- Author F. David Peat
- On August 10, 2018
Paul Gauguin’s largest work, and probably his masterpiece, shows a group of Tahitian’s against a green-blue background of forest. It’s title “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” sums up the questions that have been asked by all peoples from the dawn of time. Where do we come from? What is this universe in which we reside? Has it always been here or was it created? And if it was created then what is the nature of the Creator? What was there before the moment of Creation? What is the nature of this Creator? Why did the Creator act? Is the Creator separate and distinct from Creation? Or are the Creator and Creation one? What was in the mind of the Creator before all existence?
These questions have been posed throughout the ages by philosophers, mystics and the world’s religions. Cultures have their myths, images, stories, theologies and metaphors as answers. In our modern world we also look to science for answers since it claims to have a story about the origin of the cosmos – the theory of the Big Bang – as well as a story about the ultimate nature of matter, the origin of life and maybe even the nature of consciousness. The answers of history, and of science, are at first sight quite diverse yet they all have one thing in common – the human origins of the storyteller. Even those who claim direct knowledge though revelation, illumination or mystical experience must of necessity express these insights in human language and human oriented imagery.
A Question of Scale
We human creatures find ourselves in the middle of things, half way between the largest and the smallest objects in the cosmos. The duration of our lives lies half way between the shortest quantum events and the longest cosmic durations. The energy our bodies produce is midway between the cosmic energies and processes at the quantum level. Our eyes, which take in the world around us, respond only to a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum that lies between the longest and shortest wavelengths.
Within this middle ground we are able to relate to the natural world around us in complex and varied ways, not simply through thought and the intellect but using intuition, emotion, feeling, hope, love and wonder. We respond to nature, this world available to our perception, in direct and physical ways. Our vision is prehensile. It seeks out the meaning in the world around us. Our hearing discriminates to a very accurate degree. Our bodies taste and embrace the world through immediate experience. All this is expressed in the Native American prayer “all my relations”. Our relations are not simply our family and friends, but all humanity and beyond into the animals, plants and trees, into the rocks and rivers, the earth and sky. All these aspects of the natural world relate to us in very immediate ways.
This middle ground, this set of scales comparable to the human body, is very real and close to us. But what about the rest of the cosmos? Vast orders of magnitude are required to reach the largest, or the smallest, parts of the cosmos. These are so great as to defy our imagination. The very best we have is information given to us by instruments of our technology, often in the form of digital signals. In turn, we attempt to display this digital data in ways that are understandable to us using some form of computer modeling.
There are also cases in which we think we are seeing quantum processes and elementary particle collisions in bubble chamber photographs. But are these really the direct record of quantum events? Not quite, they are amplifications of processes that occurred at the quantum level – just as “the map is not the territory” so the track in the cloud chamber or photographic plate is NOT the elementary particle. There is even a deeper issue here – that of language. Neils Bohr pointed out that enfolded within all languages are assumptions about space, time and causality; assumptions that apply at our human scale of things but not at the quantum level.
As soon as we attempt to ask fundamental questions about the quantum world we unconsciously begin to import ideas which simply do not apply. We cannot even say, for example, that an electron “has” a position or “has” a speed. Science can only report on the results of measurements at the quantum scale and then use quantum theory to correlate these different sets of results. It cannot use the theory to “visualize” what is going on at this level. “We are suspended in language”, Bohr said, “such that we don’t know which way is up and which is down.”
The French physicist D’Espagnat referred to the quantum world as a “veiled reality”, a reality we can never know. But even this phrase carries the implication that there does lie some actuality behind the veil. Yet Bohr seems to set a barrier even to this sort of discussion. According to Bohr science must renounce any attempt to create images or models of what is going on in the quantum world. In the end we may be forced to accept Heisenberg’s maxim that if we want to know where the reality lies it is in the mathematics; beyond that we are doomed to become trapped in paradox.
(Footnote: Gordon Shippey, who works with the deaf-blind, points out that those who have not yet learned sign language do not appear to have any concept of the permanence of objects present to them – these objects just appear to flow in and out of existence. In the face of the quantum level, he argues, we too are in the position of the deaf-blind.)
At the other end of the scale we have the vastness of the cosmos itself, with the dramatic NASA images of distant objects in the cosmos created from digital data by using enhanced color. As to the Big Bang itself all science can produce is a distant memory encoded in the background radiation of the universe. The great scale of cosmic events is as foreign to us as are processes at the quantum level. In this sense most of Creation is unattainable to us and the best we have is the projections of our imagination.
God as a Mathematician
In the end, all we know of the largest and smallest aspects of our cosmos its number, binary data produced by our instruments. And when Heisenberg said that reality lies in the mathematics he was only echoing Galileo who claimed that nature’s book is written in mathematics. How easy it is to take one step further and assert, as did the astronomer, Sir James Jeans, that “god is a mathematician”. In order words, while we humans have an intimate connection with the small range of scales and energies that represent life on earth, the vast majority of the cosmos is available to us only in remote ways and can never be part of our direct experience. It is true that we may experience a sense of wonder at all creation but we can never “know” it. Pascal may have been terrified by “these infinite spaces” but this terror was of the “idea” or the “conception” of infinite spaces between the stars, rather than being based on any direct experience of such distances. In this sense we cannot even begin to comprehend how the Creator would relate to Creation.
Our only hope has been to create mathematical theories, some of which have great beauty and elegance, about the largest and the smallest parts of the universe. The seductiveness and predictive power of science and mathematics can persuade us that when we contemplate the act of creation we are seeing no more than the unfolding of mathematical laws. Within our modern age of virtuality it becomes far to easy to imagine the Creator as a vast supercomputer that spews out astronomical numbers of binary digits that convert themselves into electrons and galaxies. Indeed a number of theoretical physicists have proposed that the ground of the cosmos is data, information, or mathematical algorithms. To some extent this resonates with another observation about our modern world, that in yearning for spirit people have become less embodied, less concerned with the natural world around them and with direct response to the very physicality of matter.
Throughout recorded history whenever we think of the Creator we find that we are simply projecting our human images onto the infinite. In our modern world this act of projection has become increasingly based on concepts from science. But, as we have seen above, these images are increasingly abstract. Like science itself they are value-free and deal with quantity rather than quality. Rather than our projections of a Creation emerging out of a vast compassionate action of love, a love that embraces all created things, the Deity becomes closer to a supercomputer generating digital information about incorporation into time and space!
God as an Artist
Should we therefore examine the other swing of the pendulum – if God is not a mathematician is God perhaps an artist? Here we link to another ancient tradition. When Dürer painted his self portrait he did so in the pose and lineaments of Christ the Redeemer. This was no act of psychic inflation. Dürer knew alchemical symbolism and hermetic traditions. He was aware that artists are part of a long historic line that includes the artisan, miner and metal worker, all of whom are aiding nature in her striving for perfection. In this they stand in the image of the original Creator.
So just what is the act of creation according to an artist? As an example I would take Anish Kapoor, a contemporary sculptor of international repute whose works resonate with transcendent and spiritual qualities, and with the notion of the Sublime. For Kapoor the piece of art does not begin with some plan, or sketch of form, but with an intention. This must be held while the piece begins to grow and evolve. Or to put it another way, the intention must be held as it enters the world of the manifest. The composer Sir Michael Tippet expressed the act of composition in a similar way. The intention of the piece must be held – held inwardly within the body and mind – until it is ready to emerge. In the case of his opera A Midsummer Marriage, this intention was held for many months to the point where Tippet became physically ill and believed he had cancer.
When artists work in this way it is not a matter of “self expression” or the force of an individual ego. Rather the artist helps the work to reveal itself and to come to its fruition. Artistic creation becomes an act of love. It is similar to a caring parent who does not seek to impose but allows the child freedom to grow and become him or herself. Likewise Michelangelo spoke of freeing the form from the marble, rather then imposing his own vision on the stone. Writers have a similar experience. The novelist Anthony Burgess wrote, “it is the Godlike task of the novelist to create human beings whom we accept as living creatures filled with complexities and armed with free will.” He goes on to point out that this free will causes problems for the author who is never quite sure what his characters will do nor the limits that exist for imposing action upon them.
Thus the artist who begins with an intention must work out of love and this love also means giving freedom to his or her creation so that it can be itself in a totally authentic way. In this sense the artist becomes a midwife, assisting something at its birth.
Just as with God as a mathematician, it is seductive to project the image of God as artist, as one who works with love and allows Creation to enter into the manifest world of space, time, energy and matter and there to manifest, grow and evolve.
In this latter sense the cosmos becomes the manifestation, or the incarnation, of an intent that existed prior to space and time. The cosmos is fragments of a mirror that reflect unconditioned love. The aspects of the cosmos are the names of God, and these names are the various faces or attributes that our human intellect is capable of imagining about the infinite. Yet Meister Eckhart reminds us that “God” exists only because we invoke him through our projections. The Creator is no more than the creation of the limitations of human mind. To enter on the path of the infinite we must move beyond even “God” to the Godhead itself, which is the origin of all that lies beyond that “God” we invoke in our search for the divine.
The universe as a work of art brings us to the question of immanence. One can joke that the God of Newton wound up His watch at the moment of creation and then retired from the scene. Laplace claimed that if he had stood beside God at the moment of creation he could have predicted the entire future of the world (based on a knowledge of the initial conditions – position and momentum – of each particle). It such a Newtonian world everything is deterministic and there appears to have been no room for God – unless one posits a sort of “God of the gaps”. However, during the twentieth century our view of matter changed dramatically. No longer is the world composed like a clock out of independently existing elements in interactions with each other. For a time we lived with a world constituted of elementary particles, then the notion of fundamental symmetries and the breaking of those symmetries appears to be more fundamental. Maybe the quantum world is closer to process than it is to objects. Indeed, the quantum notion of the manifest world seems to resonate with that of Vedic philosophy, as something that is constantly being breathed into existence and fading back into the ground of all being.
In this sense God’s love is the sustaining presence, it is the midwife of a universe that is in a constant process of being born and dying from moment to moment. The universe is an expression of love, but this love also accepts the limitation that it must at every moment set its creation free and allow for the emergence of that which is new. Take something so commonplace as a stone one picks up from the ground. For Aquinas a stone owes its existence to the doctrine of participation. The stone participates in existence, and existence has its ground in the divine. In De Consolatione Philosophious he wrote, “The essence of the stone is in the stone and grasped by our mind, but it exists before in the mind of God who is full of love. Things grow by the inner force. God can think the stone as it becomes itself but could equally cut off its energy.”
The notion of immanence can be found in the Oxyrhynchus sayings of Jesus, papyri written in the third century AD, “Raise the stone and there thou shalt find me; cleave the wood and there I am. Let not him who seeks cease until he finds, and when he finds he shall be astonished. Astonished he shall reach the Kingdom, and having reached the Kingdom, he shall rest”.
Dame Julian of Norwich, the 14th century mystic, received a number of revelations, visions accompanied by what she called “showings” that were received into her “understanding”. In one of these God showed her, “a little thing, the quantity of a hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand”. Julian asks: “What may this be?” and the answer came “It is all that is made. It lasteth, and ever shall be for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.”
In the twentieth century the Jesuit and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, writes in a similar vein, “all created things, every one of them, cannot be looked at, in their nature and action, without the same reality being found in their innermost being – like sunlight in the fragments of a broken mirror – one beneath its multiplicity, unattainable beneath its proximity, and spiritual beneath its materiality.”
To see the Cosmos as a work of art would not seem so far fetched to thinkers of the early Middle Ages. This living matter was also the repository of spirit. The natural world and all matter was sacred, and its beauty was an expression of its inherent goodness. According to Abbot Suger, a numinous inscape could be found within jewels, stained glass and precious metals. The material world contained an image of heaven. Matter was the touchstone for all that was real; for, to be tangible means to be grasped by the hand. When, in the 12th century, Suger ordered the rebuilding of the church of St Denis in Paris he himself chose the stone and precious materials. The church was to be designed in a radically new way so that it could be filled with light, for light was equated with the intellect and the divine.
To Robert Grosseteste light was “the best of all proportions”. Light filled the universe and was equated with creative energy. St Bonaventure believed that, to the extent that material things participate in light, they attained their true being. In the Divine Comedy Dante pictured God as a pure mathematical point that “radiated light of such intensity that the eye it strikes must close or ever after lose its sight” Hildegard of Bingen wrote of this divine substance “I shine in the water, I burn in the sun and the moon and stars.”
For John Scotus the universe was so wondrous as to be compared to a beautiful canticle, a symphony of joy and harmony.” William of Auxerre saw the goodness of material things as being one and the same as their beauty. For both Boetheus and Honorius of Autun the world was so perfectly ordered, with the macrocosm mirrored so perfectly to the microcosm, that it could be compared to the harmony within music or to a precisely tuned instrument.
For Suger the contemplation of colored light, precious stones, fabrics and architectural proportions transported him into a “strange region of the universe”, one that lay between earth and heaven. For Dionysius the Aropagite, the cosmos was created out of beauty, and beauty was “the cause of the harmony and splendor in all things, flashing forth upon them all, like light, the beautifying communications of its originating rays”. Echoes of this ecstatic experience of the natural world survived in the minds of mystics and poets. It can be found centuries later in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
(G.M.Hopkins God’s Grandeur)
It is also present in the vision of a twentieth century scientist, Albert Einstein: “To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself to us as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.”
An evolving Universe
Did the universe, this work of art, emerge out of an intention held by the Creator, into the manifest world of space, time and causality? Or is everything preordained until the end of time? Put in a modern scientific context, did the laws of physics exist before the Big Bang, before the emergence of space, time, energy and matter? Or did the universe emerge as a self-organizing system in which structures and laws evolved? The modern notion of symmetry- breaking, pictures the initial state of the universe as being totally symmetric and featureless. It was only through the fortuitous and arbitrary “breaking” of these symmetries that form emerged in the universe and along with form a series of laws that become fixed in time. If we take this latter image than the universe is like a developing embryo, or a piece of art that forms itself and develops its own principles.
Again our projections onto Creation and the Creator oscillate between two extremes – the universe as artistic beauty or as mathematical elegance; the Cosmos as a preordained world or as one that self-actualizes; a universe based on love or on the inevitably of mathematical expression. Probably the truth lies in some transcendental position that is located not so much between the two but beyond the limits of either position.
But even if physical laws were not fixed, even if the cosmos has an element of freedom within it, are there perhaps principles or archetypes at work? Perhaps this can be answered in terms of the gods of the Greeks – Apollo and Dionysus.
I would suggest that these twin gods that are often portrayed on either side of a Greek medallion run though the entire universe. These are the gods of Order and of Diversity, of Unity and Multiplicity. We have, for example, some one hundred chemical elements – diversity – yet these can easily be grouped into families such as the alkali metals (lithium, potassium, sodium etc) or the halogens (fluorine, chlorine, iodine, etc) such that members of each family have similar chemical properties. Likewise the large number of elementary particles can be grouped into families. In each case we discover Apollonian principles of unity that underlie Dionysian diversity and individuality.
The Apollonian is found in symmetry, order and unity. The Dionysian is seen in nature’s proclivity, in the multiplicity and the individuality of things. Gerard Manley Hopkins spoke of inscape, that inward dwelling nature of all things, their individuality and uniqueness. It is well expressed in the Sufi story of the master who decided to pass on his mantel. He had chosen a boy in the village but his wife protested that there were other and more qualified candidates including his own son. Thus the master announced that he was to hand over his mantel and that on the following day each young man should bring him a gift.
On the following day gifts arrived, dates, flowers, fruit, a bird in a cage. But the boy he favored brought him nothing. The Master feigned anger and asked why the boy had come empty handed. The boy explained that he had gone into the fields and seen beautiful wild flowers but as he bent to pick them they sang the praises of Allah. He went to a fruit tree and was about to pick the fruit when it sang the praises of Allah. Whatever he approached sang the praises of Allah and so he picked nothing. The master then handed the young man his mantel.
This authentic song of every individual thing is echoed in Hopkins’ Pied Beauty
Glory be to God for dappled things-
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
By contrast the Apollonian unifies, it is the ground base of nature that continues under and unifying the endless variations of Dionysus. These contrast between unity and diversity, order and variation occurs in all the arts as well as being an expression of scientific law and its various manifestations of individual events. It is present in Jungian psychology where the underlying archetypes give rise to the endless richness of human behaviors.
Good and Evil
And so if we invoke these two gods as principles that underlie Creation, then Creation permits experimentation and diversity while retaining certain over-arching patterns or principles. The Dionysian leads to a cosmos of life and death, one that is constantly being populated. Stars are born, they pass through the stages of their evolution to fade and die, burst into supernovae, or collapse as black holes. At the other end of the scale elementary particles are constantly coming in and out of existence as they borrow from and pay back energy to the vacuum state of the cosmos. Here on earth this pattern of unity and diversity means that life and death are involved in an endless cycle.
The earth blossoms into a vast diversity of living forms. Life sustains itself because life must kill and eat life, and so the natural world in one of endless competition. Yet life can also be seen as both sacrifice and cooperation.
Here again we run into the limitations of our human scale when we contemplate the cosmos. We may be able to develop some empathy for the death of stars and the annihilation of electrons, but this is very different from watching a cat play with a bird or a lioness chase and devour a gazelle. We began our human existence as hunters and gatherers. We owe our civilization to the plants we have picked and endless generations of animals we have killed. It is therefore so easy to project our collective and historic guilt onto to the world and see it as evil. We can reflect on the countless horrors and cruelties human beings have done to other humans, and indeed to the planet itself. It is so easy to rail against God for the existence of war and disease, for pain, terror and horror, for the death of a small child or the destruction of a city. It is so easy to ask why a good Creator would have allowed such events to mar creation. Yet in the world of Apollo and Dionysus death must always follow birth, destruction follow creation. While not excusing or explaining the origins of human cruelty and stupidity we may also believe that the Creator in allowing Creation to enter into the manifest world of space, time, energy and matter and, the Creator has also opened the door to freedom and choice for all that is.
Many metaphors have been employed for Creation. One is that it is like a great symphony with its tensions and resolutions, so that harmony is not possible without admitting the antithesis of dissonance. The visual arts employ tensions between symmetry and asymmetry. Shakespeare peopled the stage with characters that appear to have a life of their own, even to the point of inner monologue. In all these cases the human creator has given an element of freedom to his or her creation and this, in turn, implies that tensions, contrasts and oppositions are set up. Is this the same for the Cosmos itself? (Footnote: Here I would add a note of caution in that the notion of progression in music through tension and resolution is more a characteristic of certain historic periods and is less the case in Arabic music, for example, as is also the case with Arabic art.)
Possibly the greatest example of freedom in Creation is the fact that, through mind, the universe can come to be aware of its own existence and, in time, may begin to direct its own evolution. While reflective, discursive, linguistic thought requires the evolution of brains to a certain level of complexity, it may be true that other forms of awareness occur in the universe. It may be the case that from the moment of creation mind, or at least proto-mind, has always existed in an indivisible harmony with matter and energy. Again this mind-like quality implies the ability for nature to play, explore and even to consider that which is not as having a potential existence. All this implies that a degree of freedom and independence had always to be present in Creation.
So what was in the mind of this Creator at that time before time, in that place before space, in that domain in which no division or differentiation had occurred? Was it simply the existence of love and intent, and as that intent became manifest and entered into time as the cosmos, was love and intent joined by compassion – compassion for what was coming into existence, what was freeing itself yet, like a new born baby, needed to be constantly sustained? The vastness and smallness of Creation exceeds the limits of our imagination. We can never know the unlimited, the infinite but at the very least we can take consolation in the most noble, the most compassionate and the most loving of our human projections.