Tuesday, December 28, 2010

#84. Doubly Estranged


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This post is being published on the fourth anniversary of my first blog entry.



I originally started the blog because I was annoyed at all the attention being given to the media-promoted opposition between religious fundamentalists and secular scientists in the autumn of 2006.

"Annoyed" doesn't really express it. "Aggravated" or "disturbed" would be more accurate descriptions of my reactions to the superficial accounts given in the media. With my life-long interest in religion and science-- and long-time experience as a teacher in both areas-- I knew there was a lot more to be said.

So I started the blog to share my thoughts with anyone interested in the convergence-- instead of the conflict-- between science and religion.

In terms of the technology involved, I hardly knew what I was doing. 

But I've learned a lot in four years. Well, a little about the technology. 

But a lot about the difficulties involved in trying to talk about the convergence of science and religion. In a culture where the superficial perspectives supplied by the media are all that most people have available to them, it often feels impossible.

We are "doubly estranged," says Thomas Berry. In an essay written around 1985 he noted that we've not only had a thousand years of religion telling us that the material world is evil but also five hundred years of science telling us that matter is all there is, anyway.

There's nothing but matter? And it's evil? No wonder we're so messed up!

And no wonder the idea of a blog devoted to the convergence of science and religion seemed so foolish! But I started with a fairly decent background in religion and science and a strong teaching instinct, and the past four years have turned out to be a great adventure.

Surely Thomas Berry is the most outstanding spokesperson for the convergence of science and religion in our time. The essay I mentioned above is part of a small collection of essays he wrote in the last quarter of the 20th century and which have recently been collected and edited by John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker under the title The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth (Orbis, 2009).

Anne and I received a copy of the book from friends as a birthday present in late October (our birthdays are just two weeks apart). It's a great treasure. Most of the quotes by Berry in this post are from that collection.

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The question at hand is: Are science and religion really converging?

I think they are. So do many others. While they obviously are different things--very different areas of human experience-- science and religion are both about the same thing.

But what that same thing is, is so fundamental to our existence that it's hard to express well. In fact, it's precisely our existence itself-- our real life in the real world-- that's what science and religion are both about. 

And it's our concern for life which explains why these two areas of human understanding and experience are converging at this time in history.

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But-- and this is a big "but"-- we're talking about neither Western culture's dualistic religion of the last thousand years nor its mechanistic science of the last five hundred years.

The science we're talking about is that of the contemporary scientific perspective. It knows the world as billions of years old, and as developing from the primordial Big Bang and the evolution of stars and galaxies to the formation of the Earth, the emergence of life on it, and the appearance of human consciousness with its-- our!-- unique spiritual orientation.

And the religion that we're talking about is that basic religious instinct which is in found in our genes and which has been expressed in the traditions of our ancestors for many thousands of years.

It's contemporary science and primal religion that are converging.

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I agree, if you're thinking to yourself, "Well, maybe." It is hard to believe. Even Thomas Berry said it's hard to believe. Here's what he had to say in one of his essays:

"Secularism, materialism and rationalism have prevailed for so long that we can hardly believe (Sam's italics) that the long course of scientific meditation on the universe has finally established the emergent universe itself as a spiritual as well as a physical process and the context for a new mode of religious understanding."

Note that he says "science has established."

By "scientific meditation" he means Western humanity's communal reflections on the understanding we have of the world based on the data obtained via our empirical (logical, cause-and-effect, scientific) thinking ability.

That "scientific meditation" also includes not just an understanding of the world but our understanding of ourselves as well. It's confusing because a major part of our self-understanding is the fact that we have some understanding of our self-understanding.

It sounds awkward, but that's precisely what "spiritual" means. As Berry says, the universe-- and humans as its conscious expression-- are "spiritual as well as a physical from the start."

And it's precisely this understanding of ourselves and the world together that provides us in our day with "a new mode of religious understanding."

Berry's point is that, thanks to the new scientific cosmology, we can now understand better than ever what religion is all about. I like to put it even more bluntly: in our day, religion only makes sense in terms of what we know about the world from science.

It's also important to keep in mind that by "science" I don't mean only the chemical, physical and biological sciences. I mean the human sciences as well: brain studies (neurology), mind studies (psychology) and studies of our cultural behavior (sociology). In our day, "science" means-- above all-- humanity's understanding of humanity.

It's important that we get this right, because it's only from this big perspective of ourselves and world together that we can see that religion and science really are converging-- and that, thanks to the new cosmology, religion really does make good sense.

Western society is growing up! As our culture matures, we recognize that there's more than just the bottom-rung viewpoint of the last several centuries. We're "moving up the ladder."

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That bottom-rung viewpoint-- that only matter is real and only logical-sequential thinking is valid-- prevailed for so long that it's still hard to believe "that science has established the fact that the evolution of the universe is a spiritual as well as a physical process."

Berry stresses that it's simply no longer adequate to tell the story from a physical or material-only point of view. Because "the cosmic process is mental-psychic-spiritual ... from the start," we don't get an accurate picture if we see things only from the bottom rung of the Great Ladder.

As I tried to spell out in post #82, we need to take into account not just body but also soul, mind and spirit for an adequate view. And for that, we do have the tools now.

Those tools help us understand the fact that the universe is "a spiritual as well as a physical process." And while that may be a tough idea for many "anti-religion" people to take, the "anti-science" people also have something difficult to deal with: the fact that in our day we can only understand religion adequately in terms of the new scientific story.

Berry says it nicely: "Modern science gives us the story of who we are, how we came to be, and what our lives are all about."

And, as he notes, we don't have to take anybody's word for it! He points out that our story is being told to us by the universe itself: "by the stars and sky, by the mountains and rivers, by every wind that blows and every snowflake that falls, by every leaf in the forest."

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I think the essence of this new story being told to us by the universe has two parts: that what we are comes from the fact that we are emergent from the cosmic process; and that when we know ourselves as emergent we experience our lives and existence as sacred.

For me, that's what "the convergence of science and religion" means. It's such a basic idea, but one that's very difficult to communicate in our culture of trivia.

In addressing a religious group, Berry put it this way: "For the first time we can tell the universe story, the Earth story, the human story, the religion story, the Christian story, and the church story as a single comprehensive narrative."

In brief, he says "Evolution is our sacred story." And it's now the context for "all education, healing and every human activity." It is "the basic foundation for the tasks before us."

Social issues such as gender and racial prejudice, environmental concerns such as global warming and the rise of the ocean levels-- even international conflicts, terrorism and our dysfunctional economy-- all have to be dealt with in terms of our sacred story.

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So why do we have such a difficult time accepting our sacred story? Why is it so difficult for many in Western culture to see the contemporary convergence of science and religion?

As Berry says, "for a time" humans were alienated both from the natural world and from the spiritual world. "When we try to understand the universe and our place in it, we find ourselves doubly estranged." We have been alienated from the natural world by religion and from the spiritual world by science.

That's why "Doubly Estranged" is the title of this post. It's important that we realize that we were alienated from our very existence in the real world-- by both science and religion.

This is also why the Jung-Pauli book I wrote about in post #80 (Two Mavericks) is so important to me. In Deciphering the Cosmic Number, Arthur I. Miller spells out the problems involved and the breakthrough brought about by C. G. Jung and Wolfgang Pauli which allowed science to once again move up the Ladder-- to see the bigger picture of the human-divine-cosmic unity and our place in it.

When I began this blog four years ago, my hope was simply to express clearly the point that science and religion are converging. (Again, that's early religion and contemporary science!) Berry expresses it much better. He says we are "recovering reverence."

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And it's essentially reverence for the natural world that we are recovering. Berry notes that "Religion rectifies not by domination but by invocation. Our difficulties are due primarily to distrust of the Earth and a mania to dominate it. We need to again appreciate and trust it."

And our trust in the Earth, as Berry says, "depends on our communion with it." It's been my experience that this idea of communion with the Earth is very difficult for many to understand. And that, of course, is precisely because we have been doubly alienated from it.

On the most practical level, trust is the basis for any sensible environmental-ecological action. We take care of the Earth only when we know ourselves as one with it and emergent from it. In environmental terms, the fate of the Earth depends on our awareness that we are non-dual with the universe, and indeed that we are the universe become conscious of itself.

The fate of the Earth depends on the convergence of science and religion.

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I think the best way to express these thoughts about the convergence of science and religion is to see that the story of the universe, of Earth and life on it, is our personal story.

"The universe has a human dimension from the beginning," says Berry. We are so much a part of it, that the universe "as a whole is a larger dimension of our own being."

For this reason, says Berry, we need to listen to the voices of the Earth.

"We need to listen to the stars, the sun and moon, the mountains and plains, the forests and rivers and seas, the meadows and the flowering grasses, the songbirds and insects that sing in the evenings. We need to experience, to feel, to see this celebration of life. They are dimensions of the human soul, revelations of the divine being communicated to us, and inspiration for our spiritual life."

Berry's point is basic for each of us personally: "The inner world cannot be activated without these outer experiences of wonder for the mind, beauty for the imagination, and intimacy for the emotions."

"The stars at night, songs of birds at dawn, the smell of honeysuckle on a summer evening-- these are experiences of "that numinous reality whence the universe came into being and by which it is sustained in its immense journey." They let us see that the universe is a vast celebration-- which it is our role to enter into in our specifically human way-- and that this is the purpose of all existence.

Without these voices of the Earth, says Berry, "our souls shrivel."

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Why would our souls shrivel? Again, the answer comes not from religion but from science.

It's because our souls-- our hearts and minds-- were formed during the Earth's Cenozoic period, the last 65 million years of the Earth's history, which Berry calls "the great lyric period in the Earth's development." 

The Cenozoic is "where we come from," he says, and it's to the Cenozoic that we owe "our specifically human-spiritual reality."

For me, this is where science and religion converge most clearly.
It's from science we know that the Cenozoic period was the great flowering era of the Earth. It's from science we know that we humans appeared during this the last big stage of our planet's development. And it's also from science we know that "our genes are integral with the Cenozoic," as Berry says. And "thus," he adds, "so is our soul life."

We have emerged out of it, we are "genetically coded" to it, and we are attuned to it in terms of our outer and inner realities. The Cenozoic is the very basis of our "soul life;" it is the sacred world of our origins.

One of the friends who gave Anne and me the copy of Berry's book for our birthdays said recently, "For science, this is discovery; but for religion, it's revelation."

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It's like Amazing Grace. "We once were lost, but now we're found."
Western society once was lost; we were, indeed, "doubly estranged."

But now we're found; we are finding ourselves again as we come to realize the fundamental insight from the convergence of religion and science, that "Evolution is our sacred story."

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P.S. I remember reading somewhere that when cosmologist Brian Swimme first met Thomas Berry he asked Berry what he could do to help promote the New Story. Berry answered, "Make it sing."

It looks like Brian has done just that with a soon-to-be-released beautiful documentary, Journey of the Universe.

It will be premiered at Yale in March, but a trailer is already available on a website which includes background information, a gallery of beautiful photos, and Mary Coelho's New Cosmology artwork. The URL is below. Click on "welcome" at the top. There's also a 6-minute overview a bit hard to find: first go to "Book and Ed Series," then to "Educational DVD Series," then down to "Click here for an overview clip of the project."

You might like to allow yourself 15-20 minutes to enjoy the whole site; it's a wonderful demonstration of the fact that we are no longer "doubly estranged."

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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.