Book Reviews

Would You Believe? Finding God without Losing Your Mind by Tom Harpur, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, Canada, 2000; 236 pages, ISBN 0771039476, paperback, $15.95.

Formerly an Anglican priest and seminary professor in New Testament Greek, Tom Harpur is currently religion editor for the Toronto Star. His book opens a broader perspective for those, particularly from a Christian background, who for various reasons feel estranged from the spiritual. Published in hardback as The Thinking Person's Guide to God (1996), it grew out of his request at the end of a newspaper column for "readers who would like to have a vital faith in God (regardless of denomination or religion) but honestly cannot because of some question, doubt or other difficulty" to "write briefly stating what the block seems to be."

Scores wrote in from all over Canada, most letters falling under about a dozen categories which he addresses. He responds to writers' concerns on such issues as belief in God or miracles as unscientific, worship as unnecessary, hypocrisy of religion and religionists, guilt, negative childhood experiences, religious institutions' hostility to women, life after death, Jesus as the only way, the Bible as the Word of God, creeds, and pain, suffering, and evil. He also discusses cosmic consciousness, the role of dreams, and raising children with spiritual values. His comments are not dogmatic, and represent a fellow searcher's thoughts and struggles with religion today. A Christian who is drawn towards spirituality rather than churchianity, he believes there are many paths to truth inside and outside particular faiths.

The opening chapters on his own beliefs and concerns are particularly thought-provoking. Stressing the importance of both reason and intuition, he maintains that faith, while transcending reason, should not contradict it. He cites the Cambridge Platonists as an example of this approach within the Anglican tradition. For Harpur, God is a spiritual Presence not only in the universe and nature, but also within each person. Answers over millennia to the imperative question, "If such a God exists in and through and behind and over all things, what is my relationship to this Reality and what does he want me to be or do?" (p. 35), have resulted, he believes, in a perennial wisdom tradition found worldwide. The author's own conclusion: "If you and I recognize our oneness with God and with the whole creation, including not just all other human beings but the animals, the earth and all that is in it or in the heavens around it, it follows that our guiding ethic must be an all-encompassing compassion" (p. 39). Thus, compassion and justice are the core of ethics which "flows out of the heart of the universe itself" (pp. 40-1), and the Golden Rule and nonviolence are the guiding principles by which we need to live. -- Sarah Belle Dougherty

God at 2000 edited by Marcus Borg and Ross Mackenzie, Morehouse Publishers, Harrisburg, PA, 2000; 163 pages, ISBN 0819218588, hardback, $20.00.

In February 2000 the first major U.S. conference on God to feature Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim speakers was held at Oregon State University, with participation from viewers at satellite television download sites around the United States and audio and video webcasts on the Internet worldwide. The panelists -- Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, Joan Chittister, Diana Eck, Lawrence Kushner, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Desmond Tutu -- were asked to address from a personal perspective "How I see God or the sacred," as well as the question "From your lifetime of study, reflection, and experience, what have you learned about God or the sacred that seems most important to you?" The result is enlightening and truthful accounts of personal explorations and discoveries.

The talks are both individual and wide-ranging, and the final conversation among all the speakers absorbing. To comment briefly on just two of the six presentations: Diana Eck, Methodist and Professor of Comparative Religions and Indian Studies at Harvard University, asks us to reflect on how people's religious thinking changes when they experience peoples of other faiths as neighbors, rather than as distant abstractions. Her advice is to meet and work together with our neighbors of different faiths, learning to know them as people, engaging them in dialogue to learn from them what they believe and to challenge each other to examine our own beliefs more deeply. In his talk, "An Ocean of God: The Interconnectedness of All Being," Rabbi Kushner stressed that life is permeated with meaning because of this underlying unity, which is what Jews mean when they say God is One. Using another metaphor, God is the Nothing from which all separation arose and which permeates and encompasses all creation. If God is the ocean, we are the waves, so that in describing our relation to God we can say, paradoxically, that we are "not one, not two." When answering a question about similarities and differences among religions, he asks us to

Imagine that there is an arbitrary finite number of great religious ideas. You have to think about what happens when you die. You need to know how to make atonement. You have got to be aware of the presence of the Creator. Let's say there are fifty-two of these ideas. A deck of cards. All religions are playing with a full deck. The only difference between the religions is the way the deck is stacked. If you are an orthodox Christian the first card is that you are guilty, and that you need help right away. Jews have that card, but it comes up number ten. For Jews, the top card is, What is God wanting me to do now? Orthodox Christians have got that card too, but in a different place. -- pp. 56-7

Participants stressed the integrity of each tradition as well as the need to see other faiths as valid approaches from which we can learn. In this process differences are as important as similarities, and should not be glossed over to create a lowest-common-denominator spiritual amal- gam. Hopefully this conference represents the first of many further dialogues, perhaps in time including participants from a wider range of the world's traditions. As an initiative from within the Christian community, however, it indicates the real possibility that Christianity may find a way to accept itself as one of the world's great religions, rather than feeling invalid if it is not the only true religion.

In his epilogue Dr. Borg brings out three points of agreement that emerged in the presentations. First, that God or the sacred is beyond all words, concepts, and images; not "a being," but "a nonmaterial layer or level or dimension of reality that both permeates everything and at the same time is more than everything." Second, that "religious traditions are pointers to the sacred, as well as worlds within which to live." Third, that the "central ethical value flowing from this way of thinking about God is compassion. Compassion is the core value or ethical paradigm of the life that takes God seriously" (p. 159). -- Sarah Belle Dougherty

The Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything by K. C. Cole, Harcourt, Inc., 2001; 274 pages, ISBN 015100398x, hardcover, $24.00.

"Most cosmologists . . . agree that the universe must come from somewhere, and that nothing is the leading candidate. -- Dennis Overbye, New York Times, May 22, 2001

Have you wanted to get a handle on scientific theories of primordial beginnings? The big bang, inflationary theory, string theories, M- or Brane theory, quantum theory -- all have their roots in the so-called theory of nothing. A professor of science, society, and communication, K. C. Cole teaches at UCLA and writes an entertaining biweekly science column for the Los Angeles Times, "Mind Over Matter." Her engaging style and deft use of metaphor make her latest book a comfortable seat for the general reader in the theater of contemporary cosmology. She portrays and elucidates the ideas of a consummate cast of scientific luminaries: "magical" mathematician Martin Gardner, Columbia University's best-selling author/physicist Brian Greene, MIT's inflationary theorist Alan Guth, cosmologist Stephen Hawking, Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman, Edward Witten, "the pope of string theory," et al. Considering this group, K. C. Cole quips: "Forget star-studded nights. (Most cosmologists never look up.) It's the power of ideas that strike them dumb."

A quick glance at her table of contents lets you know nothing occupies her mind. What is this nothing that some of the world's finest minds are filled with?

Nothing can also be hard to grasp because it so easily masquerades as something, and vice versa. The motion of a car cruising along at 70 mph seems like nothing if you're sitting inside -- until it hits a wall; air pretends to be nothing until the wind whips it into a hurricane . . .
. . .
Indeed, almost any kind of nothing you can conceive is actually not. In the emptiest corners of interstellar space, a spoonful of vacuum might contain an atom or two. . . .
[But] Even if you could get rid of all [matter], you'd still have the vacuum -- which has both form and content.
. . .
Something, by this definition, is any deviation from nothing. Nothing is the norm; something is derivative. We create something by breaking the perfect symmetry of nothing, cracking the silence -- like drawing black lines on a white piece of paper, or introducing ripples into perfectly still water or kinks into energy fields.
. . .
Physicists seeking the ultimate laws of nature search for perfect symmetry -- the ultimate, perfect nothing. But to understand it, they first have to understand the colder, everyday nothing we live in -- and the various kinds of vacua involved in giving it birth. -- pp. 13-16

In The Secret Doctrine (1888), the premier book of the modern theosophical movement, H. P. Blavatsky wrote: "That which is the abyss of nothingness to the physicist, who knows only the world of visible causes and effects, is the boundless Space of the Divine Plenum to the Occultist," the occult scientist of antiquity (1:148). Let's place Cole's picture of 21st-century cosmology side by side with Blavatsky's 19th-century anthology of cosmological wisdom in the manner of a stereoscope ("an optical instrument through which two pictures of the same object, taken from slightly different points of view [physical and metaphysical?], are viewed one by each eye, producing

the effect of a single picture of the object, with the appearance of depth or relief"). Cole's supporting cast would then be aligned with Blavatsky's, which ranges from Asuramaya, Hermes Trismegistus, Anaxagoras, Plato, and Lucretius to Paracelsus, Eugenius Philalethes, Kepler, Newton, and Crookes, among many others.

How does the nothing behind the physical universe appear to Blavatsky's group? Far-reaching ideas about akasa, aether, and "luminiferous ether" abound. Blavatsky defines akasa as

The subtle, supersensuous spiritual essence which pervades all space; the primordial substance erroneously identified with Ether. But it is to Ether what Spirit is to Matter . . . It is, in fact, the Universal Space in which lies inherent the eternal Ideation of the Universe in its ever-changing aspects on the planes of matter and objectivity, and from which radiates the First Logos, or expressed thought. -- Theosophical Glossary, p. 13
All the ancient nations deified Aether in its imponderable aspect and potency. . . . The Hindus have also placed it among their deities; under the name of Akasa (the synthesis of Aether). . . . Anaxagoras of Clazomenae firmly believed that the spiritual prototypes of all things, as well as their elements, were to be found in the boundless Ether where they were generated, whence they evolved, and whither they returned . . . -- The Secret Doctrine 1:331-2

As physics broke through into the 20th century, the materialistic scientific theory of ether was dismissed as a heresy, to be replaced by various conceptions of "nothing." But today's scientific explanations are far from ultimate: Cole notes that prominent scientists speculate that because current theories have become so complex, an entirely new approach to the "nothingness" underlying matter, space, and time may emerge in coming decades.

Nothing-the-less, everything-the-more: with the Cole/Blavatsky stereoscope in hand -- on the left one picture, and on the right the same picture from a slightly different angle -- I can't help but see a depth of field that not only suggests reconciliation, but recalls the eye of intuition itself to look directly at nothing and see more of everything that is there -- the whole of the estranged, and hence unfocused, family tree of ideas. This unified cyclopean view creates a reverse perspective that helps us remember (Plato said: "To learn is to remember") the enlightening top-down structure of the cosmos from the World Tree's akasic crown, rather than trying to comprehend and measure the enormity of the Spaces of Space tree by tree! Continuing our enthusiastic studies of cosmology with the heightened stereo view of ancient and modern ideas, our eyes -- and the searching heart and soul they serve -- will through synchrony of purpose and effort forever have the opportunity to "peer" into and "be struck dumb" by the boundless and eternal universe we live in. -- Wynn Wolfe

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)


I believe that unless the outer world is run on the basis of the intuitions of the inner world, we shall not find the solution to global turmoil. As Albert Schweitzer said in his writings, until a man realizes the same preciousness about the Christ nature of other human beings that he feels for his own inner spirit, we shall not have true brotherhood. Fraternal cooperation may be furthered by certain outer actions, but only when this sense of the preciousness of life becomes more universal, and men cease to be willing to kill and destroy for limited causes and terroristic ambitions, can we properly govern the outer world. I must align myself with those who believe that changing the outer world without the proper inner motivations will never bring in the kingdom. I believe that the most basic intuition of religion is this sense of relatedness to others, not because of their or our ambitions or needs, but because of what we all are.
It is essential, therefore, not only for our own development but for the peace and security of our world, that we turn to this inner realm of our being, and find God within. For as surely as we find divinity within ourselves will we recognize it in others, and we shall begin to realize that the Golden Rule is written into the cosmic scheme of things. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is not just a good ethical ideal. It is to me the religion of the inner spirit. -- Walter Donald Kring