Published as “The Longing of Johannes Kepler” in Charles L. Harper Jr., ed., Spiritual Information: 100 Perspectives on Science and Religion, Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005; and reprinted in The Anglican, Vol 32, #3, July A.D. 2003.
The Longing of Johannes Kepler
by Kitty Ferguson
One summer day, my daughter and I sat on a boulder jutting into the Black River as it runs through a gorge near Chester, New Jersey, and pondered the Universe. Fish, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, insects, and birds appeared, disappeared, and darted in every direction under a canopy of leaves. Farther along the river, two humans on another rock were locked in an embrace. I remarked, shaking my head, that when I looked at all this vigorous, teeming, diverse life and tried to imagine it being created by the process of evolution, my first inclination was to exclaim, “Naah!” But both of us acknowledged that my reaction was born of an inability to conceive of the enormous timespan during which all this had come into existence. We also both agreed that evolution and survival of the fittest had never posed any challenge to our faith in God. In fact, evolution seemed to us a glorious example of God’s genius—to have come up with this simple way of ensuring that life would fill every niche and be exceedingly difficult to wipe out. My daughter, who would be leaving the following week to begin graduate studies in molecular biology, pointed out how far better equipped the very small (viruses, bacteria, yeasts) are to survive than humans are.
“If anything were to challenge my faith,” she mused, “it wouldn’t be a theory about how the Universe could have started without God, and it wouldn’t be evolution — it would be the differences between people’s experience of God.” “Spiritual experience” too often seemed inconsistent, and it surely wasn’t always authentic — for didn’t the 9/11 terrorists believe they were acting on God’s instructions? For that matter, she questioned, how do any of us trust our private spiritual perceptions, knowing that drugs alter what seems to us to be “reality” and that our genes may make us prone to belief or to skepticism, to mysticism or to being bluntly down-to-earth?
Johannes Kepler, the sixteenth-to-seventeenth-century discoverer of the orbits of the planets, was a man of sophisticated and exuberant faith. His education at the University of Tübingen prepared him to be a Lutheran clergyman, and it was a severe disappointment when he was assigned, instead, to teach mathematics to small boys at a provincial school in Graz, Austria. Yet Kepler frequently voiced his conviction that even such apparently inexplicable turns of fate happened at God’s direction, and, indeed, the flash of insight that set him on course toward his greatest discoveries occurred while he was drawing a diagram on the chalkboard for his class. He also believed that God had incorporated deep principles of harmony and symmetry in Creation, and having done so, does not meddle in an arbitrary fashion. Kepler felt obliged to live with this apparent contradiction between a God of providence and a God of physical laws, because he continued to encounter what seemed to him to be concrete experiential evidence of both. More profoundly mysterious to him was the possibility of experiencing God not only as Creator of the universe and director of human events, but much closer. In Kepler’s words, “There is nothing I want to find out and long to know with greater urgency than this: Can I find God, whom I can almost grasp with my own hands in looking at the universe, also in myself?” From a large portion of the human race, the answer is, “Yes, God is to be found in ourselves, by ourselves, and God engages with us, personally.” But, given that agreement, we seem to fall so far short of finding the same God as to belie our answer.
The conversation with my daughter, and Kepler’s query, stick in my mind and cause me to suspect that, within the vast range of discussion about God and human interaction with God, those questions most frequently referred to science (having to do with creation, invention, and design) constitute only a small part of the total spectrum and have been blown out of proportion because they are, frankly, the easiest part to study scientifically. Thousands of generations of human beings attest that spiritual information isn’t necessarily something that requires use of a prodigious tool like science to find. It sometimes comes unsought, even unwanted, and to the most unlikely people. It has to do not so much with the Universe, out there, as with you and me, here and now. And it is extraordinarily difficult to systematize or study.
Personal human experience with God, if genuine, would be a rich source of vital information. Accordingly, much of this experience has been recorded in the writings of our religions. But the “yes” to Kepler’s question doesn’t come only from times when it didn’t seem necessary to subject such information to the rigors of a “scientific method.” The claim from many of our contemporaries is that the private channel is still open and that it is sheer foolishness—using pseudo-intellectual excuses—to ignore experiential evidence. With God standing face to face with us, must we forever insist on looking over God’s shoulder at galaxies, test tubes, computer readouts? If we do, we are in denial: “Don’t bother me about engaging with God. First I’ve got to find evidence in my science that God exists.” Not that we don’t learn about God through nature. Indeed, Kepler also wrote that in his experience “God wants to be known through the Book of Nature”; hence, everything Kepler discovered about the Universe WAS, to him, “spiritual information.” But many trustworthy people insist that there is also much to be learned in day-to-day engagement, a lifetime of both “having it out” with God and enjoying living in the presence of God. Though no evidence survives of Kepler giving a direct answer to his question, it clearly was through such personal experience that he thought he had learned what God wanted. We have to ask what science can do with this data.
If we ponder why our most widely respected method of sorting truth from falsehood has seldom attempted to subject this body of experiential evidence to systematic study, several reasons come to mind. One is that science by definition limits itself to public evidence—evidence that is repeatable and testable in an open arena. Private experience with God arguably does not meet these criteria. It can’t be coaxed or forced out by testing, or manipulated or scrutinized at will, and one person’s experience is often not a guide to what the next person’s will be.
A second reason is a tendency to conclude that if evidence can’t be tested in a public arena with scientific tools, that means it isn’t evidence. Rewording the old saw about the Master of Balliol (“What he doesn’t know isn’t knowledge!), we declare, “What we can’t study isn’t evidence,” or “What we can’t study with the scientific method didn’t really happen.”
A third reason: Arguably the greatest faith in God is a faith in God’s ultimate ability to stand up to all questioning, all testing, all profound personal doubts, expressed in our most brutally honest way. It is wonderful to be able to act on that faith. But many thoughtful people ask whether, in so acting, it is anyone’s right to insist that everyone approach God in this manner. This is an extremely delicate question. To pursue it is to revisit the minds of those in the Church at the time of Galileo who debated whether to confuse those of simple faith by publicly espousing what they as intellectuals suspected was correct: the Copernican system. It nevertheless behooves us to anticipate that science might turn out to be a bull in a china shop when taking on this body of evidence that is held as a priceless treasure by many. In none of our religious traditions, even at their most intellectually profound, has God reportedly declared that everyone’s personal faith must be purified in intellectual fires. Demand this (as we do if we employ a method as public as science to scrutinize spiritual experience), and for all we might gain we arguably trample roughshod over much of God’s most delicate ongoing maneuvering in human lives—a disastrous debacle indeed if science in its present state really can’t deal adequately with private evidence! Clearly the task calls for a profound level of humility and reverence for our fellow human beings and what they believe. Yet such sensitivity is apt to leave one open to the accusation that objectivity is impossible when one already has too much respect for the “evidence.”
When it comes to the first two hurdles—having to do with the nature of the evidence—I remind myself that the scientific method is not a monolith that has been with us forever. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, men like Galileo and Kepler were not heirs to a “scientific method.” Muddling through to their own discoveries, they worked out what science would be for future generations—how it would work, what it must include, and what it shouldn’t include. Scientists in the twentieth century again found themselves working out what science would be for later generations as they faced the challenges of post-modernism and found it both wise and productive to question the assumption of scientific objectivity. A far more significant frontier of science than “What hasn’t been studied?” is “What can’t be studied?,” and we have been clever at finding ways of pushing back that second frontier. Kepler, in his struggles to describe the orbit of Mars, feared that it might not even BE mathematically describable, yet he persevered and found the means to discover that it is elliptical. Astronomers and astrophysicists have devised methods to measure distances and quantities that seemed unmeasurable. The fields of chaos and complexity arose out of the conviction that what science had ignored because it resisted systemization must be ignored no longer. Our method of sifting truth and falsehood has surely not encountered the ultimate barrier between what it can and can’t handle.
The human intellect has a genius for approaching large, intimidating, “unanswerable” questions by way of more manageable inquiry. The ability to evaluate spiritual information coming from personal experience relies heavily on our first gaining much better understanding of ourselves. My daughter’s question, “How do I know whether my own and others’ experiences of God are authentic?,” doesn’t necessarily call for us immediately to wade into the evidence, winnowing it right and left, true or false. Rather, we ask, for example, “How do we recognize ‘reality’? What causes one person to identify an experience as ‘real’ while another would not?”—questions that are currently being approached by research in the neurosciences and genetics. The question, “Are emotions engendered by what we interpret as the presence of God really indicative of anything authentic?” similarly breaks down into “What causes us to feel joy or sorrow, inspiration or depression? What constitutes normal or abnormal psychology? What about us does not change when we take mood-altering drugs or otherwise manipulate our chemistry?”—problems certainly under scientific scrutiny. Information about consciousness and when and how it evolved should help us approach the larger questions: “Of how much of the universe are we conscious? Might some things lie beyond our ability, except under unusual circumstances, to be conscious of them?”
Will the answers challenge faith? If our experience in the areas of evolution and the origin of the universe are a guide, then, yes—they may, for a time. Yet it seems, at least to me and my daughter, that the more we learn in all areas of science, the more that challenge gives way to deeper mystery and deeper reverence. It is “a little knowledge” that is the more dangerous thing.
This discussion cannot avoid returning to the more personal level, for that is where the most fruitful or disastrous decisions about experience of God and God’s will are often made. Has science given us any indication about how you and I personally should answer the question whether our own experience, be it “mystical” or occurring more subtly over a long period of time, is authentic – and whether what seems to be “divine guidance” should be trusted? Scientists have not been silent on this issue, nor have all responsible ones suggested we dismiss such “information” as worthless or imaginary. Among psychologists of the most rigorous scientific bent there are those who caution us not to down-value personal spiritual experience, and who suggest that sensible methods of control and evaluation come from within the faith traditions themselves: It is not a scientific test, but it is an intellectually valid exercise to ask whether a private experience is consistent with the religious tradition in which your or my faith has been honed – with its history, its teachings, its writings. We have learned from those traditions some lessons in how not to discern God’s will, for instance that it is risky to rely for endorsement of our private spiritual perception upon only one small part of those writings or choose among passages as though at a smorgasbord, rather than to study them as a whole and read and interpret individual passages in the context of that whole. With regard to that same history, we are not ignorant of the tragic errors some of our forebears have made in the name of religion, and this historical memory helps us judge the validity of our own perceptions about what God’s will is. It is a safeguard to remain involved in a community of faith and to test private experience against the experience, perceptions, and wisdom of responsible contemporaries within the community. Even while we are seeking the assistance of an Intelligence far beyond ours, our own intelligence and good sense should not lie sleeping. It is not necessary to act stupider than we really are in order to remain humble before God.
The psalmist’s question, “What is man, that you are mindful of him?” is an eloquent expression of awe for God, abject humility for us. But the question, refocused, is even more likely to bring us to our knees: We are, arguably, for some unfathomable reason, extremely important to God. You don’t have to be a skeptic to ask, “Don’t lunatics ‘hear God’s voice’? Don’t terrorists feel they are obeying God’s orders?” The body of data having to do with human experience with God is confusing, often inconsistent, and almost certainly not all authentic. On the other hand you don’t have to be “overly religious” or gullible to admit that the body of data is enormous and extremely widespread and can’t all be off-the-mark. It is not confined to the reports of mystics or to folk tales from the past, nor to once-in-a-lifetime, miraculous experiences, nor to any stratum of society, any ethnic group, any religious group, any IQ level. In a search for truth, although we should recognize the pitfalls of the enterprise, we do not dare ignore this data. Using science to address the imponderable questions has hardly begun until it can help us understand and share in a more meaningful way this vast, rich, unwieldy store of spiritual information that human beings—these unexplainably significant creatures—may already have.
About the Author
Kitty Ferguson traces her interest in science to her childhood and her father’s infectious enthusiasm for the subject. Her formal training was in music at the Juilliard School, and for many years she was a successful professional musician, until during a sojourn in Cambridge, England, she became acquainted with several eminent scientists, including Stephen Hawking. On her return to the US, Kitty retired from music-making and began to write and lecture about science. Her six books have been translated into many languages and include the best-selling biography Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything, The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God, and, most recently, Tycho and Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership that Changed our Understanding of the Heavens. Kitty has been a part of workshops, panels, and lecture series in the US and Europe; written for Astronomy Magazine and Time Magazine’s Time for Kids; contributed a chapter to Russell Stannard’s God for the Twenty-First Century; and served as primary consultant for Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell. She serves on the Board of Advisors for the John Templeton Foundation, and she and her husband Yale are members of the Episcopal Guild of Scholars. The Fergusons are parishioners at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, NJ, where Kitty heads up the Companionship with the Kothapallimitta Pastorate, an “untouchable” pastorate in the Church of South India.
Kepler to an anonymous nobleman, Oct. 23, 1613, Johannes Kepler:Gesammelte Werke, 17, no. 669:20-22; translation in Carol Baumgardt, Johannes Kepler: Life and Letters, pp. 114-15.
Kepler to Michael Mästlin, Oct. 1595, Johannes Kepler:Gesammelte Werke, 13: 40.
See James W. Jones: The Mirror of God: Christian Faith as Spiritual Practice. New York: Palgrave, forthcoming, autumn 2003.