The trouble with living in the scientific age is that few of the words we use in religion make any sense. One-time Unity minister in New York City and metaphysics teacher, Eric Butterworth, said, “God is a three-letter word.” No one agrees on what that word means, and most people are at a loss to come up with a coherent definition of it. Even terms like “universal intelligence” fall short, because the same could be said of the World Wide Web. And, “Supreme Being” is supremely inadequate, because it sounds like a North Korean dictator. We need a workable definition of “God,” one that doesn’t demand that we sacrifice everything we know about science. At the same time, it should give us a way to come into direct contact with the Divine presence.
Notice the word “workable.” What we’re looking for is a non-definitive definition, not a once-and-for-all pigeonhole or a bulletproof talking-point. We need a direction in which to look, not a destination where we can build an ideological fortress. What we need is a general map of the metaphysical universe, one that also has a street view. Most of all, we need a conception of God that is full-spectrum, one that places God everywhere and not in a place you can only get to by dying.
Let’s address the universal intelligence issue, an idea that drives most scientists bonkers, which (as we shall see) is completely unreasonable on their part. When we consider the extensive degree of organization present in matter—its seemingly infinite capacity to adapt to changing conditions, and its ability to communicate with its environment, and its power to remember its preferred configurations—the idea of universal intelligence becomes an inescapable conclusion. Matter is nothing but intelligence. It is, you might say, intelligence made visible.
Atoms are extremely complex mechanisms composed, as we know, almost entirely of empty space. They generate enormous energy fields, despite their small size, and are capable of forming nearly unbreakable bonds. They “know” what they are supposed to be and how they should act, and they know it with precision.
Look at the objects around you. In the most real sense, they are clouds of electromagnetic energy, their borders indistinct, each mingling with the other in a communicative dance. Move any one of them, and all the rest “sense” the change. It’s as though they exist in a continuous web of vibration. At a certain level, those vibrations must surely make a sound, the harmonies and discords of which must produce quite a symphony indeed! Cycles, rhythms, harmonies—the entire spectrum of matter pulsates with interconnected relationships. The universe itself, at both large and small scales, is a computer.
Why then is the idea of universal intelligence so hard for the scientifically minded to swallow? And why, as a spiritual person, do you perhaps feel compelled to choose between two (erroneously) opposed worldviews?
Remember, we are looking for a workable definition of God, not an Answer. And, as far as matter is concerned, this expanded idea of universal intelligence provides us with a good baseline.
What about consciousness? When we consider that the seeable universe is a matrix of intelligence that functions much like a computer, we must then ask, “Who is operating this computer?” In a recent interview, a philosophy professor admitted that the people in the AI (artificial intelligence) department at his university know more about philosophy than he does. They are grappling with questions of being and consciousness on a daily basis, whereas most philosophers are stuck in never-ending debates over what previous philosophers have said. The AI people are actually looking under the hood trying to figure out how consciousness works, what makes it possible, and how to build a platform within which it can “show up.”
But, both the philosophers and the scientists are ignoring key bits of information found in the creation myths of the world’s major religions, information that could provide the breakthroughs they are looking for. Take for example this passage in the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” This is ancient language for the process of mirroring and self-assessment. The surface of the “water,” an ancient symbol for “mind,” is a reflective surface, beneath which lies the unseen, unknowable intelligence of the natural world. The “deep” contains all of the automatic functions of matter, which when reflected back upon themselves create an interface that makes consciousness possible. How all of this works has yet to be discovered, but it will be discovered in the foreseeable future, perhaps within our lifetime.
The image of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (or as science-fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, put it, Venus on the Half Shell) symbolizes consciousness arising from the “deep” of Genesis. This account in Genesis describes a set of conditions out of which something happens, namely the “beginning.” Compare this with Taoist master Zhuangzi’s statement in the Book of Master Zhuang: “This moment—the beginning not yet beginning to be a beginning,” and with the Buddhist Idappaccayata: “When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn’t, that isn’t. From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.” Within these statements lie the keys to understanding consciousness. When they are eventually translated into the language of science, AI will become a reality.
This idea of the universe becoming “self-aware” is, however, nothing more than materialism on steroids, IF it is taken to mean that consciousness is a phenomenon of matter. It could just as easily mean that matter is a manifestation of consciousness. Huston Smith, the author of The World’s Religions, put it thus: “The brain breathes mind the way the lungs breathe air.” This mind is the “Spirit of God” mentioned in Genesis, the one that “was moving over the face of the waters,” which shows that the author had the insight that Mind was there before the beginning.
Wondering where Mind came from can seem like a useless speculation. Or this account, which shows up pretty much the same way in many different religious traditions, describes the stillness out of which arises creative thought. Instead of Genesis describing an ancient historic event, it gives us explicit instructions in creativity. Creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) takes on a new meaning: New combinations of thought and their corresponding physical manifestations depend for their arising on a mind that is devoid of thinking—in other words, a meditative state. Quieting the mind is the goal of nearly every acknowledged spiritual discipline, from devotional prayer to Zen Buddhism. What they don’t tell you is that this state of mind is enormously powerful when applied to creativity.
As you can see, a realistic understanding of the word “God” requires a multi-disciplinarian approach. Science, philosophy, and religion must all be brought to bear on the problem. The tragedy of 9/11 was blamed on the failure of the CIA and FBI to communicate with each other, mostly due to departmental pride and competitive arrogance. The lack of a workable definition of “God” is the fault of science, philosophy, and religion—their unwillingness to listen to the best of what each has to offer.
Here’s our workable definition of “God,” our updated cosmo-conception of metaphysical reality: The universe, the part we can see, is comprised primarily of intelligence. This intelligence is the unseeable part that informs the part we can see. Understanding how this intelligence works and putting that knowledge to work in our everyday lives is the essence of scientific prayer. Locating ourselves within this process brings us into direct contact with the mystery of consciousness. The more we contemplate this mystery, the more our limited sense of who we are as an individual dissolves, and we begin to identify with the Whole and not merely as an embodied personality. As we cease to rely on our individual abilities to know the world, and we open up to the existence of the One Mind, we discover our interconnectedness with the entire spectrum of existence, and we become a new being.
This description is not meant to be a summary, but as a beginning, a starting point from which we can explore reality. Even if it is not 100 percent accurate, it is still useful. The deeper we look into matter, the more intelligence we see. And, I think it’s clear by now that we have made the distinction between intelligence and consciousness. It is when we can apply this distinction to ourselves that the usefulness of this hypothesis makes itself known: it allows us to experience the presence of God.