Review of Goodenough’s: The Sacred Depths of Nature

Review of Goodenough’s: The Sacred Depths of Nature

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Though some have cautiously kept science and religion apart, remembering the theme in Ecclesiastes that “To everything there is a season, and a time in every purpose under the heaven,” there have been, in recent decades, a spate of books that try to build bridges between the two. Of these, some seek to find science in time-honored religious texts, while others seek religion in well-established scientific results. The book under review belongs to the latter category.  

I have difficulty seeing the Big Bang in the Bible or vacuum fluctuations in the Vedas, but astrophysics and unified fields do resonate with my spiritual chords. So I thoroughly enjoyed reading Goodenough’s slender volume.  

During the past century, of all scientific disciplines it was biology that came into open combat with the religious world views of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In an earlier century, Galileo had to answer the Catholic Church for propagating the Copernican model. In the nineteenth century, no Inquisition brought Kelvin to court for estimating the age of the sun, but in a famous Oxforddebate, Huxley had to argue for the Darwinian declaration. What is ironic is that the hand of God (even as envisioned in the orthodox framework) is nowhere more spectacular than in the biological world. Yes, there is order in the cosmos and beauty in elliptic orbits, but these pale in comparison to the magnificent complexity and variety of life. The mere spectacle of the structure and system apparent even in the simplest of organisms should leave one gasping in wonder and recognize marvel whatever its source. Or, as Goodenough says it with a personal flourish, “I walk through the Missouriwoods and the organisms are everywhere, seen and unseen, flying about or pushing through the soil or rummaging under the leaves, adapting and reproducing. I open my senses to them and we connect [pp. 73-74].”  

Beginning with a concise review of the earth’s origin, Goodenough presents a series of glimpses of the biological world view, guiding us step-by-step through an orchard of results and reflections. With intelligent modesty, she articulates her covenant with Mystery. As one who holds the view that to concede there is mystery in ultimate questions is a wisdom that tames the arrogance springing from cocksure knowledge and the fanaticism arising from the conviction that we know all about God and the beyond, I applaud her for this.  Her pithy phrase “Life has no choice but to evolve [4]” reminded me of an old ditty which said, “Life is so peculiar there’s nothing to do but live…” She confesses that once she wallowed in the poignant nihilism [p.10] of Steven Weinberg’s oft-repeated reaction upon recognizing the laws of physics: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” [I recall that when I read this memorable sentence, I said to myself that Weinberg should have added two little words at the end: “to me.”] For meaning and point are functions of ones perspective. After all, Picasso and Verdi, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, could also be pointless if we consider them in the context of the Clausius Heat Death, but are they really pointless to those who appreciate and enjoy them?  

For when one sees the world as Goodenough does: “…the existence of all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty and my ability to apprehend it, steadily, from the beginning to the present. We are all, we creatures who are alive today, equally old, or equally recent [p. 85].” This is a more complex thought, and for all its scientific factualness, it is enriching rather than competing with the vision of being formed by a loving Creator. Whether the topic is meaning or sex, sexuality or death, the discussion is grounded on sound biology, as when she reflects on death: “Death is the price paid to have trees and clams and birds and grasshoppers, and death is the price to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love [p. 151].” Here, as elsewhere, her language is simple and clear, uncluttered by abstruse jargon or pedantic verbosity, and her prose lucid, at times poetic. There are short quotes from thinkers and scriptures at the close of many chapters. Whether it be from the Psalms or Walt Whitman or a lesser known author, these relevant spurts of thought prompt us to a heightened level of appreciation of the wonders around us, and of the sheer splendor of life, and they contribute to making this book, as one early reader described it, a Daily Devotional.  

However, while Goodenough recognizes the richness in the wisdom of the ages, hers is not an attempt to establish the correctness of holy books. Indeed she admits to her inability to resonate with some of the traditional beliefs, resulting, for sure from her involvement with science. And because this involvement has meaningfully matured, she reacts to science with awareness and alertness, and exemplifies in this work how one can respond religiously to the cold and confirmed facts established by rigorous and disinterested science. The cover of the book which captures tortoises in the Galapagos reminds us of the slow advance of evolution in the sacred arena of our planet.  

Religion is an experience with multiple facets. Some relate to prayer, some to surrender to the Almighty, and some others to love and caring. Science may be of little value in these contexts. But there are two other dimensions of religion which are of no less importance. One is contemplation, a contemplation inspired by awe and reverence, and leads to higher levels of awareness. Science can join in here with the religions of the world, albeit at a somewhat esoteric level. Not in the mere recognition of causes, not in the listing of verified hypotheses, not in the prediction of planetary orbits, not in its countless applications, but in its elevation of the human spirit by the contemplation ofrevealed complexities. When one reflects on the world, standing on the bedrock of science, one can not only undergo a deep religious experience, but also see the essential wisdom in the religious traditions of the human family. When a sensitive scientific mind contemplates on Nature, it is reminded of the line from a Pawnee prayer [quoted in the book, p. 86]: “Remember, remember the sacredness of things….” As Blake saw “heaven in a wild flower,” Goodenough unveils to the reader “the sacred depths of nature.”  

Then there is the ethical level. Traditional religions stress personal conduct in relation to those with whom one immediately interacts: parents, children, friends, neighbors, community, etc. And many of them also express a reverence for and pay homage to the powers and principles of Nature. But, with the intertwining of the peoples of the world and the technological assault on the environment there is a crying need for a planetary ethic. This too is a goal of Goodenough’s book. As she clearly states, her agenda “for this book is to outline the foundations for such a planetary ethic, an ethic that would make no claim to supplant existing traditions but would seek to coexist with them, informing our global concerns… [pp. xv-xvii]” She could have said, supplement and fortify them further, instead of “coexist with them.” The concluding chapter of the book [pp. 166 et seq.] explores this idea further.  There is no doubt that as we move forward, carrying the boons and burden of technological onslaught into the impending century, we need to enlarge our ethical visions in the new and rapidly changing contexts. This can be most effectively done by the deep understanding that science offers, and the reverential humility to the world that wisdom fosters. This book accomplishes all this with great charm and insight.

Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature,OxfordUniversity Press, NY, 1998, 197 pp, ISBN 0-19-512613-0 U.S.$ 24.00.