Saturday, June 21, 2008

Este saber no sabiendo

In his book on the 16th-century Carmelite mystic John of the Cross, Iain Matthew summarizes the saint's message this way: "Something is taking place, and it is important to be part of it."

It is a concise summary of the religious impulse, broad enough and vague enough to embrace the faith of a devout Jew, Christian or Muslim, and that of the religious naturalist. When a William James or a Daniel Dennett looks for the natural origins of religion, he ultimately comes face to face with the fact that human consciousness, by its very nature, senses more to reality than meets the eye, and feels a need to acknowledge the mystery.

Unlike the traditional believer, the religious naturalist accepts the intuition of mystery, as part of what it means to be human, but refuses to put a name to it, or especially a human face -- personhood, love, justice, anger, artifice. In this, we are not so different from John of the Cross, who never failed to emphasize the hiddenness -- the unknowability -- of God.
Where have you hidden away,
lover, and left me grieving, care on care?
...imploring the empty air.
No sign for me to mark,
no other light, no guide/
except for my heart--
the fire, the fire inside.
But the air is not empty. As I sit at my window here in the west of Ireland showers come streaming off the Atlantic, wave after wave of misty air dragged up from the tropics by currents in the sea. Rainbows appear and vanish like a magician's colored silks. And in that air, invisible, photons, neutrinos, cosmic rays, messages from galaxies flung like sea spray across the universe. Something is taking place, right here before my eyes. Something of which I have only the faintest intuition, but which science amplifies. Something it is important to be a part of.
Wings flickering here and there,
lion and gamboling antler, shy gazelle,
peak, precipice, and shore,
flame, air, and flooding well.
For John of the Cross, prayer went beyond praise, petition, or begging for forgiveness. His prayer sprang from the impulse to be a part of, to join self with the beloved. The religious naturalist would call it simply paying attention.