Friday, 27 April 2012

The Nature of the Universe

Many argue that the two major worldviews competing for the hearts and minds of our individualistic western culture are that of naturalism (or secular humanism) and classic monotheism (including Christianity, Islam and Judaism).  And some Christians think that since we live in a largely secular, pluralist society, bombarded now and again by the aggressive techniques of the New Atheists and more subtle messages of popular culture, that the greatest threat to the church and the souls of the people is non-belief.  I think that fear is misplaced, because there’s a third worldview which has been making significant inroads in the west.  The New Age movement, which is eastern philosophy packaged for the west, is based on the notion that god inhabits all living and non-living things.  And though the term monism might not be familiar to everyone, most would be very aware of the myriad eastern monistic spiritual practices that are available at every leisure centre, spa, many businesses, some schools and even some churches. These include yoga, meditation and mindfulness along with many other alternative New Age therapies.

Many have found it quite difficult to live life on a daily basis holding a completely naturalistic worldview, despite the exhortations of Richard Dawkins.   Bertrand Russell famously concluded that a world that has arisen out of chance is ultimately without meaning or purpose and it’s therefore unsurprising that humans feel great despair if they’re honest about the implications of that worldview.  Sigmund Freud did not believe in love, claiming that the end of all things was sex; yet in his personal life he couldn’t maintain this notion, writing to his fiancĂ©e: ‘When you come to me, little Princess, love me irrationally.’[1]

Many atheists have been trying incredibly hard to reinvest a secular worldview with a deeper emotional sense (in true post-modern style).  Richard Dawkins uses literary devises such as describing the universe as magical; Alain de Botton would like to have churches and other rituals for atheists, but devoid of any actual ideas and A. C. Grayling has put together a bible of his own full of random unreferenced ‘wisdom’ from the ages. Others like Steven Pinker claim that evolution is the answer to all our ills; it’s making us better and that the future is bright without reference to any metaphysical influence.  All these are attempts to give secularism a human face and shiny gloss.

In a high-tech, competitive culture, the New Age fills the gap that people feel in lives characterised by alienation, atomisation and impersonalisation.  In a world where the cosmos, as Carl Sagan asserted, is all that is or ever was or ever will be, the New Age provides people with the notion that there’s more to life than what we can see and measure; that there’s a metaphysical realm in which human beings can find meaning and purpose.  Marianne Williamson, a guru of one branch of the movement, claims ‘the universe has a vested interest in your self-actualisation.’[2]  The New Age promises comfort in the form of a purported spiritual energy that connects us all and invests the universe with a sense of the sacred, especially for those who find Christianity intolerant or dogmatic.  It also requires no commitment to truth.  I think this is the appeal of monism but ultimately also its undoing.

Many of the claims of the New Age are based on some very ancient ideas.  Neoplatonism, a philosophy developed by Plotinus and others in the 3rd Century, is one of the forerunners of the New Age and is based on the spiritual and cosmological aspects of Platonic thought combined with Egyptian and Jewish theology.  It’s a formulation of an entire metaphysical system of the universe and man’s place within it.  A full understanding of this occurs through the practice of mysticism, whereby a person is able to realise (1) the high origin of the human soul, (2) that his soul has departed from its ‘first estate’ and (3) that it is possible to return there.  By means of ascetic observances, a person can become more spiritual and enduring which should lead to virtue which is one step on the way to ‘becoming God’, or henosis.   This contemplation of the One, through an ecstatic experience, is not accessible through thought but rather through a state of perfect passivity and repose.  The soul must pass through a spiritual curriculum whereby it must withdraw into the depths of its own being, rise to the world of the nous (ideas), and then in a state of highest tension and concentration, behold in silence and utter forgetfulness all things.  It is then that the soul is able to lose itself and become swallowed up in divinity.  This is strikingly similar to the ideas behind the spiritual practices of the New Age. 

In eastern philosophy and the New Age, the human problem is a lack of knowledge of one’s true nature; because people are mired in the vale of illusion, they are unable to view reality 'properly.'  To understand that problems are merely illusions, it is necessary to change one’s state of consciousness.  In doing so, one will realise that they in fact are god because god is in everything.  In the Upanishads, a liberated human being has realised Brahman, the supreme spirit of the universe, as his or her own true self, called atman.   In oneness, all differences disappear, including personality and uniqueness.  Oneness, in this worldview, is ultimate.  Because distinctions are considered to be illusory, truth is dispensed with as well as morals, logic and reason.  In man’s highest state, the mind is emptied of rational thought.

In America, many are no longer making a commitment to a single faith or espouse the truth claims of a single worldview.  American youth in particular, have weaved together a faith system based on the following beliefs:
  • A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.[3]
This worldview, called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), dispenses with notions of sin, contrition and repentance.  In this it is similar to monism. The chief concern of therapeutic deists is their own happiness, including their physical and psychological well-being.  It views God as ‘something like a combination of Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.’[4]  It was Freud who advised that in order to solve a person’s problems it is necessary to turn to the hidden recesses of a person’s inner being, rather than to the outer influences of community and environment in order to discover the true self and determine what is necessary for emotional health and happiness.  And the language of psychotherapy has become the manner in which people in the west are increasingly using to diagnose, understand and communicate with themselves and others.[5]  In MTD and the New Age Movement, the universe is at your service.  It is there to make you happy, not holy. 

Many Christian churches have adopted and now promote monistic spiritual practices including contemplative or centring prayer (the same technique as eastern meditation) and various other ‘spiritual disciplines’ which may include meditation, worship, charity, fasting, solitude, fellowship, service, journaling, celibacy, self-flagellation and chanting mantras.  Some of these may be entirely divorced from any Christina doctrine whatsoever.   Some Christians feel that to become more spiritual, to come in closer contact to God’s grace, they can increase this likelihood by performing these disciplines.  But as Don Carson says,

The pursuit of unmediated, mystical knowledge of God is unsanctioned by Scripture, and is dangerous in more than one way.  It does not matter whether this pursuit is undertaken within the confines of, say Buddhism or, in the Catholic tradition, by Julian of Norwich.  Neither instance recognises that our access to the knowledge of the living God is mediated exclusively through Christ, whose death and resurrection reconcile us to the living God.  To pursue unmediated, mystical knowledge of God is to announce that the person of Christ and his sacrificial work on our behalf are not necessary for the knowledge of God.  Sadly, it is easy to delight in mystical experiences, enjoyable and challenging in themselves, without knowing anything of the regenerating power of God, grounded in Christ’s cross work.[6]

The syncretism or interspirituality - the mixing religious traditions with eastern mystical techniques - means that many Christians espouse certain eastern beliefs.  These, combined with the growing number of MTD believers and fully-fledged New Age devotees, have meant that the number of people who hold New Age beliefs is enormous.  In 2002 over 40 million people in the US embraced the New Age movement making it the third largest religious denomination in America.[7]   A Pew Research poll of religious beliefs in the US in 2009 found that around one-quarter of adults expressed beliefs in tenants of certain eastern faiths; 24% said they believed in reincarnation, 23% believed yoga was not just exercise but a spiritual practice; 26% believed in spiritual energy located in physical things and 25% believed in astrology.   In the consumer market, people who practice New Age spirituality or who embrace its lifestyle are included in the Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability demographic market segment which was estimated in 2006 at $300bn or 30% of the US consumer market. 

Is the universe a random collocation of atoms  upon which we have evolved to have a purpose which we make up for ourselves?  Or is it the highest ideal in itself - infused with energy - into which it is man’s responsibility to tap in order to understand his higher purpose?  Is it standing by to serve man's whim?  Or is the universe the beautiful and majestic creation of a loving, rational creator God who in his infinite grace allows man to choose for himself whether to believe in truth or to reject it; who provides meaning and purpose to children made in his image; who has revealed his exact likeness to us in his Son through whom we can know him, the world and ourselves as we truly are?

C. S. Lewis describes New Age evolutionary ideas or Life-Force philosophy as ‘a sort of tame God.  You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you.  All the thrills of religion and none of the cost.  Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?’[8]   This is in comparison to the truth of ultimate reality; one in which we humans are derivative reality of God who has designed for us the happiness of 'being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight.'[9]  Frances Schaeffer put it this way, ‘the external world is not an extension of the essence of God; nevertheless the external world does reveal and exhibit who and what God is…both in the internal nature of man himself, which speaks of God as personal, and in the evidence of the thought of God expressed in the external, created universe.’[10] Jesus has provided us with the indwelling Holy Spirit who we receive through faith; ‘this opens the way for the Christian to know in the present life the reality of the supernatural.  This is where the Christian is to live…and the glory of the experiential reality of the Christian, as opposed to the bare existential experience, or the religious experiences of the east, is that we can do it with all the intellectual doors and windows open.’[11] We do now need a mystical experience to know the reality of the supernatural here and now.

The universe is neither a random collocation of atoms, nor is it ultimate reality. It is not an energy force connecting all things.  It's purpose is not to satisfy individual demands and wishes.  The universe is is a glorious creation of a loving God, as are we.

[1] Letter from Sigmund Freud to Martha Bernays, January 16, 1884 
[2] Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love lecture, St. James Church, Piccadilly London, 23 Mar 2012.
[3] As found in a study by sociologist Christian Smith in his book with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, 2005.
[4] Smith and Lundquest Denton, 2005.
[5] Joe Carter, 'Deists who love Jesus (and talk like Freud)', The Gospel Coalition blog, 20 Mar 2012.
[6] Don Carson, ‘Spiritual Disciplines’ Themelios, vol 36, Issue 3, Nov 2011.
[7] Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing, Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2006.
[8] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952., p. 26.
[9] ibid., p. 48.
[10] Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality, 1971.
[11] ibid, p. 62.

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