In the Light of What We Know

In the Light of What We Know is both a well-worn phrase and the title of an intellectually intriguing debut novel. A story of international politics and finance, it’s by a British author of Bangladeshi origin, Zia Haider Rahman (2014). One day, on the narrator’s doorstep, a long lost companion from student days, a math prodigy named Zafar, shows up with a tale to tell.

Like many contemporary novels, Rahman’s story doesn’t unfold in one voice, that of omniscient narrator. Instead, a friend shares his own story as well as one that his friend Zafar told him. That’s why the title is so clever. Within the book, the reader and its multiple storytellers are on the same level. Everything is “in the light of what we know.” 

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Here are a few lines from a section labeled, “attributed to Winston Churchill in Zafar’s notebooks.” I don’t think the sentences are from the great Prime Minister. That’s what Zafar’s notebook said, so that’s what his friend records, in the novel that Rahman wrote. 

The earth is home to a creature, a great ape he calls himself, that has taken on the task of explaining the universe, of accounting for all that there is, his world, his social world, his physical world, the fall of empires and apples alike…The animal’s hubris now persists in his idea that the truth beneath what he perceives, from the cosmic out there and forever to the mundane here and now, and even the man-made, that such ever-present truth as he believes there could be will not exceed his capacity to understand (137).

Of course we’re the great ape, the one determined to explain everything that there is to explain. Did you catch the irony? There are those who affirm two rather contradictory assertions: that science has reduced us to the status of an animal, like any other, and, at the same time, that our minds are capable of mastering the universe itself. Is this, often unacknowledged, irony the end result of our vaunted intellects? That there is no difference between us and the other evolving animals on the planet?

The novel takes up a theme often explored by Benedict XVI, before and after he became pope. Isn’t it curious, isn’t it wonderful, isn’t it worth remarking upon and pondering, that the universe corresponds to our minds? For some of us, that’s a terribly significant fact, perhaps even a cipher of ultimate meaning. Put another way, we can at least imagine the possibility of that not being the case. What if there were no symmetry between how we know and what there is to know?

Think of all that we accomplish by way of numbers alone. Math explains why the bridge you cross doesn’t collapse; why the medicine you take has the effect it does. No math, no modern wonders. But what is math? Our invention, or the gift of God? Numbers and their systems are utterly arbitrary, some would insightfully argue, and yet the ancient Greeks thought that numbers represented the very mind of God. How else could they so perfectly parallel reality? 

Here’s a troubling thought. No philosopher or scientist has ever settled this debate. And it doesn’t matter which expert whom you consult, because the problem lies at the very origin of both science and philosophy.

Most of us are content to let others worry about the metaphysical foundations of mathematics. Bridges stay up and prescriptions work. We’re simply glad that they do. But what if we were to arrive at some reality in the universe that didn’t correspond to our evolving minds? It seems sure hubris to insist that such could never happen. Where do we get our existential confidence in our collective intellects?

Pope Benedict has always argued that this assurance is a great clue of God’s existence. For him, to say that one believes in God is to affirm that the universe is rational, benign, disposed toward us. But, it doesn’t have to be this way; we can imagine an alternative. Put another way, our ability to understand the universe appears to be a gift. And that raises the question of a giver, whom we call, for lack of a better word, God.

The Western religions, and religions in general, affirm what no would-be atheist would want to deny. The universe is rational. Believers ponder, and gratefully celebrate, what the atheist takes for granted. 

How could it be any other way, the atheist bleats? Be sensible, not mystic! That the world corresponds to our minds isn’t any more astounding than its existence. But many of us can’t help but to marvel at both. Does musing upon the phenomenon of intelligibility make one a mystic? Maybe it does.

Ironically, religion both inspires our confidence in human intelligence and, in suggesting what might even exceed it, calls it to account. Something might be as far above our minds as poetry is to the noggin of a dog. People of faith use the same word to inspire intelligence and to situate it: God. Not that God would be the spot where the intrepid human mind collides with a wall. In the light of what we know, better to say: God is the mystery who calls to the human heart.

Isaiah 55: 6-9     Philippians 1: 20c-24, 27a    Matthew 20: 1-16a

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