I am a mystic and a scientist, a practical person with a strong spiritual need, a biomedical laboratory scientist with a calling to save the earth, a cancer researcher with an aversion to our economic system based upon infinite growth. Even as a 12-year-old in confirmation class, I knew that there were two disparate parts of myself and assumed that never the twain shall meet. I was drawn to the Sermon on the Mount and found “Love your Enemy” to be a challenging motto I hoped would be the basis of my life. Then they wanted me to say these words, “I believe …”, but I resisted, wondering, “Is there a God? Was Jesus divine? Did all that really happen? How can I say I believe it?”
The first hint of resolution to this dichotomy was an asymptote in analytical geometry. A curved line approaching a straight line, always halving the distance, will never reach the line. I could prove mathematically the existence of infinity and it was not a difficult jump to the assertion, “God is infinity,” and then “God is love.”
But what about Jesus? An approach to this issue came from a series of sermon poems on Genesis given by B. Davie Napier, who was the Chaplain at Stanford University. These beautiful poems were published in the book, Come, Sweet Death (1966). Napier said that a myth describes things that “never were, but always are.” Treating the Bible as myth gave me a way to approach the Jesus questions.
The mystical part of myself was reawakened by my friend and scientific colleague Judy Bender when we began meditating during lunch breaks at various places around the university. This coincided with my commitment to regular attendance at Atlanta Friends Meeting, so contemplation became a major part of my life.
I finally pulled together my mystic side with my scientist side when I read the Preface to Friends for Three Hundred Years: The History and Beliefs of the Society of Friends Since George Fox Started the Quaker Movement, by Howard Brinton (1952). Brinton explains that the distinction between mystics and other religious persons is that a mystic believes in their own experience while other established religions require beliefs as determined by some human authority. He goes on to say that is the same as scientists who believe in the results of their experiments, rather than some established authority. Bringing these two together is the quotation when George Fox, “I know this experimentally.” Some scholars say that he really meant “experientially,” but keeping the original word helped to validate the integration of my mystic with my scientific side.
My over-ambitious desire to discover a cure for cancer came before I finished high school, but as I went through the academic training as a scientist I became discouraged because it was only possible to do a proper experiment on a tiny piece of the larger puzzle at any one time. The variables were endless. How would we ever solve the cancer puzzle? My husband was working on computer models of water resources, which gave me the idea to apply that methodology to my cancer research. I began to call myself an “integrationist,” always trying to pull things together. Since I was a European-American teaching in an African-American university, that concept had a racial component, too.
My calling as an environmentalist came a little later, just in time for the first Earth Day in 1970, but it wasn’t too far afield from cancer research as cancer is one result of our misuse of Earth. I did wonder why I chose a field of study that kept me locked inside a laboratory all day instead of outside in nature. But weekends, vacations, and exposure to deep ecology gave me the experience of unity of all things on Earth. That experience has led me to work for co-management of protected areas by local indigenous people, preservation of indigenous cultures, and reform of our economic system based upon infinite growth.
Reading Pendle Hill pamphlet #417, John Yungblut: Passing the Mystical Torch by Charlie Finn, reminded me of another great contribution to the collection of parts of myself. John Yungblut was the Program Director of Atlanta Friends Meeting in the early Civil Rights days. He returned to Atlanta to give a workshop in the early 1980s on his concepts of evolutionary Christianity. This was another watershed moment for me as he used the concept of a myth as something that is not fixed, but can continue to evolve. He distinguishes the fixed historical Jesus from the myth of the inward Christ, drawing on the mysticism of Rufus Jones, evolutionary approach of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and depth psychology of Carl Jung. In his last Pendle Hill pamphlet, For That Solitary Individual: An Octogenarian’s Counsel on Living and Dying, Yungblut shows how using the mythical approach allows for human evolution, which gives us great hope for the future.
“The contemporary world scene may certainly foster pessimism, but in the context of evolution, there is ground for optimism. … There is an inescapable connection between contemplative prayer and motivation to engage in social reform. It is contemplative prayer that confirms the inseparable unity of all things.”