In his classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the late Oscar Wilde proclaimed that the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. Wilde’s flash of insight encapsulates The Constant Fire by Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester and a regular contributor to Discover and Astronomy magazines. Frank describes himself as an avowed scientist, enamored of science as the revealer of nature’s inner secrets. This disciple of the universe publicly admits that the physical world has an immense spiritual dimension. His book seeks to map out a new path to the spiritual depths of nature by weaving together science and the human spiritual endeavor or what he calls “the constant fire.”
Frank’s goal is not to supplant science with spirituality but to recognize that science is a means to wisdom. His new spiritual path echoes The Sacred Depths of Nature, by Ursula Good-enough, a biologist and naturalist for whom nature bathed in the purity and simplicity of mystery is religion itself. Like Goodenough, Frank’s path is nontheistic. His project is formed by three main themes: science, myth and the sacred. In the first section he explores these themes in light of the constant fire of the sacred, which he describes (following William James) as experience, intuitively apprehended. He examines the conflict between science and religion followed by a new way to view the sacred in science through religious experience. He also expounds the power of myth in science and religion through the work of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. In the second main section he describes the universe story and the wonders of cosmological and ecological nature, and identifies some of the main problems facing us today. In the final section he attempts to find ways to recapture the sacred in nature that can lead us to a higher plane of knowledge and wisdom.
Frank writes well and is especially clear when describing aspects of science. His account of the universe story is superb and enlightening: “New Jersey seems like an unlikely place for the origin of the universe to reveal itself, but that is exactly where the story of the Big Bang starts.” No one before has ever identified New Jersey as the birthplace of the universe.
But there are weaknesses, too. Frank is poorly informed in the area of religion and hence of the encounter of religion with science. The author contends that organized religion is an enemy of science; hence his desire is to move beyond the science and religion debate. The antagonism Frank perceives is based on the tenets of creation science and the intelligent design movement. He labels the devotees of creationism as the “Sullen” because they harbor an inborn anger toward science. Frank is equally critical of the New Age movement’s appropriation of the new science. In his view, the New Age movement conflates quantum physics with specific religious doctrine (such as Buddhism) or uses quantum mechanics to prop up ideas that have no connection to it. He calls these folk the “Silly” because they embrace a dominant scientific paradigm and use it to explain traditional religious beliefs, sometimes reducing the science to a pulp where it is hardly recognizable.
While some efforts in this regard are inane, I would hardly describe Fritjof Capra’s work as silly. Capra is a professionally trained physicist who has drawn together aspects of the new physics with certain tenets of Buddhism in a highly engaging manner, helping many people to open up their worldviews to a much different universe than the one Newton described. What Frank fails to realize is that others too are trying to make sense of the world as science describes it by identifying deeper connections and fundamental human values.
Although Frank does not want to associate himself with formal religion, his book is suffused with the question of religion. Because he does not adequately engage a discussion of religion, however, his argument rests on the shifting sands of the postmodern slogan “spiritual but not religious.” His argument is like an etch-a-sketch. He briefly recounts the ancients’ pursuit of true knowledge as a spiritual discipline but then jumps to the modern conflict between religion and science, as if there might have been nothing in between these two extremes. I think Frank would enjoy reading St. Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon or Robert Grosseteste in this regard. He insists that the expression “science and religion” is a battle cry between science and the Judeo-Christian God who tends to be willful. Yet science, as we have come to know it, grew out of the Christian tradition; and unless we come to appreciate what the Christian tradition has to say, we fail to plumb the secret depths of nature. Frank wants to “step off the old road and set off in a different direction,” but others have already traveled this path; and some, like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., have made a difference.
Frank’s goal is noble, but his method of inquiry is impotent and raises the question, who has the authority to plumb the sacred? One cannot help admire Frank, a hard-core scientist, for identifying the sacred in nature, but he succumbs to the same problem for which he berates the “Silly” and “Sullen”—engaging a discipline (in this case, religion) without sufficient foundation. Is this not the reason for dialogue between scientists and theologians, so that together we may come to a deeper understanding of the world? Frank too easily dismisses God and thus never really plumbs the sacred depths of nature or the meaning of science itself. In the end, the constant fire of the book’s title is a constant problem of misguided notions of religion. Frank might have done well to look to a writer like Teilhard, for whom the universe was not simply an object of scientific inquiry but something alive, throbbing and pulsating with energy that he approached with deep reverence and a sense of wonder. Maybe Frank can still learn from Teilhard that the constant fire is not the undefined sacred but the divine heart bursting with love.