Friday, July 15, 2016

Between two worlds

One of the fruits of my reflections on Stephen Weinberg's The First Three Minutes is a renewed shock at the way modern people, especially scientists, can walk around knowing how pointless and inhospitable the universe is and simultaneously lead happy and productive lives. It is not so much that I think it surprising that human beings should be so self-absorbed as to ignore anything outside their own minuscule sphere of existence. Rather, I wonder how anyone who has gazed straight at the grandeur of this vast, pitiless universe can afterward return to diligently fulfill his daily responsibilities. Is there a sort of intentional amnesia that happens? Do scientists like Weinberg simply choose to forget how pointless their lives really are? Or do they instead have doubts about the validity of their own assertions? Perhaps there is some source of hope that they missed while they were looking through telescopes and performing calculations.

Christian faith trains the imagination to hold on to two seemingly opposite realities at the same time. Front and center is Jesus Christ, who is said to be both fully human and fully divine. In the same way he is both absent--seated at the right hand of God--and fully present, for the church is his body. It is a theme woven throughout the Bible. God is too big for even heaven and earth to contain him, yet he chose Jerusalem as a dwelling place. When Moses asks God what his name is, he responds, "I Am Who I Am," but then he adds that he is in fact the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God is always making a bridge between the utterly unknowable and the known, the transcendent and the imminent, the universal and the particular.

Even if someone were to prove to me that Christianity is not true--if someone could identify the remains of Jesus, or find some other way to wholly discredit the New Testament's witness--I would still find myself compelled to search for this bridge between two worlds, like the God of the Bible. Somehow we humans are caught between the two worlds, scrambling to find ground beneath our feet, hoping against hope that we might live comfortable with one foot on either side. We live to satisfy temporal desires, for good food and entertainment, for success and prosperity, for meaningful accomplishments within our brief lifetimes. But we also gaze up at the stars, and down through the microscope, and wonder about the big picture. We try to measure the age of the universe and guess its ultimate destiny. We try to understand the laws of physics and how to master them. We try to answer questions about life's ultimate purpose, about what is really beautiful, and about what truly lasts forever.

In my daily life I find myself regularly called away from my ordinary tasks to contemplate just how little a difference it makes whether I complete them or not. True, as concerns my own life and the lives of those around me, it can make a tremendous difference. But on a larger scale, it makes practically none. One human life does not change the ultimate fate of humanity, and even if all humanity were to pass away, the earth would keep on turning, and even if the earth itself were destroyed, the sun would continue burning, and even if the sun itself died, the galaxy would keep on spinning, and the universe would go on as it always has...

Yet it is in these very tasks which I perform daily that I become witness to this grand spectacle. I perform calculations, and I write articles for journals of mathematics. Every theorem correctly proven is a small bit of insight into an eternal truth that will never be taken away. There is ground underneath my feet. The human mind is not adrift. There is a bridge, somewhere.

I wish scientists talked about this more, but I suppose that would involve matters of faith rather than rigorous empirical evidence.

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