My wife sings in a choir. As a result, for an atheist, I spend a lot of time in Church. And just on Saturday there, at Choral Evensong in St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow, perhaps as a consequence of all the reading I'm doing for this residency, I started hearing things.
I began substituting words for God...materialist ideas about the universe, the stuff of life and non-life...for the name of the Almighty...
And suddenly feeling, (having suspected as much) that there were deep connections between languages of belief that might reflect something deep in us, deep in our history, I speculated among the music and the architecture.
Pascal's wager...that it is better to believe in God, because even if you're wrong you can't lose...is mirrored by the scientific "bet" that the laws of physics are the same everywhere in time and space...both assumptions are pragmatically necessary for belief...or thought...even if they have different standards of "truth"
(A scientific truth has no obligation to be anything beyond "useful")
But the persistence of religious thought and feeling...even if it is only in the secular forms of art and beauty...whatever it's origin in our evolution, is a wager on the true as well as the useful.
(Which is possibly why capitalism is trying to abolish it)
In any case, this game I was playing while listening to a very good choir sing very good songs about things I don't believe in, drifted into this proposition:
What if we substitute, say, Ouranos, the Greek word for "sky"..."heaven"..."the universe"...and take it to mean all those things, all of "nature", all those processes of which we are part and which we now observe, God-like...but not God ...because we did not make ourselves? From chemical bonds to biased chains of DNA to quanta of light?
(Hey...if James Lovelock can use "Gaia"...)
Is there anything in the humility of Christian language which can teach us how NOT to be God...to educate our attitude towards our environment, human, biological, astronomical? So we don't mistake beginning to understand Ouranos... for owning it, controlling it? When it owns us...and doesn't care...
Glory be to Ouranos
As it was in the beginning
Is now and ever shall be
Ouranos shall never
Like proud empires pass away
Ouranos stands and grows forever
All thy creatures own thy sway.
And if all that standing up and sitting down and singing together and kneeling never did any more than remind the Kings and Cardinals in the congregation, that they, in common with the the peasants, were not God, then I think it had a social utility which the temple of global capitalism could do with.
They have made of the temple of Ouranos a den of thieves.
As a resource, all language, George Steiner argued, depends on our taking a wager on meaning. Without meaning, language cannot defend us, or define or value us...or Ouranos. We must wager upon meaning to have any hope at all of ever valuing anything.
Gaia, by the way...was Ouranos' mother...and wife...But we probably shouldn't go into that too deeply.
At four o'clock on Thursday 22nd in the Traverse Bar, I'll bring along some other stuff to think about. But no hymns. Promise.
Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at the ESRC Genomics Forum April 2011 - April 2012. Appointed in partnership with the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Peter will be hosting a number of public engagements as he explores ideas and seeks inspiration for a genomics related play.