Kabbalah, Science, and Religious Pluralism

A response to the Harvard Divinity School 2008 Paul Tillich Lecture
May 5, 2008
by Dr. Howard Smith

[The keynote speaker for the 2008 Paul Tillich Lecture was Prof. Bruno Guiderdoni, of the National Center for Scientific Research in Lyon, France, who spoke on the topic: “Science, Faith, and the Dialog of Cultures: Islamic Perspectives.” The following is the response presented by Dr. Howard Smith.]

I begin by quoting Scripture — the words of Solomon, in his lyrical love poem, The Song of Songs. He wrote “I was sleeping, but my heart was aroused: the voice of my Beloved is knocking… ‘Open up to me!’” This holy poem is, of course, the classic Jewish metaphor for God’s love, and today — I would say perhaps even especially today — I see that message — Open up to me! — as a call to people of all perspectives.

For a religious person, that knocking comes from the voice of modern science, which amplifies traditional ideas based on honest — but erroneous — interpretations of Torah/Bible with amazing new cosmic insights, and thereby opens up scripture to new profundities. For a skeptic of religion or to an atheist, the calling voice is that of enlightened religious traditions that offer context, depth, and meaning to the narrow world of reductionism. Let me explain.

Science and religion have long debated with each other, in all of our religious traditions. It’s old news. Is there anything new for us to add to that discourse?

Amazingly, yes — there is something new to say today. It derives from science’s ability to answer successfully most of the profound mysteries of nature, puzzles that baffled people even fifty years ago, and that had been attributed by many to God’s unknowable ways. The Creation, for example, or the mechanics of life. Today, for the first time, we understand a good deal about these divine ways.

I speak and write about the form of Jewish mysticism known as the Kabbalah, an esoteric tradition that dates back over two thousand years, but which blossomed and became public in the 14-16th centuries. For me, the Kabbalah offers a particularly useful framework of religious expression from which moderns can consider the issues of science and religion.

From a strictly scientific perspective, it is famous these days for having detailed 600 years ago a dramatically unconventional cosmology that echoes today’s big-bang picture. The Kabbalists understood Scripture as symbolic notation to be unraveled — a feature of sacred language that Bruno has noted. They take the first word of the Bible, “In the beginning,” — B’resheit in the original Hebrew — and unweave it to develop their “big bang” scenario.

“Resheit” is customarily translated as “Beginning” but the Kabbalists called it Hokhmha = “The LOGOS” — and Resheit is their name for the infinitesimal point of the big-bang event. Their understanding of the first word of Genesis is, thus: “With the Resheit God created the heavens and the earth.” Today, thanks to General Relativity, we understand that the location of the Resheit, of that creative event, is right here with us, as everywhere. We can even sense its presence in the cosmic microwave background radiation that permeates this room — an omnipresent reminder.

From a theological perspective, the Kabbalah emphasizes a world in progress rather than of eternal perfection, and thus shares many of the features of process theology, appealing to modern sensibilities in this as well. But, as I emphasize to my students, even the early Kabbalists could not grasp the profound insights that we moderns have thanks to Relativity and 20th century technology.

Two provocative themes flow from the remarkable successes of today’s science. One is the modernist attitude of science as a social construct. We are fooling ourselves about our successes, this approach argues. Nothing is known for certain, much less “one single, ultimate truth” about the cosmos. I wonder if this view is not hinted at by Bruno’s observation that “our ideas and behaviors are conditioned by our metaphysical views on reality.” Conditioned ? Yes, exactly so. But, I think, not more than that. I believe in a God whose world — and whose word — are authentic sources of genuine knowledge, and which science will uncover with effort.

Bruno wisely observed that just as science, by disagreeing with tradition, reminds religion of “the multiplicity of meanings” — namely, that truth is difficult to discern — so too we must make room, as he put it, for “creative tension between religions” — these are the blessed consequences of God’s love of diversity. As the rabbis put it when confronted with the divergent views of spiritual giants: alu va’alu divrei elohim hayyim: BOTH these and these are the words of a living God, a God who loves the process — the manifold encounterings of love — as we try to comprehend that multiplicity.

The second provocative new theme comes not from philosophers but from scientists themselves. Not so long ago I think most astronomers would have agreed that, overall, we pretty much understand the cosmos and its origin in some kind of inflationary big bang. In the past 10 years this has changed. Today I’d guess that most astronomers would say that, overall, we pretty much do NOT understand the cosmos.

What happened!? Well, we discovered dark matter and dark energy — 95% ! of the essence of our universe — and our discomfort has grown because we still have no idea what they really are. I think we scientists are being admirably honest in admitting that we do not know as much as we thought. This lesson in humility is one that scientists offer to theologians — the admission that we do not know it all, regardless of our traditions or our egos. Not only has the living God revealed to us something deeper of these mysteries, secrets that our forebearers did not understand — so too we acknowledge that future discoveries await our children.

Another aspect of this revolution in attitude is that while our theories seem — or let’s say, promise — to be beautifully unified, a Grand Unified Theory or a String Theory of Everything, as a consequence of inflation and of quantum mechanics we scientists are forced to postulate a multiple-worlds picture that is chaotically multitudinous, as Bruno alluded to. And, as a consequence of anthropic arguments – that is, the perfect suitability of the universe for life — many scientists welcome this surfeit of worlds as explaining such miraculous perfection as an accident. Unfortunately this solution raises the problem of a wasteful infinity of worlds and voids.

How bad a problem? Stephen Hawking recently suggested a quantum mechanical way to deny “reality” to all those many other universes, his “top-down approach” — meanwhile Max Tegmark argued that we should reinstate a Platonic paradigm granting existence to all mathematically logical realities, no matter how “unrealistic” — the 10-to-the-power-500 universes in the string-theory landscape are not enough.

It is as though the “chaos and void”of the Bible never went away… God’s creative speech simply picked off one multiverse strand for us to live in.

So yes, today science is wonderfully successful…. and at the same time, wonderfully provocative.

Jewish tradition makes a daring observation. As the universe unfolded, we are told that God saw that it was good: 6 times in 6 days — the 6 stages of the evolution of the cosmos. And at the end, Genesis reports that God saw everything together and “behold, it was very good.” The whole was more beautiful, apparently, than its many parts.

Science is not able to say of something, “it is good” — religion and its ethical power provides us with this perspective. But there is more. The early rabbis notice the superfluous word “BEHOLD”, and suggest it implies that God was surprised at the result. Our world was not a predetermined outcome. The universe incorporates some level of deep unpredictability, perhaps connected to the possibility of free-will. In fact, speculate the rabbis, God created many universes; he was surprised at this one because it was unlike the others: behold- it did turn out to be “very good” — and so he blessed it. Some of that goodness surely comes from the freedom we humans have to transmute “good” into “better” — a process the Kabbalists called “tikkun olam” — improving the world.

“Open up to me!” This is the call of modern science to spiritual seekers — open yourself up to the wonders of the universe as revealed by science, and to the insights they convey — that sense of Awe that Bruno spoke about. (Awe, incidentally, is seen by the Kabbalists as identical with the LOGOS, and thus conjoined with the Resheit and the big bang event).

“Open up to me!” This is the call of religion to scientists — scientists are also seekers, certainly. Open up to the possibilities of wonder, love, and to the ethical responsibilities of living in a quantum multi-verse that — behold!, is “very good.”

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