Explorer and aviator Richard E. Byrd noted how surprising it is, “approaching the final enlightenment, how little one really has to know or feel sure about...” [Alone, 1938].
Tardiness in discerning first and final things points to a common weakness among intellectuals, leaders and movers of society, namely a radical detachment from the spiritual side of human life, with a total disregard for the consequences in the here and now, let alone the before and hereafter.
Compensating for that spiritual blindness with brain-powered “enlightenment” requires an impossible act: the substitution of self for God, an act that mostly leads to misery, not progress. For it feeds an egomania, especially among scientists, social reformers, even theologians who, unlike honest artists and music makers – to bring up a sharp contrast – are too proud to admit that the products of their thought and designs have no more real substance than Rembrandt’s lighting or Ravel’s orchestral color. At best their facts fit together as well as the tile-bits in a Byzantine façade and their constructs encompass life as well, tone-wise, as a Brahms symphony.
Admit it or not, at root level, everyone is guessing – a truism missed entirely by those who have no use for truth, including the value of human life, yet insist on lording over people and controlling their lives, divested of even a shred of humility. This skipping over what it means to be human and mortal while reaching for what is best for human life closes the mind to the nature of reality and predictably leads to an endless return to Square One.
Inventing a “suitable reality,” sport of philosophers, utopian reformers, and politicians, just won’t do, as the following serves to illustrate.
An unnamed physiologist walked with Maurice Maeterlinck in Normandy, one day in the 19th Century. Maeterlinck was the poet-naturalist who wrote the classic chronicle, The Life of the Bee (from which this incident is drawn). The two paused at a plateau overlooking a plain that ran down to the edge of the sea, where they watched peasants stacking corn. It was a lovely, pastoral vignette of life framed in the peace and beauty of nature. The physiologist pointed to this picture of reality, made beautiful by distance, then invited his companion to go down and look closer. Suddenly the song that blended with the whisper of leaves was made up of abuse and insult. The laughter was the result of an obscene remark. There were harelips, hunchbacks, and imbeciles, hypocrites, liars, and slanderers among the men, women, and children working in the field.
The second, ugly reality contradicted the first, beautiful one. The two men then sat on a hill to reflect upon this anomaly. It was clear, at least, that in spite of the coarseness and mud-slinging at the center of the gathering, an unconscious necessity made the group function in a kind of rustic harmony. And that was a third reality. But which was the true reality, they wondered? Was it the distant, lovely one? The mean, up-close one? The hidden, functional one? How could they fathom reality when they could not rightly process what they could see, in the first place?
Is it not true that the filters used for viewing the world or mental nets thrown out to capture what is seen, to make sense of it, will eventually, if not instantly, confirm the mode of thought employed? Is it not true that a great wonder of the world is that it floods us with options and invites us to select and test not just for what works but for what is indeed best and most fulfilling for our lives? How can this be a successful endeavor when the mind depends solely on the data of the senses and the machinations of the brain?
For mortals, the answer to the question – Which is the true reality? – is far less important than the lessons to be drawn from circling the truth. Taking Lesson One, that we are guessing, and Lesson Two, that we are agents in a pliant world – contending with the evil of heartless men and women, it must quickly be added – we can proceed to move in life as though it is a divine journey, guided by time-tested tenets that transcend every generation and are madness to discard. History provides ample evidence that people cannot be their own gods and shows that there are really no supermen or superwomen to take the place of our Creator.
To cut to the quick: when we know that we don’t know, we can see that because every system of thought and action begins with a belief, a leap of faith, we may start by abiding in God without the mental gyrations of “proof” deemed necessary. For they who don’t believe can dismantle every “proof” and those who believe need no “proof.” We may opt for the goodness of Creation that we form a part of, since all that is left in the way is not a body of data, a set of theories, a political inclination, not even the facts of suffering and the fear of death that attend being mortal in an uncertain world but, as with rebellious children, a foolishly stubborn will.
For some this should be a reminder, for others a warning, that to be “wise in one’s own mind” regarding the best path to take through life without the light of God – supremely well illuminating sacred scripture – risks spiritual suicide. Acknowledging one’s incompleteness and dependence on a Mind superior to one’s own – that of the One who put us here – is not just a sign of humility in the face of the Eternal but a very wise step toward true enlightenment.
Sensing the beauty of the living world (words I am borrowing from a 1973 letter to me from anthropologist Loren Eiseley), I too rejoice in the “little cries from the edge of the imminent dark… and the many people there must be out there who are still not totally swept in our huge technological dream,” aware that what inspires the best in us emanates not from the human brain but from the spirit of God, source of our being.