Or rather, we’ve got the course “A Brief History of the Soul” beginning at the end of October. Taught by Jeffrey J. Kripal, Ph.D., the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, this class promises to inspire investigation regarding celestial beliefs and supernatural happenings not of the physical form. To set the stage for this riveting dialogue, Dr. Kripal provides the impetus that prompted this course below.
A guest post by instructor Jeffrey J. Kripal, Ph.D.
I did my undergraduate work in a Catholic seminary and monastery. I wanted to be a monk, that is, someone who dedicates his life to prayer, contemplation and study. It was the study-part that “got” me. My mentors were Benedictine monks with Ph.D.s. One day, one of them walked into my astronomy class shouting the oddest thing: “We are star people!” Fr. Albert possessed a Ph.D. in chemistry, and he was speaking that day as a professional scientist who knew all about the elements of the natural world and how they come together to form more and more complex molecules, cells and, eventually, carbon-based bipeds, like you and me.
He was being quite literal with the shocking star-people line. He taught us that the unimaginable heat and pressures of dying stars are the only places in the universe where the heavier elements that are required for organic life can form. As stars burn out over billions of years, heavier and heavier elements are fused together in their ungodly hot interior cores. The dying stars then collapse in upon themselves with the larger ones eventually exploding and, like some giant orgasm, cast the elemental seeds of life into the black womb of space. There, through the forces of gravity, they might eventually collect together again and form new stars and the new worlds that we call “planets” and, eventually, that most mysterious of all cosmic expressions: life. Put simply but majestically, we carry around in our bodies, as those bodies, the cosmic stuff of exploded stars. We are indeed, every one of us, star people.
Fr. Albert’s astronomy class was one of the turning points of my intellectual life. My world was bigger and more mysterious after it. Way, way bigger, and way, way more mysterious. I still remember standing in the freezing cold of some winter night in Missouri, huddled around a telescope with Fr. Albert and a few other shivering seminarians. I looked into the glass and saw a sparkling globular cluster, a shimmering sphere of hundreds of thousands of stars orbiting the core of our Milky Way Galaxy. My mind could not fathom the distance this light had traveled across our own galaxy to fall upon my little retina, nor could I grasp the weirdness and wonder of what I was seeing. But I was seeing it. Here I was, a living, thinking, speaking star, as it were, looking at a cluster of other stars countless miles and years away. It was then that I realized: the impossible is real.
The impossible is real. That, I think, is what I really took from Fr. Albert’s astronomy class. I realized that what was real, what we already know about the nature of the material world is more fantastic than anything we can possibly imagine. I also understood, on some intuitive level, that what I was seeing carries profound religious implications.
I had also been trained by the monks in biblical criticism. I knew that these were originally oral traditions passed down through generations and eventually crystallized and edited in specific collections of texts for all sorts of complex historical, political and theological reasons. Such texts certainly expressed and in turn shaped a particular people’s experience of what we call, so easily, “God,” but these texts clearly remain for all of that human artifacts, deeply conditioned by the cultural imagination of the time and place.
Including and especially those cultural understandings of the natural world. The simple truth is that the ancient Hebrews and Jewish Christians who wrote the biblical texts knew next to nothing about the universe as we know it today. Hence the Hebrew texts imagine the universe as a rather cozy place, with the Earth at the center of things and the sky as a kind of dome or ceiling upon which the sun, moon and stars moved and out of which things like rain poured down. As we move through the Hebrew texts into the Greek and Roman worlds of the New Testament, early Christianity, and early rabbinic Judaism, things shift considerably as various ancient Middle Eastern astrological conceptions enter into the picture. We eventually get a model of multiple spheres, moving in harmonious sequence within one another, again with the earth, that is, with us, in the center of it all.
There were different systems of this model at place at various times. Sometimes there were thought to be “seven heavens,” through which a particularly gifted soul or spirit could move — like the prophet Elijah or the apostle Paul — as he ascended within an ecstatic trance through these spheres, closer and closer to God, who was imagined as dwelling outside or above all of these spheres, or in the seventh of them. These cultures were not being metaphorical, by the way. As my colleague April DeConick, Ph.D., Isla Carroll & Percy E. Turner Professor of New Testament & Early Christianity Chair of Department of Religion, Rice University, would tell you, they really thought that they were moving through the heavens and, more specifically, the stars. Indeed, many of these ancient communities — particularly those with gnostic or mystical sensibilities — believed that the human soul itself was “of the stars,” that is, that it came from the stars and would return there. They too were convinced: we are star people.
It was some version of these seven heavens that the Jewish rabbi named Saul or Paul was referring to when he spoke of being taken up “into the third heaven.” The same conception, by the way, would later become common in Islam, particularly around the Prophet’s famous mir’aj or “night journey.” What we are talking about here, then, is a physical cosmology that was more or less assumed by all three of the world’s monotheistic traditions.
And it is wrong. Clearly, the multiple sphere or heaven model cannot work anymore. We live under a different sky. How, then, can we continue to speak of the “heavens above” or the “third heaven”? More seriously, can we even continue speaking of “up”? There is no “up” in the universe. Everywhere is up. What does this all mean, what can this mean for religion? Put differently, what did science and space exploration do to the religious imagination? What did NASA do to the human soul? Where are the star people now?
Photo credit: Michael Stravato