A sermon delivered February 23 2014 at Foothills Unitarian Church, Fort Collins, CO.
Pre-sermon reading: The Silence. from The Soul of the Night, by Chet Raymo
Part 1: Creation
We owe so much to the wisdom and stories handed down to us from our ancestors! They brought forward the experiences of their predecessors, from the prelingual past and the long evolutionary journey before that. Their stories placed us inside Creation, made sense of life and death, good and evil, joy and sorrow, gave us reason to live. Our ancestors argued over and edited and slowly modified these stories through the ages, but a grounding assumption was that the world was full of meaning.
In Genesis we find miraculous creation of something from nothing, of light from darkness. The familiar words evoke cosmic mystery, even a resonance with our own Big Bang cosmology.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good”
Most importantly though, there is in Genesis both Divine intention (“Let there be light!”) and Divine blessing (“God saw the light, that it was good.”)
The intellectual history of modernity can be seen as a progressive peeling-back of mythical context and meaning, revealing a cold core of mechanical underpinnings to reality. Enlightenment reason and the scientific method enabled long life, sanitation, the green revolution, heated homes, and the internet; yet also gas chambers, Mutually Assured Destruction, chemical weapons, and drone wars.
In his recent book “A Secular Age,” the philosopher Charles Taylor distinguishes between a premodern world in which the universe was full of non-human subjects, and our modern conception in which we are separate and buffered inside our skin and psyche. The premodern world was full of angels and demons and saints and spirits of all sorts, as well as magical things such as potions, a piece of the True Cross, or the Eucharist Host, which imposed meaning upon people. The influence of these outside nonhuman subjects was pervasive: the feelings and emotions and experiences of our ancestors were constantly being buffeted about by them.
By contrast, secular modernity takes for granted that our life experience is happening “inside” us, that when we are sad or happy these responses arise in us, that their meanings are internal reactions of our brains and emotions to stuff that happens in the external world. We believe ourselves to be bounded.
We imagine ourselves as separate minds or souls seeking comfort and companionship and love from others, reaching out through our biological and social systems to sustain one another in a silent and inanimate universe that even now holds the ultimate power of life and death.
But we’re wrong. We’re anything but buffered and impermeable.
There’s another story, a modern story of Creation that is written in our very cells and molecules and atoms, in the quarks and leptons from which those atoms are made, in the fabric of space and time in which the quarks and leptons are bound. The broad outlines of the modern Creation story are known vaguely by most of us, but the details are unfamiliar and esoteric, told mostly by elites who speak in mathematical arcana. It’s a story whose depth and grandeur transcend even the voice in the whirlwind of our ancestors. It’s a story of selves with porous boundaries, and to embrace the new Creation story we can’t leave our intellects at the door of the Church.
It’s a story of complex self-replicating molecules assembled from humble building blocks of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Of intricate molecular machines comprised of proteins and enzymes that fold and unfold, weaving the elements into a tapestry of evolving information. Of chemical bonds and reactions which sense food and hazards and predators in their environment, reacting to those stimuli, learning from those reactions, passing that learning on through the zipping and unzipping of DNA and RNA to be used later by ever more complex copies of the machinery.
In her brilliant book “The Sacred Depths of Nature,” cell biologist Ursula Goodenough points out that awareness has evolved with life from the start. Even single-celled bacteria and amoebae are built of proteins that fold and morph and grab hold of other molecules for food. Their membranes change shape to move toward food, and away from predators.
Goodenough explains that our word Religion is derived from the Latin religio, to bind together again. The word religion shares same linguistic root as ligament.
We have throughout the ages sought connection with higher powers in the sky or under the earth, or with ancestors living in some other realm. We have also sought and found religious fellowship with one another. And now we realize we are connected to all creatures. Not just in food chains or ecological equilibria. We share a common ancestor. We share genes for receptors and cell cycles and signal-transduction cascades. We share evolutionary constraints and possibilities. We are connected all the way down.
Blessed be the tie that binds. It anchors us. We are embedded in the great evolutionary story of the planet Earth, the spare, elegant process of mutation and selection and [assembly and reuse]. And this means that we are anything but alone.
In my day job, I study the Breathing of the Earth. Inorganic oxidized carbon, CO2 gas in the air, is transformed at the atomic level: chemically reduced and combined into long-chain organic molecules like beads threaded on a string of solar energy. It’s photosynthesis, it’s been happening for more than 2.5 billion years, and it’s a miracle! Dead air becomes living goo inside of plants, and this forms the energy basis for nearly the entire web of life on Earth.
It’s alive! One out of every seven CO2 molecules in the global atmosphere are transformed into living tissue every year, so one out of every seven CO2 molecules is created every year when plants die and are eaten by other living things.
But it’s not just plants that accomplish this miracle of transmutation between the living and nonliving world. The food you ate for breakfast this morning was dead organic matter in the fridge until you ate it. It’s in there now, being reanimated in your guts — what was not you is now you or will be soon, or you’ll ah, get rid of what’s left.
Very little of the stuff that is you was there when you started. It’s your job as a biological organism to vacuum up stuff from the inanimate universe and transform it into the living you.
Even our breath is a miracle. The dead air around us flows into our lungs, billions of inorganic oxygen molecules cross a biological membrane, dissolve, and Miraculum! they’re alive — part of the living you. Of course there are billions of molecules flowing the other way in every breath as well. In fact each and every one of us is composed of countless atoms and molecules that came into this room as part of others.
There are no boundaries, not between us as individuals, nor between us and the physical world that gave us birth.
But where did the CO2 and oxygen and water and soil come from? From the rocks, which came from inside the solid Earth, which accumulated these common ingredients from the sky, by and by.
The universe is chock full of the stuff of life: hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen. There’s a well-understood, quantitative recipe for building each of these elements in the silent and incomprehensibly hot, dense core of a star.
We teach our kids that matter is made of atoms, that atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons; that opposite charges attract and like charges repel. But we usually gloss over the fact that every atomic nucleus is an insanely dense package of like charges. Protons crammed together so tightly that a teaspoon of the stuff would weigh 1000 times as much as the Great Pyramid at Giza. How come, the kids might ask, all that tightly-packed positive charge doesn’t just fly apart under the influence of positive-positive repulsion?
Gravity pulls inexorably on the rarified gas of the Galaxy and squeezing it tighter and tighter until the pressure and temperature are sufficient to smash the protons together against the tremendous repulsive force of their electrical charge. When they get impossibly close together it turns out there are tiny little velcro hooks that are vastly stronger than the electrical repulsion. These velcro hooks are called the Strong Force, and they hold every atom in your body together. When they lock, some of the very mass of the protons and neutrons is transformed to pure radiant energy.
Inside the core of the Sun more than 4 millions tons of matter are crushed out of existence by the Strong Force every second, releasing the luminous energy that lights our way, powers weather and climate and life on our world, and bathes the mountain peaks in alpenglow. This is how every atom in the universe (heavier than Helium) was formed, and as stars grow old they spew vast clouds of debris into the space around them. There in the cold of space this star smoke undergoes familiar chemical reactions just as it would on Earth, forming water, CO2, ordinary mineral dust, even complex organic compounds like soot and amino acids.
Waves of higher density sweep through galaxies like ours, showing up as lovely spiral arms and cramming the material closer together where it falls under its own weight to create new stars and swirling disks of mineral dust and ice and carbon that condenses into new planets like ours. Recent data suggest there may be 40 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, and the universe is so full of galaxies we’ll never count them all. Our solar system is probably made of third-generation material, meaning it’s assembled from the smoke and dust of a dead star that was formed of the smoke and dust of a dead star that formed from the primordial gas of Creation. Every atom in every cell in our bodies was forged and then blasted out of the core of a star made from recycled star smoke.
The primordial dustless gas from which the first stars were gathered was in its turn formed from light itself, in the great silent swoosh of expansion emanating from the Beginning of time and space. We’ve known for over 100 years that gravity bends space and time itself, and that in the beginning there was light. And that light was so densely packed that it was also infinitely hot. And yet time and space inflated, creating a bubble of wildly expanding vacuum comprising all the known universe. As the vacuum of space and time expanded against gravity it cooled, and when the cooling was enough, protons and electrons spontaneously condensed out of the hot light of Creation. And when those protons and electrons combined to form Hydrogen gas, the photons they released were stretched with the cosmos for another 13 billion years to form the hiss we hear between radio stations.
As much as we learn of this story, there is yet mystery beyond. The further we extend the island of our understanding into the sea of mystery, the longer that shore becomes. Beckoning.
In my lifetime we’ve discovered that the Galaxies and clusters of Galaxies are strung like pearls along strands of much more abundant Dark Matter that doesn’t interact with electromagnetic radiation but whose gravity sculpts the shape of the observable universe. In just the last 15 years, we’ve discovered that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating against its own gravity, stretching the very fabric of space and time itself. The mysterious force driving this expansion is called “Dark Energy.” Its nature is still unknown. We do know that the vacuum of space is buzzing with particle-antiparticle pairs that literally pop in and out of existence as they trade mass-energy with photons, so the mathematical description of vacuum energy leads to further edits to the modern story of Creation written in our bones and brains.
Fully embraced, our modern Creation story is truly awesome, in the original sense of that word. A story of creative power flowing from an inflating flash at the moment of creation, which is still there and from which time and space themselves emerge. Powering spiral density waves that plow through the dust and gas of the Milky Way, spewing stars and smoke and worlds in their wakes. Built into the electromagnetic force that organizes that selfsame dust into pond scum that evolves to compose symphonies.
There is no ghost in the machine.
But what a machine — a machine that makes ghosts!
MUSICAL INTERLUDE: Click here to listen to Lord of the Starfields by Bruce Cockburn
Part 2. Redemption
The stories of our ancestors wove a tapestry of cosmic meaning around our lives. Far more than explaining Creation, they offered rules for living, rewards for good behavior, and a framework for forgiveness and salvation when we failed.
Our rational explorations have bestowed on us enormous power to manipulate the world, but can be deeply unsatisfying. We’ve turned Hamlet inside-out: we are deeply suspect of philosophy, Horatio, that dreams of more things than are in heaven and Earth.
The modern concept of Creation fails for billions of people to provide what we need to live well and recover from failure. Our ancestors revered both God the Creator and God the Redeemer. Our modern Creation is magnificent beyond the imagination of our ancestors. But as real living, loving, suffering, dying human beings many of us desperately crave the lost Redeemer.
Who among us doesn’t aspire to be a better person, parent, partner, worker? We have each failed to reach our potential in ways that harm us and harm those we love. Can we reconcile our modern story of Creation with our deep human need for Redemption? God, I hope so!
Many times I’ve suffered a small injury, say a cut on my finger. The skin is wounded, part of the wet living me leaks out, the frayed edges of flesh dry out and die over a day or two. Maybe a scab forms. But then the tissue begins to heal! Blood flow and molecules and cells reorganize, flesh grows back, the skin closes and forms a tiny scar. Incredibly, the healing continues until even the fingerprints return without a seam, leaving no trace of the injury.
Brains and lives and souls can heal too. But when the injury is too deep some of us need a power greater than ourselves to heal. By letting go of our selfish need to control our lives and the lives of those we love, and letting the universe move us, the awesome power of the cosmos can indeed lead us to healing and to sanity.
It’s easy to believe in powers greater than my self: gravity, for instance, or the certainty that driving a speeding car into a solid object would have disastrous consequences.
Beyond such mundane or obvious knowledge, I turn to the modern Creation story. The Power of Creation binds quarks into protons, spins galaxies along their web of Dark Matter, inflates time and space against gravity under the influence of Dark Energy. It’s so much greater than my little self that my jaw drops to contemplate it. Tapping into this sense of context can help us to transcend the petty concerns of life’s slings and arrows, to restore a sense of humility and scale and relieve us of self-centered ego.
Here are some touchstones from religious naturalism that I want to bring to the work of living my life:
God has grown and changed with us, become more powerful through millennia: from war councilor of tribal chieftains, to medieval King of Kings, to clockmaker of the cosmos. Yet also more remote: from physical parent in the Garden; to a burning bush; to a still, small voice.
In the enchanted world of our ancestors, religion was indistinguishable from magic. Good priests fought an array of evil spirits. Our ancestors prayed for steady rain, a bountiful harvest, good fortune. Our modern Creator as spinner of galaxies, inflator of universes, and weaver of the Higgs field is supremely powerful, infinitely remote, hard to supplicate. It seems beyond presumptuous to ask a God like that to make the Broncos win the Super Bowl!
But when we pray for the right things, we can be answered. I ask the universe which made me to help me be the best person I can be, to grant me the strength to do what is required. I don’t presume that the universe can hear my prayer, and even in the realization that the answer is in my own psyche, I am answered.
Four years ago this week, my son Nate was in a horrific accident. He was ejected from a spiraling tumbling vehicle at over 75 mph into a frozen field near Wellington at 2 AM. Newtonian physics controlled the way he crashed through the windshield, his trajectory through the night, his rotation in the air, and the twisting crunching bounces of the following van. Like dice they tumbled through pitch darkness, coming to rest nearly 200 feet from the pavement. Nate lay unconscious in a T-shirt, with bare feet. It was 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily the other kid remained conscious in the wreckage.
Our phone rang at about 2:20 AM. I answered in my sleep. A voice told me to go to the hospital immediately, that Nate was badly injured. There were ambulance sounds and crackling radios in the background. Cold fear froze my heart and Jennifer and I knew that I would have to go while she stayed with Matt, who was asleep in the next room.
I knelt on the bathroom floor in my underwear and I prayed to be given courage, and strength of character. I prayed to be the best parent, the best person I could; to be granted the serenity to meet my responsibility in that terrible hour.
And it worked.
I felt the fear drain from my heart, down through my guts and out through my legs. I rose and drove empty winter streets to PVH, arriving just before the ambulance. Nate was wheeled into the ER strapped down hard to immobilize his broken spine and pelvis. His face was hamburger, his teeth covered with blood and mud, but when he smiled at me his eyes were impossibly, perfectly normal. As doctors and nurses swarmed around us, we shared an unbreakable connection, from his sparkling eyes into mine. We held hands. He asked “Dad, am I going to die?” I told him I didn’t know, but that he was alive right now, that I was here, that I loved him with all my heart. And we both knew, really knew, that every single one of us is going to that place, and it’s OK.
[Nate spent a month in the hospital, three months in a wheelchair, and is a healthy young man today]
Ursula Goodenough explains that single celled organisms like bacteria don’t die. They can be killed by starvation or predation, but they don’t have to die. Their molecular machinery is programmed to gather energy and then to divide the self, replicating the genetic code to propagate the self indefinitely. They have biological immortality at the expense of endless replication.
Multicellular eukaryotes evolved from such single-celled creatures at the time of the Cambrian. All multicellular organisms are sexual. Indeed the invention of sex was necessary for multicellularity to evolve. The dichotomy between germ cells and the remaining somatic cells effectively parcels out the job of being alive. Transmission of the genome to the next generation is entrusted to the germ line while negotiating the niche so that the germ cells are successfully transmitted is entrusted to the soma. The germ line is safely sequestered in gonads, nurtured by surrounding tissues, its genomes released only at appropriate times; the somatic cells are the ones that perceive and move and sprout feathers and pump blood and make love. Once you have a life cycle with a germ line and a soma, then immortality is handed over to the germ line.
So our brains, and hence our minds, are destined to die with the rest of the soma. And it is here that we arrive at one of the central ironies of human existence. Which is that our sentient brains are uniquely capable of experiencing deep regret and sorrow and fear at the prospect of our own death, yet it was the invention of death, the invention of the germ/soma dichotomy, that made possible the existence of our brains.
Sex without death gets you single-celled algae and fungi; sex with a mortal soma gets you the rest of the eukaryotic creatures. Death is the price paid to have trees and clams and birds and grasshoppers, and death is the price paid to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love.
My somatic life is the wondrous gift wrought by my forthcoming death.
Modernity is both a gift and a curse. Freed from superstition, we can align ourselves with the phenomenal cosmic power of the universe that allows us to do good in the world. But we love and suffer and fight and die just like all who came before us. This is built into the fabric of Creation. As for our ancestors, there are no exceptions to these rules.
Just as our ancestors did, we can revere and celebrate and stand in awe of Creation. Yet for many of us this is not enough. Even in the modern, secular, post-enchanted world, Creation and Redemption can be two sides of the same coin.
Closing Hymn: Mother Spirit, Father Spirit (#8)
by Norbert Capek, martyred Unitarian minister from Prague,
victim of Nazi medical experiments who died in Dachau in 1942
Mother Spirit, Father Spirit, where are you?
In the sky song, in the forest sounds your cry.
What to give you, what to call you, what am I?
Many drops are in the ocean, deep and wide.
Sunlight bounces off the ripples to the sky.
What to give you, what to call you, who am I?
I am empty, times flies from me; what is time?
Dreams eternal, fears infernal haunt my heart.
What to give you, what to call you, O my God?
Mother Spirit, Father Spirit, take our hearts.
Take our breath and let our voices sing our parts.
Take our hands and let us work to shape our art.
Last rights of the Bokononist faith, from Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
God made mud. God got lonesome. So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!” “See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.” And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud.