Book review by David Lorimer
Subtitled ‘spirituality, science and the universal path of divine love’ and with a foreword by Fr Thomas Keating, this book breaks new ground in bringing together the mystical core of devotional paths across Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. The six chapters, each in relation to divine love, cover Scriptures, mystics, practice, science, fire and principles. The book is grounded in inter-spirituality and endorsed by Ravi Ravindra with its deeper exploration of the spiritual transformative journey, which is the primary purpose of religion – hence the term interspiritual rather than interreligious dialogue. The author explains his own background as a mathematical physicist, psychologist, environmental scientist and social activist, but his core is his mystical practice of meditation and prayer over the last 35 years. Thomas Keating has been convening the Snowmass Interreligious Conference for nearly as long as our Mystics and Scientists, and the group has formulated eight points of agreement which I think most readers of this journal would agree with, including the last, that disciplined practice is essential to the spiritual life; yet spiritual attainment is not the result of one’s own efforts, but of the experience of oneness with Ultimate Reality.
Towards the end of the introduction, the author warns of the danger of becoming preoccupied with theology and philosophy and missing the most essential: “intensive practice that leads to direct, humble connection to the living Spirit.” Indeed, this involves “relinquishing the mind’s insistent demand that everything must be understood on its terms, in cogent concepts and tidy logical frameworks.’ He quotes a Sufi saying that to understand the inability to understand is true understanding (!). He further develops this line of thinking in his chapter on science and in an appendix on science and mysticism, where he observes that science is fundamentally a discipline of the human mind, grounded in empirical observations of the physical universe. This carries its own inherent limitations, but ‘advanced scientific insight is not equivalent to advanced mystical realisation’ as the two kinds of knowing are correspondingly rooted in the relative truth of the mind and in absolute truth beyond the mind. David Bohm realised this, and is quoted as saying that thought creates structures, and then pretends they exist independently of thought. An important cultural issue is that very few scientists have pursued contemplative practice that cultivates consciousness beyond their minds, although recent research in meditation may encourage more to embark on the journey.
Reverting to earlier chapters, the author discusses the yoga of divine love in the Bhagavad-Gita, and compares insights with the Koran and the Gospels. His exposition is profound and illuminating and he reminds readers that the essence of Islam is submission to the will of God, also showing the openness of this tradition if properly understood; prayer and remembrance of God is absolutely critical. The next chapter explores common ground in three traditions, and quotes Ibn Arabi’s interesting distinction between two types of gnosis: knowing God through knowing yourself, and knowing God “through you as Him, not as yourself” – again this is a key insight elaborated in the next chapter not only by Ibn Arabi, but also by Shankara and Meister Eckhart. This reflects the three spiritual journeys of Sufism: the journey from God, the journey to God and the mystical journey in God. This last involves devotional surrender and practice as the practitioner discovers that “the inmost essence of the individual is not other than the transcendent Essence of the Absolute” – full realisation of this is, as the author maintains, the primary goal of all mystical traditions and is achieved through interiorisation “a concentrated withdrawal from outer awareness towards the innermost centre of consciousness” involving the transcendence of personal will and self.
The next chapter on intimacy with the infinite explains the Hindu term prapatti or love for God through absolute surrender. The author explains the background and practical implications, giving examples from Brother Lawrence and his beautifully simple book The Practice of the Presence of God, the Sufi Rabi’a and from Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. This kind of surrender seems to be the prerequisite for grace, but is a supreme sacrifice so far as the ego is concerned.
There is then a very good chapter on science and spirituality, on recent work in consciousness studies and that draws extensively on the work of David Bohm. As I had been thinking along similar lines myself recently, I was particularly interested in the author’s elaboration of the fractal nature of consciousness, reflecting the ancient understanding of as above, so below. He explains the mathematics of the fractal and their presence at various levels of the natural world, arguing that fractal consciousness illuminates mystical oneness or the vertical identity of the mystic with the divinity or essence of God; it can also be used horizontally to explain the manifestation of different religious traditions, which the author illustrates in diagrammatic form, descending from the Absolute. Spiritually, the monotheistic religions see humans as made in the image of God, and, as I discuss relation to St Bernard elsewhere in this issue, the task is to evolve into the likeness of God, as Plotinus also understood.
Fire as a universal means of transformation represents divine love, as explained in the following chapter with quotations from Rumi, St John of the Cross and Sri Anandamayi Ma. This brings the author to reiterate his central message that love for – and surrender to – God is the way and that all else is peripheral. We are called upon to relinquish our separate self and identity since “without self-effacement there is no grace, and without grace there can be no transcendence.” All this is summed up in 10 principles of divine love (p. 200). The author makes an eloquent and persuasive case for the centrality of the path for divine love, and invites readers to begin their own journey towards their own essence – surely nothing could be more important.
Buy Belonging to God here.