Science and Spirit
August 03, 2003
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single cubit to your height? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, "What will we eat?" or "What will we drink?" or "What will we wear?" For the Gentiles strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.
Reading from Swedenborg
One day a magnificent church building appeared to me. . . . When I got closer, I saw that there was an inscription over the door: NOW IT IS PERMITTED. This meant that now it is permitted to enter intelligently into the mysteries of faith. (True Christian Religion #508)
Consider the lilies of the field . . . . (Matthew 6:28)
Some day, perhaps, this may be the motto of graduate departments of botany. That does not seem very likely at present, to be sure. But it becomes more tenable if we widen our view; if we see the present times in a larger context.
The science we are familiar with, the science we learned in school, tends to be rigidly materialistic. By definition, it seems, the scientist rules out any consideration of the "supernatural." In questions of religion, science is supposed to be neutral, and religion is supposed not to interfere with it.
But this is a relatively recent development that is not accepted by all scientists. Indeed, some of the greatest would call it into question. It may represent, not the inevitable direction of scientific thought, but rather the extreme swing of a pendulum that is even now beginning to reverse itself.
In fact, the man widely seen as the seminal thinker in this mode of thought, Sir Isaac Newton, was himself a theologian, with an abiding interest in alchemy. The mechanistic system he proposed for the motions of the planets was for him a clear sign of divine order in creation, and he firmly believed that the illogic of gravity, the impossibility of a force acting instantaneously over a distance through a total vacuum, could be accounted for only by assuming the presence of God in that vacuum. Similarly Galileo, Copernicus, and Kepler believed they were finding God's presence, learning about God's nature, by coming to a more coherent understanding of the universe.
So the initial difference was not between a pious church and a godless science. Rather, it was between a God manifest in miracles and mystery--a God in a sense confined to church and ritual--and a God manifest in a beautiful and knowable order: the order of nature. This latter approach underlies Swedenborg's familiar statement, "Now it is permitted to enter intelligently into the mysteries of faith."
As often happens, however--and as has happened on smaller scales in our own lives--there seems to have been a growing preoccupation with the discoveries themselves. We start a particular task for a clear purpose, and get so absorbed in it that we forget why we are doing it. Sometimes we don't wake up until someone says, "Why are you spending so much time on that?" Then we recall why we started, and once again see the task in proportion.
But something a little different seems to be happening in contemporary science. The very preoccupation with matter is leading beyond itself. As technology and skills advance, we begin to observe a fundamental level of matter where it is directly influenced by mind. It becomes more and more difficult to believe that nothing exists but matter. The eminent brain scientist Sir John Eccles writes, "Radical materialism should have a prominent place in the history of human silliness." If we look at the great minds in science, at the Heisenbergs, the Bohrs, the Einsteins, we find a distinctly mystical side--a sense of the vitality of spirit.
We can learn from this. All too often, churches have assumed a defensive stance, as though they and they alone were the guardians of truth. They have resisted or tried to ignore evidence that seemed to contradict their own understandings of the way the world works. The net result of this, as the Chicago theologian Bernard Meland has pointed out, has been to cut themselves off from the world around them, and to make themselves ineffective.
To the extent that we actually believe that a loving and wise Lord has created and is creating the world we live in, we should welcome every genuine effort to understand that world. We should support those who "consider the lilies"; we should trust that "the heavens declare the glory of God." Swedenborg's road to spiritual awareness was by way of just such science, and there are lovely passages in his theology where he calls the marvelous order of nature as witness to the love and wisdom of the Creator.
We cannot do this uncritically, though. What we must insist on is mental honesty in these efforts to understand. If the scientist is trying to prove a theory, trying to justify a preconception, then science itself says that the results will be distorted. The attitude that leads to discovery is the attitude that wants to discover; and nothing corrodes that attitude more effectively than the assumption that one already knows.
That may seem obvious--I certainly hope it does--but obvious and easy are two different things. For if we are to encourage this attitude in others, we must surely cultivate it in ourselves. Otherwise, we simply do not know what we are talking about, and our words and our behavior send contradictory messages.
The difficulty is that we do believe we have a grasp of some fundamental truths. We do believe that the universe is a creation of love and wisdom and not an accidental or random happening. We do believe that spirit is primary, that we have been created for a purpose, and that life continues after physical death. How open-minded are we supposed to be? Swedenborg writes:
No truth ought to be instantly confirmed--that is, so confirmed that there is no doubt left. Truth confirmed in this way is hard and unyielding. It has no stretch, no give; it is not receptive of the good that would make it adaptable. This is why, whenever something true is presented to good spirits in the other life, something opposite is soon presented, which creates a doubt. . . . In this way, they can lead the truth into their minds rationally, . . . and it has an outreach even to its opposite. (Arcana Coelestia #7298.2)
We have encountered "hard truth" in others and in ourselves. We have heard people say things we agreed with, but in such a dogmatic or defensive way that we wanted to disagree. We have found ourselves defending our pet notions, trying to explain away facts that refused to fit. If we look at such instances we can see quite vividly how they set people at odds with each other. The rigid creationist and the rigid materialist may have different beliefs, but they are very much alike in their rigidity.
If we look a little more deeply, we can also see that this rigidity betrays a fundamental insecurity. It reminds me of driving a car. A truly confident driver is relaxed and alert, holding the wheel gently, and going with the bumps and curves. An insecure driver "white-knuckles" it, holding on to the wheel like grim death, and overreacting to every little signal.
Fundamentally, we are talking about a vast difference between trying to prove and trying to discover. There is an urgent need for us to recognize our own "efforts to prove" as signs that our belief is not yet secure. They are not signs of faith, but signs of doubt. Then and only then can we find the opportunity "to think and to ponder whether it is true," so that our spiritual sight will have an outreach; so that it will not be "impervious to the good that would make it adaptable." We question not the fundamental nature of reality, but our own understanding of it, and recognize that since that understanding cannot be perfect or complete, it needs to be flexible.
Throughout human history, genuine efforts to understand have led to greater understanding. We can indeed trust that such efforts will eventually demonstrate the silliness of radical materialism, and that someday there will be botany buildings with the motto inscribed over the door, "Consider the lilies." Amen.
Creator of the universe and Designer of the world of nature, thank you for providing such beauty and intricacy of design that as we study it more and more deeply, we come to the very threshold of your presence. Thank you for placing signs of yourself everywhere, so that when we are ready, we can find you where you have been hiding in plain sight. And thank you for directing us from within so that even when we were looking for something else, our search finds its object and its satisfaction in you. Amen.
Rev. Dr. George F. Dole