Chapter Fifteen: A Reconciliation of Spirituality and Science
All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.
I do not think it is necessary to believe that the same God who has given us our senses, reason, and intelligence wished us to abandon their use, giving us by some other means the information that we could gain through them.
The last fourteen chapters have systematically presented unmistakable correlations amongst the fundamental teachings of Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism. We have seen that all the major religious teachers have spoken of the Ultimate Divine, the material world, Divine Justice, and the nature of evil in strikingly similar language. The universal imperatives of impartial compassion and anti-materialism, and common warnings of spiritual hypocrisy, further attest to the inherent unity of thought and purpose in all major world religions. This chapter will now reconcile these teachings with the observable deductions of modern science.
For far too long the practitioners of both science and religion have treated each other as competitors with no common ground, to the detriment of both branches of human thought. On the one hand, organized religious traditions have often stymied the advancement of human knowledge through rigorous application of questionable dogmas. At the same time, the processes of science have often lacked a moral foundation and produced hideous monstrosities that threaten humanity as a whole. The common threats that face our societies all stem from our inadequate understanding of ourselves, our universe, and our place and purpose in this world. The necessity of reconciling our oldest traditions with our newest capabilities is an imperative that transcends cultural and ideological differences.
The human mind employs multiple means for discovering the truth. Logic and faith need not compete, but rather should complement each other. As the fourth verse of the fifth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita explains:
Only the ignorant speak of devotional service [karma-yoga] as being different from the analytical study of the material world [Sankhya]. Those who are actually learned say that he who applies himself well to one of these paths achieves the results of both.
One can discover the same conclusions about the universe through either a process of scientific inquiry or spiritual study. If this is true, then there may be verses in the ancient holy texts that describe phenomena that have only recently been discovered by modern science. Such scriptural evidence would imply that religious inquiry and scientific experimentation could be reconciled. Let us consider, for example, the modern scientific account of the Big Bang. According to the vast majority of cosmologists, all matter in existence suddenly expanded from a single point roughly thirteen billion years ago. Gravity caused this matter later to coalesce to from the galaxies, stars, and planets we see today, although the universe is still growing. How can this scientific observation be reconciled with spiritual insight?
Verse thirty of sura twenty-one in the Qur'an provides the correlation that proves the veracity of the above passage from the Gita:
Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together, before we clove them asunder? We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?
This verse should be recognized even by a layperson as alluding to the modern scientific description of the Big Bang and the rise of organic life. The phrase “clove them asunder” is particularly compelling, for it gives us an image of the all the matter in the universe flying apart in a violent cosmic upheaval, much like a piece of wood being splintered by a powerful hammer. If an illiterate merchant living in a desert oasis town fourteen centuries ago could claim to be a Divinely-inspired prophet, and relate with striking accuracy a cosmic event that occurred billions of years ago, then his claim cannot easily be dismissed. The above verse from sura twenty-one would have made little sense to Muhammad’s Iron Age brethren (except perhaps as a testament to the creative power of Allah and the angels). The Prophet of Islam would have no material means of knowing about the Big Bang. It is only recently that humanity has had the instruments capable of confirming this story of cosmic creation. Interestingly, the Qur’an only condemns those without any faith in a just and merciful Higher Power as “unbelievers”. In the modern age such individuals have the means to literally see that at one time the earth and the stars were one solid mass. This passage seems to be a direct appeal from the Ultimate Divine to the reason and knowledge of modern humanity, hidden and preserved in a revelation that has been passed down from generation to generation for over fourteen centuries.
Keep in mind that the Qur'an states that "all people" have been sent a Divinely-appointed prophet. Indeed, verses two and three of the second sura state:
Allah! There is no god but He,-the Living, the Self-Subsisting, Eternal.
It is He Who sent down to thee, in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law and the Gospel before this, as a guide to mankind, and He sent down the criterion.
The Qur’an claims to validate the revelations that preceded it. Therefore, one can expect to find a reference to the cosmic formation from a singularity in some of the holy texts which preceded the Qu’ran. It should come as no surprise that to learn that an allusion to the Big Bang theory is found in section thirty two of the Tao te Ching:
The way is for ever nameless.
Though the uncarved block is small
No one in the world dare claim its allegiance.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it
The myriad creatures will submit of their own accord,
Heaven and earth will unite and sweet dew will fall,
And the people will be equitable, though no one so decrees.
Only when it is cut are there names.
As soon as there are names
One ought to know that it is time to stop.
Knowing when to stop one can be free from danger.
The way is to the world as the River and the Sea are to rivulets and streams.
Under the guidance of the Tao, all creation was at first united, and then sends out the “sweet dew” of material existence, which spreads everywhere. This miracle is accomplished without the aid of humanity. The parallels between this passage and the Big Bang theory of the constantly-expanding universe should be apparent to any open-minded reader. After the initial union of the Earth and Heaven, all matter expands to fill the initial void and form the universe. We see once more than all creation will be again flow into and be subsumed by the Tao. This passage from an ancient Chinese text corresponds with its Arabic equivalent, and empirical observations of modern science, which are less than one hundred years old. A cynic will be hard-pressed to account for these cosmological references without relying on pure skepticism. Only a supernatural Force could have described the formation of the universe to ancient messengers.
The above verses from the Qur’an and the Tao te Ching describe in poetic terms the scientifically-accepted view on the origin of the universe as a process in which all energy and matter expand from a single point. This cosmological fact is also described in a passage from the Bhagavad Gita. In chapter eleven, Krishna reveals to Arjuna the true vision of the Ultimate Godhead. Verses ten through thirteen recount the splendor that Arjuna was allowed to see:
Arjuna saw in that universal form unlimited mouths, unlimited eyes, unlimited wonderful visions. The form was decorated with many celestial ornaments and bore many divine upraised weapons. He wore celestial garlands and garments, and many divine scents were smeared over His body. All was wondrous, brilliant, unlimited, all-expanding.
If hundreds of thousands of suns were to rise at once into the sky, their radiance might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form.
At that time Arjuna could see in the universal form of the Lord the unlimited expansions of the universe situated in one place although divided into many, many thousands.
This vivid quotation from the Gita establishes a parallel between this ancient text and modern scientific observation. Amongst the attributes of Brahman’s magnificence is the Supersoul’s “all-expanding” nature. Cosmologists agree that the universe is constantly growing from the singularity of the Big Bang. Remember, all six holy books state that the Ultimate Divine is ever-present throughout the material realm. Therefore, the Supersoul can be thought of as constantly expanding to fill the perpetually enlarging physical universe. This passage also states that the Supreme Being appears to imperfect human eyes as myriad suns - a poetic reflection of the material realities in this plane of existence. The expansion of the cosmos from the point of the Big Bang is alluded to in this ancient, transcendental Vedic dialogue, just as it is in its Semitic counterpart and the teachings of Lao Tzu. Not only do the six texts examined in this book mutually attest to their inherent truth, but also the most sophisticated scientific instruments of humanity further confirm the authenticity of these venerable revelations.
The "Big Crunch" theory of cosmology holds that after a period of expansion, the basic forces of the universe (particularly gravity) will work to pull back all the cosmos together. In essence, this theory is that of the Big Bang in reverse. Although almost all scientists believe in the Big Bang Theory (it is an observable fact that the galaxies of the universe are moving away from each other), the Big Crunch is more controversial. Some cosmologists believe that the universe will expand forever until all heat and energy are dissipated. Others believe that there is an eternal process of Big Bangs, which form new universes being followed by Big Crunches, which bring all matter back to a singularity. The last verse of section thirty-two of the Tao te Ching seems to imply that the Big Crunch will occur. Furthermore, verse one hundred and four of sura twenty-one speaks of the Day of Judgment as:
The Day that We roll up the heavens like a scroll rolled up for books,- even as We produced the first creation, so shall We produce a new one: a promise We have undertaken: truly shall We fulfill it.
To "roll up the heavens like a scroll" describes a Big Crunch scenario as the end for this material universe. As we have seen, all religions hold that the Ultimate Divine is not only the original source, but also the ultimate destination of all creation. The section of the Tao te Ching quoted in this chapter relates the Tao to a "great river" that subsumes the lesser streams of existence. These religious teachings seem to imply the reality of the Big Crunch. Perhaps one day scientists will attain the material ability to confirm these warnings.
What of factual error in holy books? If one cites "scientific" conclusions in the Qur'an or the Tao te Ching, shouldn't there be no disparities between its verses and the findings of modern science? For example, the fourth verse of sura thirty-two reads:
It is Allah Who has created the heavens and the earth, and all between them, in six Days, and is firmly established on the Throne: ye have none, besides Him, to protect or intercede: will ye not then receive admonition?
All credible modern cosmologists would inform us that the process of the creation of the stars and the earth took much longer than six days. This verse seems to invalidate the assertion that religious texts can be reconciled with modern science. However, the next verse of the same Sura provides a vital clarification:
He rules affairs from the heavens to the earth: in the end will go up to Him, on a Day, the space whereof will be a thousand years of your reckoning.
In the Qur'an, a "day" is not necessarily a humanly-perceived twenty-four hour period. The flexibility of measuring time is further confirmed by the Divinely-inspired teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. Verse seventeen of the eighth chapter reads:
By human calculation, a thousand ages taken together form the duration of Brahma's one day. And such also is the duration of his night.
These verses provide the interpretive flexibility that allows a fusion of modern science and revealed religion. However, a skeptic could argue that I was interpreting two different passages of the Qur'an (and the above verse from the Gita) in multiple ways for my own philosophical purposes. If I take verse thirty of sura twenty-one to be a literal description of the Big Bang and the formation of the universe, why can’t the “six days” of sura thirty-two be a literal six days? The answer to this question not only relies on the flexibility of time described above, but also the further argument that the Ultimate Divine, when revealing information to humanity, knows human realities and limits. The Qur'an, the Gita, the Tao te Ching and the other holy books need not be full of scientific facts and figures regarding the Big Bang or other cosmological events to deliver their message of compassion, anti-materialism, and fearlessness. The very nature of this universe as a test demands that the articles of faith must not be completely observable and taken for granted. All religions teach that this physical world is a proving ground for the Eternal Consciousness within sentient beings. There would be no trial in life if the all the aspects and actions of the Ultimate Divine were universally perceived, acknowledged and accepted. Therefore tantalizing clues of scientific realities are hidden in the holy texts with poetic language and metaphor. They are seen and accepted when we seek the unifying truth which binds all spiritual and technological knowledge.
Fundamentally, individuals believe what they wish to be true. A secular dogmatist may want to believe that Lao Tzu, Krishna, and the prophet Muhammad simply "got lucky" in their Big Bang-like descriptions of the formation of the universe. To psychologically rely on such skepticism in order to justify previously-held attitudes and prejudices would be his or her right as a thinking being. I choose to believe that not only do the teachings of Lao Tzu, Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, Krishna and Muhammad emanate from the same Ultimate Source, but also that their teachings are reconcilable to the conclusions of modern science. There is no need for humanity to bitterly antagonize between what we believe to be true, and what we can see in the world. With an open mind, faith and reason can be made complimentary to each other. The Divine Consciousness is eternal and all-pervading. The Truth that the most brilliant minds of the information age can observe with the most intricate of modern inventions is a component of the same Truth that has been revealed to chosen messengers throughout human history. Scientific advances can be coupled with universal morality for the physical and spiritual benefit of all beings. Given the increasing interdependence of our societies, the immense power of our advanced weapons, and the unrestrained grasping for material satisfaction that is destroying our environment, the imperative of universal compassion as taught by all our oldest traditions is the key to our survival as a species. Humanity has no choice but to reconcile our disparate belief systems with science, and with each other.