VIDEO: Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori Makes Profound Impact as C.S. Lewis Lecturer
Episcopal Presiding Bishop Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Westminster College’s second annual C.S. Lewis Legacy Lecturer, treated the Westminster community to a profound and insightful discourse on the convergence of science and spirituality. Entitled, “Who are We, Whence, Whither, and Why?”, Schori’s address took the audience on a deep and reflective journey through scientific theory and spiritual meaning of existence.
The lecture began with an invocation from the Rev. Marshall Crossnoe, Ph.D., Vicar of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Fulton and Professor of History at Lincoln University, and an introduction of Rev. Jefferts Schori by the Rev. Clifford Cain, Ph.D., Harrod-C.S. Lewis Professor of Religious Studies at Westminster.
Watch her lecture in the video above. Full text of her lecture is below.
Who are We? Whence, Whither, and Why?
27 Feb 2014
The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
As the war raged across Europe and Britain in the 1940s, C.S. Lewis made a number of broadcasts for the BBC, which were later gathered into Mere Christianity. The impact of those addresses was summarized by a British military leader: “The war, the whole of life, everything tended to seem pointless. We needed, many of us, a key to the meaning of the universe. Lewis provided just that.”1
Most of Lewis’ mature writing can be understood as a response to the great “Why?” questions that beset most human beings at some point in their lives. ‘Why am I here, why do I suffer, why can I rejoice while others are in want, why do we die, why do human beings alternately treat one another with base wretchedness and selfless love?’
The myriad ways of trying to discern our identity, origin, and purpose are the ground of all intellectual and spiritual quests, and those questions fuel every journey of exploration. Lewis lived and wrote out of a Celtic rootedness in context and a predilection for mythic or narrative meaning-making. He aided many in exploring the great why questions more deeply, both in the context of war and violence, and in the joy and grief that a brief marriage late in life brought him. He had a genius in his time for tapping the deep well of human consciousness, in ways that grew out of his own very particular story and flowed into the universal.
Lewis’ creative and imaginative story-telling elucidated ancient myth (stories about our origins) to connect the cosmic Christian story with human experience, in ways both timely and timeless. He is a profound example of the impact the great questions have on human communities in and through time. We touch his remarkably perceptive and deep root with gratitude, for his work continues to influence the search of many, even more than 50 years after his death.
I will invite us to look at these great questions of life’s trajectory as questions of identity and origin, purpose and telos (goal), and the meaning that human beings seek in their lives. I want to evoke a broad sense of the human search for explanation or meaning-making, and I’m going to invite us to look into those questions from a variety of perspectives, not only Lewis’. We will focus on scientific and religious frameworks of meaning-making, and I will tell you as we begin that I don’t see them as mutually exclusive but rather as potentially expansive and synergistic (more than the sum of the parts). I see the scientific and religious stories as parallel systems of meaning that are overlapping in their method but not identical in the questions they ask or the outcome they seek. With many others, I ardently believe the stories we choose to give our hearts and minds to shape and give meaning to the life we live.
The scientific ambit asks questions about origin and direction, but questions of meaning usually aren’t asked in the same way as they would be in a religious context. Scientific meaning comes from investigating the matter we see around us, defining and describing it, and trying to understand the relationships among the different kinds of matter we experience. Meaning questions are resolved in ways that have more to do with mechanism than value – questions of how things came to be the way they are, how they interact, and what influences the changes in systems we observe or prompt. And the questions about purpose are usually understood as projections about the next stage in a process or system. For example, what do we expect to happen to the weather around here as a result of the carbon we continue to pour into the atmosphere? Or what is the utility of this shell’s shape – what advantage does it offer the snail? Those purposive questions don’t seek a terminus. They are far more about immanent realities than transcendent ones, in spite of the ongoing search for TOEs and GUTs.2
The religious3 perspective asks questions about origins in ways that seek meaning – what does the nature of things have to do with evil? and what does it mean to live a good life – where are we going? Identity is important in both spheres, but again the questions seek rather different answers. I spent the first part of my adult life studying squids and octopuses in the NE Pacific. I was concerned with the identity of particular bodies of water and different squids, and being able to distinguish one kind from another, with the usual ecological hypothesis that different species filled different roles in the larger system. Identity was about the role of one actor in the system, and its relationship to other actors and parts of the system – who ate whom? Where might this species of squid live in the vertical and horizontal geography of a large part of the Pacific? Origin was also of interest – how did a specific family of squids evolve to fill rather different roles in the system, and why were they abundant in the Pacific and absent from the Atlantic? Scientific meaning is found in understanding the relationships and deriving theories about how those relationships develop.
In spite of the spirit of some fields, like quantum physics and its language for quarks that have flavor like charm or strange,4 science does not routinely ask questions about the kind of meaning involved in moral or ethical value. That doesn’t mean scientists think these are unimportant questions, but the scientific method is not designed to answer them. At least for several centuries in the western world, we’ve kept these spheres of knowledge fairly separate, even though they are both focused on knowing.5 We haven’t customarily asked if or why one species is more valuable than another until we get to the science of economics6 and the business end of commerce. Yet both scientific and spiritual quests are fundamentally about deeper knowing, and I would assert that we see, know, and understand more if we’re willing to use both systems. That assumption underlies Socrates’ assertion that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
A story of origins is the technical meaning of “myth.” This college has a myth about those columns out there – you tell a story of meaning about their origin and purpose, and every student becomes part of that story by passing through them when you matriculate and again in the other direction as you graduate. Note that the technical use of this term does not imply that a myth is untrue. I have a friend who is fond of saying, “I know this story is true, whether or not it happened exactly that way.” The significance of the myth is how it shapes the hearer and the wider community, and how its truth becomes part of the hearers’ story. A myth is both constitutive and constructive of meaning, for individuals and communities.
Until fairly recently, most of the western world has lived with a broad religious myth, and in recent centuries, a scientific story about origins. The broad biblical myth actually has two primary stories of creation, which say somewhat different things about the meaning and mode of creation. The first one speaks of God creating what is over a period of six days and resting on the seventh. At the beginning there is nothing – a formless void. A wind sweeps over that chaos, God speaks, and light is separated from the darkness. That’s day one. Day two brings the sky, day three the ocean and dry land with its plants. Day four sees sun and moon and stars. Day five results in animals, fish, birds and the charge to be fruitful and multiply. Day six produces human beings in the image of God who are also told to be fruitful and to have dominion over the creatures of the earth. Then God takes a day off, and pronounces a holiday.7
The second creation story tells a very different story that’s focused on the origin of human beings. What is often heard as the name Adam is actually a generic word for “earth creature” (adham) and the first one is asked to name all the creatures and seek a partner among them. A suitable partner isn’t found, so God takes part of the earth creature to make another one. It isn’t until there are two of them that they gain gender. Then follows the story about the snake and eating the forbidden fruit, and the result that the two now know the difference between good and evil. They must now leave that lovely garden, and its dream-time, and enter real human life, with its accompanying toil, pain, and death.
The scientific creation story we live with begins in a singularity, before which the tools of science cannot look, although there is some vigorous and creative theorizing going on.8 We call this beginning the Big Bang, some 13.8 billion years ago. The story moves from this almost unimaginably hot and dense beginning to the coalescence of subatomic particles within a few minutes, and after several hundred thousand years the condensation of stable atoms – mostly hydrogen and helium, with a little lithium. Clouds of these gases condensed into the first galaxies and stars, and as their internal fusion proceeded, eventually those stars died and exploded, and other, denser ones were born that lasted long enough to produce heavier atoms. Planets eventually formed from the ejecta of some of those dying stars.
This is what we call the cosmological theory – and we have to note that, like the word myth, the technical meaning is different from the popular meaning. Theory to scientists means the best explanation we have for a phenomenon – it best fits the evidence, and it’s robust enough that proving it false would take a major discovery. Theories are often in the process of being refined, but they are seldom thrown out.
The cosmological theory continues in our more local part of the universe, as a gas cloud began to consolidate into a solar nebula about 4.5 billion years ago. Within 10 or 20 million years, the sun and a series of planets had consolidated. The earth’s broadly layered structure and internal magnetic field developed fairly quickly (~10 million years), and around 4 billion years ago a large celestial impact blasted part of the earth into orbit as the moon. Volcanism, the result of the earth’s hot core, produced a shifting surface (plate tectonics), and an atmosphere of evolving composition. Life began to evolve on this planet very early – between 3.5 and 4 billion years ago. The evolutionary part of the cosmological story is more familiar – and it continues, through at least five eras of mass extinction and periods of rapid species expansion, as a result of changing environmental pressures. In the geologic era, those pressures have included meteor impacts, mass volcanism, and atmospheric changes, as well as selective pressure due to predation.
Those are very brief summaries of the stories of origin familiar to this culture. There are other religious ones, but the scientific one stands alone as an externally verifiable response to the physical reality we experience. Religious stories of origin deal with meaning in ways that move beyond what the scientific one is capable of, particularly when it comes to value beyond the instrumental and utilitarian. We will return to this issue of transcendence after considering issues of identity and purpose.
We’ve noted three ways of thinking about origins. What does this say about identity – who we are and what we see around us? The cosmological-evolutionary story says we are made of stardust, and so is everything else around us. Notably, everything we can detect is made from the same primordial plasma soup. We human beings share a common origin with every other particle of matter or antimatter imaginable, if we’re willing to look far enough into the past. The evolutionary story on earth gives a similar response – we’re all products of the same stuff, even if some of it may have arrived as part of meteorites, comets, or other stellar projectiles after the initial coalescence of this planet. If we want a purely biological response, the theory gives the same answer – even if life emerged more than once on this earth, we seem to have the same roots. Human beings also seem to share common roots in species that evolved on the African continent. Everybody is an African in origin, and most people in this room are African-Americans. Every human being living today shares a common ancestry – we’re all related to one another, and we are all related to every other creature on earth, and every part of the universe.
Beyond our identity as Homo sapiens, what does it mean to be a human being? Science asks these questions, too.9 We are self-reflective, we have the ability to think and think about our thinking, and we can make conscious choices, at least when we’re functioning rationally. It’s apparent that a number of other creatures share some of those characteristics – many other animals learn and change their behavior, and communicate with some form of language: apes can learn sign language, dolphins, whales, and birds use a variety of sounds and songs. Elephants, wolves, and apes give evidence of grief. Several species use tools, some mate for life, many live in family groups of mutual and altruistic support. Some other species evidently think beyond the local – birds, fish, and mammals migrate across vast distances, directed by neurological and/or genetic memory. Some have the ability to recognize individuals after a lapse of many years.
What makes human beings unique? Creativity – thinking new thoughts, putting together ideas and concepts that come from different realms, like the humor of word-play. Even young children do this: Why did the duck cross the road? She didn’t want to be a chicken.
Much of what distinguishes human from other species has to do with the symbolic nature of our language and communication, and the ways we play with those symbols, even to the extent of calling us Homo ludens, the one who laughs or plays. Our reflective capacity means we can project into the future as well as consider the past; we can reflect on our own reflection and learn from it; we can dream up things that haven’t been thought or seen before; and we can think beyond what we see. Cogito, ergo sum said Descartes. We now know that other species think abstractly, though probably not in the same degree that human beings do. Homo poetica Ernst Becker called us, the one who seeks meaning. While we may find innate beauty in other species – the mating dances of birds, butterfly wings, or jeweled tree frogs – we do not see evidence that their own creation of beauty (by themselves) is an end in itself.10 Multicolored coral reef fishes have evolved their vibrant hues as warning to predators or lures to mates – and they exhibit little variation from individual to individual – their creative output is recursive, as minor variation on a genetic theme. Human beings pursue artistic ends when their basic needs are met, as a way of finding internal meaning and expressing it outwardly – which is what theologians describe as sacramental – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
The beauty we see around us is a function of our ability to discern it. This has been framed by some as the “anthropic principle” – the universe is observable only when there is a form of life capable of observing it. In some forms, that principle imputes a strong force moving toward the creation of reflective, conscious life. Other forms of the principle note that only a universe which is capable of being observed can produce reflective life forms. We do live in a system which seems exquisitely finely tuned toward that end. The meaning we draw from that is not susceptible to a scientific answer.
Back to beauty, or in a larger sense, awe, and our ability to recognize or appreciate it. Some of that capacity seems to be intrinsic and some is deeply cultural – taught and learned in community. The experience of awe seems to be uniquely human, drawing us beyond ourselves to consider larger reality, and it is deeply connected to what makes human beings human.
The two creation stories of the biblical tradition understand humanity as the product of creative engagement with the basic stuff of existence. The first creation story images humanity as a reflection of that creative force which has produced all that is. That story sets up human beings – in their diversity – as those charged to care for all the creatures of the earth as part of their own household. The language used is to “have dominion over,” and rather than domination, it suggests the domus or house in which all the creatures live, and human beings as housekeepers and husbanders of the whole, whatever their gender.
The language of the second story, then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.11 uses adham, literally an “earth creature.” The connection remains in English – human comes from the same root as humus. This is yet another echo of the understanding that we come from the same dust as the stars, even if we think it’s really special dust! This story of origins goes on to explicate an understanding of evil as individual or communal choice that denies that kind of interconnectedness with the ground of all being. Original sin is not about sex – it’s about selfishness, and a lack of humility, also from the same root.
This understanding of interconnectedness is present in many other creation stories. Indigenous spiritual traditions often point to a fundamental identity that lies in relationship, rather than individual existence, and that the deeper meaning of human life is found in relationship with other human beings and with all that is. It’s important to point out that the impetus and ability to seek meaning through a symbolic story is evidence of what we’ve talked about as distinguishing human beings from other creatures. This is Homo poetica at work.
Purpose and Meaning
Why are we here? And how shall we live? I’m going to insist that the way we understand the story or stories of origin ultimately shapes how we live our lives. If we are going to be congruent creatures, and we can use different language for this – authentic, true, truly human, spiritually grounded, living moral lives – the framework through which we live has to have enough substance to energize, support, encourage, and inspire us through the vicissitudes and joys of life. It has to offer sufficient meaning to give a sense of purpose to life. Otherwise we wander forever in a dark and fairly empty existence, the best of which might be, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
The stories we live by can be given or chosen, and both seem to be of importance. A given one, whether inherited or enculturated, provides a container and boundaries for creative engagement. To choose one means giving one’s heart to it, literally to love and believe it, expecting the framework to offer life – meaning in time of despair, urgency in the dog days, and moral choices that offer life to self and others.
Coherence and contrast
We can identify some commonality in all these stories of origin, identity, and purpose, some ground of congruence and coherence, rather than only their distinctiveness. But it requires reflecting on our own reflection.
We’ve touched on some of this already. The scientific story begins in a powerful burst of creativity out of which emerges all we can see and experience. The religious stories also speak of common origins, either from the primordial chaos over which the creative spirit moves, yielding water, sun, earth, and creatures, or the garden from which the plants, animals, and human beings are created. In each one, everything that is partakes of the same stuff – all that is, is related, connected, in ways ultimately beyond our full comprehension. The dusty interconnections remind us that the human being’s true character ought to be one of humility, created of and connected to the earth – and the stars.
These stories evoke a unitary origin and a common identity for all parts of the cosmos. The local is related to the general because of their/our common origin and identity; the immanent partakes of the transcendent. There’s a lovely Hindu image that points to this – Indra’s net – something like a fishing seine, with a jewel at each node of the web, each jewel reflecting all others, something like a hologram.
These stories, both scientific and religious, encourage a reflective and learning attitude in their use, operating over years and generations. Science “advances” by making hypotheses, gathering data to test the hypothesis, and then adjusts the hypothesis in an iterative process until a fairly robust theory emerges. Religious stories are born of reflection on human life and relationship and asking questions of meaning. They develop theologically through praxis and reflection – doing and reflecting on the outcome of the deeds, and then adjusting the practice toward a more fruitful, life-giving, or virtuous result. In both systems, questions and doubt are potential sources of growth and learning.
Paradigms shift when a theory or robust story no longer fits experience. It is a profoundly disorienting experience for the communities involved, but it is a necessary kind of death that permits another more fruitful and heuristically useful story to emerge. We can see it both in the kind of shift from Newtonian mechanics to relativity theory, and in the expansion of the first covenant biblical narrative to the second, Christian story.
We touched briefly on beauty and awe. What happens when we consider the transcendent qualities of being in addressing these questions of greater meaning?
Beauty, goodness, and truth are aspects of existence that have long been considered to partake of the cosmic rather than only the local (immanent) context.12 We’ve already noted the transcendent concept of unity – that all matter has a common source and origin. The Egyptians and Greeks, and later Hindu and Abrahamic philosophers and theologians reconceived these as justice and wisdom. Elements are present in the scientific worldview as well, particularly in the sense that true theories are elegant, simple, and beautiful.
The urgent significance of transcendent values arises when we ask the questions about how to live. We’ve noted already the unitary nature of reality – that we are fundamentally related to all that is, having arisen from a common source and substance. From that the worldviews formed by religious narratives of origin derive ethical systems that deal with issues of justice – the value assigned to different parts of the cosmos, and what right relationships among those elements looks like. Wisdom is both the method of inculcating justice in human life and the internal human content of justice – what I know and what I do, and the transformation (truer or more beautiful or good) that results. These are issues of transcendent significance, particularly in an era when human activity is rapidly depleting the life-giving and nurturing character of the environment in which we live. For the first time, we have the ability to effect a global extinction event of the same magnitude as the great Cretaceous asteroidal fireball.
The interconnectedness of all evokes a responsibility for right use, for appropriate humility in caring for all members of the household. What does a productive garden look like? How do we steward the whole, or the small part we occupy? The scientific story will continue to remind us that we aren’t capable of acting in isolation – and that the stochastic nature of things means the results of our actions will never be wholly predictable. It’s an urge to caution, modesty, and consideration. Even at a far more basic level, our behavior and decisions have to consider the implications of our action because of that level of unpredictability. The garbage we throw out today will come back to us tomorrow – in some way – for there is nowhere we can throw it that is truly ‘away.’
We need to tell the stories of creation over and over, for it is the only way we will move from an anthropocentric view of the universe to a networked and systemic vision that understands our part in the whole. Then we may look for meaning in life that serves the whole, rather than one microscopic mote. For none of us truly matters unless all of creation does.
This is what C.S. Lewis understood so deeply. Born in the Irish context of ancient domination by a power that saw his land as resource to be exploited, he looked toward a story of transformative justice, even if it required the giving of one’s life. He looked deep into his community’s past, Celtic and Christian, tribal and communal, in search of an ethic that would transcend the story of exploitation and empire. He kept telling the story in new contexts, in reflective and creative ways that have helped generations to see the fundamental truth and beauty and goodness that give ultimate meaning to life – each life and all of life. We are born of stardust, and so are our neighbors – all our neighbors on this planet and beyond. We share the dignity of the heavens, and we are bound for wholeness and oneness with all that is. Our meaning is to be found in the life we live and the liveliness we leave around us and behind us. That liveliness is fostered by the willingness to let go of it, that it may return in even greater strength.
The great sages and mystics have all understood the fundamental unity and interdependence of existence: Dame Julian, Hildegard, Meister Eckart and Professor Einstein, Werner Heisenberg and Teilhard de Chardin, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thomas Berry and Nelson Mandela. The wisdom teachers of the ages counsel justice as the way to augment and increase the meaning and depth of life for all. Justice is the fruit of self-awareness, humility, and the valuing of all – what the baptismal prayer in the Episcopal tradition describes as “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love [you], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.”13
What story or stories do you give your heart to?
I have seen our Christ walking on the shore of the Arabian Sea in the attire of a Hindu Sannyasin. –Charles Freer Andrews
- Sayer, George Jack, A Life of C S Lewis, 2nd ed. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1997, p 281.
- TOE = Theory of Everything. GUT = Grand Unified Theory.
- I use “religious” here in a very broad context, akin to the way “spiritual” is often used in common parlance, rather than its more academic sense as a set of practices and beliefs that bind a community together.
- Charm and strange are flavors of quarks, others of which are top, down, bottom, up.
- Science literally means “knowing,” and in the Middle Ages theology was known as the “queen of the sciences,” a reminder that the Enlightenment division is recent and perhaps not so completely enlightened!
- And note that economics is as much about worldly relationships as ecological studies – both are about relationships within the oikos or household.
- The shape of that creative week dignifies and sacralizes both work and rest.
- In some cases that theorizing does not require a singularity.
- Although theologically it is certainly possible to say that this is how each one gives glory to God, and that is what we perceive is beauty.
- Genesis 2:7
- Explicit philosophizing about these concepts dates from at least the Pharaonic era.
- Book of Common Prayer p 308
Introduction of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori
Dr. Cliff Cain, Harrod-C.S. Lewis Professor of Religious Studies
The world in which we live as global citizens has “too much” and “not enough”—
too much violence, and not enough respect
too much hunger and not enough to eat
too much apathy and not enough caring
too much hoarding and not enough sharing
too much callousness and not enough compassion
too much exclusion and not enough inclusion
too much war and not enough peace
too much poverty and not enough justice
too much plundering of nature and not enough caring for creation
And so, the world needs people—people of faith and disbelief, of religion and un-religion, of this religion and that religion—in short, “people of good will”—to join together in solidarity to speak up, to speak out, and to act out the central values of their traditions, in order to make the world a better place.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has done this (and she has encouraged her Episcopal Church tradition to do this). She has been the voice of understanding, compassion, inclusion, and justice—sometimes gently and pastorally, sometimes forthrightly and prophetically, and at times, controversially.
When she has been controversial—speaking for people left out, ignored, disenfranchised, marginalized, abused, and oppressed—she has been a voice and an actor reminiscent of the central figure of the Christian faith, Jesus of Nazareth, who constantly spoke up and spoke out in behalf of those who needed voice and action.
Bishop Jefferts Schori is here as the Second Annual C. S. Lewis Legacy Lecturer. C. S. Lewis was one who was not afraid of controversy and one who welcomed a conversation with everyone and with diverse points-of-view and conflicting positions: He contended that people could disagree and yet be respectful, that people could passionately take opposing positions and still remain friends.
Nothing—no-thing, no topic, no issue—was off-limits for C. S. Lewis. And so, we have asked Bishop Katharine to speak on a topic regarding which she is especially—perhaps uniquely—qualified to speak—‘science and religion’: You have read her academic pedigree in today’s program. Suffice to say that she comes to us informed by degrees in science—three of them—and by a degree in theology. She comes to us as a pastor, a priest, a professor, and a hospice chaplain, as well as now, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States.
She also comes to us married to Richard Miles Schori, a retired mathematician. She comes to us as the mother of one daughter, who is a pilot, a Captain in the United States Air Force.
She comes to us herself as an active, instrument-rated, third-generation airplane pilot.
The Presiding Bishop could have decided to be any place in the world today. And she has chosen to be with us. Bishop Katharine, we are honored by your presence on this day in this historic building, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury; and we look forward to your comments as the Second Annual C. S. Lewis Legacy Lecturer, comments entitled, “Who are We, Whence, Whither, and Why?” Students, faculty, staff, administrators, community friends, and special guests: Please join me in welcoming to Westminster College and to this lectern, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.