A significant part of my spiritual practice involves exploring the tension of opposites – learning to create and grow in the space between polarities without feeling obligated to choose one over the other as my truth. Immanent or transcendent? Both. Embodied or abstract? Depends on the context. Intellectual or spiritual? Yes, please.
My panentheistic view of divinity means that I find truth, wisdom, and spiritual insight in the manifest universe, how it works, and the principles that underlie its transformation. This makes my spiritual worldview embodied, in the sense that the divine is found in my body, in the bodies of those I meet, and in the cosmos as the body of God. It also brings sacred meaning to intellectual pursuit and development.
The nature of the divine isn’t reducible to a single math equation or mechanical model; for those of us who find inspiration in a truth offered by one of the sciences, a key challenge is extrapolating personal meaning from that truth while avoiding overgeneralization in our attempts to make our personal truths universal. I’m not an absolute relativist, but context shapes understanding and different people may experience similar teachings differently just as they respond to and need different truths to connect with Spirit in their own way.
That caveat established, some of the most powerful insights I’ve experienced about my self, my growth, and my experiences have come from meditation upon cycles and transformations that exist in nature. Two of the books I’ve read in the past year that had the greatest impact on my spiritual development weren’t traditional devotional or theological texts; Sacred Balance was written by a geneticist and Seven Life Lessons from Chaos was co-authored by a physicist. When my family watched Neil deGrasse Tyson zoom about in his little spaceship on Cosmos, telling stories about the emergence of new scientific concepts throughout history, his sense of wonder and awe were obvious and contagious.
The social sciences and humanities aren’t without that sense of wonder, either. I’ve often felt that the years I spent finishing my undergraduate degree, in a small, close-knit, and vibrant academic department, were some of the most spiritually transformative of my life. Then and now, few things are as enthralling for me as watching a brilliant scholar whose field is their passion alight with intensity as they share ideas until they very well glow with enthusiasm. Even “dry” academic texts transmit greater truths. A recent read of a survey of research on social cognition sparked dozens of light-bulb moments for me in terms of my understanding of the development of new religious movements and resistance from established movements, as well as greater self-awareness of the kinds of schemata that inform my own encounters with new spiritual and theological ideas. I filled pages in my personal journal with ideas for further exploration.
Seeing the embodied universe as sacred makes intellectual curiosity a holy act, which shapes how we approach that curiosity – the questions we ask, the solutions we seek, and the ways we apply our understanding. Thomas Berry, in The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, says that “we misconceive our role if we consider that our historical mission is to ‘civilize’ or to ‘domesticate’ the planet, as though wildness is something destructive rather than the ultimate creative modality of any form of earthly being.” Research that seeks to dominate that which it studies is engaging in hierarchical control forms, not in practical wonder that seeks embodied solutions and knowledge creation.
In Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, Vandana Shiva explores the patriarchal history of the way we do modern science, noting that Bacon’s experimental method was “not a neutral, ‘objective,’ ‘scientific’ method – it was a masculine mode of aggression against nature and domination over women.” Her critique continues: “This transformation of nature from a living, nurturing mother to inert, dead and manipulable matter was eminently suited to the exploitation imperative of growing capitalism.” And later: “Reductionism, far from being an epistemological accident, is a response to the needs of a particular form of economic and political organization.”
Sallie McFague is gentler in her treatment of reductionist physical models in The Body of God: An Ecological Theology:
We can accept reductionism as a successful model of research… and, at the same time, opt for the holistic, organic view as the picture of reality or metaphysics with which theology should be in conversation. A holistic metaphysic can include the research methods of reductionism as well as its insistence on the primacy of matter, whereas a reductionist metaphysic cannot include the multileveled complexity and diversity of holism in any way except to reduce the whole to its parts.
Reductionism breeds mastery and pieces of knowledge; holism knits them together with threads of complexity, interdependence, and wonder.
I’m still learning how to knit these threads. Sometimes, I do so with the tight, precise stitches of academic study and critical reflection; other times I do so with the loosest of weaves, dancing between theology, personal narrative, myth, metaphysics, and ecstatic mysticism in my everyday language as if there were no divisions, no binding categories of speech or cognition. It’s a work in progress. I’m a work in progress.
For now, I call out to the Divine for the wisdom to integrate insights, the discernment to know destructive and oppressive beliefs from those that heal and uplift, and the continued energy and passion to fuel the kind of journey that my seeking heart and rainforest mind crave.
Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn;
you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further
and further in our pursuit of the truth…
Blessed be you, impenetrable matter: you who, interposed between our minds and the
world of essences, cause us to languish with the desire to pierce through the seamless
veil of phenomena. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in Hymn of the Universe
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She is a graduate student whose current liberal studies program has focused on religion and social justice. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, priestess, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests include spirituality, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.
Categories: Earth-based spirituality