I faced a major problem while working on my dissertation. I had accumulated a substantial amount of good material related to my topic, but I had no viable theoretical framework to give shape and meaning to my data. I was at a loss. Unless I resolved that problem, I could not ﬁ nish my doctorate. One warm night in July, at midnight, feeling that I had reached a dead end and almost at the point of giving up, I took a walk on campus and sat on a bench to gaze at the starry sky. Then a pot-smoking hippie came and sat next to me, and we began talking about the vastness of the universe. Suddenly it was as if I was struck by lightning: I clearly saw the way out of my dilemma. My entire dissertation ﬂashed in my mind, written and ﬁnished with the relevant theoretical framework.
Overcome with emotion, I felt like running around campus screaming “Eureka!” I could hardly wait until morning to see my advisor. When we met, he readily approved my proposal. I was soon able to ﬁnish my dissertation, which eventually was published as a book, thereby initiating my academic career. This is one of the myriad coincidences that shaped my life. I often wonder how my life would have developed had that anonymous hippie not sat on that bench next to me to chat about the universe during that warm night in July.
Such coincidences take place continually in our lives, but we hardly pay attention. As they pass by we easily forget them, shrug them off, or simply take them for granted. I take it for granted that I’ve lived in Maine most of my life. But it didn’t have to happen this way. Thirty years ago, after ﬁ nishing my studies, I visited a friend and former professor in Evanston, Illinois, to bid him farewell. I planned to return home to Cyprus. While in Evanston, I accidentally met a leading professor of sociology at Northwestern University who in a month’s time, and without me asking for it, was instrumental in landing me a job at the University of Maine. What if I had never visited my friend to say farewell and instead simply called him? At that time I was not searching for and was not interested in a job in America.
I never would have met Emily, my wife, had she not changed her mind as she was about to enter her car after a lecture I had given in Nicosia on the history of sociology. She fatefully thought of a question and returned to the lecture hall to ask for clariﬁcation. Similarly, had I not accepted a friend’s invitation to join him on a visit to remote Mt. Athos, I would not have met Fr. Maximos, the charismatic monk and elder who became the subject of several of my books, including this one, leading me toward a radical shift of my spiritual life and professional career.
Coincidental events that constantly shape and reshape our lives, in both seemingly positive and seemingly negative ways, were among the subjects that I discussed with my artist friend and colleague Mike Lewis while having breakfast on a warm October morning in Bar Harbor, the well-known tourist town on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. Mike and I had common interests, and for many years we habitually met and engaged in casual conversations about academic life as well as wider concerns of politics, history, and religion. Recently, we had been toying with “counterfactual” history. We both had read the works of leading historians who speculated on how history might have developed if seemingly accidental events that had cataclysmic effects had not taken place.
Just imagine, I said to Mike as we reminisced about our student years, if those tantalizing what-ifs had come to pass. What if Oswald’s bullet had missed President Kennedy? What if Sirhan Sirhan was caught at the nick of time, just as he was about to shoot Robert Kennedy, a favorite to win the next presidential election? The history of America and of the world would have been different. What are we to make of all this? Change one such key event, and history, like our lives, would have followed a radically different direction.
We contemplated the myriads of apparently accidental events that have been shaping history and our biographies and concluded that intuitively we “knew” there must be a deeper level of reality that deﬁes our rational understanding, and all things that happen in our lives and in history could not be accidental.
Having in mind the works of great sages, I shared with my friend some tentative thoughts. Every single event, I suggested, emerges out of an inﬁnite ocean of probabilities and possibilities that exist inside God’s Mind. Once a probable event becomes a concrete fact, as a result of human choices and decisions, the entire history of the world follows a different pathway. New settings emerge with radically new sets of inﬁ nite probabilities awaiting the possibility of becoming concrete realities. This is so because of the freedom that we humans are endowed with as self-conscious beings. One could say that we are cocreators with God. It appears as if history is the product of human choices and actions unfolding within the inﬁnite wisdom of Divine Will. And what is true of history is also true of our individual biographies.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here with you in this Bar Harbor café,” I told Mike, “if any of the myriads of seemingly insigniﬁcant and coincidental encounters had not taken place in my own life.”
“On the surface, one can easily conclude that both history and our lives are the results of random events,” Mike pointed out.
“That’s one way of seeing it. We can say that both history and our lives’ trajectories are arbitrary, the products of apparently meaningless coincidences. Externally, at least, that’s how it appears. History and biography are the results of strings of accidents. The Darwinians based their theory on that very presupposition, that evolution is the product of an inﬁnite number of random and meaningless events. A monkey fooling around with paints and canvases will eventually create a Mona Lisa
! Yet this is only an assumption, a preposterous one at that, which is taken as a fact engraved on granite. A noted Cabbalist philoso pher, a reputed mystic, once told me, ‘There is an esoteric history that manifests itself whenever external conditions are ready.’ He implied that things of this world are not random, as the Darwinians believe, but rather the results of deep causes beyond the reach of physical science or rational thought. I believe all mystics from around the world would share this view.”
I went on to tell my friend that if we assume all of our personal experiences are products of random events, and history, as well as biological evolution, is also the result of random events, then the only conclusion we can draw is that in the ﬁ nal analysis life itself is absurd and meaningless and that a human being, as the French existentialists claim, is a cruel joke. I personally repudiate such a conclusion not only because it is nihilistic but also because I strongly believe it is false.
An outside observer overhearing our conversation that sunny October morning could not have failed to realize that the themes we talked about were to a great extent reﬂections of our concerns about growing old and realizations of the imminence of our mortality. Both of us had just entered our sixties, with all the potentially unsettling emotions that such a pivotal turning point unveils. We were aware in a deep, visceral way that we were marching along the last leg of our life’s journey. I reminded my friend, half seriously, that based on current national statistics we could look forward to a couple more decades of life at most and only if we were blessed with good health. Several of our longtime colleagues at the University of Maine, where we had been teaching for many years, had already made the transition to the beyond, some had retired to the Sunbelt, and others had begun struggling with geriatric health problems. It is no wonder, therefore, that, besides politics and health (comparing our cholesterol levels and sharing the latest research updates about enlarged prostates), spirituality, the nature of death, and the possibility of life after life would often arise in our conversations.
Questions of ultimate concern have also come increasingly to deﬁne our professional lives. Mike’s artwork, which began with oil paintings portraying Freudian and social themes, evolved over the years to Jungian images, which in turn paved the way for his current interest in using the Maine landscape as a metaphor of timeless mystical, inner realities. Likewise, I began my career as a sociologist focusing on politics and nationalist movements. But thanks to a series of uncanny coincidences, I moved on to the study of healers, monks, hermits, and spiritual elders, the reputed specialists in unseen realities, from around the world.
“If what we are saying here is true,” Mike said with deliberation, “why do you suppose the possibility of spiritual, suprapersonal dimensions is so commonly ignored in our understanding of the world?”
I had just discussed this issue with my students in social theory, and it was fresh in my mind. I believe, I told Mike, it is because of the worldview that has become crystallized in modern times, within which we conduct our everyday affairs. Alas, this worldview may be a key factor, if not the key factor, that could lead humanity to self-destruct. I mean that the ideology of materialism, the syndrome of modernity, has come to dominate the thinking of the cultural elite.
I told my friend modernity led us to believe that the only reality is the observable physical universe; that the only truth is the one discovered by our senses with the help of the scientiﬁ c method; that there is no objective basis for values and moral rules other than what cultures and societies “construct”; and that human beings are ultimately and exclusively products of biological and sociocultural forces.2 These taken-for-granted tenets of modernism allow no room for the workings of spiritual or nonmaterial forces in human affairs. We as human beings are considered nothing other than our genes and our cultural conditioning. Only matter exists, and only matter matters.
“However,” Mike pointed out, “modernity helped us to understand our physical universe and also to develop a better understanding and tolerance of other societies and cultures.”
“This is absolutely true. No one in his right mind would want to return to the state of affairs of medieval times. However, we have paid a heavy price for our modernity. Spirit simply vanished from our understanding of the human condition. We are seen not as creatures made in the image of God but as the products of blind natural forces of animal evolution. From God’s icon we became the human animal.”
I went on to tell Mike that modernity has convinced us that this universe we experience with our senses is the only one there is and that it is essentially bereft of Spirit. It has no sacred foundation, no Creator. And even if we grudgingly accept the possibility of a Creator (how else can one explain 100 billion galaxies that emerged about 14 billion years ago ex nihilo?), we assume that He has nothing to do with its daily operations. God is totally outside His Creation, leaving it to work on its own like a clock through mechanistic laws of His making. Following this logic, God created us but abandoned us to our own devices and to the laws of physics. To believe otherwise, that God not only created the universe but also is omnipresent in every particle of His Creation, appears singularly naïve to the modern scientiﬁc and philosophical imagination.
There is a well-known story relating to an exchange between Napoleon and the French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace. When the emperor inquired about where God was situated in Laplace’s system, the celebrated scientist replied, “Sir, I have no need for such a hypothesis.” In fact, that declaration is considered a turning point in the history of science and its relationship to religion. Since Laplace’s time the universe was believed not to need Spirit for its functioning. It was considered dead matter governed by “natural” laws. This is like saying that a human body can exist and function without life in it, without soul or Spirit. Yet great saints and sages tell us that if Spirit were to be removed, even for an instant, this world of concrete matter would instantly disintegrate, in the same way that when a soul abandons a human body what remains is a corpse. As my mentor Fr. Maximos would say, it is the Holy Spirit that keeps the world in operation in the same way that it is the Holy Spirit that animates our bodies and keeps them alive.
“So you see, Mike,” I continued, “modernity with all its technological marvels and appeals paved the way to the desacralization of Creation and the consequent dehumanization of the individual. The world exists without the need for the ‘God hypothesis.’ So God was declared ‘dead’ by the end of the nineteenth century. And this led unavoidably to the ‘death of man’ in the twentieth century, as postmodernists are fond of pronouncing like a mantra. They mean that there is no inherent meaning to human existence.
This is the tragedy of modern culture, its achievements notwithstanding. The French-Lithuanian writer Oskar Milosz (1877–1939) said, ‘Unless a man’s concept of the physical universe accords with reality, his spiritual life will be crippled at its roots, with devastating consequences for every other aspect of his life.’3 This is what happened to us on a global, collective scale. With the emergence and dominance of scientiﬁc materialism, we have developed a grossly distorted view of reality. Why is that so? you may ask. The answer is that we have come to deny the spiritual origins of the physical world. So, perhaps our contemporary malaise and the massive problems we are faced with, from global warming to the ‘war on terrorism,’ may spring, at least partly, from this fundamental distortion. Is it then accidental that the last hundred years have been characterized by unrestrained violence, the bloodiest period in the history of the world, with more than one hundred million dead from global wars and revolutions?”
“So which way do you think we’re heading? Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” Mike asked, breaking a brief period of silent reﬂection.
“In an ultimate sense I am always an optimist. In fact, I am hopeful that if during the nineteenth century we ‘killed’ God, and if in the twentieth century we killed ‘man,’ the twenty-ﬁ rst century may be the beginning of the resurrection of God, the resacralization of Creation, and the corresponding rehumanization of humanity. I see signs that we are heading toward a broader and clearer understanding of reality. Or let us say, if it does not go that way, our grandchildren may not have a world to inherit. As strange as this may sound, and notwithstanding what we discussed earlier, I daresay that this entire historical process is a form of spiritual development. Let’s think about it: thanks to modernity, we have come a long way from the time when we accepted slavery as ‘natural’ and considered women inferior beings or ‘defective males.’ Even racists today will deny that they are racists. Not to mention that the notion of universal human rights was not part of our collective consciousness during previous centuries. So, in spite of everything, there has been progress.”
“Let’s discuss these issues further, but we should pay our bill ﬁrst,” Mike suggested. “There are people waiting in line for a table.”
We walked around Bar Harbor enjoying the brilliant fall colors and the unusually warm weather. It was past eleven when we got back to the car. We then drove to nearby Acadia National Park and proceeded toward the entrance gate, the start of the spectacular twenty-seven-mile ocean drive. I had stopped the car at the booth and pulled out my wallet to pay the fee when Mike preempted me. “For ten dollars senior citizens can buy a card that gives them free access for life to all the national parks in America. Here, I’ve got one,” he said and pulled out the plastic from his wallet.
I’d never thought of myself as a “senior citizen” until I entered Acadia that October morning. I was reminded of a colleague, three years older than myself, who ﬁrst realized that he was a “senior” when he boarded a bus in Munich and a young German stood up and offered him his seat.
“How do you explain your own liberation from the dominance of a materialist worldview? What do you consider the key events in your life that made a difference?” Mike asked after we had completed a half-hour stroll along Sand Beach, where both of us had built sand castles for our children in our younger years.
“It was actually a gradual process that sprang from my unenthusiastic acceptance of the modern view dominant during my student years. Many people played a role in helping me overcome materialism. I can think of three, however, who were very important in my formulating a new worldview that I found to be more satisfying both psychologically and spiritually.”
I went on to tell Mike that the ﬁrst was the Russian sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin, a refugee from the Bolshevik revolution and the founder of the Harvard sociology department during the early thirties. Then there was a group of controversial alternative therapists that I studied during the eighties. And ﬁnally, there was Fr. Maximos, the monk and elder from Mt. Athos. The latter became my spiritual mentor and had been the central character in my writings since the early nineties. All these people entered my life through a series of breathtaking coincidences. I then reminisced about the roles they played in my liberation from the dominant ideology of scientiﬁc materialism and reductionism.
During my graduate years, I stumbled onto Sorokin’s work as the result of a class assignment. I was intrigued by his Rus sian background and his role in the revolution as a Menshevik. His story read like a novel penned by Tolstoy. But it was Sorokin’s sociology that fascinated me the most.4 I realized that it offered a radically different perspective on the nature of reality than what I had found in the writings of other classic founders of the discipline. His vision of the world was integral, holistic, and nonreductionistic.
Sorokin was convinced that human beings are made up not only of a conscious and an unconscious mind, as Freud had argued, but also of a “supraconscious” mind. In fact, for Sorokin the real source of creativity in all ﬁelds of endeavor is the supra-conscious part of the mind. Phenomena such as the mystical experiences of the great saints and psychic functions such as clairvoyance, telepathy, and precognition cannot be reduced to the unconscious or subconscious levels of the mind but are products of higher forms of mental energy.
Of all the leading social scientists, Sorokin recognized the reality of higher forms of consciousness and did not dismiss as nonsense the “paranormal” experiences that people have been reporting in tribal and premodern as well as modern societies. For me that was an eye-opener. All along I’d felt asphyxiated by the materialistic reductionism that was the common denominator of just about all the great thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to whom I was exposed as a student. I assumed I had no choice but to accept the materialist worldview as articulated by the leading exponents of modern thought, from sociology to psychology, from philosophy to physics. The only world out there was seen as the world of gross matter, of the ﬁve senses. Unusual experiences that people may have were explained as forms of regression or delusion. For example, the experiences of the great mystics were reduced by Freud to the “oceanic” state of mind characteristic of infants. Sorokin argued that such experiences must be seen as realities unto themselves, nonreducible to lower levels of awareness. The experiences of great saints and mystics, he claimed, are authentic results of higher levels of awareness and cognition, not infantile regression. Sorokin was a pioneer in his insistence that there are worlds beyond the physical universe and beyond the physical brain. Out of these worlds spring all of our deepest forms of creativity and insight.
Another important point in Sorokin’s work was his claim that knowledge comes from three sources: the senses, the mind, and intuition. Our senses give us “sensate knowledge.” Empirical science is the tool that allows us to gather knowledge about the visible, physical universe. That is its domain. For Sorokin, experimental science is the authoritative method invented by the human mind to acquire knowledge of the physical world. Neither religion nor philosophy is qualiﬁed to do that.
The second method of acquiring knowledge is through the mind. Mathematics, philosophical thought, and logical reasoning come under this form. The leading thinkers of the West have acknowledged the reality of these two sources of knowledge but not of intuition, the province of the great saints and mystics. This is Sorokin’s most controversial argument and one of his major contributions.5 He opposed the prevailing notion that subjective intuitions are less scientiﬁ cally veriﬁ able than empirically derived facts. He argued passionately for the emergence of an Integralist Truth, which honors all three forms of knowledge leading to a more holistic understanding of reality. Furthermore, Sorokin recognized only the great mystics and saints as authorities who can speak for the reality of higher forms of cognition, that is, cognition that penetrates the boundaries of the senses and the rational mind.
Finally, Sorokin claimed, based on an exhaustive examination of Western civilization, that the historical pendulum was heading toward a revival of religious faith and spiritual awakening. He made this prediction in the midst of the carnage of World War II and at a time when all indicators led to a consensus that religion was destined to disappear from the world with the advance of modernity, that secularization, the increasing displacement of religion to the margins of social life, was an irreversible process.
Sorokin was ignored during his lifetime because his thinking and work did not ﬁt the mold of the nineteenth- and twentieth century mechanistic understanding of life. However, his work was like a raft that rescued me from a turbulent ocean of historical materialism. It helped me overcome the agnosticism I acquired during my student years in the 1960s and offered me the green light to become receptive to mystical experiences as valid material for study while allowing me to continue to think of myself as a legitimate sociologist. After all, Sorokin was the founder of sociology at Harvard, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. He was one of the most proliﬁ c sociologists of the twentieth century, and, in spite of his controversial views, shortly before his death, in 1968, he was voted president of the American Sociologi cal Association. I would not have been able to pursue my studies of mystics had I not discovered Sorokin’s work. I would have thought of myself as treading on academically shaky ground.
“How did you move from Sorokin to the alternative therapists you mentioned?” Mike asked as we crossed the long bridge over the Penobscot River on our return home. By then it was night and the lights of the twin cities Bangor and Brewer were reﬂected in the water that separated them. The steeples of the Catholic and Protestant churches, high on the surrounding hills, offered a typical and picturesque New England nightscape.
My encounter with them was the empirical validation of what Sorokin taught. His ideas would have simply remained interesting theories had I not met those out-of-the-ordinary individuals who eventually, and providentially, paved the way for my discovery of Mt. Athos and Fr. Maximos.
Again, as a result of a series of coincidences, I met these therapists in Cyprus at the beginning of my ﬁrst sabbatical leave from the university when I was planning to research and write a book on international terrorism. Their reputation on the island was highly controversial. Skeptics considered them charlatans who fooled the gullible and the naïve. The devoutly religious considered them possessed by diabolical forces. When I met them, I realized that they possessed unusual mental gifts. Sorokin had sensitized me to the possible reality of intuitive knowledge. So in spite of their reputation, I was ready to take them seriously as subjects of study instead of either ignore them or dismiss them as frauds.
I gave up the terrorism project as I came to ﬁnd these people much more interesting than terrorists. Contrary to the sober advice of friends and relatives, I plunged into an exploration of the world of this unusual group. I became the outside observer doing anthropological ﬁeld research.
These alternative therapists were fascinating to me because of their “paranormal” abilities, which I could not make any rational sense of.6 For example, one of them could see things from a distance, as if his mind could travel through space like a radio or tele vision signal. I remember how he described in great detail the inside of our house in Maine, something that he could not possibly have known.
Such abilities contradicted conventional scientiﬁc, materialist dogma. Of course, I could not prove scientiﬁcally that what I witnessed were objectively real phenomena. I did not conduct repeatable experiments. I did not, to use the scientiﬁc jargon, control the inde pendent variables. But for me, what I witnessed were real, ontologically real experiences. I did, however, contact other anthropologists, such as Professor Michael Harner of the New School for Social Research, who had witnessed and recorded similar phenomena in other cultures. I sought their advice to make sure that I was not deceiving myself.
Excerpted from Inner River by Kyriacos C. Markides. Copyright © 2012 by Kyriacos C. Markides. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.