Unweaving the Rainbow, Unmasking the Divine

When I heard the learned astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams,
to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer,
where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wandered off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.

~ Walt Whitman

Sometimes, it seems only the poets and artists can do justice to the beauty that we see in nature, as in this painting by Van Gogh

As someone working in astrophysics, I can fully identify with Walt Whitman. Staring at dots on the screen all day long while attempting to reduce astronomical data, solving complex equations, or slugging it out with other scientists over the validity of your research findings can take all the fun out of astronomy. The feeling of awe that sweeps over us as we gaze into the deep stillness of the starry night, the wonder that leaves us breathless whenever we stand before nature in all its majestic glory – can all but disappear when we try to reduce them into cold, abstract formulae. Poets such as John Keats likens the scientific enterprise to the ‘unweaving of the rainbow’, referring to how the discovery that rainbows were caused by the refraction of light in drops of rain destroyed any remaining sense of awe we had of this colouful apparition in the sky.

Yes, knowing that the ‘glittering diamonds’ in the night sky are nothing more than giant balls of gas where hydrogen atoms are being fused into helium atoms through nuclear reactions can sometimes leave one feeling less satisfied. But science is necessary. We need to know how the world works. The fact is, beauty and wonderment can be found in science too, albeit of a different kind. Many mathematicians and physicists see a form of beauty in the elegant equations that describe the universe. We even sometimes marvel at the way nature works as revealed through scientific discoveries, as pointed out by Richard Dawkins in his book ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’. Keats was right, but only to a certain extent. It’s just that we scientists need a reminder once in awhile – that there are times when we should just sit back, relax, and enjoy the view.

Do we destroy the sense of wonder that comes when gazing at nature's majesty by reducing them into a set of scientific propositions?

The same can be said for theology. Formulating doctrines about God and attempting to categorize spirituality into neat little compartments can reduce our human encounter with the divine into nothing more than caricatures. We end up with a god made in our own image – tame, domesticated and powerless to do anything – not unlike the wizard of Oz, once unmasked by Dorothy and found out for who he really was. Yet, theology is necessary. What we believe about God greatly determines how we live and act. It tells us how we can relate to this God. In a similar vein, theology can sometimes leave us awestruck in our contemplation of the divine. All of us who delve into theology though, need to be reminded that we must always be ready to put aside our thoughts and theological reflections about God, so that we can experience God fully in all His wild splendour and Majesty.


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