Nature Mystic on a Philosophical Quest

I am delighted to have been asked to blog on religion and science. For my first essay, I thought I would introduce myself and explain a bit why I am interested in this topic.

My interest in religion and science began in my youth. I was a nature mystic. I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We lived on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, and our property was nestled in the woods behind a farm. I was free to run barefoot through the woods and fields, and to canoe in the creek and marsh. I climbed trees, tracked animals, examined leaves, practiced running silently through the woods, and sat motionless in my canoe waiting for the wildlife to emerge. At night the sky was dark and huge in this flat landscape, and I learned the constellations, tried to see the planets in perspective as I watched them wander through the zodiac, and stayed up late to watch astronomical events. One warm summer evening I stayed outside watching the full duration of a lunar eclipse.

My love for nature was spiritual. The woods were alive, and so was the water, the air, and the sky. I could tell there was more to reality than meets the eye -- nature whispered this fundamental truth to me at every moment. I studied nature by being in it, but I also loved my science classes at school. Our small, rural high school had a planetarium. When I was still in elementary and middle school, we would take field trips every year to the planetarium to learn about the sky, and I delighted in applying that knowledge to "my" sky at home -- the same sky that followed me everywhere I went. When later I left home to attend college, it was a great comfort to me to find that same sky still with me.

When I was in high school, I eagerly signed up to take astronomy as soon as I could. I even got to help with the planetarium presentations for the elementary and middle school classes: a tremendous thrill for a shy and studious young person. I also took all of the other science courses I could take: biology, advanced biology, chemistry, advanced chemistry, and physics. It was physics and astronomy I loved best. I read every book on physics and astronomy I could find in our local public library, and then started reading more advanced books in our local college library, fascinated to begin learning about relativity theory and quantum mechanics.

When I then started college, it was natural for me to focus first on physics and astronomy, but I began to realize that not everyone in the sciences had the kind of spiritual love I had for nature; nor did everyone ask, or appreciate, the philosophical questions about science that I was asking. It was the first experience I had of the damaging rift that I gradually came to learn dominates Western thought today, and it was a traumatic experience for me -- so traumatic that after two years of trying to major in physics, I dropped out of college to come to terms with my realization that I was not really the kind of scientist today's academic world produces.

In those in-between years, I lived simply, worked in libraries, bicycled, and wrote as a way to try to sort out my thoughts. I went to England and immersed myself in the Quaker subculture, because it was the Quakers who affirmed both my spiritual inclinations and my interest in science. After a year at a Quaker study center in England, I decided to return to the U.S. to finish my college education, but this time at a Quaker college, where I decided to major in philosophy and religion instead of science, because now I was beginning to see that science education today trains us in one specific way of understanding and doing science, but philosophy offers a wider perspective on ways of understanding both knowledge and reality. When the day came that I decided I wanted to become a college professor myself, it made sense to specialize in philosophy of science with a graduate minor in "science studies" so that I could study some history of science as well. I also studied philosophy of religion, knowing that my ultimate goal was to focus on science and religion.

Through my studies and into my life as a professor, I found that what I was really trying to figure out was how and why religion and science split apart in Western thought.

What I learned was that they didn't have to have split apart.

Their splitting apart was the result of historical contingencies, not logical necessity: not advancement towards a better understanding of Truth. Furthermore, their splitting apart has caused tremendous damage.

This is the story I hope to explore in these essays.