Fractals: a prayer in images

This post is personal, where I trace my journey with the divine, vis-à-vis my identity as a scientist. As a teaser, I first offer you this delicious visual meditation of the many faces of the divine. These are images from various parts of the famous Madelbrot set, taken at different levels of zoom, and using very similar color schemes. We will speak in detail about fractals another time. Here, I just offer you the beauty and the mystery that is invoked by these infinitely self-similar images. The reason I love the Mandelbrot set in particular is that no matter how close you get to a structure, or how far you move from it, the patterns are very similar. Mind you, they are similar - not exactly the same. This, to me, is important. These are not just mechanical repetitions like a marching army - each image is unique, while also being intimately related to all others.

A Confession

Unlike many of my other posts, this one starts with a personal confession. Although I am an ordained minister, I still have a HUGE problem with the word God. When I really take the time to ask myself – what makes my belly tighten when I hear the word God, I realize that my critique is not really so much about the idea of God. Rather, it is about all the social, cultural and political meanings that have accrued onto the word, and all the horror and divisiveness that has been wreaked in its name. First, the word God, for me, conjures up a patriarchal hierarchy – “our Father who art in heaven.” It also conjures up a cultural supremacy – the dominant culture’s God thrust upon colonized and enslaved people the world over –without any consideration of their inherent beliefs.

I have much less problem with “the gods” (small “g”) of people from various cultures and various times. I love those stories and the powerful symbols they embody!

For a very significant part of my life, I lived the identity of “the scientist,” who by definition, had to be an atheist or at least, an agnostic. Science and the divine could not have a place at the same table – I was told. And I bought it - for the most part; although I must say I was always a reluctant atheist! As an adolescent, I was fascinated by Vivekananda, and his erudition on Advaita Vedanta (the Hindu philosophical school that is based on non-duality of Self and God). Around this time, I also fortuitously laid my hands on physicist Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. Thus, Vivekananda and Capra were my earliest influences, but it took me a long and often angry detour, to finally get to the place where I am now. I credit the poets - Rumi, John O’Donohue, Tagore - and the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell - in facilitating my return. Each of them, in their own way, gave me the permission to pursue the divine through beauty and wonder and awe, and leave aside the dogma.

Encountering the numinous

The honest answer to the question of why I went into seminary is that even though I resisted the call for a very long time, it is the very part of me that drew me to science in the first place, that has now drawn me to ministry. There’s a part of me that just cannot stop being in wonder – in awe of the world we are gifted to live in. I truly feel that we live in a magical world. I am reminded of it every time I think about the baby galaxies being born in the galactic nurseries, of the massive stars going supernova, of the idea that our “Universe” came out of nothing in a fiery Big Bang, and that we are still riding that initial wave of expansion! …Just sit with that for a moment…

Nearer home, I think about the hundreds, if not thousands, of metabolic pathways that have to work, and coordinate and feed back into each other, just right, for me to take my next breath!

I am right now thinking about a Planet Earth video showing a lion, resting after a prolonged chase and kill, satiated and yawning. The amazing camera work allows me to see right up close; I can see those fluttering whiskers, those twitching muscles in the face, and those huge teeth still with bits of meat stuck between them! I get chills looking at that face!

Is this not what has been called “numinous” by the philosophers? Numinous is a word derived by Rudolf Otto, a German theologian and philosopher, from Latin “numen,” meaning an image or a symbol that has the power, presence, and/or realization of the divine. Otto posited that for an experience to be counted as numinous, it has to provoke a “mysterium tremendum” (i.e., a sense of mystery that has the power to invoke fear and trembling), and a quality of “fascinans” (i.e., the ability to attract, fascinate and compel).

By this definition, my encounter with the galaxies, with my own metabolic pathways and with the yawning lion, are all numinous (i.e., divine).

And then there’s so much we can’t make sense of! So much that seems horrible, unconscionable. I think of the lion in whose image I just encountered the divine, as he pounces on the baby antelope, drags it, plays with it, and eventually devours it. I think of the mother of the baby antelope, who runs away to save her own life, leaving behind her fragile offspring. I think of the school shooters, of people blowing themselves up in public places in the name of God, I think of violence and rape and torture that is so much a story of our species. I think of my own daily uncertainties and yes, fear, as I parent a teen.

Are these experiences also not numinous – invoking mysterium tremendum et fascinans?

There is just so much poetry in this world of ours! So much beauty and so much pain that it makes your heart ache!

How do we be with it all?

“Living prayerfully” as a choice in the face of unknowing

Could all of this beauty and all this heartbreak be fully explained by a merely random roll of dice? Could it all be nothing but the logical turning of gears by a blind watchmaker?

I cannot bring myself to believe so. Because to believe so will be lose that wonder, that awe… that sense of adventuring into the unknown.

I remember a story told to me by a teacher. I don’t know whether the story is true. But it is a powerful teaching story irrespective of its factual veracity. According to the story, a student asked Socrates whether he believed in life after death. Socrates said he did. The student then asked him whether he had any proof to support his belief. Socrates said he didn’t. But then, Socrates said this: he said that he chose to live his life “as if” life-after-death were true – because it gave meaning to his life. It oriented his life and his choices in a certain way. And if when he died, he found out that it weren’t true… well then… it would be too late then, wouldn’t it? First, he wouldn’t really care one way or another at that point. And second, he would have lived a good life. And if it were indeed true, then he would have been off to a good start!

I think my going to the seminary, and living a prayerful life (although I have no traditional “God” that I pray to), is about a similar philosophy. For me, a prayerful life is a life oriented by awe and wonder and mystery… of always being willing to be surprised. I do not want to live my life cowering under the knowledge of the immensity of this creation, the immensity of my own unknowing and my lack of power in the greater scheme of things. I want to look up to this immensity and unknowing with awe, and with reverence, and say with Rumi:

“Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

When I really think about it, I do not think that the battle is truly between a worldview imbued with divinity and a world governed by science, but rather, about what we mean by “science.” Whose science is it that we are talking about? If we limit our “science” to the Galilean/Newtonian rationalist/positivist ideas, then yes, there’s a conflict. But if we now extend our science to Quantum theory, Systems theory and cutting edge Astrophysics and Cosmology, then the world of spirituality and science could happily coexist. Indeed, they magnify and enliven each other.

I think what is common between all these pursuits is the sense of mystery, of wonder, of beauty, of not being sure… Each of them requires us to be comfortable with not knowing, with not having the final answer. It is about, in Rilke’s words, “living the question.”

Encountering “the Universe” anew

Below I offer you just two quotes from Brian Green’s latest book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Greene, a contemporary physicist and popular science writer, highlights in these quotes the degree of our unknowing about things we have always taken for granted. Here, he is talking about the possibility of us living in a Multiverse. It is an understanding of cosmology where the idea of “The Universe” somehow feels parochial!

“There was a time when “universe” meant “all there is.” Everything. The whole shebang. The notion of more than one universe, more than one everything, would seemingly be a contradiction in terms. Yet a range of theoretical developments has gradually qualified the interpretation of “universe.” The word’s meaning now depends on context.”

While warning us that physicists are far from proving – in any rigorous way – that we indeed live in a multiverse, he suggests that the idea of multiple – even an infinite number – of Universes – seems quite probable. And indeed, the concept of multiverse itself is not unitary, since different cutting edge theories in physics predict different types of multiverse!

“Each (theory) envisions our universe as part of an unexpectedly larger whole, but the complexion of that whole and the nature of the member universes differ sharply among them. In some, the parallel universes are separated from us by enormous stretches of space or time; in others, they’re hovering millimeters away; in others still, the very notion of their location proves parochial, devoid of meaning. A similar range of possibility is manifest in the laws governing the parallel universes. In some, the laws are the same as in ours; in others, they appear different but have a shared heritage; in others still, the laws are of a form and structure unlike anything we’ve ever encountered. It’s at once humbling and stirring to imagine just how expansive reality may be.”

Given this science, how can I conceive of a God that still makes sense?

This is a question that has been on my mind and heart for a long time. Given my deep ambivalence about formal religions and the harm they have caused to humanity by pitching one’s God against the other’s, the only seminary I could go to was “One Spirit” Learning Alliance.

Among all the religious traditions we studied at seminary, the ones that speak to me the most deeply are the indigenous traditions. No matter whether we are studying Native American spirituality, or Yoruba tradition, or the spiritual beliefs of Australian Aborigines, one thing we find in common. And it is the belief that the entire creation is alive, and ensouled. Everything, in this scheme of understanding, is alive – and has a right to exist on its own terms. We have the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the creepy-crawlies, the Flying Nation, the Green Nation. We have the Stone People. We have Mother Earth, and Brother Wind; we have Father Sun and Grandmother Moon. We revere the Stone People as our ancestors, because they were on this earth a long time before we got here! We look up at the stars lighting up the night sky, and we hear the story told by the elders that each of those twinkling lights is a campfire of an ancestor! What a magical way to live! In this way of approaching life, every act of living – eating, sleeping, bathing, hunting, mating –becomes a prayer. More than any religious dogma, this is what I understand as prayerful living – a life that is in direct engagement with divinity at all times. If you truly believe that everything is alive, and everything is related to you, you still take what you need from the earth. But, you give thanks for what you take. You thank the animal who gave its life so you could eat. And you never take so much that the bush, the grove, the herd, will not be able to replenish what you took. If this is not prayerful living, I don’t know what is! And how different this is from our “scientific” and rational lives – which routinely denude rainforests, cause and sustain oil spills, support fracking, and cause extinction of species by the thousands, whose effects on the ecosystem we cannot even begin to fathom…

Indra’s jeweled net: an image of God that (for now) works for me

When I see where science is going – away from reductionist silos of knowledge to Integral and Systems understanding – to interconnected webs that constantly feedback on each other – I find that my understanding of God has to keep up with this movement. My sense of the divine has to be vast enough to encompass my science. For me, that is the only way that the symbol of the divine will remain alive and vital in my life.

Lately, I have been sitting with the idea of “indrajaal” (Indra’s net), as a possible symbol of the divine that I can relax into. Indrajaal is a beautiful symbol that comes out of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It perceives divinity as a net, or a web, spread over the entire creation. At each junction where two threads of the net meet, there is a jewel. Each of these shining jewels – of which there are an infinite number – reflect every other jewel in the net… Take a moment to sit with this image… A gossamer net with an infinite number of jewels – one jewel at every contact point – each reflecting all of the other jewels!

I love this image for several reasons.

First, this image is able to hold the tension of the polarity of one God/many gods. The net is one. But each point of the net is manifested by a specific jewel – which is both unique, and at the same time, reflects all other jewels. Each jewel could be a divinity, a religion, a planet, a galaxy, an Universe… Or a point in my fractals above…

Plus, a net is inherently flexible. It has no rigid shape. It turns, folds, twists and adapts, and still stays whole. The Irish poet, John O’Donohue, invokes an image of the webs spun by the Wolf Spiders. These spiders spin their webs not between two solid objects such as stones or wall corners, but between two blades of grass. So, as the wind comes and lifts the blades of grass, the web sways, only to relax back, intact, when the wind has passed! What a beautiful image of tenacity and resilience that is not harsh and rigid! What a beautiful image of the divine!

To me, this image of Indra’s jeweled net is very close to Carl Jung’s idea of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious can be thought of as the ocean, in which we are all immersed (he did say, repeatedly, that we live in the psyche, rather than the psyche living in us). Throughout this ocean of the collective unconscious are scattered the archetypes – condensations of instinct and psychic potentialities – that may manifest in our lives at times, in response to inner or outer stimuli – only to relax back into the unconscious when the stimulus recedes. Although this particular post is not the place to discuss archetypes in detail, I want to point out that unlike the “Jung lite” that pervades New Age thinking, an archetype is a potentiality that can NEVER be integrated into a person’s psyche, and thus depotentiated. We can integrate parts of their manifestation in our lives in the form of understanding and owning parts of our complexes, but the underlying archetype never loses – yes – its numinosity. Archetypes are our common inheritance, like the jewels of Indra’s net, and no one person can own them or vanquish them.

Many people from many cultures over time have tried to put into words this dialectic between the general and the specific nature of the divine. However, the concept is so ineffable, that what they have provided us with are more images. So, here are a couple of other images.

One of these images comes from the Indian saint, Ramakrishna, when he tried to explain the nature of God to his disciples. His image was that of a body of water – say an ocean. The water is everywhere, and you can’t distinguish one part of it from another. It is all the same water. But now, imagine that in certain places, the water freezes. Now, there are chunks of ice which have solidified. They have now become manifest, embodied. However, they are still the same water.

Another image comes from Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux medicine man from South Dakota, USA. In a conversation with ethnologist John Neihardt, he says that the center of the world – the axis mundi – is the Harney Peak in South Dakota. In the very next statement, he says, “but, the central mountain of the world is everywhere!”

These statements are very reminiscent of the quote below from the medieval theological text, Liber XXIV Philosophorum (The Book of the Twenty Four Philosophers):

“God is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”

This is the paradox we are called to live with. Divinity is not just transcendent or just immanent; it is neither spirit nor soul. It is both. And much, much more – that we cannot put into words.

Thus, in my worldview at this moment, I believe that we live in a world permeated with divinity, and that this divinity “crystallizes” wherever we pay attention to it. In other words, God is present at any place, at any time, and in any activity - as long as we inhabit it in awe and in prayerful wonder!

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