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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

The “Residue” of God’s Image
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

I was lucky enough to have the best seat in the house for Krista’s live interview with Robert Wright (in the very front, manning the video cameras), and this was probably my favorite part of the entire conversation. I was fascinated by Wright’s intersection of belief in physics and belief in God, which he sums up in the afterward to The Evolution of God:

"Maybe the most defensible view — of electrons and of God — is to place them somewhere between illusion and imperfect conception."

Reading Wright’s 1988 book, Three Scientists and Their Gods, I saw a role reversal from his conversation with Krista. In 2010, he played the part of the “relentlessly logical” theorist, but in ‘88 he was the questioner who was probing rationalistic scientists like Edward Fredkin and E.O. Wilson with his own challenging questions.

For instance, Wright talks to digital physicist Edward Fredkin about his conception of the universe as a computer. Fredkin seems resistant to any conversation of the theological implications of this idea, but Wright probes him until he gets this response:

“‘I guess what I’m saying is: I don’t have any religious belief. I don’t believe that there is a God. I don’t believe in Christianity or Judaism or anything like that, okay? I’m not an atheist … I’m not an agnostic … I’m just in a simple state. I don’t know what there is or might be. … But on the other hand, what I can say is that it seems likely to me that this particular universe we have is a consequence of something which I would call intelligent.’

'You mean that there's something out there that wanted to get the answer to a question?'

'Yeah. Something that set up the universe to see what would happen? In some way, yes.'”

E. O. Wilson
Edward O. Wilson (photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Wright challenges sociobiologist E. O. Wilson as well, asking:

“‘The knowledge that we are all related to bacteria makes it no easier to swallow the harsh facts of hard work, brief retirement, and death. How can scientific materialism give meaning to our lives?’”

Even though Wilson shares Wright’s (and Krista’s) Southern Baptist upbringing, he seems to have completely avoided the same “residue.” Or at least, almost completely avoided it:

"Still, a funny thing happened a couple of years ago. Harvard was honoring Martin Luther King, Sr., and Reverend King, as part of the festivities, was preaching at the Harvard Memorial Chapel. Wilson, being a southerner, was invited to the service. There was a large turnout. The reverend preached fervently, and the congregation sang richly, and one of the hymns hit home with Wilson — ‘one of the good, old-timey ones that I hadn’t heard since I was a kid.’ Partway through it, E. O. Wilson — scientific materialist, detached empiricist, confirmed Darwinian — started crying.

As if in atonement, he has a perfectly rational explanation. ‘It was tribal,’ he says. ‘It was the feeling that I had been a long way away from the tribe.’”


Are You a Philo Fan?
Colleen Scheck, senior producer

Are you a Philo fan? Robert Wright is, as you can see in the video above.

Wright devotes a couple of chapters in The Evolution of God to exploring the Hellinistic Jewish philosopher’s influence on religious philosophy. Here, Wright illustrates his view that Philo helped give us both a morally and an intellectually modern God:

"…it’s worth taking a look at the ancient Abrahamic thinker who tried supremely to have it both ways: to see divinity abstractly, as a kind of logic running through history, yet to do so in a way that preserved the emotional satisfaction of traditional religion."

Quote from Philo
(photo: Andy Dayton)

My introduction to Philo came through a quote that’s posted on the desk of our managing producer: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” (a quote apparently often wrongly attributed to Plato or Socrates).

After hearing Wright talk about Philo, I’ve been digging around to learn more about this man who straddled two worlds, and why, though not widely accepted in his time, he holds resonance for ours. Are you a Philo fan?