The bigger picture

Poltics and personal life, science and religion

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg
Rochester, New York, US
June 20
I am a writer ("The fiction of a thinkable world: Body, meaning, and the culture of capitalism" [Monthly Review Press 2005]; "A new biology of religion: Spiritual practice and the life of the body" [Praeger, 2012]; "Enlightenment Interrupted: The lost moment of German Idealism and the reactionary present" [Zero Books, 2014]) and an attorney. I'm most interested in how we got into our present-day mess and how we can't separate our self-image from the experience of the world.

JUNE 11, 2010 8:14PM

The ghost behind the scenes

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The June 21 issue of the Nation has a long and very fair-minded piece by Nathan Schneider on the immensely wealthy Templeton Foundation. Schneider is rather warm to the founder, the "quixotic" Sir John Templeton, and rather less so to the much-more conservative son, but he properly devotes most of the essay to the Foundation's hope of squaring science and religion.

Best known for its annual Templeton Prize, the Foundation wants to "serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality." In other words, it's looking to science to demonstrate the reality of religious ideas about the world. In the words of Sir John himself, the aim is to find new "spiritual information."

But what kind of religion is focused on information, spiritual or otherwise? Let's imagine that a Templeton-funded scientist proves that the universe is managed by a cosmic spirit who rewards and punishes people according to their moral worth. How different would that be from knowing that you're likely to get a ticket if you do more than 75 miles an hour on the Interstate? What would change about your inner life or your experience of the world?

The notion of "spiritual information" is a contradiction in terms. Real religious life, the life of religious practice, isn't about information at all. It isn't ultimately about belief either, or ideas about a deity; it's directly opposed to ideas. It's about changing experience itself, and one of the things that starts to fade as you change is the notion that there's anything to know about the universe.

We all have ideas about the world and about ourselves. But we can't have those ideas unless we step away from the world and our own selves, too. Ideas and information depend on separation and distance. As the Neoplatonists knew, you have to remove yourself from reality in order to think about it, and reality vanishes the moment you do that.

Whenever we think in ideas or gather information there's always something left over, always something hidden. Somehow we sense this, and all of our thinking is haunted by that something-else that's always out of reach. We don't realize that it's really our own absence from the picture we're painting. Instead, we imagine that there's something more profoundly real hidden just behind reality itself. We go looking for it outside of ourselves, in books or in visions or in science. But it's not out there. As Jesus said, it's within.

Spiritual practice is about leaving that imaginary place where we think we can see reality without being a part of it. It's the long and hard road to wakefulness, to the world where we're no longer haunted by what Slavoj Zizek calls the indivisible remainder.  It's a world without God, in the sense of the something-out-there about whom the Templeton Foundation hopes to get more information. But it's also a world where there is nothing but life.

Paradoxically, the more we try to find out about God the farther we get from the divine.


In the interest of full disclosure: I once applied to the Templeton Foundation for some grant support for my book project on science and religion. I guess it's not surprising that I got turned down.

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