Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Tao that cannot be told

Yesterday's post on drawing theological conclusions from the big bang prompts a rerun of a post from a year or so ago, that might be a sort of manifesto for this site:
Who am I? Why am I here? What does it all mean? The Big Questions. There was a time in my life, as a youngster, when I was happy to be given answers. Now I am content to say "I don't know."

I want instead answers to the Little Questions. How do the enzymes in every cell of my body build proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids? How do helium atoms form carbon in the cores of stars? How does a hummingbird hover?

"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao," wrote Lao Tzu, two-and-a-half thousand years ago. "The name that can be named is not the eternal name." Let me celebrate here what can be told and named.
Celebrating what can be told and named may be the best way humans have of honoring the untold, unnamed eternal. Naming the eternal, especially giving it those qualities that we see in ourselves -- personhood, intelligence -- strikes me as idolatrous. And looking for proofs of God in the singularities and gaps of science -- the big bang, for example -- has a history of failure. Singularities have a way of becoming plural, and gaps of being filled. More to the point, today's favored theory can be tomorrow's approximation.

The same can be said for those scientists who would turn a scientific theory -- neo-Darwinism, say -- into an "eternal Tao." Newton's mechanics stood as a pillar of science for two centuries until it was found to be a limiting case of a more general theory. Darwinism may have the same fate. Hubris becomes neither scientists nor theologians.

What was it Rilke said in the Ninth Duino Elegy? "Perhaps we are here only to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate." And with that, we'll lay the subject to rest for a while.