Carl Sagan died ten years ago. For many years, thanks to his PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, he was the most well-known scientist in America. In 1985 he delivered the famous Gifford Lectures in Scotland, where William James in 1902 first delivered the lectures that became his The Varieties of Religious Experience and where great scientists, philosophers, and theologians have lectured annually, before James, and ever since. Sagan lectured to packed houses but the lectures were never published and his own notes were filed and lost until his widow, Ann Druyan, discovered them a couple of years ago and decided to edit them into book form, The Varieties of Scientific Experience.
In her introduction, Ms. Druyan notes that Sagan was not a "religious" man, if by religion we mean adhering to a traditional religious faith. But he was a deeply spiritual person, and made it his life work to share with others the sense of awe and wonder he experienced as he explored the universe with others, as well as his passion to care for and save the planet. He also was more than willing to engage the public in discussions about the nature and existence of God. Because he was by temperament an inquisitive person, he read and studied all the major religions in the world and often amazed religious people with his ability to quote their scriptures and tell them about their own religious history. She notes that over the years he worked with and befriended many religious leaders:
However, he never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire love and awe. His argument was not with God but with those who believed that our understanding of the the sacred had been completed.
That statement provides an excellent summary of my own "conflict" with much that passes for organized religion in our day. It isn't the idea or the belief that in the biblical prophets or Jesus or Paul or in scripture as a whole the sacred was revealed. I can readily affirm that. It is the idea or the belief that what we find in scripture is it. The perfect revelation. Nothing since compares; nothing since found to contradict the understandings of humans writing two thousand years ago and more can be true. What the scriptures said then about science or the place of women or homosexuality is the final word.
It's not, for me. The scriptures are where I begin to understand my own spiritual (and cultural) place in the world. But we have learned so much since then about our enormous universe, the ancient history of our planet, and the way our minds and bodies work. And it's just the tip of the iceberg of what there is to know and understand. I can't imagine being satisfied to say that what the scripture writers knew and believed about history or science or Jesus or humanity is all there is to know. The search for truth did not end then. The search for truth is what leads us to know and understand everything we can about the world around us. And in that search it is possible to see the continuing unfolding of the sacred, every bit as awesome and wonderful today as it was two thousand years ago.