Regaining Compassion for Humanity and Nature by L. Charles Birch
Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith. Published originally by New South Wales University Press, New South Wales University press, 1993. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.
I use the word compassion to indicate what Christians do to actualize Love in time and space... it is to give the cup of cold water to a stranger . . . compassion is showing reverence to another being . . . ecology, as it is now developing, provides us with new religious understanding of our being, of other beings, and of being . . . from compassion we must defend the continued existence of our fellow animal, plant, insect and marine species, as well as the integrity of landscapes, seascapes and airscapes that are periled by human activity, whether or not these in any way affect human existence . . . we must extend compassion to rattlesnakes and not just to koalas.
Relating is about making connections. There are two sorts of connecting. When railway carriages are connected to each other, the only difference the connection makes is that one carriage pulls the other along. There is a second sort of connecting that transforms those that are connected. It is compassion. Two lovers relate in that sort of way. It is an internal relating as contrasted to the external relating of the railway carriages.
When we fail to make connections that are critical for our lives and the life of the world we become adrift like small rafts on the ocean. If we are successful in making appropriate connections we find fulfillment in life. A young surfer was interviewed on television as he waited for a wave in the ocean at Bondi Beach in Sydney. What are you thinking about all the hours you wait there? he was asked.
He replied immediately: I am waiting for the ultimate wave. Some waves are so trivial that he can afford to let them pass him by. But not the ultimate wave. He waits all day for that one.
There are waves in our lives. Many of them pass us by, hardly disturbing even the surface of our lives. But there are other encounters of a more ultimate kind. A proposition of this book is that the most ultimate encounter is to experience a oneness with ourselves, with others, with the world, with the universe and with God. I call that at-one-ment. It is the opposite of being adrift and separate from the rest of existence.
Why should I, a scientist, write about this? I have two reasons. There is an ambiguity about science and technology. They have made it possible for us to relate to the world in all sorts of ways previously impossible. They have contributed greatly to the external relations of life that provide us with food, clothing, transport and communication. This should have freed us from preoccupation with the material things of life.
But for many, if not most people, science and technology have had the opposite effect. People have become preoccupied with the material things science and technology provide us with, to the neglect of that which matters most in our lives, our feelings, affection and love. We have lost compassion. There are many reasons for this. One important one is that we absorb from the age of science and technology the materialistic framework within which it was developed. Much of science and technology gives us a mechanical picture of ourselves, the world and the universe. That sort of picture has been called the modern worldview because much of our world is based on that image. It suggests that the universe is unintelligible, senseless and accidental and that humans are no more than a fortuitous concourse of atoms.
But there is another image of the world and ourselves that is more lifelike and compassionate. It too derives in part from a science that is developed within a less mechanical framework. So scientists such as Paul Davies write about ‘the matter myth’, meaning the myth of the mechanistic, materialistic universe (Davies & Gribbin 1991). They ask: is there something else going on out there? They respond that there is more to the world than cogs in a gigantic machine (Davies 1992). That warmer and more lifelike image has been called a postmodern worldview. Few of us as yet seem to have absorbed that image into our thinking about the world around us. That requires us to rethink the ways in which we might regain compassion in the world.
A second reason for writing this book comes from reactions to my previous book, On Purpose. In a sense this is a sequel. Non-scientists and the less philosophically minded found some of the central ideas difficult to grasp. On the other hand these readers seemed to want more, but in a less philosophical framework. A second group of readers of On Purpose I had hardly expected to reach. They were young people who had a strong fundamentalistic Christian faith. They had hardly considered any alternative to fundamentalist doctrines of religion. They had indeed some dissatisfactions with their faith, which had mostly to do with the problem of evil and suffering in a world presided over by a God of love. For a long time I have been convinced that fundamentalism has no solutions to offer to that problem. On Purpose suggested to some of these readers the possibility of an alternative more credible faith that was yet consistent with a Christian position. They wanted to know more, though they had their suspicions about where that might lead them.
There was yet another group of readers whom I had hoped to touch. They were people who had been brought up in a conservative Christian faith, who had rejected most, if not all of it, and who yet had a sense of being adrift on a huge ocean of nothingness. Some of these readers got in touch with me and asked for more. They wanted to explore further. Some of them were members of the Eremos Institute in Sydney, which is largely committed to that sort of exploration.
In a sense, each different group of respondents to On Purpose needs a separate book as a follow-up. Yet I have attempted to have all three groups in the back of my mind as I wrote this book. I also had in mind those who have not read On Purpose or anything like it.
I hope it is possible for any reader to start from scratch in this book. I would hope all might discover some of the liberation of life and thought which I have found in these ideas for myself.
At a meeting in Sydney at which John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal bishop of Newark in the US, spoke about his book Saving the Bible from Fundamentalism, an ex-fundamentalist and skeptical young man asked Bishop Spong this question. ‘What special contribution does religion have to make to a world which now has access to so much information and understanding from science, philosophy and all the other disciplines?’ The implication of the question was that we know immeasurably so much more now than ever in the past that ancient ideas of religion have become obsolete. The youth was implying that there was now no place for religion in the world. His question is an important one.
I do not recall what Bishop Spong had to say in response to this question. My own mind switched back to a proposition of Paul Tillich (1959) in his book on religion and culture: ‘Religion is not a special function of man’s spiritual life, but it is the dimension of depth in all of its functions’ (p. 5). It is in this sense that I find a real place for religion in modern life. Let me explain.
Religion is not a special function of the human spirit. The history of religion is one in which it goes from one spiritual function to another to find a home either to be rejected or swallowed up by them. Religion came to the ethical function and is accepted so long as it helps to create good citizens and good soldiers. But as soon as it makes claims of its own, it is thrown out as dangerous or superfluous. Religion looks around and finds the intellectual function of the spiritual life as a special way of knowing. But religion soon finds itself being rejected by the new knowledge of science, as for example happened in the Darwinian controversy. But says Paul Tillich (1959):
In this situation, without a home, without a place in which to dwell, religion suddenly realizes that it does not need such a place, that it does not need to seek a home. It is at home everywhere, namely, in the depth of all functions of man’s spiritual life. Religion is the dimension of depth in all of them. Religion is the aspect of depth in the totality of the human spirit. (p. 7)
The dimension of depth means that the religious aspect points to that which is ultimate and of ultimate importance. In its most basic sense it is ultimate concern. That is why religion has a prominent place in my thinking.
There is a widespread loss of belief in religion, especially in intellectual circles. This is due in part to problems inherent in the traditional concepts of God and in part to problems inherent in the modern materialistic worldview. Attempts to make God and the modern worldview compatible have been unsuccessful (Griffin 1989).
A thesis of this book is that there is a credible alternative to the materialistic worldview and a credible alternative to the traditional concept of God. There are, in fact, parallel changes in recent years in the understanding of scientific and religious truth. Yet there is a failure of both wider communities to keep pace with these parallel changes. The emerging postmodern worldview allows for the recovery of belief in God while eliminating the fatal problems inherent in the traditional idea of God.
Things are happening that we should know about. Someone once said that the world is composed of four kinds of people: those who make things happen; those to whom things happen; those who watch things happen and those who do not even know that things are happening.
Things are happening around us of which many of us are largely unaware. Some of us get glimpses of these happenings but are afraid to let them happen to us. We feel inadequate to the call for a more ultimate concern about our lives. We make the mistake of supposing that we have to know the truth before we can act upon it, whereas we can only know the truth by doing it. There is a place for contemplation in solitude. There is also a place for action before we have sorted out our lives. So Vaclev Havel, the first president of post-Communist Czechoslovakia, wrote:
When I find myself in extremely complex situations, I worry about whether I’ll be able to sort them out. But I wouldn’t want this to sound as though I’m just a bundle of panic and misery and lack of self-confidence. On the contrary, this constant self-doubt and the constant uncertainty are what drive me to work harder and try harder. So in fact it’s a productive characteristic, in terms of its results. If I have accomplished anything good, then it’s mainly because I’ve been driven by the need to know whether I can accomplish things I’m not sure I have the capacity for. (Havel 1991, p. 8)
William Sloane Coffin, a former pastor of the great Riverside Church in Manhattan was discussing a complex moral issue. In a sermon he said: ‘We learn more if we don’t try to understand too soon . . . the journey from the head to the heart (and vice versa) is a long one’. The truth about life comes from opening ourselves to experiences of strength through anxiety, confidence through hesitation and self-rejection, inward power adequate for outward tension, the voice of a friend out of the fog when all direction is lost, a second chance when we discover that the end is the beginning. All great moments in life involve a step forward in faith, trusting in new possibilities for life. We don’t create these possibilities. They create us.
The first chapter of this book introduces the idea of relationships that are transforming for life. The second chapter is about the consequences of that understanding for living in our relationships with others, including nonhuman life. The third chapter is about our relationships with the world at large and in particular with the environmental crisis we have created. This chapter is rather different from the others because I found it necessary to give some details of what is wrong with the way we deal with the environment and how that might be rectified. The process of rectification includes a new understanding of society, politics and economics which is largely the subject of the fourth chapter. But how do humans respond to the need for change? That is the subject of Chapter 5. The sixth chapter gathers together many of the strands of previous chapters to weave a synthesis within the framework of a postmodern religious vision.
I have dedicated this book to my young friend David Paul. His background has been very different from mine in many ways. That has been a challenge to my own life and thought. His life also has seen much more tragedy than I have ever experienced. Yet he has overcome those circumstances with a courage and faith that have inspired his friends. I keep on asking him how? I want him one day to write a book on how he discovered the power to see it through. He combines a commitment and openness which I find quite rare these days. His life has been a light on the path for many who have been fortunate enough to come to know him. Through knowing him I have asked questions I would not have otherwise asked and pursued issues I would not otherwise have explored.
In addition to the inspiration I have found in his life and thought, which I hope is reflected in these pages, he has read with great care early drafts of the manuscript of this book. I found in him a meticulous and thoughtful unofficial editor. When there were issues on which we had quite different perspectives, he was always tolerant and understanding and I always learned from him. It is with a sense of great gratitude that I dedicate this book to him.