Using Technology Responsibly

The rapid pace of technological development is an undeniable and unavoidable characteristic of our contemporary American society. As Greek Orthodox Christians living in one of the most technologically advanced and complex societies on Earth, we would be wise to consider the manner in which technology has saturated virtually every aspect of our culture--our businesses, our homes, our schools, and even our churches. Read More

The Emerging Reconciliation Between Religion and Science

A basic theme of this essay is that the mechanistic worldview we have inherited from the nineteenth century is no longer tenable, and in light of current scientific developments it is outdated. Likewise, the belief that only concrete matter is real and that only that which is accessible to our five senses, with the aid of scientific instruments, is true can no longer be supported even by science itself. In fact, science today, for an increasing number of leading scientists (such as Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and director of National Institutes of Health) and other modern, thinking people, has become a vehicle for spiritual wonder, discovery and renewal.

My personal transformation from agnosticism and skepticism to faith and spiritual practice was based on a variety of factors such as: 1) my exposure to the mystical traditions of all the major religions; 2) the emerging new understanding of science beyond the mechanistic model of the universe, the new paradigm that radically challenges the Newtonian assumptions about how the world works; and 3) scientific studies related to death itself (particularly the accumulated literature on neardeath experiences), the evidence on the nonlocality of mind, and the so-called “shamanic state of consciousness.” I would like to elaborate on these three factors, which I believe are contributing to bridging the gap between science and religion.

1. Mystical Traditions

It is impressive to note, as philosopher Huston Smith, the leading scholar on comparative religions, has brought to our attention, that the mystics of all the world’s religions, in spite of their great diversity of beliefs, are in agreement that the physical, observable universe is only a very small part of a wider reality that cannot be apprehended by our physical senses. All the religions agree that there is a reality that includes and transcends the natural world and that this reality can be approached and experienced through mystical ecstasy. It has been called by various names: God, Allah, Yahweh, Brahman, the Absolute Ground of Being, the Great Spirit and so on. Furthermore, with the exception of nineteenth-and twentieth-century philosophers like Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Russell and Sartre, most of the world’s greatest sages—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Plotinus, Kant, Hegel, Shankara—based their philosophies on this fundamental presupposition about the fabric of reality, that is, that the physical universe is not all there is. It is the mystics from the various religious traditions who have invented ways of rigorous spiritual practice to approach and come to know this transcendent, and radically transforming, Ultimate Reality. In ancient Greece there were the mystery schools like those of Pythagoras that influenced Plato and Socrates. In Hinduism we find various yoga practices, such as Bhakti, Gnani, Raja and Karma. In Christianity there is the hesychast tradition of Mt. Athos, the spiritual methodology of inner silence (hesychia) practiced by hermits and monks since the early years of Christianity. In the Christian Orthodox tradition, for example, God will reveal Himself to us only when, after valiant spiritual struggles and systematic prayer, we cleanse our heart of egotistical desires and passions. Once this is done, the struggling soul may experience what the Fathers of the Church call the “Uncreated Light of God.” It is an ecstatic experience of union with divinity, of theosis, which transforms the person totally. Such experience has little to do with cerebral, intellectual knowledge.

2. New Discoveries And Paradigms

An increasing number of scientists are questioning the basic assumptions upon which modern science is built. It seems to me that the new set of assumptions they propose—the emerging “paradigm”—supports a view of the world that cannot be explained by itself. Let’s examine the new cosmological understanding of Creation. Since the mid-1960s, virtually all astrophysicists have come to accept the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe. This theory stipulates that the universe came into being about 13.8 billion years ago as the result of a primordial explosion. The matter that would form 100 billion galaxies of the known universe was compressed into an area infinitely smaller than an atom. Practically the universe came into being ex nihilo in that primordial explosion. The dust of particles that were generated created, through an evolutionary process, this stupendous and finely tuned system of creation. How then can we explain this primordial explosion?—keep in mind that the physical universe, that is, the more than 100 billion galaxies, comprise, according to modern science, only 3 percent of physical reality. The other 97 percent is dark matter that we know virtually nothing about!

"...The Universe Evolved in a Way that Made the Appearance of Humanity Possible."

Allan Sandage, one of the most influential astronomers of the twentieth century and best known for determining the age of the universe, declared that the Big Bang could only be considered a miracle. And this miracle gave birth to another contemporary scientific understanding of human creation. It has been called the “anthropic cosmological principle,” meaning that the universe evolved in a way that made the appearance of humanity possible. The universe’s creation, that is to say, and its evolution have as their inner purpose the emergence of self-conscious beings like us. This is a spiritual understanding of Creation. Patrick Glynn, after diligently and systematically surveying all of the modern scientific theories about creation, concludes in his book God: The Evidence that “in effect, the anthropic principle says that humanity is (apparently) the final cause of the universe. The most basic explanation of the universe is that it seems to be a process orchestrated to achieve the end or goal of creating human beings.” Modern science is now offering a vision of reality that is radically different from that which was dominant during the nineteenth century and the time of Darwin, when the universe was understood to be a random, lifeless machine without any inner purpose. It seems that what science teaches today about the nature of reality and what the great religions have been teaching through the ages are not that far apart! Think about and compare, for example, the opening paragraph of Genesis and the Big Bang theory! Alongside these developments in cosmology, there were changes coming from scientists studying the subatomic level, that is, quantum physics. Again, in this mysterious microcosm, scientists discovered that their own minds are integral parts of what they are observing. After repeated experiments they discovered that a particle behaves like a particle when the observing scientist expects it to behave like a particle, and it behaves like a wave if the experimenting scientist expects it to behave like a wave. This “observer effect” means our own consciousness is mysteriously in communication with physical matter. On this subtle, subatomic level, our thoughts may affect the way matter behaves. It seems that there is an ongoing and unconscious interaction between our thoughts and feelings and the material universe, which we assumed was simply dead matter— in this light, think of the spiritual logic behind the blessing of waters during Epiphany.

It is also important to point out that scientific research today has supported the practice of prayer as a form of medicine. It appears that the universe is permeated with spiritual energy, a notion that is in full agreement with the theology of St. Gregory Palamas and all other mystical traditions from around the world. Richard Tarnas, a leading contemporary Harvard-trained philosopher and historian, concluded after a thirty-year exploration that evidence indicates our universe is, in his words, “informed by a powerful, creative intelligence, and an ordering principle of truly astonishing power, complexity and beauty."

3. Consciousness, Death And The Mind

Raymond Moody triggered a revolution in consciousness and in our understanding of the so-called “near-death experience” that offers further support to the claim that there is more to reality than physical matter. Moody, a professor of philosophy and a medical doctor, investigated more than 1,500 cases of people who were declared clinically dead who then “returned” to tell us about their experiences “beyond the grave.” A large number reported finding themselves outside their bodies, seeing their bodies lying dead below, then traveling through a tunnel and on the other side being welcomed by dead relatives and by a radiant being who showed them total and unconditional love. At some point they experienced panoramic reviews of their lives in minute detail and saw how their actions affected other people in both positive and negative ways. Those who had such experiences reported that they felt they went “home” and wished to stay there permanently. It was the Christ-like being who instructed them to return to their bodies because they still had “unfinished business” in this life.

"...We as Human Beings are Not Merely our Bodies."

What originally stunned Moody, a former skeptic, were the patients who reported knowledge of episodes and events that took place while they were considered clinically dead. This aspect of the near-death experience cannot be explained through mainstream psychology, biology or chemistry, raising the question of the existence of consciousness outside the material body. It suggests that our minds and personalities may be independent of the brain, i.e., that our physical bodies and brains are only necessary for us to live in this world. People who have such experiences as a rule lose their fear of death and become better and more loving, compassionate human beings. What Moody’s work suggests, therefore, is scientific evidence for (but not necessarily proof of ) the ancient belief in life after death, a foundational belief of all the leading religions. It also suggests that we as human beings are not merely our bodies. One can exist, feel, think, have memories and observe events happening in this world while one’s body is clinically dead. Some contemporary researchers, such as Larry Dossey, have coined the term “non-locality of mind,” meaning that our brain is simply the instrument for the expression of our mind and personality within the physical world of the five senses. Similarly, anthropologists, such as Michael Harner of the New School of Social Research, have coined the term “shamanic state of consciousness” to address the phenomenon of ecstatic states that field researchers have observed in the study of tribal shamans. These are states of consciousness that cannot be reduced to any other states, such as sleep, clinical hallucinations or mental illness. Such states observed cross-culturally are sui generis, irreducible to other forms of consciousness suggesting, again, that there is more to reality than the physical universe.

In conclusion, I would like to add that my personal field research and observations during the last thirty or so years with living Christian mystics, hermits and saints provide, at least for me, powerful support that we may be at the beginning of the end of hostilities between science and religion. We live at a critical point in history of a new enlightenment that would dwarf the Western Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. It may be the time when the best of science and the best of religion will come together, offering us a radically new vision of reality and, I should add, a more optimistic and holistic vision. I am also convinced that within this historical context, Orthodox Christianity as expressed in the practices and lives of its great saints can play a leading role.

Kyriacos C. Markides, PhD, is Professor of Sociology at the University of Maine and author of nine books. Six of his books, including The Mountain of Silence, Gifts of the Desert and his latest, Inner River: A Pilgrimage to the Heart of Christian Spirituality, are on Christian mystics spiritual guides and elders of Eastern Christianity and are published by Random House/ Image Books. His books have been translated and published in twelve other countries and languages. He has given regular lectures and workshops around the United States, Canada and overseas, and he has appeared on national and international television and radio programs. Professor Markides was awarded the 2006 Presidential Research and Creative Achievement Award at the University of Maine. He lives in Stillwater, ME, with his wife, Emily J. Markides, who is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Peace and Reconciliation Studies at the University of Maine.

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