HOW SCIENCE CAN MAKE ROOM FOR A PURPOSE-FILLED UNIVERSE

In more ways than one, the universe has become a cold, dark place.

One way has been through ever more precise observations: the universe is cold and dark. Stunning pictures of merging galaxies notwithstanding, there is vastly more space out there than heat and light generating matter can ever fill up.

Another way is through ever more restrictive theorizing: the universe is just there, and that’s the end of it. The question of why it is there, and for what or whom, scientific method no longer permits us even to ask.

It was not always like this. For civilizations’ greatest minds, there was, in and between all things, an underlying orderliness and predictability, and an overarching purposiveness.

Plato and Aristotle thought of purpose as a drive in everything toward a perfection of being which only something conscious of the process can appreciate. Faith thinks of the drive as something which a Supremely Perfect Being wants to guide.

At its most far-reaching, in contrast with its most technologically-fixated, science gets closer to this way looking at the universe than many scientists themselves seem willing to admit. As a Nobel Laureate physicist once said to me, “only those lacking in self-reflection fail to make room for final causation.”

He knew better than most of us can that the method of inquiry upon which science depends determines in advance what we will and will not see in and about the universe.

The world of the scientist is a world of matter in motion “out there,” observed disinterestedly — that is to say, “objectively” — by people carefully trained to deform the deepest promptings of the soul into the narrowest of contingent hypotheses. It is a world which dismisses passion for the observing, and awe in the presence of the Observed, as irrelevant to, rather than inspiring of, the pursuit of truth.

But it is just this sense of passion and awe that needs accounting for. How is it, and why is it, that it exists at all?

How and why is there in us an unconquerable inner sense that it matters, and matters greatly, to seek an understanding of things? That there is a purpose for doing so which far transcends merely mastering environments, terrestrial and celestial, for our own ends?

Maybe it is because this is what in us most resembles the Purposer himself.

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IS THERE ONLY ONE “PIONEER AND PERFECTER” OF FAITH?

In the New Testament’s Book of Hebrews, at 12:2, this catchy characterization is reserved for only one man in the whole of human history, Jesus. Might it be applicable to other religious founders as well?

For many Christians, a question like this should never be asked. Faith in Jesus’ God is the only true faith, and that is that. But “that” is precisely what binds the idea of faith itself so tightly that not even the winds of the Spirit can open it up.

What won Jesus the accolade was the courage with which he endured humiliation, pain, and death on a cross as, his followers came to believe, an atonement for humankind’s sins. The perfect (=complete) faith to which his life gave witness was a faith whose principle theme was self-emptying for others.

But the New Testament Book of Acts hints at a more inclusive perspective than this, inclusive in the sense that faith is all that Jesus represented it to be, but more besides.

There, St. Paul speaks of a God who has never left human beings, anywhere, without a witness to Himself (14:16). For Paul, the “clues” were nature’s bounties. But to the author of Hebrews, they are that “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1) all the way from Abel to the prophets.

Surely, though, the list must reach both backward and forward in time to many other pioneers of faith. Abraham and Moses remain prominent on my own, but so do the Buddha and Muhammad.

In Abraham, faith came to completion in the form of trusting a divine summons enough to leave a comfortable life in secure surroundings for a long journey to an unknown place and at an unknown cost.

It did so in Moses in the form of obeying laws the full implications of which he could not possibly have anticipated as relayed them in God’s own name.

It did so in the Buddha in the form of relinquishing all forms of craving and of showing compassion for all who were not ready to do either.

It did so in Muhammad in the form of cherishing every moment in which he only had to listen for and to his God’s always surprising self-revelations.

And maybe in us it will do so in the form of humble acknowledgement that no one way of expressing faith can ever be adequate to its Source and End.

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WHEN THE NEXT LIFE BEGINS

In the Old Testament, there is a horrific image of a valley filled with nothing but dry bones. Next to it is a transporting image of God’s breathing new life into them. The people of Israel, whose bones they are, will live again. But not until … (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Christianity recasts this vision in terms of a coming resurrection of Jesus’ true followers when he returns to earth on “the last day.” When that will occur, however, no one knows.

The proper response of believers to these prophecies is gratitude and hope. Along with respect for God’s sovereignty over death and life.

Even so, there is something troubling about this way of looking at the human future.  What makes it so is the “nothing” it envisions between our death and eventual transfiguration.

This nothing is the nothing which will remain of what makes human beings distinctively human. To the atoms from which all have come, all will return. Until God re-fashions us.

What makes this idea of nothingness especially troubling is that it conflicts with another important idea of faith: that we should be, with God’s help to be sure, making ourselves either fit for a better life or less deserving of a worse one.

In this life, our bodily nature constantly struggles with desires which seduce us into believing that happiness consists in satisfying more and more of them. But our spiritual nature is constantly striving to break the hold that physical things and our desires for them have on us.

For most, this inner struggle — what Islam has meant by the true jihad — is only partially successful. And so, at life’s end, although we may yearn for a higher order of reality which only the soul can understand, we still remain unwilling fully to relinquish earth’s hold on us.

But what if our destiny is precisely to transform for all eternity the unwillingness by the yearning? And what if it includes sufficient time to accomplish it, even beyond our present life?

It may be that there must be a time of punishment for the harm which our self-centered actions have inflicted on both ourselves and others. But surely there will also be a time for discerning how to bring the desires which have fueled them into line with higher spiritual aspirations.

When in this life the quest for such discernment begins, the next life begins too.

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THE MEANING OF ETERNAL LIFE: DIGGING A LITTLE DEEPER

What most prevents us from experiencing eternal blessedness? For the world’s religions, the answer to this question is: us.

We do this to ourselves by resisting the sacred order of things and following instead “the devices and desires of our own hearts.” For most, the consequence is the deformation of the future into an extended period of wholly deserved and often frightful punishments.

During an Easter worship service last week, two gloriously sung choral Hallelujahs got me to thinking about Christianity’s own — and troubling — slant on gaining an eternal life worth striving for. In the form that the Apostle Paul expressed it, death and a miserable afterlife are the wages not only of sin, but of the refusal to trust that our sins have already been forgiven.

Unfortunately, Paul did not stop there. He went on to say that eternal damnation awaits those who will not believe that one man’s divinely ordained suffering on a cross was a sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole of humanity.

By all that is reasonable, the wider view of the world’s religions makes more sense than Paul’s distinctively Christian view does. But by all that is morally sensible, that wider view also lacks a crucial reference to what is absolutely central to Christianity’s. The wider view makes no room for divine grace and mercy.

It is, however, this same moral sensibility that makes the idea of a crucifixion as an atonement both unbelievable and outrageous. God is more than capable of forgiving every person’s sins, even mine, without having to conscript anyone else to pay the price for them.

Both of the Hallelujahs which made Easter come alive for me this year — Beethoven’s and then Handel’s — are nevertheless held captive by, and re-present just this hard to fathom and narrowly Pauline view of Jesus’ redemptive work. In each, however, is also a far nobler idea.

In Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives,” the idea first comes in the disciples’ rebuke of Peter for raging against Jesus’ foes: Did not our Master say: Forgive and love each other; let good for ill repay. A little further on it is expressed more pointedly: Love those who hate you.  

Eternal blessedness is the outcome of just this kind of love. Hell itself is confounded by it, and ultimately will be transformed by it.

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FAITH, THE SOUL, AND THE CULTURE OF DISRESPECT

One thing that makes human societies so fragile is their members’ caring too little about others and too much about themselves. And as a result, their losing respect for both.

It is no wonder, then, that rage over feeling “disrespected” is one of the greatest threats to social order and to spiritual energy systems in every cultural epoch.

What is it that makes anyone worthy of another’s respect in the first place? A much cherished answer to this question is: a certain kind of character. But what kind? Is faith relevant to its development?

For today’s globally-oriented societies, character is measured in two primary ways:

in terms of courage to face down opponents, and

in terms of mental acuity to outwit them when overpowering them is not possible.

What this means is that the larger portion of every human society, powerless and untrained in the uses of cunning, can only remain bereft of opportunities for earning others’ respect.

And that other praiseworthy character traits — e.g. honesty, fairness, moderation, rationality, trustworthiness, integrity, and empathy — will be overwhelmed by the delusion that power and shrewdness are all that anyone needs in order to be thought well of.

In other words, the earth shall not be inherited by the meek.

The deeper truth about character is that it is, at the very least, all of these character-istics and not just some of them. The excesses to which developing only some of them devolves are best avoided by cultivating all of them together.

Another way of putting this truth — both parts of it — is to say that good character is the work of the soul. Bad character is the evidence of a corrupted and even a lost soul.

At the very least, the soul is what differentiates living from non-living beings, and in human beings it is that part of the body which coordinates physical processes — e.g. breathing, metabolism, self-movement, reproduction — with mental ones — e.g. observation, rational thinking, deciding.

But it is so much more besides. More especially, it is the valuing part of our humanness. It is what drives us to seek a perfection within us and others that is truly worthy of praise — ours, theirs, and God’s.

For faith traditions the world over, only two words are needed to define just what that perfection is: compassion and love.

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TRUST AND OBEY: IS THERE NO OTHER WAY?

Eventually if not sooner, every religious believer must find a way to deal with two especially difficult demands: to take more things on faith and do more things on orders than seem credible or necessary.

It would be one thing if the demands were merely for the sake of keeping traditions alive and holding institutions together. It is quite another to be told that fulfilling them is the only way of connecting with Sacred Reality at all.

In my own faith tradition, there is a hymn whose refrain expresses this idea especially succinctly:

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

One of the hymn’s verses anticipates the refrain this way: For the favor he shows and the joy he bestows are for them who will … you get the idea.

There are two issues for faith here that are worth thinking about. The first is about a conviction that religious traditions and institutions cannot seem to get beyond: a relationship with the Sacred, whether it is with Brahman, Yahweh, God, Allah, the World-Soul, or Whatever/Whomever, is something which must be earned, over and over again. There is no other way to a blissful or a restful eternity.

What makes this an issue is that it implies that the Sacred embraces humanity only conditionally, if and only if human beings make themselves worthy of it. Religious leaders and institutions embrace people this way all the time. But the God I know embraces very differently: lovingly, patiently, and with hopes instead of conditions.

Trusting and obeying are not what we have to do in order to experience a transforming relationship with such a Being. They are what we choose to do in grateful response to a relationship already offered and joyfully entered.

The second faith-issue with trust and obey language is the confusion it can generate about the object of both. Religious communities make many demands. And fulfilling the demands that make sense is an essential part of maintaining a sense of unity within the fellowship. The emphasis here, though, is on the words “that make sense.”

The issue arises when a community begins presenting itself as the ultimate definer of divine expectations and actions. The inevitable corollary is that its members’ own spiritual experiences get overwhelmed by pre-conceived notions about how the Spirit should show up in them.

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ARE THERE GOOD REASONS FOR NOT BELIEVING IN GOD?

Philosophers like to put the issue this way: it is irrational to believe that (a) God is all-powerful, (b) God is unconditionally good, and (c) Undeserved suffering exists in the world. You can build a credible faith on any two of these propositions, but not on all three.

For religious believers, the unsound proposition is (c). Some understand suffering to be unreal, something like an illusion. Others acknowledge it but question whether any of it is truly undeserved.

Most non-believers claim both (a) and (b) to be the real problems, precisely the beliefs which are so crucial for believers.

Is there any way out of this impasse, logically? I think so. For God to be God, God surely must be unconditionally good. But for God to have a part in the world at all, there has to be a limiting of God’s power. God can’t have all the power there is if other beings are to have power, too.

And the power of those other beings includes the power to do things that a Supremely Perfect Being might not do or want done.

Well, there you have it, unbelievers. So why are you still arguing about religion?

Because logic doesn’t really get to the heart of genuine unbelief — or of belief either, for that matter. The issue of whether to believe or not believe is much deeper than logic can ever access all by itself.

Let’s set abstract philosophical statements about God to the side for a moment. The God of faith has to be talked about much more personally. For instance, by statements like this: If we believe in God with all our heart, God will give us what we really need in life.

The God of this statement is not just a Powerful and Perfect Being. The God of this statement is a Promise-Making Being. People lose faith in this kind of a God not on the basis of logical considerations, but on the basis of soaring expectations and searing disappointments.

Unbelief comes when our deepest yearnings go unfulfilled, after we have been told that we have every right to expect them to be brought to pass. This is really why, I think, people give up on God.

But the yearnings still remain, most especially for the power to believe that God still will not give up on us.

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THERAPY, FAITH, AND THE CARE OF THE SOUL

One important question that mental health professionals should be able to address with considerable insight is: What is wellness of soul? Unhappily, their methodologies not only do not allow the question to be addressed; they do not allow it even to be asked.

Psychology, for example, is now less about the psyche and more about about observing, classifying, and assessing behaviors in the light of statistics-based rather than values-oriented definitions of “normalcy.” The result is that its therapies help people adjust to others’ expectations better than they help determine which expectations are worthy of adjusting to and which are not.

And psychiatry, having reduced the soul, first, to the mind, and then to the brain, has narrowed its own therapies to little more than altering brain functioning by means of medications.

As yet, though, not all mental professionals have become victims of their own methodologies’ short-sidedness. Many are still eager to help people become the soul creatures that human beings are meant to become. And to draw upon classical understandings of the psyche in their work.

From the perspective of philosophy, the soul is what differentiates living from non-living beings, and human beings from all other living beings. More importantly, it is also what unites, under the conditions of time and history, our physical and our rational nature in seeking the Good, in and for all things.

From the perspective of religion, the soul is what in us most resembles or partakes of the divine nature itself. It survives the death of the body, whether for good (e.g. heavenly existence, union with the Divine) or ill (e.g. endless rebirths, everlasting punishment).

For psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy as they can be, soul-care is about change more than accommodation, struggle more than satisfaction, and transformation more than restoration. It is about helping people to discover for themselves the “more” that life has to offer people for whom acquisition, conquest, wealth, pleasure, and power — whether achieved or longed for — have depleted their souls of both energy and hope.

Will the mental health professions eventually lose all sense of what the soul really is? Hopefully not. What will help is recovering the insight that soul-activated living means more than just feeling a little better about adjusting only tolerably well, or a whole lot better doing only what we want to do, with no strings attached.

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DOES SCIENCE NEED FAITH?

Isaac Newton thought so. For him, our knowledge of the universe had gaps which only God could close.

But that was in the seventeenth century. Today, things are different. For Stephen Hawking, who once held Newton’s chair in mathematics at Cambridge University, there are still plenty of gaps to close. But it will be science which closes them, not religion.

Historians debate just when it was that God got crowded out of science. But maybe a little story, even if apocryphal, will give us a reasonable approximation.

It is about a brief interchange, early in the nineteenth century, between Pierre-Simon Laplace, one of France’s greatest scientists, and Napoleon Bonaparte, one of its worst leaders.

The story goes this way: having presented one of his books on the cosmos to his Emperor, Laplace was challenged — teased might be a better word — for not mentioning God in his explanations of its laws. He is alleged to have replied that he had no need of “that hypothesis.”

Although Laplace denied the existence God, this was not the point he was understood to have made in his reply to Napoleon. His point was that believing in God adds nothing to understanding how the universe works.

He and Hawking may be right about this. But both may be wrong about whether believing in God adds anything to understanding how science works.

Science begins in curiosity. It develops in tandem with a craving for control. It ends in contemplative wonder.

Religion begins in fear. It develops in tandem with prideful self-assertion. It ends in grateful self-giving.

The wonder and the self-giving in which, respectively, these two very human enterprises culminate have very little to do with believing things on the basis either of empirical data or religious traditions. They have everything to do with openness to the spiritual power moving in and among us which makes faith possible.

The kind of faith that both religion and science need includes a yearning for a sense of wholeness about the human environing world. Along with trust that beyond the yearning there will come understanding that is worth the seeking. And the conviction that there is something both inexplicable and of infinite value about the seeking and the consciousness of the seekers.

What science itself most needs is the courage to ask the kinds of questions that its methodology says can’t be asked.

 

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GOD, GRAVITY, AND SOME QUESTIONS WE ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO ASK

As sounds go, it is nothing memorable: a chirp in the midst of a lot of static. But this was no ordinary kind of chirp.

It is a result, we are told, of two black holes colliding in a far, far away galaxy over a billion years ago. The recording and the technology behind it are available on line, for the gasping.

Allegedly, the sounds on it prove a hundred year old hypothesis of Albert Einstein that black holes exist throughout the universe. Establishing that they do is supposedly the last step in confirming the theory of relativity itself.

Even so, I wonder if Einstein himself would be all that happy with this little chirp. He actually found black holes repugnant to think about. And no wonder. The idea of a black hole is the idea of a gravitational field generated by a collapsing star which draws everything in range of it into it, allowing nothing ever to escape from it, not even light.

In a word, a black hole begins in death and perpetuates death.

Could the Creator possibly be content with leaving any created thing is such a state? With letting darkness overwhelm the very light out of which he once summoned it?

Or that the nothingness from which the universe has come could be the God-appointed destiny of anything in it?

Even if the mathematics of the universe demands that it be so?

Of course, to the eyes of scientists questions like these can only be regarded as vestiges of a long discredited religious fundamentalism and as embarrassments to anyone who even thinks to ask them. But does it have to be this way for the eyes of faith? Possibly not.

For one reason, not all scientists are seeing the universe the way that Einstein reluctantly did. Stephen Hawking, by way of example, now appears to believe that if there are black holes at all they eventually dissipate. And those who focus on the infinitesimally small rather than the infinitely large find little if any meaning to the idea of black holes at all.

Although the only driving force behind these latter theories may seem to be scientific method alone, there may be more to it. Perhaps the unquenchable yearning of the mind for a universe that illumines and does not obscure things. And for its Source.

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