Wednesday, April 13, 2016

How to Read

Those who look to the Bible and other sacred texts for meaning and guidance are those who don't know how to read nature, life, or the story of their own lives.  That is, ironically, fixation on texts is the result of a kind of illiteracy.

This illiteracy is more difficult to overcome than standard illiteracy.  Standard illiteracy is easily avoided with simple education and exercise.  On the other hand, this, one might call it, "existential illiteracy," the inability to read the meaning in the world, is, for many, encouraged and reinforced at every turn by their culture, upbringing, and temperament.  When someone is taught to read, they do not have to be convinced that there is something on the page.  With this existential illiteracy, however, often convincing someone there is something there to read at all is the most difficult step.  And many lack even the sense that they are missing anything.

How then can this form of literacy be taught?  I believe there are a variety of paths.  The most basic begins with practical interaction with nature.  The reductive materialistic worldview insists that the world is a bleak and meaningless place, but any amount of intentional interaction with a natural environment shows this to be false.  The natural world is rife with symbol and signification to the one who cares (for one reason or another) to pay attention.  Footprints, owl pellets, an apple tree's spring standard, yawning hole, stripped bark, upturned stone, snapped branch.  These things have meaning not just on some anthropocentric interpretation, but for a great number of members of the natural world.

One might argue that these examples are irrelevant to meaning in human life, that what a human looks for is an overarching, permanent meaning of things, not just local, temporary meanings.  But we'll get there.  And more is accomplished with this simple observation than may be immediately obvious.  When one grants that the natural world is not at all merely matter in motion, as is the fashion among some to claim, but is instead a web of interconnected symbols, the most important step has already been taken.

After one grants that the natural world is a web of interconnected symbols, or a kind of text to be read/deciphered, many paths diverge.  One might go an Aboriginal route, or a Pragmatistic route, or the route of an open-minded scientist not committed to reductive materialism.  Indeed, there are countless divergent paths that lead from here to fully blossoming and meaningful worldviews and countless points of departure other than the one here used.  No one can, or need, or should follow all these paths, so I will continue on that one which is most accessible and interesting to me, the most challenging and rewarding one I've equipped myself for.

When one realizes they are not an infinitesimally small point in uniform and infinite Cartesian space, but a nexus of significations in a deeply interconnected and meaningful natural world, everything changes.  In each individual moment and across time, past, present, future, untold billions of natural events go into making you who you are and building the meaningful situation in which you find yourself.  Evolution shaped you and the natural world sustains you.  Looking for the meaning of your life?  Look around.  You won't find a dove composed of light bestowing unchanging and eternal meaning on your life - we cannot even understand that which does not change - but you will find yourself engulfed in ripples from events in the incomprehensible past and you can make ripples of your own that will expand into the indefinite future.

While observation and appreciation of one's local situation are sufficient for finding guidance and discovering meaning, certain areas of science can paint an even richer picture of things.  For example, science has begun to appreciate the fact that life on Earth is not merely the result of the right mix of "mud and water" but that life depends on certain fundamental facts about the structure of the universe.  More than that, life is just a certain organization of some of the basic patterns and propensities of matter.  We are a combination of elements AND patterns always already present throughout the physical universe.  We are a natural outgrowth or development of the universe itself.  Contrary to much mythology, we are not some spirit beings condemned to a miserable sojourn within the material.  We are fully a part of, fully at home in the universe.  We are akin as much to the inorganic as we are to the organic.

When we begin to learn how to read the multiplicity of (kinds of) meanings that compose our world, sacred texts lose their central significance.  We learn to find meaning not between dusty covers, but in the clouds, waves, branches, gestures, glances, falling pitches, inventions, discoveries, and explanations.

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We're already there

Some years ago I was painting a house with a few friends.  We were giving a hand to another friend who was about to move into this house.  ...