20 April 2010

Great Basin

Romans 1:20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse . . .

They call it the Great Basin, and after the last two days, I know why. I was sent through here with an oversize load of farm equipment, headed through Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada to California’s Central Valley, 2000 miles through springtime in the American West. With a full day and a night in the Great Basin.

It was certainly a full day for me, 500 miles, more or less, although 150 years ago the trip took much longer. I have the advantage of 450 horsepower, ten gear ratios, 18 wheels, and extremely well-built roads. But the one the permit department assigned me was Highway 50. I looked at my maps, and then asked Dawn, my dispatcher, about it.

“My oversize route through Utah and Nevada says Highway 50, not the Interstate.”

“Take whatever they say. You have to follow the permit route.”

“It’s the old two-lane right through the middle. There’s only two towns and no rest areas for 486 miles. Where do I park the truck for the night?”

Eventually I look more critically at my maps and see a few possibilities. And in truth, I know from spending half my life in the west that stopping for the night is actually not that hard. West of the Rockies, I can find places here and there where a 72-foot truck 12 feet wide and 14 feet high might be tucked in without attracting attention. So I agree, and set off.

Driving a truck across the west is easy compared to the old days. I know, because I can read the evidence in the topography. When a modern road crosses the mountains, it cuts across the ins and outs of the necks and draws, smoothly following curve after gentle curve up and down through the road cuts. But if you look, you can often see the traces of the older road, the one that runs the passes farther into the draws, and farther out on the necks, sharper turns, and steeper grades, necessitated by the smaller graders and dozers of the old days. Often the pavement is still there, a reminder of the Ford V-8s and Nashes that once chugged up that slower and more difficult path, boiling their radiators the whole time. And if you know what to look for, you can sometimes see an earlier road still, one diving even higher in and lurching even farther out, criss-crossing all the newer roadbeds, one built by mules, and by men with picks and shovels. I’ve walked those early roads before, and they speak of Spanish missions and pack trains. Sometimes you find old campsites, and once I picked up an ox shoe off the rocky road bed.

I drive a day and a night through mountains, passes, snow capped ranges, perfectly sloped bajadas and alluvial fans. Where my road passes through the dynamited cuts in the country rock, I am treated to endless cross sections of massive lavas, cinders, pyroclastic flows, ash falls weathering to a rainbow of clays. The horizons are composed of lava flows tilted and eroded flat eons ago, buried again by more ancient eruptions and now exposed once more, standing upright like the giant pages of a stony encyclopedia telling a story of cataclysm and quiet. Occasional sandstones and quartzites tell of wetter days, or sandstorms long gone by.

And life abounds, too, in distinct communities that come, go, and come again as I travel up and down through the life zones that radiate from a eutectic of elevation, water, and solar aspect. Ephemeral herbs in the wet springtime playas give way to upland sages and Mormon tea, which then yield to Limber Pines, Pinyons, and Junipers. In the canyons the mule deer look up as I pass, always startled somehow by my noisy arrival, so different from the self-composed bighorn sheep that won’t deign to lift their gaze even when I let the air horns loose to see if they care. Jackrabbits and avocets, vultures, ravens and bluebirds, all ignore me as I pass, but sometimes come close to investigate when I stop to check the chains holding my load. And of course, I know that the real world comes alive at night, when the kangaroo rats dig themselves out of their hidey-holes to look for seeds, and the kit foxes come out of their own holes to look for the kangaroo rats. Three kangaroo rats a night, I remember, and a kit fox never needs to drink liquid water. Bats and bears, pocket mice and wood rats, snakes, lizards, moths and beetles, the Great Basin is an immense and interlocking system of flora, fauna, minerals, and topography, all intricately linked together to maintain a dynamic equilibrium that reflects relationships maintained for millennia. Like a marble rolling to the bottom of a mixing bowl, the different life zones that I pass all hold together in their own way, and adapt to changes in the orientation of the bowl by rolling to a new center, a new balance point, one that automatically shifts to recover stability.

I see the handiwork of Creation in this stability, in these various self-correcting systems that characterize the world, and not just here in the Great Basin. To me, they are sufficient evidence of a Creator. But then, I’m easily convinced. It’s just as easy to look at them and deny the role of conscious creation in their patterns of balance and complexity. Various non-theist Friends tell me in conversation that nothing is demonstrated by nature’s balances that can’t be easily explained without the imposition of a conscious hand at work behind them. Nature needs no explanation other than nature, they say, and the complexities are of no more consequence than the complex shape of a puddle of water that just happens to fit its depression in the ground with molecular accuracy.

And of course, they have an excellent point. If you start with their assumptions, then this view of the universe makes perfect sense. There’s nothing wrong with its logic. Now, understand me when I say that non-theist Friends are a diverse and complex bunch, and some will also explain that non-theism doesn’t discount the possibility of a creator, it just doesn’t require one. But others will sometimes say that they won’t believe in something that can’t be proven, and isn’t necessary to explain the data. In that respect they have some affinities with the first generations of Friends, who also refused to integrate discoveries that were not personal, but sought their own visions like the Paiutes and Shoshone that occupied the valleys I drive through now. But these first Friends also credited the experiences of others as starting points of their own spiritual journeys, and then chose to investigate them themselves, ultimately to possess what they said they professed, to credit the discoveries of others when they were convinced in their own lives. I don’t always see this receptivity among non-theists, this willingness to be convinced.

I once asked a non-theist what physical evidence could convince him of the existence of God. He answered, “Nothing.” And of course, with that attitude, nothing ever could.

Part of the reason may be that many non-theists are strong logical positivists, believers in a philosophy that assumes that the world must be explainable in terms of empirical phenomena, “natural” things that can be tested and verified, at least theoretically. I’ve heard a non-theist explain his beliefs in those terms, and I was surprised. Logical positivism has faded in philosophy in recent decades, but some non-theists will roll it out and dust it off as if it made sense. Among others, Karl Popper punctured the idea that only seeing is believing in the 1930s with his publication of The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Popper showed that in the end, nothing can ever be proven—only disproven, and disproving falsifiable hypotheses is how modern science works. This subtlety escapes a lot of people who claim to believe only in things that can be verified. When I ask them to verify their hypothesis in the non-existence of God, they have asked me if they should believe in any old stupid thing that can’t be disproven, neglecting to notice that their own belief system is one of them.

But as a Christian unprogrammed Quaker, I’m not the person to adequately defend empiricism, or logical positivism, or the various other –isms of the Enlightenment. Although I’m a hard-core defender of a mechanistic universe of orderly laws and principles, I see no conflict with a theistic interpretation, nor do I see any need to assert the old deist argument, the hand that winds the clock, sets it down, and wanders off to other celestial interests and pastimes. To me, the difference is in the assumptions.

Old Thomas Kelly once wrote, “Logic finds, beneath every system of thought, some basic assumptions or postulates from which all other items of belief are derived.” In many ways, my own assumptions are those of a simpleton—I don’t require the world to make sense to me, no matter how much I know about it. I’m willing to believe in things even when they’re metaphysical and just can’t be proven at all. I assume that the ultimate engines of the universe might operate under different laws than those which turn its proximate wheels. When asked the question, “What happened the day before the Big Bang?” one non-theist I know answers by stating “I don’t know, but I’m confident my system of belief will someday have the answer.” I’m a bit different, there. I don’t assume that the world has to cater to my understanding in order to be credible.

This is in sharp contrast to folks who see no need for a Creator. Sometimes when I ask about their assumptions, they tell me that they don’t have any. I once asked an atheist physicist if he could explain his world view to me. He told me, “I don’t have a world view. I merely believe in what nature demonstrates to be true.” He was a tough nut to crack, because somebody who doesn’t even recognize the underpinnings of his own understanding is walking the world in a blindfold.

Ultimately, I suppose the answer lies in whether we require our assumptions to be proven. I don’t require very much proof to be convinced of things, so in many ways I’m a pretty sloppy thinker. But what I do believe, I believe in a positive way, in that I believe in things. When asked what Quakerism meant to him, one non-theist Friend I know of replied: “The rejection of sacraments, the rejection of clergy, the rejection of steeple-houses, the unprogrammed nature of worship, the lack of dogma or doctrine, the lack of an infallible scripture, the Quaker business method, and the commitment to live life through the testimonies and the Quaker community . . .” His view of what he called his religion was essentially negative, a list of things he didn’t believe in. After you took those away, there was actually little left except practice, devoid of underlying meaning, to my way of thinking (not his). Now, this is not bad. Jesus himself had little good to say for belief that didn’t result in practice: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” But inherent in my world view is that why you practice something is ultimately significant, sooner or later. I might row a boat across a river in the company of a cheerful and hardworking companion at the oars. But when I reach the other bank and discover that he is a cannibal conducting me to his family’s dinner, you can see that practice is sometimes only equivalent at the surface, and underneath things are not so congruent after all. But of course, a non-theist might reject the existence of an underneath in the first place, or of the other river bank. Again, a difference in assumptions.

And so it is with the Great Basin. As I write, I have left the deserts behind, and a cool night has covered the western end of the valley where I have parked for the night. The air is wet with the smell of irrigated alfalfa, and the evening sounds of a small Nevada town fill the background, passing pickup trucks and clear but distant voices, rather than the quiet heartbeat of a wilderness devoid of human beings. The Great Basin has reminded me of why I believe in the things I do. In my own experience, I find the answers to questions of existence best provided by the metaphysical view of a conscious creator. My assumptions are different from those of my non-theist Friends and acquaintances. And in truth, I find my assumptions supported regularly, when answers come to questions in the form of omens, impossible coincidences, visions, auditions, and the discoveries of others that are coincident with my own. Many non-theists aren’t satisfied with that level of verification, and continue on looking for sharper answers to the hard questions, or give up asking.

But I’m content with my own solution. Like I said, I’m easy to please.


Hystery said...

Thank you for being so careful here to make clear that non-theists are not all identical in their beliefs (or unbeliefs!) I define my non-theism quite a bit differently than many, I suppose. In my case, my unbelief and my non-theism are not necessarily related.

Since it would take a book to explain that, I'll just say that I am in a dark and doubting place these days. A Friend ministering to me told me that she feels this is where I am supposed to be right now. I think she may be right. I also think that I am awfully thankful for theist Friends who continue to hear me as they tell me their own stories of faith. I feel that for me at least, the answers I crave will be found in these stories.

Jan Lyn said...

Beautiful. I've always had sufficient evidence of a Creator in nature as well and I'm content with all the many mysteries contained within the scriptures and experiences here on earth as well. I think some days I am not 'intellectual' enough to align myself with Quakers but in all actuality my walk is probably easier than it is for some others. What I can't explain, further builds what I think of as faith and in that faith, a spark of Light that glimmers, fades and brightens but never has gone out throughout my years and my heart is getting old. Kind of all the proof I need.

kevin roberts said...

Hey Hystery--

I mean it when I say that non-theists are complex and diverse. Some of them I understand a bit and others I don't understand at all. But the fact that a "non-theist" will choose that term rather than just say "atheist" is significant, I think. I'm still trying to figure them out.

God puts people in alternating dark and light places for purposes apparent only to him. It's not for me to dictate what he decides is important in his relationships with other people. I'm just passing through myself.


kevin roberts said...

JL, one of the finest Quakers I know is mentally retarded.

Intellectualism is often a curse, because it gets in the way. This is sometimes a problem for some very intelligent non-theist Friends I know, because they can see so many sides to a question they can't discern easy answers anymore. (They will disagree.)

There are lots more important things than smarts, or education, or vocabulary, or so on.

Seriously. Look at all the trouble smart people have caused in the world. It was intellectuals who built the atom bomb.