Science and Spirit

Everything that has ever happened in the history of the universe is the prelude to each of our lives. Everything that has happened from the beginning of time has become the platform from which we launch our lives.

We are the heirs of the long evolution of Spirit. Each of us is the latest unfolding of the event of Creation. Our bodies are composed of the material that was shaped in the Big Bang. And so, too, our spirits. The loving goodness of the universe breathes us and breathes through us, giving us life and consciousness, and the capacity to recognize and love others.

- Rabbi Michael Lerner

Science and Spirit

Hubble's 20th anniversary image shows a mountain of dust and gas rising in the Carina Nebula. The top of a three-light-year tall pillar of cool hydrogen is being worn away by the radiation of nearby stars, while stars within the pillar unleash jets of gas that stream from the peaks.

Each stage in the development of the universe incorporates and transcends that which went before.  It has been so from the earliest stages in the formation of galaxies, to the emergence of solar time for our particular planet, through the geological development of the Earth and the emergence of biological reality, until we ultimately emerge into human time, or history.  Each stage of history, in turn, makes further developments possible which finally bring us to the present moment.

That evolving reality has been understood through much of recorded history as an integrated and mutually interacting web of body, mind, soul and spirit.  When we faced problems in our human reality, we often understood those problems to be dysfunctions in the way these different levels of reality interacted with each other.

Recognizing One’s Place in the Unity of All Being

Jewish tradition relates the story of a rabbi who sought to understand his place in the universe.  To keep a balance between too much grandiosity and too much self-diminution, he had two notes, one for each of his two pants pockets.  One note read: “For me the world was created.”  The other note read: “I am nothing more than dust and ashes.”  The task of the rabbi is our task: to integrate these two messages and keep them in appropriate balance.

“For me the world was created.”  The grandeur of creation comes to full expression in the creation of human beings.  Complexly magnificent, able to be conscious of ourselves, able to transcend that which is and to move towards what ought to be,  human beings were “created in the image of God” and reflect the universe’s greatest outpouring of love and generosity.

But also, “nothing more than dust and ashes.”  We are part of the totality of all that is, and we are ever arrogant when we see ourselves as somehow better than everything else, as having the right to use everything else for our own ends.  We are here on the planet for a brief moment, and for much of that time we are deeply enmeshed in foolish schemes to perpetuate ourselves for eternity, imagining that if we amass enough power or control we can somehow live forever.

Emancipatory Spirituality offers a different kind of immortality, not a promise that our own individual personalities with their specific sets of memories and experiences will last forever, but the immortality of being part and parcel of the totality of all being.  To appreciate this second kind of immortality, we need to reach a fuller awareness of our place in the universe and our identity as manifestations of the totality of all that is.

We are “holons,” entities who are simultaneously separate beings seeking to maintain our own individual existence and parts of something much bigger than ourselves.  In the contemporary world, it’s easy to understand the consciousness of ourselves as separate beings, but it’s very hard to develop a sense of ourselves as part of the unity of all being.

The Western intellectual tradition tends to encourage us to see the world as a collection of individual things, separated from each other, and then tries to figure out how they might interact.  Much of our language contributes to this sense of separateness because it was developed to break up nature and our visual field into objects that could be used or shaped by human action.

But this isn’t the only possible human goal.  There’s another way of thinking, one that stresses the fundamental interconnectedness of all being, one that starts with the premise of totality and moves from there.  To understand the world from the standpoint of its fundamental unity, we need to transcend the language that was created to serve a different and narrower purpose.  It’s difficult for words to capture our intuition or perception of “the totality of all with all.”

I sometimes think of our individual consciousness as a liver cell in a complex body.  The liver cell understands what it can take in, given the limited consciousness a liver cell can have.  It has some inkling of connection to other liver cells, and probably some notion of a larger consciousness of the entire body.  But it can’t imagine a larger interconnected reality with a consciousness of the totality that is filled with love and pours out its generosity to all of its parts.

When a liver cell gets out of balance with the rest of the body, we get a destructive expansiveness in which certain cells starts to crowd out neighboring cells.  We call that condition cancer.  Cancer is the perfect analogy for individual egos that have lost their sense of balance and begin to expand themselves at the expense of others.

In some spiritual traditions, the solution to this problem is to obliterate the individual ego.  The ego itself is seen as the big problem, so the solution is to overcome it.

Emancipatory Spirituality, on the other hand, does not seek to obliterate the ego, but to put it in balance with the rest of the universe.  In our society we are in great need of this kind of re-balancing. Our society is full of people who go around saying “I am a self-made man or woman.  I did it myself and therefore I deserve more money or power or recognition than anyone else.”  Many people say that because they were spiritually wounded, deprived of recognition and love, or because they never had the experience of being in a supportive community.  It never occurs to them that the science and technology, the phone lines and the paved streets, the automobiles and airplanes that they use, even the conceptual distinctions and the language they draw upon, were not built by them but by others.  Instead they need to puff themselves up to defend against their feeling of aloneness and their certainty that they cannot count on others.  Said often enough, the myth of the self-made individual starts to take on the dimension of common sense in contemporary capitalist societies.

But look a little closer.  Emancipatory Spirituality teaches that every one of us is standing on the platform of thousands of previous generations of human beings.  We inherited the wisdom, the language, the categories, and the work of the past.

Even as I write this, I have to remember that the food on my table, the shelter over my head, the computer in front of me,  and the language and categories I use are the products of a planetary economy and tens of thousands of years of human effort.  That economy has been made possible by all of humanity’s previous experiments with forming larger and more inclusive cooperative enterprises.  You and I are the beneficiaries of the goodness of tens of millions of human beings who struggled to get information, who developed techniques, tools, systems, words, and institutions.  It was out of their love for each other and for the future of the human race that we can now live in peace, ease, dignity, security, affection and harmony.

Here is one spiritual exercise that each of us needs to try every day. Take any thing in your life –- a musical instrument, a computer, a car, a piece of fruit that sits in your home but was grown far away, a television, a phone line, a book.  Now try to imagine all the steps that needed to happen between the moment that human beings began to evolve and the moment in which you were able to have this thing in your life.  If you ask what knowledge those who brought this object into your life had to have, what those who developed that knowledge had to have from previous people who developed their knowledge, you will quickly be overwhelmed by the amount of cooperation through thousands of years that made all the things that populate your daily life possible.  Try this exercise with a different object or aspect of your life every day and you’ll soon see how much each of us is a beneficiary of the goodness and cooperation of past generations.

And that’s what the universe is –- a vast system of cooperation.  Though many contemporary social institutions teach us to see others as enemies or potential rivals for scarce resources, the truth is that we live in a world in which the basic principle is one of cooperation.

My Hawaiian friend Morty Breyer taught me to recognize this in our own bodies. In his words: “My lungs, with its system of bellows, branching and oxygen exchange membranes, my circulatory system with its tubes, valves and pumps, my nervous system with its wiring, my digestive system with its juices and absorption linings, my sensory systems with their lenses, keying sites and tympani membranes, my movement systems with their structural members, hinges and rigging tendons, all of these and much more do not occur anywhere in the internal structures of any of my cells, nor in the life of any cell that preceded it.  The beautifully cooperative actions of all of these systems with their common goal of preserving and empowering me, their organizational creation, developed over a long period of the evolution of animal life with the ultimate desire to cooperate on a vast scale.  And we human beings have similarly built human technologies and cooperative organizing strategies just like the cells built within us.”

Or think of DNA and the way, when damaged, it reorganizes itself. The individual parts work together to reveal the astonishing interconnectedness of Spirit.

What makes this cooperation possible is the force of Love. Each of us was a product of the love of the universe pulsating through our parents. Though many of us think about how our parents were not as loving as we needed them to be, the fact that we are alive at all is testimony to the interaction between their loving and the loving manifested in social institutions that made it possible for children to be fed, housed, clothed and protected.

The Possibilities Created by the Legacy of Love

On the platform of embodied love we have received from the universe, we can create our world afresh. We are poised to take the next step in the evolution of human consciousness.  To do that, we have to be aware of all that has gone before.

Human beings were never truly isolated or thrown into the world by ourselves. That existential picture, described by the German philosopher Heidegger, is a further elaboration of the philosophers of early capitalism like Hobbes and Leibniz, who saw human beings as isolated monads who forged contracts to enter into community only in order to avoid the war of all against all.  Ironically, this war of all against all may be a good picture of what it’s like to live in our contemporary “looking out for number one” society.  It was seldom true of human life throughout most of our history.

Much of human history has been the history of smaller groups beginning to see common interests and ties to larger groups, first as clans, then as tribes, then as peoples, then as nations.

The next stage of human history requires that we take the next step in the evolution of consciousness and begin to see ourselves as one –- as deeply connected, sharing one planet.

The idea of our fundamental interconnection with each other and with nature was already articulated in the Bible when its Prophets warned that without a society based on justice, peace, love and caring, the whole world will face ecological catastrophe.  From the Bible’s perspective, we commit a global sin by allowing injustice and lack of love toward the stranger and  our neighbor to persist.  And its message is clear:  You cannot act immorally without global consequences.

The next stage in the evolution of our spiritual consciousness will be facilitated when we internalize the awareness that you and I are deeply linked to the other six billion human beings who share this planet.  But more than that — we are interdependent with all the other creatures that are traveling with us on spaceship earth, and beyond that, with all life throughout the universe.

Here I think that the human race has a lot to learn from Biblically based religions.  The central message of the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible and the Muslim Koran is that we were born from God’s love and the love that permeates the universe, and that we have every reason to see each other as created in the image of God, as embodiments of God, and to treat each other as such.

When I talk of God I am talking about YHVH (mistranslated in the King James version as Jehovah, but actually four letters that Jews never pronounce precisely because they do not signify a specific being, but a world process, a God-ing, or, as David Cooper put it in the title of his book, God is a Verb). YHVH comes from the root HVH, the Hebrew word for “the present tense” and the Y which indicates the future:  what the word really means is “the transformation of the present into that which can and should be in the future.” In this sense, God is the Power of Healing and Transformation in the universe — and the Voice of the Future calling us to become who we need to become.

The word “God” has accumulated so much authoritarian and patriarchal baggage that many people find it impossible to believe in the God they were taught about as children. Part of my reason for using the word Spirit throughout this book has been to avoid those associations. But if we think of God as the totality of all that is, was and ever will be, as seen from the perspective of its evolution toward higher levels of consciousness and higher levels of loving connection, then many people who do not believe in God can still come to see the universe from this Spirit-oriented perspective.

Looking at the world in this way, we can each understand ourselves as one of the billions of ways Spirit has chosen to pour its love into existence.  We are at once a manifestation of all the love of the universe, and an opportunity for the universe to manifest greater loving, cooperation and harmony.  This is what the angels meant in the Psalm when they said, “What is Man that thou shouldst think of him or the son of man that thou shouldst take account of him?  But you have made man just a little lower than the angels.”  And yet, we are also, as the Psalmist proclaims, “… like a passing shadow, like a dream that vanishes.”

While we are here on earth, we have an incredible opportunity to recognize and rejoice in the unity of all being, to stand in awe and wonder at the glory of all that is, and to bring forward as much consciousness, love, solidarity, creativity,  sensitivity, and goodness as we possibly can.

Developing and refining this kind of consciousness is a central element in what it means to develop an inner life.  And this is one of the central aspects of spiritual practice.