Spirituality in an Age of Science

By Richard Schiffman

A radio commentator for National Public Radio, Richard Schiffman is the author of Sri Ramakrishna: A Prophet for the New Age and Mother of All. This article was first published in the November, 1999 Vedanta Kesari.

Nowadays every mother’s son and daughter is the bemused intimate of the amoeba and the crab-nebula. With uncanny mechanical eyes we now peer outward at the wheeled forms of untold billions of galaxies, and inward at the dizzying choreography of subatomic particles hurtling through the void. In a matter of decades we have decoded the coiled DNA templates of ourselves, and we have caught fugitive glimpses of that place east of Hercules where space curves in upon itself and time collapses. Our radio telescopes have picked up echoes from that bright flash out of the pan of nothingness when the universe began its interminable journey of expansion from nowhere to somewhere else in a hurry. We presume to think, therefore, that we now know where we came from. But in truth we wander even more clueless than before.

At least our ancestors knew that they were lost: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners as were all our fathers; our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.” Our forebears understood that they were nomads on the margins of a vast desert seeking a few green blades of grass with which to feed their sheep. They were conscious of a certain spiritual vagrancy. They knew that they were far from home–the true home of the soul’s longing. And they had still the keen instinct that it would be good to return there. Nowadays, by contrast, we are nomads on a grander scale–far flung refugees of the “big bang” careening at the speed of light from the unexpected to the unimaginable. And it has left us reeling in roughly equal measures of wonder and dread like some tribe of wild-eyed desert anchorites who have gazed too long upon the naked face of God.

During the memory of many who are alive today, our singular breed of hairless ape has strolled upon the surface of the moon, shattered the atom, reengineered the gene, cloned a sheep, raised up sheer cities of metal and glass, and woven ourselves together into multiple electronic webs of instant communications. You would think that after a century positively bursting at the seams with such marvels we would be feeling pretty good about ourselves and calmly confident of our human powers. And not just confident… but positively exultant, wide-eyed, perpetually amazed. This is, after all, the first generation to behold the blue-green earth from space–a vision no less exalted than the flame-aureoled revelations of the sages. Like God on the seventh day of His creation, we too have gazed down upon the gleaming body of our world–a miraculous fruit hanging without stem upon the void. And we too have seen that it is good. Very good indeed–and not just good, but ONE. ONE breathing, whirling, revolving, greenly living and evolving being, whole and holy, without boundaries and without bounds.

You would think that five minutes after seeing the first images of our planetary home from space on television we would have called off our wars, sealed shut our sludge pipes, ceased to foul the air, pollute the waters, poison the soils, rape the forests. You would think that we would have resolved to dam no more of our free-flowing rivers, and vowed never again to deface earth’s living membrane with the sacrilege of human-drawn political and ethnic boundaries. And then having resolved to protect it, we would have just fallen on our knees and wept tears of gratitude at the fragile and unspeakable loveliness of this our earthly homeland–the world that God had said was good, and that by now any Tom, Dick or Harry with a color TV set can easily see is the best thing going in this part of the galaxy.

For millennia the sages had been preaching that reality is but one intricately interconnected event, sacred, alive to the core and fully conscious, continually adjusting itself to itself like the body of a single vast organism. Now we were actually seeing it with open eyes. No longer a pale abstraction, a poetic metaphor or a mystic vision–the evidence of it was staring us in the face. The knowledge of it was as commonplace as the Six O’clock News: the earth is One and we are one with the earth. You would think that our very minds would have become fragrant with the infinite.

But sadly it has not yet happened. No doubt we live in a world of wonders. Strangely, however, these wonders have not yet touched us where we live. The effect of a century of staggering advances in the realm of science and technology has been only mind-deep. We have become inflated, to be sure–puffed up with second-hand knowledge–but appreciably no greater in spirit, and no wiser for wear. It often seems that the larger our intellects swell with information, the more anxiously our hearts contract like tortoises into demythologized shells of barren knowingness.

So yes, we certainly do know more today than ever before; and it is certainly true that at the push of a button we can perform feats that our grandparents could not have imagined possible, and still less accomplished in a lifetime of hard physical labor. But, sadly, we have become no greater for it–only bloated and unwieldy and unsightly. We have become, to use Sri Ramakrishna’s apt metaphor, big like an ocean-liner which can no longer negotiate life’s narrow channels and swiftly flowing streams. We know too much and understand too little; we do too much and reflect too little upon the significance of our deeds; we possess too much and yet own too little of our own selves. We wolf down raw fistfuls of information and yet digest precious little of it. We perform more and more outlandish marvels with our gangling technological arms, and yet accomplish little that appears after five minutes of sorb thought to have been worth doing in the first place.

With the result that, as the known physical universe swells seemingly at the speed of light and in all directions at once, we humans feel a good deal less at home in it than we ever have before. As the world described by science expands geometrically and grows more complex by the hour, we shrink proportionately in our own eyes. Our personal and collective lives have come to seem inconsequential, infinitely expendable, a cosmic side show, where cherished human values, aims and ideals are mocked by nature’s blind juggernaut and sheer inhuman purposes. In the end we feel ourselves swallowed whole in the cold immensities of interstellar space and aeonian time. And we repeat with the poet:

I a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.

Nineteenth-century science showed us a natural world which lacked a single overarching purpose and consistent direction, but which was obedient to multiple widely diverging purposes jostling and competing with one another for supremacy. Our blue-green planet was revealed to be a war-zone where every organism struggled with every other organism for sheer survival and the evolutionary prerogative to pass down its legacy of DNA to the next generation. The world of physics likewise was a battlefield of naked forces, each one obedient only to its own mechanistic logic and crude necessity.

Similarly, the vast sweep of events over time seemed headed in no discernible direction. Continents rose and fell; polar icecaps advanced and retreated; the seas inundated the land and then shrank; species crawled out of the primal ooze only to become extinct in the very next moment of geological time. Creation had no purpose, it would seem. Or only an endless series of provisional purposes taken up and then abandoned for no apparent reason. Physicist Steven Weinberg put it concisely: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” That, at any rate, was for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the verdict of modern science.

It is ironic that today we believe that the world is (or at least it should be) humanly comprehensible, rationally ordered, and scientifically predictable, but we no longer believe that it is anything like trustworthy. Trust is always personal; it flows from the concreteness of an actual relationship. You can never really trust a process, an energy, or a system. You might indeed have developed a certain abstract confidence in the operation of such things, you may know how they are likely to behave and adjust your own behavior accordingly. You might have come to depend on them for certain limited purposes. But you cannot say that you trust them, because it is impossible to form any kind of personal relationship with a process, an energy or a system. I work on my computer every day. I have come to expect that it will record and save my words, correct my spelling, and get me onto the internet. But it would be absurd to say that I trust my computer. I merely understand that it is a useful and reasonably dependable device for accomplishing certain limited purposes.

Today’s “New Agers” sometimes speak about God as being an infinite source of impersonal energy which one can tap into once one knows how it works. We can enhance our lives, become confidently empowered, successful, radiantly healthy, wealthy and wise, if only we learn how to place ourselves in a favorable position relative to the flow of this “energy.” They may or may not be correct in this teaching. But I ask whether their methods can end the alienation that we feel so acutely today, or if they will just mask that alienation with yet another form of self-seeking–a self-seeking which ultimately separates us from the reality which we attempt to control to our advantage. For these methods are based on manipulation and not on trust.

They are about getting something for oneself and not about forging a relationship of innocent trust with the Giver of all. The moment that we make demands, we have abandoned the relationship of child-like faith for a contractual arrangement where we negotiate the best possible deal for ourselves personally. This may well be a good business move, but it should not masquerade as a form of spirituality. Spirituality is a way of ending alienation now and forevermore through an orientation of radical trust in what is. Spirituality is, therefore, rooted in a loving relationship with the Most High and not just an abstract confidence that certain metaphysical laws and principles can be made to work in one’s own favor.

Our ancestors did not merely believe in a cosmic energy and in their capacity to make that energy do their bidding; they trusted in a Father/Mother God. Today religious believers talk a lot about the need to believe or have faith in God. But the mystics of past ages spoke more about the value of trusting God. The current emphasis on belief and faith can be seen as a last ditch effort to shore up religion by an act of the will and the mind. When religion is in a period of decline preachers preach that it is necessary to believe beliefs. Sri Ramakrishna prayed to the Divine Mother, Kali, not to send him those who contented themselves with believing beliefs. Beliefs come in when trust is failing or has already failed us. When we no longer have trust in God we do the next best thing–we develop beliefs about Him. A belief is something indirect, it is “about” God, that is to say it exists outside of the divine reality. When we say, “He is out and about the house,” we mean that he is somewhere near it. When we say, “He has beliefs about God,” we imply that he is outside of God looking in, as it were. But when we say, “He trusts in God,” the very act of trusting is already “in” God. To trust God is to feel as if one were already within, already a part of the divine reality. In trust there is no sense of separation: the one who trusts and the one who is trusted are two faces of the same being.

Believers believe; mystics trust. This trust has tremendous implications for the way that the mystics live their lives. Trusting unconditionally in their Creator, they cannot help but trust in His creation. Trusting in His creation, they cannot help but trust themselves implicitly as integral parts of that creation. And not only do they believe in themselves, but they believe themselves to be uniquely privileged members of that creation, beings divinely gifted with the capacity for self-consciousness who, alone amongst God’s creatures, can stand back and reflect upon their role in the greater scheme of things and know themselves to be intimately related to the Creator of All.

Our ancestors could trust innocently because they had not yet been corrupted by knowledge. Or more accurately, they had not yet been corrupted by pseudo-scientific theories and half-truths masquerading as facts. They did not know, for example, that matter was “dead” and “without consciousness” and that the earth was a mere stony ball hurtling mindlessly through the infinite void of space. They were blissfully unaware that the world was random and chaotic, ruled by blind physical forces rather than by spiritual principles. They had not yet been told that they were descended from the apes or ruled by their sexual organs. And for the most part they did not yet act as if they were.

Right now we humans are asleep to our own nature, the sages tell us. Each of us is ensconced in the dream (or perhaps the nightmare) that we have woven around ourselves. We might seem to be awake, but in actuality we are like sleep-walkers who have only just enough awareness to keep from tripping all over themselves and stumbling into walls. We still manage to function; in other words, we do what we have to do in order to get ourselves through the day–but in a spiritual sense we are almost totally unaware of where we are, who we are and where we are headed. And we are largely oblivious to the magnificence that surrounds us and is within.

When I was in India I visited the Taj Mahal. In the very center of the hushed mausoleum I noticed a line of black ants making their way dutifully across the vast marble floor. It occurred to me that we humans are very much like those ants. We exist in the very shadow of the magnificent temple of Life. The wonders of the cosmos are arrayed on every side. And yet we go about our daily tasks, clutching our single grain of sugar and ignoring the vast spiritual context for our lives. The great Jewish mystic and founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov said: “Just as a small coin held over the eye can block out the sight of a lofty mountain peak, so too can the vanities of living block out the sight of the Infinite Light.”

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Spirituality in an Age of Science