Praying in a Post-Einsteinian Universe
By David S. Toolan

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Everything is implicated in everything else, nature transforms random nonsense into structure; and in humans, each and all, are inscribed fifteen billion years of evolution. Conjoined to nature at the hip, we must dare to convert matter/energy into sacrament.


David S. Toolan, S.J., is associate editor of America and author of Facing West from California's Shores (Crossroad, 1987). His essay on new age spirituality appeared in Cross Currents, Fall 1996.

 

When Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, left his desk in sixteenth-century Rome after a hard day's work, it is said that he would often retire to the roof of his headquarters and gaze, rapt in contemplation, at the stars. For Ignatius, as for any Renaissance citizen before the age of Galileo, star-gazing could be a spiritual exercise. In fact, Jesuit lore has it that on such occasions Ignatius was simply rehearsing the climax of his Spiritual Exercises - the "contemplation for obtaining the love of God." In this famous meditation, which comes after approximately thirty days of meditations on the life and passion of Jesus, "the Word made flesh," the exercitant is bid to taste and touch the deeds of the Creator - signs of love-in-action - in all created things, stars included. "Love," says the text, "manifests itself in deeds rather than in words." And above all, God's deeds of love are to be found in the works of creation. "Consider how God dwells in creatures; in the elements, giving them being; in the plants, giving them growth; in the animals, giving them sensation. ... Consider how God works and labors on my behalf in all created things ... in the heavens, elements, plants, fruits, flocks, etc. ..."

The frame of this meditation is, of course, the first chapter of Genesis and the prologue of John's Gospel: the aboriginal Beginner hovers over the void, pouring out, emptying, informing, quickening, breathing into chaos, bringing light to darkness. Or,

In the beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God ...
Through him all things came to be,
not one thing had its being but through him.
All that came to be had life in him. ...
(John 1:1--3)

Thus God is to be found in all things, all processes of nature. The early church Fathers, in amplifying the meaning of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, had made this clear. As Alfred North Whitehead once put it, in deciding for the direct immanence of the Spirit in the material world, the great fourth-century theologians of Alexandria and Antioch "have the distinction of being the only thinkers who in a fundamental metaphysical doctrine improved upon Plato."(1)

"All ... had life in him." Naturally, as a graduate of the University of Paris in 1535, Ignatius would have imagined the material world, in Aristotelian and Ptolemaic terms, as primarily a biological system with the earth at the center of the cosmos. He would not have gazed up at vast empty space, as we do, nor would his earth or sky have been marked by a sharp dualism between matter\quantity and psyche\quality. For him, everything he could see or touch depended for its existence - its very being - on a proportional participation in divine Being (Aquinas's "analogy of being"). The "heavens," therefore, would have been deemed part of the physical world; spirit moved behind everything, signifying kinship, inviting human participation. The stars fixed in their crystalline spheres, he would have thought, were made of the same fiery element as the fiery element in himself. Growing things, he supposed, drew their strength from the moon, gold and silver from the sun and moon respectively, copper from the planet Venus, iron from Mars, lead from Saturn - and his own health and temperament depended on his extrasensory links to these heavenly bodies. Indeed he would have sensed that his very bodily fluids - his "humors" and five wits - were tided with the celestial reservoirs. It was thus the cosmic waters of life itself, he would have felt, that filled him with common sense, imagination, fantasy, memory, and the ability to conjecture.(2)

In sum, like any late medieval citizen, Ignatius was joined at the hip to the cosmos, and it with him. If he listened hard he might even hear the barely audible music the stellar spheres were supposed to make as they were moved, like the strings of a lute, by a host of angels.

Question: If such a participatory cosmos has vanished for us, done in by Descartes's and Newton's purely mechanical order, what happens to any kind of religious contemplative practice? Ignatius's sense of kinship with the elements, plant-life and the animal kingdom, rooted in the assumption that he could touch the mystery of God in them, is apparently ruled out. We have the same five senses that Ignatius had, but - because of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution - we do not have the same mindset - and thus when we gaze up into the starry night we do not ordinarily perceive stars as mediators of amazing grace.

I thought of this contrast a little over a year ago, as I read in the New York Times (Oct.10, 1995, C1) that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had just announced that its "deep space" radio telescopes in California and New Mexico had obtained the first clear images ever recorded of a star being born in the Milky Way. Wrapped in a thick cloud of gas and in-falling dust, the infant star had not yet ignited through nuclear fusion. It was also small, about half the size of our Sun, and by cosmic standards stood very close - a scarce 800 light years distant from Earth in the direction of the constellation Aquila. Such "protostars," we were told, enable scientists to understand the dynamic forces that once generated a solar system like our own. Nascent stars, in fact, are a cosmic commonplace. As the Times reporter put it, "While other stars are aging and collapsing in death, with a bang or a whimper, the universe is always replenishing itself with new stars."

That new star, of course, will be only one of 50 to 100 billion in the Milky Way. Nothing special. Moreover, another article in the Times a few months later (Jan.15, 1996) reported that the Hubble Space Telescope's probes into far out space had revealed that the number of galaxies had just increased five-fold over the previous count. Astronomers used to think there were some 10 billion galaxies; now the number is estimated to be about 50 billion of them, extending across some 300 billion billion light years of ever-expanding time-space.

What, I ask myself, is the effect of post-Einsteinian cosmology on my spiritual practice - and by that I mean both the inward work of prayer and contemplation as well as the outward work of social action? Does the expanding, replenishing universe of the big bang, black holes, and "dark matter" make a real difference to the way in which we believers pray and work?

I. The Limits and Extensions of "Theories of Everything"

News of the birth of new stars or of the size of galactic space can be both fascinating and intimidating. It begets both awe and a shudder down the spine. Why so? At both the macroscopic and microscopic scales, as poet Czeslaw Milosz puts it, current scientific research is making space and time "as sublime and magical as a fairy tale about elves." Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking may be hardened to black holes and quantum weirdness, but for the rest of us who understand very little about the mathematics of quantum mechanics or general relativity, talk about the birth of stars and galaxies, like talk about subatomic particles that are found in two places at once, can send us a bit over the edge. Such talk has something "too much," even numinous about it - as if this strange cosmos remains a metaphor for the uncanny otherness of the Creator.

But let us not exaggerate. One can make too much of the latest deliverances of a nuclear accelerator and too much of news from the Hubble Space Telescope. Neither one will save your soul - contrary to what certain New Agers seem to think. Cosmology in the modern, technical sense is not to be confused with the premodern concept of cosmology - and the distinction ought to be borne in mind.(3) The highly dramatic cosmologies of the Babylonians, Israelites, and Aztecs spanned what we think of as philosophy, science, and religion and thus had room in them for creation stories, battles with dragons, and the release of an oppressed people from captivity. In contrast, cosmology as it is presently conceived by scientists refers to a subfield of physics having to do with theories about the origin, evolution, and present physical structure of the universe (e.g., "steady-state" or big-bang theories, accounts of the formation of galaxies, etc.). Grand unified theories in physics, which sound as though they ought to approach a premodern concept of cosmology, thereby unifying everything in the whole universe, do nothing of the sort. In fact they leave out almost everything above the level of an electron.

For instance, when Stephen Hawking, the holder of Isaac Newton's old chair at Cambridge University, tells us that he is searching for a "theory of everything," he is not to be taken literally.(4) The theory he has in mind will explain "everything" only to the extent that everything in the cosmos is composed of subatomic particle-waves. Currently, Einstein's general theory of relativity, which describes the force of gravity and the large-scale structure of the universe, does not fit with quantum mechanics, which deals with subatomic phenomena. Hawking aspires to reconcile these two antithetical accounts by devising a quantum theory of gravity, which in effect would unify all of physics. But such a theory would be limited to explaining, at the most simple level of "bottom up" interaction, why subatomic particles have the mass, charge, and other characteristics that they do. But please note: Causality works from two directions, from the subatomic, bottom-up level of quarks and protons (that high-energy physics attends to), and at higher levels of complexity from the "top down" (which physical chemists and biologists study).(5) Hawking's great synthesis, if it happens, would do nothing to predict the "top down" behavior of things at more complex levels of organization - such as those of macromolecules, weather patterns, rain forests, jaguars, or human beings playing the stock market.

Nonetheless, it is equally clear that cosmology in the narrow, scientific sense is not easily confined within its own methodological boundaries. It is always mutating into cosmology in the wider, premodern sense. For science shapes human consciousness, is culturally formative; it invariably communicates itself by - or is transformed into - the kind of tacit cultural myths by which we live. Think, for example, of the impact of Newton's "laws of nature" or of Darwin's "survival of the fittest" upon the culture of their time. And so today, as astronomers and high-energy physicists redraw the physical world we dwell in, questions about the meaning and destiny of earthlings and our planet arise with a new insistence. It is impossible to read Hawking's Brief History of Time without confronting such existential questions - and thus in effect reaching out to articulate a cosmology in the premodern sense. What is our situation and function in the grand scheme of the big bang and expanding galactic space-time? How do we fit - or not fit - into the unfolding story of dying and nascent stars? Or, to reverse matters, how does the big bang fit with the image of the Book of Genesis, where God hovers over the formless void, over the darkness, and breathes into it light (Gen. 1:1--3)?

Such questions remind us that our collective self-understanding hinges - as it always has - on the kind of objective environment in which we find ourselves. The problem is that ever since the age of Newton, our wider environment has been primarily defined, not by theologians but by scientists - scientists who cannot resist extrapolating from their findings and making larger, disturbing philosophic claims about the whole of which we humans are a part.

Is the universe for us or against us - or merely indifferent? The answer matters. Face it, the French biologist Jacques Monod once insisted, the great cosmos is deaf to our music, as indifferent to our hopes as it is to our sufferings and crimes. Mature human beings, he sternly exhorted, ought to cast off their millenary dreams and accept their total isolation in the cosmos.(6) More recently, on the basis of his reading of evolutionary biology, British zoologist Richard Dawkins is sure that human freedom is largely illusory; "living organisms exist for the benefit of DNA rather than the other way round."(7) Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate in physics, sums up his understanding of things by saying that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."(8)

How do the people of church and synagogue deal with such discomfiting assertions? What are they to make of the puny planet Earth amid the vastness of cosmic time and space? What happens if and when they begin to suspect, on the basis of magisterial scientific proclamation, that the cosmos no longer stands behind them, no longer offers an image of God or God's promises? The all too familiar and unsatisfactory way of dealing with such questions has been to confine human values to intrapsychic space (thus subjectivizing them) and leave the realm of "fact" to the scientists. We keep two separate accounts - one for the dynamics of the physicist's energies and another for the dynamics of the human life-world. Historically, Protestants have tended to accede to such a double accounting system. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, however, have by and large rejected this solution; they want their spirituality grounded in the great outdoors, in the same universe of hard fact that Stephen Hawking investigates.

In what follows, I shall assume that any credible theology - and the spirituality that follows from it - seeks to integrate all human knowledge, and so "has to respect offerings made to it by all branches of inquiry into the way things are."(9)

II. Classical Newtonian Cosmology vs. the Demands of a Biblical Cosmology

Intended or not, a scientific cosmology, we might say, can lend itself to our spirituality. The converse is also true. Not every kind of cosmos, surely not a pointless one will support or encourage a radical monotheism's practice of prayer and worship (such as that of Ignatius of Loyola). Similarly, not every kind of cosmos will sustain the prophetic tradition's passions for beauty, justice, and pastoral harmony with the environment. The cosmology of classical Newtonian physics provides an excellent example of this. In some respects it is consonant with at least some features of Christian theology; in other respects it is profoundly dissonant.(10)

Consider, for instance, the Newtonian order of nature. After decades of internecine religious warfare, what the benevolent despots of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe wanted above all was a model of constancy, a sense of nature's utter regularity. Newton gave that to them - and thus (though this was not his intention) he incidentally gave them a model for their societies. The macrocosmic universe, he discovered, is bound by rigid, deterministic laws of motion - which to Newton's Calvinist mind proceeded from the fiat of God's omnipotent will. From both a religious and a secular angle, the attraction of this account lay in its picture of the utter dependability and stability of nature's big inert structures - which seemingly work with the clocklike regularity of a pendulum, whose every instant is the integral repetition of the preceding instant. Newton's invariant nature could thus be seen as the bona fide of a timeless and trustworthy deity.

In fact, Newtonian laws and their subsequent analogues in contemporary physics (e.g., Clerk Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism) continue to serve this ancillary cultural function. They remain universally in force in 1996, and presumably always have been and will be. If you want to send a satellite to photograph the planet Jupiter, you still have to rely on Newton's inverse square law of gravity.

In the minus department, however, the ingenious Lawgiver who (at least for the theistic Newton) stands behind such laws is not the Holy One that Jews and Christians worship as immanent in all creation and "closer to us than we are to ourselves." Rather, it is the Absentee Landlord of deism. For once Newton's God creates the cosmic machine, it will run by itself - and God can retire. The otherness of God thus becomes an abyss no longer crossable by means of nature. For an inert, mechanistic landscape is not semiotic, a set of numinous signs, as the medieval material world had been; it is a silent expanse that signifies nothing and of which we can hardly feel ourselves a part. All analogy or kinship of being is broken - and we are effectively shut out (or shut up within our own bag of skin). In such a world, one can no longer contemplate the elements, the stars, or any other feature of nature, as Ignatius Loyola did, and expect to taste and touch the Spirit immanent in these things. What Newtonian cosmology suggests is a Great Engineer who constructs the cosmic clockworks, but thereafter retreats beyond the heavens, sealed off from creation and thus inevitably superfluous in history and daily-life.

Second, Newton's view of nature had serious ecological and anthropological implications. In effect, Newton set the stage for an adversarial relationship to nature. He atomized nature, turning it into a mass of isolated, billiard ball-like objects that might joggle each other gravitationally according to strict rules, but had no internal relation to each other, much less to human beings. In this regard, he confirmed Francis Bacon's equation of knowledge with power; inert nature was simply there to be conquered and exploited, of purely instrumental significance for its human users.

This devaluation of nature would return to haunt the Western world with a deep sense of spiritual emptiness. Gradually over time - with the spread of crude empiricism and the addition of Darwinian natural selection - the scientifically educated elite of the Western world began to see planet Earth, themselves, and society as cosmic anomalies. Mind, it seemed, is some sort of freak event in the big scheme of things; we do not really belong here. Worse, individuals began to be thought of as mirroring nature's atomization. Cut off from nature and nature's God, what is left except the atomized individual of modern industrial society - who must battle solo (and perhaps with existentialist defiance) against brute necessity and blind chance to survive in a dog-eat-dog world? Factoring in the leveling effect of democratization, Alexis de Tocqueville could describe this person, loosed from tradition and communal bonds, in the America of the 1830s as follows:

They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine they have their whole destiny in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him. It throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.(11)

Does modern Western spirituality tend to degenerate into hypertrophic introspection or narcissistic navel-gazing? Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that the so-called "hard sciences" mislead us into thinking that our interior lives are disconnected from the way great nature works.

From a believer's perspective, that is not the worst of the problem. The trouble lies in the inflexibility of a Newtonian cosmos, which has no place in it for the kind of movement the Hebrew prophets work with. Scientists in the classical Newtonian mold focus exclusively on changeless redundancies in nature; the contingency and ambiguity of Earth are of no interest to them - mere anomalies in an essentially static cosmic order. Time is purely extraneous; in the big picture it doesn't count. There is nothing to be learned, to be discovered, to be invented in such a repetitive cosmos - the laws are uniformly the same everywhere.

In contrast, the whole Hebrew Scripture, as Abraham Heschel once put it, is nothing else than an "architecture of time."(12) And time and the works of time are the basic way God is manifest as making a difference. To be sure, God is rock-like - and reflected as such in nature's stability - but to the prophets, the Holy One is also source of the new and unanticipated. The transformations of irreversible time - where the present and the future really differ from the past - matter.

A natural world, therefore, that would join forces with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos must be eschatological - on the move, full of promise. It must not only manifest stability and lawfulness - a sign of God's faithfulness - but must also provide space and time for the subversion of order. The great Hebrew prophets presuppose a world full of big chances; they are on the lookout for contingencies - a world in which breaks in symmetry and the direction of time are possible. Stable order cannot hold the last word. For them, therefore, imagination takes precedence over the sheerly factual, what must be takes priority over what is.(13) In short, the universe must have a place in it not only for the laws of large numbers and immemorial tradition, but also a place in it for minorities of one or more that subvert a ruling order. There must be time and space, that is to say, not only for the indicative mood of what is everlastingly the case, but also for the subjunctive and imperative moods of what might be, could be, and must be - the reign of God - against all the odds.

Equivalently, this is to demand that the universe be sacramental; that it offer signs that give grace - both the grace of stability and the grace of instability. God's energy, glory, favor, and promise must be seen as shining throughout the whole of things, not just at the beginning of things but throughout all time and history - coming like the background radiation of the big bang from everywhere at once and with the same resonating intensity. It is to this rampant, quickening energy, the presence of the Holy Spirit immanent in the material world, that the Christian church and notably her saints testify. And thus today's Christians, like yesterday's, will want to sense in their bones that the blessing of God is not something apart from, but latent in the very energies of the stars, the planets, and earth. In other words, they will want authorization to greet "brother sun" and "sister moon" as Francis of Assisi did; yes, and be able to pray with seventh-century Celtic Christians, who rose in the morning and confidently sang the "Deer Cry" attributed to St. Patrick: "I arise today through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendor of fire, speed of lighting, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth, firmness of rock."(14)

Will a post-Einsteinian cosmology do what Newton's could not, and support such practice? My contention is that it will. We will find, I think, that the great outdoors that the contemporary physicist deals with is not inimical to spirit.

III. The Post-Einsteinian Cosmos

If the military file conception of nature proposed by classical Newtonian physics shattered the sort of communion with the cosmos that Ignatius of Loyola could take for granted, post-Einsteinian cosmology begins to restore that communion. Due to a number of developments over the last century, including the strange unpredictability of subatomic phenomena and complex systems, the great distance between models of life and the mechanical models (that classical physics preferred) is measurably reduced. The gap is closing, and as it closes, two trends emerge: The cosmos begins to appear to be a lot more irregular, even chaotic, than we had supposed, and the realm of life and human being appear to belong here. The poetry is back in nature.

The late Erich Jantsch, systems theorist at the University of California at Berkeley, articulated the general laws of nature's dynamics, as envisioned by the new scientific outlook:

The basic themes are always the same. They may be summarized by notions of self-determination, self-organization and self-renewal; by the recognition of a systemic interconnectedness over space and time of all natural dynamics; by the logical supremacy of processes over spatial structures; by the role of fluctuations which render the law of large numbers invalid and give a chance to the individual and its creative imagination; by the openness and creativity of an evolution which is neither in its emerging and decaying structures nor in the end result, predetermined.(15)

Clearly, self-organization, interconnection, process, fluctuation, and openness mark the dynamics of human culture. But if the dynamics of nature are also characterized by these same features, then, as Jantsch observes, "the dualistic split into nature and culture may now be overcome."(16) We no longer need that double-accounting procedure of putting the physicist's energy systems in one box and the energy systems of our life-world in another. Distinctions may still have to be drawn to avoid reducing the human to an electron or a "selfish gene," but what we have here is continuity - or something like the ancient notion of an analogy of being. Moreover, as we survey the principle features of this post-Einsteinian world in what follows, step by step we will be moving into the Hebrew prophets' eschatological world.

A. The Big Bang and the Anthropic Principle

Locating beginnings and endings is always problematic. I would argue that the Newtonian cosmos began to be superseded the moment the steam engine was invented by Watt in the early nineteenth century. For with that invention, all of Newton's stable, sharp-edged objects and geometrical diagrams began to dissolve into aleatory, fiery clouds.(17) The steam engine turned hard matter into vibrating energy. It not only gave us the law of entropy, by which we understand that physical structures wear down; it also gave us the first premonition of nuclear dissemination. And perhaps the first people to capture the nature of this revolution in thinking were artists like the British painter J. M. W. Turner. Just look at his blazing canvases of tug boats and locomotives contrasted with wagons and old square-rigged ships of the line being towed to the junk yard! Even then our conception of the cosmos was changing; a universe bound fast to grim, timeless necessity was giving way to a stochastic or chancy universe in which contingency and irreversible time began to count again. For Western culture, which has always been essentially time-oriented, this was of enormous importance.

Others will put the beginning of a new picture of the cosmos much later - say at 1905, when Albert Einstein postulated that everything from proton to star was a process warping space, and thus that time was inseparable from space. Stephen Hawking dates the shift in outlook even later, to 1924, when the American astronomer Edwin Hubble showed that our Milky Way galaxy was not the only game in the cosmic town.(18)

At that point, most astronomers followed Fred Hoyle in thinking that our universe existed in a "steady state" and was virtually eternal. But then, in 1929, Hubble made the additional landmark observation that distant galaxies are moving away from us, in every direction, at a rapid rate. If so, argued Abbé Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest-mathematician, space-time must be expanding from an original "singularity" some 15 billion years ago - which Fred Hoyle would name the "big bang." It seemed, after all, that maybe the universe had a beginning. In 1963, two Bell Laboratory scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, confirmed this suspicion by accidentally picking up the primordial sound-wave of the birth of our universe on their big radio antenna. Suddenly, the cosmos had a history, going from almost nothing to a very big something in very short order.

The big bang is called a "singularity" because at an estimated 100 billions degrees centigrade no stable particles could take shape, and thus none of the current laws of physics apply at that point. You also cannot imagine it as a TNT blast, starting from a definite center and then engulfing the pre-existing, container-space around it. No, it is more useful to imagine it as analogous to the first fortissimo chord of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, occurring simultaneously everywhere - except that here you have to imagine that vibratory chord expanding, and as it does so, creating the "everywhere" of space-time itself, like a huge ballooning sound wave. Only as this initial plasmic wave cooled did the microscopic stuff of stars, planets, and DNA molecules begin to weave themselves out of the initial chaos. It was the beginning of an epic story.

Big bang theories - and there are several - do not necessarily imply a Creator, or an absolute beginning of time.(19) Our universe may just be one of many existing simultaneously (the others being unknown to us). Or our universe may have ballooned out of a prior universe; it could be just one of many in a series - and the whole works could be destined to collapse into a dense black hole, from which - who knows? - another universe might spring. (We do not really know yet whether the universe will continue indefinitely to expand.) Or, if Hawking's theory is correct and finite space-time has no boundary or edge, the universe may be completely self-contained.(20)

But if big bang theories do not logically demand a Creator, they definitely do have implications for how mind or consciousness fits into the general picture of nature. As the citations above from Jacques Monod, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Weinberg indicate, up until very recently it has been almost standard scientific dogma that nature is mindlessly indifferent to the presence of beings who think, reason, plan, and comprehend. Consequently, mindful creatures are viewed as cosmic anomalies - alien and absurd intruders into the big scheme of things.

But what if this is untrue? Suppose we really belong here, are in fact a part of nature's thrust, as nearly everyone before the seventeenth century claimed. What if the evolution of mind is what this universe has been about since the first three seconds?

Curiously, physicists now toy with the notion that mind, after all, may be a fundamental aspect of nature, and not just an incongruous accident. They call it the "anthropic principle" (from the Greek word for "human being") - which holds that the cosmos, from its very opening, was precisely programmed for the emergence of life and mind.(21)

What amazes Hawking and many other physicists about the earliest seconds of our universe is the observed constants - the exact rate of expansion (the Hubble constant), the precise numerical values of the force fields that hold things together (nuclear forces, electromagnetism, gravity), and the particle-antiparticle ratio. No one now understands exactly why these constants have the precise values that they do. But what is clear and startling is that the initial conditions of the universe are so very finely-tuned for the development of life - in some regions of the galaxies at some time - and perhaps in more locales than planet Earth.

Consider the particle-antiparticle ratio: if in the very early universe every proton had been matched by an antiproton, they would have annihilated each other - and the story would have been over almost before it started. Or consider the force of gravity and the expansion rate: if either had been only fractionally different from what it is - smaller or larger - the universe would have collapsed very quickly or it would have ballooned out too rapidly for stars and planets to form - and since nuclear star factories produce the heavier chemical elements needed for life, without stars the universe would be lifeless.

The case is the same with the nuclear bonding properties: if the "strong force" that holds atomic nuclei together had deviated from its actual strength by as much as 1 percent, no carbon atoms, the basic building blocks for DNA, would have been able to form inside stars. In turn, if the nuclear "weak force" responsible for radioactive decay had been a mite stronger, all hydrogen would have immediately dissolved into helium - and without hydrogen there could be no carbon, oxygen, or nitrogen. Again, if the binding force of electromagnetism responsible for light and all electrically charged particles had been even marginally stronger than it is, stars would have remained too chill to explode as supernovas - and since exploding supernovas seed the planets with the heavier, life-giving elements, our planet (and any other) would have remained a dead wasteland.

But our planet is not a wasteland. Somehow, from the very outset, the universe was exactly calibrated so as to favor life. Is this mere coincidence? Or is something more - and something very akin to teleology - afoot here? There are actually two versions of the anthropic principle. The so-called "weak" version, which emphasizes the vast number of galaxies besides our own, limits itself to saying that the conditions necessary for intelligent life are met in certain limited regions of time-space - and accordingly, since we (and our physicists) are here, we find the conditions that produced us. As Hawking wryly quips, this "is a bit like a rich person living in a wealthy neighborhood not seeing any poverty."(22)



In the "strong" version, however, teleology re-enters cosmology (much to the horror of many scientists): the fundamental features of universe are the way they are because of mind. That is, from the very beginning the cosmos has been silently working toward us, distilling a sounding board and a voice that might speak for it. We belong here, are a vital part of the universe's immense journey.

To suggest that the evolution of 50 billion galaxies exists simply for our sake seems a bit much - anthropocentrism gone wild, in fact, and an invitation to self-inflation. (The believer has a different way of putting it: the universe is the way it is for the glory of God.) What one can safely say is that when a modern star-gazer reflects on the startling initial conditions of the universe, he or she contemplates once again an amazing grace. Quite literally, we are the fallout of the stars, and unless Carl Sagan discovers extraterrestrials, we are the only ones in the cosmos who will be able to tell its story and say what it shall mean.

B. The Unpredictability and Interconnectedness of Matter

What we think of as matter - whether it be a subatomic quark, a yellow star like our sun or a bee hive - must be thought of as bound and condensed energy, captured in an eddy out of the torrential, buzzing flow set loose by the first chord of our cosmic symphony. We, the plants and the stars are warps or disturbances in the field of this ballooning, random energy. The ancient Greek atomists and Hindu mythologists were on target: all object-like entities in the universe are vortices or whirlpools in a vast cosmic river of free energy that flows through them and simultaneously creates them. And, as we discovered with the atom bomb, the potency of this bound energy is almost unimaginable; to measure it, one must multiply mass by an enormous constant, the velocity of light squared E=mc.

Moreover, when not contained, this random flood of energy is impossible to pin down; it simply dances and is fundamentally indeterminate. Should you try to locate a subatomic particle's position in a nuclear cloud chamber, its velocity will elude you; and conversely, if you try to determine its speed, its position will remain unknown (Werner Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle"). As Stephen Hawking puts it, quantum mechanics, which formulates the laws of this subatomic domain, "introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability and randomness into science."(23)

The problem for a classical, deterministic physicist is that this elemental stuff acts like both wave and particle. On the one hand, early in this century Max Planck demonstrated that subatomic phenomena exhibit particle-like behavior; they come, like monetary denominations, only in certain-sized packets or quanta. On the other hand, these particles also behave like sound or light waves; they are diffused - and cannot be localized. Hence scientists are unable to predict a single definite outcome of an observation. Instead, all one can do is predict a number of possible outcomes and tell how probable each one is.

Hard science has thus been forced to recognize two major consequences. First, Newton's laws of motion and the orderly grid of the periodic table of chemical elements have to be understood as exercises in statistics. Lawfulness at the macroscopic level, it now appears, rides in fact on a wildly chancy underworld of vibrating, oscillating, aleatory clouds. Hence the great nineteenth-century dream of scientific determinism - that if we knew the complete state of the universe at any one time we could then predict whatever would follow - is a delusion. The subatomic underworld does not resemble a geometric diagram; it looks more like a painting by Turner or Jackson Pollock.

Second, since elemental matter exhibits the characteristics of a field or wave, the universe is radically interconnected. Through their fields, the atoms of one thing entangle themselves with the fields of another - and thus everything is internally related to everything else. The mutual impact may be negligible, but the new star being born near the constellation Aquila doesn't make a move without affecting you or me, nor do we make a move without affecting it. In this understanding, the word "atom" should connote just the opposite of what Newton supposed. At the most basic physical level, at least, everything is implicated in everything else - the one in the many, the many in the one. The truth is that matter\energy is profoundly social; communion, not isolation, is the rule

C. A Semiotic Universe

In a Newtonian universe of big scale phenomena, matter is inert and dumb - the mere repetition of the same prosaic routine by a "closed system." In such a world, perfect equilibrium is the norm. The redundant swing of a pendulum or the reiterated pattern of wallpaper, therefore, would serve as paradigmatic examples of lawfulness in the timeless Newtonian scheme of things. In a post-Einsteinian universe, however, most systems are "open," active, and wildly or moderately exchanging energy with their environment. In this context, matter\energy is an information system that gives signs - is semiotic. Anything - from a quasar to a DNA molecule - constitutes itself as a time series, a sequence of signals that govern its behavior and vary according to some sort of statistical regularity. The understanding of such processes falls under the sway of information physics - the theory that underlies the functioning of the transistors and integrated circuits of our television sets and computers.(24) It has been shown, for instance, that information, which is equivalent to organization, is a form of counter-entropy - a warp in time-space that works against the odds-on trend toward incoherence or sheer "noise."

Molecules and stars - and everything in between like ourselves - do not operate like wallpaper. We are all thermodynamic systems (heat users), and that means we are precarious balancing acts, moment by moment converting random energy into information\organization and, in the enterprise, losing structured energy in the form of waste or noise (i.e., producing entropy). If there is too much randomness, the result is mere chaotic buzz - the system simply dissipates into unbound energy that does no work. On the other hand, if, as in Newton's ideal, there is too much redundancy, the result will be ironbound rigidity - the wallpaper effect or something like the monotone of a stuck telephone signal that communicates nothing. Complex signal systems balance between these two extremes and are thus neither completely regular nor completely irregular. They exist far from equilibrium. Necessity and chance - or order and disorder - intermingle in them. They are essentially ambiguous, and the more complex a system is, the more unstable and innovative.

In effect, everything that we spoke of as weaving itself out of the random energy of the big bang is self-organizing or "autopoetic."(25)

And how does such self-organization proceed? Things maintain themselves in being - that is, order the disorder they devour - by using a standard code or protoalphabet that regulates their signals. The protoalphabet is analogous to a set of grammatical rules which generate, within limits, a wide variety of programs or messages. The code of the spiral DNA macromolecule discovered by Crick and Watson in 1955 is a good example. An "alphabet" consisting of four nucleotides forming three-letter "words" for 20 amino acids is arranged into "sentences" that will specify one of thousands of proteins necessary for organic life.

The implications? Information physics has returned us by a detour to a semiotic universe, a nature that - like the medieval sacramental universe - carries messages. The universe is a gigantic communications network, a complex circuitry of instructions - most of which we can barely decipher. Consequently, the gap between nature and human culture has narrowed considerably. We no longer need to carry the physicist's energy and the humanist's signs and symbols in separate accounts. One balance sheet will do.(26) The natural sciences, we may now say, do archeological digs into the primitive signs and protolanguages of atoms and DNA molecules; the humanities deal with the more developed sign systems and meanings of the animated star dust we call human cultures. An analogy of being is back in place - and will be more firmly in place with what follows.

D. Order Out of Chaos

The word "nature" (natura in Latin, physis in Greek) suggests birth and engendering the new - and as we saw at the outset, this sense of nature's promise was vital to a biblical (and especially a prophetic) cosmology. A classical deterministic physics seemingly put an end to this biologistic way of thinking. Newton focused on what physicists call "integral systems," stable, closed systems whose final state would not differ from its initial conditions. Psychological time - in which present and past differ from each other - was therefore viewed as a mirage. He thus gave us a science of dead things that recopy the same writing in the same atomic letters - and hence a frozen, unpromising world in which there could be nothing new under the sun.

As we just saw, however, the new, post-Einsteinian physics has begun to pay more attention to the nonlinear, erratic side of things - and with such phenomena we tacitly re-enter the eschatological universe of the Hebrew prophets. Along with molecular chemists and climatologists, physicists are now looking at systems of middle-range size and of some complexity which exist "far from equilibrium" - for instance, the galactic clustering of stars, the microscopic intertwining of blood vessels, or the shapes of clouds and lightning. This new focus has not only forced them to recognize how changes in larger wholes - of, say, a solar system, an atmosphere, an ecosystem, or a brain - can reorganize molecular and atomic structures (top-down causality); it has also given them new insight into how disorder functions in nature to give birth to more complex levels of organization. In this manner, physics at last has a way of understanding how some complex systems move uphill against the tide of entropy - to a future that is richer than their pasts. It has a handle, that is, on the evolutionary arrow of time.

Unlike the closed, linear systems examined by classical physics, which for the most part are found only in a laboratory, the new physics pays attention to nonlinear thermodynamic systems whose dynamics are marked by relative instability. Here the rule is that the outcome of the dynamic process is so sensitive to initial conditions that a minimal change in the situation at the beginning of the process results in a large difference at the end. Time counts, is intrinsic to the process. And so do small numbers count. A small imbalance in the particle-antiparticle ratio of the early universe, for example, leads to a cosmos of 50 billion galaxies and a habitable planet Earth. A small change in cholesterol content can produce disproportionately large changes in cell functioning. The flapping of a butterfly's wing in South Asia may alter the ensuing weather over San Francisco.(27)

Physicists call it complexity theory or, somewhat misleadingly, chaos theory. What they really have in mind is the germ of a new order that is present in near random activity - and which acts as "strange attractor" for the whole system. Complexity\chaos theory focuses on open systems that exchange lots of energy with their environment. Some of these systems, for instance dying stars, are wholly dissipative; entropy is dominant and they are wearing out. Others, like that nascent star near the constellation Aquila or the blue-green algae which first created a breathable atmosphere on planet Earth, are equally unstable, but exhibit an extraordinary feature: they break symmetry by flirting with the disorder or noise they constantly take in. And it is apparently this chaos in the system, a minor fluctuation at first, that triggers the emergence of an often beautiful and thoroughly unpredictable novelty that reorganizes the whole system and keeps it moving uphill, against the odds of dissipation and death.

That is, in some but not all instances, the minor fluctuation overcomes the weight of large numbers - and thus the redundancy - of the prior system and reorders it. The signal changes. And when this happens, the direction of the time arrow changes - from negative (degrading, aging, entropic) to positive (upgrading, complexifying, negentropic). Nature's story, then, is only partly grasped as one of determinism. Redundancy there is, but it is only part of the picture. The other, complementary part is the story of turbulence or fluctuation that begets continual metamorphosis. Irreversible time - a present and future that differs from the past - is thereby written into the fundamental script of nature.(28)

Examples of the eating habits of nonlinear, open systems abound in nature. The interstellar gas left over from the big bang in the course of time manufactured carbon and various organic compounds, and when supernovas exploded, their meteorites very likely bore these vital "waste products" to earth where they proceeded to convert the energy of the sun to new uses. To the sun, of course, the photons it casts off are waste, sheer noise; but to emerging blue-green algae, busy with the alchemy of photosynthesis, such waste is nutriment to be converted into information\organization. In turn the algae break down carbon dioxide and give off excess oxygen, again so far as the algae are concerned sheer waste, but the staff of life for emerging animal organisms. In sum, complex nature devours noise, and transforms its random nonsense into information or structure. In the case of the star this process directs thermonuclear operations, in the case of plant life it controls photosynthesis, and in animals it turns up as DNA code and enzyme production. Open systems are converters of random energy into order, the original self-organizing, alchemical agents.

The basic rules for such open energy systems seem to be that (1) they never give back energy in precisely the same form in which it has been taken in; (2) big numbers don't always win out; small numbers and minority reports matter; (3) it is precisely the ingestion of chaos or noise - an irregularity - that catalyzes a potentially new level of organization (a chance variation); (4) the more complex the system is, the more unstable and innovative it is. Are we describing nature's process of surprise, or that of human beings? It is difficult to tell. From the very beginning, nature, too, has been metamorphic, a technological transformer of raw energies into more diverse and complex organization. In short, there is plenty of prefigurative precedent in nature for changing water into wine, or bread and wine into one's body and blood.

So where does this put us cosmologically? It puts us, I think, in a universe that would have been familiar to the Hebrew prophets - one on the move, rich in possibility, rich in promise. The subjunctive mood has a secure place again in the nature of things. And paradoxically enough, it is all that turbulence and fluctuation in the cosmos that does this - that gives all of nature's maybe's and might be's a chance to become true. In its own tacit, latent way, it as if the universe dreams big, promises big, and stands fully behind human hope.

IV. The Anthropological Fallout

How do organisms - living systems - appear within the above perspective? First, an organism is an information and thermodynamic system, receiving, storing and giving off both energy and information in all its forms, from the light of the sun to the flow of food, oxygen, and heat passing through it. It is not at equilibrium, neither static nor homeostatic; as we said above, it is a vortex ferrying both order and disorder in a state of imbalance, and it tends to maintain this imbalance, struggling upriver against the entropic drift of decay. As the French philosopher of science Michel Serres puts it, "the organism is a barrier of braided links that leaks like a wicker basket but can still function as a dam. Better yet, it is a quasi-stable turbulence that a flow produces, the eddy closed in on itself for an instant which finds its balance in the middle of the current and appears to move upstream. ..."(29)


Second, an organism can be defined only in a global perspective; for the circulation of energy from the sun and the black depths of space is integral to its precarious balancing act. Indeed, without the great river of flux let loose by the big bang, there could be no eddy, no knot of bound and structured energy to push upstream. Indeed, this temporary knot of energy is woven out of all times. Embedded here is the whole vast evolution of its chemical elements, its genes, and their erratic variations. The nuclei of its carbon atoms were assembled inside a star that exploded long before the sun was born; and deeper still lie the quarks making up each proton and neutron of every atomic nucleus - quarks that were bound together when the universe was but a few seconds old. All times converge here. An organism, says Serres, is a "sheaf of times ... a bouquet of times."(30)

And what are we - we human organisms? Like the stars or the weather patterns of our atmosphere, we too are open thermodynamic "wicker baskets," quasi-stable turbulences in the field and flow of energy and information stretching back to the big bang. Indeed, as the most complex creatures that we know of in our region of space-time, we are the most unstable - and that means the most recycled. Though we cannot regrow major organs, we do regrow nearly everything else about our physical being constantly. Nothing in our genes was present a year ago. The tissue in our stomach renews itself weekly, the skin is shed monthly, and the liver regenerated every six weeks. Every moment, a portion of the body's trillions of atoms is dissipating to the world outside, and 98 percent of them are replaced annually. Each time we breathe, we take in a quadrillion atoms breathed by the rest of humanity within the last two weeks, and more than a million breathed by each person on Earth.(31) So much for the strictly bounded, separate individual!

Like other organisms, we cannot be defined except globally, indeed cosmically. As Lewis Thomas was fond of pointing out, without the huge swarm of plant chloroplasts and mitochondria swimming in our cells, we could neither breathe, move a muscle or think a thought.(32) Quite literally, of course, we are descendants of the stars, for without star factories to convert helium out of hydrogen, there would be no oxygen, carbon, or iron; and without these there would be no amino acids or proteins for life. Fifteen billion years of evolution, a proliferation of forms out of chaos, are inscribed in our bone marrow, in our nerves and tissue. Each of us is a distillation, a condensed centrifuge of cosmic energy. We may leak like a sieve, but we dam up the whole sidereal river.

Order, complexity, and arrangement on one side; chaos, noise, and disorder on the other - there is nothing that separates us structurally from a crystal, a plant, an animal, or the whole order of nature. Together, we struggle upward and drift toward death. And like the rest of nature both determined and riddled by chance, we too give signs, leave our mark or scrawl here. The poet can be at home in such a universe, for it is riddled with correspondences and parallels between the human and the nonhuman - a veritable gold field for mining metaphor.

Coming at the end of a vast chain of conversions of chancy energy, we are simply the final alchemists, the last transformers and interpreters, the ultimate black box of nature. We do not hear its thermal din - all the raucous noise random energy makes - because it is filtered out by the enormous chain of energy-converters that came before us. As Michel Serres says, "We are submerged to our neck, to our eyes, to our hair, in a furiously raging ocean. We are the voice of this hurricane, this thermal howl, and we do not even know it."(33)

V. The Fallout for Spirituality

How does one pray and act in such a setting? There are no dragons here, but it is awesome enough. A post-Einsteinian universe is unimaginably vast and ancient, is blessed with steadfast stability; still more remarkably it is also graced with process, self-organization, interconnection, communication, fluctuation, and openness. This is a universe whose fullness, diversity, promise, and risk simply dazzle. Given all that, it has to make a difference to our conception of God, our prayer life, our work and action. Let me spell this out - speaking out of faith. News from the Hubble Space Telescope or from a nuclear accelerator will not give you the interpretation that follows. Here, while building on the preceding analysis, I follow the news I get from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and from the depth probe of my soul's experience - which in the final analysis reaches farther than scientific apparatus into the secret design of things. I have four points to make regarding a basic question: What is all this cosmic circuitry for? What, if anything, is the message of the Ultimate Dispatcher?

1. A Big Enough God and the Spirituality of Ascent

Yes, the universe we have just surveyed is far different from the one Celtic Christians or Ignatius Loyola thought they dwelt within, but even more than theirs, it declares the glory of God. The grounds it gives for seeing "how God works ... in all created things, ... in the heavens, elements, plants, fruits, flocks" are staggering. For in a static, Ptolemaic "block universe," the Creator may very well seem like a boring old emperor. A post-Einsteinian universe, on the other hand, offers signs of grace and gives birth to diversity on a scale never dreamed of by our medieval ancestors. More than Ptolemy's tightly concentric cosmos, this is the world-in-movement of the Hebrew prophets - of a God who acts.(34) The sheer scale and immense generativity of the cosmos can serve the believer as an icon of the greatness, creativity, and generosity of the Holy One who breaks our boundaries, with whom we must stretch, whose "thoughts are not your thoughts" and whose ways are "as high as the heavens above the earth" (Isa. 55--59).

My first conclusion is that the kind of God we imagine ourselves in communion with cannot be a small tribal or household god, much less one confined to feeding hyperthyroid consumer desire. After all, if you were to condense the whole 15 billion-year evolution of the cosmos into one year, all of recorded human history would fit into no more than that year's last ten seconds! Humans are late-comers, still trying to hire on for a bit part in a very big, cosmic drama. But what is the play about? Only God knows - and there's the rub. For given the huge time scale and 50 billion galaxies, the Author of the script stands beyond reckoning, has to be big and unfathomable. Thus the Ur-Mystery we worship must be the Unnameable One\Ancient of Days of the mystics, of whom one can only speak negatively (not this, not that), a "wholly other," hidden God of Glory, of the tremendum et fascinans, of unsurpassable centripetal and centrifugal radiance. To use other than metaphorical language of such a God (i.e., to use literalistic, descriptive terms) is to lose our way. The nuclear generators we call stars provide signs, halting metaphor - no less for us than for Ignatius of Loyola.

But contemporary physics supplies other appropriate metaphors - metaphors that correct the impression (created in part by classical Newtonian physics) that the Holy One is a static "thing," a kind of remote, super spy satellite "way up there" orbiting Earth, that might be defined by a noun. No, transcendent Spirit - essentially verb, not noun - is better imagined as the Great Initial Conditioner and Ultimate Strange Attractor of this or any other universe, and hence as limitlessly charged energy, bonding force, vibrant field, and creative chaos - none of which, like wave-particles, can be pinned down and defined. Our Hebrew and early church ancestors knew this - that God is no idler but the great Energy Field in whom all creation lives and moves and has its being.

They also knew that this is the God of the rainbow covenant - and we must remember that. The God of our Scripture is primarily concerned with renewing - or re-membering - the whole of creation, and is not simply preoccupied with the human race. Redeeming the Israelites as a "light to the nations" ultimately serves a larger design, involving the whole cosmos. The Noah story is paradigmatic. In that mythical time out of time, after having almost repented of creation when, because of us, it went so haywire, God made the primordial rainbow covenant with earth, equivalently with all creation. "Never again will I curse the earth because of man," God said (Gen. 8:21). The covenant was not just with humankind but "also with every living creature to be found with [Noah], birds, cattle and every wild beast, every-thing that lives on the earth" (Gen. 9:10). Human redemption thus appears as a subordinate clause within the larger matrix of creation theology.

From the very beginning, the Unnameable wore many names - Brahman, Tao, Yahweh, No-Thingness, Unconquerable Sun, Allah, Grandfather Spirit, and so on. We keep dreaming them up. From the beginning - and continuously since - the Ultimate Strange Attractor overshadows random energy, breathes into what passes for established order and that peace which is no peace. The Strange Attractor stirs things up, is the Restless One.

Now I am revealing new things to you,
things hidden and unknown to you,
created just now, this very moment.
Of these things you have heard nothing until now,
so that you cannot say, "Oh yes, I know all this."
You had never heard,
you did not know,
I had not opened your ear beforehand.
(Isa. 48:6--9)

Yes, the Ruler of the Universe must be a God of order - and of beauty, subtlety and compassion beyond telling - but to square with the kind of universe we have just surveyed, the Holy One must also be one of "holy discontent" who manifests as fire and whirlwind, devouring lion and enemy, to disrupt and displace the reigning order of things. From the vantage of the putatively powerful, this can only look like Holy Terror, creating sheer chaos rather than planting the germ of a new order in the old. But so it is that the God of the whirlwind works to transform and make new - whether that be with self-organizing stars, planets, paramecia and species of finches, or with autopoetic emissaries like Moses, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and on down to Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Andre Sakharov.

God is Creator\Destroyer - a revolutionary. "Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look down upon the earth. The heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth wear out like a garment ... but my salvation shall last forever and my justice have no end" (Isa. 51:6). The Just God exhibits few signs of a restorationist mentality, looking back to some Edenic bliss. The movement is ever forward-thrusting - to the extent that, even in the Book of Revelation's vision of the end-time, God's last word is: "Now I am making the whole of creation new" (Rev. 21:5).

In terms of spiritual practice, then, the many-named Ur-Mystery we have just evoked demands distance from our small personalities. That is, it suggests the way of detachment and ascent from the busyness and chatter of earth, a strategic withdrawal, as it were, for later re-entry into the world. Solo flights of the "alone to the Alone," at least for beginners, are not recommended. A religious tradition, with creed, ethical code, and communal ritual comes to our aid here, mapping the territory of peak experience, providing guides and critics, setting our neural pathways to the frequency of the Creator's music - slowly. For, as all seasoned ascenders know - but individualistic Americans tend to forget - contact with the divine energy field can be "too much," can blow all your circuits. The challenge is to learn, step by step, how to stand such intensity, be a conduit for that energy and the big dreams it begets - without immediately dissipating it by breaking down under the burden of dashed hopes or flying off into bliss-out, outer space. A religious tradition, if it does its job, grounds us, and thereby enables Blessing to radiate earth.

The Source of the radiance is beyond all, far out, way up (metaphors that have as reference point the human body); here is the Lawgiver of Sinai's peak, Plato's Good, the Big Sky God of the ancient desert monks and holy women (for whom you needed a ladder of ascent), the supreme Beauty pursued up the chain of being in St. Bonaventure's classic itinerarium mentis in deum (the journey of the mind to God). Historically, this is the "wholly other" God of the mountaintop and far horizon, who has been imagined, at least in the West, primarily in masculine terms. "He" encourages a kind of top-down social order. As the Hebrew tradition's Abraham and Moses stories have it, the Holy One is the Aboriginal Dispatcher who calls us out from a settled life to find or create a new world. Classically, therefore, human spirituality is inward\upward that it may finally be outward-bound and world-changing. Moses is paradigmatic: When he glowingly descends the mountain, he brings a new code that will fashion together a people and take them to a land they had never previously imagined. He embodies God's imagination for the elements, for the world.

2. Pneumatology and a Spirituality of Descent

There is a more down-to-earth approach to the Author of the cosmic script. It might be called the way of descent or immanence, and it is picked up and embraced by the male seers of the Wisdom Books of the Hebrew Bible. "Alone," says the book of Sirach when it personifies the hidden Wisdom of God as female and giver of new birth, "I have made the circuit of the vault of heaven and have walked in the depths of the abyss. In the waves of the sea, in the whole earth, and in every people and nation ..." (Sir. 24:5--6). This is, of course, the wind-breath-sound that the Creator breathes forth into primordial, big bang chaos, the "gentle breeze" that walks with Adam and Eve in the garden, Elijah's "small, still voice," the Shekinah\Glory of the rabbis, the Advocate-Spirit that "blows where it will" through the Gospel of John, and of course, Gerard Manley Hopkins's Holy Ghost that "over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

This God sounds very different from the Roarer of Sinai who spits lightning and thunder. Serene and infinitely subtle, the metaphors are primarily feminine. She is first of all poet-muse, one who takes meaningless matter\energy and breathes meaning into it. She rejoices and dances - and so is to be found around hearth and full table, in laughter and, as the Song of Songs has it, in intense love trysts. In contrast to the commanding mountain-peak God who is obsessed with ethics and more familiar to top-down men, it turns out that, disguised as a thief in the night, the Aboriginal Dispatcher has entered the world secretly from below - ever so quietly, anonymously, and erotically. (There is more to Id than met Sigmund Freud's eyes.) Feminine wisdom identifies with groaning earth; "more mobile than any motion," she "pervades and penetrates all things" (Wis. 7:24). It's something to make the mountains clap their hands.

Women, I suspect, have always been especially sensitive to this path, a more bottom-up spirituality than the ascension approach preferred by men. The earth and all of nature, women know, is holy - made so by the fact that the First Poet "above and beyond" also moves in the atoms, in the "deep down freshness" of all dappled things. And hence it is this underground Current that women - and some men - try to tap into in their spiritual practice: in prayer, reading and retreats, wilderness trips and jogging, listening to classic jazz, Mozart, or Gregorian chant. It sometimes feels quite impersonal, this Current does - but it's like a vast cleansing river, bringing unaccountable love and forgiveness, enabling a new beginning. Fire and water at once.

But let me backtrack a bit and pull a few things together. A post-Einsteinian cosmos reconnects us - both men and women - with "the strength of heaven, light of the sun, radiance of moon, splendor of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind. ..." In contrast to the iron cage of classical physics, we can now understand ourselves as no longer alien intruders in the cosmos, but belonging. The universe's history, its groaning to give birth to something glorious, comes together in us, becomes conscious in us. The great outdoors is inside us, and we are its interiority, its cave of winds. Our adversary relationship to nature, then, is the hangover of the pernicious half-truths of a mechanistic era; it is no longer justified. We, too, like Ignatius and Francis of Assisi, are joined to nature at the hip. Indeed, our connection and belonging lie so deep that we cannot even define our identities without including - or should I say, paying grateful homage to - the whole great sweep of cosmic evolution. "I am that," we can now say with the Hindu Upanishads - star dust, earth stuff, a being literally conceived in far-off parts of the universe and seeded here on this planet to make a difference to the cosmos, to strike a chord, play a variation on the great themes of its music that has never been heard before. Before we ever babbled a word or took a step on our own, this truth and its challenge defines us.

It's as if all the star dust in our DNA, the microbes that swim in our cells, the humble algae that gave us a breathable atmosphere - yes, all of nature - were expectant, waiting on us to finish the cosmic symphony well (certainly with the injection of more than a little blues and jazz). "It was not for any fault on the part of creation," says St. Paul, "that it was unable to attain its purpose, it was made so by God; but creation still retains the hope of being freed, like us, from its slavery to decadence [entropy], to enjoy the same freedom and glory as the children of God. From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth ..." (Rom. 8:20--23).

We can now read this text, penetrate it, in light of complexity\chaos theory and the strong anthropic principle - and reread that principle itself not in a narrowly anthropocentric sense but as an intimation of the great design of which we are a part. We are members of the orchestra, the choir, in a great project, a "mystery hidden from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 13:35; Ps. 78.2; Col. 1:26; Eph. 1:9).

But what is that mysterious design, that great project? Try this children's story about a great experiment: The dizzy subatomic particle-waves spinning wildly out of the big bang didn't know what to make of themselves at first (no fault of theirs, God made them so), but the initial conditions were such that as they joined forces, split and joined again and again and again, corralling energy to form atoms, galactic clusters, molecules, chains of inorganic and organic compounds, simple life forms - and on and on to homo sapiens - they were implicitly carving out an inside, an interior to ferry and hold the energy of their Initial Conditioner - the message of the Aboriginal Dispatcher who set them loose in the first place and never ceases to sustain the diversifying process forward. From the very beginning, the trouble was that quarks, atomic nuclei, molecules, plants, and bacteria, as finely woven as they are, could contain only so much of the divine energy field. It came across like static; no clear message. They weren't up to it, didn't have sufficiently complex circuitry, to hear what this whole buzzing and proliferating confusion was about - the God-Sound in their midst. Animals were an enormous improvement, of course, but whatever they knew they couldn't say. Only with the emergence of the species homo sapiens did you have the complex hard wiring - nervous system and brain - that could possibly tune in to Cosmic Mind and thus become mindful of the meaning of things. In short, it took the atoms awake, mindful and free in us to begin to decipher the "mystery hidden from the foundation of the world."

Offspring of stars, children of earth, we are great mothering nature's soul-space, her heart and vocal chords - and her willingness, if we consent to it, to be spirited, to be the vessel of the Holy One. When we fail in this soul-work, nature fails\falls with us. But when it happens, when we say yes to the Spirit who hovers over our inner chaos, the mountains clap their hands, the hills leap like gazelles. They and the quarks have a big stake in us. Remember, though, to be patient: in the condensed astronomical time of a cosmic year, our species has only been around for a minute or two, and for much of that time we've been sleepwalking. Our cosmological task takes some waking up to, and getting used to.

Nonetheless, we represent a turning point for nature, and a turning point for the Great Dispatcher as well. Two significant events happen simultaneously, or converge, once humans emerge from the prebiotic soup. First, as the team of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas would say, consciousness or mindedness - of whatever fleeting sort - would not be there except for participation in the mindfulness of the Poet-Maker of all things. Darwinian evolution only explains our hard wiring, not how it is that we are aware or minded. Secondly, as I have said, consciousness is also nothing else than great nature more or less awake and reflective. That's a beginning; the spiritual task is to deepen our inwardness and, therewith, our imaginations. In this sense, we are nature's black box, her soul-space - and hence her last chance to become spirited, to be the vessel of God, the carrier of the message that all creation is not only "very good," but to be glorified. That's the script, the big drama.

3. Christology and the Dream of Earth

In light of the above perspective, spirituality - whether ascending or descending - acquires a new context. Spiritual practices, we have to understand, are not undertaken out of curiosity or for our exclusive private benefit; they are undertaken for the sake of registering in our bones the primordial rainbow covenant: All is blessed; nothing is to be lost. As the Mahayana Buddhists have it, the point - God's point, we would interject - is to save all sentient beings. For it is through cherishing them that we redeem the meaning of the inanimate universe that sustains and buzzes within them. As a species, one human race, we hold in our hands the fate of the cosmos. Man or woman, the trick is to learn how to open to the Spirit - to say with the earth-born virgin mother, "Be it done unto me according to your will." In short, let Spirit-Energy flow through our sieve-like, leaky baskets!

For me, the decisive clue to all that I have been developing in this last section is, of course, Jesus of Nazareth, God's anointed. He is the pattern for our lives, Christians are used to saying, and that is right. But given our individualism, this saying tends to have a narrowly anthropocentric focus. No, as Scripture testifies, Jesus has to be taken as prototype of our species, and better yet in cosmic-ecological terms, as the archetype of what the quarks and the molecules, from the beginning, were predestined to become - one resurrected body in and through the path he opened up. This is clearly how Paul of Tarsus thought of the matter.

He is the image of the unseen God
and the first-born of all creation,
for in him were created
all things in heaven and on earth:
...As he is the Beginning,
he was first to be born from the dead,
so that he should be first in every way;
because God wanted all perfection
to be found in him
and all things to be reconciled through him and for him,
everything in heaven and everything on earth ...
(Col. 1:15--20)

Who is Jesus of Nazareth? Born of woman and the Hebrew gene pool, Christians insist his life makes no sense unless we also understand him as primarily born and borne up by the Spirit's wind. He is earth-stuff doing the will of the Father of Mercies. The assertive (masculine) God of Sinai and the (feminine) Spirit of humble, earthen things intersect in him. Thus the church has viewed him not only as God's immanent Spirit\Wisdom personified but as heir of prophets, the itinerant preacher of good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the downtrodden, the jubilee year of the Lord's favor (Isa. 61:1--2; Luke 4:18--19). In hindsight, the church has also seen him as the axis of cosmic time, and the prefigural embodiment of our species-role: the carrier and vessel, the fleshing out of the Creator's great dream for the universe. He embodies the rainbow covenant, reveals what from the outset the Poet-Creator imagined for the profusion of quarks that over the course of 15 billions years would take the form of human beings. Our leaky sieves are to dam up more than a sidereal river.

Like us, Jesus is the cosmos become conscious; he provides it with soul-space. But in him the cosmos finally finds adequate soul-space, a cavern of interiority big enough to contain the fullness of divine love and compassion. (Unlike us, he isn't a shallow container; he doesn't babble nonsense or go haywire under the strain of the dawn that is trying to break through in our species.) The Torah, the big dreams of the Hebrew prophets, and the poetry of the Wisdom literature stand behind him, within him; Jesus is intelligible only within this lineage. He represents an intensification of what God has particularly chosen the people of Israel to meditate and mediate: the meaning of everything from quarks to cities; nothing is too small or big or unclean as not to merit passionate interest and attentive understanding. Through this son of Israel Christians discover that the Ur-Mystery lives in human blood, would act through us, speak through us - to a world (where today, fully a fifth of the planet's population is starving) desperate for justice.

The era of "lording over" another is declared at an end. The message is one of plenty, of abundant life for the impoverished and the broken, those who mourn and those who thirst for justice. The lowly of this earth are to be lifted up, brought into the story. "Blessed are the poor ... Blessed the gentle ... Blessed those who mourn ... Blessed those who hunger for justice ... Blessed the merciful ... the peacemakers ... the persecuted" (Matt. 5:3--10). Let all come into the big drama and be fed with what earth longs for and what the Father of Mercies desires to give - abundant life.

For those who followed him, it sounded as if the desire of the everlasting hills had at last surfaced in the throat of a man, and that in hearing him, they were listening to the voice of the Creator who would have the very atoms of their bodies leap in ecstasy. The primordial Word, they cheered, "was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory ... full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). A minority of one, a miniscule disturber of the field in first-century Palestine, would alter the course of history.

Notice what happens in the denouement - at Jesus' Passover supper. No theatrics, no magic, simply the highly charged, polyvalent symbolics of what a human body can contain and dispense. Two great movements converge in what Jesus shows us here - the everlasting desire of cosmic dust to mean something great and God's promise that it shall be so. Jesus, both conduit of Spirit-Energy and cosmic dust himself, freely but simply identifies with the fruits of earth - the ash of a dying star present in bread and wine - and converts these gifts of earth, the work of human hands, into another story than the nightmarish one we have been telling with them. On one level, you might say, he takes a form of matter\energy and, like any good poet, metamorphoses it, transmutes it, breathes new meaning into it. Inanimate earth-stuff is converted into a common table, a feast of unconditioned love and forgiveness - a sign that communicates plentiful, tangible grace.

Implicitly as well, this simple rite models a new polis - which the Book of Revelation, chapters 21 and 22, imagines as a wild New Jerusalem, a radiant Ancient of Days at center, inner city, emanating the river of life down Main Street. Certainly this is a big part of what is going on: the making over of earth into a charged symbol of what the Creator, from the beginning, imagined for star carbon to become - a truly human city that hums with Spirit-Energy. A great eschatological vision, surely, but how to embody it - let that sort of energy flow through us here and now?

We can go deeper. When Jesus says, "This is my body ... This is my blood," and, "Take and eat ... and drink," he is bidding us to take in, to discover in our own soul-space, the same Spirit that works in and through him. "Do this in memory of me," he commands. Equivalently, that is an invitation to remember ourselves, who we are and what we are here for. In effect he is saying that the great work of transfiguring earth stuff in accord with the Creator's dream is not his work but fundamentally the work of "the Father in heaven." "May they all be one," as John's Gospel has Jesus praying at the end. "Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you ..." (John 17:21). The Father\Creator gives himself away in Jesus, as He would give himself away in all of us.

Swallow this, Jesus effectively declares, I am God's promise for the elements, the exemplary inside of nature, its secret wish fulfilled. Assume my role. Swallow me and you will have taken in what God imagines for matter - that it be spirited and at peace. Swallow my words, let them resonate in the marrow of your bones, and you will tap into the same current of Spirit that moves me. We shall then be one body, matter and spirit reconciled. Come, he says, here is everlasting life - and the way, through an all-encompassing charity of God, to give birth to new music in the world.

It is against this background that the Easter liturgy's Exsultet proclaims, "Exult, all creation, in shining splendor ... Christ has conquered [the forces of death]." For in him the 15 billion year-long odyssey wherein great nature struggles to find its own voice and meaning as the Creator intended is proleptically fulfilled. Christ is that voice; star carbon and earth stuff that in him finds its purpose, its point - and, in the resurrection, its glory. That's the vision, however mediated, without which the universe is doomed to futility.

4. Converting Matter/Energy into Sacrament

The universe's bets are pinned on us. So, in a way, are the Creator's. We are the voice of nature - "the voice of this hurricane, this thermal howl." With this theme, we return to Steven Weinberg's pointless cosmos. It needn't be so. But often is, since from the perspective we have reached in these pages, when we fall, nature falls with us. Our spirituality is not simply what we do in church or in private meditation and reading good literature; it is also our daily work at plant and office.

Human history - what is it except the story of what we have made of matter\energy? Matter, Aristotle and Aquinas thought, is sheer potency, means nothing until it has been filtered through the human imagination. We know more clearly today that this is not quite true; the vast galaxies, the chancy subatomic underworld, the forests and the bacteria give their own signals, carry their own sets of internal instructions, have their own organizational agendas, and do magnificent work. But it remains true that at least on this spiral arm of the Milky Way it is we - the last in the great chain, the final transformers and interpreters - who voice nature's story, who are given the great chance to make tragedy and comedy of it all, make a mess of it or make something meaningful of it - by how we live, by what we do with our science and technology and cultures. Waste conversion alone is one of the major issues of our time - lest we turn the planet into a dump. The challenge is to recycle as the rest of nature does, turning chaos into new order. The stakes are high, the risks great.

My fourth conclusion: We are here to make sacraments of nature - signs that give grace, life, hope - whether in raising a family, educating children, running a corporation, governing a city, searching for a synthesis of all physics, or collecting garbage. All such activity takes nature's energy and transforms it, tries to pour soul into it, make poetry of it, a thing of beauty. Liturgy is the big clue: here we regularly take fossil fuels, stone, metals, silicon, water, fire, grain, grape, animal stuffs, air waves, and sound - indeed, as much of space-time as we can sensuously lay our hands on - and convert it into a gathering of voices, a ceremony of praise and thanksgiving. Material things are thereby made new. When liturgy works in us, we glimpse light in the darkness, Christ's transforming vision of earth and cosmos. It is a work that cannot be performed solo; it requires a congregation, do-good institutions, a nation, a global network.

In its own way, inanimate nature has been about this transforming work from the beginning - and now it's our turn, our chance at the job. This is, after all, an unfinished and possibly absurd universe. What have we made of our piece of it, the Earth, thus far? Look at the record, the bloody mayhem, the sound and fury, the widespread ruination of the environment. Yes, but notice the beauty too. What will we choose to make of our part of it in the time to come, in the time allotted to us? The mark, the stamp, the graffiti scrawl that individually and collectively we leave on earth by what we build up or tear down - here is our sign of what nature means. If nature's great tale is one of absurdity, if it is blessing or curse, it depends on us. No less than on the seventh day, it is we who name creation - who tell the quarks and the spinning atoms what they shall finally mean.

Notes

1. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1933), 216

2. For the world in which a medieval person - and presumably Ignatius Loyola - dwelt, see Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988 [1965]), 76--77.

3. For the distinction between the modern and premodern sense of cosmology, see Stephen Toulmin, "Cosmology as Science and as Religion" in Leroy S. Rouner, ed., On Nature (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 28. For an overview of theology's relation to science, see Ernan McMullin, "How Should Cosmology Relate to Theology?" in Arthur R. Peacocke, ed., The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1981), 17--57.

4. Timothy Ferris explains the strict limits of a "theory of everything" in "On the Edge of Chaos" in The New York Review of Books, Sept. 21, 1995, 40.

5. Arthur R. Peacock has clarified these two directions of causality in Creation and the World of Science (Oxford University Press, 1979), and again in God and the New Biology (London: Dent, 1986).

6. Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 172--73.

7. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Heinemann, 1986), 126.

8. Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes, updated ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 154.

9. John Polkinghorne, Science and God's Providence: God's Interaction with the World (Boston: Shambala, 1989), 35.

10. For Newton's science and its cultural impact, see Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1988), 104--22. Also Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature (New York: Bantam, 1984), 27--99.

11. Democracy in America (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1969), 508.

12. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1951), 8 et passim.

13. See Oliver Revault D'Allones, Musical Variations of Jewish Thought (New York: George Braziller, 1984), 67

14. Cited in Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 116--19.

15. Jantsch, The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution(New York: Pergamon, 1980), 8.

16. Ibid

17. For this line of thought, see Michel Serres, "Turner Translates Carnot" in Hermes: Literature, Science and Philosophy, ed. Josue V. Harari and David F. Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 54--62.

18. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam, 1988), 36--39.

19. See Ian G. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (San Francsico: Harper & Row, 1990), 28--40.

20. Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 141. Cf. 132--40.

21. Cf. John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). For a discussion of its theological implications, see John F. Haught, Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1995), 120--41.

22. Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 124.

23. Ibid., 55

24. For a clear account of information physics, see Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language and Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982).

25. The term "autopoesis" was developed by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in 1973. See Jantsch, Self-Organizing Universe, 29--41.

26. See Michel Serres, "The Origin of Language: Biology, Information Theory and Thermodynamics" in Hermes, 71--83.

27. For an intelligible account, see James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Viking, 1987). For discussions of the theological implications, see Robert John Russel, Nancey Murphy and Arthur R. Peacocke, eds., Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Berkeley: Vatican Observatory\Center of Theology and the Natural Sciences, 1995).

28. See Prigogine and Stengers, Order Out of Chaos, 131--209, 213--32.

29. Serres, Hermes}, 75.

30. Serres, Ibid.

31. See Larry Dossey, Space, Time and Medicine (Boulder, Co.: Shambala, 1982), 72--81.

32. Thomas, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (New York: Bantam, 1975), 2ff.

33. Serres, Hermes, 75.

34. For a subtle account of God's action in the universe at the subatomic level, see Nancey Murphy, "Divine Action in the Natural Order: Buridan's Ass and Schrodinger's Cat" in Chaos and Complexity, 1995, cited above.

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