The "faith" is not an invention and "microscopes" are not more prudent than the naked eye.***
I first read this poem in Dr. Claudia Johnson's class on Modern American Poetry. Before she introduced this one, she looked at my wife and me (both are scientists) and said this is a poem for you scientists. After reading it for a few times I feel that she is absolutely right. It is simple poem with plain words. Even a scientist like myself who do even speak English as the first Language can remember it easily and contemplate its deeper implications outside the class. Here are a few of my observations about this poem and the conflicts between science and religion.
Many of Emily Dickinson's poems are short. Similar to this one, they are full of delightful surprises and thought provoking twists. This one is more provocative than usual. The words are plain. Literally, it says that the gentlemen only believe what he can see; for those are hard to see by the naked eye, they rely on science which is symbolized by "Microscopes."
As in all poems, the true meaning is always deeper than the meaning of the words. I try to grasp the poet's intention by study the images conjured by the words. Every time I read this poem, I see a picture of a girl in her cheerful voice reading the words. The voice reminds me of her own words -- "The old -- old sophistries of June." I carefully listen to every word and wrestle with every sound, but they all puzzle me. Is the "faith" an invention of man? Someone must have invented the word "faith" and associated a meaning to it. The Webster dictionary defines "faith" as a "firm belief in something for which there is no proof." Did man invent the belief? Did he invent the objects of his belief? ... I have many questions, where to look for answers? Following Dr. Johnson's suggestion, I seek hints from other poems by Emily Dickinson.
She lived in a religious family according to her own letter to Thomas Higginson, the editor of her work, but she is not a religious person. In one poem, she wrote:
In this poem, she compares nature with church. The bobolink and the orchard are her deities. Considering this information, I image there is a little bit of smirk in the girl's voice. Maybe she is laughing at her church-goer parents as many teenagers do. When I was that age, I used to think that going to church is mere formality and took notice of all the inconsistencies between my parents' words and their actions. Each time when I see an inconsistency, I say to myself "Talking about faith, the only thing they believe is what is in front of their eye." Years later my parents are still going to their church and so am I, but still I sometimes feel that my faith is only skin-deep. Thought of this, I would say that Dickinson is ridiculing those who only have shallow believes.
She knows God, here is a proof.
This describes the nature of God using a number of vivid figures. Through pain and tragedies, we realize the power of God. In these situations, we stood beggars before the door of God just as the poet did. Consequently, we may have the same experience as described here. At the onset of pain, we hate God as a burglar because He took away something near and dear to our hearts. When the lives return to normal, we find new pleasure and fulfillment, then we think God is a banker who is capable of reimbursing any pain and suffering. Later, sometimes much later, when it all comes together, we realize that God is the Father! Then we humbly accept our place in life -- "I am poor once more!" After seeing this poem, I say that the poet was not trying to laugh at religious people since she is a believer at heart. It is likely that she is chastising science for interfering the domain of "faith."
Modern science treats "faith" as any other concept, relies on the scientific instruments to verify the premises and the consequences. However, the "faith" is not an invention and "microscopes" are not more prudent than the naked eye. The learned "Gentlemen" do not see more than a child in this regard.
Science is in the dominion of man. As scientists, we each explore our own little corner of the universe, try to understand it better and explain our understanding to others. The universe itself is in the dominion of God. Recently in mass media there are a number of reports about the edge of the universe. It is very likely that these so called scientific discoveries will be modified a number of times before the truth is revealed. We as humans are very ill-equipped to deal with the universe as a whole. Science has brought many incredible inventions to enhance all our lives. However, it has also brought us tremendous tragedies. Here lays another domain of God -- the morality. When I start to talk about God and faith with my scientist friends, one very common reaction is "show me the existence of God." Science can not determine the existence of God, because scientific knowledge is only a small part of the university.
Here is another poem of Emily Dickinson which is given a title of "The Saints' Rest" by Thomas Higginson,
This poem like the first one about "faith" both bring to mind of child's play. Many places in the Bible, Jesus spoke of entering the house of the load as a child. Like a child who does not doubt, we should expunge all the doubts about God. Only than, can we enter the house of Lord and whisper "Saved!"
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