First United Methodist Church, Schenectady, NY, October 25, 2015
Arthur M. Suggs
When I was about five or six years old, a kindergarten kid, my dad had a 20-gallon fish tank, or what you would call a community tank, with lots of different kinds of fish in it. One morning we both got up unusually early, before dawn. I went to the tank, which had a roller-type thumb switch for the lights, and turned them on while it was still dark outside. I remember the fluorescent tubes flickered for a moment, and then bam, they came on bright.
As I was looking at the fish, they were jerking around and some of them swam hard into the glass. In a sort of formative moment for me a long time ago, I turned to my dad and asked, “Why’d they do that?” He answered, “Because you scared the bejesus out of them.” He liked the word bejesus.
What do you mean? Then he explained, “Pretend that you’re lying in your bed, and somebody comes in and turns on the light. Would you like that?” It had never before dawned on me. It was one of those early moments of feeling empathy for creation. I wanted to apologize to the fish. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare the bejesus out of you, and I won’t do it again. I will wait for dawn to come before I turn on the light from now on.” A formative moment for me as a kid.
I’m going to try to preach this morning about science and religion and about God. Bit of a tall order, and I’ll do my best. But to begin I’d like to convey a short story that is very meaningful to me. It’s by John Barrow, a Cambridge professor of math and physics, a superbrainiac kind of guy. He received the Templeton prize for progress in religion in 2006, and so at his awards dinner in March, he began his acceptance speech with this story:
“A little over a year ago, I [Barrow] was in a great church, the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice. Its predecessor was raised in the year 832 to house the mortal remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, which had supposedly been brought to Venice from Alexandria four years earlier by two merchants. They are alleged to have hidden the remains of the martyred saint under layers of pork to avoid the attentions of the Muslim customs officials. The present Byzantine Basilica, a distinctive cluster of low domes, was begun in the year 1063 and consecrated in 1089. I arrived at the church in the early evening with a small group of other scientists for a guided tour after it had closed to the visitors for the day. When we entered, it was almost in total darkness. There are few windows, and those are small and far from transparent. We were asked to sit in the center, allowing just a few faint floor lights and electric candles to guide us to our seats. Above us, only darkness. And then, very slowly, the light levels rose. Above us, around us, the interior began to be illuminated by a discreet system of hidden sodium lights. The darkness around us gave way to this spectacular golden light. The arching ceilings above us were covered in a spectacular, gleaming mosaic of glass and gold. Between the 11th and the 15th Centuries, nearly 11,000 square feet of gold mosaic was made, square by square. On reflection what was more striking to me was the realization that the hundreds of master craftsmen who had worked for four centuries to create this fabulous site had never seen it in its full glory. They worked in the gloomy interior by candlelight and oil lamps to illuminate the small area on which they worked, but not one of them had ever seen the full glory of the golden ceiling. For them, like us 500 years later, appearances can be deceptive. The universe is a bit like that too.”
Turning up the Lights. The advantage in turning up the lights is that one can see more and can see more clearly. But an issue arises with better illumination upon one’s path: The issue is that one needs to integrate what is now seen that wasn’t seen before. Let me speak plainly.
I feel that the lights have been coming on especially brightly in this last century. Here are some of the incredible developments that have come to light –I use that phrase intentionally – in this century:
It was about a century ago that Einstein published the four papers that made him famous, on the subjects of relativism; relativity, general and specific; and quantum mechanics, the insights of which have been filtering down into the population of the world over this last century. The process is not complete, but it’s still happening.
In addition, even though Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in the 1850’s, it was mostly during the last century that the ideas of deep time; evolution; and natural selection, “red in tooth and claw”, have found their way into the imagination of the average person on the street.
In the last couple of decades alone, the incredible insight born of string theory is that basically it seems as though there are eleven dimensions in which we exist. The mathematics behind this theory are well beyond the scope of the sermon. But eleven dimensions! We live in four of them, three spatial and one time, and there are a fifth, a sixth, a seventh, and so on. One thing that is known by virtually everybody about dimensions is that each is infinitely more in scope than the preceding one. So a plane is infinitely more than a line, and a volume is infinitely more than a plane. People get that. But there are yet an eighth, a ninth, a tenth, and even an eleventh in the magnificence of this world in which we live.
As if that weren’t enough, in the 1940’s the Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. And the religious world got rocked by an 8.0 earthquake. We realized that the Bible is what it is pretty much because so much was taken out as a result of really petty politics. What God had said – never mind what God is still saying – what God had said in holy writs of all kinds were also discovered in the last century.
We now have a telescope, twenty-five years old, that has taken images of the universe that we had no idea about, including what is named the Hubble Deep Field, which has now led astronomers to estimate the number of galaxies at 1013 (give or take a dozen or so). It was in the 1920’s, between the two World Wars, when we first realized that we live in a galaxy. We haven’t known that for even a century yet. And it was only about four years later that the very first galaxy, Andromeda, named after a beautiful Ethiopian princess of Greek mythology, was discovered. And now it’s 10^13 galaxies of which we’re aware. A billion is 10^9 , so now we have at least ten thousand billion galaxies. (I feel like Carl Sagan.) (Also a galaxy typically has in the neighborhood of 10^11 stars, for an overall total of 10^24 stars!)
And how about the Internet? Ours is the first generation ever to be almost universally connected, such that I could e-mail somebody in China or Moscow or sub-Saharan Africa. And the news of the death of a famous person goes across the globe in about a second.
(Big Bang, DNA, could be mentioned as well.)
The dimmer switch has been cranked – hard and fast. Think about this list of incredible insights, which is by no means all-inclusive: relativism; relativity, general and specific; quantum mechanics; evolution; eleven dimensions; Nag Hammadi and the Dead Sea Scrolls; the Internet; and the Hubble Deep Field. I challenge you to compare that list with any other century in the history of humanity. God apparently took the dimmer switch and cranked it hard and fast. And we’re like little guppies banging into the glass, having the bejesus scared out of us.
Does any of this impact our understanding of God? Our conception of divinity?
Now compare all that scientific, intellectual stuff to a more common, even childish, understanding of God. Teachers asked kindergarteners to write God a question, put it on a Post it note, and then they put all the Post-its up for everyone to see. Here are a few of them. As you listen to these questions or statements about God, dig beneath the surface and imagine the responders’ conceptions of what divinity is:
Dear God, I bet it’s very hard for you to love all of everybody in the whole world. There’s only four in our family, and I can’t do it.
Dear God, Please send Dennis Clark to a different camp this year.
Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.
Dear God, I went to this wedding, and they kissed right in church. Is that okay?
Dear God, You don’t have to worry about me. I always look both ways.
Concepts of Divinity! It’s time to for an upgrade. When you get a feeling for kindergarteners’ perceptions of God like a superparent, and considering the vast number of achievements that have come to pass in the last century, from Einstein all the way to the Hubble Deep Field, maybe it’s time for us to upgrade our conception of God.
So what is God? Not exactly sure anymore. I used to think I knew, but now I know that I don’t.
I’m not an atheist…not just because I believe in divinity, but I’m also repulsed by the arrogance of atheists, not to mention the chronic bad attitude.
I’m not agnostic either. It’s too lukewarm and milk toast for my taste. It’s too easy. It poses as respectable, but strikes me as just being lazy.
And perhaps most surprising for a clergyperson, I’m not a theist. What??? I no longer can conceive of God being a separate entity “out there” somewhere, perhaps in heaven. And it most certainly wasn’t the type of divinity Jesus talked about.
I am a spiritualist. I believe that spirit, the non-physical realm, exists at a deeper level of reality than matter does.
I’m also a monist. I believe in the oneness, the interconnectedness of all reality. When Jesus prayed that “they might all be one, even as the Father and I are one” I try to take that to the limit of what my mind can conceive.
And please excuse the jargon, I’m also a panentheist. All, the whole shebang, what the Greeks called the pleuroma, all things physical and spiritual, exists within God.
But it doesn’t matter what I think. What I believe. What do you think? Believe? Hopefully what I’ve said so far might motivate you to at least see if you want an upgrade, need a revision. And toward that end, I want to offer four verses from the Bible, chronically overlooked, that actually can be very helpful as we bring our theology into conversation with science.
Deut 33, Very often awkwardly translated. I originally came across it in the protestant funeral liturgy. “The eternal God is thy dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”
Hebrew: olam, eternal, everlasting, cosmos, universe, the world, infinite. Not easily translated into English for it means all these things. It is the ancient Hebrew concept of what we now call Einsteinian space-time. So the verse, more literally is: The Olam God (or God of Olam) is thy house, and underneath (foundation, referring to the house) is the Olam – Strength. One of the great promises, hidden gems, in the Bible. The God of it All is where you live, and foundational to your dwelling is the strength of the universe!
Ecc 3:11 “He has made everything beautiful it its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” He has put Olam into our nephish, translated as mind or heart is some versions, but more literally is a person’s soul. Olam placed into our soul! Such that yes, it would be difficult to wrap our minds around such a concept.
Luke 17:21 “…for behold, the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you” This is almost exactly the same thing that Ecclesiastes is saying. But here Jesus is using emphasis. “Entos” is the Greek word for an emphatic “in”. English doesn’t have such a word. But imagine, taking the word “in” only with emphasis. The Kingdom of God is in you! Don’t look for it over there, or over here, it’s in you! Olam in you soul.
Acts 17:21 This one is great. Epimenides (Philosopher, Crete, 6th or 7th C BCE) was upset with his fellow Cretans in that their belief in and worshipful attitude toward Zeus was waning. Part of his poem: “They fashioned a tomb for you (Zeus), holy and high one, Cretans, always liars, evil hearts, idle bellies. But you are not dead; you live and abide forever, for in you we live and move and have our being.” Paul then used that same line as part of his explanation of divinity to the Greeks.
But note one thing. It seems to be saying the opposite of the two preceding verses. Which is it? God (Kingdom, Olam) in us? Or are we in God? I would suggest to you that it is the interplay of both. It is the interplay, interbeing, of God, humanity, creation that both science and theology is discerning.
In preparation for today, I’ve been reading some of Sara’s sermons on the internet.
There was one from a few weeks back. The context was addressing the question of Jesus, “Who do people say that I am?” And she quotes:
“Rev. Monty Brown, a United Methodist from West Virginia has answered the most important of the questions for all of us, Jesus included I’d say. Who does God think that I am? God thinks that I am a “beloved child of God, precious and beautiful to behold.” Who does God think that you are? God thinks that you are “beloved child of God, precious and beautiful to behold.”
Yes, emphatic yes.
What I would ask of you is to expand your notion of child, for the entire creation is the offspring of God. And one thing that can be said with assurance is that the parent and child are of the same species.
I feel like a guppy that just banged its head really hard. It sort of smarts. But give me a minute, and I’ll acclimate to the light. Amen.
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
Rudy Dehn celebrated his 96th birthday. Happy Birthday Rudy.
Bill and Lois Isles celebrate their 65th Wedding Anniversary
Lee and Marylois Tupper celebrate their 60th Wedding Anniversary
Alivia Mae DeAngelo is baptized.
Pastor Sara brings Alivia around the church to introduce her to the congregation.
Brooke Elizabeth, daughter of Caroline and Bill Bardwell
Chris is shown here in his volunteer fireman’s uniform.