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Eli Herb
Eli Herb

Review of Brian Greene’s ‘Until the End of Time’

Brian Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University and, as such, is no slouch … when it comes to physics and mathematics. When it comes to understanding religion and religious philosophy, however, he displays a naïveté that shows a weakness in this particular area interdisciplinary discourse. In much the same way that I would seem naive if trying to speak about the spirituality of quantum physics, because I am not a physicist, Greene writes several things about religion that show how he, as a non-practicing Jew – i.e. a person who neither subscribes to a theology nor engages in a traditional spiritual praxis – does not really understand religion. 

This is not to write him, or his work, off. Not at all. Working through the audiobook version of Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and the Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe was a powerful, challenging, and deeply engaging experience for me. I connected with his observations about the evolution of the human mind within the context of an evolving universe and his critique of some forms of religion. Having grown up with a botanist and evolutionary biologist as a father, who introduced me to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in the 70s when I was still in elementary school, Greene’s book transported me back to a kind of godless, expansive, mystery that so inspired me as a child. More: he reminded me of a morality that comes from a science based awe to which I had become disconnected. I am indebted to Greene for this feeling of becoming reacquainted with so foundational a world view; like having part of my childhood restored, a particular sense of wonder that I had been missing. Furthermore, Greene’s exploration of how religion came to be and why it persists took me one step further in my theological evolution and has left me in a very different spiritual space for months since I completed the book, a space that I have found both exciting and very troubling. As a religious person, this is the “sweet spot” between discomfort and growth. 

Greene hooked me with a story about how the famous physicist Erwin Schrödinger pointed to passage in a Hindu text during a lecture, that speaks of the oneness of everything, which led to him losing his publisher; apparently, you might risk losing a scientific publisher if you cite scripture. Following in Schrödinger footsteps, Greene believes that science needs to be interdisciplinary. 

“There are many ways of understanding the world. In the traditional organization of the sciences, physics deals with elementary particles and their various unions, chemistry with atoms and molecules, and biology with life. That categorization, still with us today but far more prominent when I was a student, provides a reasonable, if coarse, demarcation of the sciences by scale. In more recent times, however, the deeper researchers have probed, the more they have realized that grasping the crossovers between disciplines is essential. The sciences are not separate and when focus shifts from life to intelligent life yet other overlapping disciplines – language, literature, philosophy, history, art, myth, religion, psychology, and so on, become central to the chronicle. Even the staunch reductionist realizes that as factuous as it would be too explain a baseball’s trajectory in terms of molecular motion, it would only be more so to invoke such a microscopic perspective in explaining what a batter was feeling as a picture went through as wind up, the crowd roared, and the fast ball approached. Instead, higher-level stories told in the language of human reflection provide far greater insight.” (Pg 71)

Any discipline can become schtick. Greene argues that some sciences can become so hyper-focused on the mechanics of a particular part that they fail to observe the whole; in that way, science can fail to observe what it is actually looking at. Because of the specialization of science, a researcher or theoretician can, without interdisciplinary study, completely miss the mark. 

In Until the End of Time, Greene speaks highly of Eastern traditiona. When it comes to Judaism, or Christianity, he is much more critical. Like so many American Jews, Greene seems to have been exposed to the depths of Hindu scriptural traditions while having very little experience with the depth of Jewish scriptural traditions. By “scriptural traditions,” I am referring not just to the written word (which I view as less important) but the contemplative and ritual practices that live in relationship to the written text (and which the teachers in my lineage view as more important). 

Greene’s essential argument is that the religious imagination arose as a means of survival per the foundational rule of Darwinism: survival of the fittest. It would seem that for Greene, there is no objective spiritual reality that religion points toward. Rather, this is the creation of the evolved human mind. Religion is no accident, either. It arose because evolution is essentially driven by the need to survive. The imagined existence of mythical beings is just that: imagined. 

This teaching overlaps with the work of my teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green and it must be admitted that I picked up Professor Greene’s book because of a demand Rabbi Green has made upon his students. In Radical Judaism, Rabbi Green proposes that religious people accept evolution as the sacred story of our time. Rabbi Green tries to move the reader away from the “vertical” metaphor of G-d, in which humans live here on earth and G-d exists in the supernal realms beyond us, beyond the earthly, to an “inward” metaphor in which that which is inward is spiritual; G-d dwells within us, G-d dwells within the universe, as well as beyond it. In this metaphor, Rabbi Green freely admits anthropomorphizing G-d: “To what extent are all human-like images of God projections from the realm of human experience? The inevitable answer is that they indeed are, and the theologian does best who admits fully that such the case.” For Rabbi Green it remains sacrilegious to propose that G-d is human-like because G-d is the cosmic unity outside of which nothing exists at all. But the human mind has evolved with an imagination – an imagination that, inevitably, projects itself onto reality. For Rabbi Green, however, this is the way that – through evolution – G-d is revealing Themselves. For Professor Greene, however, it would seem that there is nothing “revealing” itself at all. Rather, the universe is cold and meaninglessness save what humans, through their evolved creativity, do. 

Radical Judaism by Rabbi Arthur Green

These two world views strike me as necessarily irreconcilable, at least at this point in history. For Rabbi Green, the cosmic unity is and, in some impossibly small way, we can perceive this unity. Living into this reality is crucial for him, a profoundly moral choice. To understand that humans are created “in the image of G-d” is a practice that comes out of a deep, experiential faith in the wisdom of this ancient perception which renders each human being, and all life, as ineffably holy. This is essentially a religious/mystical perception. 

Rabbi Arthur Green, God is One from Judaism Unbound

Professor Greene, on the other hand, has no G-d at all in which we are made in the image. This is partly because he does not possess a nuanced, interdisciplinary theology. Nor, in my opinion, does he really understand the religious imagination, even if he does present an inspiring (and at least partly true!) story of the evolution of the same. We are, rather, the product of a universe in which Darwinian evolution, which extends to atoms and molecules and not just organic life, rules. Everything that exists exists because it obeys the laws of physics; everything from black holes to thoughts, from sedimentary rock to emotion, from lightning to imagination.

This is not nihilism. And those religious minds that would claim it is are incorrect. Greene’s conclusion is highly moral. For him, morality is a reflection of the drive for survival. And, further, with our imaginations, humans can imagine the universe in macro and microscopic detail, create art, and reflect on our existence in life-giving ways. And Greene is right to criticize the aspects of religion that refuse to conform to the conclusions of scientific reasoning. 

But this also belies his naïveté about religion. And it is here that I hope to offer a perspective on his beautiful and inspiring book. Not because I hope to debunk his book or his work. I don’t. Rather, I hope to show that his misunderstanding of the religious imagination illuminates a path toward the interdisciplinary work that we all need to do in order to save our world from destruction at our own human hands. 

I have little interest in trying to defend G-d, here. I merely hope to expose a glimpse of how the religious imagination functions in order to show its maturity and why it is that, on occasion, as Greene says, religious tradition can offer something to science and show that there is, indeed, the possibility of a reciprocal relationship. 

Greene writes, in a moment of criticism of the particularism of science, “…these better suited human developed stories [i.e. religion] must be compatible with the reductionist account.” Religious civilization and its use of myth [better suited human developed stories], he argues, if they are to be of any worth at all, must be in line with the scientific processes which “reduce” everything to functions of physics. Let us return to his story of Schrödinger quoting Hindu scripture. Greene agrees, whole heartedly, that the Hindu perception of the unity of all things is compatible with Schrödinger’s “reductionist” scientific world view. This is an anachronistic thing to say and displays an ignorance of how both myth and mystical experience work. The perception of unity that exist in so many of the world’s religious civilizations were not arrived at through reductionist science. They were derived through experience – tradition, ritual and mystical experience. Were it not for physics corroborating many of these mystical insights, we could easily, and rationally, write the concept of unity off entirely as mystical nonsense, the exact opposite of reductionist science. So Greene misses a crucial point here and, in so doing, posits reductionist science as the norm by which all the other disciplines he hopes to integrate are considered deviant. This is a fantastic oversight on his part. So fantastic that I often wondered while reading this book if he had chosen sensationalism over accuracy; I wondered if, for the sake of generating discussion, he had chosen to deliberately say something that would provoke a response.

This happens over and over again in the book; he “reduces” the evolution of religious civilization to a function of Darwinism. While simultaneously arguing for interdisciplinary studies, he argues that religion must orient itself to reductionist scientific studies. But how, exactly, would the Buddha have come to the insight of the unity of all things 2500 years ago when reductionist theory did not exist? How would the Hindu mystics have come to this insight thousands of years ago without Schrödinger? Let alone Jewish mystics? It’s almost as if he can’t quite get his head around the possibility that other disciplines have very different means of arriving at these same sweeping conclusions nowadays corroborated by physics. If interdisciplinary studies are to have any integrity at all, in my opinion, they must do so – at the outset – by understanding that other traditions and disciplines may have perceptions and understandings that other disciplines do not have a way of explaining … yet. 

And there is another peculiarly ahistoric understanding of how religious civilization has evolved in deep conversation with other disciplines. Religious civilization has never existed in a vacuum; it is always responding and reacting to other world views to which it is exposed. So during the rabbinic period of 300 BCE – 200 CE, our Sages were constantly reckoning with very powerful world views that challenged, and sometimes inspired, the way the Rabbis viewed the world. They adopted much of the science, philosophy and technology of the Roman Empire, for example. In the medieval period, Rambam’s very radical and transformative theology was rooted in Neo-Aristotelianism that the Arab civilization in which he lived was enamored. Greene asks why religion has “persisted” – as if, really, it ought to go away. It has not gone away, at least in large part, because it continues to evolve in tandem, and deep relationship to, other evolving traditions and disciplines. 

Another sign that Greene may be trying to be provocative rather than empirical: he was invited, with a group of many other Western scientists, to meet with the Dalai Lama. Some of these extraordinary exchanges have been published; there were a total of 8 such conferences and at least two yielded incredible books – two of which I have read. During his meeting with the Dalai Lama, Greene reports having a conversation with the Dalai Lama about the preponderance of books that seek to square contemporary physics with mystical traditions, especially Buddhism. Suspicious of this effort, Greene asked the Dalai Lama what he thought of this trend. The response was astonishing and life altering for the professor; the Dalai Lama said, essentially, that it is Western science that has much to teach the Tibetan tradition about physics. What the Tibetan tradition has to offer the Western world is a 2500 year old study of consciousness. This self-conscious awareness of the limits of Tibetan culture struck Greene as extremely wise. And, indeed, when it comes to the study of consciousness, the Tibetan system displays a profound knowledge of the workings of consciousness based on millennia of monks very carefully observing the mind that makes the Western understanding of the mind look rather infantile. The exchange between the Dalai Lama and Western scientists yielded myriad research possibilities for Western scientists and highlighted the inherent assumptions of Western science that often block researchers from being able to see, or even think of, other possibilities. 

Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama

Green is clearly deeply invested in interdisciplinary work so, when he displays such remarkable naïveté about religious civilization, the reader has to wonder if he is trying to get someone’s goat in order to inspire a response. 

As a rabbi, who seeks to help American Jews see the profound wisdom of our tradition, Greene’s skepticism of the Jewish tradition and high regard for Eastern traditions is all too familiar. Sadly, partly because of the Shoah and partly because of the nature of assimilating into American religious culture, there have been several generations of Jews who have been deprived of the wisdom that Judaism possesses. In the passages in which he describes his own relationship to Judaism, her largely eschews our tradition as being irrational and fundamentalist. I can not begrudge him this experience. But it does pain me. 

When his father died, Greene was moved by the group of people, most of them strangers, who dutifully showed up at his family’s house each day of shiva to pray with the family, bring food, and sit with the mourners. This observance made Greene feel connected to an ancient lineage which, for him, is the extent of his appreciation of Judaism, it would seem. “The words meant nothing to me,” he writes, but this practice of shiva impressed him. Sadly, what Greene, and so many Jews fundamentally miss, is that this practice is largely maintained by those who have a deep appreciation for chiyyuv – duty, obligation, commitment, indebtedness – that inclines them to live within the tradition and to support non-religious families like his. This tradition, which he found so profound, depends on these stalwarts. 

Worse for me is the absence in American Jewish discourse, whether religious or not, to discern what our particular gift is to interdisciplinary studies. Rabbi Green criticizes American Jewry for simultaneously accepting Western science as basic to our understanding of the world without deeply and authentically incorporating it into our tradition. While we have, as a culture, completely bought into evolution, psychology, physics, etc. and have been pioneers in these fields, in his opinion we have failed to truly integrate this modern sense of “truth” into our own sacred story. There are many out there now that also seek to square physics with Jewish mystical insights, and to highlight the ways in which our tradition anticipated these modern sciences through creative spiritual processes, we have yet to discern, as the Dalai Lama has, what our culture’s niche is in interdisciplinary studies. What is it in our tradition of which we could say, “When it comes to modern physics (for example), Western science has everything to teach us and we have little to offer but when it comes to X, we have a very long tradition in which we are the experts?”

There could indeed be profound meetings of Western scientists, for example, and some of the great Jewish spiritual minds of our time that yield the answer to this question. Meetings with Rabbi Green, Daniel Matt, or Rabbi Dov Ber Pinson would bring about many new ideas in various research fields. But, partly because of the trauma we have endured, American Jews have largely been concerned with self-preservation for a very long time. And this has led to a kind of pedagogy that focuses more on things that bind us together and assure Jewish survival than the ways Judaism can nourish the mind, body, and soul and the transformative aspects of our tradition that could play a critical role in saving humanity, and most life on earth, from destruction. We often focus more on “identity politics” than the work so many of our ancestors did on cultivating tzaddikim/tzidkaniyot – holy people. This is, of course, not to ignore the many gifts we have offered the world, as has been demonstrated by so many Jewish authors; American Jews are enormously proud of the preponderance of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, for example – many of whom were also deeply immersed in our religious civilization. But this is the difference between what our culture yields, in terms of very talented and committed individuals, and what our culture has to offer.

Rabbi Green has, in his many works, attempted to break through this current state of affairs with popular books like Judaism for the World and Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas. But his efforts do so highlight the particular challenge of our current place in history. 

Professor Greene’s work is absolutely worth the read and I will be reckoning with the challenges he laid out to religious people, like me, for a long time. I am grateful for his contributions and, frankly, grateful that his work has challenged me so deeply to think about what it is that our culture may offer to offer an evolving universe and the human race in such profoundly challenging times.

About the Author
Rabbi Maggid Eli Herb is a congregational rabbi in Salem, Oregon. He lives with his wife and 11-year old son.
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