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 – How Prayer Works
“I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
― Mother Teresa
The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind. The purpose of prayer is to manage our internal orientation and focus. Prayer changes things from the inside out. Prayer and meditation can create profound changes in our mental state, level of awareness, focus, and self-control.
Peter Kramer in 1977 wrote a seminal work entitled Listening to Prozac. The theme of the book could be described as the remaking of the self.
Shortly before this book came out I had my own transformative experience linked to the use of Prozac. I had been in therapy for several years trying to deal with the trauma of childhood abuse. The talk therapy was not working because I could not go deep enough to get at the root causes. Prozac for therapy was like Novocain in the dentist chair. The Prozac allowed me to work through the pain and to complete the therapy.
Under Prozac I had a profound and surprising sense of “self.” There was a “self” there that was different from the painful things I had experienced. Under Prozac my “self” awakened. I could separate my “self” from what had happened to me, and from what I had done in reaction. I found myself saying, “I did that, but that is not who I am,” or “That was done to me, but that is not who I am.”
Peter Kramer went on to explore our mental states. He wrote that everything that we are, our emotions, our mental state, even our personality and character, are all products of our brain chemistry. This sounds like the ultimate reductionism, but it resonated with the experiences that I had undergone.
Kramer writes that controlling our brain chemistry controls everything about us and our inner lives. It controls our actions, our feelings, and even our personalities. He goes on to say that there are two and only two ways to regulate our brain chemistry. We can do that through chemical intervention or through our own mental hygiene.
The effect of chemical intervention is obvious. There are many forms of psychoactive medicines such as Prozac or Valium. There are mood altering substances such as pot, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. There are also many forms of illegal drugs can cause extreme psychological trauma as well as physical damage to our bodies and our brains. There are diseases such as syphilis or streptococcus infections that can radically alter personality and behavior.
The notion of mental hygiene is a little less obvious. The main premise here is that wherever our thoughts dwell, that is who we will become.
It is easy to give our minds over to various addictions. For example, a man might become engrossed in pornography. He gets drawn to casual sexual hookups. He hangs out in strip clubs or other sex industry sites. He develops a constant craving for more exciting and dangerous experiences. He starts groping women or even involving children in his perverted fantasies. His needs are insatiable. His addiction usurps all of his money, time, and attention. He loses his job, his home, his family, but still he cannot stop. The changes to this man’s brain chemistry are as real as if he were abusing drugs. This is why addictions are so hard to break. Every time he breaks through another boundary there is an addictive rush. He lives to experience those highs and will sacrifice his whole life in the process.
Real, authentic prayer takes us in the opposite direction. Instead of unmanageable cravings we find inner peace. Prayer is reaching for the transcendent. Prayer is touching something greater than ourselves. Prayer lifts us out of the muck of our daily existence and fills us with something much greater than ourselves. In prayer we connect with the divine transcendence and through that we connect with all people in love. Prayer connects us with the infinite power of love. This love transforms our inner reality and alters our very brain chemistry.
Real, authentic prayer is available to all regardless of his or her religious affiliation, or lack thereof. There are universal factors shared by all human beings in our DNA. There is a brain chemical called DMT or “the spirit molecule.” Preliminary research has shown that many people, regardless of their spirituality, or total lack thereof, experience what can only be described as a transformative divine encounter when tested with DMT. The research is still in the development stage and I believe it unwise to draw any conclusions about what is happening. But this research does offer some interesting preliminary insights into the human brain and its faith encounters.
It would be hoped that anyone on a spiritual journey would connect with others on the same journey. In this way experiences could be shared, help and support freely given, and a sense of a common direction might emerge. A group united by prayer can then pool their energy and resources to accomplish more than any one person could.
Pope Francis recently made a stunning statement about prayer. “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
Prayer does not end with ourselves. It begins with a transformation of brain chemistry but it does not end there. Prayer connects us with an infinite reservoir of love. It gives us power that is beyond anything that we can understand. When working together with other prayerful people we can multiply our powers and achieve the truly miraculous.
What Prayer is Not
Prayer is a very powerful tool, but few Christians understand much about it. Churches have not wanted to be honest about prayer. Rather, churches have spent their energy polishing the prayer illusion, often for financial gain. Most churches would no more give up the illusion of prayer than a casino would get out of gaming, or coffee shops stop selling coffee. The prayer illusion keeps churches in business, much to the loss of their members.
Before I can describe what prayer is I must first clear the decks and tell you what it is not. Prayer is not a way to persuade God to give you a better outcome. God is not your fairy godmother, not a genie in a bottle, not the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain. Praying for your Aunt Agnes’s gall stones will not heal her. This is not what prayer is about. It is not how God works. I am sure that many people out there will want to dispute this point. They will cite anecdotal “evidence” that God did indeed heal their Aunt Agnes. Many Christians prefer a comforting illusion over hard reality.
People are easily duped because they really want to believe. It is like when you see an advertisement for a new weight loss formula that guarantees you will lose 40 pounds in your first month. And you think, you have been fat your whole life and someone has finally come up with a solution! It comes with a money back guarantee so what can you lose except for your excess poundage.
But such a naïve and childlike understanding of prayer can also cause much grief and hardship. How do you explain it when prayer fails to get your intended results? In the same way, please do not say that God allowed your loved one to die. God had nothing to do with it. That is not how God works and it is not how prayer works.
There is a story about a man who attended many faith healing services. He noted that he had seen many crutches cast aside, but somehow no one ever cast off an artificial leg. The healer will tell you that if the miracle you are seeking has not happened yet it is because you have too little faith, or have not paid enough into the collection plate. The evangelist will happily give you these reasons as he strives to keep the frenzy going in order to line his own pockets and to advertise his great spiritual “power”.
Only a fool prays for rain when the wind is in the east. (Please adjust as necessary for your own climatological situation.)
This is the reality. Everyone dies. Everyone gets sick. Everyone faces endless tragedies and uncertainties throughout their lives. They lose their loved ones; they lose their jobs, they lose their money; they lose their health. Prayer will not change this, although it may make it easier for the person praying to cope with adversity. Aunt Agnes will not be healed through prayer, and therefore I would never pray for her healing. I do not believe in practicing deception or in polishing the illusion of the genie in the bottle that will come forth to grant three wishes. If you believe in that sort of God all I can say is, “Grow up!”
I will pray with and for Agnes and her family, but not to heal or to preserve her life. I will pray that the family is embraced by God’s love and feel God’s presence in their time of sorrow. Some might tell me that even that is an illusion. But it is a far different order than trying to command the fawning service of God.
There has been a long standing practice in church circles that it was possible to pray someone into heaven. If your uncle of dubious character passed away, one way to insure his place in eternity would be to endow a priest to say mass for your uncle every day. In this way, the priest received a stipend and your uncle just might spend less time in purgatory.
In the world of mega churches and televangelism, prayers can be bought. Some of these charlatans will encourage you to call their prayer line to pray for Aunt Agnes’ gall stones. When you call they might even say that they will pray for a particular fee. The less transparent “ministries” will simply use your prayer request as an invitation to include you in their fundraising campaigns.
There was a story of an elderly couple who attended a mega church run by a well-known televangelist. They were about to lose their house due to extreme financial difficulties. The preacher asked them to bring in their family budget and he would pray with them. When the preacher saw their budget he told them that there was not enough money in it for Jesus. They needed to greatly increase their contributions in order to prove their faith commitment. In this manner the shyster-preacher tried to scam the elderly couple out of their last dollar. And of course that dollar was not going to Jesus, but to the shyster and his own pockets and his “ministry.”
Prayer never changes God’s mind. You cannot bargain with God, and you cannot gain his support and attention by any form of prayer that you can think of. God does not barter.
Clergy prayers have no special powers. Prayer is not about making fancy speeches or magical incantations. Having the whole church pray for Aunt Agnes’ gall stones will not change the situation, although you and Aunt Agnes may receive support from your fellow worshippers through prayer. Impossible prayer is still impossible, no matter how much you gussy it up.
Prayer is not about the worthiness of the pray-er. It does not help to recite bible verses, use magical incantations, or flowery language. You do not need to “butter-up” God before you begin because God does not have an ego.
Prayer is not about directing God to do the right thing. It is not about calling for help so that God will notice your plight and then help.
God is not your handmaiden. Instead of holding on to this illusion to get you through times of trouble and stress – grow up and adopt a less infantile notion of God.
- Be as strong as you can.
- Be as knowledgeable as you can.
- Learn to help yourself, your family, and others.
- Learn what real, grown-up prayer is.
- Learn to accept life with all of its chaos and caprice.
- Expect turbulence and learn to swim in it.
- Realize that whatever happens, for good or ill, it is not about you.
- You are not the center of the Universe. You are thinking of God.
The Spirituality of String Theory
String Theory or its close cousin M-theory, with their ten or eleven dimensions, is a universe beyond our comprehension. Cosmologists are still struggling with its workings and what it means for our existence. The origin of String Theory was in trying to describe what happened before the Big Bang. Cosmology and theology are drawing ever closer together as both sides seek to answer such basic theological-cosmological questions as:
- Where did we come from?
- Where are we going?
- Are there other worlds like ours?
- Why is there something rather than nothing?
Perhaps the most theological question raised by cosmology today is:
Is there a design for the universe, or is it simply the result of random chances raised to the billion-billion-billion-billionth power in some cosmic roll of the dice?
There are scientists of all stripes on both sides of this divide. Both sides can make elegant and impassioned arguments to support their positions.
The old paradigm of science vs. religion basically required that you had to choose one side or the other. Either you could check the weather forecast or pray for rain. Either you could believe that everything happens by the uncaring forces of random chance. Or, you could believe in divine providence.
In the old “normal-space” view of the universe, we were bound by the three dimensions of space plus one of time. We lived in a series of boxes divided by walls, floors and ceilings representing height, width and depth. Anything that did not fit into such three-dimensional boxes was simply not part of the normal-space universe and could be ignored.
But the three dimensions of normal-space could never capture all that was happening. For example, Chinese acupuncture seems to have no medical connection to our physiology. Perhaps a better way of stating that is that western medicine cannot make that connection. And yet acupuncture seems to be providing health, strength and vitality to its adherents. The skeptic could say that any benefit derived from acupuncture could be purely delusional, caused by wishful thinking or caused by the placebo effect. But let’s not be hasty.
Acupuncture involves the flow of a special energy called “qi “, which travels along meridians of the body. But these supposed meridians appear on any western anatomy charts. The literal translation of qi is wind, breath or gas but is often translated as life force. The equivalent word in New Testament Greek is pneuma, which means air or breath but is usually translated as spirit.
Visualizing String Theory requires the ability to think in paradox, where two seemingly contradictory ideas can be held together with a sense of deeper harmony. Paradoxical thinking requires a more expansive view of the universe than does our ordinary normal-space existence with its notion of certainty. Perhaps there is some efficacy to acupuncture, even if western medicine cannot understand it. This is neither to support nor deny acupuncture, but only to suggest that there is more going on in the universe than we can comprehend with our limited, normal-space thinking.
Perhaps the extra dimensions in String Theory give us the space to allow for dimensions of existence that we have previously thought of as magical, mystical, spiritual or religious. And, here is a radical thought. Perhaps String Theory not only allows for the mystical, but perhaps even requires it.
Energy conduits enter our homes to provide radio signals, electricity, clean water, natural gas, telephone service, Internet access, and a host of other connections to the outside world. These special conduits or channels enormously affect the normal-space boxes in which we live, and provide a host of special powers that would have been seen as miraculous even a few hundred years ago. This analogy may help us to explore the extra dimensions of String Theory. Perhaps one of the String Theory extra dimensions is a channel for qi, a force that we cannot access until we understand it.
As a Christian, and more specifically a Calvinist, I have always found the universe to be a sacred place filled with divine logos. “Logo” is Greek for “word” in standard New Testament usage. But it means more than just the spoken word. It also means order, pattern, or design. When we speak of divine logos, we are speaking about the divine order that pervades all things. It covers the birth of the universe, the mating habits of tsetse flies, the DNA molecule, the Van Allen radiation belts, the formation of the planets, and the life cycles of stars.
To perceive the divine logos in all things is to live in a spiritual dimension. And now, String Theory may allow such a metaphysical statement to be incorporated into an expanded view of the universe. Perhaps there is actually in the physical universe a place beyond normal-space where spirit dwells.
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?