Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Spiritual Scotomas


I had to Google “scotoma” to learn that it is essentially a blind spot. Oliver Sacks reminds us that Orwell called it a “memory hole.”

Sacks describes such blind spots in reference to science and medicine. I wonder how many of you remember Disneyland’s “Carousel of Progress” ride, presented by G.E., in which the audience rotated around various stages of technological progress, contrasting home appliances through the years, with an uplifting theme song that I will probably not be able to get out of my head the rest of the day?!

But in his chapter in The River of Consciousness entitled “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science,” Sacks demonstrates that the history of science, medicine, and by inference, technology, is not a simple movement of “stages” of discovery, but rather, an uneven back and forth of trial and error, oversight and rediscovery, given blind spots in the scientific perspective. Citing a 1913 paper by Wolgang Köhler, “premature simplifications and systemizations in science, psychology in particular, could ossify science and prevent its vital growth.”

Reading that line, I was struck by how easily that can be said of religion, theology, and spirituality as well. Fresh in my mind was my discomfort with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat dividing religious attitudes in America into three categories: traditional, secular, and spiritual. The first is based on inherited teaching and scripture; the second is “post-religious” and “scientistic”; the third he describes as “religious individualism” that [among other demerits] “blurs the line between the God out there and the God within,” “a do-it-yourself form of faith.” (To get the full story, I encourage you to follow this link.)

Admitting nuance, he writes, “Where the spiritual world blurs into secularism, it’s usually claiming scientific bona fides; where it blurs into traditional religion, it’s usually talking about Jesus.”

I can’t help but think this latter category is where he might place me and this blog.

I admit to some truth in his characterizations, especially his questioning of “health-and-wealth theology,” but I think what’s missing in his analysis is the fluidity of traditional faith. Except for the fundamentalist, biblical literalist, and dogged dogmatist,* traditional religion is no more a locked-down, certain enterprise than science is. We too have our blind spots, our scotomas, which have been noted in every age. We too have ignored wisdom of our own saints, as well as the wisdom of other cultures and religions and of science itself.

According to Sacks and the scientists he cites, anomalies—unexpected exceptions to scientific orthodoxy—in a sense, offer opportunities for reformation: “a phenomenon contrary to the accepted frame of reference” may “enlarge and revolutionize that frame of reference.”

At the risk of columnist Douthat accusing me of pulling Jesus out of a hat, I would say Jesus was such an anomaly, at least for those who followed and follow him.


*See next week’s post, “The Fundamentalist Memory Hole.”

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