(Please Read Part 1 first! You’ll find it just below)
In reaction to the emptiness that often seems to pervade modern life, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to reconnect us with the spiritual tradition. Let’s look at three of these first, and see why they do not work, before moving on to the real solution.
(1) First, there is the kind of blind belief that leads to fundamentalism, the insistence that all the profound teachings of one’s religion must be believed literally and absolutely, that no other knowledge is valid, and everything and everyone must be brought into total compliance. This irrational reversion to the pre-scientific age is not only unwise in terms of what we know from history, it is also contrary to the deepest teachings of such figures as Moses, Socrates, Christ, and Muhammad, who all taught their followers to open their hearts and minds, to be responsible, and to think for themselves.
Yet the phenomenon of fundamentalism is becoming more and more widespread in today’s world, from Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East to Born-Again Christians in America. This spread of fundamentalism, as noted by Douglas Sloan, this “turning of past teachings of great complexity and delicate nuance concerning the spirit, into literal statements about the world”, is, ironically enough, dependent upon the acceptance of a major principle of science. That is, fundamentalists have to agree with these scientists that the only true knowledge that is possible or worthwhile consists of literal statements-of-fact about the empirical world!
As Sloan concludes:
“Thus does literalism kill the spirit. In a misconstrued effort to maintain a connection with that mysterious source of meaning and significance, Mystery is destroyed and made banal and pedestrian.”
Even worse, when fear of a threat to religious belief fuses with anger at those deemed responsible, fundamentalism justifies all manner of ugliness and oppression. Here is born so much of the violence in today’s world, all in the name of religious teachings that have been “hardened and drained of their wisdom.”
(2) In a more moderate attempt at reconciliation, employed by many sophisticated modern people, empirical scientific knowledge is deemed acceptable and so is a concern with the realm of meaning and values. But they are kept in two distinct and unrelated compartments, with spirituality regarded benignly as a collection of irrational feelings and wistful aspirations. This approach allows the two realms to coexist, but it does not provide real harmony or wholeness, since it gives no real weight to the life of the spirit — it simply “appreciates” things like art and poetry and religion, in a pleasant self-satisfying sort of way, usually during a Sunday afternoon visit to the museum. It encourages respect for human values, but because it refuses to accord them equal status with so-called “real scientific knowledge”, the whole project is difficult, if not pointless, to sustain.
(3) All the way at the other end of the spectrum, there is the attempt to reconnect with spirituality that is known as the ‘New Age’ movement. In this case, rather than limiting all possible knowledge to one teaching, the movement typically insists on including every tradition possible.
But in doing so, it ends up exploiting them. It conveniently takes from other cultures whatever ideas and practices seem interesting, with no regard for the complete, integrated, framework of these traditions. This borrowing of attractive bits and pieces from other cultures, torn from their context of history and meaning, is degrading to the traditions themselves, and merely confusing or even harmful to the borrowers. The Buddhist scholar Lama Govinda, for instance, describes how Zen then tends to become nothing but “an excuse to live as one always did, only giving different labels to the same actions: waywardness will be made into spontaneity, weakness into the principle of non-violence, laziness into the ideal of non-action, lack of logic into spiritual profundity.”
Here, then, we still find no useful solution to the dilemma of science and religion, for this is an approach which ultimately misconceives and disrespects them both.
Obviously, none of these methods can or should succeed. So if we wish to reconcile science with religion, if we wish to give them both equal ‘weight’ and equal respect, if we wish to heal this ancient rift, how are we to do it?
The solution lies in a renewed appreciation of Levels of Being.
According to the scientific model of the world, spirit and matter exist side-by-side on one level of reality – the so-called ‘only’ level of reality, the level which we can see and touch, measure and weigh. This implicit assumption, that everything that exists can be observed by our senses and studied in a laboratory, has been the theoretical foundation of science for a very long time.
But religion has always agreed with Plato that there are different levels of reality – there is an ‘Above’ and a ‘Below’. These levels, of course, do not refer to different physical locations. They refer to different states of Being.
The material level of reality, the level that can be observed and touched and measured, is the domain of science, and religion has no business arguing with its magnificent discoveries.
At the same time, science has no business pretending that it understands the human soul – once we speak of invisible subjective experience we are completely outside the realm of science, for we are no longer speaking of the objective material level of Being. Thoughts, feelings, and wishes, cannot be taken out of the soul, placed inside a test tube, observed and experimented upon. And neither, of course, can God, which is why the scientific demand for “proof” of God’s existence is trivial nonsense.
But we, as a culture, have lost the deep intuitive understanding that Creation exists on many levels. We have succumbed to the scientific viewpoint. Nothing characterizes ‘the modern world’ more completely than the loss of faith in Transcendence, our arrogant lack of any genuine appreciation for levels of reality above our little everyday affairs.
The deepest wounds to the human soul have been caused by our lack of appreciation of levels.
By shutting the door on transcendence, we have cut off any light from that world that might have illuminated this one, leaving us in darkness, leaving us with nothing but a dead world where scientists are merely performing an autopsy.
We are the heirs of ‘Logical Positivism‘, a philosophical endeavor that seeks to impose scientific thinking into every aspect of our lives by suggesting that all forms of human knowledge and wisdom should aspire to the same sort of rigorous rationality as science. What is most characteristic of logical positivism is its insistence that a statement is only meaningful if it can be determined, through sense observations or scientific experimentation, to be either true or false: anything that cannot be analyzed in this simple manner is considered meaningless, and serious people should not bother thinking about such nonsense.
Thus do we attempt to reject all the wonder and mystery of life, which means, on the one hand, that we are lying to ourselves, and on the other hand, that our constricted minds have seceded from our emotions and intuitions, shattering the soul into fragments.
But science has its rightful place in our lives, and religion has its rightful place as well. There is really no conflict whatsoever between them: we simply have to acknowledge that they perform their work on two different Levels, and they are perfectly, and wonderfully, complementary.
The purpose of science is to unravel mysteries within the physical world. It is not the purpose of science to discover a sacred meaning behind the physical world or to arrogantly pretend to ‘prove’ that no such meaning exists.
The purpose of religion is not to explain material phenomena or to tell us what ‘really’ happened in history. The purpose of religion is to help us perfect our inner souls and discover life’s meaning for ourselves.
It is our responsibility to experience, understand, and appreciate both of these complementary levels of reality, for we are a unique combination of Matter and Spirit! Human beings are potentially capable of understanding the physical world, while also comprehending divinity.
This is the quintessential human quality. It is what makes a human being human.
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