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Reflection July 21, 2019
"What Do We Really Know?" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
You know next to nothing about the things that really matter. I know next to nothing about the things that really matter. We know next to nothing about the things that really matter.
And what are these elusive things that matter? Here are just a few examples: 1) Who or what is God? 2) How does God work in our vast cosmos? 3) What really happens to us when we die? 4) Why are there so many religions claiming to be the one, true religion? 5) Why is there so much injustice in our world? 6) What comprises “dark matter” and “dark energy”? 7) Why do we hate each other so easily? 8) What does love look like or feel like? 9) How do our brains work? 10) Why do we prefer easy answers to complex questions? 11) How can we protect ourselves from ourselves? 12) Why are we all so wounded? Obviously, this list could go on and on. I imagine each of us could add to this short list.
I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks ago how two things are essential for prayer: 1) honesty and 2) humility. Yet these two character assets are not easily seen in either our political leaders or our spiritual leaders. Plain, petty maliciousness is, unfortunately, woven into the fabric of human leadership.
I strive to be as honest as I can but humility still often escapes me. I need to remind myself regularly that I know next to nothing about the things that really matter. Even with my 13 full years of college and graduate studies, I’m virtually ignorant. But one compelling thing I learned in all those years of studies is to be profoundly careful claiming certainty about anything. This critically-important truth has helped me again and again.
In my 45 years of ministry, I’ve learned that when it comes to our faith, too many believers cling tenaciously to claimed certitude. “Let me tell you what God is doing NOW!” “Let me tell you all the secrets of the Bible!” “Let me speak for the Almighty!” “Let me judge how YOU stand before God!” “Let me tell you how YOU should live your life as a Christian!”
Do we know some things about our life in and through Jesus Christ? Yes, we know some things. But they are miniscule compared to what we don’t know. Our life of faith is and must always remain a MYSTERY. It’s best to always take off our shoes approaching any Mystery (see Moses and the burning bush - Exodus 3:5). We find “holy ground” most everywhere, especially when speaking about faith!
In my four years of undergraduate college studies, the course I liked best was a course on “Cosmology.” This course opened my vision in incredible ways. The cosmos was so vast and so unimaginable. I’ll be forever grateful to the professor of that course: Rev. George Windolph. Would that we could all be challenged with a cosmic perspective in our formative years!
In my four years of graduate studies in theology and pastoral care, the professor who opened my mind the most was Rev. Dr. Zachary Hayes. He taught on the connections between science and theology. His books nourish me to this day.
One of the great problems we face as Christians is that so many of us cling to an outdated and narrow vision of our cosmos, the vast expanse of the divine creation. There are too many misinformed Christians (between 40 - 46% of all Americans) who believe the earth is roughly 7,000 years old.
These misguided believers mistakenly think the Bible argues for a “young” earth (it doesn’t!). They think they’re somehow “defending” God or God’s Word with their unfortunate beliefs. They aren’t defending God because God doesn’t need any defense from us!
Having had to engage some of these believers in the past, I now realize that arguing produces only heat with little light. My stance now is: believe what you want, no matter how wrong, as long as you don’t try to convince me of your position! In other words: be as misinformed as you want but don‘t insist that I should embrace your erroneous ideas. We can agree to disagree! And, truth be told, such a person would feel more at home with a pastor who also disdains scientific knowledge.
This isn’t to say that science has ALL the answers. Science has a few answers. What science understands is how little it really knows. Yet science does present humanity’s best guess to date about the world and the cosmos in which we find ourselves. It’s, frankly, malicious and diabolical to make believers choose between faith and science. Science is not an enemy of faith. To make science into an enemy of faith is deeply destructive to our life of faith and to the future of our faith.
This coming Saturday, July 20, we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. That experience brought our entire world together as we all looked up at the far-away moon, on which two fellow humans stood. Twelve humans landed on the moon via a total of six successful moon landings. We have the moon rocks to prove it!
Yet there exists a growing number of people who dispute the reality of the moon landings. Between 6 and 20% of our fellow citizens believe the moon landings were faked. 25% of Britons believe such. 28% of Russians ascribe to this conspiracy theory. Where is Occam’s Razor when you need it? (If you don’t know Occam’s Razor, look it up! I love Occam’s Razor!)
Unfortunately, a plethora of conspiracy theories abound in our world. Fox News added to the confusion and insanity with a 2001 documentary-style video on why the moon landings were faked. God keep us safe from such malignant maliciousness!
In my course on Critical Thinking, the first paper I ask my students to write has to do with conspiracy theories. The student picks one of the current conspiracy theories and then argues BOTH sides, before drawing a conclusion. The strength of the paper depends on how well they argue BOTH sides.
We LOVE conspiracy theories. Why this is so has many possible answers. But some blame must be placed upon those who spin out such theories. We, humans, are certainly gullible. Mix in a religious aspect with your conspiracy theory and watch that cauldron boil! I don’t blame the gullible. I blame those who maliciously spin out these theories in order to profit, plunder and sow unneeded confusion. See what confusion the Russians sowed in our 2016 elections!
A few weeks ago in my preaching, I mentioned how two recent television presentations on black holes had moved me. I love astronomy. Part of me wishes I could have had a career in astrophysics. I was deeply taken by the original television series, Cosmos, and it’s more recent remake.
I very much enjoyed reading Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I don’t attend to Dr. Tyson for his views on religion and faith. I attend to Dr. Tyson for his views on the cosmos. For views on faith, I read a vast array of theologians and spiritual writers.
Here’s something to ponder from Tyson’s book: “Every second of every day, 4.5 billion tons of fast-moving hydrogen nuclei are turned into energy as they slam together to make helium within the fifteen-million-degree core of the Sun.” What an amazing fact! And understand that, as a believer, I see all the vast workings of our cosmos as the workings of our Creator.
Recently, in listening to Don’t Know Much about Geography while I drive, I learned that it takes approximately 30,000 years for a photon of light formed in the core of the sun to reach the surface of the sun as sunlight. So the sunlight hitting our face today is 30,000 year old light!
In further referencing this fact, I found out there’s still lots of debate about how long it takes for that photon to get to the sun’s surface. Some scientists believe it could take up to a MILLION years to reach the sun’s surface (see the dynamics of “The Drunkard‘s Walk” to understand the dilemma involved in determining how long it takes photons to escape the sun).
I love learning more and more about most everything. Nature, what we see around us and within us, is brimming over with a vast plethora of God’s praises.
As Hayes writes in The Gift of Being: A Theology of Creation: “It is through nature that God brings us into being and sustains us. To know nature more deeply is to sense its mystery, its depth, and its value. It is to know nature as a reflection of the sacred; a sacrament of the divine. The cosmos truly speaks to us of God. But what it says is difficult to discern. Yet, in all this, we see indistinctly, as in a mirror (1st Corinthians 13:12).”
I’m at an age when I’ve grown weary over who has it right when it comes to God. I’ve grown weary of misguided believers castigating science as being anti-faith. I’ve grown weary of those who proclaim the Bible says the earth is roughly 7,000 years old. I’ve grown weary of those who claim I’m a son of Satan because I don’t share such foolish beliefs. God protect us from those who claim to speak for God or for the Bible or for our faith!
This is not just a Christian problem. It’s linked to the problem of growing fundamentalism across various religions. We see it also in those who deny we’re seriously harming our planet with our greed and the plundering of our earth’s resources. We’re drifting on deeply dangerous waters!
As the old adage attests: “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” Or, as the prophet Jeremiah phrased it so long ago: “Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear. Do you not fear me? says the Lord; Do you not tremble before me? … For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others. Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings. Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan … they do not defend the rights of the needy.” (Jeremiah 5: 21, 22, 26, 27, 28) True then - true now!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor