A GOD THAT COULD BE REAL
Nancy Ellen Abrams
The following is an extract of INTRODUCTION by the author to her book A GOD THAT COULD BE REAL.
For most of my life, a God that was “real” seemed a contradiction in terms. Every idea of God I had ever encountered seemed either physically impossible or so vague as to be empty. I was an atheist married to a famous scientist. But a time came when I needed a higher power. I was forced to acknowledge that, but I didn’t know if it would be possible for me. I have no interest in a God that has to be believed in. If I am going to have God in my life, it has to be a God that cannot help but exist, in the same way that matter and gravity and culture exist. We don’t need to believe in these things; they just exist. We can choose to learn more about them, or not.
I have had the extraordinary privilege of a ringside seat for one of the greatest scientific revolutions in human history. For thirty-eight years I have been married to a man who studies the entire universe as a single evolving entity. My husband, Joel Primack, studies cosmology, the branch of astrophysics that researches the origin, nature, and evolution of the universe. In the early 1980s my then-young husband and three collaborators proposed a theory to solve the great mystery of why there are galaxies. After all, if the Big Bang was symmetrical in all directions, why isn’t the universe just a bigger soup? What caused galaxies and clusters of galaxies to form?
Their new theory challenged the assumption that everything is made of atoms. It postulated that the vast majority of matter in the universe is in fact not made of atoms or even made of the parts of atoms. It’s something completely different, something invisible, called cold dark matter. The theory calculates how the peculiar behavior of cold dark matter could have created the galaxies over time. It was a daring theory, making specific predictions in a field that had scarcely any believable evidence. Some astronomers dismissed it as wildly improbable, but my husband and his collaborators kept developing it with increasing success, realizing a few years later that the other key actor in the evolution of the universe was the even more mysterious “dark energy.” That’s the energy making the universe expand faster and faster. To test the theory countries around the world have built great observatories on the ground and in space. After three decades the evidence is overwhelming and still pouring in—and it confirms the theory without a single discrepancy. As unlikely as it seemed at first, even to my skeptical husband and his colleagues, the “double dark” theory, based on dark matter and dark energy, has now become accepted in astronomy as the foundation of the modern picture of the universe.
For me a God that is real has to be real not in our commonsense world but in the double dark universe, where we now know we live.
The double dark theory tells a big piece of our origin story. For thousands of years and in virtually all cultures, people have told origin stories, but this is the first one to be based on science and therefore the first origin story in the history of humanity that may actually be accurate. The story is not what anyone, not even Einstein, expected. We’re living in a stranger universe than earlier generations ever dreamed. The implications of this discovery for intelligent beings are almost entirely unknown, but inevitably they will be life changing. We have a new picture of the universe. What does a new picture of our universe mean for who and what we are?
And what does it mean for God?
The modern world is certainly confused about God. Surveys consistently find that about 90 percent of Americans, and a somewhat smaller majority of people in many other countries, say quite definitely that they believe in God. But when they are asked to explain what they mean by God, they become less certain, and there’s much divergence of opinion. Is God something authoritarian or supportive, engaged or distant, physical or in the heart? Some describe God as all knowing, all loving, all wise, a careful planner—an entity embodying human characteristics raised to perfection—that created and controls the entire universe, including alien worlds where there could be intelligent creatures with little resemblance to humans. Some believe there is no law of physics an all-powerful God could not break.
Religion’s opponents jump in and claim that God does not exist, end of story. This claim is understandable: abuses in the name of religion provide plenty of temptation to feel that the human race might be better off abolishing the whole idea of religion. From this perspective God is at best a fantasy and a distraction, and there are saner and more useful ways to contribute to society.
There was a time when I felt this way.
I remember sitting in Sunday school when I was in the second grade, reading a picture book that showed God as an old bearded man sitting on a cloud and giving orders. I thought, of course that couldn’t be real! I watched clouds all the time, and I never saw anyone up there. Metaphor was quite beyond me as a child. I took things literally, and then I made my own judgment, which would always seem like the obvious conclusion. The greatest mystery to me as a child was how grown-ups could believe the religious stories they were teaching us. Did they really? Were they crazy or were they intentionally tricking us? The implications either way were confusing. I suffered through eight years of Sunday school. When I was fifteen, the rabbi had my confirmation class write an essay on our personal view of God. “God didn’t create us; we created God,” I wrote, honestly concluding that God was a fiction invented by weak or illogical people for reasons of convenience or comfort. The rabbi ordered me into his office and yelled at me. “Who do you think you are,” he railed, “to question the wisdom of your ancestors?” It was more than a decade before I entered a synagogue again.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I majored in the history and philosophy of science. I studied physics historically, from Thales and Aristotle to Einstein, and was convinced that, though paradigms change, our best chance at truth is through the scientific method. But I also attended lectures by the legendary mythologist and historian of religions Mircea Eliade—if I was lucky enough to hear about them, because he followed no schedule. Eliade was always disappearing for weeks or months, rumor held, to be initiated into the secret shamanic rites of some exotic culture. With his penetrating eyes and ever-present pipe, he was the most intriguing person I had ever met. He seemed to have access to a level of intense existence I had never experienced or even known about. Nor, as far as I could tell, had anyone I had ever encountered in my suburban life. How could his world mesh with the quantum mechanics I was also studying? College gave me my overriding purpose in life: to try to see the big picture—not only the universe and the history of how humans had come to know it but also the deep invisible possibilities of the human, including me.
I became a lawyer and worked for a European environmental-law think tank and later in the science office of Congress, the Office of Technology Assessment. I was fascinated by the connection between science and other realms of human thought, feeling, and ambitions. I saw how vital science is to the decisions that influence our lives yet soon also came to see how little the powerful understand it. Meanwhile I ate for emotional reasons; my weight was out of control. I was always dieting and silently yelling at myself for not doing it right.
Eventually I married and moved to California. I had a successful life teaching, consulting, writing, and raising a young daughter with my husband, but in the privacy of my mind I was brutally self-critical. My good life felt contaminated by guilt and shame stemming from eating and body image. It seemed that half my brain was constantly hounding me about what I could eat, what I shouldn’t eat, and what an idiot I was for having eaten whatever I had just eaten. It was a huge effort to accomplish anything, because my focus was constantly interrupted by self-flagellating thoughts. The mental torment was worse by far than the weight.
When my daughter was eight, I found a group of people who were recovering from eating disorders with what they called a spiritual program. They had my problem but they were no longer eating compulsively, and I desperately envied the peace of mind they seemed to have. They said anyone could recover, but I learned to my bewilderment that their program required a “higher power.” I was resistant. How could an atheist like me find a higher power believable enough to enable me to do what I had never been able to do on my own? The likelihood of this approached zero. Naive people, I told myself, might believe in higher powers but not me. Although I had been intrigued by mythologies since college, I had never taken the idea of God seriously. It was really hard for me to keep an open mind about such an abused and misused idea as God.
And yet I experienced the first period in my life when food was not a problem. The way of thinking that the program presented gave me a ray of hope for a kind of freedom I had not even imagined possible. A way of life existed that bypassed all the self-flagellating thoughts of diets and self-image, of secret pain and grim determination to lose weight quickly. This new way of life required that I treat myself with love. How hard could that be? Very hard, it turned out, because it was all based on finding a higher power. It always came back to that.
No one could explain to me how this higher power worked or what it was, but with no other option I followed the program’s instructions and imagined turning my food decisions over to a higher power. I tried to act as if I believed in a higher power, as they suggested. I spoke to some part of my mind as if it were separate, even though it wasn’t, and found that doing so was surprisingly worthwhile. I had no illusion that I was talking to anything outside myself. Rather, I realized, I was thinking of the higher power as a loving but unbullshitable witness to my thoughts. It’s what I wished I were. Imagining what such a witness would say focused me. I found my consciousness less disposed to denial and self-deceit, more honest, and more courageous. My eating habits greatly improved. I was happier. I got along better with everybody. Some aspect of my consciousness was clearly a better controller of my behavior than my default consciousness, and when I addressed that aspect as my higher power, I was somehow able to conjure up that consciousness and strengthen it in me.
I kept wondering what I was doing, trying to figure it out. At last I decided that the higher power was simply my own best thinking, my higher self, the part I like to have in control. The moment I concluded this, however, I began to sabotage myself. It was as though I realized that, if my higher power was inside me, it could fall under my control. I lost my ability to turn decisions over to it. I was back to square one. I realized it couldn’t be inside me, but it couldn’t be outside either. I had no answer.
I watched members of the group face terrible life events without desperation. They credited to God their—to me astonishing—ability to accept what they couldn’t change and change what they could. They thought of their higher power as God, and it was absolutely clear that their belief in God benefited them. Could the benefits of their kind of faith be inaccessible to people like me who didn’t, and wouldn’t, believe in a traditional God? I wondered.
Put another way, why should survival benefits go preferentially to those who don’t face reality? That seemed to violate the principle of survival of the fittest. I couldn’t see how emotional benefits so absolutely fundamental to human success could require belief in God, because those benefits were probably older than the gods. There had to be another way to access them. I was driven to find out. I desperately needed the ability to accept what I could not change and the courage to change what I could.
Twelve-step programs refer to God as “God as we understood Him.” Putting aside the masculine pronoun, at first I took this as an admirable statement that people of all religions or none could work the program. Anybody’s view of God is okay—just have one. But later I began to see that “God as we understood Him” is not only a basket big enough to accept all ready-made concepts; it’s a challenge to each of us to find an understanding of God. We commit to try. Trying to understand is the point.
I got the sinking feeling that as long as I held on to my unexamined opinions about God, I wouldn’t be able to try. Yet I had no other choice but misery.
That was a turning point. I became willing to try. Everything changed. I used to wear eye makeup, but for almost a year I found myself crying too often and had to stop. Life suddenly felt raw, unpolished, like finding a shockingly large diamond in the rough. It wasn’t pretty, and yet I saw its potential for me. The willingness to try forced me to start listening differently. It forced me to stop jumping to conclusions when I heard God-talk and instead try to look past the religious metaphors so I could hear what people were struggling to say. I was at the absolute beginning of a long road, but I was—for the first time—facing in the right direction.
I felt committed to find a higher power of my own understanding, but I had no idea how to do this. Neither, it seemed to me, did anyone else.
Back home I was watching the double dark universe emerge through my husband’s research and that of many other scientists around the world. They were working out the recipe for the entire universe, discovering its ingredients in their proper proportions. It turns out that everything astronomers have ever observed with telescopes and other instruments detecting every wavelength of radiation—all the stars, planets, glowing gas clouds, and dust inside our galaxy, plus all the billions of distant galaxies—totals less than half of 1 percent of what’s actually out there. Another 4 percent is atoms, mostly hydrogen and helium gas, out between the galaxies, unlit by stars. But 95 percent of the density of the universe consists of those two great moving presences, dark matter and dark energy. They are invisible, not because no light is shining on them but because they don’t interact with light. The strange and ongoing dance between them, hidden in the background of the visible universe, has spun the galaxies into being and is flinging them away from each other as the universal expansion accelerates.
I was following developments, going to the conferences, meeting the scientists, privy to mysteries of the universe that virtually no one else but the experts knew. I was doing metaphysical insider trading. I paid attention to who was working on alternative versions of the details and what it might mean if this team rather than that one turned out to be right. No civilization has ever tested a view of the universe the way these scientists were.
My recent experience of a greater, more confident self was teaching me something about how my mind works, and cosmology was teaching me how the universe works, and I knew they had to be coherent, since my mind is part of the universe and the concept of a universe is part of my mind. But this was an intellectual, logical conclusion. It didn’t feel coherent. They were like two perfect halves of a tunnel that fail to meet.
Not a day passed that I did not wonder what in this universe made it possible for my experience of a higher power to change me. At a certain point I knew that conjuring up my unbullshitable witness would be my practice for life because it was so effective, even though I did not understand why it worked. But this made me feel even more strongly that I had to figure it out.
At the same time I was realizing that the double dark universe would reverberate far beyond science. This is the first truly scientific picture of the universe ever. It will be amended and perhaps encompassed by an even larger theory, but it will not be overthrown. This is our universe. Since the time of Isaac Newton, we’ve understood how the planets orbit the sun in our own solar system, but our galaxy and almost all the universe beyond have been mystery cloaked in extrapolation. I kept wondering, what does it mean for us humans that we’re not living in the kind of universe we thought we were in? Could “God” mean something different in the so-far-unexplored possibilities of this new universe? The one thing I knew for sure was that the only way God can be real is to be real in this new understanding of our very old universe.
My husband and I talked endlessly. How could we communicate the double dark picture to nonscientists? How could we put it into some kind of meaningful context? One of the scariest but most effective ways to learn something difficult is to try teaching it to someone skeptical, so for ten years the two of us cotaught a course at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which we called Cosmology and Culture. It was an attempt to communicate non-mathematically the new picture of the universe—in the context of earlier pictures of the universe from Egypt and Sumer to modern times. The history tells us that earlier changes in cosmology were extremely rare, but when they happened they were accompanied by major changes in the surrounding culture. What may happen as modern scientific cosmology is absorbed into global culture? Each year we tried to break through more effectively. We saw students light up as they realized that the emerging new science could actually answer ancient questions: Where do we come from? What are we made of? Where are we going?
Together my husband and I wrote two books, The View from the Center of the Universe and The New Universe and the Human Future, to help readers wrap their minds around the new picture of the universe and get some sense of its relevance to us humans. We traveled around the world, giving more than a hundred talks at universities, bookstores, international conferences, astronomy clubs, forums, churches, even the US Treasury. Almost everyone is fascinated by the idea of a new understanding of our universe. It has repercussions for politics, economics, and even the ways we live our daily lives and define what we are as human beings.
One thing our books did not discuss was God. Nevertheless we received many e-mails from readers who had profound spiritual reactions to our books. I found these e-mails deeply moving: so many people wanted to know where God fit in this new universe. But I had no answer.
The truth is that I wasn’t ready to talk about God. Privately I was still on my quest to learn the source of the power and comfort and inspiration that the idea of a higher power offers. I wanted to visualize that source through the lens of a reality that’s based not on wishful thinking or tradition but on evidence—not only from cosmology but also biology, psychology, neuroscience, the study of complexity, and the history of religion and culture. After so many years of feeling torn apart, I wanted to feel coherent intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. I wanted a spiritual practice consistent with everything I know. I longed to be at peace with myself.
And then one day it hit me: I didn’t have to work from some prepackaged idea of “God” and ask if that could exist. The question “Does God exist?” is a hopeless distraction that will never lead anywhere positive. I had to turn the fundamental question on its head. If I wanted to find a God that is real, I had to start from what’s real, what actually exists. I realized that the question that matters is this: Could anything actually exist in the universe, as science understands it, that is worthy of being called God?
If the answer to my question is yes, then this is a huge discovery. It means that those of us who feel conflicted or even intellectually dismissive about a traditional kind of God, but who long for some spiritual connection, can enjoy the benefits of a genuine higher power in our lives, open-heartedly.
This shift in approach was like waking from a dream. Suddenly coherence became possible, because from a cosmic perspective the answer to my question became yes. Yes, there is something that truly fulfills the need for God and is also consistent with a cutting-edge scientific outlook.
If we give this idea a serious chance—if we can tamp down the usual reflex of resistance—this way of thinking about God can be comforting, awe inspiring, empowering, and in harmony with science.
The thing is, the new universe is counterintuitive in several ways, and therefore so is what it allows to be possible. To open our minds to this new understanding of God, we have to be clear about what God can’t be—in this universe, at least. And to liberate the mind to accept what God can’t be, it really helps to appreciate how ideas about God have always been changing. …
If only everyone could relax, even for a moment, the taboo around questioning God. If only everyone could, for one shining moment, act as if this new idea were true—try it out by moving in with all their furniture, the way scientists are willing to live inside a theory as if it’s true, sometimes for years, in order to test it and discover its implications. For those who are willing to do this, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it will transform your life. It has mine.
I have written this book because what began as a personal quest for a higher power that could free me from food addiction has blossomed into something larger than me. My discoveries may be useful to anyone who is dissatisfied with worn-out images and tired liturgies about God but is unwilling to dismiss the quest for spiritual insight. They are for anyone who is sick of the battle between religion and science, which generally pits a caricature of religion against a caricature of science and, not surprisingly, seems never to progress.
That battle cannot be resolved within the current popular state of knowledge. We have to go beyond that state to find the resolution—and for the first time the knowledge is becoming available that makes it possible. This book is a journey into the heart of the new scientific universe—the heart, that is, in the sense of those aspects of the universe that touch our core as human beings.
Because in that connection between the new universe and ourselves lies the key to a God that could be real.
We’ve all grown up so steeped in tradition, whether we’ve accepted it or rebelled against it, that it’s hard to grasp that the chance to redefine God is actually in our hands. But it is, and the way we do it will play a leading role in shaping the future of civilization. The good news is that we no longer have to do it by compulsion, tradition, or reflex. We can start rethinking our understanding of God in light of knowledge we never had before. We humans are participants in a cosmic venture: the multibillion-year evolution of complex intelligent life from nothing but particles and energy. The way we define God can either bless this extraordinary cosmic venture or slowly choke it to death.
It’s time to stop struggling with traditional views of God—struggling with each other as well as within our own minds. All the old views of God are demonstrably inadequate to our times. They perpetuate conflict or fail to inspire us enough to rise to the existential challenges of our complex world. That religion is today seen as separate from everything else is a sure sign that it is not about our real lives but about an image that some people are trying to impose on sprawling, unpredictable reality.
How we think about God matters enormously, and the dawn of a new cosmology is the best opportunity we may ever have to get it right. If we dare to let God be real in this universe, we may actually come to understand aspects of God, as well as feel the intimacy that real presence provides. If we look for God in what is real, the argument about God’s existence is over, and we can begin to learn its true nature and relationship to us. We can begin to experience our special place, and God’s, in the dynamism of the double dark cosmos.
Today many people, including powerful leaders, are turning to their religious traditions for principles to guide their decision making, but no religion has any experience with truly large-scale problems. The great religions were designed to confront only a tiny subset of what happens in our lives today. Each of us has to deal not only with our extended family, our community, and the natural world but also with thousands of strangers, languages, international news, entertainment, insidious advertising, and the entire Internet. And the reality of all of us doing this at once generates global markets and economies, nations, networks, and civilizations. Our worlds are more complicated by many orders of magnitude than those of the peoples who created our traditional ideas of God. We need to discover the principles that govern affairs on these immensely more complex scales. They can’t be intuited, and they can’t be derived from simpler thinking. None of our religions or political ideologies borne of narrower worlds can guide the future of humanity.
But something can.
While today’s dominant mind-sets about God are tearing us apart, both internally and from each other, the real God silently waits. For most of my life I never thought of God as part of the salvation of our species. I didn’t even see what I needed for my own salvation. But I have changed and so can anyone. I’m not trying to convince you to see God exactly as I do. I am simply offering my discovery. I am laying out what science has revealed to me and how I made sense of it. From this new perspective we can start, if we choose, to experience our unbreakable blood bond with Earth and with our grandparent, the cosmos. If we rethink God in light of this new knowledge, it may help us humans to find the wisdom and bravery we need to face our future together.
What I have learned is this: Having no spiritual life at all is like never really falling in love. Developing a spiritual bond with a fantasy is like falling in love with someone who will never love you back. But developing a spiritual bond with the real universe is like falling in love with someone who is already in love with you. That’s where God is.