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Dante and the Eternal Quest for Nonreligious Divinity: Physicist Margaret Wertheim on Science and God

“I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Centuries after Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, contemplated the relationship between science and religion, and decades after Carl Sagan did the same in his exquisite Varieties of Scientific Experience, physicist-turned-science-writer Margaret Wertheim offers perhaps the most elegant and emboldening reconciliation of these two frequently contrasted approaches to the human longing for truth and meaning.

Wertheim is the creator of the PBS documentary Faith and Reason, author of deeply thoughtful books like Pythagoras’s Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, and cofounder of The Institute for Figuring — “an organization dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and engineering.” In her intellectually invigorating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Wertheim recounts how she moved away from the Catholic faith of her childhood and toward science, while maintaining a nonreligious sense of spiritual curiosity. In discussing her beliefs, she offers one of the most luminous conceptions of what secular spirituality stands to offer in the modern world, especially for those of us who hold dear the values of science, and how a deeper sense of resonance with the universe can elevate and ennoble human life:

I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face-to-face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision.

And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God. And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma. And … I’m very, very saddened by the fact that militant atheism has become so to the fore of our society — I think it’s destructive and unhelpful, and I don’t think it does science any service.

[…]

One way I think we can understand the God question in relation to science is this: that prior to the coming into being of modern science, [in] the Christian conception of God, God had two functions — God was the creator of the universe, but he was first and foremost the redeemer of mankind. And with the coming into being of modern science, God’s position as redeemer got shoved into the background, and all of the questions and the public discussion became about God the creator. And that was why Darwinism was so critical — because [Darwin] appeared to challenge the idea of God as the creator of man. And we, I think, [in] the modern West focus so much on the debate about the creative function of God that, outside of theological circles, we don’t seem to be able to discuss, as it were, the concept of redemption… And I think we need to be able to discuss that… We need to start thinking about that.

Complement with Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Einstein on whether scientists pray, Flannery O’Connor on dogma and the difference between religion and faith, and Douglas Rushkoff on science, God, and why consciousness exists.

If you aren’t yet subscribing to On Being — a vitalizing source of moral encouragement and some of the most important cultural programming of our time — gladden yourself and subscribe. Tippett’s full conversation with Wertheim is but one of countless reasons to do so:

Cosmic illustration of Wertheim based on photograph by Noé Montes

BP

JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested that the poet Robert Frost participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. Eighty-six-year-old Frost telegrammed Kennedy with his signature elegance of wit: “If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration.” He proceeded to deliver a beautiful ode to the dream of including the arts in government, which touched Kennedy deeply.

Frost died exactly two years later, in January of 1963. That fall, Amherst College invited the President to speak at an event honoring the beloved poet. On October 26, Kennedy took the podium at Amherst and delivered a spectacular speech mirroring back to Frost that deep dedication to the arts and celebrating the role of the artist in society. Perhaps more than any other public address, it affirmed JFK as that rare species of politician who is equally a poet and prophet of the human spirit.

The speech was eventually included in the altogether superb Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time (public library) — a compendium of breathtaking adieus to cultural icons like Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emily Dickinson, Keith Haring, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Schulz, and Virginia Woolf, delivered by those who knew them best.

This original recording of the speech, while short in length, is endlessly ennobling in substance. Highlights below — please enjoy:

Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.

[…]

Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role…

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

Typed draft of the speech, edited in Kennedy’s own hand (Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library)

But as notable as the speech itself — for reasons both poetical and political — are the parts Kennedy edited out in his own hand, including this heartbreaking-in-hindsight passage from the second page:

We take great comfort in our nuclear stockpiles, our gross national product, our scientific and technological achievement, our industrial might — and, up to a point, we are right to do so. But physical power by itself solves no problems and secures no victories. What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation. “It is excellent,” Shakespeare said, “to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Three weeks later, one of history’s ugliest and most arrogant misuses of brute power took place as JFK was assassinated, prompting Leonard Bernstein to pen his timelessly moving address on the only true antidote to violence. But the message at the heart of Kennedy’s speech continued to resonate even as his voice was silenced by brutality. Less than two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating the National Endowment for the Arts — the very dream that Frost had dreamt up at JFK’s inauguration.

Complement with two more titans of poetry on the role of the artist in culture: E.E. Cummings on the agony and salvation of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society.

The JFK speech appears as the opening track on composer Mohammed Fairouz’s spectacular album Follow Poet — titled after a line from W.H. Auden’s beautiful elegy for W.B. Yeats — and can be heard in Fairouz’s wholly fantastic On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

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A Seizure of Happiness: Mary Oliver on Finding Magic in Life’s Unremarkable Moments

How to revel in the “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Nearly a century before modern neuroscience presented the uncomfortable finding that mind-wandering is making us unhappy, Bertrand Russell contemplated the conquest of happiness and pointed to the immense value of “fruitful monotony” — a certain quality of presence with the ordinary rhythms of life. The diaries and letters of humanity’s greatest minds are strewn with such instances of finding happiness in simple everyday moments, but no one captures the humble grace of presence better than Mary Oliver in one particularly bewitching passage from her altogether enchanting Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (public library).

Mary Oliver in 1964. Photograph by Molly Malone Cook from Oliver’s ‘Our World.’ Click image for more.

With Thoreau’s attentiveness to the outer world and Rilke’s attentiveness to the inner, Oliver writes:

On the windless days, when the maples have put forth their deep canopies, and the sky is wearing its new blue immensities, and the wind has dusted itself not an hour ago in some spicy field and hardly touches us as it passes by, what is it we do? We lie down and rest upon the generous earth. Very likely we fall asleep.

[…]

Once, years ago, I emerged from the woods in the early morning at the end of a walk and — it was the most casual of moments — as I stepped from under the trees into the mild, pouring-down sunlight I experienced a sudden impact, a seizure of happiness. It was not the drowning sort of happiness, rather the floating sort. I made no struggle toward it; it was given.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conditions of this total, effortless surrender to happiness parallel the “flow” state typical of creative work.

Oliver, who has extolled the urgency of belonging to the world as the supreme act of aliveness, writes:

Time seemed to vanish. Urgency vanished. Any important difference between myself and all other things vanished. I knew that I belonged to the world, and felt comfortably my own containment in the totality. I did not feel that I understood any mystery, not at all; rather that I could be happy and feel blessed within the perplexity — the summer morning, its gentleness, the sense of the great work being done though the grass where I stood scarcely trembled. As I say, it was the most casual of moments, not mystical as the word is usually meant, for there was no vision, or anything extraordinary at all, but only a sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world: leaves, dust, thrushes and finches, men and women. And yet it was a moment I have never forgotten, and upon which I have based many decisions in the years since.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from ‘Sidewalk Flowers,’ a visual ode to living with presence in the modern urban world. Click image for more.

Indeed, this immersive attentiveness to the casual, unremarkable, yet remarkably enlivening moments of life is the raw material of Oliver’s genius, of her singular gift for bridging that vast abyss between the mind and the heart. (“Attention without feeling,” she wrote in her beautiful memoir, “is merely a report.”) She considers how the unremarkable becomes the screen against which the remarkable shines its luminous beam:

My story contains neither a mountain, nor a canyon, nor a blizzard, nor hail, nor spike of wind striking the earth and lifting whatever is in its path. I think the rare and wonderful awareness I felt would not have arrived in any such busy hour. Most stories about weather are swift to describe meeting the face of the storm and the argument of the air, climbing the narrow and icy trail, crossing the half-frozen swamp. I would not make such stories less by obtaining anything special for the other side of the issue. Nor would I suggest that a meeting of individual spirit and universe is impossible within the harrowing blast. Yet I would hazard this guess, that it is more likely to happen to someone attentively entering the quiet moment, when the sun-soaked world is gliding on under the blessings of blue sky, and the wind god is asleep. Then, if ever, we may peek under the veil of all appearances and partialities. We may be touched by the most powerful of suppositions — even to a certainty — as we stand in the rose petals of the sun and hear a murmur from the wind no louder than the sound it makes as it dozes under the bee’s wings. This, too, I suggest, is weather, and worthy of report.

Long Life, which also gave us Oliver on how habit gives shape to our inner lives, is exquisite and enlivening in its entirety. Complement it with Oliver’s gorgeous reading of “Wild Geese,” her moving remembrance of her soul mate, and her playful meditation on the magic of punctuation.

If you haven’t yet devoured Oliver’s wonderfully wide-ranging On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, give yourself this seizure of happiness:

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The Unlikely Roads That Lead Us Back to Ourselves: Eve Ensler on How a Tree Saved Her Life

An emboldening story of reawakening to the “insane delight” of merely being.

Tony Award-winning playwright, performer, and activist Eve Ensler is best-known for the paradigm-shifting 1998 cultural classic The Vagina Monologues and the monumental V-Day movement that sprang from it. She is also a woman of hard-earned wisdom on how traumatic experience makes us leave our bodies. Her harrowing and hope-giving book In the Body of the World: A Memoir of Cancer and Connection (public library) chronicles Ensler’s tumultuous journey and the paths — often confusing, usually surprising, never easy, yet always simple — that lead us back to our bodies and our whole selves.

On this winding road back to herself, Ensler encountered a most unexpected sherpa: a tree — one of those strange and wonderful companions to our existence, which Hermann Hesse called “the most penetrating of preachers” and in which we have found the secret life of the spiritual world, the great mysteries of science, and the perfect visual metaphor for visualizing human knowledge. Trees are, after all, the oldest living unitary things in the world — and something about the patience with which they bear witness to the world makes them speak deeply to life and death.

One tree did precisely that for Ensler. She paints the backdrop of her lifelong resistance to the transformation to follow:

I have been afraid of trees. I have felt the Earth as my enemy. I did not live in the forests. I lived in the concrete city where I could not see the sky or sunset or stars. I moved at the pace of engines and it was faster than my own breath. I became a stranger to myself and to the rhythms of the Earth. I aggrandized my alien identity and wore black and felt superior. My body was a burden. I saw it as something that unfortunately had to be maintained. I had little patience for its needs.

She recounts the curious, almost mystical effect of a particular tree outside her hospital room as she lay fighting for life after a monstrous cancer had ravaged her body:

What I hadn’t anticipated was the tree. I was too weak to think or write or call or even watch a movie. All I could do was stare at the tree, which was the only thing in my view. At first it annoyed me and I thought I would go mad from boredom. But after the first days and many hours, I began to see the tree.

On Tuesday I meditated on bark; on Friday, the green leaves shimmering in late afternoon light. For hours I lost myself, my body, my being dissolving into tree.

Illustration from The Night Life of Trees

The tree became an antidote to all the habitual ways in which we escape from ourselves — from the gentle aliveness of the world, both inner and outer — and launch into a deadening trot on the hedonic treadmill, placing our fragile sense of worth on doing rather than being. Ensler writes:

I was raised in America. All value lies in the future, in the dream, in production. There is no present tense. There is no value in what is, only in what might be made or exploited from what already exists. Of course the same was true for me. I had no inherent value. Without work or effort, without making myself into something significant, without proving my worth, I had no right or reason to be here. Life itself was inconsequential unless it led to something. Unless the tree would be wood, would be house, would be table, what value was there to tree? So to actually lie in my hospital bed and see tree, enter the tree, to find the green life inherent in tree, this was the awakening. Each morning I opened my eyes. I could not wait to focus on tree. I would let the tree take me. Each day it was different, based on the light or wind or rain. The tree was a tonic and a cure, a guru and a teaching.

She traces the origin of her arboreal antagonism:

“I never want to see another tree,” I said with bravado at twenty-two as I was speeding down a turnpike away from the green hills of Vermont toward Manhattan. I think I said “fucking tree.” I never want to see another fucking tree. It was a joke, but it wasn’t a joke. I hated trees. They had come to mean small towns and small minds, isolation and gossip, long, freezing winters and endless, green, swallowing landscapes, skiing coeds and empty chatter, families and babies, marriage and life. Trees had everything to do with life. I drove that day out of the forests and hills and blue skies and nights of falling stars into concrete, after-hours joints, Mafia hit men, anonymous sex, anonymous despair, gin and bourbon, and an end to morning, let alone trees. I see now how much I wanted to die, or how much I did not want to live with the pain inside me.

A group therapist once said that if you want to understand your relationship to your mother, look at your relationship to groups, but I say, “Look at your relationship to the Earth.” The Earth was terrifying to me and separate, radically apart, foreign. I wanted it so much, I stopped wanting it.

This tree outside my room brought back other trees, trees I had seen without seeing, had loved without loving: the weeping willow at the bottom of my driveway in Scarsdale, madly shedding in the fall, making a shimmering bed of soft white lime leaves; the majestic pine trees in Croatia by the sea, filled with vociferous cicadas in late summer; the single tree in the middle of the Mara in Kenya, the lonely solitary tree that I first sat under with a beaded Masai mother who had stopped the practice of female genital mutilation on her daughter and kept playfully punching my arm with joy; the tree in Kabul, or I should say the stump of an ancient tree that had been cut down and burned by rebels, and the way the old, very wrinkled caretaker of the park cried when he talked about the hundred-year-old tree becoming firewood for some wild men for a few stupid nights.

The tree outside the hospital room window became an invitation to a special kind of silence — an opening to the third of Paul Goodman’s nine kinds of silence, “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul.” Ensler recounts:

I had days of silence with my tree and my dear friend and Paris neighbor, MC, who came to stay with me in the hospital. She is Belgian and the quietest person I know. Her silence was new like the tree. At first it was disconcerting, then, over time, delicious. Her presence did not require me to do anything: not to explain or entertain or make sense. She did not ask for anything, and she did not invade the boundaries of my illness. There was a week of silence, of presence, of tree.

[…]

There was the tree. My tree. Not that I owned it. I had no desire for that. But it had come to be my friend, my point of connection and meditation, my new reason to live. I was not writing or producing or on the phone or making anything happen… I was not contributing much more than my appreciation of tree, my love of green, my commitment to trunk and bark, my celebration of branch, my insane delight over the gentle white May blossoms that were beginning to flower everywhere.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

Ensler was eventually discharged from the hospital, but as chemo besieged her body, a complication returned her to that room and restrapped her to the IV bag. And then the tree performed its silent miracle:

I was back in the room with the tree. This time I felt lonely and sad, deeply sad. Some part of me didn’t want to cooperate or move forward.

The tree seemed to mock my self-pity. I was raging, I was totally exhausted by myself, exhausted by my desperate fear of vanishing into ordinary. I was at the end of my body’s road. Everything had stopped inside me, even tears. I passed out.

When I woke up my bag was full and life, it seemed, was coursing through me. The tree had worked its magic. What I didn’t know was that the tree was actually inside me and saving my life. It turns out that Taxol, one of my chemo chemicals, is found in the bark of the ancient yew tree. Even better, the Taxol is made from the needles of the tree, so the tree does not have to be destroyed. Taxol functions to stabilize the cell structure so solidly that killer cells cannot divide and multiply. It was a tree that was calming and protecting me, fortifying my cell structure so it was safe from attack.

I had finally found my mother.

In a characteristically excellent conversation with On Being’s Krista Tippett, Ensler delves further into the details of how the devastating events and experiences of her life — childhood abuse, cancer, the horrific rape and violence she witnessed in the Congo — became her raw material for living:

When I was younger and went through so much violence, I separated myself from all the things that represented life because life was too painful. Beauty, nature, love, children — none of the things felt possible to me. I felt like I had been exiled from that world. And although I looked at it longingly from time to time, I also looked at it with bitterness and the kind of cynical bad-ass self which was, like, I’m on my way to the city and I’ll never see another tree again.

[…]

Every day, every hour, it was as if the tree began to reveal itself to me. Or I began to see the tree or both those things happened together. And I fell in love with that tree. I loved the bark, I loved the trunk, I loved the branches… It was just unbelievable. And by the end of my stay in the hospital, which was a few weeks, the tree actually blossomed these white blossoms and I felt like I was born back into nature somehow. Like I had been asleep, and I had awakened.

In the Body of the World is remarkable in its entirety. Complement this particular meditation with Hesse on what trees teach us about the meaning of life and Katsumi Komagata’s Little Tree — an unbelievably beautiful Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life and death — then be sure to subscribe to On Being for a steady stream of stimulating and deeply enlivening conversations.

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