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Recovering Sacred Presence in a Disenchanted World

PHp_433By Mary Conrow Coelho. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (Number 433), 2015. 34 pages. $7/pamphlet.

Mary Coelho’s Pendle Hill pamphlet distills, for Friends, the wisdom of her much longer work, Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood. Weaving together science and theology, she argues for recovering our “interiority”—a sacred wellspring in unity with the creativity of the cosmos—as the ground out of which both physical and psychological reality unfold.

Coelho started her career in biology, as a researcher and teacher, but after a profound spiritual experience in her late 20s, she found no explanation in the modern worldview for such sacred Presence. “The earth,” she writes, “has become disenchanted and our own identity severely narrowed.” From her viewpoint today as a theologian, this puts both us and the world in danger. However, science itself now offers “good news” that can reconnect us to our bodies, our contemplative traditions, and our personal spiritual experience.

What is this good news? Well, since the 1920s, we’ve been shocked to discover that solid matter is mostly empty space—although “empty” is hardly the right word for the plenum, a boiling sea of potential, in which particles appear like whirlpools sustained by a mysterious unobservable background. At the same time, we recognize that time itself and everything that is now visible to us arose 14 billion years ago out of that plenum and organized itself into atoms, galaxies, stars, planets, starfish, and Quakers. In a world that we were once told consisted solely of matter plus the grinding‐down laws of thermodynamics, how do we explain this persistent arising of new forms, both in the physical world and in consciousness?

And our interior experience affirms that something similar to cosmic evolution is afoot within us. The emergence of profound psychological change after an encounter with the Inner Light points to an underlying reality just as surely as experiments in particle physics point to the unobservable plenum.

Coelho joins a long line of Quakers who have sought a consilience between science and faith. Her emphasis on the non‐observable quantum source of all being echoes and updates the early Quaker astrophysicist Arthur Stanley Eddington’s 1929 classic, Science and the Unseen World. Her awe for the universe is like that expressed by the contemporary Quaker astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and her sense of purpose in the universe resonates with the work of Quaker cosmologist George Ellis. However, in her writing, Coelho draws most of her inspiration from non‐Quaker sources—particularly the evolutionary cosmology of Brian Swimme, process theology, and Carl Jung’s depth psychology.

Jung saw pervasive organizing patterns, archetypes, at work. These archetypes express themselves in both body and mind. For example, the Self/Soul archetype exists as one part of the self‐organizing momentum of the natural world and is capable of altering reality through psychological healing and integration. Despite what we were taught, that personal process is not separate from the rest of the evolving cosmos, which remains, like us, a work in progress.

But what do we mean by “God” in this context? With the plenum providing an underlying unity, God becomes pervasive and persuasive, “an influence in the unfolding story of the universe, from within, rather than an outside force.” God draws us toward truth, beauty, and goodness—evoking the self‐organizing capacity of the Self/Soul for our healing and growth. This kind of sacred Presence is sure to dissatisfy both theists and atheists—the former saying “You call that God?” and the latter saying “Why call That god?” But as a systems engineer and Friend, I appreciate Coelho’s focus on our experience of the world—the undeniable reality of emergence and the self‐organizing patterns of both mind and matter. It places our spiritual experience on solid ground.

Particularly intriguing for Friends may be Coelho’s interpretation of our spiritual “leadings”—which she calls “occasions in which the creativity and directionality intrinsic to the cosmos are becoming conscious within a person.” Leadings become both numinous encounters and opportunities for healing, as we allow ourselves to be reorganized as part of the universe’s unfolding story. In this context, Quaker process supports the evolution of both person and planet.

There’s much more. If you are at all interested in science, faith, the new cosmology, or personal healing, this 34‐page pamphlet offers something for your contemplation. Some topics are inevitably short‐changed, and Coelho’s beautiful watercolor work fades to muddled gray on the cover (see her artwork in better light at newuniversestory​.com). But, in the end, Coelho invites us to imagine an emerging harmony between science and religion and to envision ourselves as part of an unfolding universe, expressed as one physical, conscious, and spiritual whole.

Rob Pierson is a member of Albuquerque (N.M.) Meeting (Intermountain Yearly Meeting), a systems engineer, and a graduate of the Earlham School of Religion with an abiding interest in the relation of science and faith.


Posted in: November 2015 Books, November 2015: Books and Pop Culture, Quaker Book Reviews, Uncategorized

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