Sunday, August 26, 2007

America's need for light

A scientist speaks of rainbows

One of the most interesting books to come out during the past ten years is Richard Dawkins's Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. (Boston: Mariner Books, 1998). The title refers to a complaint from the poet John Keats that Sir Isaac Newton's work on optics was taking the mystery out of such beautiful events as rainbows. Dawkins argues that science actually adds mystery to life, because science never stops asking questions and never stops probing deeper. Religion, he suggests, is more prone to closing inquiry by giving answers, often superficial and inadequate ones, and discouraging further questioning. By way of illustrating how interesting scientific accounts can be, he offers a brief account of the optics that account for rainbows (pp. 45-49). Anyone who wishes to read that can borrow or buy the book. What I would like to do is not recapitulate the physics of rainbows but to take rainbows as a point of departure for discussing light poetically as a religious metaphor.

Where on earth is a rainbow?

One of the most interesting things to ask oneself about a rainbow is: where exactly is it? In thinking about this, consider that if one watches a rainbow from a fast-moving vehicle, the rainbow seems always to be about the same distance from the observer. This suggests that the rainbow is moving at the same speed as the observer. Now imagine that one is looking at a rainbow from a fast-moving train and passes a farmer who is standing in his field and looking at the rainbow. The farmer sees a rainbow that is standing still, and the person on the train sees a rainbow that is moving. Are they both looking at the same rainbow? If so, how can the same rainbow be simultaneously moving at the speed of the train and standing still?

Now consider what happens if one walks (or runs or drives very fast) toward a rainbow. The rainbow backs away. It always seems to be at exactly the same distance from the observer. What if, instead of one observer moving toward the rainbow, we had a hundred observers placed at a distance of one meter from one another. Each of them would see a rainbow that seems to be at a distance of, say, five kilometers away. (When one really thinks about it, it is quite difficult to estimate just how far away a rainbow appears to be. When I look at a rainbow from my house, it seems to be somewhere in front of the Sandia Mountains, and I know the crest of the Sandias is about 15 kilometers from my house, so presumably the rainbow seems to be closer than that.) Now if one hundred observers each see a rainbow that is five kilometers away, then either there is one rainbow located in one hundred different places, or there are one hundred rainbows, all but one of which remains hidden to each observer.

The way out of these problems seems to be to admit that each observer sees his or her own rainbow. And this would suggest that a rainbow is not located on the earth or in the sky at all. Perhaps, like the second moon one sees when one's eyes are not properly focused, it is not located anywhere at all. If it is anywhere, it could be in the eye (or mind) of the observer.

It is not, however, entirely satisfactory to say that a rainbow is merely in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. A rainbow does not appear to the beholder no matter which way she happens to be looking. The rainbow appears to an observer only if she is situated in a particular way relative to the sun. (More about this in a moment.) So the rainbow is not an internal visualization that one projects willy nilly onto an empty sky in the way that a Buddhist meditator might project an image of Amitabha Buddha onto a clear blue sky or a sunset. Where is that rainbow?

I love questions much more than answers, so I am not even going to try to answer the question of where the rainbow is. But let me return just for a moment to the question of where the observer has to be situated relative to the sun in order to see a rainbow. When the sun is still in the eastern part of the sky, the rainbow is in the west. When the sun has moved to the western part of the sky, the rainbow appears to be in the east. The observer always stands between the sun and the rainbow. In other words, an observer can see a rainbow only when his back is to the sun.

What, from an optical point of view, is a rainbow? It is the effect of clear, invisible sunlight being refracted by millions of tiny droplets of water, each of which has a prismatic effect of breaking clear light into several bands of colored light. Colored light is only a part of full-spectrum light. Colored light is light with a particular frequency, whereas whole sunlight contains all the frequencies of light at once. A rainbow, then, can be considered to be something like broken, fractured light. Whole light is invisible, yet it enables one to see everything that one sees. Fractured light is visible but enables one to see only part of the visual field. Looking at this poetically, a rainbow is an image of a display of partial and broken lights. One can see that only when one has turned one's back on the whole light, the light that enables one to see everything clearly.

Holding someone or something in the light

When Quakers know of someone who is undergoing difficulty, they often say “Friends, let us hold so-and-so in the light.” Quakers also talk of holding a concern in the light. In fact, at a Quaker meeting for worship for business, the entire proceedings are a series of holding issues in the light until it becomes clear to everyone what the right solution is. Quaker meetings for business are not run by Robert's Rules of Order. No one makes a motion. No vote is ever taken. Rather, an issue is discussed in the context of vigilant and attentive silence--silence broken only when someone has a leading to share a new dimension of the issue being discussed--and the discussion continues either until it is clear to everyone what the right policy is or until it is clear that at this time no clarity can be reached. (When the latter happens, the problem is set aside to be “seasoned” for a month or so.)

The Quaker way of discussing problems or handing conflicts can be see as doing just the opposite of what a prism does. A prism breaks up whole light into a spectrum of colors. In A Quaker meeting, each person comes in with a particular perspective, which is usually based on a partial understanding. Each Friend comes to the meeting seeing a problem in a colored light. As discussion takes place, all these colors of light merge into a more complete light. No Friend can see the full, clear light unless she is willing to turn her back to the rainbow of partial lights.

Quaker business meetings often feel as though something miraculous has emerged. Unity often arises out of what seems at first to be a set of irreconcilable diversities. Every month, after the monthly meeting for business at the Meetinghouse, I find myself wishing that America (indeed, the entire world) could do business in a similar way. I wish we could all have the courage and the will to abandon our partial perspectives and to look at every problem of life in the whole clear light, and I wish we could all realize that this can happen only when we all have the courage and will to listen carefully to everything being said, to hold it without reaction and judgment, and to let it have its way with us. This does not mean concluding that everyone is right about everything; it is not a descent into irresponsible relativism. Rather it is ascent into a higher understanding, one that is based on the recognition that everyone has a truth to tell and is therefore worth hearing out, but everyone's truth is partial and in need of being complemented by other perspectives.

Perhaps one of the reasons that few Quakers experience a conflict between religion and science is that the deep listening and reflection that is the soul of the Quakerly way of dealing with concerns is a way that is both the way of mystical religion and the way of scientific method. As long as one is willing to listen further and to reconsider issues in a fuller light than has been available so far, then one is prepared to do both good religion and good science.

At this stage of its development, a significant portion of the American nation seems to have developed the habit of turning its back on whole light and looking at all problems in isolation and in fractured, refracted light. That is a way of seeing that promotes fear, even panic, and results in ever-increasing destruction. There is an alternative to that fearful way of seeing, but one of the effects of fear is that one can rarely see alternatives to being fearful.

America is now in dire need of enlightenment. Whether enough people will see the light to turn the country back onto a more wholesome course remains to be seen. As the country descends into deeper darkness, there will always be some of us holding the country in the light.