Faith Demystified – Living Without Religion
I was admitted to the hospital recently. As part of the admittance process I was asked to state a religious preference. I surprised myself by saying, “None.” For the first sixty-one years of my life I participated in public acts of worship at least fifty times each year. I spent seven years in academic preparation for ministry, plus several more years after I was ordained. I spent 20 years as a pastor and regional church administrator. Religion has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember. So why would I choose to claim no religious affiliation?
In recent years I have become increasingly unhappy with the Church. Calling one’s self a Christian today seems to indicate a belief in ignorance, bigotry, superstition, fanaticism, and self-righteous zealotry. There was a time when there were progressive voices in the Church that stood against the dark tide of this hateful fanaticism, but those voices have grown strangely silent. Never has it been so embarrassing, or intellectually offensive, to call myself a Christian. That does not mean that I am embarrassed to proclaim Jesus as Lord. I am only embarrassed to be in any way associated with the Church that seems to have lost Jesus all together. There seems to be no Christ in Christian. Those who thump the Bible the loudest seem never to have actually read it. The raw, unbridled ignorance is appalling. The arrogance is stultifying. The self-righteous zealotry is insufferable.
As I contemplated my choice of no religious affiliation at the hospital, I realized that I had made the correct call. What do I need with a religion? As I ran my mental checklist there was nothing that any religion could offer me.
I am aware of my own mortality and of my own health issues. I know that one day I will die, whether that death may come in fifteen days, or fifteen years. I do not believe that I will live twenty more years, and would not wish to do so unless I could be vigorous and productive. Until my death I will live every day. And then die without either sadness or fear. Life is not measured by its longevity. Many live long and useless lives, and die without ever having lived.
I do not need a priestly presence to utter magic incantations, or to perform symbolic rituals over me. For all such things are simply an illusion that gives comfort to the fearful. Life and death are so much bigger than these illusions.
I do not need a shoulder to cry on. In times of illness, loss, or despair I will survive and even thrive. I know how to be strong. I can find comfort without some religious illusion. Life is grand beyond measure. Even death does not dismay. There is nothing sad about death. It is the inevitable end of life. I do not need a grief counselor as there is no grief. And when it comes, death will be a remarkable experience.
I do not need to rail at the unfairness of life, for nothing in life is fair. We all have our obstacles. We all take our lumps. An old proverb says, “I complained that I had no shoes, until I saw the man with no feet
And most certainly, I do not need some hillbilly preacher to come and save my soul, filling my final hours with ludicrous superstition and ignorance in the process. I do not need to be manipulated into faith, or be forced into making a confession. I do not need to work some arrogant preacher’s checklist before I exit my life. Those who would save other people’s souls are nothing but scalp hunters. They think that they have the power over salvation or damnation. They think that they can work their magic with God and in doing so to earn their own divine reward. Surely these are the most arrogant and delusional of all “Christians.”
So spare me all of this religious nonsense. Let me go with a clear head and a sense of fulfillment that comes from a life well lived. Let me study science and all manner of human knowledge. Let me explore the cosmos and learn of its wonders. Let me read great literature and learn what it is to be human. Let me walk and talk with my fellow travelers as we make our way on this journey of life. Let me find God in the eyes of a friend or the face of a stranger. And together may we fulfill our lives.
Faith Demystified – What Happens When We Die?
The deepest mystery of faith is what happens when we die. Some would say that we go dark like a candle that is extinguished. Others would suggest that there is a part of us that continues. There is a whiff of smoke as the candle is extinguished, and heat energy that continues forward in time.
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? – Hamlet
As there is no definitive answer to the ultimate question, we choose between uncertainty and illusion.
Earlier I have pledged that I would not polish the standard illusions of organized religion. The following exercise is about creating our own illusions. This is an important skill for all spiritual sojourners. In order to thoroughly understand the nature of illusions is it necessary to be able to construct your own. A musician must have skills in composition in order to understand music at all.
Illusions are not bad things, unless we delude ourselves into believing that they must be true. The story of the Tooth Fairy comforts a young child who has just lost a body part. If an illusion of death makes it easier to die, and especially if it makes it easier to live, then it is a good thing indeed. As to what illusions you subscribe to is up to you within certain conditions. If you want to believe in Charlie Brown’s “Great Pumpkin” it is no concern of mine.
Illusions are not judged by their connection to reality. Please note my prior discussion of astrology. Rather, illusions should be judged by their fruits. Does the illusion cause you to relate to the cosmos? Does it connect you to other people, even those beyond your own tribe or faith tradition? Is it a compelling expression of love? Does it advance the causes of justice and compassion? There are many forms of malevolent illusions, such as racism, violence, addiction, sexual predation, financial predation, and more. But so far as an illusion is benevolent there can be little harm done in embracing it so long as you realize that it is in fact an illusion.
Here I would like to share you my own illusion, fully cognizant of the fact that the following is an illusion.
The universe is filled with hundreds of billions of galaxies. There is no much real estate out there that it is impossible to comprehend. Every human being that is now living, has ever lived, or ever will live, has a claim to an entire galaxy. Imagine that galaxy as an extension of yourself. Imagine it as a vast reservoir of love that is a part of you. You can draw love and energy from your own personal galaxy at any time. It makes your life, and the lives of all of those around you, limitless and unbounded. The sacks of flesh in which we dwell is not who we are. It is simply a temporary manifestation of our mortal existence. Our past, present, and future are vastly more than a face in the photograph.
When we die we cast off our sack of flesh, and return to the cosmos. What we take with us from our mortal life is our memories. Our memories are who we truly are in this mortal realm. They are the sum total of the experiences that we have had, and the decisions that we have made. Those things are our immortal selves in their purest forms.
Some would ask if we face judgment. Does God separate the sheep from the goats? I believe that the only judgment comes from our own memories. In death we become enlightened. We come to know what is really important and what is not worth worrying about. Perhaps those failures that we fretted the most we might find are nothing at all, like when President Jimmy Carter confessed that he had lusted after women in his heart. The most serious failure may be in seeing a homeless person on the street and passing by without helping. The real moral test is how we loved. Did we focus on ministries of justice and compassion, or were we too busy grasping after wealth, power, beauty, or some other vain pursuit.
The universe is even much fuller than I have already described. M-theory tells us that there are not four but eleven dimensions of spacetime. The added dimensions are not fully understood.
We know that there must be more than the four dimensions of ordinary space. Einstein proved that gravity causes spacetime to bend space. That very bending does not take place in ordinary four-dimensional spacetime, but must of necessity bend in one or more of those extended dimensions.
Perhaps one of those extra dimensions are where memories go. There is a basic principle in physics that says that information may never be lost. And what is memory but information?
What we tell ourselves about what happens when we die informs our mortal existence about how to live. We construct our lives from each decision that we make. We are aware of the montage of memories that we have collected. Layer by layer and frame by frame we construct a record of who we are. Our personal montage is both powerful and profound. It is only finished after a lifetime of striving. It is the unique and authentic story of our life. It is more enduring than our flesh and more powerful than our dreams. And yes, it does continue.
Demystifying Faith – Our Place in the Universe
We are born of the cosmos, and this is not some religious illusion. The iron in our blood and the calcium in our teeth were created in ancient stars that exploded as supernovae, spreading their chemical wealth across the galaxy. We are stardust, and to stardust we will return.
The philosophy of Aristotle, was born in the 4th BCE shaped our understanding of the cosmos for about 2,000 years, even though his cosmology was dead wrong. Aristotle taught that the world was and disorderly and corruptible, while the heavens were eternal and unchanging perfection. Human life as a product of earthly imperfection was then also imperfect and unworthy of the divine. I wish I could have had five minutes with Aristotle to point out to him, “Just look at the Moon and you will see scars!” Even the sun has scars. The heavens are not changeless and static. Rather, they are in a state of constant change that is simply too slow for human mortals to notice.
Aristotelian logic infected Christianity causing all sorts of problems. It created the sense of duality between the pure, spiritual world and the corrupt, physical world. Human sex is dirty, messy, and filled with raw emotions. If you want to birth a god you need to do it through virgin birth, wherein a maiden is impregnated through the ear by the Word of God. And of course, such a god born of woman would need to eschew sex in order to remain uncontaminated.
There is a vast chasm between out folklore about Jesus and his actual life. He may have been married to Mary Magdalene. The anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary in John chapter 12 is clearly a sensuous massage. If Jesus was a much of a prude as we envision him he would have rebuked Mary for offer. It is not beyond the realm of possibility once we discard the Aristotelian cosmology introduced to Christianity largely through the Apostle Paul.
The Hebrews had no such qualms about sex. The Promise Land was often described as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” which is to say breast milk and vaginal fluid.
We are not inferior to the Universe; we are the Universe. It has been said that the astrophysicist if the Universe contemplating itself. We participate in all of its majesty. We are born of stardust, carry the genes of trilobites, drink recycled dinosaur piss, and fuel our cities with dead plants and animals fermented deep underground for millions of years. We are a part of everything that we see, everything that we touch, and everything that we eat and drink.
When we die our flesh returns to the ground to fertilize new emerging life. In about five billion years our Earth will be gone, swallowed by the Sun as it evolves into a red giant. The atoms of our body, forged in stars and supernova explosions, will return to the stars. This is not a matter of religious illusion, but of scientific fact.
It is not just life that evolves. Planets must also evolve to support life. Earth began as a fiery hell in the Hadean period. As the Earth slowly cooled and stabilized, primitive life forms emerged, such as blue-green algae. Early life emerged in an anaerobic environment devoid of oxygen. These early life forms released oxygen into the atmosphere. About 400 million years ago there was enough oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere to sustain life as we know it. We humans are the product not only of the evolution of life, but of a 4.5 billion year old long process to evolve the Earth to sustain life.
Everyone on Earth is more closely related than we can imagine. The Toba extinction event of 75,000 years ago was spawned by a mega-volcano in what is now Indonesia. There were very few humans to survive this bottleneck in our evolution, perhaps no more than 2,000. The result is that all modern humans are descended from the handful of survivors from this event. In our genetic difference, which are mostly cosmetic, we all have a common ancestor from the not-to-distant past. The fact is that we are all cousins. We all belong together.
As Max Ehrmann described in the Desiderata, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”
Try to envision a universe with nine spatial dimensions and one dimension of time. Such is the emerging view of our universe according to String Theory. Or, if you prefer the closely related M-theory, you will have to live with a universe of ten spatial dimensions and one of time.
I used to lie awake nights pondering where the extra dimensions were to be found. I would concentrate on a corner of the room, where two walls and the ceiling met, and try to envision a fourth spatial dimension. Our whole world view of normal space is constricted to three spatial dimensions, length, width and height. Trying to envision anything beyond those is very difficult.
But the extra spatial dimensions are not like the familiar width, length and height. Rather, they seem to be curled up inside of ordinary space as the image above suggests. They are closer to us than our own skin, and yet the open up to the very edges of our universe and perhaps beyond.
To envision String Theory, we must leave behind our normal concepts of space. Normal space that is bound by boxes demarcated by width, length and height. String Theory does not involve a fourth or fifth box dimension, but something much more exciting.
Think of the extra dimensions not as spaces but as channels or conduits. Our houses are not just boxes stacked together. What makes our houses actually work are the conduits that supply us with water, electricity, heating and cooling, and connectivity. When we flip a light switch, we expect the light to come on. We do not need to know the location of the electrical wiring, and so we do not even think about it.
Of course one could argue that these conduits are simply small boxes hidden within the big boxes of the house, and that would be technically correct. An electrical cable actually does have dimensions, and does occupy specific spaces within the walls, ceilings and floors of the house. But there are no dimensions to a Wi-Fi signal. There is no wiring schematic to show where the WI-Fi signal runs. It seems not to exist in ordinary space. Because Wi-Fi is totally disembodied, it makes an even better analogy for extra dimensions.
For most of human history, if you wanted to send a message a long distance, you would have to entrust it to a human (or string of humans), who would bodily carry the letter to its destination. A human being, moving under her or his own power, can cover something like 32 kilometers (20 miles) per day, and that assumes the most optimal terrain an weather conditions. At the end of the War of 1812, hostilities continued for more than sixty days after the war had officially ended because of the difficulties in spreading word of the wars ending to remote frontier regions.
Radio communications were as much a part of the universe back then as they are now. The problem was that the combatant in 1812 lacked the understanding of radio as well as any technological infrastructure to exploit it.
Today is a much different world. It is now possible for a person in Nome, Alaska to play a chess game with someone from Pretoria, South Africa, and to conclude that game real-time within in five or ten minutes. In the old days it would have taken many years of postal chess, where one move at a time would have been mailed from one participant to another, with each move requiring weeks or even months to arrive at its destination. We have achieved on this planet a state of simultaneity. And what I mean by that is that whatever happens at any place on the planet is now knows instantly across the whole planet, or at least in those places that have the technological infrastructure to tap into the planetary communications grid.
But once we leave the confines of this planet, that state of simultaneity vanishes. On earth, light speed communication counts as instantaneous, as radio waves can circle our planet seven-and-one-half times in one second. As we reach out into space, even a signal to Mars can take up to forty-five minutes. There is no need for a message to Curiosity telling it to, “Look out for that rock!” because by the time the message gets there, the rock will be just a distant memory.
Captain Kirk could always call Star Fleet Headquarters on “sub-space” communications links.
Now back to String Theory. What if some of these extra dimensions could provide us with simultaneity throughout the universe? This unfamiliar concept would totally change our society, not to mention our conception of the universe.
Think of two stars that are 10,000 light years apart. Now let us assume that both have civilizations and that both of these civilizations construct radio telescopes at the same time. Can we call this a simultaneous event? I think not because these two civilizations are not aware of each other’s presence. It also works to say that they are not aware of each other’s presents. Because of the messaging time, neither could be aware of the other’s existence for at least 10,000 years. A signal followed by a response would take at least 20,000 years. After such a long time interval one or both of those civilizations could have died out, or have been pushed back into the Stone Age.
Civilization on earth has only been around for 10,000 years. Civilization refers to the creation of walled cities, the development of agriculture, and the creation of writing and mathematics. The earth has had radio telescopes for only 100 years, and really good ones for about 50 years. While radio has been around since the late 19th Century, there was not much in the way of outbound radio messaging that could be intercepted in other star systems until World War II. Thus, our messages have been streaming out for only about sixty years to star systems in a sphere with a 60 light year radius. The Milky Way Galaxy has a radius of some 60,000 light years.
Now, let us suppose that String Theory allows for one or more of the extra dimensions to function as a channel or conduit through which connectivity is possible. Imagine if these two civilizations could sit down for a friendly game of chess in real time.
Somehow logic demands that there be universal simultaneity. We have just not discovered the technology to understand and exploit that technology. String Theory gives us at least the possibility of knowing what is happening on Proxima Centauri right now, without the need to wait 4.2 years to receive the message via light waves.
Paradoxes are common in both cosmology and in theology. Indeed, this shared quality demonstrates how these two seemingly diverse endeavors are really quite similar, if not two sides of the same coin.
A photon can act like either a wave or a particle depending on what is being tested, or what question is being asked.
Relativity and Quantum Mechanics both are needed to describe the universe, and yet these two views of the cosmos cannot live together in harmony. Relativity describes the very large, while Quantum Mechanics describes the very small. These theories clash in such arenas as black holes, where very large massed converge in very small spaces causing the mathematics to break down.
Matter can be thought of as frozen or congealed energy. The rock in your hand feels solid and permanent, but is really only a lump of frozen energy. And it is not permanent at all, but ephemeral. One common understanding of dark energy is that all atoms will be eventually ripped apart and normal, baryonic matter will be no more.
The speed of light is the cosmic speed limit, except that this speed limit does not exist for space itself. The theory of Inflation, first proposed by Alan Guth, requires that at the Big Bang space expanded vastly faster than the speed of light. This means that the universe is vastly larger than our horizon. We can see 13.5 billion light years in any direction, because that is the age of the universe and is as far back in time as we can see. But if we could stand at that horizon, we could see an additional 13.5 billion years further on. Our Universe seems to be paradoxically both bounded and boundless.
Even our Universe may not be all that there is. String Theory and M (or ‘Brane) theory suggest that our Universe is not alone. Rather, the image of our Universe is more like one soap-bubble among countless others.
Theology is impossible without paradoxical thinking. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Unless a believer can fully hold to these paradoxical understandings then they have not understood the incarnation and what it means.
The Holy Bible was written over some 1,400 years by hundreds of human hands. They represent many different viewpoints and cultural epochs. They record the spiritual saga of the Jews and the early Christians, written from a human perspective. And yet somehow there is divine inspiration to be found within.
The Universe was created according to the laws of science. It was formed from the Big Bang, evolved according to inflation, general relativity, special relativity, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, evolution, genetic mutation, chaos theory, random chance, fractals and a host of other scientific
principles, known and unknown. And yet somehow it was created by God and filled with God’s logos, or divine order that permeates all things.
A good example of this divine logos is the concept of fractals. Fractal math describes how large items can be structured by simple repeating patterns. The architecture of a leaf is a fractal pattern with cells and veins growing out of the repetition of simple patterns. The arrangement of the limbs and branches of a tree are also derived from fractal patterns. Fractal patterns can create vast and elegant constructions from a few simple codes. This coding can be computer code or DNA. Coastal redwood trees can grow to over 360 feet in height. One of the joys of living in Northern California is walking through forests of these giant trees that grow to form living cathedrals. And yet, through the miracle of fractal algorithms, the seeds of these magnificent trees are no bigger than a grain of rice.
John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed Tradition, wrote that to study the creation is to study the creator. His words provided the theological foundation for all of modern science. Cosmology links science and theology.
We live in a Universe that is beyond all comprehension. And yet, the paradox is that we can learn to comprehend it. And that might be the ultimate paradox.
United Church of Cloverdale
Sunday, June 27, 2010
The Work of God’s Fingers
When I was a small boy I loved to sleep out under the stars. I could spend hours just watching the night sky. There were stars and planets, satellites and meteors, nebulae and galaxies. But the sky was more than just a collection of bright lights against a dark background. To me, the sky was alive. As I lay in my lawn chair looking up, I would wonder who was looking back at me. I would probe with my mind, looking for life in the heavens above, and glorifying God’s most extraordinary creation.
The universe is an extraordinary place. It is the work of God’s hands. It is magnificent beyond our wildest imagination, and a testimony to the greatness of our God.
John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed Tradition, believed that one way of knowing God was to study God’s creation. Calvin found divine logos in all of nature. The logos is the word of god. It is God’s fingerprints to be found in every nook and cranny of the universe. The logos represents God’s order, God’s laws, God’s pattern laid down for the universe.
John Calvin gave the theological underpinning to all of modern science. Calvin set the stage for Galileo and all that has followed.
Our planet earth was designed to support life. It is our habitat that we were given to nourish us in every way, to live together in communities and to develop cultures. But the greatest miracle of all is our ability to know God our creator.
According to today’s lesson, God has made us a little lower than the gods, and crowned us with glory and honor. The word used to describe the human condition is elohim, which translates as gods or spiritual beings. Elohim is a plural noun in Hebrew. It is used often in the scriptures to refer to God, meaning Yahweh.
Thus, our position in the universe is only a little lower than the creator. And being close to Yahweh, we are able to be in dialogue with God. God has given us dominion over creation, and put all things under our feet. We are stewards of creation, and co-creators with God.
The world is more amazing than we can even imagine. It is a beautiful blue marble full of life. It is our home and our habitation. And there is life everywhere.
When I was in high school, I was taught that all life on earth is solar powered. Plant use sunlight to produce food through photosynthesis. Herbivorous animals eat the plants, and carnivorous animals eat the herbivores.
But now we know of life forms that are not solar powered. There are many life forms that live in the ocean depths, such as tube worms. They live in depths of the sea where no light can penetrate, under enormous pressure and extreme heat. They live beside volcanic vents in the ocean bottom. They live by chemosynthesis, or the production of food from the chemicals spewed out by the volcanic vents.
There are living organisms in the geysers and paint pots of Yellowstone Park. These organisms can survive in boiling water full of caustic minerals. There are organisms that live in rocks, deep underground where the sun never shines, digesting rock for food.
There are microorganisms that live in ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic. And, when the ice sheets break off into the ocean, they provide nutrients that are the bottom of the food chain, supporting many species.
There are life forms that can survive the hottest deserts, the coldest frozen ice sheets, the most intense radiation, and the most extreme environments imaginable. It is now believed that there are even life forms in magma, the melted rock that forms volcanoes.
And as we continue to find new forms of life on earth, we are better equipped to find life beyond the earth.
Mars almost certainly had life at one point. I say this because a meteorite of Martian origin was found in the Antarctic. When this Martian space rock was cut open there appeared to be fossilized, primitive life forms. The scientific community has not officially embraced this development as “proof” of past life on Mars.
We may even find life living on Mars now. We cannot expect to find much more than a few bacteria, or perhaps some lichen on a rock. But finding even the smallest and insignificant life-forms on Mars would be perhaps the greatest discovery in human history.
But there are other bodies in our solar system that have a much greater chance of harboring life, and perhaps much more complicated life forms. In searching for extraterrestrial life, the guiding rubric is to “Follow the water.” And there are several bodies in our solar system that are believed to have even more liquid water than does the earth.
- Europa: 2.9 times earth’s water and ice
- Callisto: 27 times earth’s water and ice
- Ganymede: 36 times earth’s water and ice
- Titan: 29 times earth’s water and ice and a significant atmosphere
Tidal forces on these moons provide enough heat to create oceans of liquid water. Europa is covered with an ice cap, similar to the Arctic Ocean on earth. But below that ice cap there is an ocean of liquid water. One day we will land on Europa. We will then release a heated probe that will melt its way through the ice and into that liquid ocean. On moons such as these we may discover animals as sophisticated and intelligent as squids on earth.
But looking beyond our solar system there is a virtual certainty that we will discover other life forms.
When I was in high school, we were told that every person on earth could have his or her own star. But this was wildly inaccurate. In truth there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, each one with hundreds of billions of stars. This means that everyone now living on earth, along with everyone who has ever lived, or ever will live, could be given her or his own galaxy, each with hundreds of billions of stars.
Space is vast beyond all comprehension. The closest star to the sun is Proxima Centauri. Light from that star takes over four years to reach the earth. If we were to travel to that star, it would take us 80,000 years at space shuttle speeds.
With that much real estate in the universe it is a virtual certainty that there is extraterrestrial life. There may also be intelligent life that is technologically advanced. Functionally, we would define an intelligent, technological society as one that has radio telescopes. Through such radio telescopes it might be possible to send and receive signals, although it might take decades, centuries or even longer for these messages to pass between worlds at the speed of light.
We live in a time when the latest scientific discoveries are accessible to us all. Anyone who would characterize television as a vast wasteland does not watch the channels that I watch. There are some exceptional TV channels that provide windows into all of science. These channels include:
- The Science Channel
- The History Channel
- National Geographic
The Internet also provides an awesome window on science and nature. Everything imaginable can be found with ease on the Internet. For example, did you know that LICHEN, which I mentioned earlier, is a symbiotic organism made up of a FUNGUS and photosynthetic partner that can be either a green algae or a cyanobacterium?
Or did you know that in 1977, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), received a radio transmission that was believed to be of intelligent origin? Unfortunately this signal was never heard again.
I found both of these bits of trivia with just a few minutes search on the Internet.
The universe is an amazing place. God’s fingerprints are everywhere. And now we have access to know everything that is happening in the scientific realms. When we study nature and science we are studying the creator, and learning his ways. We were made a little lower than God, and we were created to know God and to explore and understand God’s creation.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?