hat is the shape of faith today? I mean, what configuration does faith take in the 21st Century, making it different from the ghosts of past centuries?
In one of the more brilliant essays of our time, David Sayre helps us understand what our greatest artists hinted at in their finest works — in art, drama, music, and poetry — what our best scientists came to understand through their experimentation, and what our finest mathematicians discovered in their reasoning.
You do not know David Sayre. He is an engineer and a sage (as well as a marathon runner and a vocal soloist, who loves singing Bach). NJC and I shared dinner with David and a party of three others — including Caxtonian Peter Stanlis — in Cambridge, MA, on September 28, 2002, a private affair during the annual Robert Frost Colloquium at Harvard University, which we were all attending. You’ve never read David’s essay, “The Berkshire Hills,” and you cannot buy his book, Something There Is, in any bookstore, for it was privately printed by the author in 2001. But the book, and this essay in particular, are marvelous vessels, suggesting the contours of faith for our day.
The essay is set in a cemetery in the Berkshire Hills on a bleak November day, “just after the color fled the land, just before the forgiving snow.” They are burying Winston, an unidentified youth who died before fulfillment, and only their despair accompanies them as they leave the gravesite. “Can we survive this despair?” he asks, and then adds, “In some ways we have come so far, yet truth still feels cold to touch, and we wonder how to replace the old religions with a rational faith that gives some warmth.”
As he passes in the ancient churchyard the graves of many long dead, he remembers the tombstones marking the graves of the family of Mary and Oliver Pollard, who lost seven of their eight children between 1775 and 1812. “In our own grief we wonder at their survival.” Most of the demons that “haunted your world,” he muses, “have been exorcised from ours, … [and] we have raised on your foundation a home of promise, of possibility, nearly safe from the demons without.” It is, he confesses, the “demons within” that plague our lives today. “Our home is still primitive in many ways, still insular. We distrust intrusion still, and seek our comfort and meaning by drawing shelter and secrets about us. We slip easily into quarreling, but now with deadlier effect than you could imagine. Our view of the world, our expectations of nature, our notions of other life forms, are still anthropocentric. Still we wander.”
In the context of memory, he imagines a graveside service for our time. He invites “Martin Buber to officiate as Rabbi.” Buber would remind us “that we find ourselves in others, in relation.” Einstein would be there to “set up ‘thought experiments’,” both quantitative and qualitative in nature about the existence of life beyond our own planet, life which would increase the opportunity and responsibility of finding relations more difficult than we have on this planet.
Abigail Adams Eliot — a New England woman who lived to be 100 and had three pioneering careers in her life (she was T.S. Eliot’s cousin) — is asked to host the gathering. She continually keeps things on track — “are we drifting into mysticism and wishful thinking here?” Werner Heisenberg is present, suggesting that the “word ‘soul’ refers to the central order, to the inner core of a being whose outer manifestations may be highly diverse and pass our understanding.” Einstein responds that the “separation we experience from each other is an ‘optical delusion’ of the individual consciousness.…” Erwin Schrodiner says, “The only possible alternative is simply to keep to the immediate experience that consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown;... there is only one thing and that what seems to be a plurality is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception....” Jacob Bronowski responses, saying, “analogy and metaphor are at the root of scientific advances.” He adds, “Science is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature….Poetry, painting, the arts are the same search,…for unity in variety.”
David then moves us toward summation: while we “cannot devise a conclusive test” of divided or limited intelligence, we can know what matters in human life: “beauty, freedom, trust, commitment, truth, the capacity to build, to learn, to heal, to communicate, to love.” David’s conclusion, it seems to me, elucidates what our first modern dramatist, Henrik Ibsen, meant in the echo of Hedda Gabler’s pistol shot, Nora’s slamming door, Mrs. Alving’s heart-wrenching grief: “If we can be freed of limiting concepts and discarded world views, why not seek a broader identity? We are no longer children. We have the means to stretch.” The shape of faith stretched to its fullest will shroud few, if any, ghosts.
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