Jonathan Klate: Musings at the turn of the year

Last modified: Monday, January 06, 2014
I walk out into the chill of the winter’s night, gaze up at the moon, and then beyond into the endless dark. The infinite firmament overwhelms comprehension, and challenges imagination. Infinite. Get that? No. We don’t. Not really.

The aging child I am wonders at the twinkling stars, so familiar yet at the same time so enduringly mysterious. Of course, each miniscule flicker is actually the glint of an incredibly distant and incomprehensibly enormous nuclear furnace exploding into the cosmos billions of years ago from unimaginably distant realms of space. Get that? No, not that either.

The Milky Way, our home galaxy, is comprised of hundreds of billions of stars unfurled across a hundred light years of space, like a beach full of sand swirling upon cyclonic winds. And astronomers tell us this is not an outstandingly large one, and is one among billions of others.

My thoughts return to this small planet, our fragile home that we must share, as we mark the end and beginning of another orbit around our sun star.

Here millions of our brothers and sisters, quaking in frightened blindness, slay one another with fierce brutality, starve to death by the thousands every day, and wreck the environment that sustains us, while I stand, musing into space, among the fortunate few with a full belly, warm home, safe and relaxed in my neighborhood.

I struggle to fathom, just as you do, how some of us have gathered unto ourselves vast fortunes, while the starving goes on, as though one has no relationship to the other. The real problems of our suffering world sometimes feel impossible difficult, so far beyond our capacity to make any difference.

And here among and around us so many of our sisters and brothers are persuaded that the particular quaint religious stories in which they take refuge from the demands of thinking about who we are, how we come to be here, and why, that they happen to have been given by their faith community of friends and family, comprise the complete and only answer to such questions.

If we believe our religion offers the only truth, we must speculate about why most of our fellow human beings find our precious faith to be merely a strange mythology, just as we see theirs.

Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner said, “There are two major groups of people in the world — those who want certitude and those who want understanding.” And our poet sage Whitman declared, “Who are you that wanted to be told only what you knew before? Who are you that wanted only a book to join you in your nonsense.”

Getting comfortable with uncertainty, with the imperfect, biased, radically partial view of anything and everything that we are granted, while also keeping the heart open to the suffering of others and the mind suffused with wonder, is part of how we become fully mature human beings.

A recent authoritative survey polled in all 50 states shows that only a minority of those affiliated with one of our major political parties accept the idea that human beings evolved over time, a percentage that has fallen precipitously in just a few years. And a majority of that same party denies the manifest reality of impending catastrophic climate change catalyzed by avarice and willfully ignorant industrial policy. It ought to follow that many of these same people believe the stars are as few and small and near as they appear. Why trust scientists on some matters while rejecting their counsel on others?

Confidence in science has become a liberal-identified attitude. I must wonder how those who understand themselves to be rational, principled, Tea Party rejecting conservatives feel about the shockingly ignorant cohort with which they make common cause?

To be “progressive” means to sustain an optimism about our potential for progress in understanding as we strive for a more humane society and better planetary stewardship. It includes confidence that rational analysis must not be rejected in preference for received opinion devoid of evidence, where scant distinction is made between “faith” and “imagination.” I am surely not one who rejects all dimensions of mind other than the rational as having no value in achieving the fullness of our humanity.

There are forms of consciousness that notable champions of atheism such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens seem to know little about. But our capacity to gather evidence and develop explanations consistent with the preponderance of available data is, along with transcendental spiritual awareness, love, compassion, and esthetic sensitivity, a capability of humanity that must be honored and included in our efforts to care for ourselves, one another, and our planet.

George Washington (no less) wrote that, “We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition…” A righteous sentiment, good sir. Yet, alas, rather wishful then as yet today.

Jonathan Klate of Amherst writes about spirituality and political perspectives. His column appears the first Monday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.