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We Are All Connected – 1/8/2012

When I was a middle school student, I was in a plucky little program run by dedicated teachers on a shoestring budget that was dedicated to teaching important ideas and concepts in hands-on ways. Each year the faculty would somehow scrape together the funds needed to take a class of public school kids who, as a group were no more privileged or academically distinguished than any other group of schoolchildren in the city where I grew up, out into the country for a weekend. We would go up to a camp in the forested hills of upstate New York, and we spent our time there experiencing the natural world and studying it and recording everything that we could about it.

During the day we would measure the distance of forest paths and survey the hillside surrounding the cabin where we were staying. We would collect newts – little salamanders – from the pond nearby and record their length and weight and number of spots before returning them to the wild. We were practicing collecting data and processing it; finding out what was the median, what was the mean, what was the mode? And at night one of our instructors would get out his telescope and we would look at the stars – far enough away from the city lights that we could actually see a good number of them.

I have never been a great star-gazer; I don’t make it a point to stay up nights and marvel at the vault of the heavens. But the truth that the stars represent: that we are sitting on a planet spinning around a great nuclear furnace, adrift in a vast sea of almost-emptiness. That this void is somehow also filled with an impossible, uncountable number of other such furnaces, so far away that some which burned out hundreds of years ago are still gracing us with the light they cast before dying. That the great swirling cloud of gas and dust that flew out from the force of the universe’s beginning and congealed into our sun also provided the stuff of the planet on which we live and the tiny fragments of matter that make up every part of every one of us. That has always spoken to me, since those nights looking out at space.

Now, I have a good friend who hates that sort of thing: contemplating the vastness of the universe revealed to us in the night’s sky. Thinking about it makes him feel insignificant and unimportant. A speck on a speck, circling another speck in an infinity sea of specks. He is not alone in that feeling. The renowned biologist, Ursula Goodenough talks about the struggle she had with stargazing after learning about the history and nature of the universe in her first physics courses. Camping in the Colorado wildness she looked out at the stars and was so overwhelmed with terror that she had to turn over and bury her face in the pillow. The scope was too big to handle, and the inevitable truth that one day – a real, but incredibly long time from today – our own sun will go out, as all stars do; that idea filled her with despair.

Ursula’s solution to this feeling was to embrace the mysterious character of the universe – seeing existence as a question that could not be answered left her feeling free to live in and enjoy it and learn what she could about its laws and composition.[i] But her experience is just one expression of a common dichotomy in the human reaction to the deep and sometimes incredibly weird insights of modern science. As we come to understand life, the universe and everything, the human response –the feeling – that follows from that knowledge moves back and forth between a sense of wonder and a sense of meaninglessness.

The brilliant contemporary physicist Stephen Hawking famously said of our species that “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”[ii] And from the opposite corner comes the attitude that our complexity as living things and our connection to the universe and its vastness ennobles us – that we are the beneficiaries of a spectacular, though probably not unique, coincidence to find ourselves here at all. And by gosh, that is amazing!

This seems to me to be just a modern rendering of a teaching that is attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa, one of the great Hasidic mystics of the 18th and 19th centuries. He taught that

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each person ought to carry with them two notes, one in each pocket, to be taken out and read as the need arises. One of these notes should say, “I am but dust and ashes.” And the other ought to read, “For my sake was the world created.” Except that in this case, the sense of awe and dust are woven together, as the great voice of scientific reverence Carl Sagan said, “We are one species. We are star stuff, harvesting starlight.”[iii]

As Unitarian Universalists, our faith commits itself to heed the results of science, and has long held that reason should be employed in all elements of human life – including religion. And sometimes that has gotten us into trouble – sometimes we can be too heady and intellectual, and not make enough space for feelings, matters of the heart and the gritty reality of how things truly are. Considering anything in the light of reason requires us to admit the limits of what we know, and the places where we are uncertain. In a world where many people associate religion with absolute truth, our willingness to embrace mystery and tolerate doubt can seem like a weakness. But our loyalty to reason and our willingness to be changed by it is actually one of our greatest strengths.

Because sometimes study and exploration and experiment lead to conclusions we might never have expected that turn what we had previously thought about the world on its head. It has been held for a good long time that there are six elements required as building blocks for all life. But last year it was announced that researchers had found a form of bacteria that seems to be able to use a seventh element – arsenic – in place of one of the essential ones – phosphorus – when none can be found. If this proves to be correct, it will change our understanding of the limits of living things, and potentially expand the range of circumstances under which we can imagine life developing on other planets circling other stars.[iv]

An earlier upheaval came when the study of dinosaur fossils first came into vogue in England in the 1800s. For a while there, there were all these British scientists running about digging holes in the English countryside. One of the leading diggers was William Buckland – the very Rev. Dr. William Buckland, who in addition to being a paleontologist and professor, was also an ordained priest of the Church of England. So we might expect him to have a better-than-average loyalty to the prevailing belief at the time that the stories in the book of Genesis were a rigorous historical account of earth’s history from the beginning until about 4,000 years ago. But his work reconstructing giant lizard skeletons and trying to figure out how old they were and when they lived forced him to change how he understood history, and move away from the Bible as a strictly accurate and complete account.

Today, that process is still not over – there are still many religious camps that refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence from many different scientific disciplines for the age of the universe and our planet and the fascinating story of how it – and we – all got here. I do not like to engage in better-and-worse comparisons between my faith and the faiths of others – it is unneighborly and tacky. But in this case I must admit I feel acutely sorry for anyone who views science as an enemy of their religious truth. Not because I find them foolish or silly, but because they are missing out on the wonder and awesomeness offered by the strange and beautiful insights of the scientific method. The hidden truths about the world we inhabit that science reveals to us are a material out of which we can make more and deeper meaning for ourselves and our descendants.

Now and in ages past, our religious tradition has attracted people committed to the study of the natural world. One of these ancestors was a woman named Maria Mitchell, who practiced as both a Quaker and a Unitarian, and was an early female pioneer in the modern field of astronomy. She made a name for herself by discovering a comet, and went on to become something of a world traveler – talking her way

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into the observatory in the Vatican despite authorities there who did not want to allow a woman onto the premises. As a travelling intellectual and an instructor at Vassar College – then a women-only school – Maria championed the cause of women’s rights. Her study made the basic equality of women to men apparent to her, as both possessed similar faculties and capacities. This gave her unshakable confidence in her own rights and the rights of other women.

Our religious tradition has not always held the been committed to feminism in the way that it is today – it is a position arrived at over time, under the influence of insights like Maria’s. We can trace our movement’s commitment to the rights of women, and of people of color, of lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people, and indeed to every cause any of us have ever taken up as a matter of social justice, to the influence of people like her. As human beings, and in particular as Unitarian Universalists, we have a responsibility to be willing to change our assumptions when they are proven to be wrong – whether wrong in the empirical sense, or more importantly in the moral sense.

There is a passage in the Rig Veda, one of the sacred texts of Hinduism, which translates as,

“Who knows for certain? Who shall here declare it?

Whence was it born, whence came creation?

The gods are later than this world’s formation;

Who then can know the origins of the world?

None knows whence creation arose;

And whether he has or has not made it;

He who surveys it from the lofty skies,

Only he knows – or perhaps he knows not.”[v]

The Rig Veda is a collection of hymns – religious songs of praise and transcendence and contemplation. So take heart that ours is hardly the first or the only religious voice to admit uncertainty and the unanswerable nature of certain questions. Still, many of us are not content to stop wrestling with a subject just because we believe it cannot be answered definitively. That’s one of my favorite parts of being a Unitarian Universalist, and it gives us something in common with everyone committed to developing knowledge by collecting information and testing theories. I agree with the legendary physicist Richard Feynman, who said, “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”[vi]

Science and reason are tools to describe the world as it is – they tell us the what and the how of our existence, but by themselves they have nothing to say about what we ought to do with ourselves. That moral insight has to come from the religious and philosophical disciplines, and first of all from our own conscience. Albert Einstein is reported to have said that “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”

We might look out at the universe, that super-massive spinning network of combustion. Or we might consider a simple, humble growing thing with an attitude like Walt Whitman’s, who said, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of stars.”[vii] Or we might just as well look our own hands, wrought by millions upon millions of years of evolution into such delicate and powerful tools, capable of doing so much good, and so much evil. In each of these directions, in every corner, wonder lies. Awe is the highest gut response to the dizzying complexity of the world. Reason calls us to recognize, as we heard in the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson earlier, that the molecules that make up our bodies, “are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically.” But it is the wonder-filled response of the heart that gives the second part of his statement: “That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”[viii]

Wonder teaches us reverence for ourselves, for others, and for the universe that we are a part of. Richard Feynman once remarked that he could see a flower and enjoy the sight of it, but his scientific orientation also allowed him to appreciate it on a host of different levels, to imagine the atoms that fit together to make it up and the cells that compose it, and to think about how its colors evolved over time as a means of surviving and flourishing in its environment.[ix] I doubt that he would have put it this way, but I would say that his understanding allowed him to make meaning out of the flower in new ways. And that is what each of us is here to do – to make meaning out of the world as best we can, to find awe wherever possible, and to be moved by it, in the direction of wholeness and justice and peace.



[i] Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature, Oxford University Press, 1998

[ii] From an interview in 1995 on the television program Reality on the Rocks

[iii] From the final episode of the Cosmos television series, a transcript of which may be found here: http://www.cooperativeindividualism.org/sagan_cosmos_who_speaks_for_earth.html

[v] Rig Veda X:129:6-7

[vii] Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself

[viii] From an interview found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmOThpcCkf4

[ix] From an interview found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbFM3rn4ldo

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