Gimme Back My Words! Science, Religion and Vocabulary I

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankFeb 17, 2008 10:47 PM


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Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

You can’t own words, and you can’t specify the changing patterns of their meaning. They are living things, organic and evolutionary. No place is this more eloquently illustrated then in the debate between science and religion. In one of my earlier posts, there was a flurry of comments about my use of the word "sacred." Lots of scientifically-minded folks took issue with the word because, for them, it conjures up the dangers of supernaturalism and the enemies of science and their religious intolerance. Last Friday I had the pleasure of speaking about my book at the Harvard Book Store and this subject—the use of words like "sacred" and "spiritual"—came up in more than one question. Clearly, it is a central issue. I thought a lot about terminology when I was writing my book. I was looking for words that had a history and a resonance lifting them above the particulars of any particular tradition, which spoke to the experience and aspiration that underlie both science and what I call "spiritual endeavor" (a term that will require a separate post I am sure). After considerable reading in the cannon of Religious Studies, “the sacred” was were I landed. The wonderful thing about the word "sacred" is that it is not really tied to any of the world’s current traditions. It’s got old, old origins in the great society of ancient Rome. According to the Encyclopedia of Religions, the Latin origins of "sacred" relate to "sacrum"—"what belonged to the gods or what was in their power." Its early usage related to Roman temples and their rites. In that context, the words sacrum and profanum have been frequently paired together. The profanum was the space in front of the temple. It was the "outside" where you could sell your T-shirts and sunglasses and hot dogs. The sacrum was the inside, and it was a very different kind of place: "A spot referred to as sacer, was either walled off or otherwise set apart." That definition makes for a compelling resonance. The Sacred relates back to a specific location, a space and a time, set apart from the ordinary day-to-day happenings of life. The commerce, contest, and competition of the ordinary world occur outside in the profane. Inside, within the sacer, humans entered a realm of a different order. For the Romans, it was a realm of their divinities. For us it can be an experience that calls us out to see the world on its own terms. It is the moment when experience becomes luminous, lit up on its own. "Humans entering a realm of a different order…"—I know that one quite well, and I am sure many of you do too. I've felt it when I walked through the entry way of a Neolithic monument in Ireland that was aligned with the winter solstice, I've felt it when I walked into the Cathedral of St. John on 113th street in New York, and I've felt it as the giant Radio Telescopes came into view during a drive across the desert. "A space and a time of a different order"—in the discussion of where science and religion draw into a parallel, where they take us, and how they function on culture, that is what we should be talking about. To be continued...

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