All posts tagged as sufism

25 Aug

Starlight and Sufism

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / August 25, 2009 / 2 Comments

Today’s poetic interconnection between spirituality and science begins with a deceptively simple question: Why is the sky dark at night?

Ask most people this question and their immediate answer will be this: because the sun has gone down. But what about all the other stars in the sky? Rays from our sun are not the only starlight we receive. With countless other stars in space shining at us, seemingly infinite sources of light, why isn’t our sky eternally bright even when the sun is hidden from our side of the planet?

The dilemma is known as Olbers’ Paradox, and it rests upon a centuries-old assumption held by astronomers that our universe is infinite and static. This assumption originated with Judeo-Christian religion, which teaches that at a specific point in history, God created the cosmos exactly as we experience it: endless and unchanging. In such a universe, the light of innumerable fixed stars should saturate empty space, overwhelming all darkness.

While the lyricism of this idea is charming, the reality is less so: a wholly illuminated cosmos would be too bright and hot to sustain life. We could not exist to worship a God that created an endless, unchanging world full of stars.

Fortunately, the assumption that our universe is infinite and static is incorrect. Our most current science now theorizes that our universe was born in a specific and spectacular Big Bang and has been expanding ever since. The constant stretching out of space means that distances between stars are always growing. Aeons after our origins, enough stars are now sufficiently old and far from one another that their total light cannot overwhelm the cosmos.

Becoming overwhelmed by light is, of course, a common metaphor in religious mysticisms. The surrendering of individual ego to the infinity of God is often referred to as a great burning, an annihilation in light. Buddhists call this annihilation nirvana. Sufis, Muslim mystics, call it fana. It is a condition into which monks and dervishes dissolve totally, willingly, and ecstatically.

The idea of dissolution in light also figures prominently in Sufi cosmology, the Islamic mystical explanation of the origin and nature of our universe. But here, the concept is treated in an opposite way: the divine luminescence that is so desirable spiritually is considered dangerous physically. Accordingly, outer space becomes a beneficent veil (hijab) hiding Allah from humankind so that we might live without smoldering in the intensity of His divine light.

Consider this ancient Tradition, quoted in a wonderful book by Toshihiko Izutsu called Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts:

God hides Himself behind seventy thousand veils of… darkness. If He took away these veils, the fulgurating lights of His face would at once destroy the sight of any creature who dared to look at it.

I read this Islamic Tradition and I wonder, whimsically… Are God’s veils in this passage equivalent to the blackness of space? Can the “fulgurating lights of His face” be likened to all the fixed stars that would overwhelm the sky with their brilliance if the universe wasn’t ever-expanding?

Once again, has science only recently discovered a truth about reality that spirituality intuited long before?

Comments, as always, welcome.

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29 Jun

Religion, Science, and Education

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / June 29, 2009 / 8 Comments

Yesterday I graduated the Master of Arts in Education program at Antioch University Los Angeles! This personal milestone has put me in an excited and reflective state of mind. And so today, rather than detailing a specific poetic interconnection between spirituality and science, I’m feeling inspired to renew the overall mission statement of this blog, and my ongoing research in religion, science, and education.

This post is a credo!

The world’s religions have been at odds for centuries, with violent and tragic results. And since the Scientific Revolution in the 16th century, religion and science have also been unable to stop fighting. The reason for these conflicts is that our religious sects, and religion and science, have traditionally offered very different answers to the deepest questions people face: Where did we come from? Who are we? Why are we here?

These questions are philosophical, but should not be dismissed as abstract. Guiding philosophies lead directly to actions. Our metaphysics informs our ethics.

In his wonderful book Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, groundbreaking religion/science scholar Ian Barbour defines metaphysics as “philosophical analysis of the most general characteristics and components of reality…” At this point in human history, we undertake such analysis of our foundations using religion and science as our main tools. Sadly, in my opinion, both have become misused and misinterpreted in-and-of themselves. Traditional religious dogma convinces us our deepest questions all have answers, promoting absolutism over inquiry, hubris over humility. Worst case result: we kill in the name of our chosen deity. The scientific materialism of classical physics reduced us to assemblages of mindless particles moving in empty space—purposeless, lacking agency and soul. Emphasizing technology over wisdom, we penetrated the atom and used what we learned to build nuclear bombs.

But inside these tragic problems lies their solution: there are less traditional forms of religion and new developments in science that answer our most vital metaphysical questions in ways that sound similar, finally allowing for the possibility of an integrative and constructive worldview in which we can all share, peacefully. These untraditional forms of religion are the mysticisms this blog continually describes and celebrates: Vedanta Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism. The new developments in science are Einstein’s relativity theories, quantum theory, chaos theory, systems theory, and evolutionary biology.

The perennial philosophy of mystical spirituality and the worldview emerging from discoveries in modern science both describe a reality characterized by holism, interdependent relationship, and emergent creativity. This sort of reality should inspire awe and humility, compassion and charity, and playfulness and artistry.

As a thinker, writer and educator, I encourage all these orientations! I find them all to be expansive. Thus expanded, we all tend to kindness.

I also prioritize synthesis: both/and, higher level thinking. Other academics have championed religious tolerance, and tolerance between religion and science. While admirable, these efforts haven’t eased the perception that these two worldviews are fundamentally dissimilar—thesis and antithesis. My mission is actual resolution of the dialectic: I want to lead my readers and students in identifying principles common to religion and science, and interweaving them into a new unified and useful philosophical tapestry.

To repeat an analogy previously used in this blog: Only from the mountaintop can we clearly see how all paths upward actually converge on the same peak.

My goal is to illumine that summit—and to share the beauty, joy, and enchantment I experience seeing it all lit up!

Thank you, as always, for joining me along the way.

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10 Nov

On Duality

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / November 10, 2008 / 5 Comments

Our greatest spiritual systems testify about interdependent opposites. Taoism has yin and yang; Hinduism has Shiva and Shakti; Kabbalah has its “Pillar of Mercy” (kav yamin) and “Pillar of Severity” (kav smol). Sufis worship God as both transcendent (as-Zahir—’Manifest’) and immanent (al-Batin—’Hidden’).

Everything we know, we know both in-and-of-itself and conditioned by its essential opposite. Duality is built into our bodies: our inhale and exhale, the systole and diastole of our heartbeats, the hemispheres of our brains. It’s built into our psyches: We love and hate, rejoice and grieve simultaneously—often confusing ourselves. Our most fundamental physics is characterized by a phenomenon called wave/particle duality—turns out, everything we’re made of behaves both ways! It’s a puzzle.

Einstein’s E=mc2 says everything is energy, and what is energy? The dynamic interaction of positive and negative charges—duality.

The cliche that ‘there are two sides to every story’ holds: Our world is dual.

But our minds analyze and fragment our experience—it becomes ‘either/or’. Valuable for basic survival, for distinguishing threats from benefits to escape death and enhance life, this orientation comes with a high price. It causes restriction and suffering, because we are ‘both/and’. The universe in which we live is ‘both/and’—at least! Fragmentation keeps us safe, but it also lessens us: We miss ourselves and each other. Embracing holism can align us with our full, sacred nature; we can strive to transcend polarities and grasp Truth. But then even that truth can become polar—a broad thesis to which we can propose an antithesis, throwing everything we know into humble question. And we can try to answer that question by reconciling our thesis and antithesis, creating a synthesis—a new, even higher-level truth. And then we can do the dialectic again, and again, embarking on a journey not of infinite regression, but infinite ascension—a seeking of ever higher and deeper truths.

Am I describing the scientific method, or a striving towards God?! Comments welcome.

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