Thursday, September 02, 2010

Desert places

If there is a cognitive disconnect in contemporary culture it is between cosmic space and time and human space and time.

Those folks who can seriously grasp the scale and age of the universe, with its tens of billions of observable galaxies and billions of years of evolutionary time, and still believe the universe (or its Maker) attends to them personally -- well, they are more daring thinkers than me. Or more credulous.

Which is why, I suppose that nearly half of Americans believe the universe is less than ten thousand years old -- which is to say, that cosmic history and human history are the same. As for the physical scale of the universe, most people simply put it out of their minds. Conceptually, they choose to live in the cozy cosmic egg of Dante, as if half a millennium of science never happened.

And why not? The vast empty, silent spaces can be frightening. And it's not just that. It's also being cut adrift from our historical moorings, thousands of years of animistic and anthropomorphic tradition, thousands of years of living cheek-by-jowl with the gods. As the Roman Catholic priest Thomas Berry said, the older stories have become dysfunctional, but we have not yet contrived an equally satisfying new story to take their place.

Berry tried, valiantly and well. Teilhard de Chardin tried. But they were fighting an uphill battle against the light-years and the eons, against Robert Frost's exterior and interior "desert places."

But maybe the story we are looking for has been here all along, in the mystical tradition of the absconded god, the god who is not this and is not that, who hides in a cloud of unknowing, who eludes even the personal pronoun "who." "What makes the desert beautiful," said Antoine se Saint-Exupery's Little Prince, "is that somewhere it hides a well."