Edifice of rock and ice
born of molten silicates
thrust from below the earth’s rocky skin,
built of clouds of rock ash and rivers of liquid stone,
patiently etched by streams of ice fed by winter storms.
A mammoth sentinel on the horizon,
reflecting the red light of day’s end.
Ribbons of rushing water lace its rock-strewn flanks,
tumbling over edges of frozen lava flows
into forest-clad valleys far below.
Their murmur mixing gently
with the wind-driven rustle of lavish conifers.
Fury, calm, starkness, and ancientness mingled
in an unexplainable whole within its shadow.
This poem came to me during an unexpected spiritual retreat. In late 2000, I was engaged in fieldwork, surveying a glacier on a mountain in northern Oregon. One of my jobs in this project was to manage our base camp. This meant that while other members of the team came and went during the week, I stayed put and “kept the home fires burning.”
Early in the week, I stepped wrong on a boulder and twisted my ankle. For most of my recovery time, I was by myself, living in a cabin with no power and no means of communication. So, unexpectedly, my fieldwork time ended up also being something of a retreat in an alpine hermitage.
Due to the solitude and the need to rest my ankle, I organized my days around the rhythms of the mountain. Several times each day, I walked down to a nearby meltwater stream to soak my swollen ankle in the icy water. As I sat there listening to the clamorous water tumbling over the rocks and boulders, I felt moments when it was as if the water was running through me. I thought it might be sweeping away a backlog of spiritual detritus.
Each morning was graced by sunlight filtering through the trees that surrounded the cabin. Each evening was shrouded by deep darkness, pierced by countless stars beyond imagining. Near sunset each evening, I walked to a vantage where I could see the looming edifice of my neighboring mountain, bathed in the reddish glow of the setting sun. With each passing moment, a window in my perception was opened a little wider, revealing more and more of the wondrous creativity alive in that landscape.
In this setting, I found myself mulling over a quandary that I have often wrestled with – the relationship between religion and science. Many people claim that the two are irreconcilably at odds with one another. I have heard religious people characterize scientists as atheists and destroyers of faith. Similarly, I have heard some of my scientific colleagues dismiss religious people as irrational devotees of magical thinking and dogma. As both a scientist and a religious person, it has not been easy to come to terms with these divergent ideas. (Before becoming a geologist, I trained to be a Methodist minister.)
During the last morning of my retreat, while out walking, I got to thinking about a conversation I’d had the previous year with a Jesuit priest who was also a physicist. He told me about his life as a religious person and a particle physicist, and he described the reactions of his scientific colleagues to his religious vocation. Surprisingly, few were hostile, most were noncommittal, several were inquisitive. In any event, as I walked, I remembered this priest as an example of someone who lived faithfully in both worlds.
Obviously, the conversation has stuck with me. In the time since my unintended retreat, I have puzzled a lot about conflicts between science and religion, and what my Jesuit physicist friend had to say about his own vocation. While I still have a great many questions, three basic ideas seem true to me.
First, scientific inquiry is rooted in the belief that there is an order to the universe and that this order is perceptible to the inquisitive and watchful. Second, spiritual seeking involves a sense of wonder as well as deep listening for “that of God” within all things. Finally, scientific inquiry and spiritual seeking share a deep awe and respect for the universe, both rooted in the conviction that creation is guided and sustained by a creative rhythm.
These ideas eventually became woven together as a result of another event that was a watershed experience for me.
In December 2015, I attended a geoscience conference that followed “COP21,” the twenty-first United Nations “conference of the parties” where the Paris Climate Agreement was negotiated. Not surprisingly, COP21 was a major topic of conversation at the subsequent geoscience conference, especially since a number of the conference attendees had just returned from the COP21 meeting. A theme that emerged from all this discussion was that scientists have a critical role to play in understanding, communicating, and solving the problem of the destabilization of our global climate system, the most critical environmental problem of our time.
Having originally been trained as a physicist, I was introduced to a scientific culture that was dispassionate, largely insensitive to social issues, and generally unwilling to challenge the priorities of corporate and government funders. At the 2015 geoscience conference, I saw a different model for research and teaching. The vision was almost prophetic. In this model, inquiry and innovation would be shaped by calls for justice, equity, and stewardship. This would, of course, result in tricky balances between objectivity and compassion. However, I have now met many scientists whose research is motivated by compassion, who navigate these uncertain waters along with my Jesuit friend. They see poetry in their science and the quest for justice in its application. They do not shrink from an experimental faith that remains forever open to the surprises the universe has in store for all of us. ~~~
I have created an online portal to live-streamed and recorded events at this year’s COP27, scheduled for November 6-18, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The express purpose of this resource is to encourage engagement with the conference, in light of this year’s challenges and opportunities.
Please visit: tinyurl.com/connect-COP27
Frank Granshaw is active in ecumenical efforts to increase public engagement in public decisions about climate change. He is a member of Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).