The narrator and protagonist of Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty, grew up in a Pentecostal church. Following her brother Nana’s untimely death of a heroin overdose, she becomes a scientist who studies the neurological basis of addiction and depression. The religious and scientific communities around Gifty think of themselves as polar opposites but having had one foot in each world allows her to see their true similarities. Both attempt to answer big, difficult questions, like the meaning of existence and how people make (good) decisions. Both require the faith and loyalty of their followers, and, ultimately, both fail to answer all the questions they raise.
Gifty’s research question—essentially, “can we control our thoughts?”—can be read as a religious question about whether it’s possible to live without sin or as a neuroscientific question about the subconscious. Gifty’s church shunned science, believing that it would destroy the faith of believers; in college, her classmates expressed an equally uncritical atheism and rejected religion. However, the novel shows that both religion and science require faith to keep going. And Gifty recognizes that for her mother and many others, religious faith can be a lifeline in times of trial and sadness. In many ways, Gifty realizes, religion and science just provide different ways of naming the same yearnings.
In Gifty herself, a scientific and a religious approach to life frequently overlap. As a child she created an experiment to see if she could literally pray without ceasing. And she looked for the confirmation of her prayers in real life. As an adult she still has a sense of the divine and the transcendent, but the lab becomes is her holy place. Although science offers her a new way to understand her place in the world, Gifty ultimately realizes that it is just as limited as religion in its ability to answer humanity’s burning questions. She may be able to change her mouse subject’s behavior, but that doesn’t mean that she will understand why it behaved a certain way in the first place. Transcendent Kingdom suggests that both science and religion raise more questions than they can answer, so Gifty’s experiences of transcendence, ultimately, lie within herself rather than in the overarching framework of either religion or science.
Science and Religion ThemeTracker
Science and Religion Quotes in Transcendent Kingdom
“Gifty,” she said as I set the bowl of koko down. “Do you still pray?”
It would have been kinder to lie, but I wasn’t kind anymore. Maybe I never had been. I vaguely remembered a childhood kindness, but maybe I was conflating innocence and kindness. I felt so little continuity between who I was as a young child and who I was now that it seemed pointless to even consider showing my mother something like mercy. Would I have been merciful when I was a child?
“No,” I answered.
Though I had done this millions of times, it still awed me to see a brain. To know that if I could only understand this little organ inside this one tiny mouse, that understanding still wouldn’t speak to the full intricacy of the comparable organ inside my own head. And yet I had to try to understand, to extrapolate from that limited understanding in order to apply it to those of us who made up the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say. That belief, that transcendence, was held within this organ itself. Infinite, unknowable, soulful, perhaps even magical. I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing that I would never fully know.
Back then, I approached my piety the same way I approached my studies: fastidiously. I spent the summer after my eighth birthday reading my Bible cover to cover, a feat that even my mother admitted she had never done. I wanted, above all else, to be good. And I wanted the path to that goodness to be clear. I suspect that this is why I excelled at math and science, where the rules are laid out step by step, where if you did something exactly the way it was supposed to be done, the result would be exactly what it was expected to be.
The collaboration that the mice and I have going in this lab is, if not holy, then at least sacrosanct. I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way, because I’m aware that the Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we.
I felt a strange sense of kinship with Hopkins every time I read about his personal life, his difficulty reconciling his religion with his desires and thoughts, his repressed sexuality. I enjoyed reading his letters and, inspired to some romantic ideal of the nineteenth century, tried writing letters of my own to my mother. Letters in which I hoped to tell her about my complicated feelings about God…all of which could have been a different petal on the flower of my belief: “I believe in God, I do not believe in God.” Neither of these sentiments felt true to what I actually felt.
What’s the point? became a refrain for me as I went through the motions. One of my mice … was hopelessly addicted to Ensure, pressing the lever so often that he’d developed a psychosomatic limp in anticipation of the random shocks…Soon he would be one of the mice I used in optogenetics, but not before I watched him repeat his doomed actions with that beautifully pure, deluded hope of an addict, the hope that says, This time will be different. This time I’ll make it out okay.
“What’s the point of all this?” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this questions is, “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don’t know,” or worse still, “Nothing?”
In class that day, I stared at the diagram in wonder, the secret world, an inner world, revealed. I looked around at my classmates and could see in their business-as-usual faces that they already knew all of this. Their bodies had not been kept from them. It was neither the first nor the last time at Harvard that I would feel as though I was starting from behind, trying to make up for an early education that had been full of holes. I went back to my dorm room and tentatively, furtively pulled out a hand mirror and examined myself, wondering all the while how, if I hadn’t left my town, if I hadn’t continued my education, this particular hole, the question of anatomy, of sex, would have been filled. I was tired of learning things the hard way.
I didn’t move at all. Something came over me. Something came over me, filled me and took hold. I had heard that altar call hundreds of times and felt absolutely nothing. I had prayed my prayers, written my journal entries, and heard only the faintest whisper of Christ. And that whisper was one I distrusted, because maybe it was the whisper of my mother or of my own desperate need to be good, to please. I hadn’t expected to hear the loud knocking on my heart’s door, but that night I heard it. I heard it. These days, because I have been trained to ask questions, I find myself questioning that moment. I ask myself, “What came over you?” I say, “Be specific.”
I thought that Nana was proving everyone right about us, and I wanted him to get better, to be better, because I thought that being good was what it would take to prove everyone wrong. I walked around those places, pious child that I was, thinking that my goodness was proof negative. “Look at me!” I wanted to shout. I wanted to be a living theorem, a Logos. Science and math had already taught me that if there were too many exceptions to a rule, then the rule was not a rule. Look at me.
This was all so wrongheaded, so backward, but I didn’t know how to think any differently. The rule was never a rule, but I had mistaken it for one. It took me years of questioning and seeking to see more than my little piece, and even now I don’t always see it.
I didn’t want everybody staring at us, making their judgments. I didn’t want further proof of God’s failure to heal my brother, a failure that I saw as unbelievably cruel, despite a lifetime of hearing that God works in mysterious ways. I wasn’t interested in mystery. I wanted reason, and it was becoming increasingly clear to me that I would get none of it in that place where I had spent so much of my life. If I could have stopped going to the First Assemblies altogether, I would have.
[A]t a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe be. I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists … who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak, a way to extol the virtues of a God more improbable than our own human existence. But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.
It took me many years to realize that it’s hard to live in this world. I don’t mean the mechanics of living, because for most of us, our hearts will beat, our lungs will take in oxygen, without us doing anything at all to tell them to. For most of us, mechanically, physically, it’s harder to die than it is to live. But still we try to die. We drive too fast down winding roads, we have sex with strangers without wearing protection, we drink, we use drugs. We try to squeeze a little more out of our lives. It’s natural to want to do that. But to be alive in the world, every day, as we are given more and more and more, as the nature of “what we can handle” changes and our methods for how we handle it change, too, that’s something of a miracle.
My papers … captured the facts of my experiments, but said nothing of what it had felt like to hold a mouse in my hands and feel its entire body thump against my palms as it breathed, as its heart beat. I wanted to say that too … I wanted to tell someone about the huge wave of relief I felt every time I watched an addicted mouse refuse the lever. That gesture, that refusal, that was the point of the work, the triumph of it, but there was no way to say any of that. Instead, I wrote out the step-by-step process, the order. The reliability, the stability of the work, the impulse to keep plugging … that was the skin of it for me, but the heart of it was that wave of relief, that limping mouse’s tiny, alive body, living still, and still.
When I was a child, I had this sense of confidence, this assuredness that the things I felt were real and important, that the world made sense according to divine logic. I loved God, my brother, and my mother, in that order. When I lost my brother, poof went the other two. God was gone in an instant, but my mother became a mirage, an image formed by refracted light. I moved toward her, but she never moved toward me. She was never there. The day I came home from school and couldn’t find her felt like the thirty-ninth day in the desert, the thirty-ninth day without water. I didn’t think I’d be able to survive another.
“Never again,” my mother said, but I didn’t believe her. Without meaning to or planning to, I’d spent seventeen years waiting for the fortieth day. Here it was.
I wish I were trying to figure out how to clone an alien, but my work pursuits are much more modest: neurons and proteins and mammals. I’m no longer interested in other worlds or spiritual planes. I’ve seen enough in a mouse to understand transcendence, holiness, redemption. In people, I’ve seen even more.
From the back pew, Christ’s face is the portrait of ecstasy. I stare at it, and it changes, goes from angry to pained to joyful. Some days, I sit there for hours, some days mere minutes, but I never bow my head. I never pray, never wait to hear God’s voice, I just look. I sit in blessed silence, and I remember. I try to make order, make sense, make meaning of the jumble of it all. Always, I light two candles before I go.