Thursday, May 17, 2007

David Hay's 'Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit'


As someone tormented by rationalism's rejection of the Supernatural, yet haunted by life's meaningless without a transcendent reality, I have long nursed myself on existentialist faith writers such as Soren Kierkegaard (when I can comprehend him), Blaise Pascal, Gabriel Marcel, novelist Francois Mauriac, and the like.

What has continually surprised me, though less as I go on through life, is how the questions that always haunted me before and -- to a lesser degree -- after conversion, are questions that seemingly don't bother other people. I'm talking "other" in both Christian and non-christian crowds. On the one hand, I encounter many believers (including my dear wife, Carol) who never questioned the existence of God even before converting to a specific faith. God seemed as real as the Grand Canyon to her. That wasn't the case for me.

On the other hand, I encounter (in print and in person) cheerful rationalist / atheists such as Richard Dawkins who find in my existential angst something silly, even neurotic. And of course, there are elements of the neurotic in it, though to borrow and mangle an old saying, "Just because I'm a religious neurotic doesn't mean God isn't out to get me." For me, the world of a Dawkins is just as strange as I suppose mine is to his. If I were to be an atheist, it would be one of a decidedly darker, more nihilistic persuasion.

When I stumble upon a book, then, that has the Pascalian flavor to it -- that strange mix of knowing and unknowing rooted in the human experience itself as a (maybe the) basis for faith -- I am deeply grateful. David Hay's Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit (Templeton Foundation Press, 2007) carries such a flavor.

Speaking of Pascal, one of the earliest portions of the book deals with modernist reductionism applied to Pascal's (and others') religious experiences:

Underlying the fuzziness and dispute about the meaning of the term "spirituality" is a longstanding split in Western culture. At this moment the division enters every vein of our creative experience, that is, the way we go about explaining the mysterious reality in which we find ourselves.

Hay goes on to note the centrality of Jesus Christ's life and teachings in western culture, the fact he is our "culture hero [...] who claimed to speak with the utmost familiarity with God and urged his followers to do the same."

Hay quotes from the fourth-century liturgy of St. James and the eighteenth-century poet George Hebert, who wrote:

Teach me my God and King
In all things thee to see
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee.

Hay offers in two paragraphs his explanation of this traditional Christian-imbued view of reality vs. the Enlightenment's idea of God as psychological projection:

Not only is European history littered with speech acts directed toward God, multitudes of people, obscure as well as famous, have claimed to have encountered God at the heart of their lives. The champions of the culture, the saints after whom streets, churches, hospitals, schools and entire cities are named, from St. Petersburg to Peterborough, are traditionally people to whom God has spoken particularly clearly. In concert with thsi, devout Christians are urged in the Scriptures to listen to what God has to say to them in their daily lives; they are advised to place themselves in the presence of God; to wait upon God; to see God in all things, or as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, to see the world 'charged with the grandeur of God.' To summarize, in traditional western culture the most practical of all human experiences, because it is an encounter with the source of all being, is the encounter with God.

So where does the split Hay talks of come in?

[W]hen we consider the thought arising from the Enlightenment, we find that it culminates in a central assertion from the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He claimed that we can have no direct experience of noumena, that is, things
in themselves as they really are, as opposed to the given world of physical appearances, or what we can perceive with our senses. It follows that for Kant it is perfectly all right for people to think about God (and Kant thought a great deal about God) but there is no way we can encounter God directly. In other words, neither for ordinary people nor for philosophers has God any reality beyond being the subject of a theoretical belief. If people do make any further claim to personal experience of the supposed divine presence, they are deluding themselves. It is only a short step from this conclusion to Ludwig Feuerbach's famous projection theory of God. In his book The Essence of Christianity, published in 1841, Feuerback claimed that the Christian religion (and by implication, every theistic religion) is a projection onto an imaginary God of all the best qualities of human beings, leaving them helpless and degraded, or as he put it: 'the more empty life is, the fuller, the more concrete is God.'

Now I have not read Kant, and am leery of all neat summations of very complex philosophers / philosophies. (I probably was badly burned enough by Francis Schaeffer's treatment of Soren Kierkegaard to forever mistrust others wishing to summarize those with whose beliefs they may not concur, and with whom I have not enough knowledge to independently discern.) But regardless of accuracy regarding the specific names mentioned, the overall split is one I personally am very familiar with, having grown up in it and tormented by it.
Hay's summary of the split is best in that personal regard:

So, there we have the split at its sharpest. Ranged against each other are the ancient view of encounter with God as the most directly practical of all experiences because it is a meeting with the 'really real'; and the Enlightenment view of God as the most remotely theoretical of all intellectual fantasies. Over the last few centuries the strength of this latter claim has put religion out of court for increasing numbers of people in the Western world.

But here is where one again senses the Pascalian flavor of Hay's worldview. Because precisely at the point where one expects him to begin constructing an argument for God (and against the rationalists) he instead appeals to a different stream of thinking altogether. It is neatly summed up in his citation of zoologist Alister Hardy (1896 - ). In the mid 1960s Hardy, a Christian who was puzzled by both Christian and secularist interpretations of Darwinism as being antithetical to belief in God, spoke out in a series of lectures. (They were later published as The Living Stream: A Restatement of Evolutionary Theory and its Relation to the Spirit of Man.)

Hardy's premise was fairly simple, as Hay observes:

In spite of the great emphasis that philosophers and theologians have given to the argument from design, there is something perverse about coming to an
abstract conclusion about the direct experience of a transcendent presence that people were already aware of anyway. For them to set aside their own direct experience of that 'something' in favour of a philosophical conclusion, would be rather like a man who is bothered by an uncertainty as to whether the friend sitting opposite him is really there. Having decided on the basis of a logical argument that his friend is indeed slouched in the armchair, he can relax and safely proceed to invite him for a game of snooker or a drink. That kind of behavior might be fine for bored philosophy undergraduates with nothing better to do on a rainy day, but even philosophers in their everyday lives act on the assumption that their direct intuitions are in most caes, reliable.

This whole idea that human beings are "religious animals" -- that it is part and parcel of our make-up, deserves deeper exploration. Hardy developed a very interesting side-line discussion (which has more impact than one might think on the direction Hay takes) on a free-will version of evolution. Forgive me, the free will bit is my addition, trying to encapsulate a fairly complex concept of Hardy's. But basically Hardy seemed to think that animals (and to a greater degree, humans) participated in their own evolution all along, whether consciously or unconsciously. That issue, however, is not the one central to my own interest in Hay's book. I also don't want to battle over evolution here... not my main pony to ride.

Hay intriguingly takes us on a journey through the historical, cultural, and religious past. But more importantly and perhaps more controversially, he begins also to use human experience itself as a litmus test for spiritual reality. Again, this resonates with Pascal, whom I personally so benefit from (helped in the beginning via Making Sense of it All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, a small, popular book by former Notre Dame professor Tom Morris).

Pascal talks at length in his Pensees ("Thoughts") about dogmatists who have no trouble seeing God in everything vs. the skeptics who seem unable to believe on the basis of creation. While dogmatists see God in everything, and even before actual conversion believe in God as real, the skeptic's great obstacle to faith is her or his inability to have even the most abstract belief in a God who is actually there, independent of human constructions or inventions. That latter camp is where I dwelt, and my journey toward faith continues to be rooted in the struggle against that sort of unbelief. Pascal doesn't talk about dogmatic skeptics, though Hay does.

So what does David Hay do to help us toward belief, using this rather Pascalian approach? Well, much of it is rooted in an evolutionary approach which is going to irritate a lot of evangelicals. My own non-embrace of that portion of the program has to do -- despite the "free will" caveats -- somewhat reductionist vibrations so-called "spiritual evolution" always leaves me with. I suspect Soren Kierkegaard would have wondered if Hay was a Hegel fan...

But Hay, via Hardy, is battling reductionism as he sees it, the rationalistic belief that the universe is mechanical, and religious experience (which Hay calls "spirituality" to expand outward to even non-theists) is merely part of the mechanism. Rather, as Hardy once wrote in 1942:

I believe that the dogmatic assertions of the mechanistic biologists, put forward with such confidence as if they are the voice of true science, where they are in reality the blind acceptance of an unproven hypothesis, are as damaging to the peace of mind of humanity as was the belief in everyday miracles in the middle ages.

It is not possible for me, in this short (??!!??) space, to exhaustively explore the rest of Hay's book. He has long been associated with Oxford University's Religious Experience Research Unit (now located at St. David's College, University of Wales, and called the R. E. R. Centre). No doubt his own experiences there have provided him with much of the depth in Something There.

A final, personal, note. As I read through this book, I was confronted with my own moment of illumination. I suppose on some level I have always subconsciously thought there was something to be a bit proud of regarding my inability to easily believe in God's existence, much less his personal interest in me. But as I read David Hay's words I came up against a harsh reality regarding my own inward struggle. I was, am, and in this life may continue to be a deformed person. My wife, and many of my friends, never (even before conversion) disbelieved in God's existence. Yet for me, this disbelief was the source of anguish.

I was, and to a degree remain, spiritually blind. And yet, despite my blindness, I also did have encounters with the numinous that led to my conversion in 1973. And I have continued to encounter God through his tenderness, his grace, his people, and the suffering of others whom I often cannot meaningfully help yet once in a while am enabled to try.

David Hay's Something There: the Biology of the Human Spirit is not a book with a nifty Christian pitch to come and meet Jesus. I suspect its greatest impact -- whether or not its readers can subscribe to some of Hay's scientific assumptions re evolution and the like -- will be upon those of us who believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Human beings really are the strangest, most wonderful mixture of animal and spirit, flesh and soul, basic lusts and existential longings. As I thought upon this book, I remembered one more Pascalian theme. We humans, and not merely nature, are clear sign-posts to the One in Whose Image we are created.

1 comment:

Phil said...

Wow. My brain hurts.

I was reading John Muir's "Wild Wool" yesterday and found it intriguing how Muir saw genetic adaptation as the ultimate expression of God's providence. Through natural selection God gave the mountain sheep the ability to adapt to harsh environments,developing coarse guard-hairs that protected against wind and rain. This proved to Muir that God loves sheep.

I don't know if this is the split to which you refer, but today's rationalist sees the mechanism disconnected from any higher reality of God or Providence. In a kind of mirror-image way, so does the Churchman, who tends to deny the mechanism altogether.

I'm just blabbering now, but it seems to me that the Modern Evangelical tries to defend his position against materialists using rationalism as a basis. I think the whole Creationism vs. Evolution debate is a rationalist debate.