Saturday, November 01, 2008

Mortal soul 11 -- The loving gaze

The Victorian critic John Ruskin wrote: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way." Our first instinct is to value thinkers above those who simply see and describe. Certainly, in science, it is the great theoreticians -- the Keplers, Maxwells and Darwins -- rather than the plodding observers, who garner most of the glory. But I think I agree with Ruskin. Thinking is idle unless it is based on careful observation of what is. That's why science is a source of reliable knowledge. Behind every Kepler there's a Tycho Brahe. Behind every Maxwell there's a Faraday. Behind every Darwin there's a -- a Darwin. Masters of the loving gaze. Seeing clearly, said Ruskin, is poetry, prophecy and religion rolled into one.

Among the mystical influences of my youth was the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a man who looked at the world with a scientist's eye and the poet's loving gaze. In The Mass on the World he wrote: "In the beginning, there was not coldness and darkness: There was the fire...The flame has lit up the whole world from within...from the inmost core of the tiniest atom to the mighty sweep of the most universal laws of being." It has been almost half a century since I first read those words in the early 1960s as a young graduate student in physics, but I remember the tingle they sent up my spine, the exhilaration. A world lit up from within! Oh, yes, I knew "fire" was a metaphor, but here was a metaphor that fed my sense of mystery, a flickering effervescence, permanent and ephemeral all at once, so different from the dry and static world of the physics texts. "Mass on the world." Mass on the world! Teilhard offered a cosmic vision that resonated with the sensual Catholicism of my youth -- bread, wine, wax, flame, chrism, water, and incense, wedded to the adamantine laws of nature I was learning in the science classroom. This was the theology I had been waiting for, a God that was indistinguishable from the creation, a God that invited oneinto the creation, a God that could be approached through the senses -- sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Not a God out there who intrudes willfully in the world, sends blessings and catastrophes, and hears and answers prayers. Rather a wholly hidden God who lit up my physics texts from within and set my soul afire.

Then, just a few years later, in 1965, physicists discovered the cosmic background radiation, the whisper of the big bang, the electromagnetic signature of the primeval fire. And Teilhard seemed to have anticipated it. That gentle Jesuit mystic, he of the loving gaze, offered his Church a vision of divinity that rested well with the unfolding cosmology of the physicists. He died in 1955, in exile, with much of his life's work officially censored by the Church he had served. Near the end of his life, he wrote: "How is it possible that I am so incapable of passing on to others...the vision of the marvelous unity in which I find myself immersed?"

The ancient Celts of Ireland believed there is a mysterious power afoot in the landscape, sometimes called neart. Neart is everywhere -- in sky, Sun, Moon, earth, sea, animal, plant, stone. Even the gods, it seems, were caught up in the web. Neart was not so much something one thought about as felt -- sensed as one sometimes senses a presence in a dark room at night. In certain places and at certain times the felt presence is especially strong -- in forest glades, perhaps, or by a deep, clear pool. I don't want to romanticize, as many do, the notion of Celtic spirituality. But the idea of neart has a resonance for me, and is not so far removed from the faith of a religious naturalist. Neart is imminent, yet mysterious, broadened, not diminished, by knowledge. Addressed, if at all, by a kind of inarticulate awe, attended by the loving gaze. It is not enlightenment one feels in the presence of neart; rather, one is reminded of one's ignorance. Most of all, one feels caught up in something that reaches into (or out of) every part of one's being, not just the reason, or the will, or self-awareness, but the senses, the viscera, the lusts and longings, the stirrings and windings in every cell of one's body. There are no dogmas in the faith of a religious naturalist. No public liturgies. We have no bishops, rabbis or imams. We walk wary, as likely as not in solitude and silence, attentive to the world, conscious of its unplumbed depths. Neart is not something we read about in holy books, or hear about in sermons. In it, we live, and move, and have our being.