Unification News for

April 1998


What Does Academics Have To Do With God?

by Martin Herbst-Barrytown NY

This is the first in a series of three articles.

Consider the passage in the Bible describing Jacobís enlightening experience at Bethel. Here Jacob dreams about a ladder extending from earth and into heaven. I find this story very meaningful for it indicates that there exists a continuum between the earthly realm and the heavenly, between the human dimension and the divine. From this perspective it seems that there is a connection between the world of academics and the experience of God. The ladder in the story is placed on earth but leads step by step into heaven. Similarly the academic life is rooted in the earthly realm but can guide us towards God if we have the courage to take the right steps. It is as individuals we climb a ladder. Likewise, it is every person himself who is responsible to begin this journey to connect his earthly reality with God. As indicated in the story when you begin to see this connection you will be assisted by angels.

There are however many people who find it hard to see affinities between academic life and God. Like Jacob they are unaware of how close God often is. Countless are the stories where people lose their faith when they begin to study it. I once had a friend in Denmark. He was the son of a minister and decided to follow in his fatherís footsteps. So he began to study theology. After he had been study for about half a year I met him again. When I asked him about his studies he replied that he had left the school and was now receiving psychiatric treatment. He had lost faith in God and blamed it all on the school. Afterwards I couldnít help but think: "What on earth are they doing to people in there?"

All of us know that it is a real challenge to harmonize studies with a living relationship to God-to experience God genuinely while we study. There are people who regard a personal relationship to God and a possible future mission as an opposite of the academic life-as if there is, or ought to be, enmity between the house of learning and the house of God. This viewpoint can draw much support from the tradition of Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and the Niebuhrs, where God is seen as the transcendent "wholly other." In this line of thought there is a constant awareness of oneís sin and a rather pessimistic view of the human condition. We are rescued only because of the magnificent grace of God. Although God is transcendent, an atmosphere of judgment is immanent, for there is always a considerable distance between the ideal and reality, between our words and deeds.

A student adhering too strictly to this line of thought faces several pitfalls. First, there is the danger that he will never really take his studies seriously. So afraid of being contaminated by a million points of view, he hides in his armor of faith and marches through the academic years with his eyes fixed on the little light at the end of the tunnel beyond which he hopes to meet God. His spiritual life is marked by a dryness which further proves to him how detrimental to a living faith the academic world is. He does not expect to meet God in the books and surely never does. He might even feel guilty when he studies. And since studies are viewed as a necessary evil he often cheats for it doesnít really count if you cheat the devil, does it? Finally he passes his insights and experiences on to others who recognize the truthfulness of his testimony.

On the other side of the spectrum we find people who joyfully have made it their habit to equate Godís will with their own doings. They solely emphasize Godís immanence. Such a person has of course managed to escape from the "terrible day of the Lord," but there is a danger that he will tolerate just about anything. Gone is the reflection upon my own sinfulness and with this the awareness of the distance between God and myself. From being the "wholly other" God is transformed to become the "wholly me." The transcendence of God is substituted for His immanence and His immanence for me, myself. Since we are all gods, why point out each otherís mistakes? As gods we are probably beyond good and evil altogether, and have undoubtedly eons of time both behind and ahead of us. This viewpoint can find much support in the more liberal branches of Christianity with representatives such as Schleiermacher, various modern theologians and the so-called New Age Movement inspired by Oriental philosophy.

I myself prefer a middle position between these two viewpoints. On the one hand, we must always strive toward the will of God which embraces the entire cosmos. But this striving must simultaneously become a striving inward for the will of God must be found not out there but in here. It is within our hearts that the living God dwells. Each of us must locate the will of God within ourselves and then charge forward into the world at large. God is in other words both transcendent and immanent. In this story about Jacobís dream, God presumably resides in heaven at the end of the ladder. But interestingly, He is right next to Jacob all the time, speaking to him. God is both "up there" and "right here." His transcendence does in no way compromise His immanence. The same holds true for you and me. It is an amazing little story, donít you think?

Because the almighty God dwells within your heart, you owe it to God to humbly listen to His own voice within. To follow your own intuitions, your own conscience. Not to follow oneís own intuition and conscience is also a form of disobedience. But because God and the will of God embraces the whole cosmos, I can never make my own individual feelings the final standard of reference. We need to be aware of the difference between Godís heart and will for the whole world on the one hand, and my own life on the other. By being aware of the distance between the larger whole and me, myself, I can begin to close the gap. Like Jacob we can begin to climb the ladder until we can see the purpose of the whole even in the smallest detail. The goal, I think, is to live in such a way as to invite the whole cosmos into our living room, into our marriage, into our life, and to receive its wholehearted applause. To love my wife as if she represented all women, to love every person as if he represented God. The art of building this bridge between the private and public dimensions of a life of faith is, I believe, the meaning of a religious way of life.

1) Faith

Faith is the essence of the religious life. In order to experience the living God, we must rely on something beyond our own rational mind. We must trust in things we cannot verify by direct observation. We are expected to rely on the statements of people who have gone before us. Often we have no way of knowing if what we believe in is indeed true, but as we walk the way of trust, we sense from practical experiences what is healthy and conducive to our spiritual growth and the well-being of the religious community we are part of.

Similar observations can be made with regard to studies in general. One of the first things that struck me when I began to study the hard sciences was how much data I had to remember by heart without ever asking a question. At least at my modest level I have no way of checking whether the so-called mathematical and physical constants are indeed what they are proclaimed to be. I was not there 15 billion years ago when God had had enough of His silence. I have no way of checking out if it is true that the faculty of vision is located in the "occipital lobe" and not somewhere else in the brain. Or if an "action potential" in the nerve is conditioned by the charge of sodium ions, as I have been told. Or if there are 200 billion galaxies in the universe and not 350 billion. I was not there at the Battle of Saratoga in-was it?-1776. And I have almost forgotten if the periodic table to elements consists of 91, 92 or 93 names-or did we discover some new elements recently? All I know is that without this basic trust I have no way to go forward. At least for now I must accept many formulas and opinions which are bound to be outdated or revised in a number of years.

Without this rather remarkable trust in the scientific community and our educational institutions, I would probably be considered paranoid or fanatic! I would be diagnosed as a person who suffers from a rare case of "trust-phobia" and be turned over to a group of people who have made it their living to study deviant behavior.

Paradoxically, it is especially in the hard sciences such as mathematics and physics that the demand to accept absolutes is most obviously pronounced. The basic physical laws are regarded as immutable, absolute and beyond time and space. With all respect for the many atheistic scientists, I still want to express my sincere suspicion that many of them unknowingly satisfy a deep need for faith by remaining loyal to their own academic disciplines.

The faith we are trained to display in one area of life can easily be transmitted to another area. Just as the trust in our earthly parents can prepare us well for the subsequent faith in our heavenly parent, likewise faith in people who have gone before us or are ahead of us can help us to a deeper relationship with God. Faith is essential whether we want to encounter the divine or the human. Without faith where would we be, anyway?

One of the reasons why it was so difficult for people 400 years ago to accept Copernicusí new model of the solar system was that it went against common sense as they had known it. Picture yourself 400 years ago in the shoes of some grandmother or farmer. Perhaps their conversation would have gone something like this: "If the earth as they say is round, then why donít we fall off?" "Yes, and if it is spinning around at 300 meters per second, then why canít we feel this motion? The corn looks pretty steady today." How would you have reacted to these new ideas? But someone followed an inner voice and step by step more evidence supported this vision of the "new heaven and new earth."

2) Mind-Body Unity

Although faith is the beginning it is certainly not the end. However much we believe in the Word of God, if we fail to practice it our lives will be dull. Dull and boring. Actions must match words. It is commonly believed that God dwells in our minds and hearts, but I think it is more correct to say that God dwells in the point within us where our mind and body meet and become one. No one but you yourself can feel where that sacred place is. What I am trying to illustrate is that to resonate with God we must take after him. In the Bible it says that God answers the prayers of a righteous man. Why not any man? The reason is that God can only reciprocate with somebody who is like Him, harmonized in words and deeds. And this takes sacrifice and discipline.

It is precisely in this unity between mind and body that the universal and abstract ideas become individualized and specific. Out of a million different possibilities that roam around in your head, you have to choose the one and only. Formulate it with your mouth or write it with your hand. Manifest it with your being. It is in this process of deciding and choosing that you become a creator. When this happens we find ourselves in the presence of truth, the presence of judgment, the presence of a new creative act with unending potential.

I am sure you can recognize the similarities between the efforts to unite mind and body in a religious context and the discipline it takes to meet the requirements of almost any academic course. I choose to see a deep spiritual significance in trying my best as a student whatever that means at my modest level. Instead of looking upon examinations, the grading system and assignments as elements that add misery to life, utilize them to further your own spiritual growth. A life with God does not begin after graduation in some remote place untouched by human civilization. It is here and now or never and nowhere. But what about courses we find meaningless or topics or teachers we even hate, for that matter? Challenge yourself to find ways to like them anyway. Be creative within yourself. After all, as believers it is our highest ideal to take after Christ and embrace our enemies with both love and sacrifice, isnít it? Perhaps by practicing the above you will turn your worst enemies into your best friends. Now that would be something, wouldnít it? Sometimes God prefers to work in mysterious ways, and please let him.

All the great religions emphasize the value of sacrifice and the power of the spirit to conquer the environment. The same applies in the realm of science. Who doesnít respect scientists like Albert Einstein who worked day and night guided by an inner intuition? Or Thomas Edison, who expressed that "genius consists of 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration"? Donít beg God to turn your stones into soft loaves of bread. Instead, see in the stones opportunities to demonstrate your own creativity. Then miraculously they will become as bread, nurturing your spiritual growth. God is already victorious. But as a parent He wants you as His beloved child to take after Him. Each one of us has to fight our own fight and taste the joy of our own victory. It is as you have guessed a battle fought within, a victory won in your own heart and then manifested without. In this fight you are both the villain and the hero, but goodness will reign in the end, be certain about that. All this requires discipline, endurance and a great deal of honesty.

Paradoxically, to experience this battle to harmonize mind and body is one of the key conditions to achieve true peace of mind! All of us want to be peaceful and are attracted to people who display peace of mind. There are however two kinds of peace: true peace and false peace. Occasionally I have had the experience of meeting a person who seemed very peaceful. His tone of voice, his movements, his expressions: everything seemed so peaceful and relaxed. However, I had a problem: something was missing. His peacefulness did not seem attractive to me-rather, it repelled me. I am sure you have made similar observations. There is a vast difference between pseudo-peace which we experience when we avoid a conflict or simply give up and the kind of peace that comes after you have been in the ring, after you have confronted the falseness in yourself and lived through the fight. To take up that fight in a disciplined way and to harmonize the mind-body relationship is essential both in the classroom and in the prayer room. 

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