The world is only as dead as you make it: on Awe, Atheism, and Sparrows

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”

The above quote from prominent atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins speaks to my soul, and maybe it does so because it speaks to the profoundly human experience of tasting infinity as we observe this wonderful world around us, while at the same time being deeply aware of our own smallness, our own finitude in cruel juxtaposition with the grandness of the universe (or even multiverse!).

I’m not here to convince anyone that Dawkins’ awe is “God”, but I will say that in my own experience this sort of intellectual joy/wonder/transcendence ranks right up there with experiences of the Ultimate Mystery we name as God.

The daily grind of contemporary life can numb us to this invitation to awe all around us.  Our yearning for scientific and religious certainty can force us to use  dead, deterministic language that reduces real experience into dead end dogmas.

For example, the sparrows outside my window are just beginning to wake up. Judging by the time of year, they are probably busy nesting, feeding, and preparing for a new batch of baby sparrows. But to many they are “just sparrows,” just some invasive birds that are no more than flying rats.

More generously, religious language might say something like, God created them like that and God made them to do that particular thing at this time of year. Well that’s boring. Suddenly these little miracles become pawns or wind-up toys. Scientific language, on the other hand might say that they are merely passing on their genes and ensuring their genes will be successful. Well now they sound like little robots controlled by genes. That’s kind of cool I guess but still sort of boring.

I call all of this language dead language because it has no vitality, no life. AND IT IS LIFE THAT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT. It makes the sparrows into clocks and inserts God or evolution or something else as a clock maker. The birds, the life chirping outside, are not fully revealed as life. We explain the wonder away. We numb ourselves to the beauty, to the glory.

When St. Francis of Assisi preached to birds, he used to say, “Birds, be birds! For in that you give glory to God.”

And what is a bird? I mean, seriously? We can observe them, categorize them, study their genes, observe their evolutionary history, feed them, eat them, love them, hate them. But what is it?

At a molecular level, the bird is made up of atoms forged in the furnace of a dying star, which then exploded and sent these atoms flying all over the universe. On our own beloved earth, these atoms somehow arranged themselves over billions of years into genes, cells, bones, blood, beaks and feathers, and this beautifully ordered unity is working together outside my window, chirping frantically to the world from within the linden tree. If I have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, I can know that these beautiful invasive little bastards are the universe itself singing to me, who is also the universe, and I, as part of this glorious cosmos, can take their song and explain it away, deaden it, or I can magnify it, sanctify it, consecrate it as the Glory of God all around me.

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I mean, what is it?

Mathematician John Conway, who famously devised a game that emulated life in its simple rules yet complex arrangements, once said that mathematics was the simple part, the stuff we can understand. The hard stuff?  “It’s cats that are complicated. I mean, what is it?”

What is this thing called life, called being? And why do we all pretend like we really know what it is, when none of us really know what this mystery we are breathing in and out at each moment actually is?

One of the many valid critiques offered by atheism of Western religion is that it fails, in scope and in specificity, to inspire awe at the wonder of this universe and everything in it.

This certainly wasn’t always the case, and I would add that one of the failures of contemporary Western culture in general, both scientific and religious, is that it has led us to believe we live in a disenchanted universe, devoid of agency, awe, wonder, and life. In our desire to know all and explain all, we’ve somehow lost the magic our hearts desperately crave.

We modern humans, who are as much a part of the universe as the sparrows and stars, often feel like we live in exile, all alone. We build little grey climate controlled boxes to spend our lives in. But we also build little boxes of language and thought to live our inner lives within. Everything is just “the way God wanted it” or “the survival of the fittest.” Everything loses its glory, its wonder.

We live like (comfortable) robots in a disenchanted universe but we devour fantasy in all our media: in sports, science fiction, social media, movies, video games, and books. We long to live again in a glorious cosmos, to “go back” to the enchanted world, even while at the same time explaining it all away.

This simply won’t do. We CAN live in an enchanted world again, and we don’t need to profess any particular creed, believer or atheist, to do so. Because both scientific and religion language speak to realities that are beyond the scope of our current language and paradigms, and these realities are too beautiful for culture wars and sound bites. They should be savored, not explained away.

We long for lived mysteries, not dead explanations. But this world is only as dead and disenchanted as you choose to make it.

Maybe the answer is depth, seeking depth in both our science and our religious traditions. Not glib sound bites, but awe-filled experiential pilgrimages that begin anew each day. Curiosity, not certainty.

We all have a choice, everyday. Atheist, agnostic, believer. As Thomas Merton once wrote:

“Either you look at the universe as a very poor creation out of which no one can make anything, or you look at own life and your own part of the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest, opening out into the infinite further possibilities for study and contemplation and interest and praise. Beyond all and in all is God.”

I like that. And I think the sparrows do too.

One thought on “The world is only as dead as you make it: on Awe, Atheism, and Sparrows

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