This autumn I have been reading a wonderful new book: The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, by David Haskell, professor of biology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. As a fan of American nature writing from Henry Thoreau to Annie Dillard I find it a real pleasure to read a book by a close observer of nature who actually knows scientifically what he’s talking about. For more than a year, Haskell observed a small circle of forest, about a yard in diameter, near the university. He called this area a mandala: the Sanskrit word for “circle” used in both Buddhism and Hinduism to denote a sacred space or a figure for the cosmos itself. In spiritual practice, one uses the mandala as an aid to contemplation. In Haskell’s project, the forest mandala likewise served as the locus of sustained, focused attention.
I like many things about The Forest Unseen, but chief among them is Haskell’s refusal to be forced into false choices. He is both scientist and nature writer, so his observations of the forest are at once disciplined and poetic. At the same time, he is both a scientist and a practitioner of contemplative prayer—so he refuses to accept a dichotomy between religion and science.
Religion and Science: we have dedicated much of this issue of Cathedral Age to an inquiry into the ongoing dialogue between these two major modes of interrogating the human condition. And the Cathedral recently had an opportunity to remember the great scientific achievement of landing humans on the moon in celebrating the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong. Although Armstong’s memorial service preceded the start of my tenure as dean by a few weeks, I have watched it, heard about it, and was aware of it being a tangible example of what the Cathedral does best: bringing the country together at significant moments in the life of our nation. In these pages we not only revisit the memorial service at the Cathedral, we are also privileged to share the tellings of one of Armstrong’s dearest friends—and the last man to walk on the moon: Gene Cernan. If ever there was an inspiring and unique case for the existence of God, Cernan’s witness to the relationship of the cosmos to the Creator is a uniquely special one to read.
Religion and science both know and reveal their own important truths, but sadly each one can also fall into an exceptionalistic trap. “Science deepens our intimacy with the world,” writes David Haskell. “But there is a danger in an exclusively scientific way of thinking. The forest is turned into a diagram; animals become mere mechanisms; nature’s workings become clever graphs.” Without reference to other ways of knowing, science can objectify the world and its processes in reductive ways. The result is not science but “scientism.”
Just as science can become scientism, so theology can become “religionistic.” The great Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted this tendency when he wrote of the modern disturbing tendency to use “God” to explain whatever we don’t otherwise understand. He lamented in his Letters and Papers from Prison:
…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved.
“Scientistic” thinkers dismiss the holy and all its claims. “Religionistic” thinkers use science when it is convenient (it’s given us medicine, technology, and taken us to the moon) and they dismiss science when they find its implications too threatening (natural selection, chaos theory, the second law of thermodynamics).
This kind of doublethink is untenable for thoughtful, faithful people. The goal of human knowing is neither to exalt science over other forms of inquiry, nor to use theology as a magic wand to make things we can’t otherwise explain vanish. The goal of human knowing is instead to seek to engage God, the world, and ourselves in one unified frame of meaning.
I welcome this opportunity to reflect with you on the search for this unified frame of meaning. Attending to the world as David Haskell observed his forest mandala—with empirical observation and holy regard—will open us all to what the Book of Common Prayer calls “the gift of joy and wonder” in all God’s works.