A few weeks ago (I know, I know…I haven’t been keeping up well on this blog. I’m pregnant, and I had a deadline for an article I was invited to write for Sojourners Magazine), my husband and I attended a two-day conference called “The Science of Spirituality.” The first night we heard two speakers, both of whom tried to answer the question, “Does science prove the existence of God?”
We drove home from the lectures in silence. My husband was agitated, I could tell, and so was I–but the agitation remained dispersed, prickly, nameless. I couldn’t articulate what was wrong.
My husband finally said, “It’s a stupid question.”
“What?” I asked.
“It’s a stupid question–whether science proves or disproves God.”
Just like that! The agitation congealed into a mass I could see and define.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s right.”
We both bristled–not at any one speaker at the conference, but at the whole idea of the conference itself. Even the syntax is off: the Science of Spirituality, that preposition signaling a duality, a dichotomy: science/spirituality. As though it’s a given that science and spirituality must be separate concepts that can either work together on friendly terms or antagonistically. But what if some of us are having a conversation beyond the dichotomy? A conversation where confirming the existence of anything is beside the point, and even a hindrance to cultivating a spiritual self? A conversation that recognizes every arrival as a point of departure?
I think too many people understand religion and science as systems of belief, as two different sets of knowledge. But, really, science and faith are processes, systems of praxis. Paolo Freire defined praxis as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” Praxis is a way of participating with God or the universe to create meaning. I don’t believe meaning exists outside this participating. Let me say that again: meaning does not exist as some finite, concrete thing outside of us, some ultimate answer we will comfortably access if we try hard enough–meaning exists in the relationship between the unknown and our search for it. This searching is physical; we must use our bodies as well as our brains. We have to develop a practice.
It seems to me that the scientist practices. The scientist has a practice, which is to say a ritual of “doing” that may or may not lead to an answer, but even if the practice answers a question, a new question arises. And it is the doing, answering, doing again that makes the science a holy quest. The scientist participates in meaning-making by setting the conditions every day that might invite knowing. The poet works in much the same way. As does the person of faith.
The best poetry punctures the veil, it creates through attention to language and image a moment behind which we sense a bigger scene, a whole world of truth that the poem cannot contain, but in its brevity and precision points toward, winching open the window a notch to give us a slim view. In the best poetry, God flickers brightly for a moment before dispersing again.
Many of my secular friends baulk at the idea of going to church because of the obvious absurdity. They say, I don’t feel anything or I don’t agree with some of the things the priest or scripture says. But they’re missing the point. The point is the practice, and it must be difficult and boring sometimes and a challenge to our comfortable positions, both physical and mental. If it worked every time, we wouldn’t need it. God would be accessible to us the way Netflix makes our favorite sitcoms accessible, and after we finished watching we’d feel both vacuous and food-sick. Actually, some churches try to imitate Netflix, and when I leave those places I do feel like I’ve inhaled two Super-sized fries with sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. It’s just….gross. But the best churches ask us to perform sacred rituals, to use precise words and actions, to engage with image and symbol and syntax, to run the experiment, to be poets. God may or may not show up, but we must show up.
I must always be paying attention. I must always set the stage though no actor may appear today or tomorrow. I must open the blank page. I must set the petri dish. I cannot just believe. I cannot passively wait for meaning to arrive. I cannot say, “God exists,” and be done with it or ever say, “Prove it,” and then sit back to wait. I must do.
The doing is difficult. Right now, for example, I don’t want to go to church. I don’t want to write this blog post. I haven’t wanted to write a blog post in a while. I’ve lost the ritual of doing that would create an opening for genius to appear. Like the existentialists’ Sisyphus, I stand at the bottom of a hill, look at my gigantic rock and cannot believe I must lift it up the hill. Again. The work feels absurd, much like grading papers feels absurd, and kneeling before communion feels absurd (especially when my pregnant belly bumps up against the hymnals), and pouring laundry detergent into its plastic measuring cup feels absurd, and exiting I-10, and flossing my teeth, and pausing every morning and every night at the same bush at the corner of 8th and Cortlandt so Max can sniff its edges. Again.
God is not a thing for science to prove. Nor is religion a thing to disprove science. Proof is an absurd end goal. The process is the point. The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. Sisyphus is most free, Albert Camus tells us, “in that hour like a breathing-space” when he walks back down the hill to begin again his infinite doing.