Science and Religion Revisited

By : January 4, 2011: Category Inspirations, Networks of Meaning

Integrating Science and Mysticism, Part 1

One of the central issues that used to occupy the modern mind was the conflict between science and religion, or science and mysticism. Why do I use the past tense? Because the truth is, the science-religion debate grounded to a halt sometime during the second half of the previous century. Sure, books are still being written about it, people still lecture about it in various forums, and the media occasionally dedicates time to the latest confrontations sparking around it. I’ll even grant that, in terms of emotional involvement, the debate has actually heated up in recent years, with the most vocal and vociferous statements ever made in it being heard only in the past couple of years.

But despite all this, the content of the debate, the things actually being said in it, have remained virtually unchanged for decades. It’s a conversation frozen in time, rewound and played back again and again.

In Search of Integration

A main reason for this seems to be that the various parties involved in this debate have all pretty much entrenched themselves in their well-formed notions: the die-hard seculars are still arrogant and dismissive of anything that whiffs of metaphysics or spirituality; the orthodox religious make a sharp distinction between technology and theoretical science, gladly adopting the former and firmly rejecting any elements in the latter that contradict their faith; and in-between, modern religious people (many of whom are practicing scientists themselves) have settled for a reasonable but compartmentalized co-existence between the two, in which they do not interfere with one another.

What is sorely missing from this landscape is a truly integrative approach to science and mysticism. An integrative approach would recognize that two forces as fundamental and complementary as these beg to be combined, and that a culture in which they are at odds suffers from a deep internal fracture. It would strive to fuse them into a complex yet unified whole, in which the two fully contribute to and complete each other.

New Age’s Failed Integration

There’s actually a fourth group that at least tried to do this. I’m referring to those among the New Age thinkers who do not look down upon science, and who were the last to say anything innovative about its relationship with religion. New age thinkers feel there is truth to science as well as truth to mysticism, and honestly want to integrate them (indeed, as all who are familiar with it know, the word ‘integration’ plays a key role in their writings).

However, New Age thought has seemed to run out of anything new to say, and has left its followers with a solidified worldview just like the other three groups. Basically, the New Age worldview fully accepts the scientific description of the world, but adds a vague spiritual dimension to it, of which religions are all partial reflections. It sees the universe as evolving, but purposefully so, towards a state of high consciousness.

For anyone who was raised on the materialistic worldview of modern science and later opened up to any kind of spirituality, this cosmology is definitely a breath of fresh air, echoing his longing for meaning and purpose in what he has been accustomed to view as an empty and cold universe. But once we get past the initial excitement of feeling that matter and spirit co-exist in a way that doesn’t contradict science, we’re forced to admit that an ‘integration’ of this sort is shallow at best.

Specifically, there are two reasons why New Age cosmology doesn’t achieve a serious integration between science and mysticism: (a) by unreservedly accepting the scientific worldview it has ‘sanctified’ it, preventing it from being influenced by mystical thought in any fundamental way; (b) by viewing all religions as manifestations of a one general ‘Spirit’, only dressed up in external detail, it has stripped them of their particular characteristics, allowing none of them to contribute anything with specifics in it, because these are deemed to be arbitrary.

The upshot of these two flaws is one and the same: the mystical pole of the science-mysticism polarity is unable to contribute anything substantial to the scientific pole. It remains something ephemeral and vague, a spirit hovering above the water, never touching it.

The Unexplored Route

An alternative path to integration is bound to emerge from an unexpected direction. And indeed, a fascinating new approach is brewing up where no one is looking. It is growing out of the pages of the more intellectual thinkers withinChassidism, the 200 year old Jewish mystical movement.

On the outside, Chassidism appears to be a happy-spirited religious renewal movement, adding a long-needed dose of personal devotion and optimism to Judaism. And it is. But it also serves as a front for some of the most exciting intellectual innovations in mystical thought in recent generations. And one of the central issues elaborated upon in these Chassidic writings is a vision of the desired unification of the esoteric knowledge of the Torah, i.e., revealed Divine mystical wisdom, with the rationally acquired human and earthly knowledge, i.e., science.

Over the following series of articles, we’re going to try to acquaint ourselves with this approach and explore some of its innovations.

Coming up Next: A Flood of Knowledge

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