Part 1

Where do we come from

What are we 

Where are we going? 

Where do we come from

What are we 

Where are we going? 

Powerful answers to this have come from modern science. 

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known,” said astronomer and writer Carl Sagan, and science is up to the task. 

Or, is it? 

The kind of science Robin Wall Kimmerer met up with as a freshman in college desiring to study “why asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together” was a sobering disappointment. That kind of science was “reductionist, mechanistic, and [“so-called”] strictly objective.” That kind of science wanted to deprive her of her passion for plants, in a troublingly similar way to how her grandfather at the government boarding school had been “ordered to leave everything—language, culture, family—behind.” 

Years after this, having earned her Ph.D. in Plant Ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; having become a prominent scientist herself and named American Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry; having received the highly distinguished John Burroughs Medal Award for her book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses—having accomplished all this, still, she wants to ask, “Does science allow us to perceive the sacred in the world, or does it bend light in such a way as to obscure it?” And then she says, “A lens that brings the material world into focus but blurs the spiritual is the lens of a people made of wood. It is not more data that we need for our transformation … but more wisdom.”

Every human being ought to be concerned about this, since science has and will have a tremendous impact on our future. But the issues Kimmerer raises ought to perk up the ears of every Unitarian Universalist especially, since we claim science as one of the principal sources of our faith, and we do it proudly. 

But we should seriously reconsider this if, as Kimmerer suggests, science is indeed “a lens that brings the material world into focus but blurs the spiritual” and therefore makes us into “a people made of wood.” 

Just let that image sink in. A people made of wood. Hard. Insensitive. Inhuman. Inhumane. 

It’s the exact same concern I’ve heard over and over again, from other folks in the field of science, from people on the inside, people who are the “loyal opposition.” Consider this story from medical doctor and holistic health pioneer Rachel Naomi Remen: 

As a pediatric intern, she says, I was a secret baby kisser. This was so flagrantly ‘unprofessional’ I was careful not to be discovered. Late at night under the guise of checking a surgical dressing or an I.V., I would make solo rounds on the ward and kiss the children good night. If there was a favorite toy or blanket, I would be sure it was close and if someone were crying I would even sing a little. I never mentioned this dimension of my health care to anyone. I felt the other residents, mostly men, might think less of me for it.

One evening as I was talking to a patient’s father in the corridor, I glanced over his shoulder and saw Stan, my chief resident, bend over the crib of a little girl with leukemia and kiss her on the forehead. In that moment, I realized that others too might be struggling to extend themselves beyond an accepted professionalism to express a natural caring. Perhaps there was a way to talk about these things, even to support one another.

One night when we were waiting to be called to the operating room for a C-Section, I told Stan what I had seen and that it had meant something important to me. Although we were alone in the doctor’s lounge, Stan denied the whole thing. We dropped the subject in embarrassment. For the rest of the year we worked together, thirty-six hours on call and twelve hours off. We became trusted colleagues, good friends and even occasional drinking buddies, but we never mentioned the incident again. 

Stan’s integrity was almost legendary. He would never have fudged a piece of lab data or said he had read an article when he hadn’t. But he would have had to step past our entire professional image and training to admit his heartfelt reaction to that little girl. It was impossible then. It is barely possible now. Expressing caring directly rather than through a willingness to work a thirty-six hour day or spend long evenings keeping up with the medical literature and the newest treatments transgresses a strong professional code. It was just not professional behavior. I stopped kissing the babies then. It did not seem worth the risk. 

In some ways, medical training is like a disease. It would be years before I would fully recover from mine.

That’s the story from Rachel Naomi Remen, and it’s heartbreaking. Healers, wanting to obey a natural impulse to extend a caring touch, blocked by an ideology of scientific professionalism. Don’t kiss the babies. Don’t sing to them. Become like wood. Be a person made of wood. Meanwhile the children in the wards are touch deprived, lonely and crying, uncomforted. Babies needing kisses, unkissed. 

It’s heartbreaking. The same heartbreak we see in Braiding Sweetgrass when people like Robin Wall Kimmerer feel the land’s love for us through its generosity of plants and animals, feel delight in the world’s complexity and beauty, feel a personal relationship with Mother Earth that becomes the central motivation for wanting to live more lightly and justly upon the land. But then along comes reductionist, mechanistic, and so-called strictly objective science whose voice booms out as a Big Dominant culture voice and intones, demands: Become like wood. Become a person made of wood. Deny your physical and spiritual wholeness. 

The tragedy is that the Big Dominant culture voice says this out of a mistaken belief that this will enable scientists to be of greatest service to others, to do their job as best as humanly possible. 

This is the tragedy. 

Right now, we Unitarian Universalists must ask: does it have to be this way? 

Must science be this way? 

Part 2

Where do we come from

What are we 

Where are we going? 

Where do we come from

What are we 

Where are we going?

Philosophy professor Hoyt Edge would love to speak to the “where do we come from?” part—specifically, where reductionist, mechanistic, and so-called strictly objective science came from. He sees it as a consequence, ultimately, of 16th and 17th century European thinkers trying to escape the oppression of the Christian Church. Enabled by Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, which allowed scholarly ideas a freedom to roam in ways previously unseen, people like Nicholas Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Galileo Galilei argued for a division between what the Church could be authoritative over and what scientists could be authoritative over. 

Modern science wanted elbow room. Modern science wanted liberation from the interruptions and interrogations of the Christian Church. To get it, nothing less than a new way of looking at the world was born. Reality was to be divided into two categorically different substances: matter and mind. The Christian Church would still be authoritative but only over the realm of the mind, which is the realm of values and purposes and free choices. “On the other hand,” says Hoyt Edge, “there was matter, which was non-thinking and had nothing to do with values (an atom is neither good nor bad). The material world was simply a machine that was determined, and the only stake that the Christian Church should have in it was the assertion that it was the creation of God.” 

For a time, the Christian Church and secular science each had their own spheres of expertise, separate from each other, cut off. For a time, it seemed to work. The divorce seemed to be amicable. 

But there was something about that metaphor—that the physical universe (and all the plants and animals within it) is like a grand cosmic machine without mind and soul. Its momentum was unstoppable, historically. One watershed moment was Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species with its theory of evolution, which made a lot of intelligent people question whether Christianity ought to be seen anymore as wise about matters of ethics and mind, forget about matter. Near the end of the 19th century, a certain belief about reductionist, mechanistic, materialistic science started to emerge: that this kind of science was not just an extremely powerful method for discovering truths about the physical world, but that it was the method of discovery for all truths. That it ought to be. 

This belief has a name. It is called “scientism.” When Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks of reductionist, mechanistic, and so-called strictly objective science, this is what she’s talking about. Not all science is scientistic, now. Not all science is scientistic. Non-scientistic science affirms that there’s realms which are beyond what it can know and respects alternative ways of knowing. But not so with scientistic science. Scientistic science is absolutist. It’s fundamentalist. It says that anything that truly exists must be observable through your five physical senses or through physical measuring instruments like telescopes or microscopes (which only serve to extend the physical senses). But if you are not able to observe something in this way–if you can’t reduce it to a number or a mathematical description, well, it doesn’t exist. It is nonsense. It is superstition. 

Perhaps the bluntest example of scientism comes from 1961, after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey into outer space. Sometime later, the Soviet Union Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, said during a plenary session of the Central Committee, “Why are you clinging to God? Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.” Note how thoroughly mechanistic and materialistic the assumptions underlying this are. If God exists, then God must take up physical space somewhere, and there’s no better place than outer space. But Gagarin went up there and saw nothing. Therefore there is no God. God is nonsense. God is a superstition. 

That metaphor of the machine. Reality as a physical machine. The 16th and 17th century European thinkers who started this ball rolling could not know what they were setting loose upon the world. They could not know that they were letting a genie go free from its bottle. Of course, the science premised upon this metaphor would lead to astounding insights and technology. But its magic puts humanity at risk of turning people wooden, people becoming machine-like also. 

Don’t kiss babies in the hospital. Don’t sing to them. 

Don’t ask why asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together. Don’t allow your empathic feelings for the land to get in the way of your studies. 

The irony of ironies is that, when scientistic science claims that it offers complete knowledge about everything, it takes on a religious dimension. It becomes a Church in its own right, the Church of Scientism. The irony is that it thinks it is objective, but it is anything but that. Its faith commitment that a thing exists if only it can be physically observed and mathematically modeled cannot be physically observed and mathematically modeled! 

It is time to push back against scientism. 

If science is to be a critical truth source for Unitarian Universalists, it can’t be the scientistic version in all its faith-based, fundamentalistic arrogance and narrowness. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer is right. Her dream is right. “I dream,” she says, “of a world guided by a lens of stories rooted in the revelations of science and framed with an indigenous worldview— stories in which matter and spirit are both given voice.”

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you’ll see every problem as a nail. If your only ways of engaging the world are through your five physical senses, and their extensions through technology, then you are going to hammer down a lot of things that are just not nails. Caring is not a nail. Meaning is not a nail. Beauty is not a nail. God is not a nail. For our knowledge of the world to flourish–for it to be as broad and deep as it can be–we must tune our ways of knowing so that they are in sync with the thing or being we wish to know. To know about love, don’t inspect a loved one through a magnifying glass and expect to get any answers. Open your heart. Make mistakes. Make amends. Learn how to be vulnerable. Learn how to be strong. Scholar Michael Polanyi would call this type of knowledge “tacit knowledge,” in that it may be very hard to explain to others and may be impossible to express mathematically. Yet it is still real knowledge. 

Add it to the sort of knowledge that is a matter of physical observation and mathematical modeling, and it just means we get smarter! Multiple ways of learning can only make us smarter and wiser. 

There is a place, in other words, for professional reserve in medicine. And there is a place for kisses and hugs. 

There is a place for the five physical senses and technology in the study of nature. And there is a place for empathy, for the intelligence of the heart and spirit, which reveals that humanity and nature are bound together in love. 

We must draw from all. Our approach to knowing the world must be eclectic, interdisciplinary, integral. We must engage multiple forms of consciousness, not just the rational. 

“I dream of a world guided by a lens of stories rooted in the revelations of science and framed with an indigenous worldview— stories in which matter and spirit are both given voice.”

I dream, I dream.

Let us all dream this together…..