Terror and mystery: An excerpt from The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough

Ursula Goodenough

Snowflake by Simply InnocuousWinterviews concludes today.  From the Solstice (Dec. 21st) till the next Cross-quarter (Feb. 4th), we’ve brought you non-stop interviews and other goodies from big-name authors.  Missed some?  Catch up on your reading with the links below.

The last of our Winterviews authors is none other than Professor Ursula Goodenough.  It is still relatively rare to find a readable, moving, awe-inspiring narrative of science.  From the dynamics of cells to human emotion, The Sacred Depths of Nature reveals the throbbing heart of the universe.  Goodenough is not just a scientist, she’s also a storyteller.  Today, she graciously shares with us an excerpt from her book.

I’ve had a lot of trouble with the universe.  It began soon after I was told about it in physics class.  I was perhaps twenty, and I went on a camping trip, where I found myself in a sleeping bag looking up into the crisp Colorado night.  Before I could look around for Orion and the Big Dipper, I was overwhelmed with terror.  The panic became so acute that I had to roll over and bury my face in my pillow.

  • All of the stars I see are part of but one galaxy.
  • There are some 100 billion galaxies in the universe, with perhaps 100 billion stars in each one, occupying magnitudes of space that I cannot begin to imagine.
  • Each star is dying, exploding, accreting, exploding again, splitting atoms and fusing nuclei under enormous temperatures and pressures.
  • Our sun too will die, frying the Earth to a crisp during its heat-death, spewing its bits and pieces out into the frigid nothingness of curved spacetime.

The night sky was ruined.  I would never be able to look at it again.  I wept into my pillow, the long slow tears of adolescent despair.  And when I later encountered the famous quote from physicist Steven Weinberg – “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless” – I wallowed in its poignant nihilism.  A bleak emptiness overtook me whenever I thought about what was really going on out of in the cosmos or deep in the atom.  So I did my best not to think about such things.

But, since then, I have found a way to defeat the nihilism that lurks in the infinite and the infinitesimal.  I have come to understand that I can deflect the apparent pointlessness of it all by realizing that I don’t have to seek a point.  In any of it.  Instead, I can see it as the locus of Mystery.

  • The Mystery of why there is anything at all, rather than nothing.
  • The Mystery of where the laws of physics came from.
  • The Mystery of why the universe seems so strange.

Mystery.  Inherently pointless, inherently shrouded in its own absence of category.  The clouds passing across the face of the deity in the stained-glass images of Heaven.

The word God is often used to name this mystery.  A concept known as Deism proposes that God created the universe, orchestrating the Big Bang so as to author its laws, and then stepped back and allowed things to pursue their own course.  For me, Deism doesn’t work because I find I can only think of a creator in human terms, and the concept of a human-like creator of muons and neutrinos has no meaning for me.  But more profoundly, Deism spoils my covenant with Mystery.  To assign attributes to Mystery is to disenchant it, to take away its luminance.

I think of the ancients ascribing thunder and lightning to godly feuds, and I smile.  The need for explanation pulsates in us all.  Early humans, bursting with questions about Nature but with limited understanding of its dynamics, explained things in terms of supernatural persons and person-animals who delivered droughts and floods and plagues, took the dead, and punished or forgave the wicked.  Explanations taking the form of unseen persons were our only option when persons were the only things we felt we understood.  Now, with our understanding of Nature arguably better than our understanding of persons, Nature can take its place as a strange but wondrous given.

The realization that I needn’t have answers to the Big Questions, needn’t seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany.  I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me.  I assimilate the vastness of the distances, the impermanence, the fact of it all.  I go all the way out and then I go all the way down, to the fact of photons without mass and gauge bosons that become massless at high temperatures.  I take in the abstractions about forces and symmetries and they caress me, like Gregorian chants, the meaning of the words not mattering because the words are so haunting.

Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe.  The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate.

Reprinted with permission from:

Goodenough, U.  (1998).  The Sacred Depths of Nature.  New York: Oxford University Press.  Pp. 9-13.

Sacred Depths of Nature

The author

Ursula Goodenough

Ursula Goodenough is Professor of Biology at Washington University.  One of America’s leading cell biologists, she is the author of a best-selling textbook on genetics, and has served as President of the American Society of Cell Biology and of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science.  She and her family live in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Chilmark, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard.  (bio text from Sacred Depths book flap, courtesy of Ursula Goodenough)

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19 Comments on “Terror and mystery: An excerpt from The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough

  1. Pingback: The myth of objective consciousness | The Allergic Pagan

  2. I LOVE her work … though I have some points of departure: for instance I don’t think that early humans necessarily explained earthly/cosmic events “in terms of supernatural persons and person-animals” in some kind of literal way … I think later humans did that, and certainly in this era we project that onto our earliest ancestors. There seems evidence to suggest that the earliest humans understood Earth as “Mother” or “Source of Being” if you like and assumed intimate connection with this “Place”/Her/”It”. Ursula says: “Explanations taking the form of unseen persons were our only option when persons were the only things we felt we understood. Now, with our understanding of Nature arguably better than our understanding of persons, Nature can take its place as a strange but wondrous given.” Well I think that the literalization of the “persons” was a later eventuality when humans lost intimate contact with “Nature” – before then I think that the “persons” and/or “person-animals” were understood to be story – a method of explaining, not some literal personage … I get some of this from listening to current Indigenous elders tell stories of the Land and Places, but also some from the research and interpretations of the the likes of Marija Gimbutas. I think it is more the case that humans, in our time, are RETURNING to an understanding of Nature thanks to the path that Western science took coming around (as things do on this round Planet Earth) … and now of course with its added dimensions and metaphors: at last the Western scientific mind returns to Mystery, and the sacred depths of “Nature”/ Mother/Home … they used to call Her Gaia, and by many other names – it was quite likely an understanding/expression of Sentience (that Western technological humans are regaining – witness “Gaia Theory”).

    Ursula’s story is great … and her recovery of and admission of Mystery, and its awesomeness. Her knowledge is inspiring. Thanks Brandon.

    • Glenys, I would love to hear more about this evidence that ancient peoples were less literalistic in their interpretations. I did a lot of research on this recently, and came to the conclusion that while there is plenty of evidence for psychological, sociological, and metaphorical interpretations among ancient peoples, there is also pretty solid evidence of literalism too. For example, it’s very difficult to believe that there is no literalism in sacrifices of extreme amounts of wealth or of human beings in rituals aimed to entreat or appease gods or spirits.

      Many ancient rituals could be seen as more socio-political in nature, rather than supernatural, like the annual heiros gamos (sacred marriage) of the Sumerian king and the goddess Inanna. But there were also ones such as the Athenian Thargelia, where a member of the community was annually driven out (originally probably sacrificed) to atone for the impurity of the community. It’s hard to understand how a people would take such extreme measures if the majority of them did not believe literalistically in the consequences of impurity.

      Would you disagree? Thoughts??

      Note: An *exclusively* literalistic interpretation, however, where myths *must* be read in a literalistic way in order to be read *correctly*, might be totally modern.

  3. >Ursula’s story is great … and her recovery of and admission of Mystery, and its awesomeness. Her knowledge is inspiring. Thanks Brandon.

    I should add too that Prof. Goodenough was one of the nicest and most enthusiastically accommodating authors I’ve worked with. I sent her an email proposal about this excerpt, and within minutes she shot back a “yes!” In a short day of email exchange it was all set up.

  4. I have also been thinking about this question (whether or not the ancients literally believed in their gods) a lot lately. I do think that the ancients “really” believed in their gods, but not in a “literal” way. I do not think these are the same thing. I have been reading a lot about the transition from primary orality to literacy lately, and it has been a real paradigm shift for me.

    I do think that the ancients believed that the world, the gods possessed “willfulness” which could be cajoled and appeased, but I also think that the importance of the gods went way beyond this. Ancient polytheism is rooted in primary orality, and in oral cultures information must be preserved in memorable ways. It is through gods, heroes and their doings that culture was created and maintained and that real information about the ways of nature on earth and in the heavens, about the ways of the people, its technology, history and character, was preserved and passed down through the generations. In an oral culture myth and the gods that go with them are necessary. In is only with high literacy that it becomes possible to preserve and effectively transfer complicated information outside of a narrative content in an “objective” way. The world stopped being a “thou” and became an “it”. People stopped thinking/communicating figuratively and started thinking literally, and the old gods and myths soon had no place in this new world.

    I highly recommend the book, “When They Severed Earth From Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth” by Elizabeth Barber and Paul Barber. They speak about myth as an ancient” information technology” that was used to “encode” information in ways which could be transmitted across generations. The Barbers believe that myth is so poorly understood because it has so long been under the province of the humanities, who view it as literature often of a psychological nature, and not of the sciences, where astronomers, geologists and others might know enough about the ways of nature to understand the references found in myth. The Barbers present an impressive array of information to support their arguments, and I for one think they are on the right track.

    I do not think the ancients were by any means naturalistic, but I do believe there is a naturalistic core to the myths and the gods. Although most modern polytheists would no doubt strongly disagree, I think we, naturalistic pagans, who view the gods not as literal beings but as metaphors for the numinous experience of nature, are closer to the essence of ancient religion.

    • Interesting. I’ve checked out that book before, and they make some intriguing points about how information transmission is constrained in oral cultures. One thing I never understood, though (and I admit I only scanned the book, didn’t read closely), was how they explained the continuing appeal of myths for cultures. I understood their main thesis to be that myths encode events and knowledge, like the historical fact that a certain volcano erupted (that was a specific example from an American Indian tribe in the northwest, I think). These events and knowledge are embedded in narratives and passed down through the generations. But what appeal does the narrative retain once its referents are no longer recognizable by all but the few who are in the know? What then motivates the larger populace to retain it as part of their culture? Just that it’s an entertaining yarn? And if so, then how is it still functional as a record of historical events or knowledge? That’s the part I didn’t understand.

      • For a myth to be truly successful it must make a good story, and everybody likes a good story. The power of myth according to the Barbers is that even when people no longer understand the original referent (due to cultural change, migration etc.) they will continue to “replicate” the myth (and the information encoded in the myth) often with surprising accuracy. One factor that probably contributed to the retention of myth is the great reverence that ancient people felt toward tradition. Education in the ancient world (even after the advent of writing) consisted primarily of memorizing ones culture’s traditional stories and sayings. Stories that formed an important part of a culture’s identity were much more likely to be reinterpreted after cultural change then completely forgotten. From the beginning, most myths were probably multifunctional, providing a repository for factual knowledge, cultural identity and norms, as well as entertainment. All of this probably helped myth survive.

        Myths are resilient, but they are not indestructible. I do believe that if a myth became totally non-functional it would eventually be dropped from a culture’s repertoire, and likewise if the function (the interpretation) of a myth was greatly changed, eventually the myth would also change and the original information would be lost or significantly distorted. Writing may have led to the ultimate demise of myth, but it also help preserve myth. The ancients themselves wanting to preserve the original stories of their ancestors wrote them down. Because of this, we still have some of the earlier versions of myths and with a little detective work, we can in some instances rediscover the original referent.

        I too am a great fan of Ursula Goodenough and find her writing inspirational. But I agree with Glenys, when it comes to myth, I think Ursula and many others have gotten it wrong. Myth is not some childish attempt to explain the workings of nature, but is something very sophisticated. Sure myths do give a willful motivation as to why events happen (characters do things for reasons), that is part of the narrative structure. However, I believe it is not the “why” but the “what” that was most important to the ancients. If you are using the stars to navigate or to know when to plant, you need to be able to recognize the relevant star pattern, you need to know what the stars do. The why is only helpful as it supports the what.

  5. oh wow what a conversation. I like your reference and points there M.Jay. Brandon, in reply to you: some of my “evidence” is the amazing art from very early periods … when one deepens into the minds that created the various forms and symbolism. Marija Gimbutas’ “The Language of the Goddess” and her discipline of Archaeomythology http://www.archaeomythology.org/about/about.html

    and also you might check James Harrod’s work: http://www.originsnet.org/
    and Harald Haarmann’s work: http://www.amazon.com/Harald-Haarmann/e/B000APG1L2

    I have been very influenced by Goddess scholars in general – as the above mentioned people are: Gimbutas is associated with and at base of such scholarship these days, and James and Harald are certainly influenced by her work. An excellent book is “From the Realm of the Ancestors” http://www.amazon.com/Realm-Ancestors-Anthology-Marija-Gimbutas/dp/1879198258/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328063532&sr=1-1

    You are right about plenty of evidence for literalism as well, but one has to be careful to note the time period for what is happening e.g. at what time in the human story did human sacrifices start to occur ( and Inga Clendinnen’s work on the Aztecs is interesting). I think literalism/fundamentalism occurs in all religions … and I think that everything imaginable has happened at different times in the human story. And really I think of war as a modern form of human/blood sacrifice – courtesy of Abrahamic gods even in the minds of those who think they don’t have anything to do with such.

    I just don’t think we can assume that the earliest peoples thought at all like many humans do today. Ursula says “when persons were the only things we felt we understood” – well I think we may have just begun to understand “persons” … and our ancient forebears may have really understood the wild and the Cosmos much better than we do – in some ways.

    Also M.Jay’s comments made me think of David Abram’s “The Spell of the Sensuous”.

    There’s a bit of research for you Brandon!

    I am in a bit of a rush right now … but hope to get back to this.

  6. “Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate.”

    I’m in awe of those 2 sentences! Thank you!

  7. Hi. This is Ursula. If anyone’s still here, thanks for all your great comments.

    Want to clear up a misunderstanding: I’m not anti-Myth in the least. That’s kind of what Sacred Depths is all about: exploring the large narrative, which is what I understand Myth to be, that comes to us via our understandings of, and our experience within, nature.

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