Thursday, October 24, 2013
Convergence of Knowledge on the Western Flyer
Two years ago, at about this time, there was a change in St. Joseph’s Chapel. A change so subtle that many didn’t notice it. Because of the change, whenever there is any seismic activity in Kent, here in Northwestern Connecticut, scientists at Columbia University can study the earth directly because of St. Joseph’s Chapel. How is this possible? We have a state of the art seismometer. Where is it located? You ask. Wonderfully, it is located in our bell tower. I say wonderfully because I love it when forms of knowledge intersect, especially science and theology. When I was your age, an idealistic and bright-eyed scholar, one of my favorite parts of the educational experience was when knowledge of one class flowed into another, and when knowledge from two or more different directions converged to mutually inform each field.
I thought about the seismometer in the chapel last week when Dr. Green and Mr. McDonough shared their thoughts on the strange lives and extraordinary thinking of Isaac Newton and Athanasius Kircher. After those talks, my pensive and neurotic hunchback intern—his name is I-gor…he lives secretly in the bell tower…I-gor and I spent hours meditating in front of the seismometer. We were on fire with the consilience of knowledge; and I could almost hear the seismometer join us by saying “Om” in the darkness of the tower. I-gor had a hard life growing up in the Carpathian Mountains of eastern Romania, but he loves it here at Kent. Despite the fact that he grew up in a family with twenty-six children and assorted livestock and reptiles, he still gets very skittish around Kent students. Most students have never seen him. Ok, I don’t really have a hunchback intern living secretly in the bell tower (or do I?). But no bell tower is complete without a hunchback and a seismometer. So I’m half way there, maybe all the way.
Several years ago, I accidentally discovered a hidden gem of a book at the Monterey Aquarium on a visit there with my daughter Beatrice and my brother Kevin. All three of us get very excited—positively giddy--about aquariums, and Monterey is our favorite. Zoos make me sad, especially the gorillas, but I become theological at aquariums, almost instantly. Just the sight of the Leafy Sea Dragon—a creature that appears to be part sea horse, part plant (species Phycodurus eques)—can send me into a religious trance. On this particular visit, the gift shop had a large display section on the novelist John Steinbeck, the most famous person to ever come from Monterey, California, which is just a few hours from the small boring town where I grew up in California. The Steinbeck book that caught my eye was The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck is one of my all time favorite writers, but I had never heard of this non-fiction book--an account of Steinbeck’s participation on a science research ship visiting the Sea of Cortez, otherwise known as the Gulf of California, on the western coast of Mexico. My brother said it was definitely worth reading, which was a change in our usual relationship--with me recommending books to him. So I left the Monterey Aquarium with a book to read.
My brother Kevin and I look and sound alike to many people; some describe him as a stretched out version of me, pulled by invisible forces, or secret knots—or I am a compressed and much more handsome version of him. Either way is fine. Kevin is a scientist who spends his day in a laboratory on the coast of California. His specialty is environmental toxicology. What does he do all day? He spends a lot of time on his invectively coupled plasma mass spectrometer. He also has his ion chromatograph, a gas chromatograph, and don’t forget the always necessary ammonia analyzer. I can’t get through a day without an ammonia analyzer either. You should see what it did to my copy of Hamlet. Kevin also has an i.c.p. without mass spectrometry, which makes it faster, along with the carbon nitrogen analyzer where samples are combusted at 1000 degrees.
Wow, that is hot as hell. Which brings us back to theology.
On other hand, I am a priest of Jesus Christ who spends his time teaching theology and humanities, religion and literature. I analyze and interpret ancient texts. I teach modern literature as well. I perform rituals that are 2000 years old, with today’s teenagers present. I think the Roman Empire is recent history, and Jesus of Nazareth and I spend a lot of time together. He is my home slice, after all. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are also old friends. I don’t moodle or skype. I waited out moodle, and now it’s gone. It disappeared. Victory is mine, once more. No one moodles anymore, just like me. When a student asked me this fall about my Haiku page for my class, I explained, with a straight face and a stern voice: I don’t speak Japanese. The student backed away from me slowly. I don’t have an i-phone or a droid. I do have a seven year old Nokia cell phone, with a cracked screen, which is perfect because I can’t read texts or tell if I have any messages. People laugh at me when they see it. They rejected Jesus too. Unlike you, I am not itching to get at my phone as soon as chapel is over. (Pause to show physical signs of addiction to technology). I prefer this: the dialectical space between us. Give or take the pulpit. Give or take. The closest I come to being interested in technology is that I watch every episode of “Ancient Aliens” that I can find on the History channel. I-gor and I take copious notes in the bell tower. Makes perfect sense to us, especially Machu Picchu and the pyramids. Oh by the way, I think there’s a 50-50 chance that both Dr. Green and Mr. McDonough are modern aliens doing research here for their home planets. With their advanced technologies, the cross country team’s recent success isn’t so mysterious. I like to run too. But only when I’m being chased.
To honor Mr. McDonough and Dr. Green, I will now don safety goggles, which I will wear for the duration of this chapel talk. Ideas are powerful…and dangerous.
I talk to people, my species, Homo sapiens, all day long, preferably face to face, or thereabouts. There are many days when Kevin the scientist talks to almost no one, except for his fantasy football friends. We are worlds apart. Yet I love bouncing ideas, both scientific and artistic, historical and psychological and mathematical, off my brother; and he does the same with me. However, we never discuss economics because the field makes him very sad. We both have to be a little slow at the beginning with the jargon and terminology, from our respective disciplines, until the other one catches on, and then we can really fly. But there once was a time when we both did science and the humanities; which is exactly where you are as students today. You shouldn’t be in a hurry to specialize; so please slow down and enjoy all of your subjects, and the different parts of the mind they open.
So what do my brother the scientist and I the priest have to do with the author John Steinbeck? Yes, back to him. The Log from the Sea of Cortez was written by two people, not one. One of the writers was John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. But the other was Edward Ricketts, a biologist from Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, right next to Steinbeck in Monterey. In the book the novelist and the scientist collaborated on the written log of the science voyage. Ricketts was a scientist who studied at the University of Chicago. He specialized in animal behavior: the group vs. the individual in the animal world. Steinbeck was fascinated by the very same question in human beings. How do we behave when we are alone? How do we behave when we are around others? How should we behave in both situations? Both Ricketts and Steinbeck were critical, and often pessimistic, about the future of our species. They were worried about the environment long before it was fashionable to do so, and both men were skeptical of American society. Among the many odd pastimes of Ricketts was his personal interest and medical care for local prostitutes in the Monterey area. He gave them free medical treatment right from his lab in Monterey. Locals in Monterey referred to him as being “half goat, and half Christ.”
What inspired me about the book was my inability, as reader, while reading, to discover where Steinbeck’s thinking stopped and Ricketts’ started, and vice versa, as they charted their scientific oceanic journey. This is how Steinbeck described the intellectual friendship he found with Ricketts. Their rapport he referred to as “speculative metaphysics.” According to Steinbeck, speculative metaphysics was a kind of sport, a deep intellectual bonding between them. In the novelist’s words: “It was a sport of lopping off a piece of observed reality and letting it move up through the speculative process like a tree growing tall and bushy. We observed with pleasure how the branches of thought grew away from the trunk of external reality…we worked together so closely that I do not know in some cases who started which line of speculation since the end thought was the product of both minds. I do not know whose thought it was.” In the book, the scientific mind and the literary mind are wed in one mind: the mind of the naturalist. The observer and lover of nature. Think Mr. Klingebiel, or Hunter White (he’s probably out foraging for grubs right now in Maine--that lovable hobbit).
So what does this have to do with us? I think the experience aboard the science ship The Western Flyer is an apt one for thinking about Kent School, and for thinking about your purpose here. For Ricketts and Steinbeck, no question was out of bounds. Nothing was sacred, and everything was. Both men actively questioned common sense and group think, the human tendency to continue to think ridiculous ideas only because lots of other people think them too around you. Both men were fascinated by religion, and when they were ashore they went to churches and religious festivals in Mexico. They were touched by poor people who shared their incredible food and their beautiful customs with the crew without demanding anything in return. The Mexican people were likewise amazed by a ship that wasn’t buying or selling anything at all, but was simply gathering knowledge wherever it could be found. If you do this in the world, people will find you strange, and they will be drawn to you.
What was the synthetic thread of the diverse experience of the voyage? What was the deepest shared assumption between Ricketts the biologist and Steinbeck the novelist? Perhaps it is the same shared assumption between my brother the environmental scientist and me the priest of an ancient religion. Ricketts and Steinbeck both fundamentally agreed on a line from the poet William Blake to explain their shared passion. The line is this: “All that lives is holy.” All that lives is holy. Holiness is not simply a category for the faithful. It is a quality that is everywhere you look, in all living things. It grows and branches from the smallest living creatures to the animals of greater complexity, and we are all connected to the same holy source of life.
All that lives is holy.
I encourage you to kindle in yourself an active spirit and intellect that seeks knowledge in many fields, and also seeks to synthesize that knowledge into your own philosophy of life. And your own theology of God. The universe is too beautiful for only one way of seeing it. I hope you will combine the many branches of knowledge and discovery into your own vision of the holiness of all creation, and then protect it with all your heart and strength and mind. These are the sacred places of knowledge where truth and beauty, the physical and the spiritual, have kissed each other. These are the places that give hope for humanity and our common future. I hope you have a good evening. Your technology awaits you. But so does Mother Earth, dear Mother Nature. This planet is a jewel. Take care of her always.