Saturday, April 14, 2018

Black and white fear in America

Brennan Walker, 14, was luckier than many black teenagers in white neighborhoods.  He escaped unhurt when a homeowner, full of the old white fear of the black male, shot at him.

The story is told in today's New York Times and elsewhere:  Walker missed his bus and so decided to walk to high school this week but got lost in a Detroit suburb.  When he knocked on a door to ask directions, the woman who answered the door yelled in panic, assuming the kid was breaking into her house.  (Do burglars knock, usually?)

Her husband picked up immediately on the hysteria and without thinking, grabbed his shotgun and fired at the fleeing youth. Luckily the police did the right thing and arrested the man with the gun.

Much will be written about this story in relation to guns, police, and the law. What hits me is the same type of racist terror that elected Donald Trump--if you accept the plausible theory that white Americans, angry at our two-term black president who was supposed to be followed in office by an equally progressive woman, took out their rage in the election, putting into office a corrupt, incompetent demagogue who appealed to their primitive (anti-immigrant, anti-minority) attitudes.

So it was fear that struck me as the lesson in this case: white fear of black power; and of course, the black fear of the ruling majority.

If only our racism could be eradicated, but that would mean the impossible task of wiping clean the sad history of racial hatred in America and, with it, fear of the "other."

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The scientist as mystic

The novelist David Foster Wallace is quoted as saying, in everyday life, "there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships."  Most of the things we worship, he continues, eat us alive.

He means our ego, our power, our possessions or beauty or intellect; if we put these at the center of our lives, we feel ultimately unsatisfied. We are not the center of the universe, after all, if we look at the Big Picture. People have often thought over the centuries that the natural world belonged to us; we are now beginning to see that we belong to it.

This insight is part of a revealing excerpt from Alan Lightman's book about the scientist as mystic: "Searching for Stars on the Island in Maine."
I am indebted to Maria Popova's recent Brain Pickings newsletter for the excerpt.

The supposed wall of separation between science and religion or spirituality has long been crumbling as more and more scientists embrace mystery and the infinite and actually say, as Lightman does, that "the infinite is not just a lot more of the finite."  He would agree with Carl Sagan, who long ago stated, "The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."

Lightman, without espousing religion and while remaining an experimental scientist, goes further by saying that nature "tempts us to believe in the supernatural," that we have a natural human longing for absolutes in a world of relative, changeable things.  For this MIT scientist, humanist and writer, the link between science and religion is embedded deep in human nature itself.

In a world of impermanence and imperfection, Lightman, while remaining committed to his work in natural science, also sees the power of the unchangeable, the eternal, the sacred.  He sees these Absolutes--immortality, the soul, even God--as enduring concepts that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives. He writes lyrically of his transcendent experience one night on the ocean.

Lightman is one of many thinkers who can be at home in both worlds: that of reason and experimentation and that of the unprovable, but nevertheless real, realm of the spirit. I think of the Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who is remembered today more as a mystic than as a paleontologist. And reading his dense (translated) prose is a challenge in a way that reading Lightman is not.