by Larry Downing | 26 March, 2018 |
On March 14, 2018, Stephen Hawking died. His death brings a physical end to career and contributions of a man whose creative, productive and unique scientific mind graced our planet in ways that will challenge generations yet to come. Born January 8, 1942, three centuries to the day after Galileo Galilei’s death, Hawking died 139 years to the day after Albert Einstein’s birthday.
Hawking, bound tightly in a non-responsive body, forced to depend on others for survival, communicating by synthesized speech, invited us to join him as he contemplated worlds beyond worlds and sought explanation for forces that agitate space and the forces therein. He spoke of black holes in as familiar a way as we speak of the corner grocer. His theories related to time and space challenge the most astute among us and confound the rest of us.Some years ago I became attracted to books and articles written by astrophysicists, cosmologists and others whose writings introduce readers to the world of sub-atomic particles, quantum mechanics, quantum physics, chaos theory, and other fields, including gravitational waves, that explore the mysteries of time, space and our wondrous universe. It is worth noting that Andrews University Prof. Tiffany Summerscales was a member of the team that was awarded a 2017 Nobel Prize for their discovery of gravitational waves. The Summerscales family joined the Shermans Dale Seventh-day Adventist Church when I was pastor.
Delving into arcane scientific subject was a significant shift for one whose interests had been directed toward the wonders of the Divine, as found in ancient Hebrew and Christian works. It is interesting, inspiring, and at times daunting, to read the works of theologians, spiritual giants and pastors who wrestle with ontological and theological questions that arise from scripture. Even the most erudite address issues within approximate range of my knowledge and experience. The findings, opinions and suggestions authors present were often part of my pastoral and hermeneutical life. I was comfortable in their world and enjoyed exploring their ideas. Then came my brush with authors who probe the universe and describe, what to the untrained mind is, the unfathomable world of equations, quarks, leptons, gluons, strings, and other terms I’d never heard of. This was an uncomfortable path that led far afield from the theological path. Or did it? Scientists opened a view of the cosmos I had never known. Hawking, with his A Brief History of Time, was one who inspired my journey.
I was surprised to find that scientists wrestle with many of the same questions we in religious studies ponder. What is beyond that which we can measure and quantify by application of our natural laws? How are we to make sense of what we find when we encounter unexpected events, whether negative and positive? Can we tease out purpose, a grand scheme, in our universe? How did we get to where we are? and what may lie ahead? What are our boundary limits? Is immortality a viable option? Despite what I had once learned, that purpose and meaning are off limits to science, these questions are home country to the theoretical physicist, as well as to the theologian.
As I reflected on what scientists wrote, I found their thoughts and findings, at times, more profound and more fascinating than those of theologians and biblical scholars. Scientists posed questions related to God and this universe that can hold their own with anyone. And the scientist may well transport the reader beyond the theologian’s comfort zone. The scientist, as will be seen below, dares venture into theoretical venues that are off limits to the classical biblical scholar. I’ve been fortunate to have had brief and superficial contact with those whose thoughts carry them behind planet Earth. They may be scientists; they are also human and their humanity is not shielded by their science.
As one who has spent years in theological studies, I still find some accounts recorded in scripture mystifying. I’m puzzled when I read accounts of angels’ suddenly appearing and, without an “I take your leave,” they vanish. Someone figured how much time it took Daniel to pray the prayer for wisdom recorded in Daniel 9. The person deduced that it took approximately four minutes from the time the request was made and registered in heaven for Gabriel to arrive at Daniel’s side. Eat your heart out, Elon Musk!
Another conundrum: the descent of the New Jerusalem to earth described in the Apocalypse. This account, combined with statements of humans carried off to heavenly places, leaves one to twist in the breeze.
We know that, at the speed of light, it requires multiple centuries for objects from earth to reach places our inventions view, and we are far from the ability to propel objects at such speed. How, then, does one place Jesus’ post-resurrection ascension in such a framework? Picture this: A being on a cloud lifted up into the stratosphere. Where would that misty chariot be now, some 2000 years after it began its journey out? The moon? Mars? Still reaching toward the stratosphere? And what of the effect of radiation and the coldness of space on such a contrivance and its cargo? We’re at a loss to explain. Is this where faith brings rescue? Perhaps. Are we to quiet knowledge, close the mind to what is known, and venture on, holding firm to what we, deep down, know is not credible? Hawking and other scientists propose theories that tickle our brain cells and stimulate imagination. They may not provide testable answers to our questions, but there is some satisfaction when we juxtapose scientific theories with certain puzzling statements we find in scripture. Little harm awaits should we allow fantasy to have its way.
Credible scientists propose the existence of parallel and multiple universes. They insist their calculations lead to these ends. They explain string theory as having something to do with small particles vibrating in 11 dimensions. When the theoretical physicist offers us a parallel universe, we have an invitation to consider the possibility that divine beings occupy a universe beyond where we live and move and have our being. And might it be their world provides access to ours, and one day we shall be invited to enter theirs? Think of it, supernatural beings inhabit a universe removed from ours, yet a world that is part of ours! Such rumination transports us into realms far beyond where our ordinary senses take us and, some will posit, beyond common sense. Fine! How, then, are we to understand what the writers of scripture tell us about angels, heaven and the divine? How do the accounts recorded in scripture that confound our logic fit into what we know about time, the measurements of the cosmos and the fearsome and destructive environments found among the cosmological bodies? Explain, please, how the cloud that lifted Jesus on his voyage through the galaxies, then to dock in a heavenly place, achieved safe transit.
Do the hypotheses, theories and conclusions of science provide answers to the mysteries we find in scripture? I think not. They do, however, provide interesting possibilities, and this, for some of us, is sufficient to somewhat quiet questions that arise when we confront statements that describe supernatural beings and their extraterrestrial travel.
To the reader who has gone this far, an apology may be owed for taking her/him on such a fantastical venture. The apology is not forthcoming. I’ll place blame on Prof. Hawking, with no fear of rebuttal on his part. I enjoy such meanderings and, to the one who does not? So be it. To those who are offended by such imaginative mutterings, a challenge: Share your explanation of the biblical events referenced above. To the charge of irreverence? Come on! The Lord we serve is gracious and must possess a sense of humor; how else explain the camel or giraffe? He shall perhaps grant one of his kids the joy of rambling on about matters he knows little about.
Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”
Lawrence Downing, DMin, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.