,’ they protest. It is not hard to have some sympathy for this view, as an account in American Indian lore puts it: “on what particular day, long ago, did the mud sit up?”
There are No Gaps
Dennett, has two suggestions to help us with the appearance of such “leaps.” One, he argues that in reality there are no drastic gaps ; and two, we need to update our imagination and intuition if we feel there is.
First, he says, what lies between non-life and life, matter and conscious, et al, is a very long series of gradual changes, slight adjustments, incremental installments that create slightly more complex things, slightly more capable molecules, states and creatures. Billions of years of such tiny attempts form the evolutionary road to where we are today. This “gradualism” is a key component in Evolution and in the logic of any Holistic philosophy. Dennett carries this principal of gradualism to its logical end when he argues that, in reality, no exact line can be drawn between life and non-life, insensate things and conscious things, caused events and freely chosen actions! In Nature, boundaries are always fuzzy and gradual. Life shades off into non-life and freely chosen actions eek out some “elbow room” amid Nature as a causal matrix.
For example, viruses occupy a gray zone, neither alive nor dead. Viruses both reproduce and are incapable of
reproducing on their own. We can, in a sense, appropriately call them ‘bugs’—as in ‘flu bug’— yet we know they do not eat (metabolize). They are sort of alive, as are early stage fetuses and brain-dead patients.
Sensitivity and consciousness is another example of gradualism. In our everyday world, we think of a continuum of creatureswho possess greater and lesser degrees of ‘mindfulness.’An ant is like a little person, in some ways. It is full of intentions, scurrying about with jobs to do, goals to accomplish. Many of us even feel a twinge of regret if we step on one: ‘Oh, it must have felt pain.’ But we acknowledge that the ant is not a full-blown consciousness nor a full-blown person, and we kill hundreds of them with insecticide if they take up shop in our kitchen.
A plant is even less sensitive than the ant, with no consciousness at all; but the family dog, it ranks way up there, fully conscious (?), loyal, nearly a person. This continuum of growing consciousness, abilities and even ‘person-ality’ is what Dennett calls “a deep fact, the kind you build a theory on.” This fact reflects the history of the evolutionary appearance of abilities and creatures. In western culture, our awareness of these resemblances has been prevalent since, at least, the middle ages. There is “a great chain of being.”
In medieval philosophy and lore, this “great chain” started with God at the top and ran down to angels, humans, animals, plants and finally inanimate objects. It was thought to be the manifestation of god-like abilities in the world (in more modern terms, ‘mindfulness’, consciousness and value). Their chain included the social order, the prejudices and political ideology of the feudal society in Europe. It is curious to note, in the depiction at left, many of the particular rankings but especially that of actor—below a beggar and just above a thief!
This “Great Chain” is a “top-down” model of creation, says Dennett, and was one of the mainstay arguments against Evolution: ‘Only Absolute Wisdom could create lesser wisdoms and abilities. From Absolute Ignorance (inanimate matter) no creation occurs.’ None the less, the chain exhibits an awareness of gradualism and the family of relations that we find so prevalent in our experience of Nature and explained aptly only by the fact of Evolution. Today, the most reasonable way to understand this Great Chain is as biology’s Tree of Life. Gradualism is a hallmark of Nature.
Second, Dennett contends, if you are still prone to feel or think there are unbridgeable (metaphysical) gaps, then you need to expand your imagination and modernize your intuitions.A “bottom-up” vision of creation is readily available in fields beyond that of evolutionary biology. For example, machines can, now, think! They can write music, play chess and search and solve puzzles—a fact first proven as far back as World War II. Even one hundred years ago, the impulse to feel ‘startling gaps’ was understandable, but science, technology and speculative thought (art, science fiction in novels and movies, and much of modern philosophy) no longer make these ‘gaps’ obvious: They are no longer ‘common sense.’
Modern technology rivals the traditional “miracles of God” with organ replacement, artificial insemination, cloning, human flight, the fission and fusion of atoms and near instantaneous communication around our planet and even beyond. We have already revised many of our traditional intuitions and Dennett is a leader in that campaign. For example, he persuasively contends that we, humans, are very fancy, evolved machines; and someday very fancy, human-designed machines (robots) may be considered persons, though not human persons. These, all, are “intuition shakers” and “imagination stretchers” and they facilitate what was once considered merely a shameful, godless fantasy: bottom-up creativity.
That Larger Something
So, we don’t need to get something from nothing. Instead, we have been very fortunate to get much from what seems relatively little. It took a lot of time (billions of years), a lot of effort (the subtle design adjustments of Evolution in generation after generation), and lots of research (the unrelenting trial and error of Natural Selection). In addition, it took some luck. The virtuoso was Mother Nature, not God, but now, even we—Her Children—have become significantly creative.
We, humans, are now in position to believe, with good reason, that in this part of the universe efforts have been underway to build a creation of vast significance: our biosphere. It is a living sculpture. Hopefully, we will continue to play a part that will not only assist in the survival of this work of art, but also promote its enhancement. After all, we are not only indebted to it; we are embedded in it!
*I have chosen to continue the tradition of capitalizing the “g” of God in this piece, but in an effort to mitigate this deference I will also capitalize the words—Nature, Mother Nature, Evolution, Holism. These terms describe what I take to be the real phenomena behind the apparition, God.
(INTRODUCTION: This is the initial post for this blog, “naturereligionconnection.org”. This post has a long and personally significant history. It initially appeared as a letter to the editor in the Columbus Dispatch in late 2007. I was gratified by the response. That Sunday morning the phone rang several times, early, and I ignored them, cursing “those damn telemarketers.” After several more calls I finally answered to find a lady asking it I was the author of this morning’s letter. She went on to explain how moved she was, literally, saying she shouted, “Yes!” at one point while reading, and leaped up from the couch. The following week I received a half dozen letters expressing appreciation for my effort. A Sunday School teacher wrote that he intended to use it with his teen-age group to provoke discussion. One scrawled and rambling letter explained how I was going to Hell. This current post is a slightly revised version of that original, letter.)
Sometimes in presidential races, religion becomes a topic. That was the case in 2008 and especially in the Iowa caucus. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romneyspoke passionately about his religious beliefs because they were apparently adversely affecting some Iowans. The editor of our local Columbus newspaper interviewed E. Gordon Gee, President of The Ohio State University (Columbus Dispatch 12/2/2007) who hopes we can “restore civility and thoughtfulness to politics.”
The first obstacle cited, by Gee, to this “more civilized political discourse” was religious prejudice and ignorance. Gee is a Mormon, as is his friend Romney. He said it was “hogwash” to think that Romney would govern differently, or that he, Gee, would administer a university differently because of their religious belief.
Here at NatureReligionConnection, we believe that, but also that there is more to say. We think it is ‘hogwash’ that there is so little civil and thoughtful discourse about religion. Politics aside, the Christmas season was then in full swing and that, too, made it an excellent time to ask: how is it that so many of us hold so many different, so many contradictory, so many fanciful religious opinions? If Gee and Romney want thoughtful political discourse then let us start a thoughtful discourse about religion to accompany it.
For example, Mormons believe that in the year 1823 in Palmyra, New York, (not exactly a ‘mecca’ of religious activity!) an angel named Moroni helped Joseph Smith obtain buried golden tablets that were written in an ancient language about an ancient people that once lived there. Mormon, the author of the plates, was a prophet and historian for these people, the Nephites, who had come from Jerusalem to the New World in 600 B.C. by boat.
In the New World, the Nephites created a great civilization, eventually destroyed but not before Jesus Christ came to them soon after his resurrection and personally ministered to them. Joseph Smith used special stones (the Urim and Thummim) that came with the plates and allowed him to translate them into the Book of Mormon, the sole source of this ‘history.’ After the translation, the angel Moroni took the tablets back for safekeeping, but not before they were shown to 11 witnesses (see the front of the Book of Mormon for their testimony). Mormons believe that the Nephites are the ancestors of Native American Indians.
That’s a unique twist on Christianity, and—for good reasons—most of us don’t believe it, unless you were born in Utah.
Another belief that most Americans don’t hold: In the year 610 A.D. Muhammad was fasting and praying in a cave outside of Mecca, now Saudi Arabia. He wished his people to possess a book like the Jews and Christians and finally on this occasion, after days of prayer and abstinence, the Angel Gabriel appeared and ordered him to “recite.” He could not, so the angel took him in something like a bear hug and held Muhammad till breathless and again ordered him to “recite.” But nothing came forth.
Finally, after releasing him from a third embrace, Muhammad, gasping for breath, found the opening words of the Quran tumbling from his mouth. Muslims don’t believe that Christianity is wrong but simply that it is incomplete, that the Quran completes the teachings about God.
We don’t believe that story either, certainly not in any literal sense, but one billion people from North Africa through the Middle East and deep into Asia do, and many of them now live in the United States and Europe.
In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful: All Praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Universe.
“The Opening” of the Quran, Surah Al-Fatih
Finally, a story that many Americans subscribe to. It’s a familiar story and one that profoundly moves us especially during the holiday season. We won’t repeat it in detail; it too involves angels, ancient events, a special book, ascension into heaven, a pregnancy without sex, and a god who was also a man. Of course, this story is just as hard to believe.
Many Americans do believe, it’s our story, but of course intimate familiarity is the primary criterion for belief in any religion. If you were born and raised into it, you believe it.
But it is more than intimate familiarity that is at work, it is also the feelings of connection, metaphysical insight and deeper purposes engendered by religious beliefs that is cited by believers as evidence of truthfulness. All serious Mormons, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc. feel the validity of their faith; and since this feeling is had by all it is no proof to any for their specific stories.
It’s time to say what we believe. Here at The Connection, we believe that ethics and morality are real things but are degraded by supernatural explanations. We believe that the “faith” of religious believers is really their intuition of their actual involvement in something that is larger than themselves, that is the source of meaning, and that is of immense value.
A small but significant discourse is underway centered around courageous biologists and other theorists, who seek to gain our assent through reason and evidence that is accessible to all regardless of place of birth and socialization. Traditional religion can be replaced, and interestingly it is the science of biology that is leading the way. The design of the natural world, always the best argument for the existence of God, is being understood by evolutionary theory to be “That Large Thing” mentioned above.
It is the Tree of Life, and we humans are incorporated in the inner relations of this Biosphere. As physician and medical researcher, Lewis Thomas wrote, “the earth is a loosely formed, spherical organism.” So, it is with scientific justification that we can, with affection, admiration and even awe, look to our planet and gain inspiration. It is Mother Earth, of which we are a part: Our planet is a massive and irreplaceable piece of living art.
If this scientific discourse can continue and expand, and if each of us have the courage to examine our own basic beliefs, we, here at the naturereligionconnection, believe that traditional religion can be replaced by more rational and uniform ideals. Mother Nature’s human creatures will then have a sounder basis for civility and thoughtfulness in our political relations.