I straddle two worlds. My scientific family and studies have given me a close-up view of the scientific endeavor. Its work, driven by curiosity and belief in logical methods, and conducted with an obedience to truthfulness, have inspired me to incorporate science ideas and images into my art since 1967. My other world is that of a practicing Quaker. Through my engagement with Quaker service work and through a stunning experience of the Inner Light that I had half a lifetime ago, I am moving toward an amplified view of how to be in the world.
One of the key values of science is truthfulness, which makes it possible to create an edifice of reliable data upon which new discoveries can built. At the same time, researchers are acutely aware of the possibility of being proved wrong, and of great unanswered questions. These instill in scientists a kind of humility. My geologist father embraced evidence of the movement of continental plates in the 1970s, in spite of having previously written a book that was based on an earlier theory of mountain building.
Science is developing a picture of where we are in space and time that humans very much need. All over the world, all through history, humans have woven creation stories. Now, our ideas of where we are in space and time have been redefined by scientific discoveries, many of them quite recent: The antiquity of the universe; its hundred billion galaxies, with dark energy beyond; Earth as a whole system; and what DNA shows us about humanity’s common ancestry. In war, humans tend to see enemies as something less than human. Science’s picture of one human family sharing one small interdependent planet traveling through the vastness of space is a picture that can counter humanity’s persistently vicious tribalism.
It was because of his religious upbringing that Michael Faraday believed in a great underlying unity in nature. He believed God’s creation would be orderly throughout. It was he who discovered that a moving magnet could induce an electric current, thus demonstrating an underlying relationship between two of the great forces of nature. He then embarked upon a long search for proof that magnetism influences light, which he ultimately found.
I also harbor a drive to identify that which is always true in nature outside of ourselves. Many of my paintings celebrate the formal mathematics found in everyday patterns in nature. Physicist and mathematician Roger Penrose once said, “Science is always exploring the way the world works in relation to . . . mathematical constructions. . . . And it’s not just precision. The mathematics one uses has a kind of life of its own.” (Science and Spirit Magazine, March-April 2003.)
All of this satisfies a need we have for “eternal verities” in the midst of a tempestuous world of societal and climatic changes. Spinoza felt it. Einstein felt it.
The entomologist, E.O. Wilson, wrote a controversial book in 1998, Consilience, which attempted to prove that all knowledge is unified, not only across the various hard sciences, but across the social sciences and humanities as well (even across aesthetics and religion). From my own observations of scientists, artists, and religious persons I have known, I sense that the driving quest common to all of them is to achieve a deep sense of the world. Both Greek words, logos and cosmos, are embedded with the idea of an underlying order of the universe. This shows that Wilson’s quest to unite all human knowledge is a quest that extends not only laterally, across disciplines, but also vertically, through history.
Still, science, mathematics, and awe of nature provide only half an answer for helping us through our lives. This is hard for me to say because I am from a family of mostly hardheaded materialists. I find it hard to utter the word “God.” However, I find it even harder to dismiss the idea of God after being surprised by a profound experience of the Inner Light. Although the materialist in me does wonder what areas of the brain were involved in that experience, I know the answer is irrelevant. What matters is that the experience brought me an awareness of a path of goodness through life, and the energy to pursue it.
Not everyone is blessed with this sort of vivid experience. Nor did it remain vivid for me. It is like falling in love in that way. However, we can continue to seek to draw closer to the Inner Light through music, poetry, meditation, and heart-lifting worship. We can also draw closer through acts of service.
I did work in the slums of Philadelphia with AFSC in the 1950s. This helped me develop another type of truth seeking: the willingness to look under the facade of my society and analyze the structures supporting a system that protects some people and ignores or abuses others. The Quaker commitment to listen to all people, regardless of their perspectives, has also been invaluable to me. Respect for truth is deeply allied with respect for each individual.
With the support of my meeting, I have worked closely with refugees from Central America and with homeless people in my own community. In both of these cases, I was somewhat fearful at first. I had to push myself to get started. Working with other Friends in my meeting made it easier. We helped each other exceed what we thought we could do individually, and we made friends across societal boundaries along the way. We learned deeper truths about our common humanity.
I have found that working with a faith community can even help me to deepen my practice of meditation, which might typically seem like an individual pursuit. Either with Quakers or with Buddhists, is easier for me to meditate along with other people than alone. My twice-weekly practice – midweek with Buddhists and on Sundays in Quaker worship – allows me experience deep stillness, the Ground of All Being. The palpable effect on my life is an equanimity and magnanimity that I have long sought.
For all these reasons, I can say that science has not replaced religion. Science provides a floor for knowing where we are. Religion provides space and direction that we can live into. My religious practice feels consonant with what science teaches me about the universe. Things seen and unseen, the universe itself, all are larger than human imagining. ~~~
Trudy Reagan is a painter and writer who produces serious works as well as satirical ones, working under the name of “Myrrh.” She is an active supporter of community projects in El Salvador and Haiti. She is a member of Palo Alto Friends Meeting (PYM). You can view her paintings in full, glorious color at: www.myrrh-art.com.