Chapter Onelife in part
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the
source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as
dead: his eyes are closed.
More than ten million people in Europe and Asia have viewed a
remarkable exhibition known as Body Worlds. A German professor
invented a vacuum process called plastination, which replaces individual
cells of the human body with brightly colored resins and epoxies, much
as minerals replace the cells of trees in a petrified forest. As a result, he
can preserve a human body, whole or stripped away to reveal its inner
parts, and display the cadaver in an eerily lifelike pose.
I visited Body Worlds in a warehouse art gallery in London after an
overnight flight from my home in Colorado. I was feeling the effects of
jet lag until, on entering the gallery, I encountered the exhibition's signature
piece: a man all muscles, tendons, and ligaments, his face peeled
like a grape, with the entire rubbery organ of skin, flayed and intact,
draped over his arm like a raincoat. Sleepiness immediately gave way to
a morbid fascination.
For the next two hours I shuffled past the sixty preserved bodies artfully
arranged among palm trees and educational displays. I saw a woman
eight months pregnant, reclining as if on a couch, her insides opened to
reveal the fetus resting head-down inside. Skinned athletes-a runner,
swordsman, swimmer, and basketball player-assumed their normal poses
to demonstrate the wonders of the skeletal and muscular systems. A chess
player sat intently at a chessboard, his back stripped to the nerves of his
spinal cord and his skull removed to reveal the brain.
One display hung the pink organs of the digestive system on a wire
frame, descending from the tongue down to the stomach, liver, pancreas,
intestines, and colon. A placard mentioned five million glands employed
for digestion, and I could not help thinking of the combination of cured
salmon, cinnamon rolls, yogurt, and fish and chips-sloshed together with
at least a quart of airline coffee-challenging those glands inside me at
that moment. Moving on, I learned that babies have no kneecaps at birth,
that the body's total volume of blood filters through the kidneys every
four minutes, that brain cells die if deprived of oxygen for even ten seconds.
I viewed a liver shrunken from alcohol abuse, a tiny spot of cancer
in a breast, globs of plaque clinging to the walls of arteries, lungs black
from cigarette smoke, a urethra squeezed by an enlarged prostate gland.
When not observing the plastinated bodies, I observed the people
observing the plastinated bodies. A young girl wearing all black, her
midriff bare, with orange hair and a lip ring, roses tattooed on her arm,
alert to all live bodies but barely noticing the preserved ones. A Japanese
woman in a flowered silk dress and straw hat with matching straw platform
shoes, very proper, staring impassively at each exhibit. A doctor
ostentatiously showing off his knowledge to a beautiful young companion
twenty years his junior. A know-it-all college student in a jogging
suit explaining wrongly to his girlfriend that "of course, the right brain
controls speech." Silent people pressing plastic audio wands to their ears,
marching on cue like zombies from one display to the next.
The sharp scent of curry drifted in from outdoors, along with the
throb of hip-hop music. Local merchants, sponsoring a curry festival, had
blocked off several streets for bands and dancing. I moved to a window
and watched the impromptu block party. Outside the gallery, life; inside,
the plastinated residue of life.
Wherever Body Worlds had opened, in places like Switzerland and
Korea, organized protests had followed, and the exhibition had papered
one wall with news accounts of the demonstrations. Protesters believed
that it affronted human dignity to take someone like a grandmother, with
a family and home and name and maybe even an eternal destiny, and
dissect and plastinate her, then put her on display for gawking tourists.
In response, Professor Gunther von Hagens had posted a vigorous
statement defending his exhibition. He explained that the cadavers/persons
had before death voluntarily signed over their bodies for precisely this
purpose. Indeed, he had a waiting list of thousands of prospective donors.
He credited Christianity as being the religion most tolerant of this line of
scientific research and included a brief history of the church and medicine.
Bizarrely, the exhibition ended with two splayed corpses, all muscles
and bones and bulging eyes, kneeling before a cross.
* * *
That groggy afternoon at Body Worlds highlighted for me two distinct
ways of looking at the world. One takes apart while the other seeks to
connect and put together. We live in an age that excels at the first and falters
at the second.
The cadavers, dissected to expose bones, nerves, muscles, tendons,
ligaments, blood vessels, and internal organs, demonstrate our ability to
break something down-in this case, the human being-into its constituent
parts. We are reductionistic, say the scientists, and therein lies
the secret to advances in learning. We can reduce complex systems like
the solar system, global weather patterns, and the human body into simpler
parts in order to understand how things work.
The recent digital revolution is a triumph of the reducers, for computers
work by reducing information all the way down to a 1 or a 0.
Nearly every day a friend sends me jokes by email. Today, I got a list of
questions to ponder, including these: Why is "abbreviated" such a long
word? Why is the time of day with the slowest traffic called rush hour?
Why isn't there mouse-flavored cat food? People with too much time on
their hands come up with these jokes, type them into a computer, and
post them electronically for the amusement of the rest of the world.
I think of all the steps involved. The jokester's computer registers a
series of keystrokes, translates them into binary bits of data, and records
them magnetically as a file on a hard disk. Later, communications software
retrieves that file and translates it into a sequential code, which it
sends over a modem or broadband line to a computer server sitting in an
isolated room. Some user plucks the joke for the day from the server,
imports it to a home computer, and forwards it to a list of email contacts.
The cycle goes on and on, with bits of joke data streaming over phone
lines and wireless signals, even bouncing off satellites, until at last I log
onto the Internet and download my friend's attempt to bring a smile to
Masters of the art, we can reduce not just jokes but literature and
music and photographs and movies into digital bits and broadcast them
around the world in seconds. On the ski slopes of Colorado I meet
Australians who email snapshots of their ski vacation back to friends and
family every night. A few minutes on an Internet site will let me search
and locate any word in Shakespeare or view the artwork hanging in the
Have we, though, progressed in creating content that others will
someday want to store and retrieve? Does our art match that of the
Impressionists, our literature compare with the Elizabethans', our music
improve on Bach or Beethoven? In most cases, taking apart what exists
proves easier than creating what does not yet exist. Think of the best artificial
hands, built with state-of-the-art technology, yet clumsy and
mechanical in their motion compared to the human body's.
School textbooks used to report that the chemicals constituting the
human body could be bought by catalog for eighty-nine cents, which of
course does nothing to explain the magnificence of an athlete like Michael
Jordan or Serena Williams. A junior high sex-education study of fallopian
tubes and the vas deferens hardly captures the wonder, mystery, and
anxiety of marital sex. And the impressive displays at Body Worlds in
London pale in comparison to the ordinary people chewing gum, sipping
Starbucks coffee, and chatting on cell phones as they file past.
We reduce into parts, but can we fit together the whole? We can
replace the cells of a human body with colored plastic or slice it into a
thousand parts. We have a much harder time agreeing on what a human
person is. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Will any part of
us survive death? The people on display at Body Worlds-do they endure
as immortal souls somewhere in another dimension, perhaps peering
whimsically at the line of tourists filing past their plastinated bodies? And
what of an invisible world rumored by the mystics, a world that cannot
be dissected and put on display in a gallery? Knowing the parts doesn't
necessarily help us understand the whole.
I once heard the missionary author Elisabeth Elliot tell of accompanying
the Auca woman Dayuma from her jungle home in Ecuador to New
York City. As they walked the streets, Elliot explained cars, fire hydrants,
sidewalks, and red lights. Dayuma's eyes took in the scene, but she said
nothing. Elliot next led her to the observation platform atop the Empire
State Building, where she pointed out the tiny taxi cabs and people on the
streets below. Again, Dayuma said nothing. Elliot could not help wondering
what kind of impression modern civilization was making. Finally,
Dayuma pointed to a large white spot on the concrete wall and asked,
"What bird did that?" At last she had found something she could relate to.
I have visited the tip of Argentina, the region named Tierra del Fuego
("land of fire") by Magellan's explorers, who noticed fires burning on
shore. The natives tending the fires, however, paid no attention to the
great ships as they sailed through the straits. Later, they explained that
they had considered the ships an apparition, so different were they from
anything seen before. They lacked the experience, even the imagination,
to decode evidence passing right before their eyes.
And we who built the skyscrapers in New York, who build today not
just galleons but space stations and Hubble telescopes that peer to the
very edge of the universe, what about us? What are we missing? What do
we not see, for lack of imagination or faith?
* * *
Søren Kierkegaard told a parable about a rich man riding in a lighted carriage
driven by a peasant who sat behind the horse in the cold and dark
outside. Precisely because he sat near the artificial light inside, the rich
man missed the panorama of stars outside, a view gloriously manifest to
the peasant. In modern times, it seems, as science casts more light on the
created world, its shadows further obscure the invisible world beyond.
I am no Luddite who opposes technological change. My laptop computer
allows me to access the text of every book I have written in the past
twenty years, as well as thousands of notes I have made during that time.
Though I am holed up in a mountain retreat, using this same computer I
have sent messages to friends in Europe and Asia. I pay my monthly bills
electronically. In these and other ways I gratefully enjoy the benefits of
the reducers' approach to technology and science.
Yet I also see dangers in our modern point of view. For one thing,
reductionism, the spirit of our age, has the unfortunate effect of, well,
reducing things. Science offers a map of the world, something like a topographical
map, with colors marking the vegetation zones and squiggly
lines tracing the contours of cliffs and hills. When I hike the mountains
of Colorado, I rely on such topographical maps. Yet no map of two dimensions,
or even three dimensions, can give the full picture. And none can
possibly capture the experience of the hike: thin mountain air, a carpet
of wildflowers, a ptarmigan's nest, rivulets of frothy water, a triumphant
lunch at the summit. Encounter trumps reduction.
More importantly, the reducers' approach allows no place for an
invisible world. It takes for granted that the world of matter is the sum
total of existence. We can measure and photograph and catalog it; we
can use nuclear accelerators to break it down into its smallest particles.
Looking at the parts, we judge them the whole of reality.
Of course, an invisible God cannot be examined or tested. Most definitely,
God cannot be quantified or reduced. As a result, many people in
societies advanced in technology go about their daily lives assuming God
does not exist. They stop short at the world that can be reduced and analyzed,
their ears sealed against rumors of another world. As Tolstoy said,
materialists mistake what limits life for life itself.
I have a neighbor who is obsessively neat. He lives on ten forested
acres, and every time he drove up his long, winding driveway, the disorderly
dead branches on the Ponderosa pine trees bothered him. One day
he called a tree-trimming service and learned it would cost him five thousand
dollars to trim all those trees. Appalled at the price, he rented a chain
saw and spent several weekends perched precariously on a ladder cutting
back all the branches he could reach. He called the service for a new estimate
and got an unwelcome surprise. "Mr. Rodrigues, it will probably cost
you twice as much. You see, we were planning to use those lower
branches to reach the higher ones. Now we have to bring in an expensive
truck and work from a bucket."
In some ways, modern society reminds me of that story. We have
sawed off the lower branches on which Western civilization was built, and
the higher branches now seem dangerously out of reach. "We have drained
the light from the boughs in the sacred grove and snuffed it in the high
places and along the banks of sacred streams," writes Annie Dillard.
No society in history has attempted to live without a belief in the
sacred, not until the modern West. Such a leap has consequences that we
are only beginning to recognize. We now live in a state of confusion
about the big questions that have always engaged the human race, questions
of meaning, purpose, and morality. A skeptical friend of mine used
to ask himself the question, "What would an atheist do?" in deliberate
mockery of the What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) slogan. He finally stopped
asking because he found no reliable answers.
Eliminating the sacred changes the story of our lives. In times of
greater faith, people saw themselves as individual creations of a loving
God who, regardless of how it may look at any given moment, has final
control over a world destined for restoration. Now, people with no faith
find themselves lost and alone, with no overarching story, or meta-narrative,
to give promise to the future and meaning to the present.