Tuesdays in the Chapel
September 9, 2014
Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute
Reading: from Counting to God by Douglass Ell
This book is about a largely unnoticed consensus between the mystic and the scientist. It is about both asking us to look in the same direction, toward a glimpse of a greater reality. It is about wondrous connections among the concepts of number, universe, and God. By observing the universe, through number, we detect evidence of the existence of God.
The riddle of existence is as old as the human race. Why does the universe exist? Is what we see and detect all there is, or is there some type of greater reality, of greater truth? Why do we exist? Can we believe we were put here for a purpose, and if so, what is it?
These are “great questions.” There are many questions in our lives, many uncertainties, many doubts. The great questions are in a class by themselves, deeper than all others. Like shadows in the deep, the great questions wait beneath the surface of our lives. When things are well in our lives, when the waters are smooth, it is easy to forget the great questions. But when the waters are rough and the waves threaten to overcome out little boats, the great questions often rise to the surface of our thoughts. We may not say them out loud; we may not even phrase the words. We may be in pain, in danger, alone, or simply confused, and just ask “Why?” or “What now?” When we are in trouble, under stress, when events shake us out of our complacent lives, we have a heightened awareness of the riddle of existence. We are more likely to ask the great questions. We are more likely to step out of our daily patterns and more likely to ask why.
Although ancient, the great questions are more relevant, and more important, today than ever before. They are also deeply personal. How you live your life could depend, perhaps to a great extent, on your personal answers to the great questions. Some devote their lives to a calling they believe comes from God; others mock believers and follow no moral code. Still others invent their own moral code but doubt divine intervention or design.
The good news of this book—the good news of the third millennium—is that modern science strongly supports both belief in a greater reality and belief that both our universe and life itself were designed.
Thank you for being here today as we begin our year of gathering. Our theme this year is a challenge to think of the one notion, trait or quality that is most important to how you order your life. Living as we do with at least one foot in the university where the search for truth is primary, I have come to believe that the single most important characteristic or quality we must cultivate in that search is humility.
Now some will respond that for me that will be easy. I expect that. It is not an inappropriate response and a good excuse to avoid the task lest embarrassment follow, but the quest for understanding of the world we live in is a life long endeavor and it is important that we keep looking even we are convinced that we know it all. I have a standing rule that when it seems to me that I have seen it all it is likely that within a very short time something will happen to remind me that I have not.
Let me illustrate with the words of a recent book review that appeared in the magazine The Living Bird. Stephen J. Bodio reviewing a book Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin writes:
Do not skip the preface, where the authors tell us why they have organized the book as they have, about the importance in human history of understanding science, and- a wonderful phrase I have never seen before- that science consists of not “the truth” but “the truth for now.”
Usually when I am confronted with something I have not run into it is behavioral, a student does something that surprises me. What we have here is a reference to a bit of humility that seems to me to set a new bar for recognizing the complexity of our quest for knowledge. The author has reminded us that there is more to know. The Apostle Paul, the most confident of Christian writers creating the New Testament had said something similar in the passage of scripture read out of context in 2/3rds of Christian weddings: 1 Corinthians 13: 12 “At present we only see puzzling reflections in a mirror, but one day we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole…” We are comfortable hearing such words when applied to family matters such as marriage, less so when applied to our research in classroom and laboratory. Our reaction does not make them less true.
That is why I found Douglas Ell’s Counting to God: a Personal Journey to Belief helpful. Ell is a graduate of this institution and he recounts a journey that many will find worth attention. He was recently on campus invited by the Physics Department to share his journey. The book is worth a glance. He may claim too much but his sense of order in the chaos of creation and life is worth our attention.
So too the wisdom of Owen Gingerich our good friend from Harvard. I tend to shy away from those who speak loudly in capital letters. Gingerich is modest to a fault. Peter Gomes described him as “armed with often disarming understatement where others frequently hurl absolutes.” He noted that Gingerich often quoted Einstein and reminded us that emulating Einstein was not a bad move for a scientist.
Einstein once wrote “The sense experiences are the given subject matter (of science). But the theory that shall interpret them is man-made…never completely final, always subject to question and doubt.”
There is much I do not understand in the world around us and the pace of this place still takes my breath away. I often feel on the edge of chaos and I confess that I do not understand how good people find themselves suffering terrible difficulties without seeming hope of surmounting them. Illness comes suddenly; freak accidents leave the vibrant redefining their lives. Some give up. The provision of freedom in an orderly world seems to demand the vagaries of chance that leave us gasping in horror at the results of actions taken in despair. I often cry out in anger: why?
Yet I also react to those who know too much and speak so loudly.
Hooded thugs who send messages to America remind us that evil hides
everywhere, but I still perceive an order and care for creation as I look out my real and figurative windows on the world. It is a foundational notion that helps me keep going when things are difficult and as the burdens of age and experience weigh even more heavily, I find it even more helpful. In an environment like MIT it allows me to maintain the balance necessary to do good work. We do not know it all and we need not claim we do in loud words that mask uncertainty, but we know some things and experience a comforting order. I am grateful.
Let me close with these words from Mary Oliver:
When we’re driving, in the dark,
on the long road to Provincetown…
I imagine us rising
from the speeding car,
I imagine us seeing
everything from another place…
and what we see is the world
that cannot cherish us
but which we cherish,
and what we see is our life
moving like that,
along the dark edges
of everything—the headlights
sweeping the blackness-
believing in a thousand
fragile and unprovable things,
looking out for sorrow,
slowing down for happiness,
making all the right turns…
the past, the future,
the doorway that belongs
to you and me.
COMING HOME in Dream Work (1986)
Reading: from God’s Universe by Owen Gingerich
If we regard God’s world as a site of purpose and intention and accept that we, as contemplative surveyors of the universe, are included in that intention, then the vision is incomplete without a role for divine communication, a place for God both as Creator-Sustainer and as Redeemer, a powerful transcendence that not only can be asomething but take on the mask of someone; a which that can connect with us as a who, in a profound I-Thou relation. Such communication will be best expressed through personal relationships, through wise voices and prophets in many times and places. The divine communication will carry a moral dimension, only dimly perceived in the grandeur of creation, yet present through the self-limitation of the Creator who has given both natural laws and freedom within its structure. Here, implications for human morality are discernible, for this view implies a kenotic or self-renunciatory ethic that is at odds with the “survival of the fittest” of evolutionary theory. As Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then my followers would fight.”