(Between my day job and trying to finish the final proof of Summer’s Cauldron to get it published by the end of the month, this has become a very busy week. Because I’m also in the early stages of editing The Chrysalis Age (now called The Alchemy of World and Soul) for publication at the end of the year, I thought I would post an excerpt from it. I had wanted to take the time to link all the references mentioned, but it was going to take too much time. Maybe I’ll update it later. Hopefully you’ll find the piece informative and thought provoking.)
The Separation of Humanity from Nature and the Divine through Religion and Science
The experience of awe one feels standing beneath the star-filled heavens is by no means unusual, though it is becoming more rare as the world’s population continues to move into urban areas where city lights blot out the glorious firmament above. A sense of wonder in the presence of an infinite number of stars is no doubt what inspired the ancient Neolithic sky watchers who built Stonehenge, and the court astronomers of the Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Mayan civilizations. Gazing at the stars, the ancients created numerous stories to explain the existence of the universe.
Egyptian myths tell of an original creator Ra-Atum, who manifested from primeval chaos and spawned the first essence of the male and female in Shu, the god of air and Tefenet, the goddess of moisture. Shu and Tefenet soon gave birth to Geb and Nut, who embraced so tightly that when Nut became pregnant there was no room for anything to be born. Shu separated his incestuous children so that there could be life, Geb becoming god of the Earth and Nut, goddess of the sky.
The theme of separation courses throughout human history. Just as myths of creation separate us from the Divine, the birth of civilization served to separate us, for the first time, from nature. As we gathered into larger and larger settlements we drew further away from the reality of the earth. From initial settlements like Catal Huyuk in what became modern day Turkey, to the rise of city-states such as Sumer and Babylon, humans drew further away from nature. These were the first cuts along the cord connecting us to our primal selves and this separation brought incredible changes.
Cities demanded bureaucracy, which in turn required a means of record keeping. In short order, spoken language was transformed into writing and for the first time our interior thoughts could be transmitted and preserved. The human love affair with the written word flowered, engendering what would eventually become a full-fledged retreat from the world of places and things into the ephemeral land of ideas and concepts that constitute our minds. And while civilizations continued to rise and fall for four thousand years, through the grace of, and often in spite of the written word, it was not until the Italian Renaissance of the 1500’s that the most significant separation from nature occurred.
Though mythology and civilization had divided humanity from the Divine and nature, science soon began to sever the ties between the universe and the Divine. The universe in all of its mysterious glory had always, in nearly every religion, been considered divine. All this began to change as the Renaissance of Western Europe flowered into the Enlightenment. Again, written language was a large part of the separation. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of a movable type printing press in 1450 revolutionized the transmission of information throughout the continent. Books no longer needed to be copied by hand, but could be produced with minimal effort and expense.
One of the first men to take advantage of this new technology was Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. In 1543, he published his infamous On the Revolution of Heavenly Bodies in which he proposed a heliocentric theory of the solar system. Ignoring the pre-scientific supposition of Ptolemy and Aristotle, Copernicus relied on empirical observation to determine that the planets of the solar system revolved around the sun, not the other way around, as many Greek philosophers had reasoned.
The dispute between science and religion took its most dramatic turn with Italian priest and philosopher Giordano Bruno. His publication of On the Infinite Universe and Worlds in 1585 made him few friends within the Catholic Church. The irony is that Bruno believed the universe is Divine. However, his insistence on its infinite nature, and his ideas about sensory evidence being given more credence than scriptural writing, put him at odds with the leaders of the Church. After seven years of inquisition, he was burned at the stake in 1600, becoming an instant martyr for the cause of rationality over superstition.
Well aware of Copernicus’ ideas when he built one of the first telescopes, Italian mathematician Galileo Galilei published confirmations of the heliocentric theory in 1610. By 1616 writings about the heliocentric theory were banned by Church edict, and Galileo faced the Inquisition. Not wanting to follow in Bruno’s fiery footsteps, Galileo wisely recanted his most controversial ideas and was allowed to remain under house arrest until his death. Two years later, in 1618 Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer, began publication of his mathematical confirmations of the Copernican theory. Basing his calculations on the studied observations of his mentor, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, Kepler succeeded in showing that the planets did not move in a circular orbits as Aristotle had deemed necessary, but instead revolved around the sun in an elliptical fashion.
Meanwhile, in England, the philosopher Francis Bacon was developing his ideas about the nature of science. In 1620 he published his Novum Organum in which he declared that science, and thus knowledge about the universe, should be based on strict observation and careful experimentation. Reacting to the tendency to displace scientific inquiry for religious dogma, Bacon wrote, “Thus it happens that human knowledge, as we have it, is a mere medley and ill-digested mass, made up of much credulity and much accident…”[i]
In 1637, French philosopher Rene Descartes provided Bacon’s vision of science with the perfect metaphor. Speaking of the human body, Descartes said, “I assume that the body is nothing less than a statue or machine of clay…”[ii] In fact, Descartes envisioned the entire universe as a giant mechanism, and each of its living and non-living inhabitants as finely tuned mechanical devices that could be understood by understanding their parts.
Some fifty years passed before the mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, discovered how certain parts of the universe interacted with each other. The co-creator of calculus, (along with the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfreid Wilhelm Leibniz — the man who coined the phrase perennial philosophy,), Newton used Kelper’s mathematical and observational proofs of the elliptical orbits of the planets to formulate his laws of gravity and motion. Newton showed that not only could the universe be comprehended, but more importantly, that events within it could be predicted with accuracy.
Against this onslaught of rationality, the Western churches, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant alike, could no longer hold their privileged positions as interpreters of the cosmos. Copernicus, Galileo and Netwon led a revolution, fueled by Guttenberg’s printing press that would, within the relatively short span of four hundred years, completely divest the universe of divinity, creating a Cartesian cosmos envisioned as a splendorous machine, not quite infinite, but quite certainly knowable. Thenceforth religion would only be allowed to discuss what could not be seen, while the whole of the visible universe would become the empirical domain of science.
Science, of course, has little concern for that which cannot be seen, or at least theoretically supposed with enough mathematical imagination. Though all of the men of science mentioned believed in a divine God, with the exception of Bruno, they did not see the possibility of, nor the need for, a divine universe. Not surprisingly, in the course of the centuries that followed, scientists and philosophers managed to erase even the need for a God, a divine force, a cosmic creator. God, the cosmos, humanity, and the very idea of divinity had all been dismantled and compartmentalized.
This brief history is not intended to imply a denigration of science or a denial of its contribution to human civilization. It is not that the Cartesian/Newtonian worldview is incorrect, but that is incomplete. This is obvious — science has nothing to say about some the most important aspects of human existence.
Science can tell you about hormones and pheromones and explain the nuances of the maternal instinct, but it cannot quantify love. It can explain the birth of the cosmos, exploding forth from an unimaginably non-existent point known as a singularity, but it can’t give meaning to that birth. Nor can it give meaning to the evolution of the human species, from a single-celled organism in the primordial soup of Earth’s long distant past, to a race of beings that is haphazardly changing the very language in which that evolution is written.
From Copernicus’ notion that the planets revolve around the Sun, to Darwin’s insight into our intimate relation to all life, from the wonders of Quantum physics unfolding in the integrated circuit and the nightmare of nuclear release, to the Frankenstein-like exploitation of the planet’s genetic treasures, science and its doppelganger, technology, have changed not only the way we think about the universe around us, but the universe within us as well — separating one from the other.
Separation is a necessary aspect of growth in any living system. However, a healthy separation does not attempt to deny that the previous connections ever existed. This is why all of the world’s great religious traditions contain a path that acknowledges humanity’s union with the Divine. The mystic paths of Sufism, Kabbalah, Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, and Christian mysticism are an attempt to foster a reunion with the Divine. On the other hand, science, particularly in its current corporate directed incarnation, possesses no yoga of communion with the Divine, because science is seemingly founded on the denial of its existence. Seemingly because, science is not always as it seems.[iii] Science has shown us that the universe has no need of a divine creator to exist, but is has not and cannot have anything to say about the actual divinity of the universe itself.
In contrast, devoted practitioners of spiritual paths learn to apprehend directly the divinity of all things, and that the separation of them, which at first seemed so useful, is in fact, an illusion. A classic example of this is found in the Hindu Chandogya Upanishad which tells the story of a young man, Svetaketu, who returns home from years of schooling convinced that his knowledge of the world is superior to his father’s. His father soon shows him that while he sees the parts of the world, he does not see its indivisibility. Repeatedly making Svetaketu experience different parts of his world, he chides his son with the refrain, “That is the True, that is the Self, and thou, Svetaketu, art That.”[iv]
An excellent examination of the separation between nature and humanity and the problems between the Traditional and Modern worldviews can be found in the animated film Princess Mononoke. In the film the forest spirit, a creature of divine power that gives life to the animals and plants of the forest, is threatened by the modern science and industrial designs of Iron Town. The leaders of Iron Town see the nature as an obstacle to progress and something that can be discarded. Only the young hero has the ability to see the necessity for both and the ability to unite them in an Integral vision. The film is a powerful commentary on the current trajectory of our worldwide clashes between nature and science, Traditional and Modern worldviews, spirituality and secularism, and the need for an Integral vision to see beyond the illusion of their separation and unite them all.
[i] Francis Bacon, Novum Organum. Quoted from The Philosophers of Science. Edited by Saxe Commins and Robert N. Linscott ( New York: Random House, 1947), p. 129.
[ii] Rene Descartes, The Treatise on Man. Quoted from, Descartes Selections. Edited by Ralph M Eaton. (New York: Scharles Scriber’s Sons), p. 350.
[iii] I use the word seemingly for two reasons. First because in the corporate dominated world we live in science is not always science. Often it is pure propaganda created by public relations firms in an attempt to sell us technology that is either unnecessary or unsafe. See Trust Us, We’re Experts, by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber. I also use the word seemingly because recently there has been a great deal of effort by scientists to explain the human experience of the divine as a purely neurological phenomenon. This of course would suggest that the apprehension of divinity is completely in our heads and bears no relation to the external universe. It fails to deal with the fact that all of our internal mental apprehensions have their origin in some external causation. This notion is also at odds with the apprehension itself, which claims that there is no separation between the internal the external.
[iv] Swami Prabhavanda and Fredrick Manchester, ed. trans., The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal, p. 70.