The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
September 2014 – Vol. 17 Issue 7
Many years ago, spending the school vacation in the country, I used to stand at the window of the old carriage house and look out on an abandoned olive orchard on the chance of seeing a rare bird, a cottontail, or even a coyote, for the place teemed with wildlife. But one day I saw a large brown spider in the act of building its huge web across the windowpane. It had already laid in the ribs or spans and the outer edge, and was now starting to fill in the marvelous mesh of cross weaving. This was a priceless opportunity for observing the small architect at work at close hand, with only the thickness of the glass between us. I stood there entranced.
Without haste, without rest, the spider moved in its spiral path, spanning the gaps between its guy-ropes, pausing only long enough on each to make fast its silken thread, then on to the next, in a rhythm precise yet fluidic. Eventually it would come to rest in its self-created universe. Young as I was, I was deeply impressed because it seemed to me that the busy creature worked as if guided by an unseen intelligence.
The spider – enigmatical, silent, peculiarly alone – has always been intriguing to the imagination. It, with its web, figures in the creation myths of various times and peoples, perhaps because of its very self-sufficiency, building its home and means of livelihood out of the substance of its own body. The web itself, with its symmetry, lures the thought to the mystery of genesis when "the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Then the Word sounded through the universal void, and the worlds came into being. In The Secret Doctrine’s Stanzas of Dzyan, the coming into being of a universe is given this symbolism: “Father-Mother spin a web whose upper end is fastened to Spirit . . . and the lower one to Matter; . . . and this web is the Universe spun out of the two substances made in one.” So the web is used to signify the world stuff or atoms in the primordial condition of cosmic birth. When the web expands, the universe comes into being: when it contracts, the beings pulsating with life feel the end of their cycle, "return into their mother's bosom at the end of the 'Great Day' and rebecome one with her."
Among the American Indians the identical legend exists, in essentials, having been handed down from generation to generation over thousands of years. With the Hopis, it is "Spider-woman" who, inspired by Tiowa, the Primeval One, fashions the worlds, skies, oceans – and finally mankind – out of her own "milky substance." She builds the worlds and creatures from her own world-stuff. We could postulate that when God went to work on the new Creation he found materials ready to his hand in the vast storehouse of the Formless, the Unmanifest; matter from the last indrawing, but preserved in the subjective worlds until the thrill of life was again felt and the atoms responded to another out-breathing of their "Creator."
As for ourselves, the infinitesimals of this present universe: are we in our turn self-wrought weavers and spinners? Where do our deeds, and therefore our characters, originate? They have their gestation in our own consciousness – the Unconscious, which is the subjective memory of ages of experience. In response to the play of circumstance in our daily lives, what we are comes to the surface in thought and desire, having birth at last in action, all the while we are literally drawing from within ourselves the substance that becomes the outer expression of our character – the components of our own particular world or universe. This process is a copy in miniature of what is taking place in the greater cosmos. In this way we are the heirs of ourselves, the weavers and the dreamers of dreams, indeed.
Something of this has occurred to a poet or two. In a letter of 19th February, 1818, John Keats wrote: “Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel – the points of leaves and twigs on which the spider begins her work are few, and she fills the air with a beautiful circuiting. Man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine Web of his Soul, and weave a tapestry empyrean full of symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wandering, of distinctness for his luxury.”
And Walt Whitman surely had in mind the silent wonder of a spider projecting its web when he wrote:
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
There comes a time when the spider's web is spun to a finish – but thought is born, and lives on. – Madeline Clark
"A new type of thinking is essential, if mankind is to survive and move to ever higher levels of living." – Albert Einstein
There is no reason to expect a physicist to be a percep-tive philosopher or wise religionist. Still, Einstein stood for a time on the highest eminence of scientific knowledge. What, then, did he regard of supreme importance in human experi-ence, in understanding our universe? What were his guiding values? Einstein describes his own experience of religion as “an intoxicated joy and amazement at the beauty and gran-deur of this world of which man can form just a faint notion.” For “the most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, he who cannot wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, mani-festing itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
On another occasion he saw in the cosmic religious experience "the strongest mainspring of scientific research." He believed that a major purpose of science is to feed and interpret that mystical feeling for the cosmos. The scientist’s work can be properly done only in a spirit of devotion, for his is fundamentally a religious task: seeking to understand and interpret the nature of reality. The scientist has to be ready to labor in spite of failure, to construct his thinking on the best evidence that is available, and still be ready to forsake hard and fast conclusions when growing truth pushes against him. As Einstein put it, "He must humble himself, saying 'I am nothing, but truth is everything.'"
Einstein did not talk much about God, yet there was a profound reverence in him which had nothing to do with a personal God. Actually, he felt belief in an anthropomorphic God has obstructed rather than aided the development of true religion. “The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and science lies in this concept of a personal God. . . . During the youthful period of man's spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man's own image. . . . Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favor by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old conception of the gods.”
After Einstein's general theory of relativity was announced in 1915, Boston's Cardinal O'Connell thundered that the theory "cloaked a ghastly apparition of atheism befogged speculation, producing universal doubt about God and His Creation." A little later, when a New York rabbi sent him a five-word telegram – "Do you believe in God?" – Einstein replied: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings." Elsewhere he made clear what he meant: “In their struggle for ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task.”
The ethical focus is thus humanistic, but the religious focus is less on the person than on the cosmos, for there ultimate reality is to be found and revered. Like other far-seeing men, he felt that moment-to-moment existence dominated by ever-changing hopes and wishes is a chain that one should try to cast off to free oneself for contemplation of the world "that stands before us like a great eternal riddle." There one could "place the center of gravity of his emotional life and find the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow confines of swirling personal experience."
Here was the foundation of Einstein's belief as well as unbelief. He swept aside established religious authority of all kinds which came between the human mind and the cosmos of which he is part and product. In one letter he wrote, "I am a deeply religious unbeliever." His rejection of religious authority (which constituted atheism to Cardinal O'Connell) falls a good deal short of placing him in the camp of the atheists: "What separates me from most so-called Free-Thinkers is my feeling of utter humility towards the unattained secrets and harmony of the cosmos." His mind was too open and questing, his spirit too modest, to assume any dogmatic stance either affirming or denying the nature of ultimate reality.