Posted by: Brian Robinette | March 30, 2009

“Negative Capability,” or, What This Seminar Has Meant For Me

One of the rather surprising ways this seminar has personally impacted me thus far is by reigniting my interest in the dialogue between religion and science. Until recently, I have been fairly unenthusiastic by what I had come to see as a tiresome subject, one that I could generally ignore as a result of certain postmodern commitments regarding the plural and frequently non-overlapping domains of knowledge. But I did not always think this way.

Late in my undergraduate years, I became deeply interested in questions of science, particularly chaos theory, theories of complexity and emergence, and the relation of these newer sciences to aesthetics, psychology, philosophy, and religion. What connected it all for me was the deep mystery of creativity: creativity in adaptive systems, creativity in social and cultural developments, and creativity within the human personality as it negotiates ever-shifting circumstances, internal and external, throughout its lifespan. Without presuming that all forms of creativity could be distilled into a single formula, I was gripped by a sense that emergent complexity in all its modalities came from a unified source and together constituted the unimaginably rich, multilayered, and ever-changing fabric we call “life.”

What intrigued me most was grasping that while changes in an organism are often incremental, there are moments when adaptation takes on more dramatic forms, leading to sudden and unpredictable leaps into qualitative novelty. These shifts are precipitated by an excess of energy/information, which is initially encountered by the system as chaos/noise. Poised at the edge of chaos, the system is “lured” into undergoing a qualitative (and never guaranteed) shift in organization by internalizing and ordering chaos/noise into new regime of order/information. Important to this self-transcending process is the organism’s membrane: it must simultaneously preserve an inner climate while remaining permeable to exteriority. The membrane is at once a closure and an openness. If purely open, the organism entirely loses itself in its environment, becomes absorbed without a morphological trace. If purely closed, the organism remains shut off from the milieu that sustains it, that continues to provide it the constantly renewed energy and information needed for life. In a word, it becomes ossified and dies. As both closure and openness, the membrane distinguishes while uniting the “inner” and “outer.” Whatever creativity was, I thought, it had everything to do with remaining poised at the edge of chaos, with closure and openness (structure and flow) united in delicate embrace.

As it happens, there is hardly a more apt way to describe the kind of personal changes I was undergoing while preparing to graduate from college.

When I graduated from college in May 1994 (almost 15 years ago!), I decided to haul my parents’ Airstream camper (you’ve seen one before, it looks like a silver Twinkie) to the place I love most, Wilderness State Park near Mackinaw City, Michigan. I was getting married in the fall, and was soon to take a job as an editor at a marketing agency, so I decided I would take a trip into solitude. There was no one in the park in early May, just me, my dog, and swarms of mid-morning black flies. I spent two weeks hunkered down on site 45, sitting around the fire, staring out at the cold and roiling Straits of Mackinaw, tracing wildernesspark_finalsatellites gliding across the night sky, taking morning walks in the woods with my dog, and running occasional day trips to Traverse City and Sault Saint Marie. But mostly I read books, drank coffee, and smoked cigars. Three books in particular kept me company: Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick, Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter, and The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi), by Hermann Hesse. I wrote strange letters to my fiancée, mixing sentimentality with word games and random reflections on philosophy and aesthetics. It was a time of great transition for me, and the wondrous mix of northern beauty in the early spring, deep solitude, romantic yearning, intense intellectual stimulation, and the horizon of an uncertain future produced in me the sort of sober intoxication that often comes when bright-eyeing a major life transition.

The next two years brought with them considerable upheaval, intellectually and spiritually. In short, I was going through my “quarter life crisis.” But I eventually found a path, finally was able to channel the many chaotic energies swirling about me, and entered into graduate studies in theology. I carried much of this intellectual-spiritual stew into my initial years of graduate studies, which I commenced two years later. My master’s thesis served as a formal integration of my thinking on many of the questions that inspired me as an undergraduate. But it also signaled a major transition into other theological concerns, particularly postmodern. During my doctoral studies, I had gradually come to the conclusion that science was almost entirely a negative legacy of modernity, that because of its naïve self-understanding as a more or less “neutral” way of describing the world, it suffered from an epistemological blindness that made it a dangerous ideology to be roundly critiqued. I also became much more concerned about what I saw was the deformation of thinking from a more contemplative (or wisdom-centered) enterprise to one that exhibited compulsive calculation and control. At the very least, I had arrive at a point when I no longer thought it very needful to engage questions of science in my theological work, except for the occasional acknowledgment that science and theology border each other without overlapping very much, at least not to the extent that theological inquiry was required to make fundamental revisions of its basic sources, methods, and aims. While I could admit that I was never really satisfied with what amounted to a prematurely declared armistice – and, in fact, I continued to read works in the natural sciences; I guess I couldn’t look away – I remained skeptical of those who argued for a deeper integration between the two.

Last semester, while preparing for this seminar, I found myself growing re-enchanted with science. This is a bit ironic, from the New Atheist’s perspective, since it was science – especially the biological sciences – that provided one of the two most powerful battering rams in their hysterical screeds against all things religious. The other is their critique of religion as violent. That was the primary point of engagement for me, initially, and I have reflected and written quite a bit on the problem of violence as it emerges at the borders of ethnicities, religions, ideologies, nations, and the like. I was not prepared, however, for what has now become a full-blown conversion to engaging science theologically, not so much for the purposes of defending any sort of territory – I’ve never been much interested in traditional apologetics – but because of the ways that these disciplines can help us understand more profoundly the creativity of God.

There’s that word again, “creativity.” The past several months have brought with them a surprising jolt of interest in studying, once again, developments in complex systems theory and a broad range of multidisciplinary efforts that seek to understand the ubiquitous yet tantalizingly unpredictable process of creativity and emergence. Though I’m not quite sure where this resurgence will lead me, I can’t ignore the uncanny parallels between this process and the one that generated so much creativity in my life 15 years ago.

Is it mere coincidence that my interests in the relationship between chaos and order come at a time when I have finished a major book project and am preparing to undertake another that will occupy me for another half decade or so? Is it happenstance that I have just now finished the lengthy, and personally taxing process, of obtaining tenure at a major institution like SLU, and now can enjoy the exhilarating, though sometimes bewildering, freedom that comes when beginning another major leg of the academic journey? Is it at all accidental that my recent re-reading of the above mentioned books, and many like them, comes at a time when, technically speaking, I am entering “mid-life”? What has happened for me is that I have not only re-discovered the deep intellectual and spiritual interests that animated me 15 years ago, thereby allowing me to “catch up with myself,” but I have become re-enchanted with what Teilhard de Chardin called the “divine milieu.” I don’t know where all this will take me, and in fact I find this unknowing, this “negative capability” (as John Keats puts it) exhilarating and deeply satisfying. Being poised at the edge of chaos is just where I need to be.

For that, I have two constituencies to thank. First, the New Atheists. Quite despite their best efforts, their appeals to science has, in point of fact, renewed my deep appreciation for the scientific quest and the possibilities it provides theological inquiry at the edge of chaos. Second, I have all of you in this seminar to thank. Through our conversations in class, and through the many individual conversations I’ve had with each of you in preparation for your final projects, I have not only been able to explore the many issues that our study raises (and not just scientific, by the way), but I have also been renewed by your intellectual and theological journeys, your questions, your frustrations, your doubts, and your hard won insights as you finish your collegiate careers and venture forth into a future whose uncertainty creates the very conditions for unsuspected depth and novelty.



  1. Like Dr. Robinette, this Senior Seminar has facilitated a transformation in my thinking about the notorious science and religion debate, yet for me, this transformation is an awakening instead of a reawakening. In our seminar last fall, I focused my paper on a discussion of morality in the field of medical technology, specifically in vitro fertilization. By reminiscing on that project, I have realized that I had two distinct approaches to truth while I was writing that paper. I defended my beliefs by citing scientific claims about medicine and adhering to philosophical and theological ideas, but I always kept them separate, never allowing the two realms to mix. In my mind, these two spheres of knowledge could never provide similar truth. Then the light bulb switched on in my head: I was guilty of supporting the NOMA concept, an idea that I laughed at when it was presented in our Senior Seminar.

    Looking back at my youth, this awakening has been a long time coming. As a young kid in middle school, I understood that tension between science and religion existed. A few years later, I discovered why. Enrolled in a very conservative private Protestant high school, I was ingrained with the belief that God’s truth is completely separate from scientific theory, which is an idea I carried with me to college. Yet, I had never fully investigated this epistemological claim until this semester in our Senior Seminar. I have realized that the discussion between science and religion goes much deeper than the headlines of Creationism versus Evolution. The relationship between science and religion appears to be teetering on the see-saw of truth. Who can provide the most knowledge? However, this is not the right question; it’s not even close. The question should be: How can these two disciplines work together to provide complementary truth claims about the human experience since neither has a monopoly on knowledge?

  2. Like Dr. Robinette and Nick this senior seminar has facilitated a shift in my thinking about science and religion. Prior to attending SLU I was confused about the relationship between science and religion, I intuitively knew that the two fields should not be in conflict but I was inundated with information to the contrary. I found truth in both science and religion however; I tended to keep the fields separated from each other.

    My knowledge of science grew as I progressed in school but my knowledge and understanding of God’s relationship to me and the cosmos remained stagnant. By keeping the fields separated I lost the intimacy with God that I had experienced in my naive youth. Because of this I yearned to learn more about God, I wanted to figure out a way to reconcile my ideas of science and religion and reclaim the intimacy with God that I once had. However, this was and still is not an easy task. I struggled to find resources that would help me in my journey but they were few and far between in my small town in the middle of Missouri. My journey did not kick into full gear until my sophomore year here at SLU when I took my first Theology class. Now in our Senior Seminar class I have really been able to explore the science religion relationship, I am writing my paper on it, and I’m happy to say the two fields can inform each other and bring about a greater understanding of God’s relationship to creation.

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