Biocentrism, Consciousness and God

I was the fortunate recipient this Christmas of four books, one of which is entitled Biocentrism by Dr. Robert Lanza, who is described in many and various places as brilliant, and is even compared with Einstein.  So I was not sure that I would be able to understand anything he said.  To my relief, the book is eminently readable — even though I was on the verge of being lost in the byways of quantum physics in a couple of places.

The purpose of the book, as its title suggests, is to put forward the idea that the universe is organized around life, and that life therefore lies at the center of everything.  It is a theory that rejects the position of scientific materialism, that has dominated the scientific community for a very long time.  It challenges the idea that the universe, in the absence of life, would exist at all, and it challenges the idea that the presence of life in at least one spot in the universe is due merely to chance.  Lanza goes to great lengths to point out how unlikely this mere chance is.  The key to all of this for Lanza is consciousness, which traditional science (or any science for that matter) has been unable to account for.  Lanza points out that, given what we know about the brain, consciousness should not be — and, yet, it is.

He suggests that consciousness is the basis of reality — that in the absence of consciousness, there is no reality, because what we know as reality is actually created in our minds.   He points to the fantastical world of quantum physics, in which experiment after experiment have demonstrated conclusively that subatomic particles respond to the presence of the one who is observing them.  He also points to recent experiments that suggest that this might be true at higher levels, as well.   He suggests that the universe is really a mass of possibilities that “solidify”, so to speak, into actuality in the presence of consciousness.  Which suggests that, when you turn off the lights in your kitchen at night and go to bed, your kitchen really isn’t there until some conscious being walks into it again.

Now, I make no claim that my little summary here captures — or even properly represents — what Lanza is trying to say.  To be sure, you should read his book.  I will confess that my science grades in school weren’t among my best.  My mind was too clouded by the heights and depths of English to allow much of a place for science.  And Lanza’s book, which some have described as revolutionary, doesn’t really answer the big, bottom-line question of how consciousness first came into being in the first place, causing the universe to come into existence exquisitely tuned to support life and consciousness.  What’s interesting to me about it is that his theory places life at the center of the universe (which Christian theology tends to do, as well) and that his theory provides a scientific basis for what the vocabulary of faith would call eternal life — in that he suggests that consciousness should survive physical death, since energy is never lost — it simply changes form.

Christian theologians have had different definitions over the centuries about what constitutes the image of God within human beings.  Various theories have been proposed.  Lanza’s book makes me wonder if perhaps consciousness isn’t the image of God within us.  Certainly consciousness is present in all sentient beings, but our experience tells us that human consciousness seems to be of a different order or magnitude, that there is something unique about it.  Lanza’s theory also suggests to me (although not to him) that perhaps it is the consciousness of God that gave rise to the universe — that creation emerges from that divine consciousness, which touches a universe of infinite possibilities and gives it order, an order that is capable of producing and supporting life and consciousness.

Of course, this doesn’t explain how the universe of possibilities came into being in the first place, prior to being touched by the divine consciousness.  The Christian doctrine of creation says that God created “out of nothing”.  Genesis, however, suggests in its poetry of creation that God’s spirit moved over the face of a formless deep — and perhaps that spirit is the divine consciousness, which touched the formless deep and gave rise to this mysterious and wonderful universe.

I cannot do justice to Lanza’s book here, and I would commend it to you.  I am one who believes strongly in the importance of finding a common ground between religion and science, overcoming the animosity that so often comes between the two.  Lanza, without really setting out to do so, provides an interesting opening that might well bring these two spheres together in new and creative ways.

His book is also a reminder that there are some mysteries that we will likely never solve — but may have a great deal of fun trying to.

May the coming new year be filled with new possibilities and opportunities for creative encounter for us all.

Christmas & Modern Biblical Criticism

Every Christmas (and we’ll reprise this in a different form at Easter) there are always a few programs on TV that bring us the Christmas story from the perspective of modern Biblical criticism.   The essential point is that the story of Jesus’ birth most likely didn’t happen the way St. Luke describes it in his famous account, which is the one read on Christmas Eve in most churches (or acted out in children’s pageants).   We are reminded that there is no evidence to support a Roman census that required people to return to their hometowns (which, ala Luke, is how Mary and Joseph come to be in Bethlehem).   We are reminded that the image of the stable and manger that populate our Christmas creches are not actually what those things would have looked like at the time and place of Jesus’ birth.  Angel choirs singing to shepherds?  Well, let’s just not go there.  And, as an acquaintance of mine once pointed out to me more forcefully than was necessary:  December 25 isn’t actually Jesus’ birthday — it was a popular pagan festival that the church took over and made into Jesus’ birthday (but he did have a birthday, I thought to myself, as my forceful acquaintance was carrying on).

It’s true, of course, that Christians were not initially that interested in the birth of Jesus.  The earliest Gospel (Mark) and the even earlier epistles of the New Testament (Paul) mention not a word about it.  By the time Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels are scribed, some 90 years or so after that famous birth, people have clearly become interested in it, and so the story is told — actually, two stories are told:  one in Matthew and one in Luke.  As we all know, everyone liked Luke’s the best.  The Christmas story is probably one of the best arguments for two things:  for not reading our Bibles too literally and for how important it is for us to immerse ourselves in the biblical narrative.

We are not the first ones to figure out that the details of Jesus’ birth as they are given in the Gospels are not entirely, 100% accurate.  The first ones who knew that were the people who wrote them down (Matthew and Luke, and probably someone else before them).   Because in our time we value accuracy, we tend to project that concern for accuracy onto authors from earlier times, including the biblical writers.   These writers themselves, however, were not primarily concerned with accuracy when it came to historical details.  In the case of the Gospel writers, they were interested in proclamation:  in sharing with the world the good news that they — and the communities of which they were a part — experienced in Christ.   The New Testament proclamation tells us that those who spent time with Jesus experienced in his presence, and through his ministry, an intimacy with God that they had not experienced before.  In and through Christ, they experienced God — and thus Jesus came to be identified with God in the minds and hearts of his followers.  Jesus was born and has a personal history — and so, of course, people became interested in the story of his birth.  The Gospel writers crafted this story to proclaim their experience of Christ.  They didn’t want to create a reliable historical record — they wanted to tell a story that would proclaim what they knew Jesus in their experience to be.

So the treasured Christmas story is not accurate — but it is true.  And we need the truth of that story to be a part of our lives.  We need the truth that in Jesus God is seen and experienced in a way that can transform our lives.  As we retell the beautiful story of the birth of Jesus, we are reminded of the deeper meaning of Jesus’ life.  We are reminded that as Christ was born of Mary, so Christ can be born anew in each of our hearts and, through us, in our world.  This is not simply a metaphor:  it is a powerful reality that the Christian community has experienced again and again over the centuries, and which has changed the lives of countless people.

When we become caught up in the accuracy of the Christmas story, we lose the truth of the story, we lose the deep meaning that the story is meant to proclaim:  in Christ, we encounter God.  And God’s desire is that when people meet us, they will encounter Christ.

May the blessings — and the mystery — of this Christmas season be yours.

Prayer for Your Health

Recently, I picked up a little book by the Buddhist teacher Thich Naht Hanh entitled, “The  Energy of Prayer.”   The introduction to the book is written by Larry Dossey, a physician who has written a number of books and taught and lectured widely on the relationship between prayer and spirituality and medicine.    Here are some excerpts from his introduction:

Scores of studies show that individuals who follow some sort of religious or spiritual path in their life, it appears not to matter which one they choose, live longer on average than those who do not choose a spiritual path, and on average they have a lower incidence of all major diseases.

Philosopher Manly P. Hall once said, “There is a type of person in whose mind God is always getting mixed up with vitamins.”  In other words, just as people take vitamins to improve their physical health, people pray in order to live longer and be healthier.  If this is all we make of prayer, it becomes little more than the latest tool in our black bag of medical tricks.  Prayer is more majestic than that.  It is a bridge to the Absolute.  If we get a long, healthy life in the bargain, that is a blessing.  If we do not, and there are many God-realized saints and mystics who died young of terrible diseases, we shall have to settle for immortality, for immortality is one of prayer’s implications.

Currently, more than 200 controlled experiments in humans, plants, animals, and even microbes suggest that the compassionate, loving prayers and intentions of one individual can affect another individual or object at great distances.  These studies paint a picture of human consciousness that is nonlocal, a fancy word for “infinite”.  Our individual mind appears to be connected with all other minds, no matter how far apart.  Individual minds appear to be unbounded — and if unbounded and unlimited, they eventually come together to form a single mind, which our ancestors referred to as the Universal Mind.  Therefore, the most significant contribution that prayer makes to our welfare is not the curing of any particular disease, but the realization that we are infinite, eternal, and one.  Infinitude, eternality, and oneness are terms we have traditionally attached to the Divine.  We thus share qualities with the Absolute, however we name it: the Divine within.

I find all this terribly fascinating.  Just today, we received a note from an old friend who was our neighbor when I was in seminary.  We had a great friendship with this friend and his partner, that helped to sustain all of us through the ups and downs of seminary.  Our friend’s partner died of AIDS several years ago, and we lost touch with our friend after that.  This year, we looked him up and sent him a Christmas card and letter.  And today, we got his note in response.  He said that we might not believe it, but the day before he got our card, he was thinking about the time we shared together in Cambridge, and was wondering what we were up to.  It made me wonder if perhaps our individual minds had somehow touched each other, on opposite sides of the country, through what Dossey calls the Universal Mind, but what I like to think of more as a sacred energy that holds the universe together, the energy of God.

This is a bit deep and mysterious, perhaps.  But one thing I take away from what Dossey says in the excerpts quoted above is that our spiritual path has much more to do with our spiritual practice than with the beliefs upon which that practice is based.  He notes that the benefits that come from committing to a spiritual path, as found in the studies he mentions, do not seem to depend on which path is chosen.  What matters is our commitment to that path, and the practices that form that commitment.

This is a different wisdom than the one that dominates much of our culture, I think.  We Westerners (especially we religious Westerners) tend to be very belief oriented, and as a result, we have tended to define salvation in terms of believing the right things.  That leads us to the logical conclusion that there must be only one set of beliefs that can be right, and therefore only one path that can lead us to our spiritual goal.  The wisdom that Dossey, and Thich Naht Hanh, point us toward suggests that our practice counts much more.   It would seem to be more important to have a regular practice of prayer than to have a fully worked out theology.  Theology seeks to dispel mystery by explaining it.  Prayer embraces mystery, including all the grey-ness and contradiction of human beings and life among human beings, and finds in that mystery an energy that is able to sustain and heal.  The story of St. Thomas Aquinas always brings this lesson home to me.  As you may know, Aquinas is considered probably the greatest Western theologian of the 13th century, and his considerable theological writings (the crowning glory of which is the Summa Theologica) have had a profound effect on Roman Catholic theology down to our own day.  Later in his life, Aquinas had a mystical experience, and afterwards, he said that “all I have written seems like straw to me.”  It is said that the experience caused Aquinas to doubt the efficacy of logic and reason as a way to understanding God.   I should never want to throw out reason from the spiritual life, but Aquinas’s experience does serve as a reminder that reason has its limits.  Prayer is a way of reaching beyond those limits, and of touching the mystery of the Divine that we are able to experience if not entirely explain.

So I invite you to think about your spiritual practice, and ask yourself if you are following a spiritual path that includes a regular practice of prayer that harnesses the sacred energy of God.