Monday, December 14, 2009

Under the suns of heaven

A decade of so before he died, in 2006 at age 71, the Irish writer John McGahern wrote of his Catholic childhood: "I have nothing but gratitude for the spiritual remnants of that upbringing, the sense of our origins beyond the bounds of sense, an awareness of mystery and wonderment, grace and sacrament, and the absolute equality of all women and men underneath the sun of heaven. That is all that now remains. Belief as such has long gone."

I trust his remark sounds familiar. You have often heard something similar here. McGahern is a year or two older than me. He was raised in the same RC culture, although, as we now know, the Irish schools were far grimmer places than parochial schools in America. Irish civil culture, too, was dominated by the Church in a way that was never part of my upbringing. But as for what we were taught in church and school, it was the same -- that uniquely Roman Catholic mix of pagan earthiness, Irish Jansenism, and supernaturalist theology.

There is no way to shed it all, even if I wanted too. Nor is there any need to. With McGahern, I value the awareness of mystery and wonderment I bear from my youth, the sense of grace and sacrament. I value too the pagan immersion in the thisness of the world -- light and dark, bread and wine, water and flame, wax and chrism. As for belief -- that creaky body of supernaturalist lore, the miracles, the petitionary prayers, the fairytale hagiography, the elaborate calculus of sin and salvation, the paternalism, the misogyny, the homophobia -- it's gone, all gone.

Consider this Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) from a few days ago, a Hubble near-infrared image of the same part of the sky as the visual Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF) photograph of 2004. (I have outlined the area of the new image on the HUDF below. Click to enlarge.) The infrared image is not quite as sharp, but shows even more distant galaxies from a time when the universe was only a few percent of its present age. With the exception of two foreground stars that show diffraction spikes, every blur or dot in the picture is a galaxy, a system of hundreds of billions of stars. All of this in a part of the sky that could be covered by the intersection of two crossed sewing pins held at arms length. Go out tonight and hold those pins up against the black night sky and imagine the tens of thousands of galaxies hiding there. Then know that you'd see the same thing looking in any direction into the night.

Anyone who can grasp what it is we are looking at and still believe that a personal creator of the whole shebang has communicated to them -- through whatever holy book, prophet, tradition, or accident of birth -- some body of revealed non-empirical supernatural truth, well, they are certainly more credulous than me.