Gospel & Universe
Two Sides of the Fence
This page situates Huxley's agnosticism in a poetic context, insinuating that there's philosophic value -- but also disturbing uncertainty -- in sitting on the fence.
Bee Lines - Life on the Fence: 1. Belief; 2. Disbelief
I hover on the brink of faith
like a bee above a lake of honey,
my feet stained in amber.
Would God, if He exists, get angry,
seeing me drift above the golden currents,
if I refuse to dive?
In an 1860 letter to Charles Kingsley, Thomas Huxley questions his own skepticism:
Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter.
In an 1863 letter he writes,
I cannot see one shadow or tittle of evidence that the great unknown underlying the phenomenon of the universe stands to us in the relation of a Father [who] loves us and cares for us as Christianity asserts. So with regard to the other great Christian dogmas, immortality of soul and future state of rewards and punishments, what possible objection can I -- who am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force, and in a very unmistakable present state of rewards and punishments for our deeds -- have to these doctrines? Give me a scintilla of evidence, and I am ready to jump at them.
Agnostics aren't wedded to doubt; it's simply the default position they occupy. They're ready to jump ship, cross the floor, get down off the fence -- if and when they find reasons or experiences that convince them to do so.
Life on the Fence
They call me a fence-sitter
because I can't believe in belief
On one side of the fence I see a wide field
through which passes an ancient road
stubbled with bibles and stones,
dhammapadas and bhagavad-gitas
broken tablets of cuneiform
and the fine dust of philosophic masterpieces
dissolved in time.
White tattered pages, yellowing in the sun,
fragments of ten broken laws,
and slivers of papyrus reed
shoot from the margins.
The Persian astronomer searches the heavens for clues
while the Chinese caravan starts from the Imperial Palace
and printing presses press their messages
across the Silk Road --
an almost alien civilization
bringing its Book of Songs
its porcelain goblets
noodles and moveable type
across the Karakoram
from Xi'an to Amsterdam.
India dreams of zeros and decimal points
and Arabic numerals
sunya, the void, zero
decimal places, base 10 and 60
like the Sumerian sundials of the mind.
The Arab world digests Aristotle
and sends him back to the West
amid earthquakes of rediscovered Greek
that shake the clerics of Arles and Rome
with equations and echoing books of song.
The songs and ages past
and places beyond
must give us pause.
The incense is lit and the priest reads verses
from the 10th mandala of the 129th chapter of the Rg Veda:
Only the God in the Highest Heavens knows --
which seems like a fine way to start
way back in the middle of the second millennium B.C.,
but then the priest adds
or perhaps He knows not.
Verses sacred or broken
verses about the broken, fallen world
buried deep beneath the smouldering ruins
of Mohenjo-Daro and Knossos
and a million other places that may yet be found
here or in the songs of the far-off worlds
The Sirens of Titan
inaudible, invisible, as-of-yet indecipherable.
The ziggurats of Babylon crack
and the waves of the tsunami tower above Fuji.
the southern earthquakes strike terror into the heart of the ardent cardinal,
who scours the revolving sky for omens.
Surely some revelation is at hand.
Luther rushes to the church door, theses in hand
to fix the fracturing moment of the 16th Century
into a single Truth:
five old books and four new ones:
the same old Good News,
The cardinal tells us it's good for us
to etch the ages with Gospel,
with four cardinal points
on a flat, unspinning world.
But like the wedges of cuneiform
(so certain for three thousand years and then forgotten),
the peril of our scattered selves,
the magic of our chaos,
can't be etched in Certainty.
On the other side of the fence I see a wide field,
flooded with strange new trees
as if this human life were only one way of living,
and life forms were recombinant, like RNA,
and aliens wrote sonnets.
Hieronymus Bosch on steroids:
the hellish and the heavenly rolled into one,
as if cosmic order were nothing but fantasy.
Humans with fish heads and cherry-driven planes
ride the waves of the deep sky
on a flying sardine.
A man walking on water. A man commanding the seas to part.
Gandalf. Luke Skywalker.
The flight to Heaven, the forbidden fruit, the dice-game of Hell.
Beneath the discarded heaps
snakes slither beneath the soil,
rising like black arms and fingers through the cracks
to at last grasp that tempting breast
and all those body parts denied for two thousand years
in the old storybook about the snake and the apple tree.
The fingers shoot upward, like dark eager branches
pushing the sap into every corner of our selves,
from the base of the sacrum to the brain stem.
The lines of black coil are uncoiled.
The feared weeds have taken over the garden.
Surely some revelation is at hand.
Transatlantic cables, fibre optics, and satellites
lift their signals, invisible, to the sky.
This is the new resurrection,
from the visible to the invisible.
This is the new transubstantial gospel,
without a capital g.
It soars at the speed of light,
along the controlled firing of electrons
over the monk's death valley desert
into the astronomer's desert of vast eternity.
It sends a message to all the aliens out there
about the Federation's elusive ideal
the prime directive
about minding our own business
about live and let live
about do unto others
and about a method
of dealing with matter
and matters secular
calling out to outer space
like a space-ship, unmoored
from its docking port
a one-way call flowing in morse code
from the ALMA Observatory high on a mountain top
sixteen thousand four hundred and four feet above Chile's Atacama Desert;
and from all the alma mater deserts, a straight line of code sent outward
to Andromeda and Canis Major, the top dog
8.6 million light years away.
This call to the aliens out there may never be recalled
It will stretch into space long after the body of the sender has turned to sand.
It will still be floating, beaming, in complete isolation,
for millions of years
floating between this galaxy and the next.
From the other end, the keen aliens will read it
and then indulge their collective urge for the trajectory of a single line
and beam back a line of code in amethyst light
encoded with the meaning of Everything:
the DNA of the stars.
Yet by the time this Light reaches us
the source will have been extinguished for ten million years
and the descendants of the code-senders,
having sprouted different eyes,
couldn't even read what they sent.
Everything we are is a blip in a cosmos undesigned
lost in the widest field we'll never know
They call me a fence-sitter
because I believe in doubt
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