Saturday, September 04, 2010

This knowing that unknows

It is one thing to say that all there is is the natural world, the universe of space and time, the myriad galaxies that astound us with their multitude -- as does our commenter Paul, whose robust agnosticism I greatly respect. Yet there remains the ever-nagging why.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are the laws of nature what they are? Why does the contemplation of this tiny spider mite crawling across my desk excite a sense of something deep and mysterious beyond my knowing?

The why has no answer, at least none that we yet know, and perhaps none that we will ever know, the universe being perhaps infinite and our brains (and their artificial extensions) finite.

So we are left with only the questions.

And they are the same questions that from time immemorial, in every culture, have given rise to the gods of myth. So universal has been our thrall to the gods that the very word -- god -- can be taken as a placeholder for the answers that lie beyond our reach.

To evoke the word "god" then -- for a naturalist -- is to assert a continuity with the history of our species -- the impulsive curiosity, the ceaseless questioning, the wonderment in the face of the sheer gratuitousness of existence.

Paul is certainly correct that the word comes burdened with such encrustations of anthropomorphic myth and sectarian certainty that its use requires careful annotation. But to forego the word entirely means cutting the threads that bind us heart to heart, mind to mind, with the first Homo sapiens who looked into the night sky or into an infant's eyes and asked "Why?"

I'll take the risk of being misunderstood in order to draw upon the best of the traditions that made me what I am. My book Honey From Stone, published 23 years ago, was subtitled "A Naturalist's Search for God." The g-word appears only once in the book, in the final paragraph (I have been musing on the star Vega):
A grainy stuttering of light on a photograph -- knowledge condensing from a sea of mystery, extending the shore along which we might encounter God. (Can that ancient, much abused word still have currency in an age of science? Perhaps not. But let it stand, like a distant horizon, like a foreign shore.) Este saber no sabiendo, "this knowing that unknows," is what John of the Cross called it, the knowing that takes place just here on the surface of the eye where Vega and the thought of Vega are one. Photons of radiant energy stream across the light-years, wind-whipped whitecaps of visible light and the longer swells of the infrared, to fall upon the Earth out of the dark night -- denying, revealing, hiding, making plain. I am soaked by starlight; I am blown by a stellar wind. I am bent low in that downpour of revelation.