Truth to Tell

The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.

-Neil deGrasse Tyson

As a physics student, my undergraduate curriculum was dominated by physics and math classes. Even then, though, I had a penchant for philosophy that culminated with Paul Feyerabend’s course on the philosophy of science. I didn’t do terribly well in those classes, having a fundamental misconception regarding the purpose of the term papers. Rather than summarizing the text, I always set out to propound novel thought. The teaching assistants were not amused.

Feyerabend may have read some of what I had written, however, because he called on me in his final lecture and asked me to offer my thoughts on the scientific process. Never one to deny credit where it was due, I began “Well, my father says…” which caused the rest of the class to erupt in laughter. Paul waved his hand and told me “Write a book some day.”

deGrasse Tyson’s observation is representative of the philosophy of those inspired by the engineering marvels of the industrial age. The associated advances in the public welfare seemed to demolish all the works of the past. Philosophers did see the scientific mindset as a matter of concrete truth. But it is far more and less than that. “Less”, because the equations that we teach in introductory physics are wrong. A ball doesn’t fall in a parabola because it is subject to other forces than gravity – air drag is one. What the solution without drag offers is a sufficiently good approximation for most engineering applications. “More” because the engineers so empowered change the truth that we experience. They create microchips and vaccines, things that would never exist in the natural world.

What I had concluded, a few years after taking Feyerabend’s course, is that science is not important because it tells us what is true. It’s important because it guides our imaginings into what is possible. But if you talk to most scientists, that isn’t why science inspires them. Most of them study science because they want to do what others believe is impossible. That was certainly my case – when I went off to college, in the middle of “Whip Inflation Now” and the first OPEC oil crisis, it was with the stated aim of “figuring out how to break the law of conservation of energy.” I wager that many creative scientists feel the same – they actually don’t want to believe their science. They want to prove it wrong.

I know that was the conclusion of my own journey into understanding of the nature of spiritual experience (follow the menu to “New Physics”), and so see a certain myopia in Tyson’s statement. This came to the fore one Saturday afternoon during a workshop run by Tom Owen-Towles, the foremost modern theologian/philosopher in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. In responding to a point Tom made, I offered my observations of the nature of our engagement with the divine source. Before I could get to the main point, a loud, sneering snort came from the assembly behind me. I turned around to face the originator, a man older even than I, and then proceeded to make my point. For the next five minutes, I felt pressure building from my antagonist, and just let it flow into me, finally broadening the focus to embrace the community of atheists that he represented. When I had their full attention, I sent this thought: “And yet here I am.”

And so my response to deGrasse Tyson is this: “You receive love from an inexhaustible source. Whether or not you believe it, I am glad that it is true.”

The Moral Arc

As a scientist and mystic, I am frustrated with the conflict that divides the scientific materialists from the Biblical literalists. Both camps contain people that are well-meaning who tend to focus on the defects in the world-view of their disputants, rather than considering the good that can be done by joining forces.

When I first framed this debate at, I celebrated three great threads of human thought: science, which is concerned with creating languages that accurately model objective reality; philosophy, which refines language to ensure that we understand one another; and spirituality, which is concerned with the negotiation of the boundaries between the I and the we (encompassing politics as well as religion). I have argued here that science can explain spiritual experience, but we cannot avail ourselves of its predictive powers to control spiritual growth. We simply cannot establish initial conditions without mutilating the personality that we would like to study. As a result, moral growth is unavoidably consensual.
The Moral Arc
Looking at the moral liberation of humanity from that perspective, with a balance between material and spiritual experience, I summarize our moral growth in the figure. We began as animals, completely amoral creatures. This is to say that morality was not initially a consideration of our existence: we simply did what needed to be done to survive. As relative newcomers on the spiritual scene, the weight of mammalian behavior patterns overwhelmed rational analysis. The exit strategy towards moral discourse was monotheism: a cold and callous rejection of all spiritual associations that were not wholly human in their origin.

Was this a clean process? No, it was a bootstrap process (witness the Bible). People exhibiting animalistic behaviors had to learn painfully from experience the consequences of failing to think carefully about the consequences to others of our actions. They had to develop languages to support moral analysis (philosophy), and they had to form communities willing to surrender resources to those pursuing that study. The Bible is best understood as one culture’s experience of that growth.

The rise of moral philosophy that culminated with Jesus of Nazareth asserts that Unconditional Love, which is the divine presence, propels our ascent. In part, it is because the contract is that the moral analyst must commit himself to the service of others.

Not everyone can master the nuances of moral discourse. What the faithful can do instead as moral actors is to invest their hearts and souls in caring for the world. There is no social system that can guarantee that investment – in fact, most of our social structures tend to consolidate the gains of those that abuse the contract. Only by reliance upon a divine external source can the less clever be ensured that their investment in moral conduct will be made good. Does this presence actually exist? Well, that is a matter of faith and personal experience (see the closing paragraph).

The difficulty in modern moral discourse is that the power of science outraced our philosophy. The world is changing rapidly around us, and most of humanity is still mired in amoral patterns of behavior. The power of science is often unleashed with terribly destructive consequences. This creates fear in the faithful that the institutions that safeguard our spirituality will be destroyed.

The counter of the scientist is to reject spirituality in favor of pure rationality (top of the diagram). What they seem not to understand is that most of humanity is not capable of participating in the discourse under those terms, but requires the deep psychological immersion of religion to substantiate trust in the mysteries tended by the intellectual elites. The faithful can only judge the trustworthiness of that elite by their pronouncements. Words like “stupid”, “sheep”, and “irrational” obviously will be interpreted as inconsistent with reliable moral stewardship, and tend to push the faithful into the arms of sociopaths that promise to protect them (as if that were possible, given the problems that we have mounted up against ourselves).

My experience is that economic exchange exploits our strengths and exacerbates our weaknesses. Obviously, it is in the interest of intellectuals to trumpet and enhance their virtues. But what I find, with Hume, is that spiritual engagement with such people is often hollow in the heart. The substitution of science for monotheism elevates rationality without replacing the guarantee of moral stewardship. In my own experience, that guarantee takes this form: when my heart is ready to break under the burden of the pain in the world, I open it a little wider and a great flood of love rushes through. I know that power is not mine.

The Battle Over Personality

In attempting to penetrate the cultural prejudices against spiritual experience, I sometimes feel a certain historical sympathy for those arguing against flat-earthers. The doubter could argue against the roundness of the earth by insisting that he has never had any reason to believe that the world isn’t flat. That his experience was limited to a ten-mile radius around his place of birth didn’t matter much.

Against declarations of faith in the existence of God, the scientific materialist will often say things like “Well, I know that when I jump off a bridge, I’ll fall into the river. You can’t say that about God.” When I describe my experience of spirituality, including events that can’t be explained by accepted scientific theory, I am told “Well, it’s OK for you to believe in God.” That these events are just as real to me (and others that have witnessed them) as jumping off a bridge seems to escape their grasp. I really don’t need anyone’s permission to have them – and as scientists shouldn’t they be at least at little bit curious as to why I do and they don’t?

I have suggested that Christ doesn’t create faith through force – but rather by posing people a problem bigger than they can solve, and then giving the power to solve it. When my children worried to me about my financial circumstances, I always said to them “Well, money is only a means of storing power – and all my power is wrapped up in trying to solve a very, very difficult problem. There’s just none left over to save.” But because love does not wait, I am confident that if the problem can be solved at this point in history, it will be solved. Otherwise, well, I’ll have left some bread on the water for when I come back to try again.

So I might suggest that the difference between me and those that judge my faith is humility. Scientists are really proud of their science, and of the skills and strength of mind that allows them to apply it. Conversely, my experience includes being told by a fortune teller one night “Brian, we know that you think that you’re failing, but try and remember what it would have been like if you hadn’t been here at all.”

So if the problem for the scientist is pride, do they have no basis for their pride? I would say that, yes, they do have a basis for pride. We have turned the world into a garden, and so tend to forget that nature is just a terribly destructive place. Science – which is the study of the behavior of things that don’t have personality – has allowed us to mitigate against disease, predation and the elements, and helped us to anticipate and manage natural disasters. That success is obtained with theories that completely ignore personality. So we think of the animals in a stock yard as simple meat factories. The trees that we chop down are just wood.

The value of the scientific pursuit is, of course, to extend our lives, but it does so at the cost of our spirituality. Living is the opportunity to do work on our souls through the experience of having a body. We need to reclaim that ground from the scientific mindset that sees us as simple flesh popsicles, dancing on the axonic threads that originate in our brains. We need to reclaim our personality – which is to say the conscious engineering of our souls through engagement with the physical reality around us.

And when we have surrendered our pride and greed, an even greater adventure awaits us: calling out of hiding those spirits that we have terrorized with our science, and bringing their skills to bear in creating a garden that serves all the forms of life on Earth, rather than just humanity.

The Indications of Atheism

In explaining the dangers of spiritual agency to young children, I used the example of an electrical bus bar. The power of love flows through us, and if we resist it, we can get hurt. But if we let it flow through us to those that need it most, the limit to what we can transmit is the capacity of others to receive from us.

Here’s a picture of somebody struggling with that problem:

The yearning to love is not commonly understood as the desire to be filled with God. The emptiness itself is recognized by Chris Rice in “Big Enough”:

When I imagine the size of the universe
And I wonder what’s out past the edges
Then I discover inside me a space as big
And believe that I’m meant to be
Filled up with more than just questions

But he believes the answer is in direct awareness of God’s presence in our lives, rather than in surrender of ourselves as a tool through which God enters the lives of others.

Mother Theresa, the great servant of the poor, struggled with this paradox in middle age. She felt God’s presence within her for many years, but entered into spiritual aridity at the end of her life.

Why is that? It’s because as that “space as big” is filled with love, we stretch. We feel a glowing inside of us, and a tingling as that love attaches to the people that we serve. Through that connection, we are aware of the beautiful healing that divine love brings to them. There’s an incredible rightness to it.

But when that love is firmly established in us, and flowing through us at the limit of our capacity, we become habituated to its presence. We become a fount from which others drink, and are filled again so rapidly that we may not even be aware that our pool was disturbed.

A Catholic priest shared with me that he decided to take orders after a visit with a nun. When he returned years later to tell her that he had found peace in her presence, she said that she was not even aware of the interaction. Similarly, though perhaps scandalously, a young donor to Mother Theresa’s work came away from a meeting to say that she “was the sexiest woman alive.” I am certain that she had no such intention in interacting with him: he was just overwhelmed by her energy, and channeled it into the most familiar form of self-love that he knew.

I have described the progression of the traditions of Abraham as the development of discipline through the practice of law, which flowers into spiritual intermediation between God and our community. In Jesus’s time, the pool of candidates for that graduation were limited. But in the intervening centuries, a large number of people were allowed the opportunity to devote their lives to religious orders, and the contemplation of the mysteries and magic of living a life in Christ. Two of the most beautiful lives so recorded are Mother Theresa’s predecessors: St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Terese of Lisieux.

The Apostle John was an earlier exemplar of this way of living. In the Book of Revelation, he describes the progression from the other side of the process: the change in the relationship between God and the angels that Jesus claimed to be working to transform. It begins in a throne room, with God in the central seat surrounded by angels [Rev. 4:2-4]:

[T]here before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders.

As I describe in The Soul Comes First, twelve of the elders are the masculine angels that guide the tribes of Israel, and the other twelve are feminine personalities that accompany the Holy Mother when she descends to earth. When the work of Christ is done, John describes the “New Jerusalem”, with angels at twelve gates, and a tree of life bearing twelve crops of fruit. He then explains [Rev. 21:22-23]:

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.

And [Rev. 22:1] the tree is fed by

[T]he river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…

Where once the presence of Unconditional Love is separated from the angels as a king on a throne, in the end it is woven into every aspect of our shared existence.

So what does the experience of the saints foretell about our experience when we surrender ourselves fully to love? Well, at some point we no longer know where we end and love starts. The reincarnated nun might say “I feel guided by compassion from within, that has no source that I can discern.” Or the reincarnated monk might react to fear and hatred in those that profess faith by saying “Yours is not a god that I would choose.”

The best thing that a person of faith can do to bring such a person to awareness of the ultimate source of love is not to upbraid them for reflecting the standards of Christ back upon us. Rather, it would be to engage them in solving the biggest problems that humanity has to solve, and then to let them rediscover (in this life) the magic of Christ’s presence when those problems begin to overwhelm them.

You see, a profession of faith is only to say “I have God within me.” What Christ wants, however, is for us to seed the entire world with him.

Is this a model for all atheists? No, there are those atheists that seek only to destroy Christ and his works. But there are a good number of them – in my experience a majority – that seem honestly to feel that Christians aren’t upholding the ideals expounded by Jesus of Nazareth. We should not take their witness as an attack, but as an exhortation to do better.