From Black Elk To Black Holes
From Black Elk To Black
Shaping a Myth for a New
with Hard Science
A book review by Henry
We know what’s happening. Things are changing. For some it
is the beginning of the end of the world. For most of my readers, it is the
middle of a shift from one world to another. We’ve learned to reverse the usual
assumption that physical evolution has brought about the advent of
consciousness. Instead, we realize that consciousness is the source of
evolution. We are in the midst of the end of the age of materialism and entering
the age of spirituality. We have heard about the mysteries of quantum physics,
and how everything is connected. We are aware that intention is everything. We
create our own reality, not by material means, but by the stories we tell
I’d like to introduce you to a fantastic story teller, one
whose credentials are superb, and whose attention to details of fact creates an
even more believable story than those who skim across those facts. C. Dave
Pruett is a mathematician, recently retired from James Madison University. For
several years he taught a course for undergraduate honors students, a course
than earned him a Templeton award for integrating science and religion. The name
of his course was the name I’ve given to this review: “From Black Elk to Black
Holes: Shaping a Myth for a New Millenium.” What excited and turned on college
students for several years can now excite and turn you on—his book on this broad
Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit.
There are two special qualities of this book that make it
particularly attractive and appropriate for my readers. The first is that it
tells a well-known story in a very different manner. That well known story has
to do with the “three revolutions” that Sigmund Freud pointed out to us at the
turn of the twentieth century. The first, which Pruett calls the “cosmological”
revolution, concerned the discovery and final acceptance that the earth revolved
around the sun, not the other way around as we had all assumed. The second was
the biological revolution, which revealed that we evolved from the apes rather
than landing here suddenly in full human form. The third revolution, the one
Freud liked to take credit for, was the consciousness revolution, showing that
ego-consciousness is but the tip of a large iceberg. We typically consider that
each revolution was at first a heresy, and each created a split between science
and religion. What is unique about Pruett’s telling of this story is that he
introduces us, in great story telling fashion, to the lives of the scientists
who participated in these revolutions. What is surprising is how spiritually
committed were these scientists. In so revealing this under-appreciated history,
Pruett bases a new approach to reconciling reason and intuition, science and
The second feature of Pruett’s book, one that makes it
especially worthwhile for me readers, is that he shares with us the science, the
facts, the hard-core theories, etc. and does it without sharing any more than
three equations! (The number of equations in a non-fiction science book is
thought to relate, inversely, to the potential popular appeal of a book.)
Although I’ve read several books on the theme of “down the rabbit hole, I
realized in reading Pruett’s book that I’d never really encountered the actual
facts that make up the story of how we got from Galileo’s telescope to the
discovery of gravitation waves. Reading this material gives you a very solid
foundation for our contemporary belief that everything is ultimately one
consciousness, evolving, growing, and embracing knowingly the whole. Thus the
farthest out ideas come across as solid as the tools of the laboratory. Pruett
has received quite a lot of praise for his ability to tell a great story about a
history we think we know, not hold back the details (except for the equations),
leaving us more knowledgeable as well as wiser.
I had to find out what was behind the creation of this gem,
and so I arranged for an interview. I present it here, and believe that after
you get to know Professor Pruett some, you’ll want to read his book.
Interview with Dave
Q1: What is this
Reason and Wonder
is -- first and foremost -- a love letter to the cosmos.
Second, it’s the story of how human perceptions of our place in that
cosmos have evolved in response to revolutionary scientific discoveries. Third,
it is an attempt -- born of the author’s inner struggle for integrity -- to
outline a modern and holistic “myth of meaning” that “reconciles the rational
demands of science with the deeper tugs of spirituality.”
A “banyan tree” of a book -- as my editor called it --
Reason and Wonder sinks many roots
and has many subtexts. It’s an
intellectual adventure story, a history of Western science, the story of an
unfolding universe, the story of unfolding human consciousness, a critique of
science and of religion, a plea for their reconciliation, and a plunge into
mystical spirituality. There’s something of value for most any inquisitive
individual. In the praise of world-renowned religion scholar Ursula King:
“Following this intriguing tale opens up a vision of true audacity and grandeur
that will change your thinking forever.”
Q2: Why did you
want to write this book?
Reason and Wonder
is my first and only trade book. I
don’t know what compels others to write, but I suspect that few write books
because they want to; they write because they must. Some inner chaos needs
order, some demon needs exorcism, some angel needs wings, or some muse or
channel needs a voice. Possibly all of the above.
So, I wrote Reason
and Wonder simply because I had to.
Reason and Wonder came from an
intense personal struggle to integrate my rational and intuitive selves, which,
while in conflict, hampered the formation of a mature identity. The surprise for
me is that what I originally thought of as a purely personal struggle is very
much a Western cultural one, whose societal implications play out in the current
tension between science and religion.
Q3: Tell us
something about the process of writing.
I remember the exact moment when I first set the intent to
write. It was spring semester 1999. I, a mathematics professor, had just been
given opportunity to realize a dream by teaching an
honors course at
James Madison University – HON200D: From Black Elk to Black Holes – Shaping a
Myth for a New Millennium. I stood in front of 20 bright and eager students --
unsure of where this journey would take us -- and confessed: “I think I have a
book in me, and I think that teaching this course will help me write it.”
That statement was 100% accurate and incredibly naïve.
Writing Reason and Wonder was so much
more difficult than I could ever have anticipated. Thirteen years would elapse
from the setting of intent until the hardback appeared in 2012. I experienced
many false starts and moments when I was ready to abandon the project. I told
few people what I was doing because the outcome seemed so elusive.
In looking back at the process, however, I am flabbergasted
by the patterns that emerge. I seem
to have been more sculptor than writer. In 1999, I had only a block of granite
and a vague notion of a figure trapped inside in need of release. The first
draft simply chipped away here and there to reveal the outlines. Each draft –
and there were six complete drafts – gave greater definition.
The final draft polished the marble into what I hope is a work of beauty,
at least in the eyes of some beholders.
What is perhaps most astounding in retrospect is that
writing a book – at times so solitary – is necessarily a community endeavor.
Time and again I was rescued from frustration or despair – often from unlikely
sources -- by a word of encouragement, a clipped article, a loaned book, a
volunteer to read a yet unpalatable draft, or the amazing classroom insight of a
student. And more often than not, the synchronicity of these events was uncanny.
Q4: What would
folks find most surprising were they to read this book?
Perhaps many of the revelations and discoveries that kept
me writing will keep readers reading. That, just as one’s life seems to make a
kind of sense from the vantage point of advancing age, so does the history of
the universe make a kind of sense from the perspective of 13.7 billion years.
That the prime motivation for history’s greatest scientists – Newton, Galileo,
Kepler, Darwin, Einstein, among others – was childlike wonder, and that
intuition in scientific discovery is equally as important as reason. That this
sense of awe kept many of these great men (and women) going despite crushing
personal misfortunes. That science and spirituality are kinfolk rather than
enemies, because awe is the bedrock of each. “The most beautiful emotion we can
experience is the mystical,” Einstein noted. “It is the source of all true art
and science.” That in a dynamic cosmos, every moment is
the moment of creation.
And that all sentient beings, however flawed and mortal, are co-creators
in the evolution of the cosmos.
Q5: To whom should the book most appeal?
Ask yourself: Am
spiritually aware or awakening? Am I scientifically literate or curious? If
either answer is “yes,” then Reason and
Wonder is for you. However, if “yes” to both, then you are likely to regard
Reason and Wonder as a true gem.
But don’t take my word
for it. Here are excerpts from an
Amazon review by Charles Finn of Fincastle, Virginia.
“Why might you want to read Dave Pruett's
Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit?
“Because you appreciate a good story, especially when it's . . . the gripping,
unfolding story of the universe and our place in it.
“Because you'd love to have mathematics and physics brought a bit down from the
“Because you're intrigued to see how revolutions in physics, biology and quantum
mechanics could now be spawning a revolution in spirit.
“Because you'd cheer to have validated your intuition that, deep down, there
cannot be a fundamental dichotomy between science and religion, between matter
and spirit, that the intellectual voyage and the spiritual voyage are the same
Q: Are science and
religion fundamentally incompatible?
No, in actuality, they are complementary. More fundamentally, they are kinfolk:
each is rooted in the experience of awe. Conflict arises when either science or
religion (or both) violates its domain by stepping on the turf of the other or
by claiming more than it can rightfully claim to know as truth. In the same way
that clear ego-boundaries help prevent misunderstanding and conflict for
individuals in relationship, careful delineation of the boundaries of science
and religion can help these two domains of inquiry complement rather than
compete. These issues are dealt with throughout
Reason and Wonder, but especially in
Chapter 15: A World Aflame.
Q: There's a lot of
folks out there who find science to be dubious -- they get support by the news
noting that there's a lot of fraud in science these days, politically driven.
How might your book touch those folks?
Well, I’m both a mathematician and a scientist with ten years of NASA-related
aerospace experience. I generally find scientists to be pretty admirable human
beings. The vast majority are on the path of truth. In my experience, scientists
as a whole, skeptical by nature, are not-easily convinced and are abhorrent of
fraud. However, if science has an Achilles heel, it is that, believing they are
“objective,” most scientists are unaware of the blinders they wear in the form
of scientific preconceptions. This is particularly true when it comes to
so-called “paranormal” or “psi” phenomena, which many scientists reject
out-of-hand because such phenomena -- despite the weight of a century of
replicable evidence -- violate their preconceptions. These preconceptions --
among them determinism, reductionism, and materialism -- are named and critiqued
in Reason and Wonder.
Q: A lot of our
readers today say they are not interested in religion, but spirituality. How
might reading this book aid in their spiritual quest?
I concur wholeheartedly with those readers! In fact, the process of writing
Reason and Wonder helped me clarify,
in my own mind, the difference between religion and spirituality. Of the two
I’ve come to realize that spirituality is the real McCoy.
For example, the Quaker educator and activist Parker Palmer defines spirituality
as “that longing within the human breast that makes us want to connect with
something bigger than our own egos.” I like Palmer’s definition because it’s
universal. Everyone is spiritual; it’s a given. I’d go him a step further, in
solidarity with Native American wisdomkeepers. Everything is
spiritual. Spirituality is the unseen face of matter, to paraphrase Teilhard de
Chardin, the Jesuit scientist-priest who held that every particle in the cosmos
has a Within as well as a Without. Teilhard, by the way, figures prominently
toward the end of Reason and Wonder.
What then is religion? It is the discipline — the practice — of spirituality.
Insofar as religion nurtures our spirituality, it is useful and positive.
Insofar as it suppresses, anesthetizes, perverts, or extinguishes our
spirituality – or divides the world into us and them -- it is negative, even
Years ago I heard Scott Peck speak, shortly after he’d written the self-help
blockbuster The Road Less Traveled.
Peck outlined four stages of spiritual development: chaos, fundamentalism,
agnosticism/atheism, and mysticism, the third of which came as a surprise if not
a shock. Those whose lives are chaotic often turn to fundamentalism as a
curative. It works, but only temporally. Fundamentalism’s rigidity tames the
chaos, but it does so by invoking a legalistic deity and a thicket of
regulations so dense that one is trapped. The spiritual seeker who has fallen
into the trap of fundamentalism, if he or she is lucky, eventually rebels
against the “monster-God” and may even abandon the notion of God altogether for
a time. Under the right circumstances, Peck saw agnosticism or atheism as a step
of growth rather than the gateway to hell.
But humans need meaning, and frequently the detour through unbelief returns the
spiritual seeker to a more holistic and all-encompassing faith: mysticism.
What joy then to discover that the world’s greatest mystics and the
world’s greatest scientists are teaching essentially the same truths.
Q: What have some reviewers said about your book that most pleases you?
When Reason and Wonder was nearing
completion in 2009, I had the opportunity to meet pioneering experimental
psychologist Lawrence LeShan, whose groundbreaking book
The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist
had a huge impact on me by opening me to the philosophical similarities
between mysticism and some of the revelations of quantum mechanics.
Larry was extremely gracious and eventually submitted, unsolicited, an
Amazon review. Here it is
“Once there was a wonderful TV program called
You Are There. In each episode they
would portray an interviewer and a cameraman at one of the great moments of
history. They would interview and photograph people involved in such events as
the Signing of the Magna Carta,
Columbus touching down in America, and so forth. At the end of the episode you
would feel as if you had been on a wonderful adventure and learned a great deal.
Reason and Wonder takes you on
similar adventures to the great moments of the development of science and of our
modern viewpoint about reality. It is beautifully written and takes you
painlessly through the great moments of people like Newton, Einstein, and many
others. At the end of the book you feel as if you had been on a marvelous safari
to wondrous places and were thoroughly involved. I have never seen a book which
gives you a better understanding of where we are, who we are, how we got here,
and perhaps where we are going.”
There are currently eleven reviews of
Reason and Wonder on Amazon, ten of them 5-star. Most of the reviewers I
know. A few I don’t.
So it is immensely gratifying to find an unsolicited 5-star review such
as this one by a stranger (Gabrielle), which begins:
“In the months since I finished this book, I can't remember how many times I
have recommended it to people whom I knew shared a curiosity about both the
advances of science and the realm of the spiritual. With
Reason and Wonder, Dave Pruett has
been able to do what many scientific authors have not.”
explore Reason and Wonder on Amazon.com, click here!