Updated: Jun 17, 2021
Imagine for a moment that you’re on a boat in a small outlet of a bay. It’s the nighttime; it’s still summertime. No one else is out on the water but you. The night is moonless, and quiet. The only sound you hear is from the soft churning of the engine of your boat. Far from the distracting lights of any mainland, the sky vibrates with stars. Taking a chance, you turn off your running lights, and the inky night darkens even more. Then, you turn off the engine. Even quieter now. You lay down in the boat and look up. A very dark sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, your world dissolves into that star-littered sky. The boat disappears beneath you. Your body disappears. And you find yourself falling into infinity. You notice a feeling that you haven’t experienced before: an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if you were part of them. And the vast expanse of time—extending from the far distant past long before you were born and then into the far distant future long after you will die—seems to compress into a single dot. You feel connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. You feel a merging with something far larger than yourself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute. After a time, you sit up and start the engine again. You have no idea how long you have been lying there looking up.1
Let’s pause for a moment. What I just read is an account of an actual mystical experience described in a recently published book. What do you think is the author’s background? Is the author male or female? American or some other nationality? A rabbi or a scientist? What did you hear in the description?
Alan Lightman is a physicist and author. He holds faculty appointments at Harvard and MIT. He has written several popular science books, and is an incredible author. When I read his other book The Accidental Universe, and was able to understand Einstein’s argument for relativity along with a better understanding of how quantum particles operate in our universe, for me he took a high ranking as an author at the mastery of his craft.
His latest book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine also is an incredible book. Within reading a few paragraphs of the New York Times review, I knew this book would be my sort of book.
Within the first pages, he describes that mystical experience he had, laying down in his boat one evening off the coast of Maine. A physicist having a spiritual experience? How strange in this age in which we say that those who have concern for the physical world eschew any conversation of the spiritual realm. And that was where the beauty of this book came in.
There are two types of people, the joke goes, those who divide the world into two types of people, and everyone else. Philosophers have long divided themselves between two camps—the materialists and the vitalists. The materialists assert that matter is the essential substance in nature. All aspects of consciousness can be explained with physical laws. In other words, “I think therefore I am” is a manifestation of chemical reactions within your brain. Material interactions can explain every phenomenon within our universe. The materialist argues any failing to describe an experience in physical, natural terms is simply a failing to identify, describe, and understand the mechanism by which that experience operates. The materialist’s universe begins and ends with the universe. All is nature, and science rules.
The other philosophical camp is that of the vitalists. The vitalist believes that a living organism is different from non-living things. The living organism contains some non-physical element, something that exists but that cannot be categorized as physical matter. The psychologist might call it the self, the philosopher or theologian might call it the soul. As Lightman describes this dialectic between the materialist and the vitalist, he notes that philosophers have spilled tremendous amounts of ink over the nature of the soul. He then sights his friend and rabbi, to whom he dedicates this book, Rabbi Micah Greenstein, rabbi of the reform synagogue in Memphis, who teaches that the body does not have a soul; rather, perhaps we are souls who live within our bodies.
We live with this tension between the physical world and our non-physical reality. The tension constantly makes itself known inside and outside of the faith community. According to the latest Pew study, 92% of the Jewish community world-wide has formal schooling, and 61% of our community has education beyond high school. Our small population is well steeped in the world of academia, in which skepticism is the frame through which we are trained to think. Experimentation and analysis become our tools by which we know anything about our world. I recall one of those late night conversations with friends in college in which we were trying to understand the nature of the world. One friend denied any possibility of the spiritual experience, and I could not fathom that having had real, personally impactful mystical moments, myself. When I argued with him “Why not?” My friend—who is now a university Hillel rabbi, by the way—fussed back at me, “Because I’ve been taught to question everything!”
I would encourage anyone with an interest in both the realms of science and spirituality to read Lightman’s Searching for Stars…, because he questions everything. He creates a bridge between materialism and vitalism. In a chapter titled “Truth,” he writes,
“I respect the notions of God and other divine beings. However, I insist on one thing. I insist that any statements made by such beings and their prophets about the material world, including statements recorded in the sacred books, must be subject the experimental testing of science… The spiritual world, and the world of the Absolutes, have their own domain. The physical world should be the province of science.”2
Why? Because “One can view the project of science as a progression of discovering ever more accurate descriptions of nature.”3 Which, does not negate the spiritual. It merely separates the two. We have long passed the possibility that science would disprove the spiritual realm. Why? Because of the sense of awe and wonder, as Heschel put it. No matter how much the scientific mind comes to understand, there is always an aspect of our lives that remains out of the grasp of language. It is ineffable, and we fall into an awareness of grandeur. Spiritual thinkers, vitalists, like William James spend a tremendous time examining the ineffable, describing the mystical experiences with what James calls their “noetic qualities.” But where science and the spiritual intersect is with the awareness of the tremendousness of the universe in which we live. “The awareness of grandeur,” Heschel writes, “does not serve any social or biological purpose.”4 And still, we live with that awareness as “citizens of two realms, (in which) we all must sustain a dual allegiance: we sense the ineffable in one realm, we name and exploit reality in another. Between the two we set up a system of references, but we can never fill the gap. They are as far and as close to each other as time and calendar, as violin and melody, as life and what lies beyond the last breath.”5
The realm of the vitalist and the realm of the materialist are not separated by an impenetrable wall. Rather, those who embrace a sense of wonder, grandeur, and mystery of the experiences of life find a malleability and a permeability between the two states. Lightman gives voice to this as he describes the connection he felt to the universe lying in his boat, staring up at the stars:
One last thought on this day of wanderings about my small island in Maine. The material of the doomed stars and the material of my doomed body are actually the same material. Literally the same atoms. Because all of the atoms heavier than the two lightest elements—hydrogen and helium—were manufactured in stars. When the universe was young, it was all hydrogen and helium. Then various clumps of gas gradually contracted into denser clumps, collapsed under their own weight, and formed stars. In the dense and hot nuclear furnaces at the centers of those stars, hydrogen and helium atoms fused together to form larger atoms: carbon and oxygen and silicon and beyond. Finally, some of those stars exploded and spewed their atoms into space. From which they coalesced to make planets. From which single-celled organisms formed in the primeval seas. From which… It is astonishing but true that if I could attach a small tag to each of the atoms of my body and travel with them backward in time, I would find that those atoms originated in particular stars in the sky. Those exact atoms.6
May we never lose our sense of wonder over the universe in which we live.