Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Everything is holy

In writing my book Climbing Brandon, I drew heavily upon the work of John Carey, a scholar of early Irish Christianity at University College Cork in Ireland. According to Carey, for the early Irish Christians exceptional events do not occur because of the interventions of a supernatural being who suspends the ordinary course of things, but rather because of the astonishing (and holy) potentialities inherent in nature itself. For the authors of the early Irish Christian texts, a reluctance to believe in "the full extravagant strangeness of existence" amounted to blasphemy, say Carey.

"The full extravagant strangeness of existence." I love that phrase. It should be engraved over the door of every science building in the world. And, as a matter of fact, something similar was carved over the door of the physics building at UCLA where I spent two years as a graduate student, Michael Faraday's familiar epigram: "Nothing is too wonderful to be true."

Most religious people look for confirmation of their God in miraculous exceptions to nature's laws -- water to wine, resurrection from the dead, answered prayers, and so on. For the early Irish Christians, still in thrall to their druidic past, God was to be discovered in the extraordinary quality of ordinary events -- the rising and setting of the Sun, the call of the cuckoo, the rainbow, the aurora, the dew on the grass.

The full extravagant strangeness of existence! I was thinking of that phase a few days ago when I held the walking stick insect in my hand. Who needs miracles when every jot and tittle of existence is shot through with glory? We should walk through the world with our jaws agape, breathless, singing alleluias. What the early Irish Christians had in common with modern scientists is a willingness to admit our ignorance about the greatest mysteries, and a sense of dumbstruck awe in the presence of the commonplace.