The Hubble Telescope recently peered as deep into space as humans have ever looked. Officials of the Space Telescope Science Institute traced light that has been speeding toward the space we now occupy for 13 billion years, to within a stone’s throw of the beginning of the universe. In order to penetrate to this distance Hubble had to narrow its view to a field that astronomers likened to our looking at the sky through an eight-foot soda straw. The opening on the eye-side is small enough, but projected eight feet out, it narrows to little more than a pinhole. In this minute field of view, a speck of the whole dome of the sky, Hubble saw 10,000 galaxies like our own vast Milky Way.
From a human point of view the enormity of these dimensions of time and space is bewildering, almost absurd. Five hundred years ago we postured ourselves at the center of the universe; now we cling precariously to a remote speck of cosmic dust. Our life-dominant sun is one mediocre star among the myriad that, by the late Carl Sagan’s estimate, outnumber the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.
I read to students in an introduction to philosophy course a newspaper article describing this achievement by the Hubble telescope, thinking that it might provide insight into the mysticism of the Tao. One of our readings, by Lao-Tzu, traditionally identified as the founder of the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, had the students befuddled. Describing the mysterious Tao through a series of paradoxes, Lao-Tzu calls it the Nameless: the Name that can be named is not the eternal Name. It is the mystery of mysteries, but also the door of all spiritual awareness and the mother of the universe. It appears empty, but its fullness is inexhaustible, like a bottomless bowl. It is soundless, invisible, intangible. How wondrous it is, exclaims Lao-Tzu; it existed before heaven and earth and even before God!
This is too much for some students. They roll their eyes in exasperation. The Tao doesn’t fit easily into Western categories. But one student suddenly has an insightDooley, a shadowy figure with one name who slides in and out of class to his own clock and oblivious of all assignments: When we give God a name, when we call Him God,’ we shrink him. With that, Dooley disappears for good; but he has left me with the word I have been looking for. We cannot think about the Ultimate Source of the cosmos without the shrinking effect of human thought and language.
The unfathomable times and distances of the cosmos can be answered in the end only with paradox and silence. Standing in front of it, you will not discover its beginning; standing behind it, you will not discover its end. Only standing within its ongoing creative action, says the Tao, will you feel its obliterating embrace.
Master Chang comes to class to give a scholar-practitioner’s perspective on the Tao. He arrives with a retinue of wife, translator, books, articles he has written and a Power Point presentation full of Chinese characters. He looks out over a field of curious but skeptical eyes shaded by baseball caps and framed by cut-off tops, low-rise jeans and T- shirts. He tells us that the Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao. Language is human, he explains, and we are trying to get at something that is beyond the human. How could words be adequate?
The Second Commandment
The Tao fits well with the Second Commandment. The Jewish people, who gave us the Second Commandment, were in such awe of I Am Who Am (God’s self-revelation to Moses in Ex. 3:14) that, as John L. McKenzie, S.J., points out in his Dictionary of the Bible, At some early date the Jews began to abstain from the pronunciation of the name Yahweh in the belief that it was too sacred for utterance. The Catholic Encyclopedia is even more emphatic: Out of profound reverence to God, the name YHWH (pronounced Yahweh’), which occurs in the Hebrew text of the OT, was never said.
Modern Jewish theologians are also wary of squeezing the Ultimate Source into human clothes. For Martin Buber, to conceive of God is to abolish his divinity. We can say only that the Godhead is that undefinable X, the essential mystery, the unknowable, the paradox of paradoxes. Buber would look benevolently on the self-proclaimed atheists in our class. For they are not rejecting the living God, only the concepts of God that have been foisted on them.
Following the Jewish tradition, James Hatley of Salisbury State University uses only the designation G-d in his commentary on the writings of Emmanuel Levinas, as in the search for a transcendent G-d. The recurring hyphen is a reminder of the inadequacy of philosophizing, even as we are compelled to carry on with it.
The Divine Immensity
In his recent book, Deeper Than Darwin, the Georgetown University theologian John Haught reflects in depth on the effect of modern scientific discoveries, like that of the Hubble, on our understanding of the Ultimate Reality. He finds in them not a threat to faith but a new source of revelation about the religious meaning of the Inexhaustible, the Infinite, the Immense, the Enormous, the Extravagant. Before the shock of cosmic discoveries, the size of God had become too middling to command the response of genuine worship.... The newly discovered immensity of time and space appears now to swallow up our narrowly human images of God. He quotes a not-quite-believing scientific writer for whom contemplating the vastness of the cosmos is a sensual experience, like Gregorian chant, luring him deeper into the deep mystery.
Haught distinguishes between the apophatic, or silent, approach and the kataphatic, or symbolic, approach to reaching out for the Absolute Reality. The creation story in the Book of Genesis, one of the most controversial readings we treat in class, is an example of the symbolic approach, I tell students. With great effort I try to convey this interpretation, to the discomfort of the fundamentalists and the skepticism of the materialists. When I have finished, a student in the front row looks up sympathetically and says: Boy, I bet you’re glad that’s over with.
Silence the Truest Statement
Joseph Pieper, in The Silence of St. Thomas, reveals how Aquinas, reasoning profoundly to the point where reason fails, ultimately embraces the apophatic approach. Because we are not capable of knowing what God is but only what God is not, he says in the Summa, we cannot contemplate how God is but only how God is not. This is the ultimate in human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know him. After a mystical experience at the end of his life, Thomas laid down his fruitful pen in the middle of a treatise: Reginald, I can write no more, he said to his friend. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw.
This ultimate response of muteness leads to the insight of centering prayer. Sitting quietly in the early morning pause before the grinding noises of the day begin, one withdraws, Buddha-like, into a cocoon of nothingness. We close our eyes to what is going on around us and within us, says the Trappist monk Thomas Keating. When you become aware of thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word. Thoughts’ is an umbrella term for every perception, including sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, reflections and commentaries.... He leads us by means of sacred experiences to the experience of emptiness. Anything that we perceive of God can only be a radiance of His presence and not God as He is Himself.
On the last day of class the students are attentive, even reflective, when I tell them what I learned this semester: Silence is the truest statement we can make about the Ultimate Source. To conceive is to shrink; to speak is to falsify.