Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Book Review: Fingerprints of God

For some time now, I have been interested in the intersection between science and spirituality. If God in fact exists and is responsible for the existence of the universe, if there is something that transcends what we can see, touch, and measure, then it is reasonable to assume that there would be traces of the Divine, “fingerprints of God”, if you will, to be found within human experience.

Because of this interest, I have sought out and read books such as those by Paul Davies. Mind of God is probably his best known. Other such books and authors which readily come to mind include God: The Evidence by Patrick Glyn, Language of God by Francis Collins, and the work of Gerald Schroeder, an observant Orthodox Jew and scientist who finds no contradiction between a Talmudic reading of Genesis and the standard scientific account of the origin of the universe and the emergence of life on our planet. Schroeder, apparently, had a great deal to do with the conversion of Anthony Flew from convinced atheist to theist – or perhaps deist.

Thus, I was pleased to receive a copy of Barbara Bradley Hegarty’s Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality for Fathers’ Day. Bradley Hegarty is a journalist who, for some years now, has covered religion for National Public Radio. Bradley Hegarty says that in writing this book, she is trying to understand her own experience, having been raised in a devout Christian Science environment and then, by way of a “numinous experience”, discovering the Jesus of the Gospels, leading her to the edge of Evangelicalism and finally, “mainstream Christianity”. What Bradley is looking for, she writes, is scientific confirmation, or at least justification, for her "intuition that God exists", that there is “something more”.

Among others, a major focus of this book is the emerging field of “neurotheology”, the exploration of what happens, both during and after, in a human brain when someone meditates, prays, uses a psychodelic drug such as peyote in a religious ritual, "hits bottom" or otherwise experiences a spontaneous conversion, or has a near death experience. The instruments these researchers use are products of state-of-the- art medical technology: highly sophisticated EEGs and brain scanning machines, such as MRIs and PET scanners.

As it turns out, such practices and experiences do make long term changes in brain activity and even, in the actual physiological structure of the brain itself.

Of course, the evidence in this regard has not yet accumulated to the point where most scientists have been convinced to abandon a materialistic view of the universe, or of life. However, the researchers that Bradley Hegarty interviewed are convinced that the science is about to enter, or has in fact already entered, a “paradigm shift” in this regard.

While this is clearly not a theological book, Bradley Hegarty’s journalistic research clearly has theological implications. From a Christian perspective, perhaps the most interesting is that NDE’s and long term practices of meditation and prayer produce similar results in the brain. This gives a whole new spin to the idea of the spiritual life, specifically the Christian spiritual life, as “dying to self” or “dying with Christ”.

However, for all that, Bradley Hegarty’s book does not touch on several significant areas. First, apparently none of the research subjects are drawn from those pursuing an Orthodox Christian spiritual path: in the book, we encounter Roman Catholic nuns, Pentecostals, Buddhist monks, “spiritual but not religious” types, and others, but no monks from Mount Athos. So I am left wondering: what would their brain function look like?

Another pertinent question has to do with identifying “non-local mind” with God or transcendent spiritual reality. This is reminiscent of Jung’s “collective unconscious”. What if “non-local mind” is simply a product of humanity?

Then there is a related, but more urgent issue. What of the human encounter with spiritual evil? One thinks immediately of Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil in which, for five persons, spiritual encounter has a destructive, not restorative effect. One also thinks of Scott Peck’s People of Lie as well as characters such as Charles Manson, the “Son of Sam”, Alistair Crowley, and various high level Nazis, whose ideology was undergirded by a certain spirituality. One would also note that for many traditions, Chritsian and non-Christian, it is deemed dangerous to undertake sustained spiritual practice apart from the input of someone who is more experienced and even, outside a spiritual community. Further, much spiritual literature is devoted to the matter of dealing with the egotism and evil that one will encounter while pursuing union with God. The closest that Bradley Hegarty gets to dealing with any of this is acknowledging that spirituality and certain psychiatric and neurological disorders exist on a continuum, reminding one of Jung's statement that "mystics are swimming in the same ocean in which psychotics are drowning".

With these shortcomings in mind, Bradley Hegarty’s book is worth the read. In the end, she reaches a common conclusion, one that seems entirely appropriate: while the existence of God and a transcendent realm is not provable, belief in God and another plane is justifiable, at least as reasonable as a purely materialist view of the universe.

Monday, June 22, 2009

"We done the Deed"

Andrew and Nicole are now husband and wife. Many years! to them, to her two daughters, and to their families and friends.

No pictures yet.

But the two original copies of the marriage license have been dropped in the mail, all properly signed by the bride, groom, two witnesses, and yours truly, sent to the Office of the Register of DEEDS, Mecklenburg County, South Carolina.

The venue was a B and B on Lake Wylie. An open air gazebo served as the bema. One notable moment, of which I was not even aware at the time, was when the ring bearer, a very active 5-year-old boy, fell off the gazebo. I was wondering why the bride and her attendants all began giggling.

In a possible first in the history of Christian weddings, while the bride and groom spent their wedding night in the "Juliet Suite", Khouria and I slept in the "Alexandria Room", the only overnight guests in the B and B. In the morning, the four of us shared breakfast, and then joined her extended family for lunch and a celebration of Fathers' Day, Andrew's first in his new role as stepfather. In a last minute addition to the ceremony, after Andrew and Nicole exchanged rings in the Betrothal, Andrew gave each of Nicole's two daughters a ring as well, repeating the words he had just said to Nicole: "Thus do I pledge thee my life forever."

All in all, this celebration, which included about 60 guests, was a fitting way for Andrew and Nicole to enter into the communion of marriage. God is good!

Also, Sunday, Fathers' Day, was the 20th Wedding Anniversary of Andreas Mar Cassian and Amma Caitlin Turner. Many years! to them and theirs as well.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Prayers Please

A little later today, we are travelling a few miles north, to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the marriage of Andrew and Nicole. Khouria Susan and daughter Larkin Ryan are coordinating the ceremony, at which I will preside. Daughter Cary will also assist. Please keep us, the wedding, and the soon-to-be married couple in your prayers, along with their families.

Yes, I am sure there will be pictures.

"For the servants of God Andrew and Nicole, who are now entering into the communion of marriage, and for their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.
Kyrie Eleison."

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sailing to Byzantium...

The Byzantine Rite is the complex of worship rituals normally used by the, uh, well BYZANTINE Orthodox Churches (Greeks, Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Antiochians - the other Antiochians that is, etc., etc.) and the Churches related to them which are in communion with, and under the jurisdiction of, the Pope (Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Melkites, Ruthenians, etc., etc.) Descended from the most ancient liturgies of Jerusalem and Antioch (as is the Armenian Rite and our own West Syrian Rite), it developed in Constantinople (aka Byzantium) with input over the centuries from various monasteries. Above all, the Byzantine Rite is beautiful.

Fr. Stephen compares it - rightly, I might add - to a symphony:

"The Strange Land of Liturgical Knowledge"

and then there is this Baptist preacher in Texas who discovers this major brand of Orthodox worship:

"Not for Lightweights"


"St. Anthony the Great, Part 2"

followed by

"This Sunday - St. Joseph in Houston"

What Fr. Stephen long ago learned and what Baptist Pastor Gordon Atkinson is just now discovering is that revelation is not confined to the Bible, nor even to the rest of the Tradition as recorded in the various narrative and poetic writings which bear it witness. No, the Christian revelation is manifested in a very real way in the celebration of authentic liturgy. But this revelation is not simply the presentation of information. It is also encounter and communion, a real confrontation with the glorified Christ, He Who Is glorified precisely because he is first crucified and, as such, is himself the revelation of his unseen Father. The early Christians summed it up this way: "The rule of prayer is the rule of faith."

Every discussion of the Byzantine Rite, no matter how cursory, must include the following:

Many years ago, over 1,000 years ago actually, a pagan prince in Southeastern Europe began investigating the monotheistic religions with a view toward adopting one for himself and his people. He sent representatives to speak with Jews and with Muslims, to visit Rome and Germany, and then, to travel to Constantinople. After experiencing the faith and worship of Christ as found in Byzantium, they reported the following back to the Prince, whose name was Vladimir:

"We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty."

All of the ancient rites have their own ethos, their own genius. That of the Byzantine Rite is beauty, effulgent beauty. If you have never experienced the Byzantine Rite, you should. At least once.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Trinity Sunday, 2009

* Love
* Life
* Communion
* Eros
* Ecstasy
* Perichoresis
* Kenosis
* A-temporality
* Personhood
* Hierarchy-in-equality
* Members one of another
* Generation
* Spiration
* Chrismation

God the Most Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the eternal, archetypal communion, from whom "every community on earth is named."

From Anthony Lilles, who teaches at a Roman Catholic seminary:

"Trinity Sunday"