Monday, September 10, 2007

Inscape

I mentioned here the other day the title of my forthcoming book: When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy. I have used the phrase before, as brome grass discovered. What do I mean?

I carry from my Catholic upbringing a deep sense of grace and the holy. In the theology of my youth, grace was a gratuitous gift from God, and nothing was holy that did not partake of God's goodness. We were taught to seek grace and experience the holy by focussing our attention on things supernatural: our immortal souls and the Divine Presence. Nature, and especially our bodies, was corrupted by Original Sin, and must be subdued by acts of self-abnegation. All sense of holiness was directed out of the creation onto the Creator, who we were taught to imagine as a person, no doubt for the reason that no other metaphor is so ancient and close at hand.

With the study of science I discovered that reliable evidence for a personal God, miracles, and immortal souls was nonexistent. Can grace and a sense of the holy be salvaged from the wreck of traditional theology?

I now understand grace to be those moments of personal ravishment that come now and then unbidden, from a source that remains hidden -- call it, if you wish, the Deus absconditus, the absconded God. If science has taught us anything, it is awareness of our ignorance. The more we learn of the universe, the more conscious we become of the depths of our unknowing, and of the shallowness of any anthropomorphic metaphor for mystery. I cannot tell you why -- perhaps our brains are wired that way -- but now and then, we experience the profundity of the mystery that surrounds us, what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the "inscape" of things. It flares out, "like shining from shook foil." There is nothing supernatural about this; it is simply an awareness of the prodigality of the natural world and the limitations of human knowing.

And the holy? To experience the world as holy is to experience it wholly, to grasp intuitively the depth and breadth and width of it. This does not mean running away from the world, but engaging with it ever more fully. To understand, for example, that every atom in my body was forged among the stars, that consciousness itself is an efflorescence of starlight. Science is not a distraction from the holy; it is revelation itself.

Grace and a sense of the holy are too preciously a part of the human interaction with the world to be wrapped up in anthropomorphic theologies and set over and against the creation. And -- irony of ironies -- this is something I carried away from the Catholicism of my youth.