Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ancient mother of the world -- Part 2

Nature loves to hide. The aphorism is attributed to Heraclitus, although it is difficult to know exactly what he meant. "Nature" is generally taken to signify the hidden something that gives form and structure to the world. A physicist might understand it to mean the elusive "theory of everything." Johannes Kepler, in his essay on the snowflake, referred to the facultas formatrix, or "formative capacity" of nature. For the religious person, the most concise name for the hidden creative agency is "God."

The idea that God loves to hide is common in many religious traditions of the world. Christian mystics speak of the Deus absconditus, the absconded or unknowable divinity. Call it if you want Deus absconditus or facultas formatrix; the medieval mystic and the modern physicist seek the same deeply hidden essence of creation.

The trouble comes when religious persons or scientists believe they have seen Isis in all her naked glory. The born-again Christian who claims to be a personal friend of the Creator, or the physicist who thinks we will soon know "the mind of God" are equally idolatrous.

In 384 C. E. the Christian emperor Gratian ordered the pagan Altar of Victory removed from the assembly hall of the Roman Senate. In an ecumenical spirit, the pagan politician Symmachus protested: "We contemplate the same stars, the heavens are common to all of us, and the same world surrounds us. What matters the path of wisdom by which each person seeks the truth? One cannot reach such a great mystery by a single path."

For his tolerance, Symmachus was banished from Rome.

Nature loves to hide. We have learned much, especially through the instrumentality of science; we have much, much more to learn. Our knowledge is finite; what we have yet to learn is perhaps infinite. The assumption of knowability has been the cause of centuries of grief. A little modest agnosticism would become us all.