by Nancy Evans Bush, MA
Dancing in the Dark
With the debut of Science three centuries ago, Religion lost first place on the dance card of Western civilization. The newcomer was dazzling and accomplished, and had soon whisked half the world out of its agricultural worldview and into the Industrial Revolution and on toward a technological wonderland and spiritual confusions. Between then and now, Religion has still found partners, but Science snapped up the sexy ones (and, of course, the funding); so after a while R. was sitting glumly on the sidelines with her confidantes, lamenting that no one knew how to waltz any more. “The Dance,” she said, “is dead.”
Late-nineteenth-century physicists said the same thing about their discipline, in the confident assumption that physics had learned almost all there was to learn about matter. Both pronouncements were premature.
Within a generation, quantum mechanics had produced the astounding discovery that an atom could be subdivided, and what was more, that when looked at from one perspective, electrons behaved like solid particles; viewed from another perspective, they seemed like electromagnetic waves. Particle and wave; matter and energy. With this came the unsettling certitude that matter—the good, solid, physical, dependably measurable stuff—was dizzyingly otherwise: not solid things so much as fields of fizzing, unpredictable energy and infinitesimal vibrational entities at enormous distances from each other.
Consider the implications for yourself: Sub-atomic particles make up atoms; atoms make up molecules; molecules make up cells; cells make up organs; and organs make up . . . us . . . which leads to the incontrovertible conclusion that our very own bodies which seem so—well, physical, are constituted overwhelmingly of space, occasionally interspersed with bits of dynamic buzzy stuff. But if we’re not solid stuff—if we’re mostly space—what are we? Who are we? Where do I stop and you start? Where are our edges?
Philosopher/psychologist Jean Houston says, “We all have leaky margins.” (Think of your feelings of discomfort in a crowded elevator where everyone is ‘leaking’ on everyone else.) We are a whisk of buzzy atoms and sub-atomic particles, all in a whirl and dance. We are a soup of photons. British physicist David Bohm said, “Matter is frozen light.” Look at yourself, and at the people around you—frozen light. You are the salt of the earth. You are the city that is set on a hill. You are frozen light. You are particle and wave; matter and energy¾one might say, you are body and spirit.
And the Star Trek God laughs.
Unhappily, Religion tends to be still moping about the decline of the dognatic waltz and appears not to notice the dancing all around her. On the other hand, people who think Religion is dumb or delusional don’t bother to notice that the body-and-spirit notion was her idea in the first place. Everyone wants the credit for a good idea.
Maps and Territory
The universe is our elephant, and like the men of the old story, we try to describe that part of it we grasp. Although Universe can neither be taken in by a human mind nor described completely from any single perspective, that has not kept us from trying: Bronze Age nomad, twelfth century monastic, 18th century mathematician, 20th century physicist, 21st century novelist, or file clerk—we all look out on the same universe, look to the limit of our senses, describe what we find, and interpret our description. Over time, these models have developed into theories, doctrines, belief systems: all the forms of religion, the varieties of philosophy, types of spiritual discipline, branches of science, each believing itself to be the truth about the elephant of the universe.
Is this view of mine the end of faith? If beliefs, if theologies, if doctrines merely describe models, what can we trust to be true?
My experience has been that this understanding provided the beginning of faith, the bedrock of unshakeable belief. What struck me some years back was the stunning realization that, as different and wide-ranging as people’s belief models are, many display a remarkable underlying consistency—what those more learned than I have called the “perennial philosophy.” Considering a group of these models together, we can trace their common characteristics. These are the models described by Scripture, by the great spiritual technicians called mystics, by near-death experiencers, and by today’s particle physicists. Each set of descriptions is an attempt to picture Reality . . . Creation . . . the Whole. Each is a map of the great cosmic territory.
One model is made up of themes shared by sacred writings. These traditions acknowledge a “something other” in creation, a sensed holy presence, a powerful shaping force; in English, it is often called God. The scriptures and hymns of religious tradition include abundant mention of radiant light: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inexpressible hid from our eyes…” They speak of the importance of caring, of loving one’s neighbor, even one’s enemy. And whether in stories of Eden or of the Dreamtime of lost Ancient Ones, they tell of an unimaginably distant time of harmony and wholeness.
A second type of model is present in the writings of the world’s great mystics, those persons past and present who live with a radical sense of inbreaking spiritual experience. Their lives have been captivated by a sacred Presence, by an unseen Beloved. Their experience is described in terms of light and darkness. They are overwhelmed by the centrality of agape, of unconditional love. And they attempt to describe their flashing moments of union with the sacred Presence as a seamless and ineffable whole.
The third model comes from the accounts of near-death experiences across the centuries. People who have had a near-death experience talk about light—its positive presence or absolute absence. They tell of presences, sometimes of a sacred Presence they may call by a name familiar to them from their religious tradition or refer to simply as a Being of Light. Their lives afterward are driven by the conviction that the most important thing is love, that everything is connected, that there is a oneness to everything in the universe.
From a fourth and quite different realm come the models of quantum physicists, their science described not so much in words as in mathematics. They have demonstrated that the most basic bit of existence is the photon, the smallest particle of light. Increasingly they say there seems to be, somehow, a shaping intelligence behind (or within) the workings of everything that is. They speak of their search for a unified field theory, following hints of a theoretical commonality linking all things. And particle physicists have documented the unarguable truth that at the sub-atomic level, there can be no objective observer and observed, for in a mysterious dance of oneness everything at the quantum level interconnects and interacts.