A few weeks ago I held my granddaughter for the first time, just an hour and a half after she was born. It was a powerful moment. I felt like I was standing on holy ground.
For most of the day, however, the ground on which I was standing didn’t feel holy at all. Just about everything that could go wrong with the labor and delivery did, and the baby wound up being delivered by a c-section. On the one hand, the doctors were amazing. Their knowledge and skill served to make the whole experience turn out for the good.
On the other hand, my daughter complained later on that the doctors were like analytical technicians without much empathy for the pain she was going through as they plied their trade on her. It was the nurses on the newborn unit who made her feel like a HUMAN being again.
Now, not all doctors are cold and analytical and not all nurses are empathic, but my experience on that birth day reaffirmed for me the truth of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s classic book I and Thou, which was written 80 years ago in pre-World War II Germany.
Buber taught that as we wade into life each day, we have two choices regarding how we encounter the world, as an It or as a Thou. For example, outside my building a huge old tree was clearly dying, so I called up John Doss over at public works. One of his men came by, checked the tree out, determined that it indeed was dead and put it on the list to be cut down. A few days later, a crew came and reduced the big ash tree to smaller transportable logs.
The public works crew treated the tree as an It, as an object to be analyzed and manipulated to serve a purpose—in this case removing a hazard that could be blown over in a storm and smash a roof or crush a car.
One of my neighbors, however, when she learned that the tree was to be cut down, went out, touched the tree with her hands and said goodbye to this living organism which had been her friend for many years. It had shaded her from the summer sun and been a source of beauty every day as she looked out her living room window. To her, that tree was a Thou.
The scientific method treats reality as an It. The solar system, DNA, polar bears, fetuses, trees and people are all objects to be dispassionately analyzed, categorized and manipulated. To be a good scientist you have to detach emotionally and spiritually from what you are observing. The scientific method has given birth to technologies which have improved the quality of our lives.
Religious people, poets and authors, however, approach reality in terms of I-Thou relationships. My neighbor experienced that dying tree as a friend she was losing rather than in terms of how many board feet of lumber it could produce.
On the one hand, religious folk haven’t always appreciated scientists. Way back in the 1500s the Catholic Church, Martin Luther and John Calvin all condemned Copernicus for asserting that the earth revolves around the sun, contrary to the way the Bible describes the workings of the solar system. The Scopes Trial in 1925 and the refusal of some conservatives to accept the theory of climate change are two more recent examples of the inability of some people of faith to see reality through a scientific lens.
On the other hand, people with a scientific approach to life are often “mystified” by a spiritual take on life which “sees” things that can’t be seen with the two eyes in our head. For me, people who are not bifocal, i.e. who can’t or don’t want to view what they experience through both scientific and religious lenses, are missing half of reality.
To be sure, some religious people have treated me as an It, and some scientists I have known have also been inspired poets. I’m not talking about any scientists or church goers in particular but using the terms to describe two different ways of viewing the world.
When I held my granddaughter for the first time, I knew all about sperm and eggs, about gestation repeating evolution, about inducing labor with pitocin. But all I could think about as my eyes teared up and the lump in my throat grew larger was, “This little six pound newborn is a miracle, a gift from God,