Taking Actions on Things for Which There Is No Theory
While I had unconsciously operated within this science-ethics-praxis triad for decades, I had not articulated it until my conversation with students around the table in that New Hampshire coffee shop. Only then did I become aware of how to represent what I had been doing. Not only did that experience help me articulate an explicit framework, but it also taught me that I had been engaged for a long time in doing something for which I previously had no framework or theory.
That I had been operating without a framework or theory became even more apparent following a lecture I gave to the Land Resources class at Au Sable Institute in 1995. I had told the class how, as chair of the Town of Dunn, my fellow citizens and I had developed and implemented a land stewardship plan, and how, after a couple of decades of work, our town was granted the Renew America Award for growth management. Earlier that summer I had presented an opening series of lectures at Au Sable on key ethical principles for our work.
Now my students had a question. “How were you able to implement these obviously biblical principles in the public square in your town?” The answer I gave surprised my student audience—and it surprised me. I told them that when I held town office, I had not yet articulated these principles; they had not yet occurred to me and I had not sought to discover them. It was only after concluding my terms of political office in the Town of Dunn that I had spelled out these principles. I also observed that what we did in the Town of Dunn was nevertheless fully consistent with the principles I had not yet articulated. As I answered the students’ questions, I recalled a comment from a pastor friend and scholar a few years earlier about my work in the town: “Cal, you are doing things for which we do not yet have a theory.” He had told me then what I was just now coming to realize: I had been operating more out of who I am than from any systematized theory. This raises again the question of how we can act on something we have not articulated. The answer, I think, lies in the matrix of story, song, and exposition in which I was nurtured.
Telling Stories and Singing Songs
I grew up immersed in a culture of storytelling and singing. What’s more, the stories told and the songs sung all came together to form a system of remarkable consistency and integrity. This immersion allowed me to begin living my life as a psalm—and only later find out why! The matrix of stories, songs, and their exposition in word and deed began in my childhood home and gradually extended outward to neighborhood children and families, customers on my newspaper route, handling delivery complaints at The Grand Rapids Press, activities at church and school, and learning and then teaching at the university. From there his matrix fed and nourished my praxis, including my work in the Town of Dunn, and beyond.
As a scientist, I have come to wonder about the nature of this system of stories and songs that gracefully nurtured and tied us together in our community, and about the nature of their scholarly and practical exposition. How does this matrix compare with other people who have lived lives committed to achieving and sustaining environmental integrity? This question inevitably led me to wonder about the place of religion in all of this.
Religion and Ties That Bind
Etymologically, “religion” means something quite different than the troubling associations many people have attached to it. Derived from the Latin religio, it has to do with tying things together. A religion is a system whose components are tied together—ligated with some kind of ligaments—to form a consistent integral whole worldview or story. Religions, of course, may differ significantly one from another in kind and in quality. But each religion affects how one lives in the world, and none must be discounted.
As recently as the 1960s, many North Americans assumed that religion would fade as science and secularism took center stage. How wrong this proved to be! Most people now recognize that religion is deeply relevant to almost every area of life. More than being relevant, wrote renowned German physicist Max Planck in his 1937 essay “On Religion and Science,” religion is necessary. I stumbled upon that essay on one of my frequent stops at Rosenblum’s Hebrew Bookstore as I traveled between Michigan and Wisconsin and have treasured it ever since. “Man needs science in order to know; religion, in order to act.” In everyday life, he explains,
Our decisions, made by our will, cannot afford to wait until we gain complete knowledge or become omniscient. We stand in the stream of life, surrounded by a multitude of demands and needs. We must often make quick decisions or immediately implement certain plans. No protracted deliberations can help us here, only the definite and clear guidance obtainable from unmediated communion with God. This alone can grant us that inner assurance and that enduring peace of soul which we must treasure as life’s supreme good.1
Later, some time after the 1994 publication of his book Caring for Creation, I would meet the philosopher Max Oelschlaeger at Northern Arizona University. This book describes his “conversion” from believing that religion was the cause of the environmental crisis to seeing religion as the solution. “I think of religion,” he writes, “as being more important in the effort to conserve life on earth than all the politicians and experts put together. . . . My conjecture is this: There are no solutions for the systemic causes of ecocrisis, at least in democratic societies, apart from religious narrative.”2
Some of us might prefer not to identify our system of beliefs as “religion.” But no matter what we call it, it is this system of beliefs, in which everything holds together with some kind of consistency and integrity that enables us to act. I now see how my own cultural and religious inheritance included in such a system. But before I go further down this path, I need to mention briefly something I learned about paradigms.
I discovered another way to get at the interesting idea of “acting on things before one has a theory” immediately following an oral examination of one of my graduate students. The candidate had been asked to define the word paradigm. His answer raised additional questions, as so often happens when professors interact with students, and these questions drove me to pick up my copy of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions when I returned home. Kuhn is well-known for his work in explaining “paradigm shifts” but was criticized for using the word paradigm in so many different ways. As expected, one of these usages describes a paradigm as a kind of mindset out of which a culture operates—perhaps the most common usage when talking about paradigm shifts. But another possible use of paradigm is as an example—an example from which a theory can be developed, for which there might yet be no theory.
My immediate response to this finding was to begin writing a manuscript entitled The Dunn Paradigm. Every morning I spent a couple of hours in a local eatery where I could write on my computer with little distraction other than a cup of coffee. I produced forty-eight short stories based upon my experience as an officer in the town of Dunn. Every few pages, upon completing a story, I mined what I had written for lessons and principles. In this way, I began to see my own life story as a kind of paradigm—an example of someone who works to foster stewardship of land and life. The things I were doing in my life and work were things for which I did not yet have a theory—but nonetheless they flowed out of who I had become and who I was becoming. The lessons and principles that flowed from working within my community joined my matrix of story, song, and exposition to generate and sustain its practical application in the land and life of my town and place.
I have come to believe that the matrices that underlie our action in the world hold truths greater than the forms available for their expression. Presumably everyone has a matrix that incorporates such things as neighbors, fellow citizens, land, and life experience, and that helps us to do what is necessary in order to live rightly. Such matrices provide the resources we need to develop insight and a plan of action for the events—both anticipated and unanticipated—that take place in our own lives, in our society, and in the world. This is all to the good, even as it is expected. Recognizing and understanding these matrices can lead us toward doing what is right in a God-created world!
I have little doubt that a person nurtured in a matrix quite unlike my own, but that does justice to the three questions of the science-ethics-praxis triad, could also be empowered to strive for a quality world. Even those of us who would prefer not to identify our system of beliefs as religion still likely hold to a system of beliefs that enables us to act. The question “If given the opportunity, would we strive for a quality world?” remains a valid one. What would our motivation be? What would provide the rationale or passions to strive relentlessly for integrity in landscape and in life?
Of course, some people are raised in a matrix of beliefs and practices that seem to undermine a quality life on earth. This brings us into the mystery of evil, a subject I leave to the theologians. But my own religious matrix gives me the hope that the Creator, whose Spirit is at work within us and among us, is guiding us toward a new creation that is “ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5).
Putting It All Together
“How do you, as a scientist, as a student of the Scriptures, and as someone directly involved in town politics, put it all together?” those inquiring students had asked me. Sketching a triangle on a napkin with the words “Science,” “Ethics,” and “Praxis” on its corners, I explained how I worked to keep those three elements together in dynamic interaction. Action flows from interacting scientific and ethical knowledge, and it is shaped by interactions among all three of these. And with that sketch began my own journey of discovery—a journey that continues to this day.
My own development grows from a matrix of biblical storytelling and worshipful song-singing, together with proclamation in Word and deed. These provide the basis and inspiration for my actions—actions taken even before I had a theory to explain them. My aim, then, is not to do science on its own, but within the context of what I have described here as “quality religion”—a system of thought and action in which everything is held together with consistency and integrity for the purpose of helping people live rightly in the world. Such “re-ligation” is not only relevant, but necessary for “putting it all together.”
1. Max Planck, 1937, "On Religion and Science," reprinted in translation as Appendix A in Aaron Barth, The Creation in Light of Modern Science (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Post Press, 1968), 147.
2. Max Oelschlaeger, Caring for Creation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 5.