Stephen Hawkins, Thomas Merton, the Grand Canyon, and Ballet bought to me what Science could not deliver alone – A unified theory of existence. One week in Phoenix provided me with ample time to watch many ballet dancers, see the Grand Canyon south rim (one day), read Hawkins and Merton, and reflect on the meaning of life.
Perhaps the greatest destroyer of faith is science? No, science by itself is a testament to the order of things – or disorder of things through the application of human ingenuity and genius to all things requiring study and testing. The meaning of its findings – the application of science is the greatest destroyer of faith.
Religious institutions, political figures, scientist, philosophers, and human beings of all trades have tried to integrate spiritual and scientific evolution since the dawning of time. The human footprint on explaining knowledge (spiritual, philosophical, or scientific) sadly has been corrupted time and time again by savvy soothsayers – some meaning well and some not so well – claiming superior intellect or position with every new revelation.
The study of metaphysics by philosophers used to couple both science and language. Theology also utilized science and language as well to reveal ancient truths and current religious beliefs.
Today, science evolution is beyond the expertise of the philosopher or the theist. The degree of speciality on every nook of our universe and the changing theories on everything from genetic discoveries to the Big Bang theory and the origin of the universe is beyond the scope of the professional philosopher and theist – never mind layman.
In Stephen Hawkins classic book, A Brief History of Time, one can have a pretty good glimpse at both the genius of scientist and the incredible leap of imagination they must use to reach theoretical rules of the universe. Reading Stephen’s review of gravitational forces, electromagnetic forces, and nuclear forces as they relate to the origins of the universe is mind-boggling.
The dynamic tension between the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics is awesome. It is clear our greatest minds have a depth of knowledge of infinite magnitude relative to the layperson, yet in scope of the universe their collective knowledge fits metaphorically on a quark, the smallest molecular structures they have identified. Scientist, by ascribing human nomenclature to pre-existing mass within our world, claim ownership of something they did not create. By naming discoveries that they find, they provide a sense of security and order to a chaotic world. Stephen’s book is an excellent example of science grappling with the origins of time and theories about our universe. Three things that leapt out from his writing for me were the following points:
1) The insignificance of our planet relative to the universe is substantial,
2) “We see the universe the way it is because we exist” (the anthropic Principle), and
3) “admit in print when you were wrong.” (The latter maybe easier for him than for the rest of us as he is not often wrong).
These points speak to our collective lack of humility as a species, our ego-centric view of the universe, and our tendency to hold to our firm beliefs despite presentation of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The evolution of scientific thought has had many twist and turns and revisions that we excuse as a natural evolution of the scientific method. Errors are expected and built into the scientific process – as built into its core theoretical constructs. Many advancements in science are built on creative imagination and human error! Yet, many are willing to jettison the concept of a “Creator” or a “Godhead” based on scientific revelations.
Stephen addresses in one chapter three Arrows of time: Thermodynamic, Psychological, and Cosmological. He states all three are going in the same direction. They represent increasing disorder, human memory of the past, and the expanding universe. Within these paradigms he speaks to religious types response to evolving evolution. Perhaps a better and more integrating model might include the fourth arrow of time: the evolution of human spirituality?
Stephen could not provide a unified theory of the universe. One of our greatest minds leaves us with more questions when it comes to the basic existence of the universe. His book projected possible ideas. He even quipped about there being perhaps a “cosmic censorship hypothesis” where “God abhors a naked singularity.” Meaning the secrets of the universe are hidden in things like black holes. We cannot seem to find knowledge on what happened before the “big bang” or what would happen after a massive contraction of our universe into a black hole (which would mean our extinction as we know it).
Science is amazing and deserves much more respect than what we apply to it these days. At the same time, science should be applied in a manner that is consistent with our philosophical and moral beliefs (theological?). In essence Science should serve the greater good of humankind and being based on units of “mass” that we did not create – respect the substance of what we are working with in every endeavor. How should science be serving us? Can science guide our moral and social mores?
Science cannot answer all:
“Even in the purely natural order, a certain amount of purity of heart is required before an intellect can get sufficiently detached and clear to work out the problems of metaphysics. I say a certain amount, however, because I am sure that no one needs to be a saint to be a clever metaphysician. I dare say there are plenty of metaphysicians in hell.” (Page 104 Merton reference)
The order and chaos of the universe, scientific advancements, and all the theoretical models of great thinkers do not prove or disprove God. You are left with your own intuitive senses – your sixth sense, malnourished and under-utilized in today’s frenetic Information Age. Your sixth sense requires contemplation and the ability to integrate and seek out the meaning of life, utilizing all the scientific and theological advancements at your disposal within an Arc of an Arrow’s flight that matches your fundamental beliefs as a human being.
Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Story Mountain” weaves a path of disbelief to spiritual conversion (Catholicism) in its deepest and most contemplative mystical form. He is no lightweight in the world of christian spirituality. His writing, thus far, builds on my experience with other great spiritual writers. Spirituality is a lived experience, an unfathomable search and inquiry into the unseen depths of the human spirit. Some Catholic references are reserved when handling Merton’s material due to his contact and experience with Buddhism. I look forward to exploring Merton further and there are Thomas Merton Societies worldwide interested in his contemplative spirituality and exhaustive writings.
My measure of spirituality is action and results. It’s only proof of application is the ability of its practitioners to achieve holy actions and to attract followers by natural magnetism devoid of any coercion, psychological manipulation, linguistic somersaults, or intellectual trickery.
“A soul is an immaterial thing. It is a principle of activity, it is an “act,” a “form,” an energizing principle.” (Pg 109)
Reading Merton, my experience is deepened that there exist an ability to live in God’s presence, a conscious presence available to you, by willingly sifting through “almost” incomprehensible meta data, sorting the useful knowledge from the useless knowledge, and then applying it judiciously.
I am not blessed with the faith of others whose belief on the outside appears unfaltering and forever constant. I have not had burning revelations, visions, or thundering voices. I have had moments of grace, unexplained coincidences, and direct prayers answered – not on my timeline, but answered nonetheless.
And as for suffering, suffering has remained in many areas of my life in the past and today. Our collective suffering today is unbearable for me to contemplate and sit with for any significant amount of contemplation without deep despair overcoming me. And yet I believe.
My subjective experience cannot prove this to you as Stephen’s metaphysical scientific theoretical constructs cannot nail down the origin of the universe. It is a Kantian nightmare, an unsolvable dilemma. The more we know, the less we know, the more questions we have nonetheless.
Like science, theologians have their own language and application of history to paint a picture of God. Whatever religion or theologian you encounter, aside from historical human events and historical archeological finds, at the end of the day they are left with spiritual imagination and some would say divine inspiration to define and share their understanding of God. The intersection with science is that great theologians at the end of the day are left with great questions and mysteries as well.
Looking into the Grand Canyon on this trip I was awed at the immensity of the lifeless canyons and depth below my feet. Science attempts to explain the Grand Canyon and date the rock layers. Artists paint it. Story-tellers bring it to life. Yet, nothing is like standing on the edge and looking out into the canyon.
We hold our positions as Atheist, Buddhist, Christians, Muslims with vehemence despite our hold on absolute truth being narrower than Science, and Science, despite having great gains, at the end of the day is always left with theoretical metaphysics similar to existential philosophy. I am Catholic. I believe in judicial use of Science. I believe my knowledge of science and of the “ultimate” being is wholly inadequate!
What does this mean for me?
“This means, in practice, that there is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others.”
The evolution of human spirituality is ongoing. Today wars are being fought literally and metaphorically in the name of God. These are man-made, not God-made. These are of this world, not of the spiritual world. They are for power, revenge, justice, anger, pride, and many other distorted human needs.
They are not fueled by divinely inspired spiritual imagination, harnessed by serious contemplative prayer, tested by collective human experience, and distilled for authenticity, overtime, stripped of human inserted fallacy.
The Regional Dance Alliance had two thousand aspiring dancers at the Phoenix convention center taking technical classes during the day and performing each night for 6 consecutive days. I was given the gift of being a parent chaperone.
Ballet demonstrated that soul is “a principle of activity, it is an “act,” a “form,” an energizing principle.”
Ballet takes the human spirit and expresses it with music and body movement that defies the eye. The Ballerina is always approaching perfection, and in her imperfection reaches as closely to the heavens as humans can reach.
As I watched these adolescents work out human relationships at the height of performance anxiety or in the tediousness of dance repetitions, the verb of the soul leaped out. They replicate human experience without words. Their entire being is given to the art form. Their collective creates an energy that exceeds the individual contributions. The successful companies are soul-filled on and off the Marley floor. At the end of their performance they have given away everything in a moment of time to the audience. It is no longer their work. It has either moved the audience or not. There is relief, but only momentarily, as ballet is a verb, and next performance is already being prepared to build on the experience of the last and the work of countless practices to come. Permeating all is love of dance.
The Ballet teacher was walking the floor, observing, pointing, correcting, and vocalizing to the dancers, she paused, and yelled out to all:
“Head Reach the Ceiling and Feet Reach the Floor.”
As she demonstrated, it was clear, dancers must remain grounded and yet seek elevation to the heavens. They are at once respecting gravity and seeking to elevate themselves and the audience. Everything in between must be attuned to as well – and that requires both muscle memory and contemplation.
The Spiritual Imagination and Science provide us the ceiling to strive for and the floor to ground us. They are not mutually exclusive and one without the other is folly. What happens in the middle is Dance. The Dance of life with all its joy and pain.
In one week, science, spirituality and dance merged for me into a unified theory of the universe in one moment of time. With the speed of light it has already changed within me and is no longer the same – but nor am I.