It’s easy to forget that science and religion weren’t always at war in America. Once upon a time (the late 19th century), they managed to co-exist in a romantic synergy. Enlightened theologians tried to integrate Darwin into the Bible, and scientists freely admitted that not every question had a scientific answer. It was an age of agnostics.
Books like this (and this, which is a true masterpiece) remind us of what we have lost. Instead of intellectuals like William James, who tried to reconcile experimental psychology with the mystery of conscious experience, or Ralph Waldo Emerson (a lapsed Unitarian preacher who believed in god with a lowercase “g”), we get mediocre best-sellers like Jeff Warren, and Francis Collins. Scientists then respond with blustery and intemperate condemnations of religion in general, as if all religiosity (except for Tibetan Buddhism, of course) was nothing but an expression of stupidity and blinkered ignorance. No one benefits from these shouting matches. Atheistic scientists look haughty and condescending (they also underestimate the tangled history of religion and science), and true believers look ignorant and delusional. (Personally, I’d rather be condescending than dumb, but it’s better to be neither.)
What’s the solution? I’m afraid American religion and science are doomed to despise each other for the foreseeable future. There are just too many true believers out there. But here’s my radical (and perhaps silly) idea: modern artists can help heal the rift between faith and fact. When I look back at the late 19th century, I see a time when artists served as the mediators between science and spirituality. (As Walt Whitman declared, “I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems.” ) Artists paid tribute to science while always acknowledging its limitations. They loved the steam engine and cell theory, but weren’t ready to relinquish their romantic mysteries. As Emily Dickinson put it:
“But nature is a stranger yet;
And those that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.”
What made this art important was the way it celebrated what it didn’t know. It allowed people to retain a sense of the sublime without lapsing into prayer. As philosophers like Richard Rorty have emphasized, art excels at illuminating the contingencies that ripple through our lives. What Rorty says about Proust is true of great artists in general: “Proust isn’t trying to surmount time and chance, but to use them…novels are a safer medium than theory for showing us that we are time bound, embedded in a web of contingencies.”
It’s important to always remember that our knowledge is just as time-bound as we are. When Whitman was writing poems, he was following the developments of phrenology, which remained a respectable science. (Phrenology is now considered about as scientific as astrology.) And while Whitman found phrenology interesting, he never forgot that its descriptions were incomplete, temporary and probably wrong. In his notebook, Whitman reminded himself that all truth – even scientific truth – is a work in progress: “Remember in scientific and similar allusions that the theories of Geology, History, Language, &c., &c., are continually changing. Be careful to put in only what must be appropriate centuries hence.”
It is this pragmatic attitude that we need to restore. There is no righteousness or hubris in the writings of James or Emerson or Whitman or Melville or Dickinson. Instead, there is only humility in the face of mystery, a persistent faith in the inadequacy of our knowledge. (James, as usual, said it best: “Nothing real is absolutely simple.”) America used to create thinkers like this by the dozen. What happened?