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Monday, October 26, 2015

"God"


I recently subscribed to the magazine Astronomy. The first issue I got has a picture, taken by the Hubble telescope (the one on a satellite), of a region of the universe never before observed. In the picture are hundreds of galaxies floating out there, some angled up, some down, some at right angles to us. In other words, the farther out we look, the more things we see. 

The universe—the place we live in—is huge.

I accept the theory that we human beings evolved from earlier life forms, which in turn evolved from a mass of atoms that gave birth to the Big Bang

The obvious question, one that no scientist I know has answered, is “where did that original mass of atoms come from?”

Some of the ancients thought that the earth was at the center of a set of spheres—one sphere held the sun, another held the moon, and still others held the planets and stars. Just beyond that set of spheres was God. The term “God” in this context is a metaphor referring to “some kind of force that created the spheres.”

Today the term “God” refers to “some kind of force that created the original mass of atoms and set the process of evolution in motion.”

I don’t see where today’s metaphor is any more or any less satisfactory than the one the ancients used. Our metaphor just pushes the boundaries further out.

The term “God,” as a metaphor, is based on two human experiences. One is that when something happens, we look for a cause. The other is that when something extraordinary happens, we look for an intelligent agent behind the event. When archaeologists find a piece of rock that gives evidence of “intelligent” work, they conclude that the piece of rock is a “tool,” and the maker of the tool had to be intelligent. The creation of a set of galaxies structured so as to allow the emergence of intelligent life (on our planet) is surely something extraordinary.

It is possible that the emergence of life is the result of random occurrences over billions of years. But if I conclude that the shape of a piece of rock gives evidence of an intelligent cause, surely the emergence of intelligence itself should be worth something as evidence. Does randomness explain the complex structure of our universe, from the largest galaxies down to the subatomic level? The theory of randomness, they say, could explain a monkey typing randomly and eventually producing all the plays of Shakespeare. Is fourteen billion years (the accepted age of our universe) long enough for either of those events (the evolution of our universe, including intelligent life, or the monkey's typing)? Many scientists think so. To me, to say that those things occurred randomly requires an act of faith. But maybe I just don't understand how long fourteen billion years really is. 

One variant of the Big Bang theory, one that I am not able to refute, is that our Big Bang is only one among a huge number of Big Bangs—perhaps an infinite number of Big Bangs—and the whole business has taken place without any intelligent force. That just seems to me to push the issue one step further back.

Could there be an infinite number of Big Bangs? There is a philosophical principle that an infinite number of actually existing objects is impossible. No matter how many there are, there can always be one more, ad infinitum. There must be a stop somewhere.

That leaves us right back where we started. Our beliefs in causality and in the idea that intelligent objects require an intelligent maker are untouched.

I used the term “beliefs.” These are truly beliefs. We cannot prove that events need causes, nor that intelligent events need intelligent causes. Both the term “cause” and the term “intelligence” are metaphors for experiences we get from everyday life. I can say that events need causes, and you can say that they don’t, and no one can prove either of us right.

This is what “faith” is all about.

I sit in my room and look out the window at the sky. If it were night, I could see out to the edges of our universe, granted that I would need a telescope to see objects very far out. I choose to affirm the principles that events need causes, and that intelligent events need intelligent causes. So, somewhere out there, is the cause, and indeed the intelligent cause, of my universe.

This is a modest affirmation. I am not claiming to understand all the principles of nuclear physics. But I recall that Einstein derived even the principles of relativity from a rather simple metaphor of two trains moving along a track. Is my belief that something intelligent made this stuff any more simplistic? 

So, next question. What is that intelligent cause like?

Ah, now we get to the real issue. This is the issue that generations of human cultures have struggled over, even to the point of violence and death.

I am a Christian. That means that I see myself as part of a story of several million people going back a couple of thousand years, to the event of the person Jesus Christ.

Now why should I accept the belief that the intelligent cause of my universe chose to become human in one single human being at one specific place and time?
Well, I accept that belief because of those several million people before me. Specifically, because of the relatively few human beings who gave birth to me and taught me stuff while I was growing up.

Of course, every single Muslim or Hindu or Sikh can say the same thing. Each of them accepts a set of beliefs about “God” (or “Allah” or perhaps other metaphorical terms) because each of them is part of the story of their millions of ancestors, and specifically, because of the relatively few human beings who gave birth to them and taught them stuff while they were growing up.

I accept my belief about Jesus Christ because I choose to do so. That is what faith means. I can’t prove that my belief is any better than my Muslim neighbor’s. I don’t even want to try to prove that. I have better things to do, as surely he or she also has better things to do.

Maybe at some time in the future, either of us will have re-configured our story of faith in a way that is compatible with the other person’s story of faith. That’s not my business right now.

My business right now is to answer the question: If indeed the creator of my universe chose to become human in the person of Jesus Christ, my immediate concern is two-fold. 1) How should I behave in the presence of “God,” and of this person Jesus? 2) How should I behave in relation to my fellow human beings? The first question is liturgical; the second is ethical.

My religious community, Christians—more specifically, Catholics—gives me answers to both questions. I am presented with a set of rituals and a set of moral precepts.

Now both sets, rituals and moral principles, are subject to revision. We human beings seem to get better over time at understanding our situation. In the Catholic Church, at the Second Vatican Council, we changed the way we did the “Mass,” and we are even now struggling over how we should behave in the presence of our fellow Catholics who have divorced and remarried, or who are gay.

It took us several centuries, but we Catholics seem to be pretty much in consensus that it is not good to try to use violence to make other people believe as we do and behave as we do. I can hope that other faith communities will come to a similar conclusion. Do I think they will?

The history of humanity is not promising in that regard. A hundred years ago we in the “western” world were pretty excited about the idea of “progress” or “evolution.” Things would get better and better as we learned to use our intelligence to decide what is good to do. Then came the First World War and Hitler and Vietnam and ISIS, and we have pretty much scrapped that na├»ve hope.

Yet I can still hope. My main reason for hope is the Grand Metaphor of Christianity, the belief that God brings life out of the worst human disaster. This person that we believe was God made human was condemned and executed as a criminal. We believe that he was restored to life. So even if we humans were to destroy our entire species—a possibility not entirely remote, given the number of nuclear weapons floating around and the damage that we continue to inflict on the very environment that makes our life possible—even if we were to destroy our species, God would somehow bring life out of that disaster.

But I don’t want to dwell on that apocalyptic possibility. I want to know how I should do things right here and right now.

One principle that seems to be wired into us humans is the principle that we need other human beings in order to thrive. The sad thing is that our gadgets (smart phones, etc.) keep isolating us from one another. We will not be able to keep isolating ourselves without serious effects. (This is a belief, an item of faith, on my part, but I suspect it is a belief that most social scientists share.)

To me it is comforting to realize that my story—the story of my life—is part of a larger story that involves people all around the world today, and in all the centuries back through history, back to Jesus Christ, and before him, to Abraham. I can sit in my room and pray one of the Hebrew psalms and realize that there are men and women all around the world who are praying these same words today (granted that the words are in various translations). Furthermore, as I pray that psalm in Latin (one of the gifts of having been subjected to six years of Latin study in my seminary days), I can think about all the people down through the centuries who have prayed these exact words. What did those words mean to those people in the past? What do they mean to my fellow believers today?

As I pray those words, I think of all the stories in the Hebrew scriptures that give color to my story, and of all the stories in my Christian history that give color, both light and dark, to my story. It is sad that so many of my fellow Catholics do not know these stories. I could construct an entire curriculum for religious study, from kindergarden through graduate school, based on these stories. As we get older, we accept more adult nourishment. I can accept that popes had mistresses and children. I can even accept the statement of Garry Wills that the great sin of the modern papacy is lack of truthfulness, a serious charge given that we stated, in 1870, that the pope is infallible.

Mature stories can be controversial and can have serious political effects. Garry Wills, a layman, can make the charge that the great sin of the modern papacy is lack of truthfulness, but were I to make it, I would be out of the priesthood faster than you can, as they used to say, shake a fist.

Intellectual freedom does not exist in the Catholic Church for priests, and even less for bishops. Power is the ability to punish, and the Church hierarchy uses power very effectively.

But, as they say, I digress. My point in this piece of writing is to describe how I deal with some of the important scientific findings of our day. We used to call such an enterprise “apologetics,” but that word has the connotation of defeating one’s opponents intellectually. My purpose is not to defeat anyone. I want to show, as St. Paul says, the reason for my faith, so that other people do not think I am hopelessly out of touch with reason.

My Franciscan tradition says that the most important function of rational discourse is to “edify,” to “build up”—to build up the ability of my neighbors to relate to God and to one another with love. As Jesus agreed (when a questioner put the issue in those words), there is no greater commandment than those two.