Discussions with an instructor over a class I recently took on Darwin have led me to wonder again about “religious” matters and the role they continue to play out in our lives. Amongst other places, my wanderings took me back to the writings of Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and his equally good book Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.
What forced the issue was a final sentence in the descriptive summary of the class: “The course will touch on ‘evolutionary Christianity,’ one approach to making peace between science and faith.” For a number of reasons, I did not take well to what I perceived to be the idea that science should bend over backward and make nice-nice to religious groups, since a number of them have signed statements that they have accommodated the discoveries of science to their faith.
I just don’t get this argument. After all, what is science supposed to say to people who distrust the discipline but embrace mystery and questionable dogma and forgo the hard work and discipline needed if one wants to journey on a serious search for knowledge. It seems perfectly legitimate that we all have the responsibility to filter out the distracting noise around us. It’s really up to those who feel filtered out to stop and wonder why, rather than get in a snit and dismiss scientists because they think they are “alienating.”
And then I got to thinking of Pirsig and his marvelous stories of taking philosophy on the road or aboard ship. Leafing through my old copies of Zen and Lila, it’s fascinating to see how he explores the meaning and concept of “quality,” which he deems to be “undefinable.” His thoughts focus on what constitutes “good,” what roles do values play in our lives, and how can people disagree so murderously on right and wrong? This led me to try to look through his eyes and attempt to see how religious people think about these issues and how they use the word “ineffable” when they pull translucent sheets over their concept of god.
In his own particular way, Pirsig also poses the question of how or even whether we should try to find a common ground where science and religion can coexist. I’m not at all opposed to the idea and am quite at home when he talks about finding a middle ground and reconciling those who follow a “romantic” viewpoint not based on rational analyses with those who seek to know the details, understand the inner workings, and master the mechanics involved in any science.
I have one foot in the artistic world, too, and empathize with that romantic side of my nature. I sometimes even pause to wonder at the source of some of my inspiration, other than my various designs by accident. If Pirsig’s “romantic” motorcycle companion doesn’t look after his bike and just goes with the flow, he will be frustrated and dependent upon others when he is stalled with engine problems. In contrast, Pirsig has mastered the mechanics by applying rational analysis and can fix his own problems.
What Pirsig has found is the key to an inner peace of mind. He understands both viewpoints, especially that technology can be a dehumanizing component of our modern world. As such, it can easily appear repugnant and incomplete to a romantic person. By not excluding either, though, he has aimed to be part of a world that embraces both sides, the rational and the romantic. He recognizes that while rational thought can find “truth,” it is also not necessarily valid for all experiences, such as the religious. What is needed is an approach to viewing life that is more varied and inclusive and has a wider range of application. This realization thus set his course toward encompassing “irrational” sources of wisdom and understanding as well as science, reason, and technology.
So in the dialog with my instructor, I got a little arrogant, peppering him with all the horror stories associated with Christianity or most other religions, since they have shown little to no positive role in promoting science. These are the people who, after all, came within an inch of burning Galileo for his scientific “heresy.” In addition to challenging anything scientific that threatened their world view, they focused their energy on power, hierarchy, dogma, misogyny, intolerance, persecution, hatred, and punishment and death, in some of the most horrifying ways imaginable. They had no interest in knowledge, were anything but spiritual and coveted temporal power. As a result, they deviated from the actual teachings of Christ and all the other prophets/philosophers who formulated the basic tenets we should all live by. For a added fillip, I painted the chilling picture of what western religion had become as seen through the eyes of “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. It’s different today only in that the auto-da-fe practice is more symbolic.
Mitigating such negative thoughts a bit, I stayed on the side of civility and allowed that I also had and intuitively listened to my “artistic” side. I do not live exclusively with a by-the-numbers attitude and know that I can be easily transported to a higher level of appreciation. As is the case with most anyone else, I know what it is like to be spellbound by an awesome sunset, to pause in awe over the intricacies of a flower petal, to stand back in hushed silence at the birth of any creature, and to be overwhelmed when viewing the clear night sky. I know the names of trees by silhouette and leaf, can (almost) identify birds by song, and recognize the edible mushrooms from their evil cousins. I live in a natural world and am keen to stay observant as well as reverential.
At the same time, I feel no need to attribute these fine details, these intricacies of shape and color, all the diversity, to any sense of a creator. To me, there’s simply no need for the “watchmaker” analogy set forth by the 18th century Christian apologist William Paley. I am content to allow the rational as well as the creative parts of me to respond to what I see. I want to remain in tune with the many reminders of how to live a good life as well as to know how to die with dignity when my time comes. In the interim, I believe we all must aspire to a life of knowledge and generosity as well as utility, to be suspicious of materialism and be cautious if tempted to wander through the maze of theological speculation in search of specious reasons to justify our vile actions. And most importantly, we must always be alert to reject dogma and the demons that endorse it.
In conclusion, I would like to top this essay off with the wish someday to shake the hands of those who designed the label for Wasatch’s Evolutionary Amber Ale that has a picture from ape to upright man drinking Wasatch:
“This beer was part of our protest to the Utah Legislature’s attempt to mandate the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in our public schools. We think church and state should stay separated, even in Utah.”