My Fall into Knowledge
DAILY, ever so and
in apparently alive in
causeless a place called
moments, “the world.”
of being –
odd- ever so briefly- alive in a place called “the world.” Whereupon the odd- ness in simultaneously feeling hyperordinary yet cosmic throws me into inter-
Recently, during just such a moment, and because I’m incorrigibly reli-
gious, I found myself wondering, “Throughout history, just how many creeds have there been? And the god population – how many deities, now or ever?” An accurate inventory would of course be impossible. Not only do eternal truths come and go, some gods take early retirement. Moreover, ancient tribes, whether of prehistoric Greece or North Americas Hopi mesas, occasionally adopted supernatural beings from neighboring peoples into their own cultures. That ecumenical outlook, plus the polytheism factor, means no census could be as simple as one religion, one god. Impossible seemed the right word.
Then, as if with a life of its own, the question kept widening: “How many gods are currently in service throughout this galaxy-rich universe?” And sud-
denly it dawned on me that I’d just invented a new field of study: astrotheol-
ogy. We already have astrobiology, in case some life-harboring, extraterrestrial
planet should be discovered. Sooner or later, where there’s life there will be divinities, a natural offshoot.
However, natural is as natural does. All it takes is a planet whose thinking species, upon looking around at the various life forms, concludes, instead of the usual “Som eone has done this,” that
” Something has done this.” The ultimate
principle of causation on that planet would be considered natural instead of supernatural.
My logic felt rock solid, but hairsplitters may quibble. In any case, future astrotheologians will surely pursue the quasi-infinite possibilities of this new
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field. Perhaps they will even conjecture a religious war on certain planets, with devotees of Someone-ism righteously deploying fire and sword to destroy for- ever the infidel Something-ists.
Apropos of the Big Questions, doesn’t every child eventually ask, “Mommy, where did I come from?” These days, however, with low-rider jeans, some moth- ers dressing their ten-year-old daughters like French tarts, boy-girl dialogues of
single entendre, and teens copulating as if humans were an endangered species, no parent could invoke the stork and keep a straight face. Is there one mother left who tells her child, “Why, sweetie pie, we found you under a cabbage leaf”?
Way back in the psychedelic sixties, my friend Jo Ann said nothing of the kind. For her five-year-old, Chris, she went into physiologic detail. She didn’t
just refer vaguely to “certain body parts.” She named names. His eyes widened. She implicated his father. Said that she and he had been in cahoots on it. The
boy was stunned, revolted, aghast. These were people he had respected. The
very people who kept telling him to behave himself. Then, remembering he had a younger sister, he cried out in dismay, “You don t mean you did it twice ?”
If ever there were a “fall into knowledge” its that one. It changes the child
by putting him further into the real than he had dreamed or wanted to be – a
strange new context of animality. Small wonder that many children, perhaps most, prefer not to think of their parents as sex mates.
There are plenty of things we adults don t like to ponder. For example, the size of all we belong to and the pitiful brevity of our visit. Post-Darwin, our
biological status is another aspect some among us would rather not dwell on. Like little Chris, surprising numbers of adults vehemently deny their double nature as fur-bearing critters with vestigial claws on hands and feet – animals who talk and think, yet who, like our mammalian kin, also copulate and give suck. In a nutshell, some people simply cant stand the facts of life. Thats why they throw hissy fits at the mention of evolution.
A memory lapse explains why a few years ago I accepted an invitation to debate an anti-Darwinian. My friend Jane Bock, a biologist, had been the
initial recipient of that invitation. She and other biologists often receive such
challenges but routinely ignore them as a waste of time. Then, looking at me,
Janes mischievous streak kicked in. “How about you?” she said, knowing of
my intense admiration for Darwin. “Do you want to take them on?” Never in
my adult life had I encountered a creationist. Now here was an opportunity to
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practice my favorite occupation: going forth to see for myself. I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Why? Well, fools do rush in.
Alas, my eagerness to trade verities with a proponent of biblical inerrancy before the breed went extinct led me to forget I had been a creationist for years and years, and would be again, though in a very different way.
At precisely what age I allowed myself to be gathered to the bosom of creation- ism I can t recall, yet it must have occurred by the time I was five and in first
grade. My memory of just how it happened remains clear as the image of tall Sister Mary Daniel in her great black wimple and Dominican habit of ankle-
length white linen, as she tested us first graders with the very first question in the Baltimore Catechism, “Who made us?”
On cue, we chirruped like a classroom of sparrows, “God made us.” To say Sister did the asking and we the believing would, however, be quite
false. Belief implies the possibility of disbelief, a thing literally unthinkable at that age. Children may be finicky eaters, yet when it comes to religion they down whatever s set before them. If your parents follow Jainism, you follow them. Besides, anything Sister Mary Daniel said was true.
It wasn’t so much that she wore holy clothes covering all but her face and hands, nor that all the mothers including mine spoke to her as to a Very Special Person. It wasn’t even because she always seemed so clean and gave off such a nice soapy fragrance. What Sister Mary Daniel said was true because she was tall, patient, soft-spoken, and kind to every one of us children.
Was she pretty? I don’t remember – just that she was beautiful.
Surprising as it should have been for me to learn I’d been made by a God, it never entered my noddle to ask why. That just seemed to be what God did. He made things. Unlike the grown-up kind of creationist, I didn’t at the least mention of Darwin grind my teeth and spit. I was proud of my spitting, but hadn’t yet heard of evolution, so there was no need for righteous saliva. All the same, as we children grew older we did learn that a hellish fate awaited that soul guilty of willfully doubting things the Baltimore Catechism said were eternally true, and its pages clearly gave top billing to the Creator.
Me disagree with the catechism? Only heretics did that. Even if I didn’t quite know what a heretic was, I did know it was the baddest thing you could ever become. Maybe the word’s sound caused me to picture a hairy man in
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grubby clothes- a swarthy, red-eyed man who stood glaring at me and without
lifting a finger was unspeakably wicked. A despondent lass in an old play says, “We know what we are, but know
not what we may be.” Well, the skinny little blue-eyed kid I once was is now himself a full-grown, double-damned heretic- though not particularly hairy. It happened the day I awoke to the single fact of life rendering our human situ- ation inexhaustibly fascinating: no one knows what this world is, much less has the answer to “Why?” Sadly enough, that limitation has always impelled members of our species to claim knowledge they dont have, and I claim to be one of their victims. Hence, my activist interest in those old reliables, the
supersize, cosmic questions. Historically speaking, there have been many mystery religions – think
Orpheus, think Isis- but only one mystery: the answer to “Why?”
For my showdown with Binford Pyle, a hard-core fundamentalist if ever there was one, I turned up on schedule at the Bethany Church ready for action.1 True, I had no debate experience and only the vaguest idea of the creationist mind. So what? Biological fact was firmly on my side, wasn’t it? Not that I’m a biolo-
gist. Far from it. fm merely an ink-stained wretch puzzled by the millions of adults who seem to believe the facts of life are ungodly.
In addition to my respect for Darwins achievement, there was a moral dimension in my agreeing to a debate. The people hoping to foist creation- ism off onto biology courses in our public schools have employed blatantly immoral tactics, and have done so while claiming to be champions of moral-
ity. Their hypocrisy deserved a comeuppance. Even more germane, they daily enact our species’ peculiar ability to believe the unbelievable, a trait I’ve always found fascinating.
On entering the church’s large vestibule I found dozens of earlier arrivals
studying creationist displays, and a wide screen overhead flashing a projected sequence of anti-Darwinian power points. Their techno-effect was unexpect- edly hip. “Hm-m,” I thought, “and me with only a few handwritten notes.” The church’s Baptist congregation, drawn from one of Denver’s working-class suburbs, would surely be impressed by the electronic look of cutting-edge info.
Already I felt a bit daunted.
i. Names of both person and place have been changed.
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As each slide brightened, then dissolved into the next one, I hadn’t time to read more than a few. Yet visually snappy as they were, they paraded the same old junk science and untruths that, nonetheless, have found a home in the hearts of countless devotees who take the biblical description of creation
literally. Why do we believe the unbelievable? Agreed, the answer is obvious: we
do because we want to, but saying so addresses only the why, not the how. It’s the how that intrigues me.
No sooner had I left the vestibules displays and entered the church proper, where adult murmuring mingled with adolescent chatter, than I became dis- mayed by the sight of so many young faces, including quite a few children. I’d assumed the entire audience would be grown-ups. To undercut parental authority was the last thing I, with my straight-arrow midwestern upbringing, wanted to do. That reluctance led me to scrap the main argument of my open- ing remarks: a critique of the fundamentalist dogma on the Bible’s inerrancy, plus comments on the blood lust of the God its Old Testament describes. Intel- lectually, my spur-of-the-moment decision to back off was indefensible. I didn’t care. Children’s respect for their parents’ judgment seemed more important, so I chose to extemporize.
On a brightly lit, carpeted platform, Binford Pyle and I sat opposite, each of us behind a small table covered with red cloth. Though Pyle was a man of large girth, he carried his weight well, was soberly attired in a dark blue suit, and made quite a good appearance, while the open laptop before him contin- ued the cutting-edge implications. These he further enhanced by setting it on the podium each time his turn came to speak or rebut. My few handwritten notes seemed so slight by comparison I ditched them and decided to wing it.
From the Internet I had learned of Pyle’s speaking engagements and vid- eos; learned too of his conceiving and leading, with others, something called Scriptural Tours in science museums, so as to correct the unbiblical informa- tion infesting such places; learned as well of his connection to the Farview Academy, which trains young fundamentalists.
Between us at the podium, in marked contrast to Mr. Pyle, stood our moderator, a man in his late twenties, one Jeremy Higgins. What with his abun- dant beard, flowing brown hair, and bulky figure, his teddy-bear aspect made his role as the church’s youth director seem natural. Into the microphone he explained how the debate would proceed. Each of us would give a ten-minute opening argument. These would be followed by two rebuttals, the first for eight
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minutes, the second for five minutes. Each of us would then make a five-minute
closing argument, after which we d respond to questions from the audience. Just before Pyle and I had mounted the platform we stood momentarily
face to face long enough for me to ask if he took the creation story in Genesis
literally. His reply was edgy, as if long since weary of that issue. “The Creator,” he said, “made the world in six days of twenty- four hours.”
Temptation overcame me. I asked, “What took him so long?” He didn’t answer that one, so after an ominous pause I tried again.
“Well . . . how can you tell whether a given biblical passage is figurative or literal?” In the same dismissive tone he said, “You can tell by the context,” which
on the one hand is true enough, but on the other sounds like dealers choice. I was about to press the point when the moderator asked us to take our
places. To avoid being typecast as one of those university professors fond of
destroying young souls with their godless ideas, I had worn a cowboy-style vest woven with Indian designs. Furthermore, I topped it off with a black, broad- brimmed Stetson and choke strap, such as bad guys always wore in the dime movies of my boyhood Saturday afternoons.
During Mr. Higgins’ preliminaries I doffed the Stetson, but when my turn came to speak, I put it back on and, in a bantering manner, began with
something like the following: “Lest anybody be confused, my hat should clarify the situation. Creationists here can relax. Though Mr. Pyle isn’t wearing a white
hat, we know the man in the black hat always loses. To further simplify things, I advise those who are satisfied with their beliefs not to credit a word I say.” Then, after pointing out the impossibility of a debate between faith and fact, I sketched my position without raising my voice. Especially before an audience of working-class Baptists, soft-spoken was the only way to go.
Creationists can never lose, owing to the well-known fact that scripture cannot err, which is proven by its being divinely inspired, which is in turn
proven by the fact that people who lived eons ago have said so. With that as
bedrock, everything creationism – including its clone, intelligent design- has to say passes between twin pillars: the falsehood inscribed on one pillar reads, “Without the Bible and Christ there can be no morality”; the whopper chiseled into that other pillar says, “Evolution is atheistic.” Binford Pyle bludgeoned us with those twin fallacies and implied the atheistic bent of evolution by say- ing, “Evolution claims nature is all there is.” It of course does no such thing. Like all science it merely restricts itself to observable phenomena and testable
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evidence. Oddly, large numbers of laypersons interpret those limits as proof that science has it in for religion.
Saying that morality is impossible without the Bible and Christ requires not only perfect ignorance of the ancient world, but also creationisms foun- dational denial of our species prehistory. Owing to the survival value of coop- erative behavior within species, morality simply evolved- like everything else. Even our deities are better behaved now than they used to be.
“Evolved?” boggled Pyle, who insisted that the moral truth of the Bible was 4 eternal and unchanging.” Such a remark made me wonder, “Has he read it?” Without such a moral absolute, he continued, “There would be no reason
why I shouldn’t wrap an airplane around myself and fly into a building.” Directing a baleful glare at the audience, he angrily added, “If you’re an
evolutionist and youre upset about 9/11, get over it.” Considering our pre- sumably decent congregation of believers, I forbore quoting on that topic of malevolence the insight by Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”2
Though persons of goodwill can and often do strenuously disagree on an issue, Pyles righteous indignation on all topics Darwinian seemed to be
tinged with some darker animus. I wondered what his life had been before its
born-again phase. “All men,” he said, “are flawed and must be restrained.” The worse we
are, the better for Pyles exhorting our fallen natures to rise up from the muck. What good is a cure if there’s no disease? Unsurprisingly, therefore, he insisted no mire could be blacker than that in the Darwinian morass. Later, however, he surprised me by backing off long enough to say, “Evolution doesn’t make people wicked, people are wicked.”
Would we humans, unless compelled by a divine Sky Cop to behave ourselves, lapse into bestiality? Oh, yes! In fact, this alleged degeneracy of humankinds postlapsarian state seemed oddly dear to the mans heart, and not just because he was selling the cure.
Its true the Pauline Epistles are pervaded by insistent references to our sinful flesh and Satans activism among us. After all, Christianity’s main claim is that our fallen species desperately needed a Redeemer. But Pauls better
2. The quotation is from “A Designer Universe” in Weinberg’s Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 231.
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angel also frequently moved him to exhort his hearers on the value of their communal bond, and of love. Could creationists gloomy view of our nature, I continued to wonder, be rooted in themselves as well as the Bible? At times in our debate – as if his hearers’ salvation were imperiled – Pyles nostrils flared and his eyes glowered warningly at the audience.
Whether he did so from personal truculence or religious zeal I couldn’t
know, but I had no doubt what my fate would be if he or any cult of like- minded zealots had the power to inflict rack and stake on misbelievers. I easily imagined them torching Joan of Arc to improve her character.
Blaise Pascal, a seventeenth-century thinker and scientist whose native France had been bloodied by religious wars, commented on such righteous- ness gone wrong: “Men never do evil so fully and so happily as when they do it for consciences sake.” Or so fully and happily as when they spread untruths. Thanks to Binford Pyle, I now know that “racism is promoted by evolution,” that morality comes from a creationist worldview whereas “evolution is inher-
ently selfish, it is self-centered,” and it “thrives on death.” I learned, too, that
“genocide becomes a natural out-flowing of the evolutionary model when
applied to human relations.” Oh, all manner of Darwinian-induced degeneracy fueled Pyles rancor. He spoke of evolution as if it weren’t based on science but an amoral conspiracy so dangerous that some creationists call it “devilution,” a satanic cult roaming the world on cloven hooves and seeking the destruction of souls.
Most vividly of all, I remember his claim that an “evolutionist” is bound to
condone Hitler s grisly eugenic experiments, an assertion as illogical as saying Pasteur would favor germ warfare. I also recall how my eyes widened and my mouth gaped when he read a quote from Der Führer by way of implying that
the author of Mein Kampf spoke for Darwinians! What’s more, he twice fol-
lowed former congressman Tom DeLay s lead in linking the bloody murders at Columbine High School to the teaching of evolution: “Evolution kills people,” declared Binford Pyle. “If you dont believe me, just look at Columbine!” Then
he added, “Those two students learned their lessons well . . . and applied those
lessons appropriately.” 3
Given the time constraints on rebuttals, I couldn’t begin to point out
more than a few absurdities in Mr. Pyles stream of grievances. Certainly the
3. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two responsible for the Columbine slaughter, the one a born psy- chopath, the other seriously depressed. See Dave Cullen, Columbine (New York: Twelve, 2009), passim.
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most dramatic among them was his charge that Hitler s evolutionist worldview led to the Holocaust.
It seems Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” was the culprit. It had autho- rized blitzkrieg and mass murder.4 Such an inexhaustibly fallacious statement
betrayed gross ignorance of evolutionary fitness, the key concept in On the
Origin of Species. Darwin did not say, as Binford Pyle explicitly claimed, that survival depends on strength and cunning. Rather, evolutionary fitness stems from an organisms ability to adapt biologically to changing environmental conditions. Mighty dinosaurs may perish and tiny mammals thrive.
The charge that Hitlerian evil was merely Darwinism in action has become a favorite whopper among those on the religious right. In August 2006, the Rev. D. James Kennedy – dubbed by blogger Pam Spaulding “the
Talibangelist titan of Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries” – offered tv view- ers a sixty-minute documentary on Darwin’s Deadly Legacy. It hyped the (false) analogy between Nazi eugenics and Darwins theory of natural selection, thus
sharing Pyles stunning misconception of the theory he so decried.5 Further- more, selective breeding was an ancient practice, so Nazi eugenics didn’t need Darwin to inspire it. In point of fact, World War II revealed the Nazi unfitness to survive, inasmuch as Nazism reduced Germany to rubble and ashes. Nazi unfitness, however, wasn’t the kind Darwin was talking about.
As if to produce a crescendo effect, Mr. Pyle began totting up the separate body counts attributable to Hitler, Stalin, and Chairman Mao, with a bonus estimate of lives unborn, owing to Margaret Sanger’s promotion of birth con- trol. “That’s over 190 million people,” he said, “who have been purposely sac- rificed on the altar of evolution!”
I flashed on a headline, Darwin Kills 190 Million, and reeled. But that wasn’t the nadir. Either his misunderstanding or his willful misrepresentation of the evolution he so deplored gave birth to this pièce de résistance : “If your brain evolves,” he asked the audience, “how can you trust your own thinking?”
“At least,” I thought but didn’t say, “it would be headed in the right direc- tion.”
4. The catchphrase “survival of the fittest” originated with Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of Dar- win-who then borrowed it ill-advisedly, according to Arthur Peacocke, a scientist and Anglican priest. 5. A year later, on 5 August 2007, 1 listened to an address by D. James Kennedy in a nationally televised hour sponsored by the Coral Ridge Ministries, during which he recited the same mendacities voiced by Binford Pyle in his calumny of Darwin and evolution.
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Our debate had become a carnival attraction. I was still tottering over evolutions Slaughter of the Innocents when Mr. Pyle informed the audience that so long as I embraced evolution I was destined for eternal torment. He said it grieved him that I was, though I didn’t hear grief in his tone.
Just then, and mercifully, our robust moderator, Mr. Higgins, signaled an end to the fray and the beginning of a brief Q&A period. Without excep- tion, the queries addressed specifically to me raised points I had already dwelt on in some detail. It was as if everything I had said was so peculiar it needed
repeating. A sampling given here in my paraphrase will indicate their drift: “How
can an evolutionist be moral?”; “How can intricate life forms come from chaos without Gods help?”; “Is evolution a religion?”; “Why cant a person believe in God and natural selection?”; “Should evolution and creationism both be
taught in schools?”; “What about those fossils?”; “Where did the universe come
from?”; “If you don t believe in anything, what happens when you die?” Hadnt I predicted the man in the black hat always loses? Our not-so-
great debate had at least brought me face to face with what I’ve called our
peculiar gift for believing the unbelievable.
My stunned wonder at the echolocation of bats can trigger a sort of free- fall astonishment, with my mind plummeting back through the evolutionary epochs needed to develop an ultrasound system so exquisitely and finely tuned.
Lying all about and within us, natures smallest details abound with times
ingenuities. Every strawberry for my breakfast granóla has bedecked itself with minuscule time capsules disguised as seeds. Thats cunning indeed, but times genius as encapsulated by each human cell staggers the mind. Our cells are more impressive than we are.
Thanks to Darwin our imagination can wander billions of years within a
droplet of blood. Or, in pondering raven plumage – with its barbules, barbicels, and booklets so cunningly contrived from an original squiggle of keratin – can be rapt by the depth of time in a feather.
Unfortunately, the extent of gone time, because literally unimaginable, remains therefore unreal for all too many, especially the anti-Darwinians.
Surely its the immeasurable spans of evolutionary time they cannot conceive
of, nor can they conceive how, to cite a seminal phrase by the eighteenth- century gentleman geologist James Hutton, “little causes, long continued” could have wrought in all life forms and land forms such enormous effects.
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“Long continued” in the case of Earth life comes to some 3.5 billion years. Those who don t believe the human eye could have evolved are incredulous
partly because they have no clear concept of the words million and billion .
Suppose your doctor should look up from her clipboard to say, “Im afraid the test results are not good.” Naturally you’ll wonder, “How long have I got?” Answering your thought she breaks the news, “You have, I’m sorry to say, only a million seconds to live.” Time enough to drive to your favorite coffee house for a last latte? Yes, and to spare. Almost twelve full days. Now imagine, having misread her own writing, she corrects herself. “Did I say million ? Sorry about that! I meant to say billion. Give or take a few, you’ve got a billion seconds before the end.”
How many more days would that give you? Plenty. In fact, just over thirty- two years. Despite all the bandying of large numbers in the media, people cant
grasp how “long continued” a span of 3.5 billion years really is.
Years ago a Grand Canyon ranger told me the average visitation time there was a mere four hours. I suggested that the park service post signs at turnouts along the rim: kindly allow the dust of your arrival to settle before you depart. Such hurry-up visits prove that the views from the South Rim serve
mainly as photo ops allowing tourists to say, “Been there, done that.” Besides, after hearing about the place for years, a persons first look may not live up: “Grand? Kind of, I guess.” Given all the blather, everyone expects more.
Yet nowhere better exemplifies the difference between scenery and nature than the Grand Canyon. From the rim its a scenic postcard. And traffic. How- ever, by descending even a skimpy eight hundred feet or so, you cross a thresh- old into that tremendous realm we call nature. Scenery is what you’re apart from, natures what you re a part of. Thus the canyon is really all about you, and the deeper the truer, offering an experience that can feel like identity theft. For visitors wanting more than snapshots, therefore, signage of a different sort might be posted: those who descend may never climb out.
That is, any receptive self, descending, wont be the self that ascends. Being contextualized by millions of years made stone will work changes in such a person. For some, that alteration is considerable. Lifelong in my case. Day after incomparable day spent inhaling geological time gradually led me to see everything differently and further accelerated my fall into knowledge.
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Way back in 1794, a geo-theologian named Richard Kirwan fired off a critical blast at James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth for claiming Earth to be unimagin- ably old. Like our present-day creationists, Kirwan took Genesis literally; thus he argued that Hutton’s theory not only contradicts scripture, it threatens all
religion and morality – and he added that it hurls humankind into deeps of
geological time “from which human reason recoils.” Hutton, called by an admirer “the man who invented time,” was a deist
who certainly believed in a Creator but ruefully predicted that Earths true age would produce culture shock:
It is not any part of the process that will be disputed; but after allowing all the parts, the whole will be denied; and for what?- only because we are not disposed to allow that quantity of time which the ablution of so much wasted mountain might require.6
Time’s quantity? Even today, to use Kirwan’s word, we “recoil.”
Arriving at the Grand Canyon from Chicago, Japan, Hungary, Savannah,
England, Switzerland, Kansas City, France, or wherever, we do just that. Gazing into its depths we feel ourselves missing from our own planet.
“When I was a child,” wrote St. Paul, “I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”
So true. As a child I was the handiwork of a god. Was even made in that
deity’s image, and – along with everybody else – was the be-all and end-all of
creation. How much more important can you get? Yet no sooner had I grown up than my status plummeted to that of just another nano-speck adrift in a
wilderness of stars – because of my fall. When Adam and Eve fell, at least God
and his fiery-sword-wielding angels hung around ever after. But not for willful ones like me. Thus I had to watch while nine flavors of
angels, the entire floral-scented bouquet of blessed saints, the world-mothering Madonna, and heavens trio of deities slowly melted from a suitably pastel- colored cloud to the black of interstellar void. So much for Sky City. Unlike
one mistakenly disillusioned young Englishman, however, I didn’t reel from
ale shop to ale shop claiming Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had destroyed
6. As cited from Hutton’s Theory of the Earth in Sir Archibald Geikie’s Landscape in History, vol. i (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1905), 137.
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my life. Still, when the center of your world drops out . . . well, that does take some adjusting.
After the Almighty evaporated on me, I must admit that – human ills aside- nature and the universe itself began to seem far more interesting than some All-Everything supernatural. Without a presiding deity, the worlds ori-
gin and raison ďétre, if any, became- and remains- inexhaustibly fascinating. Nothing so challenges the finite reach of human thought as the unknowable
depth and breadth of all we belong to. Even my neutrino-size unimportance within it acquired the freaky grandeur of being that radically dwarfed. In short, if you love living a mystery as I do, alive is the place to be.
On the down side, however, my fall entailed more than the loss of Cloud Nine. It caused the unimaginable scale of cosmic immensity to shrink me to a geometrical point having location but no magnitude – quite a comedown from once being watched over by angels, by all the saints in heaven, and by a three-person God. Still, forgoing my postmortem flight to Paradise wasn’t
nearly so hard to handle as was facing up to a human world in which those who endure unspeakable pain, squalor, or crushing injustice can expect no
otherworldly redress, ever. Triggered by the terrible helplessness we feel in the presence of great suffering, the impulse to beg divine intervention for les miserables explains why our polytheist ancestors felt you can never have too
many gods. One for every occasion seems little enough.
My psychothèrapist friend Charles Proudfit tells me there’s such a thing as existential depression. And how not? The cataclysmic randomness of sidereal collisions, black holes, star hatcheries, and supernova explosions going on all the time in the soul-numbing vastitudes surrounding us can shade any human
enterprise with the gray-scale of futility. “Whats the point of writing? As far as that goes, why do anything?” Which is why any life worth living must contain
something of great value that we know isn’t there. Meanwhile, swimming in cosmically deep waters without a life preserver
adds more than a touch of adventure to any existence – provided we under- stand that’s where we are and what we are doing. Given the combined mass of inanimate matter in the universe, our merely being alive and aware, and neither on fire nor in a black hole, means each of us is, as the astrophysicists put it, in “a highly improbable state.” I love that wording. It feels so much more elegant than “abnormal.” In fact, it feels like a promotion. Yet there remains, in relation
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to “the world,” an inevitable “Why is there one?” That insuppressibly pesky “Why?” is how, after my fall into knowledge, I came to discover astrotheology.
What’s more, if- however briefly – were among the vanishingly small
percent of matter that has consciousness, we may as well pay attention. But consciousness is no life jacket either, and staying afloat in waters unfathom-
ably deep isn’t for the faint of heart. As to the point of it all, must there be one? Besides, aren t “the point of it all” and “meaningful” really synonyms for
“payday”? As if doing your best, lifelong, both to understand where we are and what we are weren’t plenty meaningful enough.
Admittedly, there are sad afternoons when nothing works and reality feels too true to be good. As anodyne for watching my loftiest thoughts get downsized to the height of a dust mite, I sometimes welcome even the des-
perate comfort of Pascal. He felt himself pitifully finite and daunted by exist-
ing between what he called “two infinities,” the microscopically small and the
astronomically large. Yet he reasoned thus: “Though the universe crush him, man is nobler than the forces that kill him. He understands his mortal nature, whereas the universe knows nothing of it.”
Hardly a hip-hip-hooray, but quite a cut above thumb sucking or Linus blanket. The era is long past when our species can fatten self-esteem by believ-
ing its own publicity, yet a modest, astrophysical excuse for chest thumping does remain available. Owing to the subtle intricacies of the phenomenon called life, the lowliest living critter among us, even a gnat, is more complex than the sun that begot it.
Factor human intelligence into the comparison, and the assertion grows all the truer. Each thoughtful person who possesses so much as a vague sense of our location between Pascals infinities is a more considerable speck than all the mindlessly blazing matter in the universe.
If, however, we put our consciousness to no better use than getting through the day, we’ve ignored the chance of a lifetime, unmindful that being here and alive is the one strangest thing that can ever happen. Considering the innumerable galaxies overhead and underfoot every living moment, our very ennui is weird. Actually, our mayfly longevity makes boredom a left-handed
mercy, enabling the illusion we live a long time. Surrealism? That was just an art movement, whereas, rightly seen, each of us is a walking, talking surrealist. Because the ultimate truth of our cosmic context remains unknown, we can never truly be who we are nor where we are.
REG SANER 23
My own favorite moments for letting that surreality happen come while
facing sunrises. Just watching the suns bubble ascend puts me, body and soul, in a cosmos. However, the duality in everything means that the most gorgeous of dawns doesn’t lessen the difference between the suns longevity and mine, just lightens it wonderfully. That same duality supplies my awareness that our
daystar has only nuclear fusion at heart with an opposite realization: I owe it
everything- including my sadness at knowing it, too, is mortal.
Occasionally at sunrise, to get even better perspective on myself, I swap my stance on the mesa slope near my house for one on the sun. Afloat on the surface of its photosphere I look back toward Earths pinprick of shine, not
quite swallowed up by the blackness of space, and wish others could share the view.
Not only that. I once briefly believed that if on some miraculous day we humans fully faced and accepted our actual situation, we d take better care of our planet and each other. I know. Its still my favorite fantasy that won t hap- pen, but, as the song says, “I can dream, can’t I?” So, while standing on the sun and looking toward Earth, I occasionally imagine, despite humanity’s check- ered past and present flaws, that my wishful figment may one day be realized. There well be, all of us, companionably riding our planets tiny brightness, and
gazing silently out into the question of questions.
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- Issue Table of Contents
- The Georgia Review, Vol. 64, No. 1 (SPRING 2010), pp. 1-170
- Front Matter
- To Our Readers [pp. 6-8]
- My Fall into Knowledge [pp. 9-23]
- Wild [pp. 24-25]
- The Dew-Tasters [pp. 26-27]
- Drosophila [pp. 28-28]
- Through Gumroot Swamp [pp. 29-29]
- Letter to New Zealand [pp. 30-31]
- The Lobster Mafia Story [pp. 32-50]
- The Girl in the Neon Tank Top [pp. 51-52]
- The Good News [pp. 53-53]
- Asking the Dead to Leave [pp. 54-55]
- The Spectre of Empire [pp. 56-58]
- Riots and Outrages [pp. 59-68]
- Questions of Transport: Reading Primo Levi Reading Dante [pp. 69-88]
- Stroke [pp. 89-89]
- Human [pp. 90-90]
- Atlantic Snore [pp. 91-92]
- Via Delia Vite [pp. 93-94]
- Sky Riders [pp. 95-109]
- Stablehands [pp. 110-110]
- Franz Schubert Dreamt of Indians [pp. 111-129]
- a meadow is a drama laid out to dry, an opera [pp. 130-131]
- Spirea’s covered in those clotted blooms [pp. 132-133]
- Refusal of a Lifetime [pp. 134-134]
- Jill’s Apology [pp. 135-135]
- Pause in the Routine [pp. 136-137]
- Ambitions Futilities [pp. 138-138]
- The Lake Isle of Shamrock.com [pp. 139-139]
- The Maypole [pp. 140-140]
- Great Expectations [pp. 141-157]
- Reputations and Renewals [pp. 158-167]
- Back Matter
- The Georgia Review, Vol. 64, No. 1 (SPRING 2010), pp. 1-170