Photo by Guy Edwards
Sam Harris, a meditating Village Atheist, has a letter in the latest Nature. He takes the magazine to task for praising a Christian scientist, Francis Collins, for “engaging ‘with people of faith to explore how science — both in its mode of thought and its results — is consistent with their religious beliefs’.”
“But here is Collins on how he, as a scientist, finally became convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ:
‘On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains… the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.'”
Harris has conniptions because Collins’ account is so far removed from scientific thinking. Which it is. But there is no rational reason to argue that scientific knowledge is the only valid knowledge, especially since a very high percentage of theoretical breakthroughs in science initially come via dreams and intuition. Scientific methods are only good – and here they are very good – at weeding out unsuccessful arguments about how then physical universe works. This is important, but hardly the whole show.
While Harris’s arrogant brand of atheism is notable for its ignorance of other than monotheistic faith based religious traditions and its author’s apparent disinterest in learning about them, I want to focus on something much more interesting.
What is striking about Collins’ account is how little it has to do with either Jesus or even monotheism. The power of Collins’ experience is unmistakable, and I have frequently had such experiences myself (as well as far stronger ones – but that is another story). But these experiences are devoid of specific doctrinal content.
Fifteen hundred years of state backed monotheism has largely eradicated any way of describing the sacred for most Westerners – except through Judeo-Christian frameworks. If we have a experience of the sacred, we have to put it into Christian terms because we do not know any others. What an impoverishment, of human experience of the sacred.
What Collins is describing is an encounter with the Sacred as immanent. His was a powerfully Pagan experience of the world as sacred and filled with intrinsic meaning. Of course this need not be an anti-Christian experience, but it had no Christian content. And hundreds of years of religious suppression of any but institutionally approved descriptions of the sacred put Collins in the bind of trying to integrate faith in revealed text, his own religious experience that had nothing to do with texts, and science.
I find myself wondering how many Americans’ belief in God is based on this kind of experience of sacred immanence, an experience they then interpret in terms of transcendental monotheism, which has nothing to do with the experience and a lot to do with the cultural impoverishment rooted in 1500 years of state suppression of anything not approved by the church.
I suspect a great many.