Posts Tagged ‘SERMON: “Dog Paddling Across a Sea of Ignorance” by the not-so-reverend bob’

SERMON: “Dog Paddling Across a Sea of Ignorance” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

I heard a writer interviewed on Christian radio today who was talking quite frankly (for Christian radio) about the differences between male and female sexual response (in humans, I should say).  She said they were different in every imaginable way, and that the first question she was going to ask God (when she met Him in Heaven) was “…why he designed us so differently”.

The refreshing aspect of this radio interview was the recognition by this writer of certain biological realities (brought to light, no doubt, by careful scientific research).  The troubling aspect is the intellectual contortions that were required to torture these realities into an acceptable religious framework.  It made me think that one of the major requirements of religious belief is this constant reshaping of reality to belief, or belief to reality.  (Or perhaps this is really a second-level process of religious belief, to be incorporated only after outright denial has failed to keep reality at bay).

As I was enjoying these thoughts, it was natural to next challenge them as unfair and simplistic, and to therefore look for ways in which this sort of intellectual remodeling is not just limited to religion.

It is a feature of human consciousness to construct narratives about our lives, both large and small.  We seek cause behind every event that surprises us — that doesn’t fit within our understanding of “reality”.  God, it turns out, is a really, really useful device for this, for He can be generous one moment, stern the next, silent for long periods or too mysterious for our lowly, earthly minds to comprehend.  Perfect.

The "rev" having a "mountain top" experience!

But we don’t have to harbor belief in a literal God to make use of his (or her, or its) services.  We often toss out a phrase like “it was meant to be” when something has occurred that appears (from our limited perspective) to be fortuitous.  (Never mind that many that proclaim “I was saved for a reason” are usually describing their escape from a situation that claimed some number of other human lives, which would also, then, have to have not been spared for some equivalent “reason”).

As I’ve said before, I’m coming to realize that actual reality is so incredibly complex that there is rarely any way at all for us to fully comprehend the mixture of environment, action and biology that “makes” anything happen!

Science is the best tool we have for comprehending physical and biological reality.  But for science to be reliable, it must necessarily be narrow in its focus, meaning that each experiment must try hard to eliminate as many variables as possible in a highly-controlled environment.  This is why scientists are so circumspect in their proclamations, and why the press is always getting it wrong, pronouncing “cures” when in truth an experiment has shown that chemical compound A does this or that to cell B under these specific conditions.  Over time, of course, further experiments expand our knowledge so that we do end up knowing some things with a reliable degree of certainty.  But progress is slow and methodical, and not nearly as satisfying to a human mind that can trip more easily to a God that answers to all mystery in a much more satisfying (and immediate) way.

Now even the religious struggle with complexity, and experience periods of mental and emotional anguish as they work their way through a challenging life experience.  Often this occurs when an event comes that was “not supposed to happen” to someone who believed in God, and therefore their idea of what “can” happen to a believer is challenged and, thereby, stretched.  Religion is plastic in this way, which is one of the reasons it has survived the winnowing process of (what we could call) intellectual evolution.  Sure, belief in external and invisible intentional powers could almost be called an atavistic behavior in humans by those of us who have moved beyond it, but the very fact of religion’s ubiquity and persistence is testimony to an ancient-yet-still-satisfactory software functioning in the human consciousness.

Religious or not, we all need to make a way for ourselves in the reality of life as we experience it.  And part of that “making a way” is developing a mental construct that is able to handle the surprises and challenges of life in a fairly nimble way.  The major-brand choices on offer in this regard are generally sold as “Religion” and “Science”.  Both list their promised benefits, but not their weaknesses.  Religion points out that Science offers no consolation, and that it is therefore cold and heartless.  Science points out that Religion is based on “truths” that are unknowable and, well, “made up”, and is therefore ever at risk of causing harm to humans because of its un-moveable irrational beliefs.  In practice I think that most of us build a sort of hybrid of the two, taking what we need, as we need it, while ignoring the shrill demands from priest and researcher that the two don’t mix.  (Oil and water don’t mix either, but if you shake them enough you get Italian dressing…at least long enough to pour on your salad).

Now I’m of a different sort of mind, and have fought this idea that God must be retained as — at the very least — a receptacle for mystery.  I continue to feel that there is nothing in our experience that is not based in some physical or chemical process.  However, I have also read up enough on the current frontiers of science to be amazed at how complex actual biology and cosmology is, and have therefore become aware that my primate brain will never, ever, ever, know enough to know enough about my just my own individual life: I will die ignorant of so much that I will never even have a hint at.  But for me that does not lead back to God, and neither does it lead to an abandonment of science for not being all-knowing.  No, for me it leads to a frame of mind that accepts mystery as an acknowledgement of a vast ignorance that must ever be fed knowledge by the living with the understanding that that ignorance can only be diminished, not eliminated.

In this “mindset” there is, therefore, no shame and no false pride in being human: it is, in short, an acceptance of our reality.  After all, we’re the only animals in the game that give a shit about what’s behind it all (and on that score, maybe it’s high time the whales, dolphins, chimps and crows stopped goofing off all day, and began carrying their load of the research work!).

Unlike the writer referenced at the beginning of this sermon, we are able to understand that our sexually dimorphic traits, for example, are the products of millions of years of evolution (without having to hold the question of “why” for the afterlife).  We can appreciate the endless signs of our planet’s ancient geology that surround us without having to create tortured “Noah’s flood” explanations as to why there are petrified sea shells on top of mountains in Montana.  In short, we can skip the mental gymnastics and go straight to the delight in having eliminated one more small bit of our ignorance as we float through life on the ocean of that which we do not know.

t.n.s.r. bob