Spring 2008 issue cover


Dancing Together in Uncertainty

Cover illustration by Oksana Badrak. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By Brin Stevens

This past April, Pope Benedict stood before 300 American bishops at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and asked: “Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs?”

This is no simple question to answer. If we are to adhere strictly to our religious traditions, including those beliefs which we might falsely accept, would genuine conversations with others of different beliefs be possible? But by questioning certain religious tenets, are we distancing ourselves from our own traditions and our narrative pasts?

We live in vibrant possibility as virtual nomads. We carry with us a growing vocabulary rich in lingual diversity, which allows ideas to pour thoroughly and in abundance into our lives. And yet, as we all are aware, it is only in the realm of the mind where things truly become limitless and flourish, and it is in our temporal existence where limitations are revealed, especially in moral dialectics. Jürgen Habermas says, “Staging the presentation of oneself behind a mask that removes private emotions and everything subjective from sight should properly be considered part of the highly stylized framework of a representative publicness.” Those private convictions that are complex and supple might be cast into the public  arena as something that we reshape to become familiar and accessible to others. How, then, do we take deeply private beliefs, articles of faith, things created from the imagination, and offer them to the corporeal world? And how, too, do we show allegiance to our religious teachings and still feel comfortable questioning their applicability when examining complex issues?

With these questions in mind, it is appropriate that we should lead this issue with Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, who lives her life laying bare the workings of her imagination. While the article presented in this issue is a piece of scholarship, her limpid style in it is as poetic and elegant as in her fiction. By reexamining the idea in Protestant thinking that reverence is a strict following of religious beliefs, she says reverence is found when one “cultivates uncertainty” of orthodoxy; that “intellectual openness” is true faith in God; that, yes, errors shall be found in classical tenets of Christianity; that to narrow one’s reach toward religious experience through blind believing is never to experience the sheer awe and sacredness of God’s creation.

Robinson’s concern for “language of disparagement” for which our culture, “warped and curtailed by contempt,” has come to be defined, is echoed in a book review by Chris Hedges. God is impossible to comprehend, he says, but gives humans “a way to frame the questions”—questions such as those posed in the science versus religion debate, questions which, for me, seem overworked at this point. But in bioethicist Laurie Zoloth’s article, are refreshingly original and accessible. She finds a common passion in fields of religion and science: namely, duty to one’s fellow human beings. It is theologically inaccurate, she says, to think that “human life is unlimited or independent, when the opposite is surely the case: we are all dependent on those beloved dead who shaped us, and we are all obligated to shape our dependents as well.” To allow science to transgress boundaries will not only define our future, but reconcile our narrative pasts—pasts like the ones of early natural history museums, which as Peter Bebergal explains in his museum review, were designed “to reveal the glory of God in the diverse forms of nature.”

Even though there is the possibility that the scientific research being done today could be used for ignoble purposes, we can all agree that a synthetic and immoral world is antithetical to the human condition. And while the two disciplines will never agree to a cooperation of friendship, nor would we wish them to, with continued emphasis on truth and humanity, a convergence of sorts might be of the greatest good for both.

So, too, we see signs of convergence between Muslims and Jews, as described in Edward Kessler’s article in our Dialogue section. Recently, Muslim scholars sent a letter to the Jewish community—another promising step toward reconciliation. The letter said that we must go beyond tolerance and learn to understand and respect the “other” to staunch this “clash of ignorance.” In many cultures otherness can be the enemy and yet in Tu Weiming’s piece, we find otherness as a way of gaining a deep and “intimate sense of human inter-action and the spirit of togetherness” as explained in Confucian teachings, which seek the truth not only in self-cultivation but through social roles and public  obligations.

We are fortunate, at Harvard, to have a stream of lectures and colloquia with diverse and diverging panelists. But into the wild of life, with all its toils and snares, we must, as individuals, build umbilical cords that bind us to otherness and dance together in uncertainty. William James, in his classic lecture “The Will to Believe,” said, “we want to believe that our experiments and studies and discussions must put us in a continually better and better position towards [truth]; and on this line we agree to fight out our thinking lives. But if a pyrrhonistic sceptic asks us how we know all this, can our logic find a reply? No! certainly it cannot. It is just one volition against another,—we willing to go in for life upon a trust or assumption which he, for his part, does not care to make.”

And in those moments of outreach, hospitality, awkwardness, awareness, and unscriptedness when, as Hannah Arendt observed, “the light of the public obscures everything,” imagine it as our contributor Henry Greenspan does in his personal  narrative. Let the light be “like God, something so encompassing that it can command you.”

Brin Stevens is an editor of the Bulletin.

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