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Marilynne Robinson

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Religion, Science and the Ultimate Nature of Reality

Posted: 07/14/10 02:58 PM ET

For our purposes as human beings the mind is the center of everything. It governs our experience of our bodies, it retains and composes the inner narrative of our lives, it absorbs the givens of family, culture and education, it orders the data of our senses into a coherent and continuous report on the physical world, it gives us a capacity for moral and ethical judgment, it enables us to understand our needs and interests and to act on them. All this is made endlessly complex by the ability of the mind to interfere with, or to shape, its own workings, which is pathology at worst and our precious autonomy at best.

If the mind did only these things it would be remarkable enough. But it also speculates. It casts great nets of hypothesis over the world of its perceptions and retrieves what it can in the way of understanding of that world, its catch in any case depending on the strength of the net or the fineness of it, or its being cast in a good place. Over the millennia the mind has accumulated an impressive hoard of actual knowledge, and of grounds for new speculations. It is a sort of Crusoe, contriving comfort and utility from whatever comes to hand on this rocky island Earth, making itself a little bit at home and feeling stranded all the same.

My metaphor breaks down because Crusoe knew where he came from and who he was. He could account for his isolation, his unlikeness to everything that existed around him. The oldest lore we have are attempts to propose an answer to these questions for the species, epics that place humankind in a cosmos that is not alien to them, however marginal or precarious their place in it. The ancient gods were violent, sly, fickle, negligent, easy to offend and difficult to mollify. They were all too human, in fact. And they were the earliest answers to the great old questions. Why do we exist, why do we suffer, and why must we die? More tolerable, pagan antiquity suggests, to ascribe our sorrows to capriciousness or outright malice than to dull, cold accident.

How sound is the intuition, which seems as definitively human as culture itself, that our anomalous mind is, at the most essential level, not our difference from the cosmos but our singular likeness to it, our bond with it? We have an extraordinary gift for making the physical universe intelligible to ourselves. This is established beyond any doubt. We know from experience that we can know a great deal about the material properties of things, and so we have lost the sense that, when the movements of the stars were first noted and the abstractions of geometry were first pondered, only intuition could have suggested that knowledge wonderful in kind and scale would be opened by tentatives like these. Yet the ancients seem to have had this intuition. The aura of wonder that fills antiquity, Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek, reflects above all a sense of the magical character of knowing. The mysterious human mind was the alembic then, as it is for us now.

In any case, we have on one hand the persisting intuitive sense that the universe is not alien to us, that our existence is not accidental and our complexity and brilliance are not simply unaccountable extravagances on the part of evolution. On the other hand we have the conviction, also no doubt intuitive to the degree that it is strongly held, that we are indeed creatures of accident, alone with our brilliance unless accident has come up with like creatures elsewhere.

The debate is said to be between science and religion. It would be more accurate to call the contending sides atheism and faith, since neither science nor religion in any classic sense is represented in the present struggle. Whatever the terms we use we can still say that our civilization has been and is engaged in a controversy about the ultimate nature of reality. If we step back a little, I think we should be able to put our wrangling factionalisms aside for a moment and see this as a profound and moving thing, a singularly human thing. To my mind we are the heroes of Creation if only because we think to pose such questions.

This is as close as I come to allowing myself a theological "proof." I don't claim to know what it means to say that we are made in the image of God, but I profoundly and instinctively believe it and all that it implies. Therefore it appalls me that some people who call themselves Christian are willing to hate and insult and deprive other human beings, and even carry guns so they will be ready to kill one or two of them on short notice. And it appalls me that people who claim for their views the authority of science routinely and arbitrarily insist on a brutally reductionist notion of what a human being is, what the human mind is, that justifies as inevitable every sort of meagerness and rapacity. As is so often the case when controversy turns bilious, the two sides have entirely too much in common.

We have demonstrated again and again a terrible freedom to do ourselves catastrophic harm. It is critically important now that we remember our dignity and our worth. We must recover respect for what we are. Science and religion, history, literature and the arts, even our abused and beleaguered politics, all can help us do this if we will only let them.