The Common Good

Peach-Pit Philosophy

Summer Sundays with Phyllis Tickle

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peachesThere's a great deal of conversation these days about the nature of human consciousness and, as a related issue, about the true definition of "human" and how it can be best described. There's so much such conversation, in fact, that it is essentially impossible (especially in my business, Lord knows) to avoid getting sucked into it, whether as an active participant or simply as a passive, and sometimes unwilling, hearer.

The question -- or questions, though I don't think the two can be separated -- of human consciousness and of the actual structure of the human as a being lies at the base of religion as surely and deftly as the soil embraces and sustains a living tree. As a result, ours is hardly the first time in human history that the question(s) has been asked and, temporarily at least, answered. Descartes's famous "Cogito ergo sum" stands as a prime example of an earlier, albeit transitory, solution. The difference between our asking and the asking of five centuries ago is that we in the 21st century now have a body of physical science far in excess of anything earlier periods of history could have ever even dreamed of, much less enjoyed.

Everything from cognitive science to artificial intelligence to nanotechnology, from human physiology to neurobiology to neurosurgery, from quantum theories of consciousness to mechanistic psychology ... each of them, along with the disciplines related to, or descended from them, contributes on an almost hourly basis to our bank of sheer physical information. We know "how" mentation works ... or we are well on our way to knowing with considerable precision the first steps toward mapping how a great deal of it works; and there is every reason to assume we will be closer tomorrow than we are today to fathoming the mechanics of human thought. The question, in other words, increasingly is not how the human animal thinks and/or develops an autobiographical self, but rather the question is what is that "self" and how is it related to, or identical with, the human being.

The presence of the question and the myriad of theories swarming around it like bees to the flower pot have led to an increasing, and a certainly invigorated, atheism that is itself by way of becoming a serious religion, having all the hallmarks by which a religion can objectively be delineated. That development is ironic enough to amuse me at times and passingly, but it also has a popular appeal that deeply troubles me.

There is a distinct difference between the skin or peel of the peach and the germ of the peach resting interior to its pit and being the life that will make another tree after the peach itself is destroyed. Science, child of religion and gift of God to our lives, can tell us grand things about the peach's exterior, about the chemicals used by it and needed by it, about its proper care, about the adjustments possible in enhancing its flavor or appeal, about increasing its longevity after picking and its resistance to the bruises of being shipped. Science can tell us all of these things; and if we're smart, we'll accept and employ every one of them. Science cannot tell us what it is that the peach's germ contains. Science cannot show us the life there. It never will be able to, nor should we ever expect it to do so.

What we should be smart enough to understand, however, is that the peach itself has to die to get at the pit and the kernel it contains. The peach we know and the peach we can describe and the peach we can more or less understand, but the peach we will either toss out or eat and then evacuate into the sewer line. It was never about the peach. It was always about the germ.

Confusing the two can lead to a lot of foggy thinking and, as a result, to a lot of bombast and hot air, but all the rhetorical gymnastics in the world can neither make the peach eternal nor define the vita et spiritus in its germ.

And that's my greeting from The Farm In Lucy on this bright Sabbath morning, where the peaches are plump and juicy and where my heart, as well as my tongue, delights in them.

Phyllis Tickle (www.phyllistickle.com) is the founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly and author of The Words of Jesus: A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord and the forthcoming fall release, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.

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