Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Monday afternoon—the work day is over, and I am making an unexpected excursion to Manhattan. Sitting on the train, I watch the scenery fly by, and feel myself being jolted from side to side due to the sway of the double-decker cars. The sun is not quite ready to call it quits at 4:00—a sure sign that we are headed towards Spring.

I am re-reading Huston Smith’s book, “Why Religion Matters”. This appears to be a newer edition--a chapter I’d read in an earlier version on Islam and worldview is no longer there. The book is Smith’s defense of what he calls the “traditional” worldview. Smith is not opposed to science and its discoveries; he’s opposed to “scientism”. “Scientism”, according to Smith, gives science two corollaries: first, the scientific method is the only way to gain truth, and second, that material entities are the most fundamental things that exist. His complaint is that these two assumptions are not proven, and yet they are simply accepted a priori as the point of reference for understanding “truth”. He gives examples of how scientism subtly makes itself seen in our culture—the New York Review of Books choosing a scientist to review a book by a theologian, for example. (As he put it, imagine if a theologian was asked to review a science book). Books that are critical of wholesale scientism are dismissed as anti-science and therefore unworthy of any attention.

I find myself thinking about this as the train pulls into Newark Broad Street station. It puts the fundamentalist vs. secularist battle in an interesting light. Smith is looking to be a moderate in the debate, though forceful in making his point. He is moderate in the sense that he’s not going to either extreme—neither the “real” (hardcore scientific) nor the “ideal” (hardcore religious). There’s that continuum between the material and the mysterious again. And more sideways figure 8s. Douglas Adams was wrong—the answer is not 42. It’s 8. The infinite loop.

I get off the train at Penn Station, New York and head over to the 1 train to go uptown. Stopping in Times Square, I head over to my favorite restaurant. Surprisingly, it is 5:00, but the New York streets are not crowded. It’s probably right around the freezing mark—relatively warm given the bone-chilling winds and sub-zero temperatures of the last couple of weeks—but it somehow feels bitterly cold. Not even the tall buildings and gray cloud cover seem to be able to keep it away. Walking into the restaurant, I head over to the bar area, which is thankfully still relatively empty. Melissa, the bartender, comes over to say hello, and ask me just how cold it is outside. “All I see are people shivering and pulling their coats around themselves”, she says. “My shift is over soon, and I’m dreading going out there.”

I ask myself—is the experience of life like a straight line or a circle? The straight line implies that there are 2 extremes, and that one is closer to one end than the other—the old “swinging pendulum” model. The circle implies that we are on a Ferris wheel and keep going around, and around, and around, doing essentially the same stuff and getting dizzy while we do it. With a straight line, one needs to move in a loop—an infinity loop, a sideways figure 8, because you’re not better off at one end or the other, but you need elements of both for balance. When in a single loop, one needs to stop looping and go to the center where it’s still. Of course they’re both metaphors, so it may not matter which one you choose. Maybe they are both relevant—how else can we “be still” and “go with the flow”?

Leaving the restaurant, I head back to 42nd Street to resume my journey uptown on the 1. Now Times Square is swarming with people. I look down the stairs in the station, and can scarcely believe the sea of people in front of me. But the trains are arriving every 2 minutes or so, so I don’t have to wait long. The first train fills up and passes, and suddenly it’s like watching the Red Sea part—a huge gulf emerges in the middle of the platform. I arrive at the 103rd St. station. Upon reaching the street level, I encounter someone trying to decide if the subway entrance on this side goes downtown or the one across the street. “Either one,” I tell her. “It doesn’t matter.”

Indeed it doesn’t, I think, as I walk towards 102nd Street.

P.S.--Here are some more circles. Fantastic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That Philip Glass stuff is just mad fantastic! Thank you.