Recently, as I was working on my blog post about the hugeness of the universe and our role in it, I ran into a quote. The quote was by Carl Sagan, a famous astronomer, well known for making science accessible to the masses.
Here it is:
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.
I’ve been thinking more and more about that quote.
It started, predictably, with his little mention of religion. I don’t have anything against criticism of religion, since most of ’em are pretty dumb, but something about this critique struck me as way off.
And today it hit me: historically, it has been the monotheists that have actually been comfortable with the idea of infinity.
To believe in a single G-d that controls and runs everything, and that, further, is invested in everything, that is everything, and beyond everything, implies a G-d that has such an ultimate power that it must be so great we can’t even imagine it. So great that it is infinite.
Believing in one G-d inevitably leads a feeling of absolute smallness, in other words.
It was the polytheists whose worldview of inherent multiplicity to reality that, ironically, had a limited vision of the world. To them, the world (physical and spiritual) was separated into component parts, each designated for its specific purpose. This separation allowed for an understandable world, where thunder, the sun, death, love, all had their limited rule over our lives, but were ultimately controllable because of their limitations.
And I guess that’s where I think the great Carl Sagan seems to have been confused. Because, for quite a long time, us monotheists were at the forefront of feeling small and humble in the face of infinity.
To someone who believes in one G-d, nature is just a metaphor to help us understand the way He functions. It’s an access point to a deeper truth.
To a polytheist, the metaphor is the reality.
And I guess, as this realization hit me, I had to come to an even more surprising conclusion: Carl Sagan might even have been a polytheist.
Because his whole discussion, his whole argument, was that somehow, the largess of the universe, in some way, has a bearing on the reality of religion and spirituality. In other words, he believes the multiplicity of the universe should have a bearing in our belief in G-d.
And all this helped me realize one more thing: that I think I finally understand why there is this false polarity created between science and religion.
See, Judaism has never had a problem with science. Science has been integrated into Judaism’s laws, mysticism, and everything else, since day one. The science may have not been up to par with today’s science, but we’ve always tried to stick to its guiding principles.
In other words, within Judaism science is just another tool to help us deal in this universe created, run, and invested in by G-d. There is no polarity.
Instead, within Judaism, as is clearly enumerated in our first two commandments, there has been one very clear, distinct polarity: between monotheism and polytheism. Between the belief in inherent unity and the belief in inherent mulitplicity. Between the point of it all and the metaphors we use to explain it.
And that’s why it’s become so easy for us to believe in this polarity between science and religion.
Because most “believers” in science today are just modern-day polytheists. They believe that the metaphor is the main point. They believe that the story is the moral to the story.
Hear any argument brought against religion, and you will inevitably hear a line similar to the quote argued by our friend Sagan. An argument that, in some way, some aspect of physicality, whether it be the hugeness of the universe, the theory of evolution, the Big Bang, etc etc, is an argument against belief in the non-physical unity of reality.
Which is, of course, ridiculous, since all those theories, true or not, do not negate a belief in G-d, or even in a specific religion. Science always has a place within belief.
When you look at the world from this angle, not from a polarity between science and religion, but a polarity between inherent unity and inherent multiplicity, then things get flipped a bit.
Suddenly, the “scientific” folks are the primitive ones. The ones trying harder and harder still to argue for the beliefs of their polytheistic ancestors. Of course, they don’t believe the exact same thing, but that’s only because their understanding of multiplicity has evolved over time. They’ve adjusted.
And the next step of this equation is that the stubborn monotheists become the real “cutting-edge” visionaries. Because cutting-edge shouldn’t mean new, necessarily, but right. Correct in the face of mass confusion.
This is why monotheism seems so antiquated to so many. Because multiplicity demands change. It can never be the same, and must always be evolving and growing as the definition of what exists evolves and grows. Monotheism doesn’t do that. It stays constant, absorbing the multiplicity of the universe into its worldview.
And it’s why the biggest argument brought against monotheism, Abrahamic religions especially, that we believe in a silly document written thousands of years ago, actually becomes our biggest asset.
Because the truth of polytheism is that each god they designate becomes its own bible. Whether that god is a statue or each scientific fact and theory does not make a difference. The point is that they’ve allowed the physical, the multiple, the metaphor, to become individual truths that become their guiding lights of reality.
To a Jew especially, the power of the Torah is that it is our single guiding light. A light that, unlike even other monotheistic religions, inherently allows (and demands) that we include all the other lights of science, nature, and multiplicity, within it.
It is our seeming illogical marriage to this document that has allowed us to stay on the cutting edge. It is the reminder that G-d is one. It is what we need to ignore the distractions of the story and focus on its moral.
It is with this worldview we can look at the folks like Carl Sagan and tell them that, yes, we are confident. We are confident because we have no problem with the largess of the universe, or the existence of scientific facts, or the multiplicity of existence. We are confident because we do not allow those things to define us or our reality. We are confident because we know we are not the antiquated ones, but the ones on the cutting edge, refusing to allow the ancient desire to break the reality of the world into manageable chunks, to cause us to forget that, in the end, it is all one.
We are confident because we believe in G-d.