Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Science and Religion

Recently, I have spent my weekend mornings reading Huston Smith's "Why Religion Matters"--not a new book, but an interesting one, from a religious scholar who writes very accessibly.

The book seems to have come out of a concern about the discarding of a "traditional" worldview, and replacing it with a "scientific" worldview. The concern is a real one, but also a puzzle to me.

The public "battle" between religion and science is extremely evident in controversies in our educational system, and with such issues as a woman's right to choose. "Intelligent design" theory is one example of how science clashes with religion. But I don't think this is a battle between God and the atheists, as it were--it is a battle of worldviews, and both are incomplete.

To begin with--the entire conflict is predicated on the idea that there is some being sitting up in the clouds, directing Earthly traffic remotely. I don't know that anyone really believes this except for hardcore literalists and maybe young children.

Scientific approaches are empirical in nature. They rely on sensory and mathematical data. Scientific method requires a reasonable hypothesis for which measures/experiments are selected that prove or disprove the hypothesis. That may be a bit of a misnomer as well--one doesn't set out to prove that they are right (that represents a bias), and even if experiments go well, they need to be repeated many times before something is accepted as scientific fact. Frankly, there is hardly anything accepted as scientific fact--it's mostly theory, albeit theory well supported by empirical evidence.

So--if you are trying to use scientific methods to prove that there is some being out there in the sky on a golden throne, you will fail.

Smith points out the fact that emotions and emotional experiences (including religious ones) are often discarded in a scientific worldview as being non-objective, and therefore unreliable. This is similar to complaints about psychology, if one takes an extreme Freudian view--religion is merely a wish for a return to an innocent state, or whatever. "Mere" is the key term here--it tries to cut down the power of the experience by dismissing it as something insignificant. Erik Erikson is a bit kinder, distinguishing between those things that are demonstrably true, and those that are felt to be true through internal experience.

Let us turn to the East for a moment. In Buddhism, there is no god-concept. Hinduism has many deities, but they represent one Reality. There are actually 3 types of Hindu worship—bhakta (devotion), tantra, and vedanta. Vedanta is very similar to Buddhism in this respect—there is no-thing to worship. Ammachi has said that atheists are no more right or wrong about God than religious folk—no one has a true “image” of the Ultimate (as that would limit the Ultimate—and break the first commandment, if you are Christian or Jewish), so having no concept may be closer to the truth.

Jewish mysticism has an interesting metaphor for this—the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The menorah displayed at Hanukah is one version of the Tree of Life, but more often it looks like the picture shown above.

The Tree of Life is made up of 10 “vessels”, or sephiroth. The Tree technically hangs upside down, and is light at the top, and dense at the bottom. Malkuth, the bottom sephiroth, is the Kingdom—it is where we are now. Directly above Malkuth is Yesod, which is represented by the Moon. The Moon reflects the light of the Sun, and is representative (among other things) of one’s Intuition.

Above Yesod are 2 sephiroths—Hod on the left, and Netzach on the right. All of the sephiroth have many qualities, but it may be easiest to think of Hod as Intellect, and Netzach as Emotion. Directly above these 2 is Tifareth, which is a very complex sephiroth—it is the point of realization that one is “connected to God” (we are special), but it is also dangerous—one can start to think they are more special than everyone else. One can rise to spiritual heights, or fall down from here.

Here is the relevant metaphor: If our physical life can be represented as Malkuth, then the 3 sephiroth above represent our “tools”—the Intellect/Rationality, our Emotions, and our Intuition. Useful tools, but each limited in their own way.

In the bigger picture—the Tree of Life is one, and represents the Ultimate in its entirety. And that’s the key—EVERYTHING is part of the Ultimate, and one sephiroth is not more important than another sephiroth. Rationality does not overshadow the others.

Back to the East—to “know God” is to be aware that one is a small part of a larger system, of Primal Consciousness (adiparashakti). To re-use a metaphor—it’s recognizing the strength of flowing with the entire Ocean, rather than struggling to maintain an identity as a wave. One is much more powerful with the whole than as a part.

The problem is that Western religion frequently separates God from the world, and we start looking for something transcendant that can only be realized immanently. There is nothing for “science” to prove. In the divination system of Norse runes, Ralph Blum’s “Book of Runes” notes for the rune Sowelu (wholeness)—“What you are striving to become is what, by nature, you already are. Become conscious of your essence and bring it into form, express it in a creative way."

Namah Shivaya.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Getting this show on the road..

It's hard to believe that this is only my first post. I've had this blog since November, but I have this thing with time--I never seem to have enough of it. Of course, the only way to get time is to make time.

This blog will primarily be focused on comparative religion and culture (one of my favorite topics), but I also have several other disparate areas of interest that I will discuss in another blog, or on another page. I will link to those when they are up, for anyone interested.

I should also note upfront that I am a devotee of Satguru Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known as Amma or Ammachi, or "the Hugging Saint" ( or ). Ammachi supports all religious beliefs, as do I--but like her, I primarily practice Hinduism. So, if there is a heavy slant towards this in my writing, you know why. I also have a Masters degree in Religion and Society from Drew University, hence the somewhat academic tone of the discourse.

OK, moving on...

I am not a huge TV watcher, but I was scanning the channels on a crummy Northeast US afternoon, and caught the latest Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, which had a profile on preacher Gardner C. Taylor in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Taylor was involved with King in the civil rights movement.

Taylor said two things in the program that struck me: When a pulpit becomes an echo of the pew, it loses, I think, almost all of its reasons for existence," and, to a class of preaching students: "You do not want to strive to be known as a great preacher. You do want to strive for people to feel when you have tried to preach what a great gospel it is."

The first quote is in reference to his concern about modern churches, and their focus on raising money over fighting poverty and injustice. I reflected on the truth of this, and realized that it goes even further--when the churches cease to inspire their congregants to strive for spirituality over materialism, they also lose their reason for existence. Fighting poverty and injustice are two very important facets of this.

We are an extremely materialistic culture, and we haven't figured out that the pursuit of wealth is not going to lead to anything more than temporary happiness. It's like waking up on Christmas morning, and experiencing the joy of opening the present you desperately wanted--only to get bored with that same present a week or a month later. Romantic relationships can be like this, too--we often think that if we just found the perfect partner, everything would be solved. We fall head over heels in love--and then if we actually get together with that person, they ultimately don't live up to our expectations. Why? Because you expect to find the peace and happiness in them that you don't find in yourself. If you don't find it in yourself, you won't find it in anyone else. When I think about how we can get swept up in our emotions when we are attracted to someone, I think of Ammachi's story about Pumpum It illustrates the point beautifully.

People today are desperately in search of peace, and more importantly, that rare and elusive thing called "love". All love is selfish to some degree--the closest one might get is the love of a mother to a child. But even the mother has expectations for the child, and may stifle the child's spirit as the child is growing up, in her effort to be protective. One's minister, priest, or rabbi may advise you with good intentions, but even they have an agenda, as they must fall in line with the theology they are bound to uphold.

This makes things incredibly difficult for anyone attempting to find a true spiritual life. When I say "spiritual", that does not necessarily mean one who goes to church every week, or attends temple regularly. Spiritual means turning towards the Ultimate, however that is defined for that person. It does not require a personal god, although it may. I have observed that the following qualities seem to be associated with this:

  • Selflessness (hence, service)
  • Stillness (not roused to emotional extremes)
  • Detachment (not trying to control)
  • Sense of the "present" (as opposed to lamenting or being nostalgic for the past, or worrying about the future)
  • Compassion (NOT pity--compassion has the quality detached love. Pity says "I'm sorry that you're not like me").
  • Love (the selfless kind)

So, to be spiritual is to strive to live life with these qualities, which are present in everyone. My own experiences tend towards stillness and detachment--if I have these 2 qualities present, everything else seems to flow from that. This may not be true for everyone, but they are the qualities that meditation tries to establish.

When I first received a mantram from Ammachi, I was happy to start meditating, as I have always been a pathetic meditator. I have so much going on in my life that I can scarcely focus for more than 10 seconds. My mind is always running like a perpetual motion machine, or an irritating relative who never shuts up. I practiced mantra japa (reciting one's mantra while counting on a mala, or string of rudraksa beads) for about 6 weeks. On new year's eve that year, I went to a nearby Catholic college to walk the labyrinth that they had available around Christmastime every year. As I walked, I recited my mantra to myself, but found that I was too enmeshed in nonsense going on at work, and other petty things. Frustrated, I was shouting at Ammachi in my head: "What the hell is the point of all of this? I've been engaged in various practices for 17 years now, and I still have no idea why the f**k I am doing this. I'd like to know for even just 5 minutes what I am supposed to get to!"

I walked out of the labyrinth, and back towards my car. At that moment, something happened--I stood still for a moment, and suddenly everything was--well, still. I went back to work with this feeling--the various dramas of the day were still going on, but somehow it didn't matter-it was like watching a still pond, and having someone throw little pebbles into it. I just watched the ripples. I felt no animosity at all towards everyone--in fact, I felt quite content. And I was only concerned with the present--what I had to do tomorrow or next week was not on my mind at all. Everything seemed to move effortlessly.

This feeling did not last, but I have been graced with it several times since then, and a more intense meditation has increased its frequency. It occurred to me that this was what the Buddhists mean when they talk about being totally in the present moment, and what St. Teresa of Avila referred to as the "prayer of quiet" in The Interior Castle.

Why do I mention all of this? If material things and people do not provide permanent happiness, then what does? We are so used to thinking in concrete terms, that we cannot contend with something non-concrete, something that is impossible to explain. The prominence that mental health professionals have in many of our lives, whether it be therapy or taking antidepressants (or both) shows how deep the unease runs. The world around us is not providing the answers, and our religious institutions aren't providing them, either. The rise of fundamentalism is a symptom of our unease, our need for something definite and concrete to point to with regard to the Ultimate. But you will never find the Ultimate in the concrete--it would cease to be Ultimate if you did. Alan Watts put it well when he said that many Western religious people don't follow the finger pointing the way, they suck on it for comfort. Ammachi put it similarly, when she said that murthi (images of deities) are like ladders to the Supreme Consciousness--the deity is only an image, but it helps us focus on the right thing.

For many years I practiced the Wiccan religion, because my personal concept of divinity has always been female. It occurs to me that many seekers turn to Wicca and other occult religions because they are looking to make that connection with the Divine, and they feel that the mainstream paths don't take them there. Unfortunately, many occult religions suffer from the same problems that mainstream religions suffer from--politics and personalities. Carl Jung once said (and I'm paraphrasing) that you can take almost any group of intelligent, well-spoken individuals, and when you put them into a group, they fall quickly into a mass-psychology pattern of, well, stupidity. Groups and organizations will always be fallible. Even groups headed by a realized spiritual master will be this way--after all, the Master is the only one who has succeeded in overcoming the trials of the spiritual path. Everyone else is still struggling along.

Having meandered along on the first quote, let me say something about the second. Humility should probably be added to the list I have above. It is not about you or I as individuals--it is about the Whole. Humility means recognizing that in the big ocean, you are not the little wave that makes it all happen--you are part of a bigger system. For a Christian, to preach the gospel should be proclaiming the message of Jesus, not putting on a one-man or woman show, to show how charismatic or witty one is. One should be driven by a desire to do good for everyone, not to fulfill one's personal ambitions. Life in the spirit has no goals. At the same time--we must recognize that those who are trying to guide us are often as fallible as we are, and should have some compassion. This is not true only of clergy, but also of our parents, our bosses, our friends--those who influence our lives. Unless you are taking instructions from a fully realized Master, take the guidance of others into account, and use your discrimination in deciding your own course.

Those are my thoughts for now. Namah Shivaya.