WYSIWYG default value
I once heard a story about thinking bigger. It seems that the pope was coming to St Patrick’s in New York, but his plane had been a little delayed in Rome, so when he got to New York he had very little time to get to St Patrick’s. Then, as his entourage came out of the airport, they were greeted by a huge traffic jam. What to do? The pope made a quick decision, telling his assistants to take charge of getting the huge pile of baggage to the hotel and he would just get a cab. So he jumped into a New York cab and told the driver he had to be at St Pat’s ASAP. Almost immediately they were mired in traffic, and the pope urged the cabbie to do something. “Drive up on the curb and across that grass!” “But, your holiness,” said the driver, “if I do that I’ll get stopped and I’ll lose my job.” “You’re right,” said the pope. “I can’t justify asking that of you. But let me drive so I can take sole responsibility.” So they switched places and the pope took off, driving hither and yon as fast as he could. It wasn’t long before he passed a police car, which pulled him over.
After a while the cop came back to his vehicle and was asked by his partner. “Did you give him a ticket?” “No,” replied the cop. “He was big.” “Who was it, the mayor?”, asked his partner. “No, bigger.” “Was it a senator from Albany?” “No, bigger.” “Was it the governor?“ “Bigger.” “You’re not telling me that was the president!” “No, bigger.“ “Well, if it wasn’t even the president, who was it?” “I don’t know”, replied the cop. “But he’s got the pope driving for him.”
I want us to think about nature in its biggest sense this morning, so I have a short clip that will help a lot. It’s from an award winning film narrated by Morgan Freeman called “Cosmic Voyage” and it begins in St Mark’s square in Venice.
Cosmic Voyage: 7:00 to 11:38 of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEdpSgz8KU4
Our summer time theme, “Natural Wonders,” raises some fascinating questions: What are we to do with nature? What is God’s relation to nature? IS God related to nature? What can we infer from looking at nature writ large and our puny place in the universe? I’m asking this question in the biggest sense: Does it all mean anything?
Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Haydn Planetarium in New York, has a new book out called Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, and he opens it with the statement: “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” The implication here is that by itself, there is no meaning to the universe – the only meaning it has is what we impose onto it. So in his view it’s all up to us. There is no larger meaning that was there before we humans came along and, so to speak, into which we can plug.
Now of course I will be the first one to acknowledge that this question – whether nature in its largest sense has any intrinsic meaning – does not allow for answers that one can prove. Or disprove. But it is helpful to ask how people in the past and present have answered it and whether these answers clarify where each of us stands regarding such a fundamental matter as what are we doing here in our little corner of the cosmos. So, as I warned you, we’re thinking big today when we ask: what are we to do with nature?
Starting about the 17th century with the so-called scientific revolution, a new branch of theology, called Natural Theology, made its appearance. With all the new scientific discoveries that were being made, the natural wonders that were emerging gave ample opportunity to bear testimony to the wisdom of the Creator. The more one learned about nature’s arrangements, the more it seemed obvious that they could not have come about by themselves. From all the evidence of design in the natural world it was only logical that there had to have been a designer. Paul’s words to the Romans in today’s scripture suggests that he bought this argument.
Listen to the example of perhaps the most famous natural theologian of all, William Paley, who wrote in 1802: In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. .. There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature.
Now this line of reasoning, which is called the argument from design, was taken way too far. I can identify natural theologies of specific wonders that seem today to us to be humorously ridiculous. In the 18th century in Germany alone there was a thunder theology, a tulip theology, a rose theology, a grass theology, a fire theology, a water theology, a snow theology, a stone theology (1300 pp), an insect theology, a snail theology, a locust theology, a fish theology, a plant theology, a bee theology, and a bird theology. No doubt there were many more.
As silly as these seem, the basic motive behind them all is the conviction that talking about creation without including a Creator makes no sense. For there are things in nature whose origin completely boggles the mind. How, for example, do we account for the development of the body’s astounding ability to clot blood when we cut ourselves? If it clots insufficiently, we bleed to death. If it over clots, we also die. How could that capacity have come about through a long series of intermediate random changes, none of which was sufficient by itself to provide the advantage of the final clotting mechanism? Of course it’s not irrational simply to declare that it CAN result from random changes, but when we do this we’re proclaiming our assumption that it happened that way since we have no direct knowledge of the intervening steps.
And then there is the beauty of nature. Let me emphasize that one doesn’t have to believe in a Creator to appreciate the beauty and sublimity of nature. But for me they do seem to go together. I remember fondly being in Vermont for Christmas at my daughter Laura’s house. Vermont in the winter can be magical. It’s not always magical – it can be rainy foggy. But this particular year it was magical. And cold. It was Christmas Eve. Outside it was 20 below zero, with lots of snow. There was also an almost full moon and the night was crystal clear. We were sitting by the fire a little after 11 P.M. and I said to anyone listening: “Let’s go for a walk.” Only Laura thought this was not total insanity. You have to realize where Laura’s house is. It’s in Maple Corner, VT, where 3 dirt roads and the paved road from Montpelier converge. There are lots of woods on the dirt road she lives on. We bundled up and went outside and it was surreal. The bitter cold had the effect of sharpening our sense to the max. As we walked the moon came streaming through the leafless trees reflecting off the snow – there was a hushed silence and it was …. beautiful. Holy, really. I had the feeling I was part of something that was indeed much bigger than I was, a larger meaning that I was submitting to. It felt right – there was a moral quality to it. I know someone else could have had a similar experience of nature’s beauty without concluding that nature is somehow meaningful in my religious sense. I’m just saying that for me it had that impact.
Already in the 18th century the so-called argument from design – the inference of a designer from evidence of design in nature – was severely trashed. The philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant both made clear that its logic was flawed. Our experience of a watch doesn’t fit the case of the universe. With a watch, we know it has to be created by a watch-maker because we can observe it being made and compare it to the making of other similar watches or objects to deduce they have like causes in their creation. But we have no experience of the universe’s creation or any other universe’s creations to compare our own universe to and never will; therefore, it would be illogical to infer that our universe has been created by an intelligent designer in the same way that a watch has. And even if the argument did give evidence for a designer; it still gives no evidence for the traditional omnipotent, benevolent, all-powerful, and all-loving God of traditional Christian theism, which is the one natural theologians want to infer.
Now I’ve never been in a discussion of this issue without getting involved in another classic problem for the person of faith: the problem of evil. If you think it’s reasonable to infer the existence of an all-wise, powerful, and loving God from your examination of nature, why does such a God allow terrible natural calamities like the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that took between 30,000 and 40,000 lives. That indeed does sound like the kind of God that pulls rank on Job when he proclaimed he’d done nothing to deserve the things that were happening to him: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Not a very nice God. And this is the reason why there are many who just can’t associate God with nature.
I confess to occasions when my experience of nature is the opposite of that magical Christmas Eve in Vermont. Last fall Tricia was scheduled to go to Las Vegas to meet our daughters for a ladies’ celebration of her 70th birthday. A problem named Hermine intervened. I lay awake all night listening to the wind and rain, remembering Hurricane Francis that put a tree through our roof and asking myself, “Are you really going to try to take her to Orlando at 4:00 A.M.? Are you crazy?” We got up and I opened the garage door to the howling wind and I saw the debris all over the driveway. We got into the truck and backed out over it and made our way to the sole entrance to our neighborhood, driving around downed branches on the way. As we approached the exit from our neighborhood, we were met with a tree downed all the way across the road. I’d already determined I was crazy to be out here, so might as well play this out. Back to the house for saws and we each stood in the headlights of the truck sawing away branches from the top of the tree to open a path just wide enough to get around and out. Nature came across as majorly hostile that night.
And that’s the way many see nature – if not hostile then at best not caring one whit for our concerns. Some of you may know of Albert Camus’s well known lines in his book, The Stranger, when he claims to come to his senses about the meaninglessness of the universe: “It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.” If that’s not bad enough, take the comment of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who famously has quipped, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
For me it helps to retain belief in the universe’s ultimate meaning if I surrender the kind of God that’s usually inferred in the argument from design. I’ve given up the God that keeps it from raining on my picnic, or saves me (but not others) from going over the edge of a washed out bridge. I embrace the God who simply guarantees that natural wonder provides transcendent meaning. My favorite author, Errazim Kohak, asks a decisive question: “Is Person, or is matter in motion, the ultimate metaphysical category?” He adds, “There really is no third.” I see God as the source of the universe’s personhood.
I know that doesn’t work for everyone. We have folks here at UCG on both sides of the divide I’ve been laying out. I hope it’s clear that there isn’t a right and wrong here. I remain firmly convinced that one can make a highly respectable rational case for either position,. From the point of view of reason, it’s a draw. That’s because the choice is not one for reason to make. There are extremely intelligent folks on both sides. What happens is that we bring our reason to bear on the disposition and assumptions we already have. Those who, like me, see meaning in the universe beyond merely that which we humans create are disposed in advance to be skeptical of attempts to explain away all instances of what appears to be intelligent design. And those who simply cannot get past the apparent benign indifference and pointlessness of the universe are disposed in advance to be skeptical of all instances that might suggest otherwise. Both sides bring their reason to bear on their experience of the world in impressive fashion, but with very little hope of persuading the other by it.
So what are we to do with nature? Maybe the better question is what should we NOT do with nature. We should not let our differences about it divide us. Fortunately we don’t do that here at UCG. And that is because we have learned to respect each other in our differences. That is truly a gift. May it ever be so. Amen.