Almost homespun it seems, but it is the wisdom of a genius, Michael Polanyi, the celebrated Hungarian chemist-become-philosopher, who following the two world wars of the first half of the 20th-century, harshly criticized the hubris of the modern world, so sure it was that it was “enlightened” in completely new and important ways. The devastation and cruelty and horror of the wars brought him to another conclusion, i.e. as human beings we are capable of great evil, and more and more so, the more “modern” we become. Walking away from his Nobel Prize pathway in the laboratory, he gave the second half of his life to this question: how is it possible to be brilliant and bad at the same time?
With Albert Einstein, he worked in a research institute in Berlin in the 1930s, but began to see— as did Einstein —that Hitler’s megalomania was malevolent, and that Germany was not going to be safe for Jews. They both left, Einstein for the United States, and Polanyi for the United Kingdom. We know more about Einstein, honoring his brilliance in thousands of ways; Polanyi made his own contribution, but more as a philosopher of science who critiqued the very foundations of the modern world. He was sure that the Enlightenment insistence on objective and subjective ways of knowing was false, and had horrific consequences, allowing us the fantasy that we can “know” but not “do,” that knowledge doesn’t require responsibility. Instead, his own work as a scientist had shown him that “the viewer is always viewing,” i.e. we do not leave ourselves at the door of the laboratory. We come in, bringing all that we are into the laboratories of our lives.
(I have written about this at length in other places, e.g. the Visions of Vocation book, so I will not linger here, only to note that Polanyi’s insights have shaped my life, ever since I first heard of him in my explorations of the world during my years of undergraduate study.)
My father was a scientist too. For most of his life he did his research for the University of California, but always with a connection to the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA, giving him a more national and international platform for his study. Of the many gifts he gave me, one was this: “The longer I look through my microscope, the more sure I am that this is a created universe.”
For him, that was never because he saw himself as smarter than other scientists who concluded differently, whose seeing made them sure that it is all ordered chaos, the unfolding drama of time plus chance plus matter. That was never his perspective. What he did believe was that “the viewer is always viewing.” We bring ourselves to the microscopes of life, making sense of what we see in light of who we are, of what we believe about God and the world— and that is, of course, because we see out of our hearts. As my friend David Naugle puts it, we are “cardio-optic” people.
There is meaning here for everyone everywhere. Everything we see, we “see” in light of our loves, of those longings and hopes and beliefs and commitments that are deepest within us. The meaning of money, the meaning of marriage, the meaning of politics, the meaning of art, the meaning of work, the meaning of war, all the way across the landscapes of our lives. Even the way we see the flora and fauna of our days, whether we are Africans, Asians, Europeans or Americans, comes from our hearts, the very center of our beings.
This morning’s light on the azaleas reminded me of all this. They are so beautifully bright, so wonderfully imagined, so delicately designed, and my father’s words ran through my mind, “The longer I look, the more sure I am that this is a created universe.”
Yes, the viewer is always viewing.