Science, Religion, and the Sacred


David Abram has introduced the notion of an ecological truth into philosophy. The idea is that whether or not something is epistemologically true is less relevant than the question of whether or not a particular stance towards the world leads to narratives, technologies, and actions (or inactions) that benefit the living land, including the human community. Another way of saying this is that epistemological truths and ecological truth are of a different analytical order. Ecological truth conceptually surpasses epistemological notions on truth. The literal truth of a statement becomes derivative of the relational truth of practices. A scientific theory can be true in the narrower understanding of the word, in the sense that it manages to establish a correlation of facts, or numbers, in that it makes a true statement. But this epistemological truth may still ultimately be deemed false when it gives rise to destructive actions.

Some of the more recent triumphs of the abstracting, reductionist method coupled with the ideology of anthropocentrism include the accumulation of plastics in the ocean, or ocean acidification, or factory farming. These are strong indicators that industrial civilization is not currently living in truth but rather in a state of large-scale, institutionalized denial. They are also indicators that the coupling of the method with the ideology is problematic. Framed as a problem of knowledge and wisdom, we can say that ecological truth becomes a possibility only when the search for knowledge – science – and the love of wisdom – philosophy – engage one another in a larger conversation.

Ecological truth can emerge only in concrete circumstances, in specific watersheds, mountain valleys, floodplains, forest communities, river deltas, or coastal strips. And so the conversation must necessarily fluctuate between the abstract and the concrete, between the conceptual and the phenomenological. Edward Casey has written: “To be is to be in place … There is no being except being in place. Put the other way around, there is no utterly placeless existing … To be a sentient, bodily being at all is to be place-bound, bound to be in a place, bonded and bound therein.”[1] Casey’s insight leads to questions that science cannot answer, for there is no space within science to even ask them: What is our place in the world? In what ways is our sense of identity wound up with a specific river or mountain range or lake or medieval old town, or even with a particular tree or rock? What becomes of ourselves when the places in which we are fully ourselves are spoiled by toxic waste, or destroyed by development projects? These are questions specific, qualitative. But the scientific method left on its own can only lead to abstract knowledge and abstract action. And more often than not, such abstraction leads to alienation, ignorance, impoverishment. But the world – and all of us who dwell within its depth – is never abstract and always particular. The strength of the scientific gaze is its ability to reduce out of infinite information that which is relevant for asking specific, objective questions. Its weakness is its intrinsic blindness for the necessity to reweave what knowledge it has gained back into the fabric of the living world. This remains the province of philosophy. It is up to philosophy to ask, what is appropriate? What is decent? Only together the love of wisdom and the search for knowledge will be able to image what it means to be good citizens in the planetary community.

Let us frame this somewhat differently. When the scientific method was conceived 400 years ago, it came in part as a response to social upheaval and, indeed, crisis. The Reformation and the consequent breakup of the church led to the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), which left Europe a ravaged battlefield. A third of all human lives had been lost to the war, and the property damage was massive. Millions more fell victim to plagues and famines that swept across the continent. The days of Newton, Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo were marked by the near-total collapse of medieval certainties, and sensations of vulnerability and insecurity took hold among their contemporaries. It was out of these circumstances that the scientific revolution grew forth. The search was on for a new certainty, a new basis for truth that would no longer be based on religious faith sustained by mere dogma. Instead, the ambition was to found knowledge on reason alone.[2] And so from the start science set itself up in a dual opposition to the church. Its claim was to offer a narrative that would be more plausible than the one that was beginning to fall from grace. More than that, it would make the religious sphere redundant to human affairs, fulfilling in its place that “millenarian promise of restored perfection” that Bacon prophesized, a promise the church had apparently failed to deliver. But in the early 21st century we know too well that science too has failed to restore that perfection. We also know that Nietzsche notwithstanding, God has never been dead. The religious sphere prevails, and like science, it is now engaged in a thorough meditation on its place in a time when, as David Abram has said, a new sense of sacredness is struggling to be born once more in the midst of our own culture.[3]

I once asked a class of graduate students, what does the word ‘sacred’ mean to you? We had not met one another before. I told them I asked the question for two reasons. First, because I cared to hear their reflections on it. And second, because I wanted to avoid the usual round of introductions in academic circles, where we are trained to listing the triad of our names, origin, and the discipline within which we work, and where the implication is that we now can put an easy label to everyone around the table. “Ah, that’s Rupert, the South African geographer speaking. I see where this is going…” I told them I wanted us to avoid labels. I asked them to listen to whomever was speaking.

One woman began. She told us her name and that she was from North America. Then she spoke of the ocean. Another woman introduced herself, then spoke about mountains. A man from Ethiopia said the most sacred thing to him was the Christian God. One man said that there is nothing other in the world sacred to him than human agency. A man from Norway agreed with the Ethiopian and spoke of his own relationship with the Christian faith. Another, when it was his turn, blushed and said that he was a little embarrassed. He looked as if he wanted to speak on, so we waited. Then he said, “Many of you folks have such grand ideas. All can think of is … my family.” I replied: “Let me get this straight. Are you telling us that you apologize because you hold your family to be sacred?” He laughed. We all laughed. So it went.

We noticed something that morning. A theme kept coming up. “There is something … I haven’t thought about it, but … it’s religious, somehow.” “The sensation of standing at the beach … for me that’s a religious experience.” “I was born in Norway. Walking in the mountains gives me the sensation of being immersed in something beyond myself. I am not speaking for anyone else, but personally I would call that a religious experience.” “For me, it’s my Christian faith that makes me feel part of something larger than myself.”

‘Religion’, the word, is derived from the Latin religāre – to re-unite. Religious experiences, it seems, are those in which we spontaneously see ourselves as part of something that is beyond ourselves. We also saw that morning that such experiences appear to be relatively common and not exclusive to any particular cultural interpretation or liturgical tradition. Gathered around the table that morning were agnostics, believers, scientists, humanists. And with the exception of the one brave man who stood his ground in his personal belief that only humans are sacred, there was an astonishing variety on the common theme that the sacred can somehow be encountered through religious experiences, through finding oneself immersed in something far greater than oneself.

We made two more observations that morning: first, that these experiences are often ephemeral, evasive, that they seem to have a tendency to withdraw from our gaze when we try to give words to them. And second, that when encouraged to reflect on them just the same, we can be remarkably insightful about these experiences, despite their evasiveness.

How is this relevant to the present discussion?

Once the ideological flotsam and jetsam is sifted out of science’s way of knowing, we see that science and religious experiences do not stand against one another in dualistic antagonism, as much as they complement one another. It is first and foremost a scientific statement – not an ideological one – that being human, we are entirely interconnected with the larger living planet. And consider: Religious experiences appear to verify this scientific insight experientially.

This is slippery ground, because the word ‘religious’ can be an easy trigger word for strong emotional responses against any earnest discussion of the relationship between science and felt experience. But so be it. It may be necessary to take a few deliberate steps onto the ice. The point here is to dwell for a while on the original meaning of the word.

Here is yet another frame for the discussion. For the last few days I have been looking at a photograph of the planet Earth. It is an iconic image, known as Blue Marble. For some reason I keep coming back to the image. It intrigues me. There, at a single glance, I see all of southern Europe, southern Russia, the middle East, the Arabian peninsula, India’s west coast. I see all of Africa, including Madagascar. All around the landmasses, I see the great expanse of the planet’s oceans. It seems the photograph was taken at a time when it was summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere, for the Arctic region is bathed in sunlight, while Antarctica at the opposite end disappears in the earth’s night shadow.

I put the picture aside. After some days I am drawn back to it.

Now I discover that there are no clouds above the entire Sahara. Further south, I see thick bands of white clouds throughout the tropical rainforests. Then again few clouds from there until South Africa. The northern hemisphere is relatively clear. Nearly all the ocean skies in the southern hemisphere, on the other hand, are interspersed with puffy streaks of white. I follow the weather patterns across the oceans and the land; I travel with the air. And still I wonder, what is it about this picture that keeps drawing me to it?

Another day I find it strange how I cannot see a single trace of human life on the photograph. What I see is a participation between land and oceans in which water and air appear to be the single-most decisive agents. The air looks to be the great conveyor belt, invisible, but the medium with which water is able to travel landward. And there, on land, life appears to be where water is, and water, where life is. The absence of one seems to be in direct reciprocal relationship with the absence of the other. I put the picture aside, I ponder what I see. I go about my day.

Still another day I stumble head-on into this paradoxical observation: the method that revolves intrinsically around cutting objects to pieces has given me the most powerful image of unity that I have ever seen. Without the scientific gaze, there would not have been the infrastructure to extract the energy to power the rocket to shoot the guy with the camera so far up into space that his lens was able to capture, in a single frame, the entire planet. And now, here before me, I see: how round the planet is. The experience of beholding the photograph becomes at once scientific and religious: Here I see with my own eyes the largest possible extension of myself. It is at the same time concrete and allegoric, an image that directly converges knowledge with the call to wisdom: Always consider the roundness of the earth.

I decide it is time to put the picture away again. It may be premature to rush to conclusions.

Related link: Linear Narratives, Cyclical Narratives (Essay)

[1] in: Bruce V. Foltz & Robert Frodeman (eds). 2004. Rethinking Nature. Essays in Environmental Philosophy. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

[2] Chellis Glendinning. 1994. My Name is Chellis, And I’m in Recovery from Industrial civilization. Gabriola Island, BC: Canada.

[3] Abram 2012, lecture in Oslo.