The Guidance of Wonder
May 23, 2021 | Sarah Stewart
Here's the story that might sound familiar, a new vaccine is developed to a deadly disease, and some in the scientific community are eager to research and discover more, but a group of powerful people united by racism declare it a conspiracy, and a hoax. However, this is not a COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation about today's vaccine, this is a smallpox outbreak in Boston in 1721. Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister, living and serving in Boston at the time. And, about 15 years before this outbreak. He had asked an enslaved person who he owned Onesimus if he had ever had smallpox, and Onesimus said, “Well, yes and no.” And Onesimus described how he had been inoculated against smallpox as a child which was common in his West African community. Pus from an infected person’s pox was taken on a thorn and scraped into the skin of healthy children, encouraging their immune system to make antibodies to smallpox and keeping them from becoming deathly ill, and often providing lifelong immunity to smallpox.
So, Mather, who was scientifically minded, did some investigation into this he talked to other enslaved people from West Africa, in Boston at the time, and published an essay in 1714 about the value of inoculation. He had trouble believing that this kind of intellectual progress had come from West Africa, but he could see the beneficial effects of the inoculation and so that's what he put in his paper. However, the Royal Society refused to take this seriously, and other doctors in Boston got together to debunk Mather and Zabdiel Boylston, another doctor who believed in inoculation, to debunk their work. One of them, Dr William Douglas, he concocted a conspiracy theory. He said there was a grand plot afoot among African people who had agreed to kill their masters by convincing them to be inoculated, that's in the words of Ibram Kendi, who writes about this story in his book: Stamped from the Beginning. So, in 1721, with most people not taking an inoculation seriously, not trying out this new technology to the Europeans, that had come from Africa. Half of all Bostonians in 1721 were infected with smallpox and almost 10% of the city's population died. So here is an opportunity for learning and wonder and accepting something new, here's an opportunity where science had the opportunity to grasp something beyond its current understanding, to take in learning from a new culture and a new way of looking at the world. It required the white European scientists in Boston to take off that veil of racism and bias that was in front of their eyes that required openness beyond prejudice, acceptance of expertise from unexpected quarters. And because the medical establishment and the scientific establishment of the time couldn't do that, 5000 people fell ill and almost 900 died in that one outbreak alone. Today no less than 300 years ago, we need to be open to the truth, and possibility of discovery. We need to have a healthy skepticism of our own biases. We need openness to new information from unexpected quarters, when the spirit comes down it may look like surprising new discoveries or evidence informed by experiences beyond our own, we must open our ears and our hearts, to understand the truth that we see.
Now, I have to say I myself am not a scientist, I managed to be as educated as I am today and I've never taken a chemistry course, I wish I had. My best friend from high school is in fact a chemist in industry, she makes paints that goes on cars. And I said to her recently, you know, when I was in school, I did not understand that imagination had anything to do with science. I understood the mathematics and the equations of science but whenever I got into the lab in high school, I would just look at my instructions of how I was supposed to do the experiment and do them exactly the way it said. And when I didn't get any kind of result, I was baffled, and had no idea what I should have done or what I was supposed to be looking for, and I hadn't realized that there is this imaginative process that goes into science, where you are thinking ahead to what might happen, looking for an expected result, feeling what you are looking for as you go through the steps of your experiment. My friend Jenny says that this is the thing she wished people most understood about science, is the role of imagination, thinking about the possible solutions to problems and how the tools she has at her disposal as a chemist will help her get there. Scientific discovery requires asking “what if?” it requires musing, saying, “I wonder what would happen if,” what are the possibilities?
So, there are many scientists about whose stories I could tell, I just chose two. One is from our own tradition in Unitarianism, Joseph Priestley, was one of the founders of Unitarianism in England, and helped to lead one of the earliest Unitarian churches in America. And he also discovered oxygen. He was one of the first scientists to isolate oxygen and to describe its effects, that animals thrived in conditions where only oxygen was present and fire burned much brighter and longer For Joseph Priestley, that exploring the truth in religion and exploring the truth in science were two parts of the same whole, two ways of moving forward to understand what was true about the universe around him. I also think about Marie Curie, she's one of my favorites, I think I've told her stories in sermons before, she discovered that radiation was an atomic reaction, she discovered the elements polonium and radium, she discovered that radiation could be used to treat tumors to find a standard for measuring radiation created mobile X ray units to help treat wounded soldiers on the battlefields of World War One. And when she first discovered radium, she discovered it based on its effects alone, Based on the energy that came out of substances containing this element, she did not have enough radium for its mass to be measured, and in fact some of her scientific colleagues at the time said that she must be making it up because she couldn't point to any substance, any measurable substance, but she said “no, we know it's there because we can see its effects”. And that right there is an act of imagination, bringing to bare on science. The observable universe is full of wonders. Science is the tool we use to discover them, imagination and openness balanced with skepticism, drive our understanding of our world. And I think that this wonder, this quality, and capacity of wonder, is something that has the potential to bridge a divide between theism and atheism, in our world.
I told you in our second reading that Philip Pullman is a noted atheist, and he is, you can read his Wikipedia entry. If you've read his most well-known trilogy The His Dark Materials series, it's a retelling of Paradise Lost, but from a humanistic point of view, it’s a wonderful book. So, when he writes this passage in his new novel to say that his heroine has become miserable through a reliance on reason alone and she's trying to welcome in imagination and wonder, that's not Pullman going back on his atheism. That's Pullman saying that the natural world invites our wonder, and our imagination, and an expansiveness of mind for us to apprehend it. I once met a Unitarian Universalist who was so atheistic that he didn't read fiction, because it was too speculative. And this I think is a kind of way of looking at the world that I am arguing against, whether we believe in a supernatural God or not, there is a role for imagination and wonder in exploring the world. And this is a part, a way of exercising our empathy muscle, because each one of us has had our set of experiences, our way of understanding the world, there's me, no chemistry, here's my best friend, who is a chemist, we have two different sets of experiences. And if I am going to refuse to read fiction, if I'm going to refuse any speculation at all in the world, then I can't understand my friend's point of view, because I can't imagine my way into her experiences, and her way of looking at the world. And of course, you know my friend and I were both white, middle-class women, we both grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, we have a lot in common. But now, if we take it to trying to understand a different culture, a different class background, a different gender identity, a different race. Now, we need more imagination, not less, more willingness to try on someone else's point of view, more empathy and understanding.
In the Christian calendar today is Pentecost. It's the day that we remember that story we've heard from Acts, where Jesus has been resurrected and has gone back up to heaven, and the disciples are now on their own without their leader, and the Holy Spirit comes down on each one of them, and they begin to speak in all the languages of the Jewish Diaspora. And, you know, there probably wasn't such a thing as modern atheism, in the first century, everybody has some way of understanding the spiritual realms, the mysteries of the world around them. But this is still an effort in imagining someone else's point of view and exploring empathy. It's still a story that tells us that the spirit seeks to overcome divisions, divisions of ethnicity and religion. That factions and divisions are not as important as core values, and that unity will bring peace. Jesus’ ministry is an exploration of what it would mean to ignore those divisions of race and ethnicity to ignore the difference between Jews and Samaritans between Jews and Gentiles, between men and women. And yet we still struggle with those divisions today. All of our scientific progress has not helped humanity progress beyond these problems of division and bias. Science has been used to support racism, sexism eugenics, cruelty, even genocide. Science is a tool for understanding the world, but so is kindness, caring, mutual respect, humility, and curiosity, and our best science is informed by these values. Just as our best religion is informed by what we understand and observe about the world. You know America is more partisan than ever, partisanship informs almost everything about us. If you know whether somebody leans democratic or leans Republican, you know a lot of other things about them. What they're likely to think about Black Lives Matter, how likely they are to get the COVID vaccine, how likely they are to follow mask restrictions, what their core values are, and this is more true now than it has been since partisanship has been measured in America. And what this tells me is that it's more important than ever, both that we're open to experiences beyond our own, but also that we are willing to be skeptical about our own biases because that's the other thing that science teaches us, this is the other great gift of the scientific method is that we should be skeptical of something we think we know.
An experiment shows a result, well, can we repeat that experiment? That's a little bit of skepticism right there, to see if it's repeatable. Why do we believe what we believe? Is it just because of our biases? Is it just because of our partisanship? Or do we have evidence for our beliefs? Can we try on someone else's point of view? Can we use our imagination to explore what a world might look like? Can we welcome wonder? One tool you can use to do this in your own life is to try to state somebody else's point of view as you think they might state it. Can you imagine why they think the way they do? It helps to empathize with other people's experiences, and it helps bridge the divide between people. And that is a kind of wonder, wondering and welcoming what other people believe, wondering what might be possible, wondering at the world, at the beauty that continues to astonish us, at new understandings that we hadn't imagined before. Wondering at our own preconceptions, to question their truth and value in the light of new information, welcoming kindness, seeing human wellbeing as our responsibility, not be trapped by our own prejudices, but bring curiosity to beliefs and ideas, different from our own, even if in the end we reject those beliefs and ideas. And above all, wonder to follow the light of truth, wherever it may lead.
I love you all.