The Long View

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In the mid-1730s, John Bartram, a Quaker living near Philadelphia, wrote the following in his journal: “One day I was very busy in holding my plough (for thee seest I am but a ploughman), and being weary, I ran under the shade of a tree to repose myself. I cast my eyes on a daisy; I plucked it mechanically, and viewed it with more curiosity than common country farmers are wont to do, and observed therein very many distinct parts, some perpendicular, some horizontal. What a shame, said my mind, or something that inspired my mind, that thee shouldst have employed so many years in tilling the earth, and destroying so many flowers and plants, without being acquainted with their structures and their uses!”

Bartram’s aside about “something that inspired my mind” seems to imply that he felt himself being “called” in that moment. And indeed, that moment of inspiration led him into a life-long career as a botanist, ornithologist, and seller of plants. He was one of the first naturalists in the colonies to use the new Linnaean classification scheme for plants and animals, and he corresponded frequently with naturalists in Europe, including Linnaeus. At first his wife was not pleased about his new interest – the couple had eleven children – but she gradually accepted it as his fame grew and as he began to earn money in his new pursuit.

For many Friends, our religious practices have much in common with scientific approaches to knowledge. Just as John Bartram experienced while studying his daisy, many Friends are struck during worship with insights that call them to follow new pathways of discovery and growth. Within the meeting community, we support each other in responding to such calls.

British Friend Jocelyn Bell Brunnell was a graduate student assigned to study radio telescope data when she recognized highly regular signals from some stars. These were later called “pulsars,” and Brunnell’s thesis supervisor got the Nobel Prize for the discovery. Brunnell herself went on to have a fruitful career as an astrophysicist, earning many other awards.

“I find that Quakerism and research science fit together very, very well,” wrote Brunnell. “In Quakerism, you’re expected to develop your own understanding of God from your experience in the world. . . There’s an understanding, but nothing as formal as a dogma or creed; and this idea that you develop your own understanding also means that you keep redeveloping your understanding as you get more experience. [It] seems to me that’s very like what goes on in ‘the scientific method.’ ”

The scientific process, as Brunnell pursued it, involved huge amounts of detailed work with huge amounts of data. In her own case, she recognized pulsar signals while examining literally kilometers of paper graphs generated by a radio telescope. Today, of course, computers and the Internet handle gigabytes of data virtually instantaneously, and they share that data worldwide with anyone who is interested. Big research, whether in oceanography, genetics, or seismology, often involves massive amounts of data generated at prodigious rates, stored in huge data farms, and sent on high-speed cables to supercomputers all around the world for analysis.

Still, for all its complexity, this research still follows the methods of science. Observations are gathered, systematic analyses conducted, results shared with other researchers, more observations are made, and so on, in an iterative process that progresses systematically toward well-founded understandings.

By similar methods, Quakerism adapts to change. Quakers have their patient process of decision-making. We seek unity by deep listening to all points of view. Anchored in our spiritual lives, this process modulates changes in our faith and practice – allowing change when it is needed, but at a Quakerly pace.

Discerning a need for change is seldom easy. Climate change is a good example. The slowly increasing occurrences of catastrophic events like severe storms, extended droughts, and forest fires leave people wondering whether these are part of a long-term trend or not. Is the threat of climate change “real” or illusory?

The best evidence that climate change is real comes from the systematic data-collection and analysis of science. For example, satellite measurements demonstrate that the uppermost level of Earth’s atmosphere – the stratosphere – is cooling. Heat is still rising from the Earth’s surface, but greenhouse gasses are now trapping that heat at lower levels of the atmosphere. Heat no longer reaches the stratosphere as much as it did in the past. No one lives at those altitudes. It took a lot of science and technology to make those observations.

Similarly, humans cannot directly sense the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air we breathe, which rose from 325 parts per million (ppm) in 1970 to 405 ppm in 2017. Delicate instruments placed around the world are necessary to observe CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and substantial data analysis was needed to recognize that rising trend.

Yet more examples of scientific observations revealing disturbing trends can be found in methodical studies of the Earth’s oceans. In one such study, a fleet of small drone submarines was deployed around the world to collect data about the Earth’s oceans at various depths. Those measurements were transmitted to satellites overhead, then relayed to scientists for analysis. These studies have demonstrated that the Earth’s oceans are absorbing large amounts of heat and CO2 from the Earth’s atmosphere, which is causing the oceans to both warm and become  more acidic.

All such studies, taken together, are showing that long-term, global processes are affecting the entire community of life on our small planet. Humans are not naturally able to see this long view. With so many distractions in modern life, we are inadvertently “devouring the creation” we have been given. However, if look at our world through the lens of scientific observation, we can see what is actually happening.

Our Quaker traditions also give us some tools for taking this long view.  As Quaker minister Doug Gwyn explains in the QuakerSpeak video of September 6, 2018, “George Fox teaches . . . when we stand still in the Light . . . [we] begin to see the wisdom of God in the Creation . . . [and] the natures and virtues of the different creatures in the Creation. . . [and] a sense of how all the different pieces fit together . . . [and] a better sense of where you fit among all those pieces.” (See: quakerspeak.com)

Working to improve our connections with the natural world will be essential if we are to develop positive responses to climate change. In these times when politics are being used to subvert and suppress scientific understanding, our traditional Quaker practices are badly needed. Let’s continue to share with the world our patient waiting for clearness, openness to learning, deep listening, engagement with people different from ourselves, and willingness to persist in our work over generations. That is what it will take for us to return to harmony with our planet and with the community of life on earth. ~~~

Rick Ells is a nature photographer, poet, and member of University Meeting in Seattle, WA (NPYM).