Gospel & Universe

Two Sides of the Fence

This page situates Huxley's agnosticism in a poetic context, insinuating that there's philosophic value -- but also disturbing uncertainty -- in sitting on the fence.

Bee Lines - Life on the Fence: 1. Belief; 2. Disbelief 

Bee Lines

I hover on the brink of faith

like a bee above a lake of honey,

my feet stained in amber.

Would God, if He exists, get angry,

seeing me drift above the golden currents,

if I refuse to dive?


In an 1860 letter to Charles Kingsley, Thomas Huxley questions his own skepticism: 

Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter. 

In an 1863 letter he writes,

I cannot see one shadow or tittle of evidence that the great unknown underlying the phenomenon of the universe stands to us in the relation of a Father [who] loves us and cares for us as Christianity asserts. So with regard to the other great Christian dogmas, immortality of soul and future state of rewards and punishments, what possible objection can I -- who am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force, and in a very unmistakable present state of rewards and punishments for our deeds -- have to these doctrines? Give me a scintilla of evidence, and I am ready to jump at them.

Agnostics aren't wedded to doubt; it's simply the default position they occupy. They're ready to jump ship, cross the floor, get down off the fence -- if and when they find reasons or experiences that convince them to do so.


Life on the Fence


They call me a fence-sitter

because I can't believe in belief

or disbelief.


1. Belief

On one side of the fence I see a wide field

through which passes an ancient road

stubbled with bibles and stones,

dhammapadas and bhagavad-gitas

broken tablets of cuneiform

and the fine dust of philosophic masterpieces

dissolved in time.

White tattered pages, yellowing in the sun,

fragments of ten broken laws,

and slivers of papyrus reed

shoot from the margins.


The Persian astronomer searches the heavens for clues

while the Chinese caravan starts from the Imperial Palace

and printing presses press their messages

across the Silk Road --

an almost alien civilization

bringing its Book of Songs

its porcelain goblets

noodles and moveable type

across the Karakoram

from Xi'an to Amsterdam.


India dreams of zeros and decimal points

and Arabic numerals


like an


on history

sunya, the void, zero

decimal places, base 10 and 60

like the Sumerian sundials of the mind.


The Arab world digests Aristotle

and sends him back to the West

amid earthquakes of rediscovered Greek

that shake the clerics of Arles and Rome

with equations and echoing books of song.


The songs and ages past

and places beyond

must give us pause.


The incense is lit and the priest reads verses

from the 10th mandala of the 129th chapter of the Rg Veda:

Only the God in the Highest Heavens knows --

which seems like a fine way to start

way back in the middle of the second millennium B.C.,

but then the priest adds

or perhaps He knows not. 


Verses sacred or broken

verses about the broken, fallen world

buried deep beneath the smouldering ruins

of Mohenjo-Daro and Knossos

and a million other places that may yet be found

here or in the songs of the far-off worlds

The Sirens of Titan

inaudible, invisible, as-of-yet indecipherable.


The ziggurats of Babylon crack

and the waves of the tsunami tower above Fuji.

In Rome

the southern earthquakes strike terror into the heart of the ardent cardinal,

who scours the revolving sky for omens.

Surely some revelation is at hand.

Luther rushes to the church door, theses in hand

to fix the fracturing moment of the 16th Century

into a single Truth:

five old books and four new ones:

the same old Good News,

unchanging, uncompromising.

The cardinal tells us it's good for us

to etch the ages with Gospel,

with four cardinal points

on a flat, unspinning world.

But like the wedges of cuneiform

(so certain for three thousand years and then forgotten),

the peril of our scattered selves,

the magic of our chaos,

can't be etched in Certainty.


2. Disbelief

On the other side of the fence I see a wide field,

flooded with strange new trees

sprouting legs

and eggs

as if this human life were only one way of living,

and life forms were recombinant, like RNA,

and aliens wrote sonnets.

Hieronymus Bosch on steroids:

the hellish and the heavenly rolled into one,

as if cosmic order were nothing but fantasy.

Humans with fish heads and cherry-driven planes

ride the waves of the deep sky

on a flying sardine.

A man walking on water. A man commanding the seas to part. 

Gandalf. Luke Skywalker.

The flight to Heaven, the forbidden fruit, the dice-game of Hell.

Mere stories.

Beneath the discarded heaps

snakes slither beneath the soil,

rising like black arms and fingers through the cracks

to at last grasp that tempting breast

and all those body parts denied for two thousand years

in the old storybook about the snake and the apple tree.

The fingers shoot upward, like dark eager branches

pushing the sap into every corner of our selves,

from the base of the sacrum to the brain stem.

The lines of black coil are uncoiled.

The feared weeds have taken over the garden.

Surely some revelation is at hand.

Transatlantic cables, fibre optics, and satellites

lift their signals, invisible, to the sky.


This is the new resurrection,

from the visible to the invisible.

This is the new transubstantial gospel,

without a capital g.

It soars at the speed of light, 

along the controlled firing of electrons

over the monk's death valley desert

into the astronomer's desert of vast eternity.

 It sends a message to all the aliens out there

about the Federation's elusive ideal

the prime directive

about minding our own business

about live and let live

about do unto others

 and about a method

of dealing with matter

and matters secular

calling out to outer space

like a space-ship, unmoored

from its docking port


a one-way call flowing in morse code

from the ALMA Observatory high on a mountain top

sixteen thousand four hundred and four feet above Chile's Atacama Desert;

and from all the alma mater deserts, a straight line of code sent outward

to Andromeda and Canis Major, the top dog

8.6 million light years away.


This call to the aliens out there may never be recalled

or answered.

It will stretch into space long after the body of the sender has turned to sand.

It will still be floating, beaming, in complete isolation,

for millions of years

floating between this galaxy and the next.


From the other end, the keen aliens will read it

and then indulge their collective urge for the trajectory of a single line

and beam back a line of code in amethyst light

encoded with the meaning of Everything:

the DNA of the stars.

Yet by the time this Light reaches us

the source will have been extinguished for ten million years

and the descendants of the code-senders, 

having sprouted different eyes,

couldn't even read what they sent.


Everything we are is a blip in a cosmos undesigned

lost in the widest field we'll never know


They call me a fence-sitter

because I believe in doubt



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