Posts Tagged ‘God’

Separation from the Body

(freely adapted from Ken Ring: Lessons from the Light pages 286-91)

. . . . . the next thing – I’m standing in this dark room
there’s my body on the bed and a deep darkness
I’m here and I’m also over there
one whole wall in the room a dark forest
the sun rising behind it and a path out through the woods.

I realise what’s happening.
If I go up that path to the edge of the woods into that light
I’ll be dead.
Yet it’s so peaceful.

I move up the path. The light grows massive. I see memories
of all my sadness. I urge, “Stop!”
Everything stops! I’m shocked. I realize
I can talk to the light and it responds!

I am rising into this tunnel of light.
I ask, “What is this light? What are you really?”
The light reveals itself directly, vividly, to my mind.
I can feel it, I can feel this light in me.
And the light unfolds its message in my mind:
“I could be Jesus, I could be Buddha,
I could be Krishna. It’s how you see me.”

But desperate for understanding
I insist, “But what are you really?”
The light changes into a mandala of souls
all our souls, our true selves, are fused,
we are one being,
we are the same being,
distinct aspects of the same Being.
I enter this mandala of human souls
white hot with all the love we’ve ever wanted,
a love that can heal everything, everyone

I’m desperate to know, really know

I am taken into the light and
instantly the world shrinks with distance
the solar system’s pinpricks
without moving I see galaxies upon galaxies
dancing across cold empty blackness
my consciousness is expanding so fast

here comes another light right at me
I hit this light
I dissolve
I disappear
I understand

I have passed the singularity
I have traversed the big bang
I went through that membrane into this –
the Void
I am aware of everything
that has ever been created
I’m looking out of God’s eyes
I know why every atom is

then everything reverses
I return through the singularity
I understand that everything since that first word
is actually the first vibration
there is a place before any vibration was

after the Void, I returned knowing
that God is not only there
God is here
everything is here – no need to search
while we are now God’s always

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O SON OF THE SUPREME! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendour. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom?

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No 32)

worm-coreIn the last post, looking at Solomon et al’s treatment of death in The Worm at the Core, I came to the conclusion that, in spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I had to admit they are making an important point.

They argue that all of us tend to create destructive solutions to the existential problem of death. This comes in two main forms: meaning systems/world views and self-esteem.

Let’s take world views as an example of their case (page 131):

It is deeply disturbing to have one’s fundamental beliefs called into question. Take our meanings and purposes away, characterise them as juvenile, useless, or evil, and all we have left are the vulnerable physical creatures that we are. Because cultural conceptions of reality keep a lid on mortal dread, acknowledging the legitimacy of beliefs contrary to our own unleashes the very terror those beliefs serve to quell. So we must parry the threat by derogating and dehumanising those with alternative views of life

The same kind of process applies if our self-esteem, as they term it, is threatened.

Because their book is focused on proving the nature of the problem they don’t say much about the solutions. They make a strong case that death denial is ultimately destructive leading to problems ranging from mindless consumerism through mental health problems to outright fanaticism. They spend less time contending that a constructive acceptance of death and its integration into a viable pattern of life bears the fruits of a common sense of humanity and a desire for positive purpose. Destructive terror-reducing purposes can be avoided. They share my liking for the existential therapy model, but don’t go far enough beyond that for me.

Perhaps because they lack a spiritual perspective, they seem blind to the possibility that, for example, there are positive aspects to psychosis (I will be exploring this more deeply in later posts).

Richard House (in Psychosis and Spiritualitypage 94) quotes Levin, who ‘finally, succintly and beautifully sums up [this] position:

[S]eemingly psychotic experiences are better understood as crises related to the person’s effort to break out of the standard ego-bounded identity: trials of the soul in its spiritual journey. The modern self is nearing the frontier of a historically new spiritual existence… It is time for a real paradigm shift. (Levin, 1987)

This idea of a paradigm shift or tipping point is something I have explored at length elsewhere so I won’t dwell on it again here. A summary of one aspect of the Bahá’í position will have to suffice here.

We urgently need a sense of the transcendent if we are to be able to answer the challenge issued by the Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, when the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were completed. The following words were read at the opening ceremony:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

The Bahá’í perspective shares Matthieu Ricard’s awareness of the need to link the local through the national to the global (Social Action):

No matter how essential, a process of learning at the local level will remain limited in its effectiveness if it is not connected to a global process concerned with the material and spiritual prosperity of humanity as a whole. Structures are required, then, at all levels, from the local to the international, to facilitate learning about development.

What might death have to do with our connection with the transcendent?

In a recent documentary on Down’s Syndrome, Sally Phillips, the presenter, exclaims towards the end, ‘Cracks are where the light gets in.’ What if death itself is some kind of light, as Bahá’u’lláh suggests, and not simply an intolerable crack in the fabric of our world view?

I’d be the first to admit that this is not an obvious option. It certainly hasn’t been for me.

I was studying for my ‘A’ levels when I heard about what someone from our school had done. His father was a farmer. He took his father’s shotgun, so they said. All we knew for sure was that, after his girl friend had dumped him, he turned up where she worked and with the first barrel killed her before turning the second on himself.

A few of us who knew him left the library and went to the nearest coffee bar in shock. The conversation settled nothing, least of all our nerves. Nothing we knew of him before explained his final acts. In the end, we shrugged it off and went back to our books.

Five years later in the second term of my first teaching job the common room was stunned after the Christmas break. Even the bridge fanatics stopped their game. A young man who had started at the school the same time as me last summer wasn’t coming back. He had thrown himself under the wheels of a tube train. Again none of us had seen it coming.

We knew he had been struggling a bit keeping his classes under control. No big deal, we thought. But we were obviously wrong. A mixture of shame and guilt now stopped us in our tracks at least for a short time. And again it was too late. The bidding at the bridge table began once more. Newspapers shuffled, teaspoons rattled in our cups, and piles of exercise books to mark took our minds off what could not be undone or understood.

In my second teaching job there was the sister of a student. On leave from hospital she booked into a hotel, where staff found her dead the following morning of an overdose. This was harder to understand. She had been in hospital for depression, and they knew she had plans to kill herself sometime. They clearly didn’t think it would be now.

Mary poem

These were not the only times in my life up to that point that I’d had to deal with death. There had been others – my sister’s mainly, whose lungs gave out before I was born, but the shadow of whose passing hung over my childhood. Also the war dead, like those in my father’s book – black and white images of uniformed corpses spread across the mud – and the victims of the concentration camps everyone was talking about as I grew up.

In addition, as the youngest child of youngest children, for me relatives were scarce. I knew more family graves than family members. And even some of those who had survived, were scarred by life or war. One uncle had had his right arm damaged in the First World War so he carried it rather than used it, and another had a tumour on the brain, whose pressure, they told me, had been eased by a plastic flap they’d cut into his skull. It would wear out one day, they said, and when it did he’d die. They couldn’t operate again, it seemed.

Every time I went to see him, because my mother asked, I looked anxiously at the deepening bowl in the side of his head, worried in case it wore out when I was there. I don’t remember my mother ever seeing him either with me or alone. I was her unwilling surrogate. She’d had more to do with death than she could stomach. And sometimes, to be honest, I was beginning to feel a bit the same.

It was much later that other more positive ways of seeing death became available.

dancing-past-the-darkNancy Evans Bush asks an interesting question in her masterly exploration of distressing near-death experiences (NDEs) (Dancing Past the Dark – Kindle Reference 2046): ‘What if the Void and heaven are not opposites but differing perspectives of whatever is ultimate?’

She does not avoid the crunch issue (2061-67):

Western culture is not prepared to deal easily with the Void. Further, between the religious reverence for covenant and the capitalist reverence for things, we are trained into objects. . . . Here it becomes clear why experiences of the Void create such havoc for those who have grown up in Western ways of thinking. . . . . Any NDE is a mystical experience, but with few exceptions, Western people are not educated mystics. The fear in experiences of the Void rises out of profound, fathomless detachment from self and other, for which most of us are totally unprepared.

It is not that such ideas are absent in our Western mystical tradition: it is that we have turned our backs on them for so long they have been almost completely forgotten (2068-75)

In addressing the fear produced by the Void, Gerald May quoted the fourteenth century spiritual guide, Theologica Germanica: “Nothing burns in hell but self-will.” . . . . [T]he contemplatives proclaim, with a conviction that can be absolutely frightening, that self-image must truly die… A dying image of self, or a dying belief in such an image, must be accompanied by a dying of one’s images of the world as well. It is not an easy business.

She goes on to make links between Nirvana, the Void and astrophysics whose validity lies far beyond my ability to assess but are well worth mentioning. She quotes Brian Greene (2080-82):

‘Empty space is not nothing; it’s something with hidden characteristics as real as all the stuff in our everyday lives.’

She therefore concludes (2088):

. . . [T]here is this curious resemblance among Godhead, space, the Void, and Nirvana—that what seems so empty may be full of everything there is.’

My childhood death connection obviously draws me to exploring this dimension of death, spirituality and mental health. The culture I’ve grown up in does not help, nor does my training in mainstream psychology.

Neil Douglas-Klotz (Psychosis and Spirituality – page 49) explains exactly why:

Beginning with the imperialisation of Christianity under the Roman Empire, European culture extracted a limited language concerning [spiritual & psychotic] states from an underlying Middle Eastern context, but without fully understanding the language or worldview involved. Because of this, Western culture developed a massive split between ‘inner’ psychic and ‘outer’ normative consciousness, as well as splits between cosmology and psychology, body and soul, and humanity and natural environment. . . . . . Whether by following an orthodox religious interpretation or by reacting against this interpretation in the form of the Enlightenment and the Western scientific revolution, Western culture evolves without a language or worldview that can conceptualise expanded states of consciousness in a healthy way.

Most cultures have been blind to some degree. Sadly we are both arrogant and powerful as well as blind. Still, there are hints to be found in many places, most of them off the beaten track of the market place and the hustings. I hope to follow the trail they promise towards a more satisfying truth about death, psychosis and spirituality.

I feel as though all the pennies still have not dropped. Even I though I have been so slow to see the relevance to one another of the Death Cafe and psychosis, maybe it’s not too late to get closer to the bottom of the problem.

Perhaps at the end of this sequence it will be more uplifting to confront the issue of death with a song, such as this one, powerfully rendered by June Tabor and Martin Simpson.

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A chain like the one in the Siyah Chal

The theme of this much earlier sequence of posts seems to complement the current sequence about death as light and therefore warrant republishing now.

At the end of the previous post on this topic there is the following challenging quote from Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words:

51. O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.

No one can argue convincingly that Bahá’u’lláh did not know what suffering was like. That alone would give His words tremendous credibility. He was incarcerated in the Siyah Chal, a traumatic ordeal. His experience there was special in an altogether different and more positive way as well:

In the middle of the 19th century, one of the most notorious dungeons in the Near East was Tehran’s “Black Pit.” Once the underground reservoir for a public bath, its only outlet was a single passage down three steep flights of stone steps. Prisoners huddled in their own bodily wastes, languishing in the pit’s inky gloom, subterranean cold and stench-ridden atmosphere.

In this grim setting, the rarest and most cherished of religious events was once again played out: a mortal man, outwardly human in other respects, was summoned by God to bring to humanity a new religious revelation.

The year was 1852, and the man was a Persian nobleman, known today as Bahá’u’lláh. During His imprisonment, as He sat with his feet in stocks and a 100-pound iron chain around his neck, Bahá’u’lláh received a vision of God’s will for humanity.

For Bahá’ís therefore His words have an authority over and above the credence everyone would undoubtedly agree His sufferings accorded Him. I recognise that many do not see His Words as originating with God so it is necessary to pursue this exploration of the meaning of suffering much further and in more prosaic terms.

The Siyah Chal was not the end of His sufferings. Exile and further imprisonment followed, and in the prison in Acre he lost His youngest son, Mirza Mihdi:

He was pacing the roof of the barracks in the twilight, one evening, wrapped in his customary devotions, when he fell through the unguarded skylight onto a wooden crate, standing on the floor beneath, which pierced his ribs, and caused, twenty-two hours later, his death, on . . . . June 23, 1870.

(God Passes By: page 188)

Mirza Mihdi

So, He clearly knew from close personal experience what he was talking about. Also, if we have accepted that the improbability of the universe entails the existence of a God capable of creating it, and now that we have begun to comprehend the vastness, wonder and complexity of the universe, with its quantum foam and simultaneous interactions over vast distances that light would need decades to traverse, the idea of the spiritual reality of which He speaks begins to seem a little less preposterous.

This is fortunate because, as we have already seen in the previous post on this subject, there is no way we can get out of the impasse without making a further extrapolation from the existence of a God to the existence of a reality beyond the one accessible to our senses.

Eric Reitan, in his exemplary treatment of the whole question of the existence of God, takes a long look at the questions we are scrutinising now. His discussion is thorough and complex and I can only include the bare bones of it here. His concern in the passages I quote is the problem of evil, but it is easy to see how his comments apply to the closely related issue of suffering. On pages 196-197 he writes:

For any and all of these evils, the question of why God would permit them requires us to suppose that there are vistas of reality that transcend our understanding – vistas that may not just put evil into perspective but also the fact that it can seem so overwhelming. . . . .

If, within His vast ocean of understanding, God discerns a justifying reason for allowing evil to exist, the probability that this reason would also fall within our puddle of understanding is very low.

So, we can neither know the mind of God nor grasp the full nature of the spiritual reality which surrounds us, though it surely exists in some form. He draws on the cosmological argument, a variation of which I have already referred to briefly in the earlier post and mention again above, to conclude that (page 197) ‘it is reasonable to believe in a transcendent and essentially mysterious reality.’

It is perhaps important to mention that Reitan is not seeking to provide conclusive proof that would persuade everyone that God exists. That would be impossible for reasons I have explored elsewhere. He is simply demonstrating that it is as reasonable to believe in God as not, a truth that Darwinian reductionists find hard to swallow. (See Olinga Tahzib’s Ch4 broadcast for a clear explanation of the Baha’i viewpoint.)

Once you accept the possibility of a transcendent realm, aspects of that mysterious reality can be seen to have, potentially at least, a massively compensating function that provides a radically different context against which to measure both evil and suffering, a context which would make it possible to accept that the pain entailed in making moral choices, for example, and the agony incurred in unforeseen calamities are not inordinate and maybe even serve some higher purpose. Reitan himself points towards this very clearly (page 189):

Not long ago, the distracted negligence of a home daycare provider combined with plain bad luck to take the life of my friend’s 18-month-old son, a gentle boy fiercely loved by his parents. In the face of this tragedy, my friend and his wife have been sustained by a religious faith which promises that everything good and beautiful about their child has been embraced by the deepest reality in the universe.

Something else has helped me come to terms with even uninvited suffering, and helped me also get a more immediate sense of how the idea of a spiritual reality, over and above the purely physical world our senses are restricted to, can be of great help. This was the message that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to bereaved parents who had contacted him in their despair, his keen awareness of the pain of their grief perhaps enhanced by the strong light cast by his own feelings from when his brother, Mirza Mihdi, died in the prison citadel of Acre. He uses a very homely and concrete image to embody the intuition Reitan describes, imagery which makes the possibility of a spiritual realm more vivid and brings it that much closer:

The death of that beloved youth and his separation from you have caused the utmost sorrow and grief; for he winged his flight in the flower of his age and the bloom of his youth to the heavenly nest. But he hath been freed from this sorrow-stricken shelter and hath turned his face toward the everlasting nest of the Kingdom, and, being delivered from a dark and narrow world, hath hastened to the sanctified realm of light; therein lieth the consolation of our hearts.

The inscrutable divine wisdom underlieth such heart-rending occurrences. It is as if a kind gardener transferreth a fresh and tender shrub from a confined place to a wide open area. This transfer is not the cause of the withering, the lessening or the destruction of that shrub; nay, on the contrary, it maketh it to grow and thrive, acquire freshness and delicacy, become green and bear fruit. This hidden secret is well known to the gardener, but those souls who are unaware of this bounty suppose that the gardener, in his anger and wrath, hath uprooted the shrub. Yet to those who are aware, this concealed fact is manifest, and this predestined decree is considered a bounty. Do not feel grieved or disconsolate, therefore, at the ascension of that bird of faithfulness; nay, under all circumstances pray for that youth, supplicating for him forgiveness and the elevation of his station.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá169)

Even though this loving and lovely metaphor of the gardener contributed to a resolution of my quandary, there was still an aspect that troubled me. All this has not only been ordained by God, but it also requires our acquiescence in some way. Bahá’u’lláh’s own expression of it in the Hidden Words is:

18. O SON OF SPIRIT! Ask not of Me that which We desire not for thee, then be content with what We have ordained for thy sake, for this is that which profiteth thee, if therewith thou dost content thyself.

I needed to make sense of this in terms of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá described. Why might it be so important that I content myself with this state of reality?

An obvious partial answer is that, if we can accept the suffering, we will suffer less. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy regards suffering as what we add to the inevitable pain of existence, in part by our resistance to it and also by the language we use to ourselves to describe it. Which is not to say that we should not take practical steps to alleviate our own pain in other ways and to give solace to others, as well as, where possible, making sure that avoidable accidents do not add to the catalogue of human misery.

To go beyond that and probe more deeply into possible ways of learning to accept the apparently unacceptable is something each of us has to do in our own way, by prayer, reading, reflection and ‘right action,’ to use the Buddhist phrase. So, as a way of bringing these reflections to a close, I’d like to share in short hand form my own way of internalising this depiction of reality and of coming to terms with this injunction that we be content with whatever sorrow comes our way.


Heart Safe (for source of image see link)

When we suffer it’s as though we have been robbed of the comforts we have locked away in our hearts to keep them safe, convinced that they were the gold that would buy us our protection from the slings and arrows of ill-fortune, and have been left in their stead with bundles of flimsy paper covered in strange writing.

We simply do not understand the true nature of this paper and rage against our loss, not appreciating that the rage, which is making our heart a furnace, will turn the paper into ashes all too soon, wiping out its incalculable value before we can realise its worth. If we could only come to see our pain and loss as providing us, as a gift, with the currency we will need when we travel, as we all must at some unknown point in the future, to settle in the undiscovered land from whose borders no traveller returns, it would become possible to accept it gratefully rather than resist it pointlessly. We would not then unwittingly destroy it, much to our disadvantage later. Without this currency, when we die we will be like refugees, ill-equipped at first to deal with the challenges of our new homeland. If we were to realise this, not just with our heads but with our hearts as well, we could then do as Bahá’u’lláh advises us and greet calamity with the same peace of mind as we welcome all good fortune. That would be true wisdom and real wealth.

That, of course, is far easier said than done and will take most of us more than a lifetime to accomplish. That should not be a reason to give up, it seems to me. We will, after all, have the whole of eternity to finish off what we have begun locked in time down here, and the better the start we get, the less we’ll have to do later on. Another example of the compensating effect of taking the broader view offered by a spiritual perspective.

Perhaps there is no better way to close this pair of posts than by concluding with the most beautiful piece of music that I know of relating to this theme. (For more about Handel’s Messiah click the link.)

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Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

The theme of this much earlier sequence of posts seems to complement the current sequence about death as light and therefore warrants republishing now.

It’s nearly 4 a.m. On this day at about this time 119 years ago, after four decades in prison and in exile, Bahá’u’lláh died near Acre, then an outpost of the Ottoman Empire, now a city in Israel. So on this holy day it seems fitting to begin some reflections upon the meaning of suffering, not just upon His sorrows but upon those of all who fall victim to what Shakespeare’s Hamlet described as the ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.’

On 11 March this year, in the middle of the Bahá’í Fast which, in my experience at least, sensitises us more than usual to the sufferings of others, the BBC posted the following news bulletin:

Japan’s most powerful earthquake since records began has struck the north-east coast, triggering a massive tsunami. Cars, ships and buildings were swept away by a wall of water after the 8.9-magnitude tremor, which struck about 400km (250 miles) north-east of Tokyo. A state of emergency has been declared at a nuclear power plant, where pressure has exceeded normal levels.

Officials say 350 people are dead and about 500 missing, but it is feared the final death toll will be much higher. In one ward alone in Sendai, a port city in Miyagi prefecture, 200 to 300 bodies were found. In the centre of Tokyo many people are spending the night in their offices. But thousands, perhaps millions, chose to walk home. Train services were suspended.

Even after the most violent earthquake anyone could remember the crowds were orderly and calm. The devastation is further to the north, along the Pacific coast. There a tsunami triggered by the quake reached 10km (six miles) inland in places carrying houses, buildings, boats and cars with it. In the city of Sendai the police found up to 300 bodies in a single ward. Outside the city in a built-up area a fire blazed across several kilometres.

Japan’s ground self-defence forces have been deployed, and the government has asked the US military based in the country for help. The scale of destruction from the biggest quake ever recorded in Japan will become clear only at first light. The quake was the fifth-largest in the world since 1900 and nearly 8,000 times stronger than the one which devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, said scientists.

For anyone who believes that an all-powerful and all-merciful God set up the world this way, such events have to pose a problem. Would it not have been possible to do it differently if God were truly all-powerful? If it were possible to do it differently and eliminate the need for suffering, and He did not, then He is not all-merciful. If He is all-merciful and yet set up the world to contain so much pain, he cannot be all-powerful. There is no fudging the issue and those of us with a belief in God, at some time in our lives, will have to confront it or live in a state of denial.

For a Darwinian materialist, of course, there’s not an issue: ‘This is how the universe works and that’s all there is to say.’

So, why don’t I take that option?

It would end the apparently irresolvable paradox and remove the dissonance at one stroke. This is where I’m going to have to short-hand things because proving the existence of God is not the purpose of this post and in any case cannot be done in a way that would convince everyone for reasons that this blog has already explored countless times (see for instance the comments on Reitan’s book in the post on moral imagination).

I can’t revert to the atheism I used to find so plausible because, even if the existence of a purely insentient universe were not a compelling consideration, the fact that there is both life and consciousness is for me completely compelling. Life without consciousness is so utterly improbable that this alone would be enough to convince me, though, in that case, there would be no me to convince. Consciousness clinches it. The conditions to bring that into being are so improbable that I simply cannot persuade myself that they were not created by an intelligence for some purpose.

Once I’m impaled upon the thorns of that conviction, and it does bring all sorts of uncomfortable consequences in its train, I am also on the rack of the dilemma I described. How come there’s suffering?

Evil, in the sense of pain caused by people to other living sentient beings, can be put down to free will, which is a necessary precondition of moral and spiritual development, another complex issue that must get short shrift here as it’s not the main focus for now. Pain that is inherent to the design of the universe, when, as it does, it contains life forms that can feel it, is another issue altogether and the one I turn to now.

It clearly needs a lot more unpacking before I can fairly expect others to accept that disasters, such as the one Japan has so recently confronted, are compatible with the concept of a compassionate creator God. I find it pretty tough to do so myself and I’ve had years of practice now.

Some mileage can be made out of reminding myself that physical pain is a protector. Congenital analgesia ‘is a rare condition in which there is an absence of pain sensation from birth without the loss of other sensations or demonstrable nerve pathology. This can result in the individual unintentionally harming him or herself.’ When our nervous system is intact and our state of mind undisturbed, it is because we feel pain that we do not harm ourselves. This may extend to some degree into the realm of emotional pain. Experience teaches us what social situations hurt us and we learn to avoid them.

Even so, this benign function of pain does not resolve the crucial question for us, because an omnipotent God could, we presume, have made a world where there was no danger of harm and therefore no need for pain as a warning to us about it.

Charles Tart

Charles Tart

Pain as moral developer goes only so far towards resolving this. Clearly, where there is no fear or pain there’d be no need for heroes, and, where no one suffers, none of us would need to sacrifice our comfort to help them. Also pain has been described by Charles Tart as a ‘trance breaker’ that wakes us up to the deeper realities hiding behind matter. Again though, surely, an all-knowing deity could have worked round that one and made a world where moral growth could happen with no uncomfortable choices.

Even if it were possible to accept, for the reasons give, all those kinds of pain as compatible with a merciful creator, what are we to make of all the unavoidable and seemingly pointless ways painful injury and agonising death afflict us? The warning function of pain is of no use to the victim of an avalanche. There is no moral growth entailed for you when you drown in a tsunami. And trances could surely be broken by something less traumatic?

There is no way round the conclusion that the universe is set up the way it is because that’s the way God wants it, even if it makes no sense to us and tests our faith to breaking point. So, where can we go from here? Is there a way of reconciling the seemingly arbitrary pain of the world around us with a merciful creator?

Bahá’u’lláh forces our faith to confront all these issues when He writes in the Hidden Words:

51. O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.

When the outward is all we can apparently experience, this statement challenges us to change our frame of reference quite radically. So, we are at the beginning of a journey of understanding which will take us through some difficult terrain. We’re in the territory John Donne describes in Satire III:

On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go;
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so . . .

As traversing it will take some time, it needs the leisure of another post I fear.

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A Crazy Song

For the original Spanish that triggered this see link.

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When I set up the post of the poem this morning, I suddenly remembered this one, suggesting that I might just have a weakness for Arctic imagery! This poem is the only poem I have ever written triggered by a prompt. I was attending a workshop on spirituality and how a deeper sense of our spiritual connectedness could change the world. The key word suggested was ‘enkindlement.’ This poem was the result. It poured out breathlessly and has seemed a bit of a mystery to me ever since. Anyway here it is again.

Enkindlement v5

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Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga

At the end of the last post I stated it may not be enough to adduce evidence, which satisfies me, to support the idea of a non-material reality ignored by the mainstream because of a bias in science that discounts it. I need also to have some sound reasons for my claim that there is a valid distinction to be made between a good science, prepared to accept the possibility of transpersonal explanations, and a bad science, dogmatically committed to ruling any such explanation of experience out of count on the a priori grounds that it couldn’t possible exist no matter what evidence was brought forward in support of it.

Here I turn to Alvin Plantinga as the most coherent proponent of the case that has convinced me. His book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, deserves the attention of every sceptic. His introduction marks out his core contention:

If my thesis is right, therefore—if there is deep concord between science and Christian or theistic belief, but deep conflict between science and naturalism—then there is a science/religion (or science/ quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it isn’t between science and theistic religion: it’s between science and naturalism 

He defines ‘naturalism’ as ‘the thought that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.’ He sees it as a kind of religion and definitely not a science. Atheists need to bear with this a little longer to give his argument a fair chance.

Plantinga clarifies where the conflict seems to lie for him:

There is no real conflict between theistic religion and the scientific theory of evolution. What there is, instead, is conflict between theistic religion and a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else).

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Must Evolution be Unguided?

If there is no deep-seated conflict for Plantinga between the theory of evolution and theism, the same is surprisingly not true in the case of naturalism and science:

I argue that the same most emphatically does not go for science and naturalism. . . . . there is deep and serious conflict between naturalism and science. . . . it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. . . . . a naturalist who accepts current evolutionary theory has a defeater for the proposition that our faculties are reliable. . . . naturalism and evolution are in serious conflict: one can’t rationally accept them both.

He starts with a simple statement of naturalism’s position before exploring some of his doubts about it (page 34):

Life itself originated just by way of the regularities of physics and chemistry (through a sort of extension of natural selection); and undirected natural selection has produced language and mind, including our artistic, moral, religious, and intellectual proclivities. Now many—theists and others—have found these claims at least extremely doubtful; some have found them preposterous. Is it really so much as possible that language, say, or consciousness, or the ability to compose great music, or prove Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, or think up the idea of natural selection should have been produced by mindless processes of this sort? That is an ambitious claim.

One of the main purposes of Plantinga’s book is to scotch the misconception that a theory of evolution inevitably entails the assumption that it must have been unguided for good and all (page 55):

Well, if we think of the Darwinian picture as including the idea that the process of evolution is unguided, then of course that picture is completely at odds with providentialist religion. As we have seen, however, current evolutionary science doesn’t include the thought that evolution is unguided; it quite properly refrains from commenting on that metaphysical or theological issue.

He concludes that evolution has incorrectly been seen as hostile to religious belief (pages 63-64):

The scientific theory of evolution as such is not incompatible with Christian belief; what is incompatible with it is the idea that evolution, natural selection, is unguided. But that idea isn’t part of evolutionary theory as such; it’s instead a metaphysical or theological addition.

Caveman and Dinosaur

For source of image see link

Can Naturalism be trusted?

His perspective has other solid ground to stand on. One point he sees as crucial (page 275):

It is important to see that our notion of the laws of nature, crucial for contemporary science, has [its] origin in Christian theism.

An additional critical factor is that the laws of nature lie within the grasp of our understanding (page 276):

On this conception, part of the job of science is to discover the laws of nature; but then of course science will be successful only if it is possible for us human beings to do that. Science will be successful only if these laws are not too complex, or deep, or otherwise beyond us. Again, this thought fits well with theistic religion and its doctrine of the image of God; God not only sets laws for the universe, but sets laws we can (at least approximately) grasp.

From this he concludes (page 282):

With respect to the laws of nature, therefore, there are at least three ways in which theism is hospitable to science and its success . . . First, science requires regularity, predictability, and constancy; . . . From the point of view of naturalism, the fact that our world displays the sort of regularity and lawlike behavior necessary for science is a piece of enormous cosmic luck, a not-to-be-expected bit of serendipity. But regularity and lawlikeness obviously fit well with the thought that God is a rational person who has created our world, and instituted the laws of nature.

Second, not only must our world in fact manifest regularity and law-like behavior: for science to flourish, scientists and others must believe that it does. . . . such a conviction fits well with the theistic doctrine of the image of God.

For me though the killer blow that he delivers is even more fundamental. There is an undermining aspect of naturalism for anyone who chooses to espouse it (page 313):

. . . . .  suppose you are a naturalist: you think that there is no such person as God, and that we and our cognitive faculties have been cobbled together by natural selection. Can you then sensibly think that our cognitive faculties are for the most part reliable? . . . . . . the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable, given naturalism and evolution, is low. But then . . . . . if I believe both naturalism and evolution, I have a defeater for my intuitive assumption that my cognitive faculties are reliable. If I have a defeater for that belief, however, then I have a defeater for any belief I take to be produced by my cognitive faculties.

We need to unpack a little more the logic that underlies this conclusion (page 315):

The principal function or purpose, then, . . . . . of our cognitive faculties is not that of producing true or verisimilitudinous (nearly true) beliefs, but instead that of contributing to survival by getting the body parts in the right place.  . . . hence it does not guarantee mostly true or verisimilitudinous beliefs. . . . . What Churchland therefore suggests is that naturalistic evolution—that theory—gives us reason to doubt two things: (a) that a purpose of our cognitive systems is that of serving us with true beliefs, and (b) that they do, in fact, furnish us with mostly true beliefs.

For example, awareness that a predator is present is not a belief. It is a trigger to action based on lower level brain processes.  Any beliefs that ride on the back of those processes at a higher level of brain function are irrelevant to the production of life-saving behaviour and may or may not be true.

In short, and to me very sweet, if you believe naturalistic evolution is true you cannot be sure any of your beliefs, including naturalism, are true. Unpacked a bit more it says, if we believe that how we think has been exclusively determined by natural selection, which is only concerned with our capacity to survive long enough to reproduce, then we cannot absolutely trust our beliefs about anything beyond that level, including both our belief that our thinking ability is fixed by evolution and our conviction that there is no God and no spiritual dimension.

Accepting this entails accepting that naturalism cannot be a science. If you add into the mix that excluding any potentially valid data a priori is unscientific then naturalism, which enshrines the ideas that all we are is the fruit of evolution and that anything suggesting there is a spiritual dimension must be false, definitely cannot be a science.

QED, in my book. Gone in a puff of compelling logic is any valid reason in true science to exclude a priori from consideration evidence that supports a spiritual explanation.

Perhaps with his tongue slightly in his cheek, Plantinga closes his book by saying (page 349):

My conclusion, therefore, is that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic belief, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. Given that naturalism is at least a quasi-religion, there is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That’s where the conflict really lies.

The Conscious Universe IRMIn Summary

For me then the case is strong.

There is enough evidence, much of it referred to elsewhere on this blog, to support the notion that the mind is not reducible to the brain, and beyond that the mind seems to have the capacity, under certain conditions, to respond to wavelengths of reality that contradict our materialistic consensus.

There are compelling reasons for mainstream science to take this evidence seriously if it is to be true to its own most fundamental principles. And there is no good reason for pretending that the idea of a spiritual reality is so preposterous we’ve no need to look at the evidence in its favour. In fact, a central tenet of modern science, the theory of evolution, suggests the exact opposite: any claim to reduce our reasoning entirely to material origins in evolution and to protect that claim by ruling out in advance as false any evidence to the contrary, would, if it were true, undermine its own validity.

All of this can be explored in more depth at the links below. Any atheist who refuses to explore not only my version of the books referred to but the books themselves, should at least consider that they might be protecting their prejudices rather than behaving rationally. If, after careful consideration, neither the argument nor the evidence contained in those links shifts them from conviction to at least agnosticism, then they should acknowledge that what they believe is at least as much an act of faith as my position on the matter.

Related Articles

Hard Evidence


Consciousness beyond Life (1/3): problems of scepticism
Consciousness beyond Life (2/3): ‘consciousness does not happen in the brain
Consciousness beyond Life (3/3): nonlocality

Book Review (1/3): ‘The Spiritual Brain’ and its critique of materialism
Book Review (2/3): ‘The Spiritual Brain’ on consciousness
Book Review (3/3): ‘The Spiritual Brain’ on the costs of the materialistic approach

Irreducible Mind – a review (1/3): how psychology lost the plot
Irreducible Mind – a review (2/3): Myers & the mind-body problem
Irreducible Mind – a review (3/3): the self & the Self


Book Review (1/2): Radin, Psi and Scepticism
Book Review (2/2): Radin on Processes of Distortion


Where the Conflict Really Lies (1/4): preparing the ground
Where the Conflict Really Lies (2/4): a superficial conflict
Where the Conflict Really Lies (3/4): a deep compatibility
Where the Conflict Really Lies (4/4): the deep conflict

Possible Implications: Heart & Head

An Understanding Heart (1/4): divided we fail
An Understanding Heart (2/4): a consensus trance
An Understanding Heart (3/4): separating gut from heart
An Understanding Heart (4a/4): redressing the balance
An Understanding Heart (4b/4): of lamps and gardens
An Understanding Heart (4c/4): of mirrors and reflection

The Third ‘I’ (2/5): Kahneman Revisited – the three ‘I’s
The Third ‘I’ (3a/5): the wisdom of dreams
The Third ‘I’ (3b/5): the wisdom of dreams
The Third ‘I’ (4/5): whispers from the heart
The Third ‘I’ (5a/5): the power of silence
The Third ‘I’ (5b/5): interthinking

Three Brains Revisited (1/3): A Stranded Mariner?
Three Brains Revisited (2/3): Are We Too Trigger-Happy?
Three Brains Revisited (3/3): Is Mammering the Best Policy?

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