What’s Bred in the Bone

Why Symbols and Richness of Imagery Matter

This passage is from Canadian author Robertson Davies’ novel, “What’s Bred in the Bone”. It describes why science (however wonderful all its discoveries) has a good deal to learn from all the symbols and images of religion (however religious or not one may be). These images enrich the human experience of the world; they are essential to wonder; they are essential to discovery.

“Well, science is the theology of our time, and like the old theology it’s a muddle of conflicting assertions. What gripes my gut is that it has such a miserable vocabulary and such a pallid pack of images to offer to us – to the humble laity – for our edification and our faith. The old priest in his black robe gave us things that seemed to have concrete existence; you prayed to the Mother of God and somebody had given you an image that looked just right for the Mother of God.

The new priest in his whitish lab-coat gives you nothing at all except a constantly changing vocabulary which he – because he usually doesn’t know any Greek – can’t pronounce, and you are expected to trust him implicitly because he knows what you are too dumb to comprehend. It’s the most overweening, pompous priesthood mankind has ever endured in all its recorded history, and its lack of symbol and metaphor and its zeal for abstraction drive mankind to a barren land of starved imagination.

But you, Maria, speak the old language that strikes upon the heart. You talk about the Recording Angel and you talk about his lesser angels, and we both know exactly what you mean. You give comprehensible and attractive names to psychological facts, and God – another effectively named psychological fact- bless you for it.”

Robertson Davies was a UCC man who taught at Trinity and was a parishioner of the Church of St Mary Magdalene. All his books are about Torontonian culture in all its glory. He spoke in a sort of Victorian RP and wore a Jehovah-like beard his whole life. Here is a video of him:

A deeply-dipped hat tip to Dr Michael Bonner, who suggested this text, and this author.


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