Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bending the Faith to the Facts

Once upon a time a medieval philosopher told a story about a bird flying from an unknown place of origin through a mead-hall to an unknown destination. The philosopher believed that religion was able to explain the significance of the flight of that bird; the dark from which it came, it’s time in the light of the mead-hall and the dark to which it was returning. The version of the story I heard held that the philosopher was a Christian, telling his story in a pagan mead-hall, and that he succeeded in converting his audience using the metaphor of the bird in flight for the meaning of our life on this earth.

I have had my own experience of seeing that bird fly through the mead-hall in which I was sitting, but the religious and scientific philosophers seeking to illuminate the glorious flight of human existence were, to my mind, perched on another cusp of the evolution of knowledge. Religion and philosophy are the explicators of the fact that for humans there is the unknowable; they are the highest authority of human thought that rule on the great questions of human existence. Arguably science is fast joining religion and philosophy as a guide to the infinite, and I have become an avid follower of the scientists who are reaching out for the theories that will allow science to settle into the idea of eternity and bring a new frontier to ways of thinking about our existence.

The metaphorical mead-hall was presided over by the Catholic Abbot of New Norcia, the Buddhist Abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery and the star of the UWA Physics Department. All three men were engaged in a discussion on whether Science and Religion were Incompatible in explaining life, and through their great intelligence, knowledge, humour and obvious desire to discuss the use of the friction between the various faiths to find truth, these three men were able to freeze the flight of the bird and allow their audience look at the question of existence from many different angles.

Devoted student of the beauty of human thought that I am, the seven weeks between the talk being brought to my attention and the actual event were spent in debate with my partner-in-enquiry. We viewed talks by Richard Dawkins and David Deutsch, discussed the Renaissance and Da Vinci, and explicitly outlined our own faith and our own philosophy. Such thoughtful and extended engagement with our own experience of the subject meant we were able to follow the discussion with understanding, clarity, and not a little bit of excitement, as theories newly discovered and articulated were placed into a bigger picture.

When it comes to listening to other people’s beliefs, I hold two things to be true for how I listen. I do not care much to judge what they think, so long as they do think, and it is the mind that does the measuring. I watch with interest the struggle between original thought and the fact that one must always stand on one set of beliefs to even be able to critique another. No matter how groundbreaking your ideas, you have to hold convictions to argue. You mine your own culture of understanding, speaking and listening in the very language you use to communicate your message, the forum in which you preach your message and the audience who hear your message.

Thus when I witness the religious, the philosophical and the scientific turn their considerable gazes into the dark of the start and the finish of our brief burst of existence, I am conscious that it is a gaze whose conclusions are interpreted by the limited spectrum of experience, cognition and communication. Beautiful as inquiry and speculation is, between Mute Creation and the God of the gaps in our understanding stands the Word, and the Word means something different to everyone who uses and hears it.

To me the most humanist aspects of each set of beliefs speak of three pillars, not three schisms. Science speaks in terms of rigour of inquiry into the real, Philosophy in terms of individual vision and speculative progress, Religion in terms of selfless connection with the past, present and future. I do not see that these three sets of belief cannot work together, especially as all serve humanity; humanity is, after all their creator, their subject and their future.

The beauty of love for humanity is that no matter the limitations of the people involved, it flourishes. It is fed by the energy that the words that we use try to capture, the human yearning towards the unknown. The two Abbots and the Professor were very clearly lovers of humanity, and the words they used enlightened and enlightening. They covered a lot of ground, which simply exposed even more areas of interest for the inquiring mind. The respect they had for the differing ideologies of their fellow speakers was palatable, speaking of the tolerance of believers who believed in belief, not in beliefs.

When the bird freezes against the smoke-stained rafters of the mead-hall, solid and warm in the torchlight, I see the inescapable reality of the individual human. A jewel set firmly in the structures of culture, upbringing and fate. I believe in the primacy of the jewel however, not the setting. So I watch religion, philosophy and science competing to be the setting for the human experience of the future and I hope that the faiths will find common ground in a love for humanity, bending their faith to the facts of human existence and making the burst of life an experience that will engender love in all that witness its passage.

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