Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The courage to be

In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the ever-engaging biologist Richard Lewontin takes on the question: What drives the Christian Right's obsession with evolution?

It cannot be fidelity to scriptures, says Lewontin. Physics, astronomy and geology are no less in conflict with a literal interpretation of Genesis, yet there is no equivalent attempt to introduce creationism into the teaching of these subjects. Nor is right wing politics the driving force; Christian fundamentalists have been inconstant in their politics.

Lewontin writes: "What is at issue here is whether the experience of one's family, social, and working life, with its share of angst, pain, fatigue, and failure, can provide meaning in the absence of a belief in an ordained higher purpose. The continued appeal of a story of a divine [special] creation of human life is that it provides, for those for whom the ordinary experience of living does not, a seductive relief from what Eric Fromm called the Anxiety of Meaninglessness."

If memory serves me right, it was Paul Tillich, not Fromm, who coined the phrase "anxiety of meaninglessness," but I think Lewontin is right in his analysis. Tillich wrote: "The anxiety of meaninglessness is anxiety about the loss of ultimate concern, of a meaning which gives meaning to all meanings. This anxiety is aroused by the loss of a spiritual center, of an answer, however symbolic and indirect, to the question of the meaning of existence."

As an antidote to the anxiety of meaninglessness Tillich offered "the courage to be."

He wrote: "Everyone who lives creatively in meanings affirms himself as a participant in these meanings...The scientist loves both the truth he discovers and himself insofar as he discovers it...This is what one can call 'spiritual self-affirmation.' And if he has not discovered but only participates in the discovery, it is equally spiritual self-affirmation. Such an experience presupposes that the spiritual life is taken seriously."

Those of us who embrace the empirically real as the basis for our ultimate concern may in fact be more anxious than those who place their hopes and fears into the hands of a Supreme Being. But we relish the creative transformation of "the ordinary experience of living" into something fulfilling and hopeful. And we cherish in ourselves and in others, to the extent that we can find it, the "courage to be."