|Defining Spirituality Essay|
Rev. Francis J Douse, ULC Seminary
This is my essay for the Defining Spirituality course with the ULC Seminary. A matter of confusion on my part had occurred, which is not a good start on any course of study. I was thinking the course dealt with actually defining what spirituality is, which would have been a monumental task in itself effort to devise let alone study. Instead, I soon discovered it was quite different to my expectations and truthfully some prejudices on my part and yet it has proven enjoyable, informative and complemented studies and thoughts I've followed during my life.
The course itself explored the basis of current Western thought and how it has developed over the centuries, this was presented in the context of ministering to scientific and/or rationalist minded people.
Manifest Matter and Mysticism at the Heart of All Things
Something I felt was implied if not asserted was that matter can be manifest or at least manipulated by will. But this is not expanded upon, or at least not to the point where a minister is attempting to breach the gap between themselves and someone who is scientifically minded, can discuss the matter in a meaningful way. The hardened rationalist will be looking directly for logical evidence during such a discussion and I did not feel that 'rational' examples were given. I would have liked to have seen this explored in more depth. The course writer states that science proves mysticism to be at the heart of all things and whereas I can agree, again, I cannot see how a rationalist will accept that statement without irrefutable evidence. I've encountered some concepts posited to support this, firstly Shrodinger's cat - a quantum mechanics thought experiment. A cat (or other living organism) is placed in a sealed box with a poison. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, the cat is both alive and dead until the box is opened, the act of observing the end result determines the outcome. Another is a phenomenon known as wave-particle duality, for example photons behave like a wave or a particle depending on how they are being observed. Whereas these seem almost mystical and would indicate that the mind does affect matter, the reality may be more complex. For example, with the cat experiment the Copenhagen Interpretation is just that - an interpretation and there are and probably will be more now and in the future.
The Classics, The Cave and Philosophy
I've always believed that a classical foundation is a good starting point for education and for understanding our roots in western culture. I enjoyed the material presented especially the cave allegory by Plato. It was similar to an example given to me when studying quantum theory at university. In this example, imagine a sheet of paper which represents a 2 dimensional world in which 2D stick people live. They can only perceive the X and Y axes, there is no Z axis for them - it is beyond their perception. Now imagine I take pencil (which can also be a Platonic perfect form) and pierce the paper on which they live, I pass the pencil through along it's length and remove it on the other side. What would the folk in 2D world see? A 3D pencil? No. They see a dot form where the pencil pierces, the dot grows into a circle, the circle persists for a time and vanishes. The idea that a 3 dimensional object had passed through their world would be ludicrous to them! It underlines the limits of our own perceptions and knowledge.
Although we are concentrating on western philosophy, no man is an island. There is a massive jump from the Greek philosophers to the Renaissance thinkers, I believe an acknowledgment must be given to Islamic scholars who gathered and built upon Greek knowledge and it's re-introduction to the west. Also Constantinople should be given a nod, as the capital Eastern Roman Empire it persisted another 1,000 years after the collapse of the west, and traded heavily with the Islamic world especially in regard to the ancient texts. Such knowledge was highly prized and the Byzantine book markets still survive to this day. After it's fall in 1453, the great Byzantine thinkers came westwards bringing the knowledge with them. Similar events occurred in Spain too. I admit I am over-simplifying a complex issue but none the less, a paragraph about where the knowledge was and how it was used when Europe languished in the so-called Dark Ages would have been useful.
One thing I am not too clear on. Renaissance thinkers worked (generally) within the rules of the Church (and failure to do so would be at their peril) and many have been men of great faith, yet rationalists build on that foundation to assert their own cold God-less world views. I'm not sure how they reconcile or reconciled that. How many of these more recent philosophers will still stand the test of time in another 1,500 years or more? I would be surprised if the likes of Plato and Aristotle aren't still read. Will Nietzche's syphilitic nihilism still hold any real value? How much philosophy is useful and how much is just plain old over-thinking? These are issues I have been motivated by the course to question and to continue seeking meaningful answers to.
Atheism - A Clear and Present Danger
Atheism is a subject that was explored. There are those who use the foundation of other philosophers and thinkers (many of whom had faith) and a conceited reliance on logic, reason and science to support their atheism. Just as I cannot prove the existence of the Divine using science, they cannot disprove it. I assert that atheism is simply a belief and not a 'non-belief' as some would say. It is a system of belief like any other, and a narrow myopic one at that. For the atheist, life essentially has no meaning, no purpose. We are born, we live, we die and that is it. Anything else is just wishful thinking and fantasy, a coping mechanism to deal with our own mortality, it is placed into the same category as Father Christmas and the tooth fairy.
I further assert that reason, rationalism and science cannot be used in any context of spirituality anymore than carpentry can help in mountaineering, they are separate fields of human endeavor. Also from all the experiences I have had with atheists - and I say this as a former atheist myself, that there are those who reject the Divine because they had a limited and naive view of it to begin with. If one has been exposed to a literal view of God as a human dressed in white with a long grey beard sat on a throne behind pearly gates, then I could sympathise with their rejection, after all, such symbolism is a relic from Greco-Roman paganism. To me, to rely on science to provide 'proof' that God does not exist is a lie and a conceit because science has no bearing on faith whatsoever.
I believe that extremist secularism and atheism as espoused by Richard Dawkins represents a real danger in society, just as real as religious extremism. Here in the UK as more and more are brought up without any spiritual dimension whatsoever, society is in a real and demonstrable moral free-fall. Nobody thinks twice now when an 11 year old boy fathers a child with a 15 year old girl! Even here in York, I've witnessed with horror a medieval church being transformed into a hedonistic nightclub! The moral vacuum has lead to over-inflation of the ego, loss of self-respect and ultimately damage to the soul. It is a sorry state of affairs and very few seem to even care.
My own conclusions
As I said in the introduction, I had a little confusion about the course when I began but it has proven to be a most insightful and enjoyable course. I believe that there is no conflict between science and spirituality as they are separate endeavours. Science deals with what can be observed and measured while God is beyond all things, ineffable and transcendent, as mankind learns more about it's place in the cosmos God will always be beyond touch. For me, He is beyond mathematics and reason, He has revealed Himself to me and thus in my mind I have all the evidence I need.
Science is not a subject where one should place all of his or her stock, it;s a systematic way of objectively viewing what we perceive, it provides no meaning and no idea of what happens after death. Science has limits, we will never know what happened before the Big Bang, we don't even know how the universe will end, only that there is an almost biblical cosmic struggle between dark matter holding the universe together, while dark energy seeks to pull it apart. We think the universe is one of many and we know the universe is some 14 billion years old, we know many things and their mechanisms. We know the odds of producing a world full of complex creatures are against us, let alone the mass extinctions that life has fought through. The odds against us being here are literally astronomical and yet here we are. Is it by an intelligent design or simply pot luck? As stated in the discourses, we can only say we know nothing.
As sad as it is, there will be people we cannot minister to. I have encountered people who simply cannot believe in a concept of a soul and anything of a Divine nature. This is anathema to me, to reject one's own soul is like rejecting the mind and consciousness itself. Approaching scientifically minded people is possible if they have a seed of spirituality within them, as ministers we can nurture that and allow it to grow to its full potential.
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