In the Beginning Is the Dance of Love

Printed in the  Spring 2021  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Ravindra, Ravi"In the Beginning Is the Dance of Love" Quest 109:2, pg 24-32

By Ravi Ravindra

ravi ravindraOur collective worldview, perhaps since the publication of Newton’s Principia in 1687, has led us to regard questions concerning the origin, development, measure, and meaning of the cosmos as pertaining almost exclusively to the domain of science and in particular to that of physics. For us moderns, cosmology is a branch of physics, a subject that since the sixteenth century has concerned itself with understanding the cosmos ultimately in terms of dead matter in motion in reaction to external and purposeless forces.

Natural theology, however, has a long history. At the beginning of modern science, the astronomer Johannes Kepler regarded himself as a priest of God in the temple of Nature. Isaac Newton viewed all his scientific work as a hymn of glory in praise of God.

A long and hard struggle was necessary to establish natural science as an independent mode of inquiry, free of the tyranny of theology and the church, which had been coupled with temporal power. Now, especially since the making of the atomic bomb in 1945, it is science that is associated with power; and a similar struggle may be necessary to rescue genuine spiritual inquiry from the tyranny of scientific rationality. Since Newton’s time, scientists have felt increasingly uneasy about mentioning God, at least in their scientific publications.

Contemplation of the heavens has always brought human beings to wonder about the meaning and purpose of the cosmos and their own existence. The heavens have always seemed to be the abode of the sacred, inspiring reflection and awe. However, a subtle shift has taken place in our attitudes owing to the rise and development of modern science. Let us take a familiar example, from Psalm 8:3–4:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained,
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

We too have contemplated the heavens and other things in the light of the latest scientific knowledge, but our attitudes, and our questions, are different. Today’s scientist is more likely to ask:

When I consider the heavens, the work of our equations,
the black holes and the white dwarfs, which we have ordained
what is God, that we are mindful of him?

Ideas and activities flourish and change in the context of a worldview, although worldviews themselves are permeable and elastic. Science is the major component of the present paradigm, and our intellectual discussions now take place with a background of a shared scientific rationality.

I do not have any new data to bring for consideration of whether the origin and evolution of the universe provides evidence for design. Nor do I believe that, collectively or individually, we need additional data to come to a proper sense of design (or absence of design) in the cosmos. Instead I propose to raise some issues around this question, organizing my discussion under the subheadings “Origin,” “Evolution,” “Universe,” “Evidence,” and “Design.”

Origin

The question of the origin of the universe is intimately connected with the understanding of time. It is practically impossible for the present-day Western mind to avoid thinking of time in linear terms. This notion has entered deeply into the structure of scientific thinking. Even when we think of nonlinear time, as we sometimes do in contemporary physics, we look at the nonclassical properties of time: its conjugate variables, how it works in other dimensions and spaces, and so on. Nonetheless, in physics we are always dealing with some dimension of time, and never the sort of situation when “time shall be no longer” (Revelation 10:6).

Of course, when we extrapolate along the dimension of time, we might run into a singularity, as we do for example in the equations dealing with gravitational collapse or the cosmological solutions leading to the big bang theory. There our notions of time go awry, and we need some very ingenious methods to get around these difficulties.

Even so, from the point of view of physical cosmologists, the questions concerning the beginning of the universe have to do entirely with smaller and smaller amounts of time from the initial event, when all this began. However many theoretical or practical difficulties we might encounter, we are trying to follow the time coordinate back to zero. We have theories now dealing with the state of the universe at time spans of the order of 10-23 seconds after the absolute zero of time. There are theoretical reasons for believing that this may be the closest we can get to the absolute beginning along the time coordinate. If so, according to our present notions of time, it makes no sense to talk about time any closer to that beginning and certainly not prior to it.

Physical cosmologists are not searching for the beginning spoken of in mystical or mythical literature. When the opening line of Genesis says, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” we are tempted to think that according to the Bible, the heaven and the earth were the first manifestations. To do so, however, is a mistake, as we see from the verses immediately following: the heavens were not created until the second day, and the earth not until the third; and the heavens, also called the “firmament,” were created in order to divide the waters above from the waters below. These waters, one should notice, existed before the existence of the heaven and the earth, which were said to have been created in the beginning. Perhaps this text is presenting us with two different kinds of heavens and two different kinds of earth. I shall not engage in biblical exegesis; I merely wish to suggest that we have here a notion of a beginning that is different from the scientific notion.

In such passages, we may be encountering difficulties with language that are endemic to all religious literature. But there is no reason for us to imagine that the scriptures are meant to be at our service and that they must be clear to us while we remain as we are. I imagine that, at the least, scriptures summon us to realities that we do not ordinarily perceive. The spiritual traditions universally agree that, for us to perceive these hidden realities, something in us needs to change. We cannot remain as we are and come to the Mystery. That change is called by many names: a change in the level of being, a change in consciousness, a deepening of faith, a new birth, the opening of the third eye, the true gnosis, and so on.

When the doors of perception are cleansed, one fundamental change that is said to occur concerns time: not only does one’s sense of duration change but, more importantly, one’s relationship with the passage of time alters radically.

Statements like “In the beginning was the Word” do not refer to ordinary time, on a coordinate axis, whose point of origin is the beginning. These statements carry weight and significance precisely because they were uttered and received in heightened states of awareness. Whenever these writings and symbols speak to anyone spiritually, it is because they carry a higher level of energy, and not primarily, or even at all, because of any logical clarity or agreement with our scientific notions of space and time.

This other kind of time—that of myth and mystical writing—is certainly not contradictory to our ordinary time. Nor is it, however, merely an extension of ordinary time in either direction of the coordinate: the beginning or the end. Just as the scriptural “beginning” is not the zero of the time coordinate, so mystical “eternity” is not an infinite extension of time. Thus what is everlasting is not necessarily eternal.

In a way, spiritual time appears to be orthogonal to scientific time: it lies in a dimension wholly independent of the domain of time, although it is able to intersect with time at any moment. Thus no manipulations of time or in time could lead to this orthogonal dimension of eternity, which speaks of mythic beginnings and endings.

Evolution

As long as there is time, there is change. That is how we understand and measure time; that is how we know that it exists and passes. It is only in this minimal physical sense, of state  A changing into state B, that we speak about the evolution of the universe in physical cosmology. But there is an ordinary use of the word evolution of which we need to be careful: ordinarily one thinks of evolution as containing within it an idea of change in a desirable direction, so that the end product is at a level higher than its antecedents.

But it is very difficult to say how we should understand the concept of “level.” There are some connected notions, like those of development, growth, and progress. Something or someone who is at a higher level may have more being, more consciousness, or more wisdom, or may be able to perform more complicated tasks than one at a lower level. The idea of hierarchy is built into the notion of levels and of evolution. Furthermore, we specify which we view as higher or lower, or whether a process is degenerative, progressive, or static.

But cosmologists talk about physical change without attaching any notion of a hierarchy of being. Physical laws merely describe change in time. There is no place in them for intention, purpose, or evolution insofar as these contain the emotionally laden sense of progress.

It is worth paying more attention to this point. In the history of natural philosophy, change and the dynamics of nature have been intimately connected with notions of ausality. For our purposes, we can distinguish three distinct notions of causality: metaphysical, physical, and biological.

The metaphysical notion of causality, which prevailed until the sixteenth century, assumes that the cause is greater than the effect. Thus in theology, the creator is naturally greater—at a higher level of being, intelligence, and power—than the creation. Applied to natural philosophy, this was, from the point of view of the subsequent developments in science, a stumbling block to a proper understanding of nature.               

During the sixteenth century, a new understanding of physical causality emerged, according to which the cause and the effect were at the same level. One no longer spoke of a cause being higher than (or in some senses containing) the effect, but rather of a change of one state of matter into another, without assuming a rise or lowering in its level of being, intelligence, or desirability.

The sixteenth-century shift from metaphysical to physical causality was a subtle one: from the domain of intentions, will, reasons, and purposes, and the forces and laws required to carry out these intentions in nature (or, in another language, angels and powers), to a field of forces and laws operating in nature without any purpose.

In the nineteenth century, a biological notion of causality emerged, according to which the cause is lower than the effect. That which is inferior, ontologically or in intelligence or in the subtlety of cellular organization, gives rise to what is superior: amoebas, in time, give rise to Einstein. Since what follows is more desirable than what precedes it (at least from the human point of view), this notion of causality is rightly called evolution.

This principle is the inverse of the metaphysical and the theological notions of causality: rather than proceeding from above, creation—including human beings—now proceeds from below. This idea naturally causes an immense amount of anxiety and unease, especially to those who are comforted by a belief in some ultimate cause, or God, who is personally concerned about their welfare.

Returning now to scientific cosmology: it is only in this century that the idea of a dynamic universe was precisely formulated. One of the solutions to the field equations of general relativity demanded that the universe as a whole be dynamic; otherwise the solution was unstable. This notion of the dynamism of the cosmos seems to have been such a revolutionary idea in the Judeo-Christian world that even a radical thinker like Einstein balked at it. He tinkered with his equations and introduced another factor into them, called the cosmical constant, which was helpful in obtaining a stationary solution to the field equations. Soon after, it was discovered that even with this new, somewhat arbitrarily introduced, constant, dynamic solutions of the equations still resulted. Einstein himself later remarked that the introduction of the cosmical constant in his field equations was “the greatest blunder” of his life.

Within a few years, Edwin Hubble discovered from observational data that the galaxies were receding from one another at the speed of light and that the universe was therefore expanding. This was the most significant observational confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Thus the fundamental equations on which modern physical cosmology is based have nothing to do with evolution, except in the minimal sense of physical change. As far as the notion of causality is concerned, modern cosmology is just like the rest of physics: it describes the change in matter-energy from one state to another. From our point of view, the emergence of the stars, galaxies, solar system, and ultimately ourselves is more desirable than their nonemergence, so we feel justified in describing this change as evolution.

In this process, we are combining two different notions of causality described earlier. We actually need one of these (physical causality) for our knowledge; the other (evolution) is an emotional overlay, for the obvious reason that we humans are at the end of the corresponding change. This fact saddles us with a philosophical problem because of our sentimentality about human beings while nevertheless insisting on a limited physico-biological view of man.

We do not need a limited view of cosmology, which cannot take into account the deepest, spiritual part of ourselves. Physical cosmology, which is a perfectly legitimate and indeed wonderful study in its domain, is concerned with change in the physical form of matter-energy. Here we do not speak—indeed we cannot speak—within the assumptions and procedures that govern the subject of spiritual evolution. Physical theories concerning the nature of the universe are not about the dimension of significance or purpose, nor do they pretend to be,.

At the same time, human beings have always had a sense of, and a need for, the sacred, which gives meaning and purpose both to ourselves and to the cosmos. Fundamentally bereft of the sacred, we are riddled with anxiety and adrift in the meaningless vastness of space-time.

Universe

What do we mean by universe? Presumably, all there is. Does a cat or a bee have the same universe as a human being? Does a tone-deaf or color-blind person have the same universe as a painter or one who is musically gifted? Does a person who is blind to symbols or to spirit, or who is insensitive to wonder, beauty, or spiritual presence, have the same universe as a scientist or a poet or a mystic?

What there is is a function of who sees: what we know, actually and potentially, about the universe depends on the procedures, methods, and interests that we bring to our observation of it. If we do not know how to find angels and are not interested in them, we will say that the angels do not exist. And it is true that they are not a part of our scientific universe. Nor are “the clouds which brood,” which were a part of Wordsworth’s universe, or the dancing colors inhabiting Blake’s universe, or the cherubim and the seraphim singing, “Holy, holy, holy.”

The physical cosmologist’s universe, vast and marvelous as it is, is not all there is. As Shakespeare put it, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Even when allowance has been made for error and illusion (which can, of course, blight the cosmologist as much as the poet or the mystic), it is difficult simply to dismiss these other fields.

Hardly anyone dismisses the arts out of hand, but many people find it much easier to dismiss the mystic and the theologian. There are understandable historical reasons for this dismissal; in any event, present-day intellectual circles do not regard these fields as relevant to deliberations concerning the cosmos. We relegate the universes that the artist, the musician, or the mystic regard as most precious to a murky and imaginary realm. We certainly do not regard those imaginary realms as real as the multiple universes, the shadow universe, the antiuniverse, or the other weird universes that make up the speculations of contemporary physical cosmologists. We assume that whatever musicians, artists, or mystics might be doing, they are certainly not producing knowledge. Knowledge is produced exclusively by scientists, we would say, and by nobody else.

Contemporary philosophers, with all their love for wisdom, generally agree. We might not now say, with the positivists, that “nonscience is nonsense,” but we would surely say that nonscience cannot lead to knowledge and truth. What we include in the universe is related to a traditional idea of levels of materiality.

Medieval philosophers held that both matter and the laws operating on different planets was  were different from those in ours. It was a considerable advance in astronomy to establish that fundamentally the same sort of matter prevailed throughout the universe, subject to the same laws everywhere.

However, when we move from medieval natural philosophy—alchemy, astrology, mathematics, or cosmology—to the modern sciences, our general reaction to the backward-looking nature of the past and our excitement over new discoveries blind most of us to the predominantly symbolic and analogical nature of medieval thought.

There is an ancient analogy between each human being and the universe, between the microcosm and the macrocosm, which inwardly mirror each other’s essential principles. We might then realize that the various planets, the different materials on them, and the different laws operating there were all symbols of different levels of interiority within a human being, and that the quality of matter-energy at different levels of the mind is different from that of the body, and subject to different laws. Sometimes this idea was explicitly shown in various diagrams, but often it was merely assumed, much as we today assume that everyone in all reasonable gatherings naturally accepts the mode of scientific rationality. As Blake succinctly put it, “Reason and Newton are quite two things.” What goes on in our minds and our feelings, and not only what takes place in our bodies, also contributes to all there is.

Mental and psychic functions are not in principle outside the domain of scientific knowledge. They are not supernatural, as opposed to natural, and thus excluded from the investigations of natural philosophy. There is nothing supernatural about most of what gets labeled as miracles or extrasensory perception. Extrasensory perceptions, to be sure, are at present extrascientific perceptions, but there is nothing inherently beyond nature or beyond science in them. It may well be that a radically altered science will be required to understand what is now called extrasensory perception, just as a radically altered science was required to understand lightning in the sky or the light of the sun; this science might have seemed quite supernatural from the perspective of fourteenth-century scientists. It is important to distinguish, as St. Augustine did, between what we claim really is nature and what we know of nature. The limits of our knowledge are not necessarily the limits of nature.

Yet even with a radically altered science that could take account of extrasensory perceptions and other “miraculous” happenings, we cannot come to the end of all there is. “All there is” far exceeds the realm of nature, the domain of causality and materiality, however subtle our descriptions. To say that we do not yet know certain levels of nature is not to say that nature is all that there is to know or that can be.

In fact, practically without exception, all great spiritual teachers, such as the Buddha, the Christ, Patañjali, Krishna, and Moses, have warned against an excessive fascination with miraculous phenomena and occult powers, which are said to be diversions from the true spiritual path.

Two related, although somewhat parenthetical, remarks may be made here. The first concerns an important distinction, made in the scientific revolution starting in the sixteenth century, between the primary and the secondary qualities of matter. This distinction played a crucial role in the development of the physical sciences and also in the subsequent impoverishment of nature. The primary qualities were extension, mass,  length and velocity time; to this list was added charge in the nineteenth century, and spin, strangeness, charm, and others in the twentieth. The secondary qualities consisted of taste, color, smell, and the like; they were not considered to be objectively a part of nature, but were subjective and rather unreliable. Considered even more subjective and unreliable were tertiary qualities: feelings of beauty, purpose, or significance.

The secondary and tertiary qualities were gradually eliminated, not only as instruments of inquiry into nature, but also as fundamental constituents of nature. They could not, properly speaking, be studied as themselves constituting reality, but as something that needed to be explained and understood in terms of the primary qualities. Thus a deep-seated reductionism is built into the fundamental presuppositions of scientific inquiry. A division into res extensa (what can be measured) and res cogitans (what is aware) carried within it a certain instability attached to the realm of the mind. From a scientific point of view (as we see clearly in behavioral psychology), all psychic functions must be reducible to external motions.

On the other hand, we have the philosophical problem of mind-body dualism. In some theological circles, it is really understood as soul-body dualism, in which the soul is supernatural, removed from the realm of nature and scientific investigation altogether, and placed in the realm of faith, away from knowledge.

Any real knowledge of the psyche or the soul thus gets rather short shrift: the scientists deny the existence of anything that they cannot study by physical means, and the theologians deny the possibility of any knowledge of it. But in neither case can spiritual qualities have any independent existence in the cosmos that we can study.

The second remark derives from a comparative study of the history of ideas in the Western world and in India. In Greek philosophy and in the early Christian writers, as well as in the Indian tradition, there was a tripartite division of a human being into spirit, soul, and body, or, to use the Greek of St. Paul’s epistles, pneuma, psyche, and soma. Gradually this threefold division shrank into a twofold division: spirit and nature, or mind and matter, or soul and body. Descartes explicitly identifies spirit with soul, and both with the mind. In the Western world, since the time of Descartes, soul has in general been regarded more or less completely as spiritual rather than natural.           

A partial reduction of the threefold division into a twofold one took place in India as well. Nevertheless there, in general, the psyche has been regarded as in the realm of nature, and therefore subject to the laws of nature and amenable to scientific inquiry. Thus thoughts and feelings, and psychic phenomena, including those considered paranormal, are in the realm of prakriti, nature—that is to say, in the domain of materiality and causality. According to Indian thought, so-called miracles are not supernatural or spiritual, even though they are unusual and extraordinary. Spirit (purusha), however, is still beyond.

Evidence

We have already seen that our knowledge of the cosmos depends on the procedures, methods, and interests that we bring to knowing it. Niels Bohr was quite right in saying that “it is wrong to think  that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature” (in Moore, 406). Of course, even what we can say about nature depends on the mode of discourse that a community of scientists accepts as appropriate. In that discourse, certain kinds of data are acceptable as evidence, and certain other data are not acceptable. The angels that were so real to Blake are not acceptable; nor are Bach’s fugues. In fact, no interior experience is a part of scientific data.

Scientific knowledge is not a knowing-by-participation, but a knowing-by-distancing. It is not an I-thou knowing but an I-it one. Thus we see that scientific knowledge is indeed objective, but not in the mystical sense, in which the observing self is so completely emptied or “naughted” that the object reveals itself as it is, the thing in itself, in all its numinosity and particularity. Sages in all cultures have said that it is only in this state of consciousness, devoid of the self, that an object is known both in its oneness with all there is and in its distinct uniqueness. An entity—a tree, a person, a culture, or the whole cosmos—is then understood both in its interiority and its externality, including its generality and specificity.

Scientific “objectivity” comes from another route, even in the etymology of the word (from the Latin obicere, to throw in the way, to hinder): it is a sense of throwing ourselves over and against something, as in our word objection. One mode is love; the other, combat.

Mystics are constantly speaking about love. We are told that God is love, as in the New Testament; that love supports the whole cosmos, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy; or that love was the first creation and absolutely everything else came from it, as in the Rig Veda. But scientific methods wish to conquer nature as if she were an adversary. In fact, scientists almost never refer to nature as “she”; they always call her “it.”

Naturally, what is dead or was never alive can hardly have intentions, purposes, reasons, or feelings: it can have no interiority. Evidence that involves this sense of interiority, that is based on an I-thou relationship, is out of the scientific arena altogether.

What is at issue here is a different sort of knowing. The important thing is not to see different things, but to see things differently—not changed or expanded contents of the same consciousness, but a different quality of consciousness. Just as one can be in an I-thou relationship with even a cat or a tree, as Martin Buber used to say, one can also bring the I-it attitude to human beings, or even to God, if we seek only to use them as objects. Such, for example, was the attitude of Newton, perhaps the greatest of all scientists; as one of his biographers, Frank Manuel, has remarked, “For Newton, persons were usually objects, not subjects.”

Scientists have no monopoly on the I-it attitude, nor are they, as a class, devoid of the I-thou intercourse. But when they are doing science, they automatically exclude the I-thou attitude, along with any observations based on the interiority of the object, from the body of scientific evidence.

In the last four centuries, there has been a virtual explosion in the number of scientific instruments that have extended our ability to observe the very small and the very far away and to measure extremely small amounts of time. Because of this immense quantitative expansion of the field of our observation, we now see the cosmos with different eyes. There has been an extension, but not a cleansing, of our eyes in the sense that Blake or Goethe would have understood it. Nothing in the nature of science itself might lead us to invoke, with St. Francis, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.”

Any of us—scientists as well as nonscientists—can, of course, be deeply moved by a sense of our oneness with the cosmos. Furthermore, anyone can be struck by the wonder, the mystery, and the design of the cosmos as much today as in the days of Newton or Archimedes or Pythagoras, although unfortunately most of us are all too rarely struck in this way. These feelings and perceptions lie in dimensions different from the ones in which scientific observations are extended. No amount of quantitative expansion of data and theories can lead to the dimension of significance, any more than an endless extension of time can lead to eternity.

Design

It is hard to imagine a scientist who does not see order in the universe, a harmony of the various forces that permit the continued existence of the world, and a pattern involving regularity of phenomena and a generality of laws. The more we know about the universe, the more elegantly and wonderfully well-ordered it appears. Most scientists share with Einstein a “deep conviction of the rationality of the universe,” and his feeling that no genuine scientist could really work without a profound “faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is comprehensible to reason” (Einstein, My Later Years, 26). Einstein himself called this a “cosmic religious feeling,” which he regarded as the “strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” Even though other scientists may be embarrassed by the word religious, they are by no means strangers to the feeling that Einstein is describing.

What puts scientists on guard is not the idea or the feeling of “design” in the universe, but a suspicion that lurking behind the slightest concession in using the word is a theologian who will jump with glee and immediately saddle them with the notion of a Designer and all that goes with it. Scientists are not uneasy about design as such, but about the designs that they smell hiding behind the slightest admission of it! It is no use telling them that the theologians have been on the defensive now for nearly three hundred years and are so eager to gain any approval from their scientific colleagues that they become overenthusiastic if they sniff any possibility of truce.

All of science is a celebration of pattern, regularity, lawfulness, harmony, order, beauty; in other words, all the marks of design. But it does not have much to do with a Designer who is over and above the design, occasionally interfering in the universe in contravention of natural laws. Already in the seventeenth century, Leibniz reminded Newton that his God was like a retired engineer: having created perfect laws and having set the universe initially in motion, he was no longer needed and could be on a permanent sabbatical. The very perfection of scientific laws and their comprehensibility make the continued presence of this sort of God less necessary.

To infer the Designer from the design is largely a theological and linguistic habit. It is based on a notion of design that is more technological in character than scientific or artistic. In art there is always a definite element of play, improvisation, and surprise. No creative work is like painting by numbers; the artist does not know beforehand what the finished product will be like. And any scientist who already knows what he is going to find at the end of his work does not need a research grant, because he hardly needs to carry out the research.

I am not discounting the intuitive conviction that a scientist can have so that he knows the outcome prior to engaging in a detailed calculation or experiment. But every good scientist, even an Einstein or a Newton, has many intuitive convictions that do not lead anywhere. In the actual working out of the ideas and their encounter with what is lies the real delight, excitement, and even terror of creativity. Without them, scientific and artistic activity would be very dull. And any God who might create the universe without delight, without playfulness, without wonder, and without freedom or fresh possibilities would be a very dull God indeed. He would be a God of grim specialists, not of the dilettantes who delight in what they do and study. Such a God could be a good technician carrying out a technical design, a good bureaucrat keeping everyone in his place, or a thorough accountant keeping track of everyone’s actions for later dispensation of necessary judgments; he might even make a good president of a large corporation or a modern university. But he certainly would not make a good scientist, artist, or mystic. Such a God could not be the God of love or wisdom, and it would be very difficult to take delight in him.

Etymologically, design is related to roots meaning sign from. Sign from whom? Historically, in Christian theology, the signs are generally from a personal God. However, there are profound and fundamental incompatibilities between scientific knowledge and the idea of a personal God, even though many great scientists, for example Newton, were deeply committed to a personal God. Here is a brief excerpt from a manuscript of Newton, now in the Jewish National and University Library (Yehuda Ms. 15.3, fol. 46r):

We must believe that there is one God or supreme Monarch that we may fear and obey him and keep his laws and give him honor and glory. We must believe that he is the father of whom are all things, and that he loves his people as his children that they may mutually love him and obey him as their father. We must believe that he is παντοκράτωρ [pantokrator], Lord of all things with an irresistible and boundless power and dominion that we may not hope to escape if we rebel and set up other Gods or transgress the laws of his monarchy, and that we may expect great rewards if we do his will. . . . to us there is but one God the father of whom are all things and we in him and one Lord Jesus Christ by whom are all things and we by him: that is, but one God and one Lord in our worship.

Since Newton’s time—and partly owing to the very science he took a major hand in creating—scientists are much less comfortable about accepting such a faith in a personal God, and certainly in expressing it. There is a feeling of a fundamental incompatibility between science and such a faith. Most scientists these days are likely to agree with Einstein in his description of what he called his religious feeling as

one of rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men. (Einstein, Ideas, 11)

Many people who knew Einstein personally insisted that he was the most religious person they had ever met, but he was not religious in any denominational sense. As he said many times and in many ways, “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe forms my idea of God” (quoted in New York Times obituary).

Here we see a very good illustration of the fact that being struck by the beauty, harmony, order, and design in the universe does not necessarily mean accepting a personal or a sectarian God. It is worth quoting Einstein at some length on this point, from a remarkable address on “Science and Religion” at a symposium in 1941:

The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God. It is the aim of science to establish general rules which determine the reciprocal connection of objects and events in time and space. For these rules, or laws of nature, absolutely general validity is required—not proven. It is mainly a program, and the faith in the possibility of its accomplishment in principle is only founded on partial successes. The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.

But I am persuaded that such behavior on the part of the representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal. For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress. In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is give up

that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labours they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task. (Einstein, My Later Years, 28–29)

In my judgment (which in this regard is different from Einstein’s), the major cause of the incompatibility between science and theology or church religion, which should certainly not be confused with spirituality, is not so much the concept of a personal God as the restricted view of knowledge that prevails in scientific  circles, as remarked earlier, and theologians’ limited notion of the Spirit or Divinity. To have understood (rightly) that Divinity is at least at the level of the human person does not mean that it is only personal. The personal aspects of Being, such as intelligence, intention, will, purpose, and love, which are all marks of interiority, do not have to lead to a concept of a personal God made in the external image of man, with definite form and being separated from others. Uniqueness of any level of being, seen separated from the oneness of all Being, leads to a limitation of vision, to partiality, and to exclusivism.

As the scriptures tell us, human beings are made in the image of God, which I take to mean that a human being is potentially able, in the deepest part of self, to be one with the Divine. This is what the sages have always said everywhere, whether the expression is aham brahmasmi (“I am Brahman,” Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10) or “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). However, if we forget the summons for an inward expansion to God, we are bound to reduce God in an outward contraction to human beings.

Concluding Remarks

I have suggested that there is more to the universe and to knowledge than is encountered in physical cosmology; that there are dimensions of the existence and development of being other than in time; and that one can be very spiritual with a personal God or without one. These are practically truisms. My observations have nothing to do with being Eastern or Western. Of course, one is conditioned by one’s cultural background. However, the more deeply one delves into oneself, the more one discovers one’s common humanity with others, and one’s commonality with all there is, without thereby losing one’s uniqueness. In this necessary realization of our oneness as well as uniqueness, we may, each one of us, have to travel paths we do not ordinarily travel, in lands we do not usually inhabit, and experience modes of being not habitually ours.

Different modalities and levels of being, and the corresponding levels of thought and feeling, exist in every human being and even more so in every culture. Some contingent historical factors can overwhelm or underscore a particular modality at any given time. The tremendous impact of science and technology in the West in the last two centuries has made some modes of being now appear to be non-Western. Yet we are now in a particularly exciting situation of a global neighborhood demanding a larger vision of ourselves. A special kind of insensitivity is now required for us to remain culturally parochial, refusing to become heirs of the great wisdom of mankind: as much of Plato as of the Buddha, of Einstein as of Patañjali, of Spinoza no less than of Confucius.

A major conceptual revolution was created in the Western world when the works of Aristotle were discovered by the Latin West through the Arabic philosophers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. That revolution went on for several centuries, leaving no area of thought and culture untouched. It appeared for a time that the major synthesis brought about by Thomas Aquinas between Aristotle and Christian thought was a culmination of this revolution. But no: it rolled on until and including the major scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which was finally brought to a close by Newton.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, we have been in the middle of another major encounter of different cultures and different streams of thought, of the West with the East. Moreover, since the Second World War, for the first time in history major cultures are juxtaposed as neighbors without being in the position of either the victor or the vanquished. Who knows where the resulting cultural revolution will end?

One thing, however, is certain: this revolution is bound to result in a recognition, in addition to the experimental science of nature, of an experiential science of the spirit freed from all sectarian theology. This science of the spirit is not the same thing as an extension of our present science to include occult phenomena and extrasensory perceptions. Nor should one be seduced by superficial parallels between certain expressions and paradoxes of contemporary science and ancient Oriental thought.

In his day, Kepler was convinced that the sun was the Father; the circumference of the solar system, the Son; and the intervening space, the Holy Ghost. A latter-day scientist, brought up on different symbols and metaphors, might see in the patterns appearing in the cloud chamber the dance of Shiva, or be moved to find in the complementarity of quantum phenomena yin and yang encircled together, or discover the resolution of the various paradoxes of contemporary physics in the ineffable Tao. These parallels or interpretations are as true or false now as they were then. They add nothing, either to true science or to true spirituality.

There is a deep-seated need in human beings to seek an integration of all their faculties and a unity of their knowledge and feeling. We are fragmented and thirst for wholeness. This thirst, however, cannot be quenched by mere mental conclusions and arguments about the parallels between physics and Buddhism or the existence and nature of the design in the cosmos. We need a radically transformed attitude in the deepest sense, which would permit us to receive true wisdom and intelligence from above ourselves, and to use our science and technology with compassion and love. Without this attitude, we cannot reconcile Blake and Newton, and their heirs. And the lament will continue:

O Divine Spirit sustain me on thy wings!
That I may awake Albion from his long & cold repose.
For Bacon & Newton sheathed in dismal steel, their terrors hang
Like iron scourges over Albion, Reasonings like vast Serpents
Infold around my limbs, bruising my minute articulations
I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony and peace.

(William Blake, Jerusalem 15.9–20)

Sources

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Edited by David V. Erdman. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

“Dr. Albert Einstein Dies in Sleep at 76; World Mourns Loss of Great Scientist.” The New York Times, April 19, 1955: https://www.nytimes.com/1955/04/19/archives/dr-albert-einstein-dies-in-sleep-at-76-world-mourns-loss-of-great.html

Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions. New York: Crown, 1954.

——. Out of My Later Years. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

Moore, Ruth. Niels Bohr. New York: Knopf, 1966.


Ravi Ravindra is emeritus professor of physics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is the author of a number of books, including The Pilgrim Soul: A Path to the Sacred Transcending World Religions; The Gospel of John in the Light of Indian Mysticism; and most recently The Bhagavad Gita: A Guide to Navigating the Battle of Life. He was interviewed in the winter 2018 issue of Quest.

A version of this article was originally presented as a paper in a symposium sponsored by the Royal Society of Canada and held at McGill University, Montreal, May 30–June 1, 1985. It was published in Origin and Evolution of the Universe: Evidence for Design?, edited by J.M. Robson (Montreal: McGill University Press, 1987), 259–79. The article is also included in Ravi Ravindra, Science and the Sacred: Eternal Wisdom in a Changing World (Wheaton: Quest Books, 2002).


Image
Theosophical Society PrivacyTerms & ConditionsRefund Policy • © 2022 The Theosophical Society in America



Affiliate Disclaimer

The Theosophical Society in America is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. Purchases made using affiliate links may generate a small commission which helps to support the mission of The Theosophical Society, enabling us to continue to produce programming and provide resources.