Sunday, January 9, 2011

Science and Spirituality (Epiphany 2011)

"Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.  When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual." (29)
-  Carl Sagan  The Demon-Haunted World (1996)
A spirituality is a set of disciplines, rituals and stories that facilitate what certain philosophers have called "the good life;" that is, a life lived as well as we can live it, given our abilities, situation and the conditions in which we find ourselves.  A spirituality is a pattern for living life to the hilt; to the fullest – a praxis (i.e., a theory united with practice) that helps us make the most of the brief time we have in this world as mortal animals.  To facilitate the ‘good life’ a spirituality must (1) identify paths for realistic personal and social transformation and (2) situate the practitioner in the world as it is known to be (for how can you affect real personal and social transformations, if you don’t have a realistic grasp of the world?).
One primary starting point for a genuine spirituality is the realization that we are not perfect; that we are not ‘complete’—that each of us requires some more ‘work’ to become the person we really already are, if only implicitly.  Family and society make us into a person, and then—at some point in our lives, we become aware of the incompleteness of who we are and the fact that the person we think we are is flawed.  All spirituality, I would urge, faces this imperfection in ourselves and implements a plan to bring us to wholeness.  Once the impetus to the spiritual life has been realized – once the desire has arisen in us to set out upon the path – it is important that we seek our own completion (whether it is called “salvation,” “self-realization,” “redemption” or by some other term) in relation to the world as it actually exists.
As I noted in a blog last summer, I’ve always been impressed by the fact that ancient Christian leaders in the 2nd through 5th centuries often attempted to frame what they believed about Jesus and salvation in legitimate philosophical and ‘scientific’ terms.  Believing that their message was true and hoping that they could bring others to faith in Jesus, they constructed what became orthodox theology within the parameters of what they thought was the best philosophy and science of their time.  As I see it, all genuine spirituality – whether secular or religious in orientation – will do this!  It will frame the truths it is attempting to communicate and fashion its belief-world on a foundation of accepted knowledge about the Earth & Cosmos.
Today our knowledge of the world is dynamically fueled by the physical sciences.  While a wealth of intersubjective and subjective knowledge flows from the social sciences, humanities and Fine Arts, it is the physical sciences that have driven the major revolutions in our worldview over the last 500 years, changing how we think of ourselves; as human animals and spiritual beings.  Because of their great success in ‘finding things out,’ the physical science have become the primary fount of our knowledge about the objective world; the Earth & Cosmos.
Any genuine spirituality today must therefore be grounded in the revelations of the physical sciences.  A spirituality informed-by and sourced-in science will embrace all that science has revealed to us about ourselves, the Earth & Cosmos.  It is not that everything scientists say or claim to have discovered must be immediately embraced.  What I am referring to here is that body of knowledge about reality that is so well substantiated that it is not likely to be overturned.  So, for instance, no genuine spirituality today can reject that we live in an amazingly old universe.  Current evidence makes it about 13.75 billion years old!   The exact estimate of the age of the Cosmos may change in response to new data and new experiments, but the general idea of an old universe is firmly established at this point.  Also, no genuine spirituality today can reject the fact of life's evolution on this planet.  To understand life – to understand that you are a living being – you must accept and understand evolution.  The details of life’s evolution will be refined, year after year, as more and more evidence is uncovered, discovered and analyzed.  But evolution is a ‘fact’ that at this point cannot reasonably be denied.  To deny it is to be out of touch with reality – our reality as living, breathing beings – at a profound level.
Over the last hundred years, we have discovered that the universe is much vaster and stranger than anything imagined in old-time religious paradigms.  Iron Age cosmologies (such as those of the so-called "World Religions") cannot hold a candle to contemporary cosmology for its grandeur, strangeness and its ability to inspire awe and wonder.  We live in an expanding universe, on a planet circling what is probably a third generation star.  All of the materials so important to the origin and evolution of life on our planet came from the nuclear workhouses of stars in the first two stellar generations.  To learn the story of modern, scientific cosmology is to re-discover yourself as one of many culminations of a process that has been unfolding in grand and orderly fashion for billions of years.  Once I learned enough about cosmology, I was inspired to chant, in my morning meditations, the following rune:

“I am in the World and of the Earth,
a child of the universe;
a descendent of stars long ago gone supernova.”

Over the last hundred and fifty years we have discovered that life is much older and also stranger than anything codified in the "creation stories" of old-time religions.  Life's origin on this planet happened rather early: currently available evidence places it at about 3.8 billion years ago; less than a billion years after the origin of the solar system and our planet's coalescence out of the swirling dust and debris that circled our young sun!  Simple, single-celled organisms dominated the emergent biosphere for nearly two billion years before more complex life forms evolved, leading to the succession of menageries that we see recorded in the fossil record of the last 600 million years as well as those we see around us on the planet today.  By some accident of evolutionary succession, every life form so far discovered on Earth today is related; we can all trace our history back to a common ancestor.  (For an excellent tour of the family of life’s history, see Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale [2006]).
To meditate on these facts – the age of the cosmos and the evolution of life – is to be confronted with deep mysteries; to contemplate them is not only to realize that we are sojourners in the midst of that mystery, but that we are products of it!  Human beings are a manifestation of the Cosmos; whatever else we are, we are Nature becoming aware of itself.  To deny these facts is to be ignorant of the world in which we actually life, and thus to be out of step with truth at the empirical, objective level.  Any spirituality that is out of touch with truth on any level cannot provide us with a genuine path.  If we deny the nature of reality as it is known to be and then attempt to realize our own wholeness; if we seek salvation while denying what we are – what science has revealed about human biology and psychology – then we will end in frustration if not in ruin.  We are real, living beings in a real, objective world.   Of course we have subjective inner lives and we exist within intersubjective social networks, but our subjectivity is conditioned and structured by the physical reality of our bodies, our brains and the environments in which we have evolved.
Science has shown us that we are integral to the world; that we have arisen – like every other species – out of natural environments by way of selection forces that prospered some species and sent others spiraling or crashing down into extinction.  As such we can say, "We are Nature; reflecting on itself."  If this fails to inspire you, all I can say is perhaps you aren't yet deeply comprehending it.  Far from leaving us feeling ‘small’ and ‘meaningless,’ the current Cosmic Story and the Tale of Evolution provide us with a "Big Story" worthy of the telling and of sustained spiritual reflection.  It is the basis of an earthen mysticism.  Any spirituality worthy of our practice today is going to embrace these "revelations of science."  Beyond this starting point, spiritualities can teach many things, propose a variety of disciplines, rituals and stories for the edification and transformation of their practitioners and our society.  Because spirituality helps us to live life in the real world where we must find ourselves if we are not self-deluded, any genuine spirituality will be first grounded in the revelations of science.

We are, now as ever, in need of spirituality.  Many people sense their brokenness and imperfection; they know they have a need for self-improvement and self-correction.  The impetus of the spiritual journey is often a desire that arises in the face of our imperfection to better ourselves.  A spirituality may be secular or religious in its logic; what initially matters is that a spiritual praxis first acknowledge the world in which we are actually living.  Otherwise, the person adopting that spirituality is living in a fantasy world [in the negative sense of ‘fantasy.’  There is a positive sense of ‘fantasy,’ but that will have to be the subject of another blog] .  The age of the universe and the fact of evolution are not a matter of ‘opinion.’  They have been substantiated well beyond the point of simple-minded refutation.  Whether you are religious or secular doesn’t change the fact of evolution or the age of the universe; only new evidence could change what we know about the Earth & Cosmos and ourselves as biological organisms, and all of the new evidence being gathered from year to year has only clarified the truths of modern cosmology and evolution, not overturned it.  As spiritual beings, therefore, we need to affirm what is known about our world before adding-on what else might exist – i.e. gods or goddesses, spirits, souls, God, etc.  Acceptance of what is known about Earth & Cosmos does not dictate either a secular or a religious worldview.  It does, however, make impossible certain beliefs.
To be a creationist at this point, for instance, is spiritually absurd and probably damaging to the soul.  It is as irrelevant and misguided as being a flat-earther.  Creationists often strike me as childish, in the sense that it is children who tend to take things literally and who imagine that everything has a ‘design’ and was therefore ‘made’ by someone.  As we grow older we realize that personal intention is not the only reason behind things coming into existence and being what they are; there are natural forces and processes that can create things that are structured and seem ‘designed.’  Their designer, however, is Nature.  Creationists hold onto the childish view, however, that ‘God’ has ‘made’ everything.  As such, is creationism an instance of failed spiritual development?  To use a biblical image, I see the creationist as guilty of continuing to sustain themselves on ‘spiritual milk’ and to be refusing ‘spiritual meat.’  For Paul, this was a sign of spiritual immaturity and also spiritual impudence.  Everyone must be weaned from mother’s milk; to refuse to be weaned is to refuse to grow up.  An understanding of modern cosmology and evolution is the spiritual meat that we need to grow up and be able to handle life in all of its nuances and conundrums; yet the creationist goes on whining and complaining that it is milk that they need for their sustenance.

There is a great need for genuine spirituality today, but there isn’t much available in the way of guidance that is grounded in what is actually known about the reality in which we live and breath and have our being.  The ‘temptation’ is always to return to the old Iron Age religions (e.g., Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.) and their out-dated cosmologies.  Yet a better option awaits us, if we can but have the courage to take the New Step Forward (instead of retreating backward) and reflect, deeply and mystically, on what science has revealed to us about ourselves and the world around us.  Once we begin to do this in earnest, we will begin the transformation of our spiritualities, our religions and our societies into new forms that, we can hope, will be more humane and humanizing than the old worn out forms of the past.  Understanding science alone will not effect this transformation, but to reject the revelations of science is to cast oneself into an unnecessary darkness and cripple all of one’s spiritual aspirations.

[An early version of this blog was posted at MySpace on 20 January 2008 under the title “Science and Spirituality”]

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