A DEEPER KNOWING
Sunday, September 9, 1989
Location - Brockton
Ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?
For more than half of the Christian era, the church was the prime locus and source of learning. In
most communities, the best educated individual was the minister or priest. The universities were arms
of the church. As a result, there was no academically defensible alternative to the views of the
church. The earth was the center of the universe, and that of course was why God became incarnate here
and nowhere else.
Gradually, this led to a kind of stagnation. The church was buttressed by its monopoly on learning,
and resistant to independent thinking and new ideas. It is quite fitting that the latter centuries of
this total control were known as the Dark Ages. It is also not surprising that when change came, it
did not come from the outside. It came rather through the challenge of Muslim culture, for the Dark
Ages of Christianity were a brilliant age for Islam. Muslims had discovered Greek philosophy and
science, and with minds unfettered by dogma, had made significant advances in medicine, physics,
chemistry, mathematics, and philosophy.
This enlightenment did reach into Christendom, bit by bit. The story of Galileo is a familiar and
typical one, the story of an inquiring mind discovering basic facts about our universe and being
stifled by the church. But reality has a certain persuasiveness about it, and by the seventeenth
century or so, the church could no longer silence the voices of inquiry. The monopoly was crumbling.
About a century before Swedenborg, the brilliant French philosopher-scientist René Descartes had
visited Upsala University, and the issue of independent scientific thought had been raised. By
Swedenborg's own time, a kind of truce had been arranged. The church had sole and complete control of
the teaching of theology, but had no control over the teaching of "natural philosophy," or science.
The scientist was free to follow evidence to its conclusions, provided those conclusions did not call
into question the doctrines of the church.
Since that time, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. We have lived in an era in which many
held that nothing should be believed unless it was scientifically demonstrable. Anything else was
superstition. The strength of this attitude is perhaps best indicated by the fact that millions of
near death experiences are still not regarded as proof that the soul outlives the body. This is not
solid data from controlled experiments. It may suggest a field of disciplined research, but it does no
more than that.
What is at issue here is the nature of human knowing. Certainly in matters pertaining to the physical
world, the achievements of science have been impressive, and we have every reason to respect and to be
grateful for the strictness of its discipline. When we drive a car, we want to know that the metals
will hold up under the stresses to which they are subjected. When we take a medicine, we want to know
that its effects have been very carefully studied. We do not want these studies to have been
prejudiced by any theological or philosophical bias. We want them to have been "value-free" in the
sense that no matter what emerges from the testing, it is taken seriously.
But in other areas of life, these principles do not hold. They are basically inapplicable to all the
ways in which we come to understand each other on the personal level. We may learn something about
people from the relatively disciplined study of psychology, which many in any case would not regard as
a "true science." But when it comes to forming friendships, marrying, raising children, or dealing
with the people we meet from day to day, there is no way we can conduct controlled experiments and
gather precise and quantifiable data. In such relationships, we depend on other ways of knowing.
Our theology speaks of two levels of rationality, pictured in Scripture by Ishmael and Isaac. The
lower level is born when our basic love, our "inner person, becomes involved with the task of
understanding the physical world and how it works. The Biblical image for this is Abram's cohabitation
with Hagar, the Egyptian, and the offspring, Ishmael, turns out to be ambitious and essentially
The deeper level is born of the same basic love, but as it becomes involved with questions of human
value. It manifests itself as a kind of intuition or perceptiveness, not disclosing particular facts
so much as discerning particular qualities. It deals with such unscientific matters as kindness and
callousness, generosity and miserliness, courage and fear, affection and aversion. It deals, that is,
with matters that directly affect our peace of mind and our happiness.
Until very recently, there has been little if any public dialogue between these two levels of mind,
but lately, there are the beginnings of change. We might take as an example the lively issue of the
living will. Medicine as a science has focused intensively on the prolongation of life. It has
succeeded to the point that machines can now sustain life in a person who is totally incapable of any
kind of discernible human interaction. And this very fact, amplified by the staggering financial cost
of such support, has faced us with the question of human values. What is the value of a year of such
I was faced with this some years ago when an elderly parishioner entered a nursing home, leaving the
house she had lived in for at least fifty years, and the gardens she loved. She did receive better
physical care, and she was profoundly depressed. In effect, she exchanged some months of difficult and
dangerous contentment for a year of safe and secure misery. It was not her choice--in a way it was not
even her doctor's choice. It was the choice of our culture, which demands that the medical profession
do everything it can to stave off the moment of death.
Now that technology can stave off that moment for so long, though, we find ourselves as a culture
under increasing pressure to admit and give weight to non-scientific considerations. Theology begins
to enter the picture, crossing the line that was drawn some three centuries ago. But it is crossing
that line not simply for its own reasons, but rather by invitation. Individuals are faced with
situations in which they need more guidance than quantitative science can provide. They are faced with
situations in which their deeper intuitions "know" that the simple prolonging of life at all costs
does not make sense, and since this is not a "scientific" conclusion, science can marshall no facts to
This is one example of what I believe is a major change that is taking place as we watch. There is
another example that, while it does not make the headlines, may be equally or more significant, and I
should like to offer a few particulars. Out exploration of space has had some unexpected consequences.
That is, they were unexpected by most of us. In 1948, Fred Hoyle wrote, "Once a photograph of the
Earth, taken from the outside, is available . . . a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let
loose." That has of course happened, and the idea is indeed proving powerful. We can see that we live
together on a single planet, in a narrow and fragile atmosphere that sustains life. We can see an
ocean lapping at the shores of two continents, and we can see continents without the boundary lines we
have drawn for our own purposes.
The astronauts, regardless of nationality, have been changed by their experiences. Aleksandr
Aleksandrov writes, "And then in struck me that we are all children of our Earth. It does not matter
what country you look at. We are all Earth's children, and we should treat her as our Mother."
Vladimir Shatalov writes, "The `boundless' blue sky, the ocean which gives us breath and protects us
from the endless black and death, is but an infinitesimally thin film. How dangerous it is to threaten
even the smallest part of this gossamer covering, this conserver of life!" Edgar Mitchell writes, "We
went to the moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians."
Mitchell in particular witnesses to a more profound change. He writes, "Instead of an intellectual
search, there was suddenly a very deep gut feeling that something was different. It occurred when
looking at Earth and seeing this blue-and-white planet floating there, and knowing that it was
orbiting the Sun, seeing that Sun, seeing it set in the background of the very deep black and velvety
cosmos. seeing--rather, knowing for sure--that there was a purposefulness of flow, of energy, of time,
of space in the cosmos--that it was beyond man's rational ability to understand, that suddenly there
was a nonrational way of understanding that had been beyond my previous experience. There seems to be
more to the universe than random, chaotic, purposeless movement of a collection of molecular
particles. On the return trip home, gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and the
planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious."
It would be hard to overestimate the importance of four words in this statement--"there was a
purposefulness . . ." Charles Darwin recognized a Frenchman named Naudin as "a distinguished
botanist," but disagreed with his explanation of the formation of species. Darwin writes, "But he does
not show how selection acts under nature. . . . He lays weight on what he calls the principle of
finality . . . ." Naudin wrote of a power which some would call destiny and others a providential
will, which "brings each member into harmony with thw chose, assigning it the function which it need
to full in the general organizm of nature, the function which is its reason for being." "Finality" is
simply another name for purpose, and to Darwin, this was unscientific.
Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution, not did he claim to have done so. In The Origin of
Species, he summarizes the view of thirty-four predecessors "who believe in the modification of
species, or at least disbelieve in separate acts of creation." What was new in his work was a theory
of evolution that depended entirely on linear, mechanical causation. It was essentially deterministic,
and ruled out any suggestion of purposefulness. It may highlight the fact that science comes into
conflict with religion not so much in what it affirms as in what it denies, and that what it has
denied is precisely that there is a purpose to the universe.
In the experience of the astronauts, once again the line between the two levels of rationality has
been crossed, and once again, it is not because religion has tried to extend its domain but because
scientists have made a transition. A new an powerful idea has been let loose, and it includes some of
the most fundamental principles of our theology.
What difference does this make to us? It may encourage us at those times when we feel overwhelmed by
the problems our world faces, and it may also provide some guidance. In summing up, Mitchell writes,
"The peaks were the recognition that it is a harmonious, purposeful, creating universe. The valleys
came in recognizing that humanity wasn't behaving in accordance with that knowledge." Behaving
humanely toward each other and being ecologically responsible are not options to consider once we have
taken care of the necessities of life. They are the necessities themselves. Purpose, harmony, and
creativeness are fundamental to the universe and fundamental to survival. And perhaps if we identify
that purpose as divine love, that harmony as divine wisdom, and that creativeness as divine activity,
it may be clear how profoundly this view from space is in accord with our own theology. The face of
the sky seems to be bringing us the signs of the times.