Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/23/2011

A note to my atheist friends

Morphing marble

Morphing marble

Last night during the sermon in the Choral Good Friday Liturgy I had a fleeting moment (again) of understanding the absurdity of what we were doing.  The preacher was talking about forgiveness and reconciliation—God can’t forgive us if we don’t forgive each other, a sort of works-righteousness theology I can’t buy even when I think I’m a Christian. I was suddenly transported to the cosmos—the knowable universe—and knew without a doubt that I’m part of this enormous reality I can’t understand or describe.

This was not a religious experience but a scientific one—the closest star may be 5 light-years away, but we are nonetheless next-door and all part of the same reality, whether or not there is “intelligent” life anywhere else. Did God create only the Earth, or this entire expanse, and why would God pay attention to our spot in the universe when so much else is out there for God to be interested in? God must have more fun playing around with supernovas than trying to make the bizarre little “intelligent” creatures on this tiny planet do what he wants us to do. And if heaven exists, where is it? Turn left at the next galaxy and go 5 light years farther out?

The episode in my mind may have been the result of the morphing of the patterns of the marble reredos, the large expanse of white behind the altar, with gray patterns, and a bas-relief depiction of St. Michael and a bunch of angels. When I see strange sights like that and assume no one else is seeing them, I—wouldn’t you?—doubt my sanity. But I know it’s a weird manifestation of my seizure disorder, and it’s perfectly harmless—and meaningless.

The first Episcopal Good Friday service I attended (forty-three years ago) was at the little church where I was the organist directly out of college—as high church as you can get. The Good Friday liturgy began with a solemn procession into the church with a large crucifix. The deacon (in a black cassock) set it up in the sanctuary whereupon the entire sanctuary party prostrated themselves in front of it. My Baptist sensibilities were shocked! I nearly left. But then something got inside my mind—something like watching the marble patterns morph last night, but not the same—and I was completely ensnared, mesmerized, emotionally and intellectually abducted.

See the Wilfred Owen poem at the end of my posting yesterday for a description of what happened at the end of the service, except, of course, there was no dark-skinned boy holding the cross.

I have spent the last forty-three years trying to extricate myself from that moment.

I wish I were an intellectual. One of those people who understands some important idea—like Appel and Haken proving the four-color theorem of map-making using a computer for the first time to prove a mathematical theorem. Look where your iPhone has gone from there!

“Spirituality is the personal expression of ultimate concern” (1).

Well now. Answers to big questions do come to those who are patient. I’ve been looking for a definition of that over-used and meaningless word for a long time. Now I have one I can use. “The personal expression of ultimate concern.”  Ambiguous and amorphous, but useable.

Emmons takes as his inspiration Paul Tillich’s definition of religion as

the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life (2).

I’m not sure why I think being an intellectual would help me sort this out. In 1916 James H. Leuba studied religious beliefs among 1000 scientists in “two cardinal doctrines of Christianity: a personal God who answers prayer and personal immortality” (3). Leuba predicted that disbelief in God among scientists “would increase as education spread.” In 1997 Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham “compared the results of their 1996 survey of one thousand randomly selected American scientists regarding their religious beliefs” with Leuba’s (4).

Brown says that Leuba’s prediction was wrong and

Larson and Witham reported that in both Leuba’s and their own surveys roughly 40 percent of scientists believed in a personal God and an afterlife, 45 percent were disbelievers, and 15 percent were doubters. [They concluded that] “to the extent that both surveys are accurate readings, traditional Western theism has not lost its place among U.S. scientists. . .” (5).

Brown’s article is much too complex to discuss here. She presents her understanding of Leuba’s work for the half-century after his survey. I’m most interested in her contention that

for Leuba religion and science need no longer be at war with each other. Both enterprises share “devotion to the public good. . . the search for truth, . . . awe before the mystery of life.” Leuba’s . . . awareness of the role of ritual and spiritual practice in human life and of the need to avoid a cold materialist philosophy point to his clear recognition that science does not satisfy all human needs. . . Leuba’s notion of a mystical-evolutionary cosmic urge. . . invites a call to dialogue, if not actual synthesis, between science and religion (6).

So now I’m back to wishing I were an intellectual. Besides the morphing patterns of the marble reredos of the church (which I know is a neurological, not a psychological or theological problem—not a problem at all if I’m not depressed, but a diversion) my impetus for thinking about this is my accidentally coming across the Emmons article I’ve quoted above.

A few years back educators were taken with the idea of multiple intelligences most popularly discussed by Howard Gardner. It’s a sensible (and somewhat scientifically demonstrated) theory describing intelligence as much more than intellectual acumen. For example, I enjoy talking with football players in my classes about how they know where to run on the field. A total mystery to me (7). Emmons asks, “Is Spirituality an Intelligence?”

It’s a bizarre question based on Gardner’s definition that intelligence is “a set of abilities that permits an individual to solve problems or fashion products that are of consequence in a particular cultural setting” (8). Emmons suggests that it is, and that

spiritually intelligent individuals are characterized by (a) the capacity for transcendence; (b) the ability to enter into heightened spiritual states of consciousness; (c) the ability to invest everyday activities, events, and relationships with a sense of the sacred; (d) the ability to utilize spiritual resources to solve problems in living; and (e) the capacity to engage in virtuous behavior or to be virtuous (to show forgiveness, to express gratitude, to be humble, to display compassion) (9).

So is anything that I’ve described a kind of intelligence, or is it all hokus-pokus and/or wishful thinking? My students are not allowed to end essays with questions, but “I’m a Baptist, and I’m allowed” (10). I have no idea what those clergy people dressed in black and prostrate before the cross have to do with the cosmos or science or morphing marble. Or intelligence. Or God?
(1) Emmons, Robert A. “Is Spirituality an Intelligence? Motivation, Cognition, and the Psychology of Ultimate Concern.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 10.1 (2000): 3-26.
(2) Tillich, Paul. Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions. New York: Columbia University Press (1963). Quoted in Emmons.
(3) Brown, C. Mackenzie. “The Conflict Between Religion and Science in Light of the Patterns of Religious Belief Among Scientists.Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 38.3 (2003): 603.
(4) Brown, ibid.
(5) Brown, ibid., quoting: Larson, Edward J., and Larry Witham. 1997. “Scientists Are Still Keeping the Faith” (Commentary). Nature 386 (3 April): 435–36.
(6) Brown, op.cit.
(7) Gardner, Howard. Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books (1993).
(8) Walters, J. M., & Gardner, H. “The theory of multiple intelligences: Some issues and answers.” In R. J. Sternberg & R.K. Wagner (Eds.), Practical intelligence (163–182). New York: Cambridge University Press (1986). Quoted in Emmons.
(9) Emmons, ibid.
(10) Horwitt, Arnold and Albert Hague. Plain and Fancy. Dir. Morton DaCosta. Mark Hellinger Theater, New York. 1955.


  1. “God can’t forgive us if we don’t forgive each other” makes sense if you consider that we are God and we are each other.

    I like Emmons’ characteristics of spiritual intelligence. I can’t say that I have much a capacity for transcendence or heightened spiritual states of consciousness, but I think I’m pretty darned good at investing “everyday activities, events, and relationships with a sense of the sacred”. I also think spiritual resources are the only real tools we have for solving life problems.

    See, now, I’ve had to add Emmons’ book to my reading list.



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