Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Thin Line Between Faith and Reason: Madeleine L'Engle and the Function of the Fantastic

Everywhere you look these days, it seems that lines are being drawn in the sand between science and religion over subjects like evolution, stem cell research, and abortion.  The media presents these debates in black and white terms, creating the impression that there is no room for compromise, no space for coming together, no possibility of learning from each other.  It's a situation of us versus them, good versus evil, right versus wrong.

It's a type of rhetoric that has now infused the political system in the United States as well, with the wall between Republican and Democrat being built higher at every turn, rather than broken down.  It's a situation that strikes me as intensely problematic, not only because it fosters distrust and suspicion of others, but because each group seems to be closing itself off from the possibility that they aren't completely right and that they could learn something new.

I would suggest that fantasy and science fiction--and particularly the uncertainty that occurs in many fantasy novels when the supernatural isn't totally understood--stands to play a very valuable role in destabilizing these binary oppositions.  This uncertainty can remind us that we don't understand everything, that there are still things we can learn, and that maybe, just maybe, our carefully constructed system of understanding the world needs to be rethought and revised.

And no one, it seems, does this as well as Madeleine L'Engle in A Wrinkle in Time.

Throughout this amazing novel L'Engle scatters reminders that not everything can be understood--either by systems of science or systems of faith--and that, rather than being a problem, this lack of understanding is a beneficial thing.

Take, for example, what Meg's mom tells her the night after they first meet Mrs. Whatsit: "I don't understand it any more than you do, but one thing I've learned is that you don't have to understand things for them to be."

And later, Meg's mom says that while she thinks everything has an explanation, she also thinks "that with our human limitations we're not always able to understand the explanations.  But you see, Meg, just because we don't understand doesn't mean that the explanation doesn't exist."

The fantastic emphasizes the possibilities presented by not knowing, and suggests that this lack of understanding is a powerful motivator for future learning and study.  For both scientists and people of faith, not having all the answers provides the potential for learning more, and the uncertainty of the fantastic reminds us of that.  As Mrs. Who tells Charles, Calvin, and Meg, quoting Pascal, "The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing." 

And the value of this, particularly for someone like L'Engle who valued both faith and science, is that the fantastic can then provide a bridge between the two, bringing together two ways of viewing the world that often seem antithetical to each other.  Nowhere is this more apparent in A Wrinkle in Time than when Mrs. Whatsit asks the children who on Earth has been fighting against the darkness.  And together, Calvin, Meg, and Charles come up with a list that includes Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Pasteur, Madame Curie, Einstein, Schweitzer, Gandhi, Buddha, Beethoven, Rembrandt, St. Francis, Euclid, and Copernicus.  Because all of these people--both religious icons as well as scientists and artists--worked toward greater understanding of the world and what it means to be human, they can be seen as sharing a common endeavor, rather than working against each other.

And this is why, even 50 years after its initial publication, Madeleine L'Engle's classic novel remains as relevant as ever, providing a model for interacting with other epistemological positions that lays the foundation for coming together, rather than standing apart.  Just as Meg's love saved Charles Wallace from the darkness of IT, the hope, love of learning, and possibility of the fantastic seen in A Wrinkle in Time can, perhaps, save us today from our own darknesses of separation and hostility toward those who think differently from us.