Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bending the Faith to the Facts

Once upon a time a medieval philosopher told a story about a bird flying from an unknown place of origin through a mead-hall to an unknown destination. The philosopher believed that religion was able to explain the significance of the flight of that bird; the dark from which it came, it’s time in the light of the mead-hall and the dark to which it was returning. The version of the story I heard held that the philosopher was a Christian, telling his story in a pagan mead-hall, and that he succeeded in converting his audience using the metaphor of the bird in flight for the meaning of our life on this earth.

I have had my own experience of seeing that bird fly through the mead-hall in which I was sitting, but the religious and scientific philosophers seeking to illuminate the glorious flight of human existence were, to my mind, perched on another cusp of the evolution of knowledge. Religion and philosophy are the explicators of the fact that for humans there is the unknowable; they are the highest authority of human thought that rule on the great questions of human existence. Arguably science is fast joining religion and philosophy as a guide to the infinite, and I have become an avid follower of the scientists who are reaching out for the theories that will allow science to settle into the idea of eternity and bring a new frontier to ways of thinking about our existence.

The metaphorical mead-hall was presided over by the Catholic Abbot of New Norcia, the Buddhist Abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery and the star of the UWA Physics Department. All three men were engaged in a discussion on whether Science and Religion were Incompatible in explaining life, and through their great intelligence, knowledge, humour and obvious desire to discuss the use of the friction between the various faiths to find truth, these three men were able to freeze the flight of the bird and allow their audience look at the question of existence from many different angles.

Devoted student of the beauty of human thought that I am, the seven weeks between the talk being brought to my attention and the actual event were spent in debate with my partner-in-enquiry. We viewed talks by Richard Dawkins and David Deutsch, discussed the Renaissance and Da Vinci, and explicitly outlined our own faith and our own philosophy. Such thoughtful and extended engagement with our own experience of the subject meant we were able to follow the discussion with understanding, clarity, and not a little bit of excitement, as theories newly discovered and articulated were placed into a bigger picture.

When it comes to listening to other people’s beliefs, I hold two things to be true for how I listen. I do not care much to judge what they think, so long as they do think, and it is the mind that does the measuring. I watch with interest the struggle between original thought and the fact that one must always stand on one set of beliefs to even be able to critique another. No matter how groundbreaking your ideas, you have to hold convictions to argue. You mine your own culture of understanding, speaking and listening in the very language you use to communicate your message, the forum in which you preach your message and the audience who hear your message.

Thus when I witness the religious, the philosophical and the scientific turn their considerable gazes into the dark of the start and the finish of our brief burst of existence, I am conscious that it is a gaze whose conclusions are interpreted by the limited spectrum of experience, cognition and communication. Beautiful as inquiry and speculation is, between Mute Creation and the God of the gaps in our understanding stands the Word, and the Word means something different to everyone who uses and hears it.

To me the most humanist aspects of each set of beliefs speak of three pillars, not three schisms. Science speaks in terms of rigour of inquiry into the real, Philosophy in terms of individual vision and speculative progress, Religion in terms of selfless connection with the past, present and future. I do not see that these three sets of belief cannot work together, especially as all serve humanity; humanity is, after all their creator, their subject and their future.

The beauty of love for humanity is that no matter the limitations of the people involved, it flourishes. It is fed by the energy that the words that we use try to capture, the human yearning towards the unknown. The two Abbots and the Professor were very clearly lovers of humanity, and the words they used enlightened and enlightening. They covered a lot of ground, which simply exposed even more areas of interest for the inquiring mind. The respect they had for the differing ideologies of their fellow speakers was palatable, speaking of the tolerance of believers who believed in belief, not in beliefs.

When the bird freezes against the smoke-stained rafters of the mead-hall, solid and warm in the torchlight, I see the inescapable reality of the individual human. A jewel set firmly in the structures of culture, upbringing and fate. I believe in the primacy of the jewel however, not the setting. So I watch religion, philosophy and science competing to be the setting for the human experience of the future and I hope that the faiths will find common ground in a love for humanity, bending their faith to the facts of human existence and making the burst of life an experience that will engender love in all that witness its passage.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Poetry of Friendship

I hope I never learn everything there is to know about my friends. Since I experienced moving to another country and making new friends, then returning home to old friends, I have devoted many hours to understanding the quirk of fate that allows friends to step out of the stream of humanity to walk beside you.

In a strange country with no frames of reference, newly acquired friends tend to be those people who connect with you through interests and personality, without reference to shared history and with a sense of a future still to be shaped. Friends from home possess strong shared history, which often blinds you to change in them, and even sometimes their deeper layers and potential.

Returning home has allowed me to use the skills learnt from connecting to a new friend to reviving the intimacy of an old friendship. Most importantly, it has been the act of finding new friends here in Perth that has illuminated each individual friendship, allowing me to find extraordinary new depths to my friends.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is my continuing musical education. Towards the end of last year my music collection was hijacked by a passionate musician who has taken up my musical education for my own good. The curriculum consists of many gigabytes of music and a series of extremely illuminating notes for the music selected.

With my inclination towards mainstream music, my first task was to listen to bands of whom I only knew from gothic lettering on black t-shirts worn by tortured young men of my generation. I bravely listening to Opeth for the first time in my life and, because of the copious notes provided, I found myself becoming quite fond of them.

My musical teacher insists on accompanying his musical selection, which reaches far beyond Opeth, with involved notes on the equipment, the influences, the history, the lyrics and, most fascinating for me, the mechanics of the music, the building blocks of the sounds that I am listening to. This approach echoes my own philosophical approach to my writing and my study, thus the music and what I learnt of it has became a part of my structure of thinking and I have an entirely new set of ideas to shape how I interact with the world.

I discovered that asking a man about his music is the fast-track to finding his creative soul, beating strongly beneath those black t-shirts with the names of bands that I pre-judged simply because they were not ones I listened to. Once I had conceded that the ‘boy music’ I had previously dismissed may have some merit after all, I began to ask every man I could my hands on about their music.

Friends that had been my friends on my terms suddenly became friends on their own terms. Terrifyingly new concerts were attended (I have a scar from my first hardcore gig) and acres of new songs pressed upon me in marathon listening sessions. My little brother was fearlessly discussing with me his taste in music. I am becoming the gig companion for one heavy-listening friend once he has realised that I was not afraid of the heavier music. Another friend, who fronts his own hardcore band, was compelled by my fascinated questions to give me a lightening tour of the influences on his own music.

The male love of music has taken on a life of its own for me as the poetry of the fan, and the lyrics and music that inspire them, suddenly arrived in my life on a wave of drums, guitars, growling lyrics and video clips. Even more improbably, my amazed mutterings about the new sounds and concepts that I was discovering reached my girlfriends and I discovered that some of them were far more knowledgeable about these bands than I had ever conceived. Discovering a taste for heavy metal music in my girlfriends after years of friendship is humbling, and bodes well for decades of new things to talk about.

I greatly regret that it has taken me so long to really understand the poetry of the male musical soul. Long a student of writers and thinkers, I had always conceived of the universal truths being held in book form. Music for me has always been a release from thinking, a primal physical experience. I am a funk and soul sister, looking for the rhythm in music I listen to, dancing for hours without thinking, just moving.

I am gradually beginning to see music as something more than just the heartbeat of the world. I am being persuaded that there are means for the musician to tap into the thoughts of the world as effectively as the philosophers of the world do. The pen rivals the sword in my world and I am starting to believe the note may too.

Beyond the increased awareness of music that has been the fruit of Tim’s guidance, is the newly discovered usefulness of music, and by extension other passions that move an individual, to connect again with people I thought I knew well. The reward for me has been using what I have learnt and discovered to involve myself even more in my friend’s lives.