“On some evenings we would attend faculty parties,” she said. “It was a heady atmosphere, as we spent time with the world’s intellectual elite. There were scientists of all stripes, mathematicians and physicists, some of them of world renowned. Well, after about fifteen minutes of general chat they all started to talk about God.”
“They possibly felt that there was nothing left for them to do, nowhere else to go,” I suggested.
“Perhaps that is true,” she said. “After all, they above all others are aware of several unanswered questions. I supposed that for an intellectual, especially a scientist, the unexplained is irresistible.”
“The realm of metaphysics…?” I prompted.
“Quite! It is as if their chosen fields had somehow become secondary. They now all seem to be after that which makes everything, or in fact anything, possible.”
“You mean that which enables a scientist to undertake science.”
“Yes, that about sums it up. The which, or Who, that enables.”
Knowledge and truth and belief are matters that are personal to us, at least until we are blessed with being able to hear that Biblical “still small voice,” or as given in Islam, the “whisper from the soul.” One is then removed from the machinations of this world. Belief is subsequently a natural conclusion, methinks.
Nevertheless, belief – or faith if one so will – requires cultivation and adherence, or the wish to adhere, to the received Word. Scientists, who are unable to really deny their own inner worlds, are obviously also subject to knowledge, truth, and belief. This is because however high our aspirations, we are bound by the common denominators of all humanity. The need to eat, drink, sleep, and find protection against the wiles of nature. These are the levelling factors, one might surmise, however lofty our thoughts, however high our aspirations.
The trick, it would seem, is to be in the world but not of it. In a sense the rigorous endeavors of our scientists is a step in the right direction. They want the facts and nothing more. And yet, to deny God’s part in their endeavors seems a shame, because what they are really looking for, and this has been shown among them at Cambridge, is God Himself. That which I would contend is His moving Spirit.
Belief for most of us must naturally run hand in hand with experience. We feel that it is pointless and unscientific to believe in something nebulous, something that is merely a word. Yet it is false to see mysticism as a vague, non-scientific, otherworldly pastime, something for dreamers or non-doers. There are ways, some call them paths, which could bring one to the contemplative proximity of a mystic experience. The thrust of one’s endeavor, however, could be a hindrance. Nevertheless, anyone who has undertaken the fast of Ramadan or has been led to a contemplative life, may have received the blessing and grace of true submission.
The key word is humility. The reason that the prophets, who I believe were all mystics in their times, were persecuted was because after receiving divine affirmation they “told it like it is,” to use modern parlance.
Many years after encountering the professor and his wife at Cambridge, I became a writer on religion. There had been my own search of sorts, almost a scientific one. I had been struck by the book A Quiet Mind, written by John Coleman. The author had also searched, in his case for a quiet mind, in what may seem to have been a contradictory undertaking – using the mind to find a way to quieten it. He attended the meetings of a number of different spiritual organizations and then ticked them off his list when he had not found any answers among them. His search had been dogged and perfectly rational. Mr. Coleman finally found his answers in a Burmese jungle.
There has always been talk of God. God this and God that. His name was juggled seemingly at random, but I wanted something concrete, something more than “God is love,” because I rather felt that God makes love possible and then the rest is up to us. Not dissimilar to Coleman, I therefore became a searcher who was a researcher, an investigator searching empirically – one might almost say scientifically. I became a sober seeker for God. All the while, however, I could not deny the feeling that my search was not of my doing.
As an aside I must mention a personal encounter with a scientist, a German physicist whose book I translated into English. My friend’s conjecture was that the Big Bang never happened. Although a physicist, he offered no scientific alternative to the big question. One could hardly resist asking that if perhaps it wasn’t a bang, was it possibly a whisper that started it all?
“Oh no,” he said. “The universe was simply there.”
I wonder if he felt my glow of appreciation as we spoke on the phone. How absolutely gorgeous. Here was a man of science who had no answer and was not prepared to invent one. I felt the enormity of the myriads of universes at our disposal, giving us “something to think about.” I was rather inclined to giggle!
At the start of course, came literature. Aristotle called God the “Prime Mover,” and Dante agreed. D. H. Lawrence spoke of a “Great Life Force,” and so did George Bernard Shaw. Well, both of the latter gents called a lot of things a lot of things. Zeno of Cyprus gave us the Stoic philosophy and maintained a concept of universal spirit. In the “Gospel of St John” 4:24 we learn that God is Spirit, and your correspondent has accepted the plausibility of the notion. I had naturally moved on, but only to the extent of a single word. The word God had become Spirit. Spirit is what God is apparently all about, but I couldn’t prove it. Scientists do need proof, don’t they? I wondered if the Cambridge intellectuals had also tossed around the idea of Spirit. But Spirit seems so intangible, so un-recordable, a word and not much else, although we researchers suspected that it was indeed of the essence. But how does one write a scientific treatise on Spirit, even assuming one has experienced it?
Sooner or later I was bound to read about The Way, the Life, the Truth. The Way seemed easy enough to explain: one tries to be like Jesus; or as one mystic (a Muslim, in this case) maintained, “You can do anything you like in this world as long as you don’t hurt anybody.” The overwhelming challenge of that idea will set most people back on their heels and have them wondering how they were to get through a single day without in some way or other hurting somebody through a rash word, a lack of consideration, or a sudden outburst of emotion fostered by personal frustration.
I felt that the Truth is simply what is. You could take it or leave it but it won’t simply go away. The Life, on the other hand, is something of a puzzle. It seemed too much of a vague idea to use “life” to encompass our vastly complex, everyday endeavors. I became convinced that the Life is what scientists, and yours truly, are actually looking for. I began to see Life, which I now translate as Spirit, as something like Aristotle’s Prime Mover.
One requires, for example, some sort of fuel to run an engine. What I was looking for was the fuel of the universe. In other words that which makes everything go – and not only that, but also what put everything there in the first place. The substance that keeps us, and everything else, up and running.
The trouble is that Spirit, in a spiritual sense, does not appear to be a substance. However, I rather fancy that it is this form of energy that the scientists are yearning to pin down. The mystic would offer a warning because such a search can, and often does, drive people crazy because it would be of the mind and not undertaken through genuine humility.
God enables an action, but permission to act in a certain way is something we are responsible for – and as history has shown God must be disappointed, even appalled. After all, if God is Life, then anything contrary to life – the notion of Life being Logical is appealing – will automatically engender a form of crisis. After Albert Einstein had split the atom he was heard to comment (rather worryingly), “God, what have we done?” You know the rest.
What remains to us is imagining the future. What an undertaking! One is reminded of the German phrase “Man denkt, Gott lenkt”, which more or less translates as “Man thinks, (but) God is at the helm.” In other words, we can think, consider, plan, imagine, and then hope for the best – or as our religious brothers and sisters may be inclined to put it, hope that He agrees. Moreover, humans have not been terrifically famous for their capacity for vision. If we wish to remain reasonable our endeavours are restricted to one step at a time, a slow plod forward into a barely discernible next few minutes. Well, we may well be able to go a bit further than a few minutes, but not much, and even then our plans are subject to the whims of Mother Nature, who often does not see things our way at all.
One supposes that we should attempt to define whether the world is coming at us or we are going at the world. Events are what happen to us, but we shouldn’t forget that we also engender them. One wonders if imagining the future can go beyond wishful thinking. One may even wonder whether our imaginative apparatus is free of past events. Is our imagination really imaginative, or merely a rerun of old data?
My personal sense of unease had been with me for some time, although unease is putting it mildly. There have, however, been milestones of relief, little landmarks along the way. These are often books. I think again of The Quiet Mind. I found the title riveting. Something inside me rose in affirmation, but it was not me who had reacted. No, it was something else. I had read from a mystic that real prayer is not done by the person. You can make like you are praying, but real prayer is something the prayer does all by itself. With a little grace you might be able to get out of the way. That is the most you can hope for.
Writing took over. I could put down a thousand words in one sitting. Some of it even got published. My wife found it reassuring because most writers are not famous for making money. Translation filled some of our wider gaps. Somehow we got by.
There occurred a telling late-afternoon incident. The kids were not home from school. My wife was still at work. I was deep into a translation. An immense calm arose. I remember the mystic saying that meditation is not something you do; you must get very quiet and “feel how you feel.”
How did I feel? My feeling was cradled in something sublime. My mind dulled into abeyance. I looked up from the keyboard, tentatively, almost afraid of breaking the spell. The quiet was huge and the room seemed to be at a perfect temperature. The air felt unaccountably clean, somehow intangible but definitely felt. I remember a sudden feeling of isolation, a feeling of worry, which melted and dispersed. I realized that it was all right to be me. Moreover, that I had no choice. Something tingled above my heart and below my throat. My chest felt the way you feel when you drink a glass of cold water and you feel it going down. I turned to the translation. Something inside prayed that there would be nothing crass to disturb the spell. I remembered Patrick-Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence. The author had entered a monastery to work on a book. He related of first being bored to desperation because nothing happened, then the bubble of boredom broke and he felt perfectly at ease. But he did record a changed state to a fine degree of sensitivity. When he left the monastery he found driving along a freeway appalling because even the most innocuous advertisement placards along the way were an insult to his sensibility.
My wife arrived home. She looked into the room in which I was sitting like a stunned ox. She said, “Gosh, the house feels nice.”