Science and Spirituality
1. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters.
The quest for God begins with an inner awareness that there is more to life than physical existence. Something unformed and uncomprehended stirs deep within each of us and over it the spirit hovers restlessly until we make a response. The response is one of yearning: a desire to love the infinite love, a desire for truth, wisdom and understanding and a desire to aspire to the harmony of a wholeness that we but dimly perceive. The illumination of our understanding and our conscious articulation of the experience at the very root and ground of our being may be realised in a myriad of ways. For each of us has a unique and valid insight into this very essence of our humanity and a vocation to explore it whether we are artists, musicians, priests or scientists or talented in any other field.
‘For there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are diversities of ministrations and the same Lord. And there are diversities of workings, but the same God who worketh all things in all’ .
The creative spirit
Vague and nebulous is the beginning of all things but not their end,” wrote Gibran, ” life and all that lives is conceived in the mist and not the crystal.” Explorations in the arts or sciences are conceived in the mist where the unknown beckons us with all its potential and infinite possibility. The first contemplations which are transformed into brush strokes, the statement of a musical theme, the attempt at the poem or the posing of a question, commit us to the search, restricting the possibilities that lay in the empty canvas and unmixed palette, the untouched keyboard or the unmarked notebook. Moreover, the conversion of the dream to reality exposes us to the possibility of failure, of disclosing our inadequacy, of corrupting what appeared pure and incorruptible before our attempts to grasp, articulate and give form to what we experienced in the mist.
Although crystals may be seeded in the mist, they grow in an ordered manner and there are a restricted number of parameters which govern the final structure. The fundamental shape of the crystal is a function of the molecular structure and was determined even in the solution from which it emerged. In contrast to the growing crystal, our final statement is not pre-determined from the beginning, we do not have the blueprint in our initial act, we struggle at every level to find the precise note, the true color, the exact word, the definitive experiment.
Small wonder that the moment of commitment is sometimes terrifying, always awe-inspiring, and invariably requires courage. Small wonder that even the lowliest first triumph in self expression, won at so great a cost, will keep us returning to the source for the rest of our lives. Like Parsifal tasting the salmon at the fire, our first contact with the infinite will bind us for ever, for even if we should never experience it again, all our failures will be eclipsed by that single moment of success.
The questing spirit
For the X-ray crystallographer, these protein crystals of the neuraminidase enzyme on the surface of the influenza virus represent only the beginning in a process of unlocking the details of a molecular structure. The painstaking analysis of the patterns obtained by diffracting X-rays through a crystal can take many months. The interpretation of the crystal structure to give a fuller understanding of the relationship between its structure and its biological function may continue for years as more data becomes available from other experimental work. Similarly, the products of our creativity are not ends in themselves but beginnings. All conclusions pose more questions both to the artist or scientist or to those who interact with their work and the quest is endless. As Elliot perceived in his poem East Coker, “in my end is my beginning.”
And we will often feel that we have”come back to the place where we started from to see it as it were for the first time”.
The models we derive in science, or the doctrines we distill out of our collective religious insights, are only partial because both science and religion depend on continuing revelation. Both leave a trail of loose ends. For example, a protein known to protect red blood cells from lysis was shown to have a particular kind of sugar linked to it. This finding immediately opens up more questions: Where is the sugar attached? What is it for? How did it get there? What is its function on a cell surface protein?
Similarly, take the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the Godhead. This may solve the problem of how a pure, undefiled Virgin, who was especially chosen of God for the Virginal Conception, could escape the corruption of death. It may also be an important means through which we can recognize and relate to the feminine within the creative spirit of God. However, it immediately poses new questions, such as “What is the role of the Virgin within the inter-relationships that lie at the heart of the single undivided Trinity, so sensitively portrayed in the icon by Rubilov? Why would, or even can, God intervene to suspend the natural laws?” Nor are these loose ends to be despised, for it is precisely because of them-and our determination to tie them up-that our insights grow and develop. Searching for answers to questions is not a challenge to faith, but a route to it. If both science and theology are to continue supporting our deepest hopes and aspirations, nothing can be thought of as the final word on a subject, but only as a platform of consolidated ideas from which to step further into the unknown.
The courageous spirit
Exploring the urge to create always involves risk, both for God and for humans. However, if we begin from a secure base of knowledge, we can dare to search. We become as Theseus in the labyrinth searching fro the minotaur while Ariadne held the thread, or as astronauts tied to their space ship. If we unwind the cord, we can risk exploring because we can always find our way back to where we started, bringing new information to test against the growing base of knowledge. Science and religion are just two starting points from which we can describe different facets of the world and of ourselves. Both involve searching. Neither are Science and Religion remote from each other – for the person that my spiritual understanding enables me to become is the person who does the Science. Likewise the parts of myself which grow through my understanding of Science are part of the person who reaches towards God.
The ordered spirit
Sometimes the restlessness of the search and the desire for security overwhelms us, and we take refuge for a while. God was once thought of principally as the great designer, ordering the natural world. Eventually we would understand all the laws, all would be spelled out in black and white, there would be one unifying theory to explain creation and all would be predictable. Undoubtedly there are mathematical patterns which occur again and again in the natural world, such as the Fibonacci series which characterises spirals in the leaf patterns of plants or the heads of sunflowers. However, looking at Escher’s drawings, where fishes imperceptibly evolve into birds I wonder if at least some of the order we perceive in the world exists only in our minds as a consequence of our temporal and spatial location, and as a consequence of our use of language. Maybe naming, ordering and categorising fills an essential need we have to make paths and tracks so we can travel in the vast network which constitutes our minds, just as we use roads and rivers to navigate the physical world and we make constellations out of the stars. For is it not possible to classify the natural world in countless different ways – by color, by size, by species, by sex? Indeed it is through our attempts to find order that we discover that many things do not fall neatly into a single category – there are always overlaps, exceptions and grayness at the boundaries. For example, dusk is neither day nor night; a zebra is neither black nor white; and who can say what is the length of the coastline of England?
The restless spirit
The idea that we have a desire to impose order is worth exploring because the relationship between order and chaos is important for thinking about creativity. In a Zen garden in Kyoto it seems that everything is asymmetric, including the tree branches which are deliberately bent. The whole of the garden proclaims the idea that the greatest potential for creativity is when our minds are still free to choose from all the options that lie before us. Once we begin to order things, we are more comfortable because we feel we are establishing control and gaining insight. Yet, as we continue, our options steadily become more narrow. Thus while it is necessary to establish order in both science and religion this is a temporary state. If we hope to be truly creative and understand something of the creative spirit of the Universe, we need to remain “uncomfortable” with the tension, and as in this stone garden in which only 14 of the 15 stones can be seen from any one place, stay at the edge of the unknown.
The holistic spirit
Glycobiology involves analysis of glycoproteins in order to understand their function. We are constantly developing our technology so that we can analyze the sugars at an ever more detailed level. After the analysis, as we attempt to reconstruct the molecule, we are aware that molecules amount to more than the sum of their parts. A cell surface glycoprotein such as CD59, which protects our red blood cells, consists of protein plus sugars plus an anchor. There is interaction between the parts so that when they are together they function as a whole to protect our red blood cells. Likewise, we are more than the sum total of the chemicals, or even the biological organs, that make up our bodies. It is the interactions between all these individual parts of ourselves, which together make each of us a unique person and it is through our relationships with others that we build the communities in which we live. And what of our relationship with God? At the very least, the God I experience raises and inspires my human hopes, values, ideals and inspiration and integrates them into himself. He is as the hymn writer put it ‘Great heart of my own heart’. Indeed, if we are all created within the mind of God, surely God takes into His being all of our human hopes, values, ideals and inspiration. So, in both science and religion, we need to see beyond the individual parts to gain a glimpse of the glory of the whole. We may begin to understand the world around us by taking it apart, but the full significance will be lost to us forever, if we do not re-assemble what we have dissected and see the whole within a larger context. As Wordsworth realized:
Our murdering intellect Mis-shapes the beauteous things we murder to dissect. And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air And the blue sky and in the mind of man; A motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.
The wondering spirit
As Wordsworth knew, there is a kind of intuitive wonder which we experience when we look at the natural world and see a glorious sunset, a leopard running across the plains, or a perfectly formed crystal. However, there is another aspect to wonder which primarily involves the intellect. This aspect appreciates the mechanism behind the beauty. Eventually this type of intellectual wonder can give way to the intuitive, for the mechanisms can become so well studied and understood that the distance between the observer and the observed is somehow eclipsed and the scientist intuitively understands the sunset, the leopard or the crystal. For example, in my research there comes a moment when I can empathize with the molecules with the molecules I am working with. There is a sense in which I move from a discursive interaction with the literature and the data into something which feels very much like a contemplative state. I am no longer straining to reach an understanding, but quietly waiting and wondering, privileged as some tiny part of the natural world reveals something of itself. However, before this can happen I need to work to understand all I can about the molecule: properties such as its size, shape, dynamics, the distribution of charge on its surface, its surroundings and the details of its interactions with other molecules. I build up a picture in my imagination and, as I do more experiments, the picture becomes more detailed so that in my mind the molecule assumes giant proportions. Ultimately, I can walk around it; I can explore inside it; I can feel how it moves, how it sounds, and feels. I can intuitively sense how it will respond to changes in its environment. However, this alone is not enough, for I then need to bring my intuitive understanding to conscious expression, and finally test my predictions by experiment.
The communicating spirit
I need also to develop some kind of language to express my intuitive ideas. Science, religion, music, painting all involve learning a language to convey ideas. For instance, in Christainity we use the language of symbolism in vestments and ritual actions to convey the meaning of the Eucharist. At the heart of the mass, bread and wine symbolize the eternal life-giving spirit. They enable us to open out our own lives to this sustaining presence. Again we use the symbol of the Trinity to convey our understanding of God. Symbols can mean different things at different times to different people. For example, one interpretation of the meaning of the Trinity which is meaningful to me in this context is that the first person represents all that is unknown and awesome in ourselves, the second person represents that which we have accessed, brought to consciousness and articulated and that the third person represents the power by which we are enabled to bring unconscious knowing to conscious understanding. Symbols provide us with bridges between earth and heaven, between the conscious and the intuitive understanding. The words and symbols which we use are not the reality. Rather, they are but a means of articulating an even deeper knowledge that is also beyond the reach of our physical senses.
Long before we are able to express ourselves coherently in words or models the ideas have already been assimilated into the conscious rational part of our minds. As van Gogh knew, original creative thinking begins a lot deeper than the spoken word but is inextricably linked to it. In this painting the tangled roots of unknowing and the branches which are the products of the roots are inextricably part of a whole.
Again, look at this series of sketches drawn by Chagall as a prelude to the building of the Levi window in Jerusalem and see how he moves from mist to crystal. See too how he leaves the final interpretation to you and to me as the work enters our own experience.
At another level but by a similar process, the models that we use to visualize the molecules with which we work, and the words with which we describe them, are also symbols – not the reality. They enable us to understand and articulate things that are beyond the reach of our senses. Then see how, as we gathered more information we moved from this amino acid sequence for CD59 to a crude sketch, to a model of a single molecule with only one sugar attached because we could not locate the second, to a model with both sugars attached inserted with other molecules in the cell membrane.
The austere spirit
In both science and religion it is crucial to distinguish clearly between what we know to be true and what we would like to be true, but have neither demonstrated nor experienced. Often it seems that to remain honest we must turn aside from our earlier models and concepts of God to accommodate new data or insights. Sometimes the way feels very lonely because in both science and religion we are called upon to make our own individual journeys of discovery. Just as the knights in the Arthurian legends, who searched for the Holy Grail, ultimately we have to enter the forest where there is no path and go where there is no one to lead us. In our quest for truth in science and religion, we are responsible for following with integrity the path lit by the spirit within us. The personal qualities needed to be a scientist are not so very different from those long recognized as important in the spiritual quest: a desire for truth, perseverance, detachment from material things and from self interest, humility, some level of austerity by which to accept criticism and to sacrifice comfort and pleasure to reach the goal.
For unless a person is always humble and distrustful of himself, he will be unable to stand without falling, truth will pass him by and light and goodness will evade him.
In all respects and in all professions our aims should be high and our personal values beyond reproach. We all need to develop our ethical thinking to address the major issues which face us today. To remain true to our scientific vision we need to look to the purity of our intentions, to take responsibility for our acts of discovery, to dedicate ourselves and our skills to our God and to the world in which we live.
Science and spirit
Growth in both spirituality and science demands that we engage in a journey because neither is a state of knowing but rather of searching for knowledge. “This life is not a state of being but of becoming. We are not yet what we shall be but we grow towards it; the process of learning and growing is not yet finished, but is still going on. All does not yet shine with glory, but all is being purified.” (Luther)
What of our search to understand God and God’s relationship with humanity today? I believe we are being challenged, as never before, to develop and expand our religious doctrines in light of the rapidly growing data base of human knowledge. If the existing religions are to be sufficient for our needs in the next millennium, I suggest that one of the major tasks for all who profess any kind of religious commitment will be, as this college chapel reminds us, to reflect on the current knowledge emerging from our particular discipline and to relate this to the innermost needs of the human spirit.
Moreover just as the ordination of women to the priesthood and the use of inclusive language is opening up hitherto unimagined spiritual vistas for those of us in the Anglican tradition, so I believe there is a further blossoming to come. For contemporary scientists have still to discover how to make their full contribution to the richness of our spiritual heritage.
If the existing religions are to sufficient to our needs in the next millenium, I suggest that one of the major tasks for all who profess a religious commitment will be, as this Oxford college photograph reminds us to reflect on the current knowledge emerging from our particular discipline and to relate this to the innermost needs of the human spirit.