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Science Sunday: Wonder, Awe, and Hope

February 15, 2016

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The First Sunday of Lent, February 14, 2016, also observed as Science Sunday – the Sunday nearest Charles Darwin’s Birthday.

This past Friday was Charles Darwin’s birthday. Last year, for my birthday, I was given this votive candle with Darwin’s picture on it, naming him a “secular saint” whose discoveries of natural selection and evolutionary history have profoundly shaped our understanding of the world. Without question, Darwin’s theory of evolution is one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time. Less well known, however, is his lifelong search for a naturalist understanding of religion. Darwin not only wrestled continuously with the relationship between science and religious faith but found in his own scientific travels and studies cause for new and renewed understanding of religion. Throughout his life Darwin had experiences he would call “silent hosannas” as he witnessed the beauty, tragedy, and mystery of what he called “the sublime powers of life.”

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The oft-perceived conflict between science and religion caused him much pain in his lifetime, and he would be appalled at the anti-science fundamentalism of so-called creation scientists as well as the anti-religion scientism of the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. Between the raging creationists and equally strident atheists is a rich world of wonder and encounter where science and religious belief hold a fascinating conversation and encourage one another.[1]

“Dear me,” wrote the Rev. John Innes, Vicar of Down, to his dear friend Darwin, “if some of your naturalist and some of my ritualist friends were to hear us two saying civil things to each other, they would say the weather is going to change, or [wars may cease], both of which I wish might happen.” Both Darwin and Innes believed that if the scientific and religious communities could only get along as well as they did as friends and colleagues, it could change the world.[2]

Contemporary (Pulitzer prize-winning) author Marilynne Robinson, reminds us that theology has no monopoly on wonder and awe. She has recently suggested that if today’s Christians want to experience the sublime of human possibility that our forbears often experienced in art, literature, music or philosophy, and to gain perspective on our place in the world, then we should study contemporary science. Speaking of her own reading if the fields of science and theology, Marilynne Robinson has written, “I have just enough relevant experience to inform my awe.”[3]

Consider this story, told by physicist Richard Feynman, about the pleasure and beauty scientists are uniquely equipped to see.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree.

Then he says, “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty.

First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty.

I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.[4]

Feynman invites those of us who are not scientists not only to appreciate the worlds of beauty which science opens, but he invites us to wonder at our world, at our place in it, to explore what might be, to revere the mystery, intricacy and surprise that this world holds. And he invites us to explore.

This past weekend, my son August trotted out one of his favorite books, Charlotte’s Web. I’m sure many of you have read the story by E.B. White, which was the best-selling children’s novel of all time. Do you remember when Mrs. Arable, the mother of Fern who is caring for Wilbur the pig, goes to visit the Doctor because she is worried that her daughter is becoming weird – turning away from playmates to spend all her time with animals, including the pig, upon whose barn stall an intelligent and talented spider, named Charlotte has been weaving complementary messages like “some pig.” The whole town is amazed and has no idea how the words are appearing. Befuddled by her daughter and confused by the mysterious messages appearing in the web, Mrs. Arable decides to consult Dr. Dorian, their family physician.

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“I’ve been hearing things about that pig,” said Dr. Dorian, opening his eyes. “They say he’s quite a pig.”

“Have you heard about the words that appeared in the spiders web?” asked Mrs. Arable nervously.

“Yes,” replied the doctor.

“Well, do you understand it?” asked Mrs. Arable.

“Understand what?”

“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”

“Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”

“What’s miraculous about a spiders web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle – it’s just a web.”

“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.

Mrs. Arable shifted uneasily in her chair. “No,” she replied. “But I can crochet a doily and I can get a sock.”

“Sure,’ said the doctor. “But somebody taught you, didn’t they?”

“My mother taught me.”

“Well, who taught the spider? A young spider knows how to spin a web without any instructions from anybody. Don’t you regard that is a miracle?”

“I suppose so,” said Mrs. Arable. “I never looked at it that way before. Still, I don’t understand how those words got into the web. I don’t understand it, and I don’t like what I can’t understand.”

“None of us do,” said Dr. Dorian, sighing. “I’m a doctor. Doctors are supposed to understand everything. But I don’t understand everything, and I don’t intend to let it worry me.”[5] (At this point there were shouts of “Amen”)

What if instead of worrying about what we do not know, we, like Darwin, Robinson, Feynman, and Dr. Dorian, allowed the unknown to stimulate our imagination, our curiosity, our wonder?

This week we were reminded that the heavens, the cosmos itself, holds the mystery of the origins of the universe, and is waiting yet to be discovered.

Have you followed the announcement this week about the discovery of gravitational waves?

In yesterday’s New York Times, theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss explained,

One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein used his newly discovered general theory of relativity (which implies that space itself responds to the presence of matter by curving, expanding or contracting) to demonstrate that each time we wave our hands around or move any matter, disturbances in the fabric of space propagate out at the speed of light, as waves travel outward when a rock is thrown into a lake. As these gravitational waves traverse space they will literally cause distances between objects alternately to decrease and increase in an oscillatory manner.

On Thursday, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, announced that a signal from gravitational waves had been discovered emanating from the collision and merger of two massive black holes over a billion light-years away.[6]

In other words, until now our study of the universe has been limited to the study of light – visible, ultraviolet, infrared, etc. Now, we can hear! Until now, science has only had eyes. Now we have ears. 

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I am also aware that this is Black History Month. Where would science be without…

  • Katherine Johnson, pioneering NASA Langley mathematician who charted Alan Shepherd’s first flight into space, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom this past November.
  • Neal DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of the new Cosmos series, who dedicates his life to translating the most complex scientific concepts to the widest possible public. (Check out this quick explanation of gravitational waves offered by Neal DeGrasse Tyson, hours after the announcement).
  • Or how about Tuskegee University assistant professor Dr. Hadiya-Nicole, who received her Ph.D. in physics in 2012 and has just discovered a promising new approach to treating cancer by using laser-activated nanoparticles.
  • And our congregation’s own Dr. Phillipe Nyambi, whose death we are still trying to take in, as he passed away only this week. We give thanks for him, a child of God who dedicated his life to researching the genomic composition of HIV in order to, one day, control this global epidemic.

Scientists not only instigate wonder, they instigate hope. They remind us that the world is always larger than we imagine, always more complex, always luring us beyond. Their research opens new worlds and new questions with which we should grapple. And they advance solutions to pressing human problems, like HIV. Scientists invite us to a fuller humanity – to see and hear and probe the beauty and mystery of our universe and to respond to the urgent cries of our neighbors before us.

On this Sunday we give thank God for scientists and the universes scientific discovery opens to us. Let us join in praise the Mystery, which lures us ever forward. Through curiosity and scientific inquiry, may we put our human talents toward the betterment of human society and the flourishing of earth and all stars. Amen.

Following the sermon we sang a scientifically accurate hymn of praise by David Lee. You can find a description of the hymn here, with links to the music, program notes and commentary. It is not often we get to sing about the Big Bang, dark energy, the helical structure of DNA, and the origin of species.

 

[1] And Darwin would have been appalled by the attempts by so-called “intelligent design” theorists to hijack science curricula with distinctively non-scientific, theological claims that cannot be empirically tested.

[2] J. David Pleins. The Evolving God: Charles Darwin and the Naturalness of Religion. (2013). See also his In Praise of Darwin: George Romanes and the Evolution of a Darwinian Believer (2014).

[3] Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things: Essays. (2015).

[4] Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. (1981).

[5] E.B. White. Charlotte’s Web. (1952).

[6] Laurence Krauss, “Finding Beauty In The Darkness.” New York Times, Feb. 2, 2016.

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