by Pastor Doug Kings

One of the (sadly far too many) new books on my “to be read” shelf is Reality Is Not What It Seems by Italian physicist and author Carlo Rovelli. Rovelli has been widely acclaimed as a profound scientist with the voice of a poet. From a review in The Guardian newspaper:

In a superb chapter on Dante and his conception of paradise and the cosmos, Rovelli writes: “Our culture is foolish to keep science and poetry separated,” adding: “they are two tools to open our eyes to the complexity and beauty of the world.”

For Rovelli, “poetry” is the world as viewed by our spirit and heart, including religion. In writing about science’s early history, Rovelli is very aware of religion’s frequent hostility towards it.

Throughout, Rovelli repudiates religious fundamentalists of any denomination – but also rejects the idea that science is ever settled. “The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical distrust in certainty.” … Science is not and never has been about certainty. “Only by keeping in mind that our beliefs may turn out to be wrong is it possible to free ourselves from wrong ideas.”

 Often when we feal confused, overwhelmed or threatened we become rigid and defensive. Because we often identify with our ideas (i.e. I am what I think), we react negatively to anything questioning our beliefs or viewpoint. This happens to us individually but can happen to a society or culture.

That is our situation today. A world in flux is causing us more often to dig in our heals and put up our fists. Genuine conversation, dialogue and compromise have become increasingly difficult.

 Yet the problems humanity faces are increasingly dire and desperately need attention. So Rovelli’s insight is especially timely: finding the truth requires that we hold our beliefs loosely, recognizing they “may turn out to be wrong.” Thus, we need both our hearts and our brains to relax and to work together, individually, and collectively.

It’s no secret that most institutions today are in a state of crisis and self-doubt: government, health care, media, education, economics, etc. The only way forward is to adopt what Rovelli calls “a radical distrust in certainty.” So many former assumptions and models no longer hold. Stubbornly clinging to them is only making matters worse.

 Religion is in much the same situation. Around the world, people for whom traditional religion plays a significant role in their daily lives are a shrinking minority. The modern and post-modern worlds have thrown religion a serious curve. And as with other institutions, just tinkering and adjusting isn’t helping.

The growth of the “spiritual, not religious” is often dismissed with scorn by church leaders. Yet it is a genuine sign of hope. A half-century ago the great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, said, “The devout Christian of the future will either be a mystic … or he will cease to be anything at all.” Rahner understood that in the modern world an experience of God would be far more important than having particular ideas about God. Yet it’s the latter that still gets priority in the church.

Over the past century there has been a rediscovery and new appreciation of the great mystics of ancient and medieval Christianity (like Meister Eckhart who I talked about last Sunday). Yet their mystical experience can’t be ours because our world is a very different one from theirs. We must develop an understanding of God and an experience of God that arises out of this world and out of our lives within it.

I am encouraged by signs I see that this is happening. In many cases these developments are occurring off the traditional religious radar screen. Yet almost always treasures of the great religious traditions are included.

From the recent past, for example, Teilhard de Chardin and Alan Watts, both Christian clergy, sought to join the wisdom of Christianity, east Asian religion, and science into a philosophy and spirituality relevant to modern life. Their works are valued now more than when they were alive, yet at the time neither were welcomed or appreciated by the church.

Many others are continuing their efforts but it’s not surprising that they are mostly outside and generally ignored by the church. It’s astonishing to me, for example, that the church shows no interest in engaging such best-selling authors and renowned teachers as Eckhart Tolle or Deepak Chopra. And there are many others who match their spiritual depth but are less well known.

The most fascinating and exciting developments I’ve become aware of recently are in the intersection of physics and spirituality. Ever since the development of the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, there has been an awareness that, as the book title I began with says, “reality is not what it seems.” In the century that’s followed, that awareness has only grown.

Scientists are pushing our boundaries of perception and understanding in all directions. The results are mind-bending even to them. One of the most surprising results, though anticipated by some of the earliest scientific explorers of these realms, is that in some cases the new theories seem to reach out and touch the world’s most ancient religious and spiritual insights.

I recently watched a Tim Ferris interview of UC-Irvine professor and cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman. Hoffman is one of a small but growing number of scientists from various disciplines who contend that the basic nature of reality is not matter but consciousness. This new field does have a wild west feel but there is nothing woo-woo about it. It is serious science.

Yet Hoffman and others are willing to recognize and welcome the connections their studies suggest to our deepest human understandings and desires. So, I was pleasantly surprised near the end of the interview when Hoffman began talking about the possibility and even desirability of connecting science and spirituality.

Whatever the future of the theories of Hoffman and others, what is encouraging is that some scientists, at least, are actively reaching across these formerly rigid boundaries. They understand that the predicament of our world requires we recognize, as Rovelli says, that it is “foolish to keep science and poetry separated.” My question is whether we on the other side of that divide recognize its foolishness as well.

Blessings in your life and ministry.