STAR TREK AND THE ELEPHANT IN THE UNIVERSE is an article on this website, and this is its concluding section. I’m posting it now because June 1 is my mother’s birthday (she would be 109), and of everything of mine that she read, this was her favorite, although it never ceased to amaze her that one of her children could say anything so…mystifying. It is that, and perhaps the most important thing I have found to say about NDEs. Here’s to all gracious mothers and their lasting ties with us. Part two of the Void will come next.
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 flashy ones (and, of course, the funding); so after a while R. was sitting glumly on the sidelines with her declining church memberships, lamenting that no one knew how to waltz her any more. “The Dance,” she said, “is dead.”
Late-nineteenth-century physicists said the same thing about their discipline, confident that physics had learned almost all there was to learn about matter. “The field of physics is about dead.” 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 energy; one might say you are…body and spirit.
And God laughs.
Unhappily, Religion tends to be still moping about the decline of the dogmatic waltz and appears not to notice the atoms 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. Look closer.
Maps and Territory
The universe is our elephant, and like the men of the old story, we try to describe that part of it which we happen to grasp. Like the elephant, it is too big for us to take in whole. Although Universe can neither be taken in by a human mind nor described completely from any single point of view, 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. Our descriptions become models of how the universe works. Over time, these models have developed into theories, doctrines, belief systems: all the forms of religion, the varieties of philosophy, types of spiritual discipline, types of academic discipline, branches of science, each believing itself to represent Truth about the elephant of the universe.
I was struck, some some years back, by the stunning realization that as different and wide-ranging as our belief models are, many display a remarkable underlying consistency—what those more learned than I have called the “perennial philosophy.” Just look, for instance, at the models described by Scripture, by the mystics (the great spiritual technicians), 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.
The scriptural model is made up of themes shared by sacred writings. These 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. They look for communion and relationship and oneness. 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 model comes from 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 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 talk about the positive presence or absolute absence of light. 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 become driven by the conviction that the most important thing is love, that everything is connected to everything else in the universe.
From a fourth and quite different realm come the models of quantum physicists, their science described not in words but in the abstractions of 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.
The Map Is Not the Territory
It would not be true to say that because these models share some commonalities, they are all saying the same things. Saying so would be equally naive as claiming that all religions are alike simply because they all deal with the spiritual. Physics is most emphatically not like religion, nor are idiosyncratic NDEs like disciplined mystical tradition. They are not all precisely the same . . . but because they are all describing the same observed universe, they point in a common direction. Taken singly, the models may have wildly differing interpretations; seen together, they describe a pattern in the universe: A mysterious and powerful motive force, perhaps a shaping consciousness. Light. Unity. Interconnection. Relationship.
The Nature of Things
Many years ago, now, the sister with whom I had shared a bedroom during our growing up was spending some time with my marriage family. We were in the kitchen one afternoon—Babs and I, her five children, and my three. The kids were playing some thunderous game that involved smacking the surface of the big round oak table, when one of the littlest ones asked, “What makes the noise?”
This was a group never at a loss for theorizing, and they came to sudden attention.My nephew Paul, who was nine, could always be depended on. “Noise,” he explained solemnly, “is the sound of molecules screaming. They’re very small, and when something hits them they explode. So they scream.”
Eight sets of eyes stared intently at the heavy table while they considered that pronouncement. Then:
“This table is really old. How come,” asked a six-year-old, “if the molecules have been exploding… how come the table is still here?”
Babs and I did not dare look at each other but waited for Paul’s response. It was bound to be good.
“Well,” he said, “the table is still here because . . . because molecules are always pregnant, and when they explode the babies escape, so there are always new molecules.”
My eleven-year-old was exasperated. “That is so stupid! How can molecules be pregnant?”
Paul looked at her with cool assurance. “Because,” he said, “it is in their nature to be so.”
What I believe about near-death experiences is that it is in their nature to bring messages carrying faint echoes of those of contemporary physics, and the experiences that founded our religions, and the testimony of humanity’s mystics. I believe they are fleeting excursions beyond all maps, into the Territory itself—momentary trips inside the skin of the elephant, experiential blips into the nature of the universe. Of course the experience is ineffable, because All-of-Creation cannot be encompassed by the mind of a single human individual, nor can it be squeezed into syntax and grammar and vocabulary. They announce that it is in the nature of the universe to be a dance of consciousness, of radiant light and terrifying darkness, of all things in relationship, and of a mysterious and ultimate unity. And because we are children of that universe, it is in our nature to be so as well.
I believe that NDE accounts, like our theologies, offer glimpses of the nature of the universe, of the nature of God, the Source—choose your terminology—and that radiant or terrifying, they illuminate our understanding of where we are and what is required if we are to live well in this place:
The Sacred is in your midst. Pay attention. Love what is holy. Care for each other and for the world. Be just and merciful. Amen. Amen.