Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? HTML version
That moments of enlightenment can't be anticipated accounts for part of our fascination with them, but it
also makes the experience vulnerable to mystification. History has seen many claimants to the titles of
sage, genius, maestro, saint, or enlightened master. Mesmerized by the aura of celebrity and mystery that
envelops them, we often fail to notice that, like ourselves, they are human beings. When they're not
having an epiphany—which is most of the time—they're ordinary in the same way that everyone is. What
sets some of them apart is a readier ability to rise above habit and see freshly. And sometimes they can
transmit this special skill to the ir students. Whether using it will result in a student hitting the jackpot, or,
for that matter, in the teacher hitting a second jackpot, or e ither of them ever having another enlightening
experience—of that there are no guarantees.
Students and seekers often collude in the ir own infantilization by ma inta ining habits of deference that lull
them into believing that an experience of enlightenment is quite beyond them. Such dependent
relationships with revered authority figures reflect the escapist desire for a parent whose love is constant,
whose wisdom is infa llible, and on whom we can always rely. The best teachers, like the best parents,
freely transmit the ir knowledge, skills, and passion for truth-seeking to the ir mentees, but without leaving
them starry-eyed. As with so many of the most precious gifts in life, the best we can do to repay such
benefactors is to pass what we've learned from them on to someone else.
In religious traditions, teachers impart the deepest truths to their students through what is aptly called
"transmission of mind. " These truths are often actually meta-truths, that is, they're insights into the truth-
seeking process itself. The notion of "transmission" expresses the transfer of modeling skills regardless of
the field of inquiry. There were times during my physics training when I felt I was experiencing a
transmission of mind from my mentor, Professor John A. Wheeler, merely by hanging out with him and
observing him c losely as he tackled problems. Sometimes he'd pass on something he attributed to his
mentor, Niels Bohr. Transmitters of mind are invariably part of a lengthy lineage consisting of parents,
grandparents and teachers.
When it comes to the discovery process, the differences between the eurekas of science and the
revelations of religion are superficia l. Yes, scientists wear lab coats and jeans, and we imagine prophets in
tunics and loinc loths, but investigators of every kind base their insights on meticulous observation and
treasure the rare "ah-ha" moments. The similarity of the process whereby new truths are found, whether
in science or religion, strengthens the case for letting go of the ancient antagonism that has bedeviled the ir
relationship and embarking on a beautiful friendship.
In the aftermath of movement politics, California was teeming with seekers after truth. More than a few
political activists had replaced their concerns about social justice with a quest for personal enlightenment.
I was skeptical but intrigued by rumors of a state of consciousness promising c larity of mind and
I knew a number of high achievers in mathematics, physics, politics, and the arts, and I wanted to know if
attaining enlightenment would be helpful in such fie lds. If enlightenment is indeed a state of exceptiona l
luc idity, it ought to affect the quality of the work done by those who've attained it.
To check this out, I read widely and attended talks, seminars, workshops, and retreats with dozens of
teachers and gurus representing a variety of spiritua l traditions (25). I got to know several gurus
personally, as well as some of their advanced students privy to what went on behind the curtain separating
the novices from the gurus. How did these presumably enlightened masters act when they were not
functioning in their role as spiritual leaders in front of a group of devoted followers?