A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder
November 6, 2011 22

Let the conversation begin (anew)…

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This morning “A Sense of Awe” (the radio program) went to air at the (ungodly?) hour of 7am Sunday morning. We hope a vigorous conversation will ensue; this site is the place to contribute. Please get involved by leaving your comments here.

If you haven’t heard the program, you can find times of further broadcasts or an audio download at the Encounter page for the program. You can also read the transcript, but of course if you read it you’ll miss out on Pink Floyd, Vangelis, Pärt, the Bloody Beetroots and all the other subtle and not so subtle WAV file splices.

Looking forward to hearing from you!


22 Responses to “Let the conversation begin (anew)…”

  1. Paul C. Martin says:

    I remember when I lived in Tasmania in an alternative community, which included some followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (as he was known then). One day a group of us were driving along and someone remarked how terrible the denuded countryside looked, but one of these Bhagwan people disagreed, saying it was beautiful. I didn’t understand this contrary observation at the time, but in subsequent years of consciousness of the presence of God I came to appreciate it (in his case it might have been under the influence of marijuana, but in my case not).

    In a mystical state of mind, the world may be perceived as amazing or wondrous even when it is seen as dreary or ugly, since there is an awareness of the dynamic energy that makes up all of (divinized) reality.

    As Nancey said, an enchanting consciousness is a human response. One could say that it is a sublime recognition (in a Kantian sense) of the ceaseless flow of becoming, and it is scientific in so far as it deals with realizing the mathematical ground of being in the mundane.

  2. GavinM says:

    I listened to your show this evening talking to the mathematician and scientist about science in religion and faith in science. Cobblers!! What I heard was made up of rather poorly argued positions that do neither science nor faith much credit.

    Firstly on the topic of proof or evidence and the existence of god; this is a meaningless debate in the judeo/christian/islamic continuum of belief. God is ineffable, etc; god is something outside of this physical existence. You believe or you do not. you witness or you do not. Nothing to do with evidence or proof or testing.

    Secondly, on issues of faith and trust in science; that was an lame position put forward. Scientists may rely on other scientists, precisely because good science is continuously sceptical of itself. It tests, it audits, it compares, it recalibrates and it never takes on trust.

    In both arguments your interviewees were too taken by the way in which certain words and terms have been mishandled in popular media. Why is there this repeated attempt to marry religion and science? Religion is a personal matter, a relationship between oneself and one’s beliefs, the very mystery of god means that beliefs can be shared without being mutually comprehensible. Just ask a Christian “What does God look like?”

    Science is a very public matter, if it doesn’t stand public scrutiny, it’s not science. It must be continually tested and amended to respond to new evidence. Just ask a scientist to “Describe a Higg’s boson.”

    More rigour, less blending thanks.

    • cardigan says:

      Hi GavinM,

      Thanks for your views on science and religion. Where do you think philsophy (and its different lineages) fits in?

    • Chris Mulherin says:

      Thanks GavinM for provoking us, though I think your rhetoric is stronger than your arguments. Briefly on the two ‘arguments’ you mentioned:

      Re evidence: I think the claim of the guests was pretty clear; whether you believe it or not, they claim that their own faith (Christianity) has historical and other evidences that can be discussed rationally.

      Also aren’t there things ‘outside of physical existence’ that we argue about and that we adduce evidence for, such as morality for example?

      With respect to your claims about science, it is interesting that you depersonalise what scientists do and say, ‘it tests, it audits, it compares, it recalibrates and it never takes on trust.’

      I suggest that in fact ‘science’ doesn’t do anything like such things; only scientists do those things. And scientists are fallible human beings who (as Alexander, an experienced scientist, said) take most knowledge on trust from other scientists.

      Or not?

    • PeterF says:

      I hope most Christians, in answer to GavinM’s question as to what God is like, would point to Jesus. As God’s son, what he said and did on earth (as recorded in the Bible) gives us a pretty good idea of who God is and his view of people and the world.

      Followers of Jesus have relationship with him, but that does not mean they are intensely private about this (unlike your view), in fact he asked them to tell others about it.

      I dont think there was an attempt to “marry science and religion” in the program. But because ‘science’ is often wrongly used to denigrate religious beliefs because they can’t be ‘proven’, there needs to be discussion on this issue. I thought the program was very helpful in this respect.

  3. Christine Reid says:

    What a wonderfully intellectual program. As a keen observer of all the latest breakthroughs in astronomy, astrophysics and quantum physics I am also bewitched by a “vision” I received as a younger woman when I prayed extremely hard to “God”. I still wrestle with fitting both science and faith together at times and your program has articulated many of my thoughts and I thank you for it.

    On the subject of visions I would love to hear of anyone who has had similar. Mine was of a slowly spinning flower/black hole object. Incredibly beautiful and frightening at the same time! And yes, I was extremely sober, awake and asking a rather profound question.

  4. Henk J van Leeuwen says:

    Congratulations to ABC Radio National’s Encounter for the Sense of Awe program. It is a crucial topic with far-reaching implications. E.g. Clive Hamilton in Requiem for a Species writes that there is little hope to solve environmental predicaments such as climate change and the biodiversity crisis unless the modern world reawakens its capacity and its deepest need to again be perplexed about the cosmos. In order to lead authentic and sustainable lives, the human experience must include the age-old question of ‘why is there anything at all rather than nothing’.

    Progressive Christian thinkers, such as those on the program tend to dismiss militant atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Grayling as representing a kind of scientific fundamentalism that misses the subtleties of contemporary Christian thought. They lament the apparent inability of atheists to understand a modern transformation in the understanding of God.

    Yet, their response barely touches mainstream religious practices, which mostly continue to be centred on an all powerful and primary deity, who can be pleaded to for certain events to occur and desires worship. The prayers, liturgies and rituals, whether in regular services or in the profound moments of life such as birth and death, by and large prolong the desire for affirmative reassurance and certainty rather than being the seeds for transformative insight.

    Although polemic battles rarely transform individual mindsets, I am grateful for the atheists’ bold confrontation with sacrosanct preconceptions! They are right to contest those who cling to the consolations and certainties of traditional beliefs. Let them demolish so that we can come up with something more grown-up.

    The tearing down of traditional religious structures and habitual ways of thinking about God was a speciality of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. His provocative declaration of ‘the death of God’ continues to instil fear and loathing in conservative religious thought. Yet he believed that society’s attempts to create metaphysical narratives through, not only religion, but also science and technology, conceals the human essence. His head-on confrontation was meant to shock us out of our slumbers, wake us to a state in which we are no longer ‘lazy slaves’ relying on a perhaps-benevolent God to look after us, dispense moral codes and administer justice. We should not dismiss thinkers like Nietzsche, who, with his battle cry “to become what we are”, avowed that the hubris of dogma and tradition must be razed down to the ground. I suggest that this ‘destruction’ is necessary before we can begin to discern this ground as the abyssal soil for human dwelling. Perhaps then the ‘death of God’ might herald a new beginning that resurrects the human soul.

    I find it difficult to understand the insistence of the participants to retain so much faith in a tradition of a mere 2000 years, and even a particular version of this tradition. I think that the insistent referral to ‘God’, implying a commitment in faith to a divine entity, is disposed to dilute the radicalism essential for a genuine transformation. The relinquishment of metaphysical ‘God talk’ admits a less comfortable realm, yet one that is more adequate to the ambiguities of life itself. Metaphysical baggage, accumulated over the epochs since Plato, has burdened the word ‘God’. Anthropomorphic, objectifying thinking and metaphysical conceptualisations inevitably result in the personification of God into a divine figure, resulting in a plethora of theistic descriptions.

    For the philosopher Martin Heidegger, metaphysics’ naming of the divine being in fact dissipates the mystery that is Being: not a substance, concept, idea or theory, yet one that belongs to a dimension that precedes all conceptualisation and rational knowledge. This seems a good starting point. Much of what the theologians are saying implies that theirs is indeed a God that is less certain and is more difficult to define and represent. It is not a personal God that intervenes in the daily affairs of human beings. Notions of God are surely overturned here; such a faith, as it is less assured and surrenders to a sense of love, grace and beauty, is on a shifting shore. Some sense in the image of Jesus an essence of humanity which has frailty and vulnerability at its heart. Perhaps this represents a move that begins to venture towards the abyss that is beyond faith. Indeed, the Jesus event may well a deeply profound moment if its essential truth is not suffocated. Yet, it seems, ultimately theology cannot quite let go of a faith in ‘a being’ and remains within the constraints of a subjectivity that does not seize a freedom of thinking that is immersed in awe and wonder.

    Nevertheless the participants appear to approach a kind of mystical sense of the divine, similar to negative or apophatic theology. This is a response by philosopher-theologians, such as Karen Armstrong, who abandon the modern craving for certainty and emphasise unknowing. They also plead for a different way of thinking about faith and reason, and their post-modern theological thought, often founded on the insights of the medieval mystics, rejects belief in an omniscient and omnipotent being.

    I therefore suggest that theologians need to procure the freedom of unshackled philosophical thought to revamp ossified notions. The ground of being is an abyss rather than a source. We can be no more than wanderers at the edge of this abyss; always questioning, but never expecting to reach ‘the answer’. Along this verge we may sense the significance of the liminal; that place between realms, between life and death, consciousness and all that lies underneath.

    • Chris Mulherin says:

      Thanks Henk for that thoughtful response.

      You mentioned the liminal at the end of your comment. I don’t know if you were referring directly to the Tomasetti piece at http://www.asenseofawe.net/2011/11/05/tomasetti/ but in case you missed it, she talks about the liminal space as she considers her own approach to art and nature.

  5. Gerard Finn says:

    I wonder about the coming into existence of, for example, the natural numbers, or indeed simply the prime numbers. If they came I to existence as time, the universe and the laws of’physics formed then surely that makes the notion of God as Trinity seem to be a human notion. If the numbers did not come into existence then, they would be an eternally existing part of God to which humans, able to do pure mathematics have the privilege of access.

    I wonder also about pure maths problems that are known to be’or are bot not k own to be unprovable from our system of mathematics. In the former class is the transfinite number for the real numbers unknowable in terms of Cantor’s infinite sequence of alephs – with the smallest such transfinite aleph being the number of integers – or fractions for that matter. If it is unknowable then does God know the answer? Or does God have a better set of axioms. Even if God’does then still there are other unknowable theorems.

    Or is God above and beyond pure mathematics and just knows all the answers by a supermathematics that we can’t know.

    I hope I’m making sense.

  6. Hi Chris, I heard the second half only 🙁 as I was driving to Swansea this morning. What I heard was excellent. I will definitely listen to the whole session. Thank you for this thought provoking and gracious program. Full marks to you and the ABC RN.

  7. After to-day’s excellent Encounter (Nov 6) it strikes me that a sense of awe about, say, immense distances and times converges with purely rational considerations in this way: if there is a quality of which one individual has more, and another less, and which could in theory always be greater, then that quality takes its origin outside them all; that wherever there are degrees in things there must exist a reality which those things point to as a common source. This is not to say that these individuals will resemble the source. But they will nevertheless give us an idea of it, however partial and inadequate – a mental foothold to help us climb towards a deeper appreciation.

    Of course, these are dry metaphysical reflections. It is different when we encounter immensity. Then we stand in still wonder before the sunset or the stars or geological time or the courage of some hero, and we are jogged into noticing a kind of paradox; for while our personal smallness is brought home to us, so too is our sense of at-homeness in this world which is immeasurably greater, not only than our experience, but even than our imaginations. We become aware of ourselves as, in Alexander Pope’s words, “beings darkly wise and rudely great”.

  8. In contrast with all contributers to today’s Encounter(Nov 6)I think it useful to speak of to mysteries,distinguishing them from “puzzles” and “enigmas” by saying that our understanding of them is progressive; it can always be extended without reaching a limit. We are in fact surrounded by such mysteries,and we do not need to go to philosophy or poetry or science to encounter them. Every-day life is largely built out of them, and it is mysteries that we live by and for. And among them, one type surely has supreme importance: the mystery that is the essence of every person. We do not complete the same crossword puzzle twice, but we do relate endlessly to a friend. Persons are always true mysteries.

    • cardigan says:

      I agree. And a big part of that mystery is the relationship of the person to their own horizon — and the unknowns that proceed to each of us from beyond it as they constitute us. Self, horizon, other. Endless, timeless, ultimately un-dimension-able, but for the most part stable. What is the basis of that (temporary?) stability? Our own owning of it?

  9. Colleen Keating says:

    I have always believed that if we impart a sense of awe and wonder to our children the rest of their education will follow . . yet Rainer Maria Rilke’s words that all things that are akin to us being human “have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied” could dangerously becoming real as lives of our young are dumbed down and robotic life becomes safe. This is an important discussion to have for our future as humans with a sense of a mystery beyond the mystery and a love of being human

  10. Sandy Stevens says:

    Just a couple of notions surfaced within while listening…

    * Let’s look at science as ‘How it works,’ not ‘Why it works.’

    * God (whatever is called as such and so much more) cannot be explained or described, only experienced.

    * Our human fixation of explaining everything robs us of the utter simplicity of opening ourselves up to infinite possibilities.

    • Harley Powell says:

      You are very right to ask whatever is meant by “God” as we have no agreed definition of God. Most theologians would say there can be no definition of God as God cannot be described in the limited descriptive words available -a bit like quantum physics. But this doesn’t mean that we cannot have some sort of concept of what God is like, again like quantum physics.

      The New testament gives a clue to God’s nature in the statements ” the kingdom of God is within you” (or “God is within you “) and “God is love”. If we accept that God is something within us humans called ‘Love’ then we may be able to define God as the sum total of all human love and compassion. This definition appeals to me because it is something which we know exists and therefore bypasses the atheists claim that God does not exist.

      Describing God as the sum total of all human love and compassion does not limit God’s attributes because we are well aware that the whole (in this case, God) is greater than the sum of the parts (all human love and compassion added up) .

      -just a thought!

  11. Kaye Chenoweth says:

    Really enjoyed the program this morning. I usually listen to Encounter before getting up and it was worth it this morning. Good balance of rational thought, feeling, etc- the interview questions brought out really thought-provoking and helpful answers from your guests.

    Keep this sort of thing going- thinking Christians!

    • Sandy Stevens says:

      Thinking Christians? That is a huge assumption! “Thinking,” – we may use the word for want of better, but not so much with the mind, rather using perception that reaches beyond our own physical limits.
      I agree, it is difficult to distance ourselves from a concept of a God built in our limited own image, but it is possible if we listen with love. Heart rather than the mind.

  12. Pamela says:

    You seem to have cut it out of the transcript. One of the guests this morning stated that Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians told them to “eat and drink; for to morrow we die.” This is a corruption of the understanding of the text, which text also appears in Isaiah 22:13. The text serves as a warning to man about man’s attitude towards, and lack of knowledge of, and belief in Jesus Christ and Christ’s mission on earth.

  13. Michael Jinman says:

    A long overdue debate – but why must we all have AWE? We do NOT need fear and wonder. What we DO need is to see what our life is all about -as best we can – see what is wrong with it – like over-population – then work out what we ought to do about it.

    The main problem here is that most people have not woken up to the huge changes in scientific views of life in the last century or so.

    For example, if you take evolution seriously,then……………..???

  14. Marion says:

    Simply, that I am deeply thankful I heard your program this morning.

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