INCO 796: Cosmology and Our View of the World

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Intersection between Science and Mysticism

Handout by Marion Brink

What I have presented, except for definitions of mysticism, are excerpts from God and the Big Bang by Daniel C. Matt (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1996). I found the book exciting and a wonder-ful description of the Intersection of Science and Mysticism.

Definition of mysticism: An intense experience or a dialogue with a personal divinity in deep prayer can turn into a mystical moment if the person having the experience feels drawn into a direct encounter with ultimate reality, the very foundation of everything that is. Mysticism depends less on the particulars of the given experience than on what happens through it.

Direct experience of ultimate reality.

The central teaching of mysticism is that Reality is One.

Not all mystics want to evacuate the imagination or think that to meet the divine directly you have to go into a cloud of unknowing and chant . . .

We are infinitesimal, yet part of something vast: Being aware of this, we strive to comprehend the entirety. On this quest, spirituality and science are two tools of understanding. The purpose of science is to explore nature; religion’s is to foster spirituality and ethics; and mysticism’s is to experience the mystery. Their approaches to the question of our origin are distinct; each is valid in its domain. But the question "How did the world come to be?" is vital to all. Occasionally their insights resonate. If we can sense these resonances, our understanding deepens, nourished by mind and heart.

It is said that science demystifies nature, but scientists on the frontier are awed by its elegance and harmony. As science reveals the secrets of the universe and deciphers the cosmic code, it evokes wonder. Many scientists have sensed a spiritual dimension in the search for the laws of physics. For Einstein, discerning the laws of nature was a way to discover how God thinks.

Science has no consensus on the ultimate origin. Some theories espouse a well-defined beginning; others, like Hawking’s, do not. But both science and religion suggest a radically new reading of Genesis. If God spoke the world into being, the divine language is energy; the alphabet, elementary particles; God’s grammar, the laws of nature.

A contemporary physicist has noted that to be "religious" means to have an intuitive feeling of the unity of the cosmos. Oneness is grounded in scientific reality: We are made of the same stuff as all of creation. Mystics and poets have perceived this oneness, as did the philosopher Heraclitus, who wrote: "When you have listened not to me but to the Logos it is wise to agree that all things are one."

We have lost our myth - a story, imagined or true, that wrests order from chaos and helps make our experience comprehensible. Science and technology are offering us a new one - a new construction of reality which provides, in exchange for our belief, progress in every field except for one: the ultimate meaning of life.

The universe emerged out of an infinitely small point of space - a singularity. That image is mind-boggling, but its depiction of a primordial instant harmonizes with traditional religious beliefs regarding a definite beginning of the universe.

The big bang is a theory, not a fact. The scientific consensus is that the theory is correct within its specific domain: the evolution of our universe from perhaps one-billionth of a second after its origins up to the present. The laws of physics do not apply to the split second in which energy or mass emerges. Whatever happened before that first fraction of a second lies beyond the limits of the theory. The ultimate origin of the universe is still unfathomed.

According to the 13th c. mystic, Moses de Leon, "The beginning of existence is the secret concealed point. This is the beginning of all the hidden things, which spread out from there and emanate, according to their species. He said that, as emanation proceeds, as God begins to unfold, the point expands into a circle. Similarly, ever since the big bang, our universe has been expanding in all directions.

Physicists search for the symmetry hidden within the tangle of everyday reality. They want to find equations that link the forces of nature. Spiritual search, too, in its own way, charts a course through multiplicity toward oneness. If the big bang is our new creation myth, our new story that explains how the universe began, then who is God? "God" is a name we give to the oneness of it all.

Medieval philosophers - Jewish, Christian and Muslim - had taught that God Created the world "out of nothing." The mystics reinterpreted it to mean that the universe emanated from divine nothingness. To call God "Nothingness" does not mean that God does not exist. Rather it conveys the idea that God is no thing: God animates all things and cannot be contained by any of them.

This mystical nothingness is neither empty nor barren; it is fertile and overflowing, engendering the myriad forms of life. Similarly, cosmologists speak of the quantum vacuum, teeming with potential. This vacuum is anything but empty - a seething froth of virtual particles, constantly appearing and disappearing.

How did the universe emerge out of prolific nothingness? According to Kabbalah and big bang theory, this transition was marked by a single point. Recall the singularity: an infinitely dense point in spacetime. Like ayin [nothingness], a singularity is destructive and creative. Anything falling into a singularity merges with it and loses its identity, while energy emerging from a singularity can become anything.

When light flashed forth, time and space began. But the early universe was an undifferentiated blend of energy and matter. How did matter emerge? A scientist would say that energy congealed. The mystic writes that the light was concealed.

The physicist is fascinated by the intimate relation of matter and energy. The mystic is interested, too, but describes it differently. He says material existence emerges out of ayin, the pool of energy. Ultimately, the world is not other than God, for this energy is concealed within all forms of being.

Science has given us a fairly clear picture of how the universe and life evolved. We have identified hidden patterns of energy all around us and within us; we have cracked the genetic code and the cosmic code. We have discovered cosmic microwave background radiation: the echo of the big bang. We know enough to realize how little we know, especially about ourselves.

As members of the cosmos, we derive from the big bang. Every quark within each of us was present at the beginning, not figuratively or metaphorically, but actually. Through being who we are, each of us expresses the cosmic oneness distinctively. I am a unique creation, yet my most basic physical substance is stardust. But unlike the rest of creation, I know that I am made of stardust, that I am one with the cosmos and simultaneously a separate, conscious person.

While it appears to be continuous, consciousness has distinct gaps. It allows for no permanent, abiding, essential self. We are part of the oneness of the cosmos. The left hemisphere of our brain persuaded us that we were otherwise. This marvelous piece of architecture, which excels at analysis and thought, established a boundary between its own contrived ego - its personal identity - and the rest of the universe.

There are moments when the self uncovers its vast ground of being, its interface with all that exists. Mystics have no monopoly on such moments. Love is what we feel when we become aware of our oneness with what we thought was separate from us: a person, a place, a thing, an idea. This oneness and love is God. To be spiritual is to cultivate an appreciation of oneness, to be open to the possibility of love.

Contemporary physics speaks of "broken symmetry," through which the initial unified state of being splinters into the diversity of galaxies, stars, planets and life. According to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), the world exists and we have individual consciousness only because the infinite God has withdrawn Itself from a single point of Its infinity, thereby making room for finite being. We exist to the extent that we lost oneness through a process they call "the breaking of the vessels."

The kabbalist, Isaac Luria, concluded that the first act of creation was not emanation, but withdrawal by which God made room for something other than God. First God withdraws, concealing Itself. This leaves a gap of spacetime, an arena for the universe and the self. As God recedes, creation unfolds. Since oneness cannot be contained by any vessel, the vessels break, spilling out variety. Everything becomes what it is, and we imagine ourselves as separate entities.

The physicist peers back, too, to a time before the symmetry was broken. Modern cosmology has a theory that parallels the breaking of the vessels: the theory of broken symmetry. This fracturing of symmetry creates the particles of matter and energy found today around us - and within us.

The universe began in an extremely hot state of utmost simplicity and symmetry. As it expands and cools its perfect symmetry is broken, giving rise to the world of diversity and structure we inhabit - galaxies, stars, planets, life. We exist today in our present condition, with all our flaws and imperfections, because of broken symmetry, just as Jewish mysticism teaches that our jumbled blemished reality derives from the breaking of the vessels..

Only because nature’s symmetry is broken do the various elementary particles - quarks, gluons, bosons and leptons - appear to have different properties. If the temperature could be raised sufficiently, back to 10 to the 32nd degrees Kelvin, the disguised symmetry would reemerge. Simply being aware of that fact enables the physicist, or anyone open to a scientific perspective, to perceive the world holistically. The mystic would say that the holiest moment is now. The holiest act is whatever you can do right here and now in our little corner of the cosmos. The past has no monopoly on wisdom; the present moment is what matters most, with all its potential and uncertainty.

A physicist would say that energy is latent in subatomic particles and that matter is nothing but bundled energy. From a spiritual perspective, Divinity pervades the universe; its sparks animate every single thing. The goal is to raise the sparks, to restore the world to God: to become aware of the interplay between energy and matter; to become aware that every single thing we do or see or touch or imagine is part of the oneness, a pattern of concealed energy.

From within, through meditation, each of us can glimpse oneness. One focus of spirituality is finding a balance between self and God - between me and oneness. This balance is, at best, impermanent: If I find it, I cannot hold it for long. But falling out of balance is also part of the balance: I am one with the cosmos - and, at the same time, I am an individual incarnation of the cosmos.

Who is the "neighbor" in "Love your neighbor as yourself"? Who is your brother . . .?

We now need a more global vision to accord with the fact that each of us belongs to an emerging world culture. Big bang cosmology is important to our culture because it provides an account of our origins. Being aware that we have all sprouted from a primordial seed has profound ethical implications: Essentially, we are not that different from each other and our actions should reflect this.

The discoveries of contemporary cosmology are as wondrous as anything ever imagined. For the first time ever, humans are not simply imagining the beginning: We are observing it, in cosmic microwave background radiation, which has been traveling to us since the universe became transparent to light 300,000 years after the big bang. Cosmologists are today piecing data together into "humanity’s first verifiable creation story." We are constantly - and literally - expanding our horizons.

Knowing the little that we do about how the world expanded into existence, our sense of awe is invigorated. We can imagine a new meaning behind the traditional name of God: "The One who spoke and the world came into being." The divine language is energy; divine grammar, the laws of nature.

If God is the energy of the universe, manifesting here and there as matter, what kind of prayer is appropriate or possible? I feel gratitude for the gift of life, but whom can I thank? I marvel at the green of this leaf, at the rustling wind, at the chirping of an unseen bird. My life is bound up with the life of all things.

As we continue to conceive of God in new ways, our mode of prayer will naturally change. We need fewer words - and more room for silence. We need fewer prayers - and more time for reflection. Meditative prayer, practiced by mystics throughout the ages, links us with the cosmos; helps us witness oneness; and appreciate the interwoven wonders of existence.

The material nature of the food that we eat is simply a temporary form assumed by the energy. As we chew food, we begin transforming it back into energy; the taste buds on our tongues mediate a sensation. We taste the spark. "When you eat and drink, you experience enjoyment and pleasure from the food and drink. Arouse yourself every moment to ask in wonder, " What is this enjoyment and pleasure: What is it that I am tasting? Answer yourself, "This is nothing but the holy sparks from the sublime.

By attuning ourselves to the divine pulse animating all life, we can overcome our estrangement from nature. By exploring and contemplating the origin of the universe, we discover that our evolution is a step in a cosmic dance. Engaging the world spiritually, we realize there is no sharp line between the here and now and the ultimate. Looking for the spark, we find that what is ordinary is spectacular. The holy deed is doing what needs to be done now.

A covenant for today should be based on oneness. This covenant will emerge and evolve as we discover our interconnection with all of life since we are each a unique part of the whole. It signals the work that needs to be done to overcome the many ways in which we are fragmented. We need God to remind us that we are a part of God, since we constantly forget. And God need us to mend the fractured world.

The interrelatedness of all being is a sheer fact of life: a mystical insight, but also good common sense. We can trust that we are part of a vast web of existence constantly expanding and evolving. Beyond any star we will ever identify lies the horizon of spacetime, fifteen billion light years away. But neither God nor the big bang is that far away. The big bang didn’t happen somewhere out there, outside of us. Rather, we began inside the big bang; we now embody its primordial energy.

We can begin to know God by unlearning what we think we know about God. One knows God through unknowing, through shedding inadequate conceptions. God is not somewhere else, hidden from us. God is right here, hidden from us. We’ve lost our sense of wonder in the fast pace of life. God is right here, in this very moment, fresh and unexpected, taking you by surprise.

On the threshold of experience, we are challenged to let go of words. Both spirituality and mysticism are often dismissed as otherworldly. What they offer is the secret of living differently in this world - living in the light of the discovery that we are part of oneness.