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Natural Selection

Reviews of books, film, and other media

The Big Questions in Science and Religion
by Keith Ward
(Templeton Foundation Press, 2008, paperback $16.95)

Big Questions

With so much media attention being given these days to scientific atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that science and religion are inevitably at odds. But could that really be true? In his new book, The Big Questions in Science and Religion, author Keith Ward, a professor of divinity at Oxford University (and a colleague of Richard Dawkins), addresses the major issues religion must confront to remain relevant in our modern age. At the beginning of the book, he acknowledges that “religious beliefs cannot remain what they were before the rise of modern science any more than ancient scientific beliefs can. It would be absurd to suggest that ancient religious beliefs should remain unchanged when our whole view of the universe has changed radically.” It is a statement easy to support in the abstract, but what exactly are those religious beliefs and convictions that need to be updated, and how should we go about doing it? That is the meta-question that Ward seeks to explore in this impressive and comprehensive analysis of the ways we need to reenvision our understanding of religion for a scientifically informed age.

Ward has structured the book into ten basic questions that get at the essence of the science-religion interface. Each chapter covers one of these questions, beginning fittingly with “How did the universe begin?” and ending with one of the hottest topics debated today: “Does quantum physics put materialism in question?” Each chapter contains a series of semi-independent essays on the subject of the chapter, exploring all of the ins and outs of each topic. The strength of the book is in Ward’s kaleidoscopic understanding of the subject material. The author of more than twenty books on religion, a number of those exploring science as well, Ward is truly a master of this domain. He brings not only a wealth of knowledge to the book but a wealth of perspectives as well. For example, in the chapter “Is evolution compatible with creation?” he discusses not just biblical creationism or intelligent design but also the issue of purpose and direction in the evolutionary process; the “German Idealist roots of evolutionary thought”; the nature of the mechanisms at work in biological evolution and how they mesh with a religious worldview; the question of suffering and violence in the evolutionary process and how that might affect our religious convictions; the issue of original sin and how that relates to evolution; the perspectives of Buddhism, Vedanta, Advaita Vedanta, Christianity, and Judaism; and the thoughts of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, physicist Steven Weinberg, biologist Kenneth Miller, as well as Francisco Ayala, Marx, Hegel, and Teilhard de Chardin. 

The result is a rich and comprehensive exploration, which is mostly a good thing, though at times the book’s sheer density of information works against it. The chapters tend to wander a bit, and even though the information is all compelling, even brilliant at times, lay readers might find themselves wishing for a clearer and more overarching narrative to tie the many parts together. This is partially a result of the book being more exploratory than declarative, though it would be wrong to say Ward has no agenda. His agenda, in fact, is clear: to make a case that religious belief as well as spiritual practice, experience, and revelation remain completely valid even in an age of science. Astute readers will notice that Ward tends toward pursuing those questions that are of particular interest to Christian theology (he is also a priest in the Church of England), but he is extremely well versed in all the major traditions. Again and again he uses a particular subject to show that it is a mistake philosophically, rationally, and theologically to conclude that science has disproved religion or that science has crowded out the notion that there is a deeper, transcendental Spirit that is integral to life and existence. Readers may vary in how they see Ward’s particular perspectives on life after death or religious experience or quantum physics or morality, but he makes a convincing case that scientists have absolutely no business making pronouncements about the death of God. In fact, the book makes a good case for the opposite: that the latest science leaves all kinds of doors open and at times even encourages us to look for spiritually inspired explanations for phenomena. “Are there supernatural causes?” Ward asks toward the end of the book. “Science . . . does not deal with them. But if the physical cosmos is essentially open to creative and holistic influences, to a pattern-forming purpose tending to the emergence of many forms of distinctive value . . . then it seems entirely plausible and in keeping with the deepest insights of the natural sciences to affirm that there are.”

This is perhaps the essence of Ward’s message in the book. Readers seeking a more visionary synthesis or a radical new way of integrating science and spirit will be disappointed, but that should not distract us from appreciating Ward’s impressive achievement. Indeed, The Big Questions in Science and Religion may not have any big new answers to offer, but it would be hard to find a more expert guide to the questions than this erudite Oxford theologian.

–Carter Phipps


Explorers of the Infinite
The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Athletes—and What They Reveal About Near-Death Experiences, Psychic Communication, and Touching the Beyond
by Maria Coffey
(Tarcher, 2008, hardcover $26.95)

Explorers of the Infinite

The only way I could have appreciated Maria Coffey’s new book about extreme athletes and spiritual experience more would be if it had been published ten years ago. At that time, I was in my early twenties, and my life revolved around outdoor adventure. From a young age, I had been very athletic, and by the time I turned seventeen, I was Junior National Triathlon Champion. It was about then that I began having spontaneous higher-state experiences that seemed to be connected with physical pursuits. Nothing I had learned about life up to that point provided any context for understanding these experiences, and I never spoke of them, but they instilled in me a conviction that there was much more to life than was commonly assumed. I went on to become a white-water raft and kayak guide and, over the years, participated in numerous risk-taking events that culminated in saving the lives of people in ways that can only be described as miraculous. So when I first picked up Explorers of the Infinite: The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Athletes—and What They Reveal About Near-Death Experiences, Psychic Communication, and Touching the Beyond, I was intrigued to say the least.

Coffey’s interest in this subject was initiated while doing research for her previous book, Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, for which she won the prestigious Jon Whyte Award for Mountain Literature at the Banff Mountain Book Festival. She describes how all the climbers she interviewed for that book spoke of an “overwhelming sense of aliveness” when on the mountain and at moments of great danger, and that many felt the experience to be a spiritual one. Coffey became even more fascinated, however, “when some of the climbers shared stories of the further reaches of this zone: encounters with ghosts and spirits, telepathic communications, precognitive dreams, astral travel, bouts of superhuman strength.” In Explorers of the Infinite, she relays many of these climbers’ amazing stories and goes on to include accounts of adventurers of every ilk, from big-wave surfers and base jumpers to those who have done long expeditions under inhumanly harsh conditions.

One of the many impressive characters featured in her book is Yiannis Kouros, the celebrated Greek ultramarathon runner. When commenting on the spiritual component to his running, he says, “It is not easy to grasp what is taking place in the mind and the soul, in the senses and beyond the senses of a runner due to the refusal of the body. Only if the runner achieves his transcendence, and especially in the metaphysical level, is he then able to continue.” Not every adventurer is willing to speak so deeply about his or her experience, however. When Coffey asks climber and yoga teacher Alan Burgess if climbers and other types of adventurers are on a spiritual search, he responds, “They have to be, but you know how climbers are. They will give you flippant answers to questions like this, so you can’t discover their deeper motives.” In my own experience with adventure cultures, this attitude is certainly common. But I wonder if our reluctance to speak about our “secret spiritual lives” has more to do with a lack of understanding and a fear of being seen as crazy than true irreverence. It is in its ability to help us contemplate and understand more deeply our own experiences that Explorers of the Infinite provides the greatest contribution, not only to the way adventurers think about their sport but also to the larger body of research on spiritual and paranormal phenomena. Explorers of the Infinite reveals that such experiences are common to people who are pushing a certain edge. Rather than making them seem mundane, a look at the commonality of these episodes brings them out of the isolation of an individual’s subjective experience and into a more universal investigation of the nature of consciousness. Furthermore, by providing a context for understanding a pursuit of sports that goes beyond mere physical goals, Coffey is stepping past a materialistic worldview. She readily admits that this is new territory for her, and while that shows in the book’s lack of clear distinctions between the spiritual and the paranormal, her research is valid and compelling nonetheless.

Explorers of the Infinite is a fascinating look into what drives humans toward discovery, risk, and a state of “intense aliveness.” Searching for links between extreme adventure and spiritual, mystical, and paranormal experiences, Coffey opens up an important investigation. In doing so, she calls us to question what we think we know about both athletic pursuits and human awareness.

–Megan Cater


Fierce Light
When Spirit Meets Action
Written and directed by Velcrow Ripper
(FierceLight Films, 97 minutes)

Fierce Light

Media activist, spiritual seeker, and award-winning Canadian writer and director Velcrow Ripper’s newest film, Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action, explores the potent intersection where social activism and spirituality meet. Sparked by Ripper’s need to reconcile these two driving forces in his own life, the film takes a long and thoughtful look at the relationship between the heartfelt urge to make the world a better place and the equally pressing desire to know oneself and understand one’s place in the universe.

The decisive event that compelled Ripper to commit his inquiry to cinematic exploration was the assassination of a fellow filmmaker in the violence that erupted during the 2006 teachers’ strike in Oaxaca, Mexico. Deeply affected by this tragic loss, Ripper headed to Oaxaca with camera in hand to find answers to his pressing questions. “How can I think about spirituality when my friends are being killed?” he asks himself. Then, as if to find out for himself the kind of courage it took for his friend to document the highly volatile situation in the jittery city, he heroically—and with a good deal of fear, he readily admits—films the heavily shielded riot police at close range. It is this willingness to put himself on the front lines of the action and at the epicenter of his documentary that makes Ripper’s film such an authentic and engaging investigation into what it means to care about the world.

From Oaxaca, Ripper travels around the world, interviewing activists, spiritual leaders, and concerned people young and old. He also weaves in several narratives of social actions as they unfold, which adds considerable dramatic tension to the film. Chief among them is the story of the attempt to save the South Central Community Garden in Los Angeles from demolition, a saga that unfolded over the period of a month and is interspersed throughout the film.

At times it seems as if the many diverse voices and documented events threaten to spin out of control. But in the end, Ripper manages to unify the disparate elements and create a meaningful, poignant, and convincing whole. No small part of the depth he successfully conveys is due to the eloquence of Georgia congressman John Lewis’s commentary, which frames the film at both ends and helps anchor it in a historical context.

Lewis is the last surviving speaker from the famous 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. He also played a prominent role in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, where he was severely beaten, at the height of the civil rights movement. Lewis embodies the soulful activism Ripper is trying to define and call forth. He has the assuredness of a man who long ago made an irrevocable decision not to hate. In original footage from the DC rally, we hear a youthful Lewis boldly declare, “We want our freedom and we want it now.”

Freedom is where social activism and spirituality find common currency. Liberation occurs both within, as the enlightened relationship to life, and without, as the societal freedoms due all men and women. Ripper understands that it takes both types of freedom to create a more perfect world, and as his film Fierce Light so movingly captures, when these two manifestations of freedom line up, a power is unleashed that can transform our most audacious dreams into living reality.

–Carol Ann Raphael


Eros Ascending
The Life-Transforming Power of Sacred Sexuality
by John Maxwell Taylor
(Frog Books, 2009, paperback $16.95)

Eros Ascending

Sometimes it’s hard to believe how much things have changed in just forty years. If, for example, John Maxwell Taylor’s new book, Eros Ascending: The Life-Transforming Power of Sacred Sexuality, had been published in 1969 instead of 2009, it might have been called revolutionary. But today, with books on the relationship between sex and spirituality proliferating on bookshelves across the country, Taylor’s new work on the science and practice of “sacred sexuality” doesn’t register quite so high on the novelty scale. Nevertheless, Eros Ascending is an impressive and comprehensive journey through many of the ideas that currently populate our culture’s fascination with the spiritual side of humanity’s most popular activity.

Taylor’s own background is unusually eclectic. He has achieved success as a playwright, actor, author, and musician, and he brings something of that multifaceted creativity to his approach to the subject. His spiritual interests have been wide-ranging as well. Originally a practitioner in the tradition of Swami Paramahansa Yogananda’s Kriya Yoga, Taylor loved the energetic power of the practice, but he grew tired of the emphasis on celibacy and began to search for alternatives. This search eventually landed him right in the middle of the burgeoning movement to blend Eastern tantric and Taoist sexual approaches with the new sex-positive, experimental, and exploratory attitudes of the West. Taylor took to the “sacred sex” movement with all the zeal of a true convert, and Eros Ascending is a report from the trenches, so to speak, of several decades of his and others’ work to ascertain the spiritual potential of the sexual force. It follows his interest and tracks his many influences—including Yogananda, Jung, Gurdjieff, and contemporary Taoist master Montak Chia, with a little bit of Osho Rajneesh, Wilhelm Reich, and tantric adept Margot Anand mixed in as well. Taylor explores it all—Jungian gender archetypes, male orgasm, ejaculatory control, chakras, kundalini, female orgasm, the G spot, stories from the Indian Kumbha Mela, the science of sacred sex, and more. I found the book to be a treasure trove of information on sacred sexuality, and it’s hard not to appreciate Taylor’s lively and personable mix of philosophy, storytelling, and how-to. He writes in a breezy, popular style that is accessible and easy to read, even though the organization of the material is quite laissez-faire. It gives the book a sort of disjointed stream-of-consciousness feel, as if you were reading a hundred loosely connected blog posts on the subject.

But Eros Ascending does have a few overarching themes, the primary one being that sexuality and romance, in their many forms and expressions, represent humanity’s definitive link to divinity. “What was once the province of ascetics, mystics, and saints is now the domain of ordinary men and women who are becoming extraordinary through ecstatic experiences of their own divinity,” writes Taylor. “Whether or not they know it, in every case, without exception, sex energy connecting with the brain is the essential key to the transformation of consciousness.” Sprinkled throughout Eros Ascending are declarations like this about human sexuality and spiritual attainment that are sure to raise a few eyebrows (if not bright red flags). Is it really true in every case that sex and higher consciousness are linked?

For Taylor, the answer is an emphatic yes. In fact, the only problem with romantic infatuation and sexual engagement, in his perspective, is that they eventually come to an end. The rapture they offer our nervous systems is short-lived. Traditionally, the realization that the pleasures of sex and romance are passing might provide a spur to look for deeper forms of happiness and meaning. Not so in Eros Ascending. Here the brief pleasure they offer us only reveals the spiritual and sexual work we must do to perfect our body-mind so that we are better able to sustain their God-intoxicating power. “The bliss we can know during sex is continually present to us as an atomically rooted substance in every cell of our bodies,” Taylor declares. “The true purpose of the spiritual life is permanent return to that state.”

Who would want to deny that there may be important connections between the ecstasy of sexuality and the nature of spiritual awakening? After all, sexuality is related to the deepest evolutionary impulses of the cosmos, and the move in culture toward recognizing that any truly contemporary spirituality must include the body and sexuality in its embrace is surely a good thing. At its best, Eros Ascending explores these important truths in a sex-positive, highly speculative manner, yet we can err in many ways. To so easily assume that the highly complex and subtle evolution of consciousness and spirit is reducible to our relationship with sexual energy is also problematic. What about the numerous other forms of spiritual experiences, insights, and practices, not to mention the delicate territory of understanding the nature of consciousness itself at the highest level? Is all spiritual engagement directly related to sex? Taylor’s enjoyable book certainly convinced me that his vision of sacred sexuality may have real benefits: better physical and psychological health, better relationships, bigger and better orgasms, even a genuine window into the spiritual dimension. But I was less convinced of his central message—that sex is always about the sacred and that the sacred is always about sex.

–Carter Phipps


Books for Evolutionaries
with John White

John White

Q: What are the best books on evolution you have read in the last decade?

I’ll name science fiction novels because sci-fi is an important area of discovery for people interested in evolution, especially evolutionary spirituality. There are many significant books, such as Dune by Frank Herbert; Macroscope by Piers Anthony; War in Heaven by David Zindell; Zardoz by John Boorman and Bill Stair; Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny; and The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons. But my top three are the following:

Childhood’s End
by Arthur C. Clarke

This 1953 novel about the next step in human evolution is a wonderfully imaginative tale. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Clarke’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968 with concurrent novelization by Clarke, contains the same theme, but Childhood’s End surpasses it.

by A.A. Attanasio

An epic tale of one man’s transformation from humanity to near-godhood, Radix is as richly detailed and convincingly imagined as the fantasy worlds of Dune and Lord of the Rings but also includes metaphysical realms and celestial beings.

Star Maker
by Olaf Stapledon

This 1937 novel by a noted British philosopher is the greatest work of sci-fi for readers whose primary concern is return to godhead. Stapledon’s visionary account of the end of a universe and the birth of future universes takes us as far as words ever have into the mind of God and the evolution of all creation, including us.

Q: What is the best book you have read this year?

Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution
by Steve McIntosh

When Steve submitted the manuscript for consideration in my Omega Books series (Paragon House), it blew me away with its clarity, elegant simplicity, and insight, so I accepted it. Recognizing that the evolution of consciousness is the key to understanding history and spirituality, Steve discusses the possible human future in practical terms, which include a look at politics and spirituality.


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SEX - The Good, the Strange, and the Sacred