The origins of MIT in its modern iteration reach back to the 1930s and Karl Taylor Compton. Compton was from Princeton, trained in Physics. His contributions to the war effort during World War II were matched by his vision for MIT as a world class institution. Compton’s roots were deep as well in the reformed Christianity practiced at Princeton. Members of the
family served as missionaries in India and his wife spent much of her time at MIT seeking space for a chapel.
His successor, James Killian, built the chapel she dreamed of and laid the foundation for an even more robust MIT, one that had room and purpose for the liberal arts. In the chapel is a plaque designating the space as the symbol of the MIT commitment to creating an environment where students might explore the meaning of religious faith.
So they have done since the building was opened in 1955. The notion of educating “A New MIT Man” was Killian’s in the aftermath of the war. The suggestion that science had been
hijacked in order to win the war without appropriate attention to ends and means stung. The use of the atomic bomb was a case in point. In response, Killan thought an MIT student should be as concerned with implications of a scientific advance as they were with the advancement itself. The eyes that peered into the dark night sky should be as concerned with what they were looking for as they were with how and why they were looking because as the universe gave up its secrets there was always the cost of the knowledge obtained.
The chapel and the larger Kresge Auditorium, “The Meetinghouse of MIT”, were the appropriate places for such questions to be asked..
Since then below the radar (figuratively speaking) physicists honed their skills and listened. On September 14th, 2015 they heard something. They heard what Einstein said they might, but a hundred years ago he thought the prospects were dim. He was wrong.
On February 11th 2016 they made the announcement in Cambridge. Our study of the universe suddenly had a new set of sensors. We might see, but now we could hear the destructive harmonies of black holes collapsing into one another and sending their death knell across the universe like ripples in a giant pond.
It had taken nearly a century; the elders who had argued for the funding for such a study and who believed in what they were doing while others waivered, clapped their hands. Somewhere Einstein smiled. Others stepped forward confident that the discoveries were only beginning. In the same way we could say we didn’t know what we didn’t know, we could also say we did not know what we might learn.
What of the dialogue between science and religion that had been implied? I listened carefully but the conversation was muted by the joy of discovery. There is nothing like being vindicated on a great stage. Those who thought big and carefully about LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) had paid dearly for their audacity. Thousands of folk had contributed to the LIGO effort and all felt part of a very special club. And that brings up the second thing I noted. Modern science is an international effort. The temple of science hosts a diverse congregation.
But what of the faithful? They seem unshaken. Those who reduce religion to factoids that can be ordered or reordered to match the advances of science seem to have little to say. Or maybe they have gotten tired trying to prove what cannot be proven. Those whose confidence is grounded not in facts but in experience and a sense of mystery seem to have learned a bit from our friends in Physics.
They waited patiently for the music to begin ignoring those who had other ways to spend the money they needed. So too wait those who think the music of the universe is divine. They hear with interest the notions that there are new discoveries to be made and wait for them. The notion that the universe is no accident remains a viable conjecture and those who think that way know as well that values such as justice, mercy, accountability and forgiveness are sometimes as hard to measure as gravitational waves.
I take comfort in remembering the words of Lewis Thomas, “We have a wilderness of mystery to make our way through in the centuries ahead and we will need science for this, but not science alone. Science will in its own time, produce the data and some of the meaning in the data…For getting a full grasp, we shall need.. all sorts of brains outside the fields of science, most of all the brains of poets, but also those of artists, musicians, philosophers, historians, writers in general.” (quoted in Leonard Allen, The Cruciform Church, p. 89.)
Isabel Wilkerson in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times (2/14/16) noted that it was just over a hundred years ago that the family of Emmett Till began their move to Chicago and she went on to link Till with Tamir Rice and declare them both sons of the great migration of black Americans to the northern cities in search of freedom. Real freedom has proved as elusive as the celebrated gravitational waves.
Our religious communities, concerned as they are with the values that expand the meaning of what it is to be human and what it means to reflect the values we declare of ultimate worth, need to take a deep breath and step up. The work does not stop when critics declare it worthless; it does not stop when critics say it costs too much; it does not stop when we listen and hear only the words of hatred and violence. We all pay a price when we commit to a great cause and the results do not come quickly or on our timetable. The waters of justice do roll and we must be there to listen if we are to hear.
It was an exciting week at MIT.
Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute