Two of my favorite sources during the early years of my spiritual journery were Matthew Fox and Rupert Sheldrake. Both of them continue to inspire and challenge me. In the April 18, 2019 issue on Progressing Spirit, I found Matthew Fox reviewing Rupert Sheldrake's latest book. Awesome! Rev. Fox brings historical perspedtive to the volutile relationship between science and spirituality/religion as he presents the key elements of Sheldrake's efforts to assist us in understanding "....why the ancient practices of our ancestors were not in vain and were not foolish but have a solid meaning behind them that even science can appreciate anew." Now I will have to get the book! Perhaps we can read it together and have an online discussion this summer!?
Science and Spiritual Practices by Rupert Sheldrake . Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox
Science and Spirituality need each other. This has always been the case—from Aristotle (who concludes his classic work on Physics with positing an Unmoved Mover) to Aquinas (who fought the fundamentalists of his day about the value of bringing science, namely Aristotle, and the scientific method of his day, namely scholasticism, into the world of faith). With the torture and murder of Giordanno Bruno at the stake in the Jubilee year in Rome in 1600, and with the threats of the Inquisition against Galileo Galilei a decade or two later, there has been a painful rupture between science and religion, psyche and cosmos, in the West for over 400 years. This divorce has been devastating for the Earth and for humanity which is so divided, so violent in its investments in war and weapons and so at war with itself as well as with the Earth.
But now something new is afoot. It is primed not only by the deep trouble humanity finds itself in amidst the unprecedented extinction spasm occurring around the planet due to climate change and the rest, but also there is a movement within science away from the arrogance of reductionism and anthropocentrism and probing of deeper questions and explorations into consciousness and mind expansion, intuition, creativity and happiness. Science is beginning to explore these deeper qualities of existence and move beyond self-made boundaries about the quantifiable being the only reality.
On religion’s part, in some places at least, there is a movement to put spirituality or experience ahead of structure and dogma and theological righteousness and to reconnect justice—eco, gender, economic, racial, social—with the basic teaching of love and compassion. Also there is an effort to step out of its own narcissism (Pope Francis’ word) in questions like “Am I saved?” “Do I live forever?” and to integrate the search for the truth about nature as the revelatory source that it is. (Aquinas: “Revelation comes in two volumes: Nature and the Bible.”)
Creation Spirituality is such a movement within religion and integral to it is a quest for scientific understanding for as Aquinas put it 750 years ago, “a mistake about creation results in a mistake about God.” Or as Hildegard of Bingen put it 100 years previously, “all science comes from God.” Fundamentalists of course are not yet on board with a yearning for scientific truth but maybe there are signs that among the present generation, some of that resistance may melt (along with the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica and the glaciers occurring all around the world).
If there is a glimmer of hope around religion’s waking up to science (and Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical “Laudato Si” is a solid effort), a book like biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s new book, Science and Spiritual Practices might contribute meaningfully to religion’s wake-up. And science’s. Hopefully both will happen since time is rapidly running out for our species and for the planet as we know it and for countless other species threatened by earth’s demise. (In the interest of transparency I should confess that I am a friend of Rupert Sheldrake and have written two books with him, Natural Grace and The Physics of Angels).
Sheldrake’s newest book is a giant step forward. Drawing on his last book, Science Set Free, (which I called in a review “the most important book in the last ten years”) he again challenges scientists to face up to the “hard problem” in the philosophy of mind which is that of consciousness. How can consciousness be strictly “in the brain” as materialistic dogma insists? Materialists, Sheldrake points out in his introduction, “start from the assumption that everything is made of unconscious matter, including human brains.” (p. 16) Then how does consciousness emerge in brains? Even though the practice of religion is in steep decline in Europe “spiritual experiences are surprisingly common, even among those who describe themselves as non-religious.” One study asked British people, “Have you ever experienced a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?” In 1978 36 % said yes; in 1987, 48%; and in 2000, over 75% said yes. In America, a Gallup poll asked if people had ever had “a religious or mystical experience” and in 1962 22% said yes; in 1994, 33%; in 2009, 49%. (16f)
Now some of these statistics may just belie the fact that today spirituality is more easy for people to talk about, but they also demonstrate that, even though religious affiliation is on the decline, spiritual experiences are not. Spiritual practices are happening outside “traditional religious frameworks.” A good example is yoga practices that reach millions in the West. These practices, says Sheldrake, “fill a need that atheism cannot satisfy.” (17)
Beginning around the turn of the millennium science began to investigate spiritual practices and their effects on humans. The University of Wisconsin is famous for its hooking Buddhist monks up to scientific gadgets to test what goes on in the brain of a person in meditation. Literally thousands of research studies now exist and what is their general consensus? Sheldrake summarizes the findings this way: “The results generally show that religious and spiritual practices confer benefits that include better physical and mental health, less proneness to depression and greater longevity.” (20). In addition, people lacking the kind of practices he lays out in the book are “unhappier, unhealthier and more depressed. Militant atheism should come with a health warning,” he proposes. (204) Thus, Sheldrake concludes that “the old-fashioned opposition between science and religion is a false dichotomy. Open-minded scientific studies enhance our understanding of spiritual and religious practices.” (20)
Two dimensions of this book on spiritual practices particularly stand out to me. First is that Sheldrake is not afraid to speak in the first person, in fact he confesses in his Preface that he has participated himself in all of the practices. It is refreshing to see the “I” word throughout this book. So few scientists seem willing to let go of the objectivity dogma to admit actual participation in life and its deepest searches. Sheldrake is not one of these people. In fact, in his chapter on Pilgrimage he tells a moving story of relating to his godson this way. Instead of giving a birthday object as a gift, he began giving a birthday experience each year, and each year he and his teen age godson would take a pilgrimage together. Great things happened.
Second is that Sheldrake, while not ignoring the East (where he lived as a young scientist and began his journey out of atheism and met a mentor in the wonderful Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths), focuses his book primarily on his own tradition, namely western religious practices. Why not? He is a westerner after all and he and his wife Jill Purce (who plays an important role in the chapter on chant and song since she is an important practitioner and teacher of both) are practicing Christians in the Anglican tradition.
This is especially important because so many Westerners are so mystically illiterate that they do not have a clue that the West has also developed spiritual practices over the centuries both within its monastic traditions and outside them. One might credit Sheldrake for following Carl Jung’s warning when he said Westerners should not be pirates thieving wisdom from foreign shores as if our own culture was an error outlived. And also credit Sheldrake for paying more than the usual pious lip service to the advice of the Dalai Lama who encourages Westerners not to become Buddhist but to explore more deeply one’s own spiritual traditions. Rupert does that.
Sheldrake presents seven practices in seven chapters and a concluding chapter. He treats the practices both from the perspective of experience and scientific understanding by bringing in studies of the effects of each practice. The practices are laid out in the Table of Contents of the book as follows:
3. Reconnecting with the more-than-human word
6. Singing, chanting and the power of music
7. Pilgrimages and Holy Places.
He also promises a follow-up book which will consider other practices......This book, Science and Spiritual Practices, is a breakthrough. It is a promise and sign of hope in a dire time, an apocalyptic time, but a potentially revelatory time also (the word apocalypse from Greek can also be translated as “revelation” after all). Is it true that the modern age of antagonism between science and religion, psyche and cosmos, can be healed? Is it true that this is happening right now? That spiritual experience is available to believers and unbelievers alike? Read this important book and find out for yourself.