Thursday, March 11, 2010

Different Takes on the Raw Stuff

Christopher Reiger
"submerged in his erotic mystification"
Watercolor, gouache, sumi ink and marker on Arches paper
32 x 32 inches

I'm pleased to announce that one of my 2009 paintings, "submerged in his erotic mystification," is reproduced in the March/April 2010 issue of Tikkun Magazine. If you're unfamiliar with Tikkun, it's a west coast-based magazine founded by Rabbi Michael Lerner and dedicated to exploring the intersection of politics, spirituality, and culture. While it has Jewish roots (hence the magazine's name), it is an inter-faith publication with a diverse group of secular and religious contributors. The March/April issue includes a special section entitled "God and the 21st Century," featuring articles by seventeen writers, including the esteemed Rabbi Arthur Green, a scholar whose stripe of mystical panentheism resonates with my theological convictions.

My artwork accompanies one of the many articles included in "God and the 21st Century." Respected law critic Peter Gabel's "A Call For Sacred Biologists" explores the gulf between a strictly rational, scientific world view and that of, for lack of a better description, holistic panentheism. I allude to this same schism in my artist statement.
"[I]ncidentally, we've realized that the divide between the imagination and reason is unnatural. The English poet and critic, John Ruskin, alluded to this schism when he wrote of 'the broken harmonies of fact and fancy, thought and feeling, and truth and faith.' Indeed, although we today learn an increasing number of facts about Nature, we understand ourselves to be apart from it, and our experience of it is therefore less complete. My artwork is born of this apparent opposition."
Gabel's subject is near and dear to me, but his language unfortunately suggests that he has a deep-seated mistrust of, as he puts it, "the so-called 'scientific method'." (Italics mine.)

In the myopic, yet much ballyhooed skirmish between science and religion, I reside in the middle, as frustrated by the rabidly anti-religious as I am disturbed by and opposed to religious literalists and fundamentalists. Gabel, while not a religious literalist, uses language that apparently misunderstands scientific endeavor. For example, he insists that we need evolutionary biologists "who connect the sacred within themselves to the sacred dimension of what they observe." If he means that we need more leading scientists to openly discuss the awe and wonder they experience through their observation of the material world, he needn't worry. Many scientists are more than happy to wax poetic about the wonders of life and the universe; stand outs include Loren Eiseley, Carl Sagan, E.O. Wilson, Thomas Eisner, and Janna Levin. If, however, Gabel is suggesting that evolutionary biologists should champion mysticism, orthogenesis (1), or notions of "a master plan," he is expressing an essentially irrational and anti-scientific bias. Biologists must be vigilant to not allow spirituality to cloud their work. By all means, biologists can be deeply religious or spiritual people, but, for science to remain legitimate, the method and its language must be materialist and reductionist. (If scientific endeavor is mixed with mysticism, it becomes pseudo-science or, put another way, bunk.)

At the article's close, Gabel writes that "the theory of evolution [must] align itself with the truth that spirit and matter form an indissoluble unity." To the contrary, the theory of evolution needn't make any attempt to "align itself" with spirituality; it is its own truth, a scientific truth. As Rabbi Green writes in the same special section,
"I recognize fully and without regret that theology is an art, not a science. We people of faith have nothing we can prove; attempts to do so only diminish what we have to offer. We can only testify, but never prove."
Exactly right!

As I wrote on this blog in late 2008, in an essay about the artwork of Matthew Day Jackson,
"At their respective best, both science and religion (re)awaken or invigorate our capacity for wonder. Each makes use of a different approach, but they are complementary. As Albert Einstein famously said, 'Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.' The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called the two 'non-overlapping magisteria' because good science trades in facts to explain material phenomena, whereas religion traffics in the unverifiable and the unobservable. Where science seeks to demystify, and to build on each subsequent revelation to learn more, religion aims to make sacred that which is taken for granted, to make the ordinary again extraordinary. Both, however, offer frameworks of engaging our astonishing existence and experience. Both are compelled by curiosity and wonder. As Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the Enlightenment writer-philosopher, argued, if God held in one hand the Entire Truth and in the other the Eternal Pursuit of Truth, a good man will choose the latter. The same is true of authentic scientists and religious thinkers. The methodology and particulars may differ, but both science and religion are realms of the question. Although the popular conception of the scientist is the white-coated statistician ready to provide any and all answers, the caricature is misleading. It is 'normative in science to be not sure,' as Jessica Palmer put it doing the ScienceBlogs panel. Science, like religion, is a matryoshka doll, a series of questions nested within questions.

Gould considered art and philosophy magisteria unto themselves, but, unlike religion and science, each overlaps the other. Where these two overlapping sections meet, we find ourselves in the realm of what the artist-writer Paul Laffoley calls the mesoteric. In Laffoley's cosmology, the circle of religion, dealing as it does with questions of ultimate meaning, is dubbed the esoteric realm. The circle of science, focused on material truths and the observable world, he labels the exoteric realm. The mesoteric realms. art and philosophy, bridge the esoteric and exoteric. Whereas Gould posits that the magisteria of religion and science are nonoverlapping, I would argue that, where their circles meet, the membrane is permeable. This bleeding of one into the other represents the pinnacle of art and philosophy."
Rather than demand that science couch its truths in the language of the sacred or demand that religion dress its Truth in the language of scientist, why not understand each as complementary, distinct practice of awe? In a recent post on NPR's "Cosmos and Culture" blog, astrophysicist Adam Frank writes,
"I believe it is possible, and necessary, to see science and human spiritual endeavor through an alternative perspective. That perspective would acknowledge the truths each can reveal and avoid jealous comparison of those truths. [...] Our elemental encounter with the world, the raw stuff of experience, was just as vivid and strange to our ancestors as it is to us now if we are willing to pay attention. They felt awe and wonder beneath the dark weight of the night sky, in the deep quiet at the forest's edge or in the shock of infant's birth wail. Those experiences drove our ancestors, as [they drive] us, to an all important aspiration, a desire to draw closer to the source of that tremendous awe. That aspiration - what I call the Constant Fire - contains the original and braided roots of science and religion. [...] That aspiration is, for me, a road less traveled in the discussions of science and religion. If we were to follow it and to ask what is common, not in results about the world but in the deeply felt response to it, who knows where we might be led?"
Beautifully stated, Dr. Frank!

My rather particular problems with Gabel's article aside, the March/April issue of Tikkun includes excellent pieces by Rabbi Arthur Green, David Loy, Shaul Magid, and others.

(1) Like Gabel, I'm warm to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's concept of orthogenesis, the "hypothesis that life has an innate tendency to move in a unilinear fashion," increasing in complexity. When people speak of "the universe becoming aware of itself," they are expressing an essentially teleological sentiment and, while many contemporary scientists will acknowledge that such a notion is possible, it is wholly unquantifiable and therefore not legitimate science. It is best classified as theology. It is important to note, however, that de Chardin was a Jesuit priest as well as a serious paleontologist and geologist. He did not believe the scientific method to be at odds with a sense of belonging, wonder, or, in his words, "the within of things." Rather, de Chardin recognized science as kin to the arts, philosophy, and theology; it is another tool for our species' exploration of the evolving universe we inhabit.


Donald Frazell said...

One can certainly bring more than just the Abrahamic religions into the discussion. Those which have lasted, and even a few which were overwhelmed such as Zoroastrianism, have much to add, there very existence after millenia reveals their bonding and growth of man, their worth as connection of man, nature and god proven.

Buddhism has its own version, in breaking down the fuzzy boundaries between the three that an indivdual may become one with the all, and so achieve Buddhahood.

Taosim gives the yang-yin, not opposites, but two natures of man and the world, light and dark, male and female, growth and rest. But it is not truly either or, or two faces staring in different directions, like Janus. It is actually three, all facing one another in a dance of life. I have found very few things to be either/or, most do involve three possible origins or forces, to understand the field created by them, and find where one is in life.

The yin-yang has two flowing complementary shapes, yet dots that can be man, seperate yet involved in the forces of god and nature. To be the whole one must be apart of gods creation hee, and find ones way through purpose. To achieve balance. Yet also sometimes three symbols are used, perhaps more true, if not realistic of how we Want to see the universe. Three flowing shapes circling, of different natures yet encircled as a whole, humanity/philosophy, nature/science, and god/theology.

Interestingly enough, one can see this in the Christian trinity as well. God the father and creator, our Universe, Yeshua the son, humanity, and the Holy Spirit, our immaterial bonding. This is seldom seen this way, but most certainly is implied, and as religions all evolve as we understand ourselves,and our world better, to discover the principles underneath is gods revelation of purpose. They are complementary and not opposed forces.

Donald Frazell said...

This is where art steps in, to reveal visually, or musically or poeticaly with words that evoke emotions and passion laden images, that which cannot be done with reason, that which is felt, but not seen. That which give purpose, but not ever comprehending mentally why. Art hs a task to do, a role in culture, to resolve the supposed contradictions from out limited knowledge and understanding, and FEEL oneness. A triggering mechanism to wholeness.

Man is but a flabby organic beast. our minds but fat filled, chemically enduced electronically sparking cobwebs of connections and faulty sensation gathering devices. Our eyes,hands,ears, tongues and noses gather information, yet far from perfect. Who knows? Some other creature out there may have six actual senses or more and so understand on a higher level than us. We are stuck with them, yewt should relish their wonderful variety and pleasurable sensation they give us. Allah akbar.

Yet, they are not perfect, nor where they connect, we have not evolve into a higher form, we are still human. One also ruled by hormones, as the brain is but a development at the end of our nervous system, which makes us one. They canot be seperated from the body. This is gods gift, relish it. But we must understand ourselves first, our strengths and limitations. We are but a measuring device, not the measure of life, but a creature that learns but exploring our world, we did not create it.

Our understanding of god evolves as does our culture, the accumulation of mankinds thoughts, feelings and deeds. Mind, body and soul. Limitations are against god, for they diminish our Purpose, to grow and evolve as a species. Not for the individual over the whole.

There is wokre to be done, we are at a time of crisis, of finding who WE are. An era has ended, that of cheap energy adn resourcs, where we expanded, but have now reached the end of materilism. We must find common Purpose to survive as a species, that is now our primary goal. It msut be, to bond as one, and art is called upon once more to perfrom it task in human culture. It is NOT culture itself, but one worker among many. Its time to put aside childish things, and be of worth to mankind again.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Agreed. I certainly didn't mean to consider only the Abrahamic faiths' relationship to science, nor do I believe that Gabel intended to do so.

And, yes, Taoist philosophy is valuable to any and all. I happily read and ruminated on the Tao Te Ching, even when I was a loud-and-proud anti-religion atheist. Frankly, many of the ideas fundamental to Taoism (and, to some extent, Buddhism) have been integrated into the Abrahamic traditions, especially among the so-called "liberal religious." As you write, "our understanding of god evolves as does our culture, the accumulation of mankinds thoughts, feelings and deeds."