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A Galaxy Far, Far Away...

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Jul 19

Texts: Psalm 8 and Genesis 1:1-2:4

We’re in the Kuiper Belt! And the Pluto System. If you’ve been following any kind of news this week, you know that NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft has completed a 9 ½ year, 3.26 billion mile journey to the farthest reaches of our solar system. New Horizons has been beaming back stunning images of Pluto’s surface—flat plains and icy mountain peaks—as well as its moons and near environs. Have you seen them? This is a breathtaking moment in space exploration. We have travelled to the farthest reaches of our solar system! At least, our technology has.

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by an astronomer who was searching the night sky for an unidentified object that was exerting a gravitational pull on the orbits of Neptune and Uranus. Initially recognized as a ninth “planet” in the solar system, in 2006 Pluto was demoted to the status of “dwarf planet.” Definitely a sad and deflating event. The demotion gave rise to one of my all-time favorite T-shirts, with the caption: “It’s okay, Pluto. I’m not a planet either.”

I love space exploration. It engages my inquisitive nature, calls forth imagination and—most of all—evokes a sense of awe. Even more, I love cosmology—the study of the origin and development of the universe. A heady mixture of particle physics, observational astronomy, the elegance of mathematics. It calls us to look deeply into what is and imagine what might be.
This morning I invite you to contemplate—to muse with me, if you will—over some of the big questions of existence. Not because we will find answers, but because the very act of wondering is so deeply human and the object of our wonderings is so holy.

Who are we and why do we exist? What is our place in the cosmos, our relationship with everything else? How did the universe, our planet, how did we ourselves come to be? How did the first sparks of life take hold here? Are we alone in the cosmos? How big is the universe? How old is it? What’s it made of? Has the universe always been here? What or where did it come from?

Let me suggest that there are several (rather distinct) approaches to answering these questions. This morning I’d like to touch on three: direct observation, stories, and science. Each approach addresses some of these questions and not others. That is a key point, because as we will see—these approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

I first fell in love with God through an intimate relationship with nature. Being outdoors all the time as a child, especially in the summers: camping, hiking, backpacking, four-wheeling. I spent endless hours entertaining myself. Watching ants, hunting for wildflowers in the meadow, observing the moon’s craters through an amateur telescope. I noticed the intricacy of leaf veins, observed cycles of rain and growth, the habits of alpine flowers, climbed a rocky path to a deserted eagle’s nest, discovered in the tall grass a snake skin that had been shed, counted the speckled eggs in the titmouse’s nest. These simple, wondrous things.

Have you looked closely? Observed the beautiful patterning all around us? The Fibonacci pattern—that elegant spiral curve that can be described by a mathematical formula—discernable in the array of strawberry seeds, the spiral rows at the center of a sunflower, the design of a pine cone, the curve of a nautilus shell, and a spiral galaxy? It is just so mind-blowingly awesome.

I remember vividly an evening on a backpacking trip with my family to a remote, wild place when I was ten or eleven, sitting silently by the embers of a campfire looking up at the night sky. The sky opened into a vast indigo space, alive with starlight. I was drawn into an experience of profound awe at the mystery and wonder of the cosmos. There was a sense of being seamlessly part of the whole thing—without any duality or separation. All of space-time available and present right here—a vast, sparkling eternity.

The kind of experience you take into that part of yourself that knows in a primal and immediate way—beyond words, beyond cognition, even. I had never heard anyone speak about this kind of experience and so it surprised and amazed me. I didn’t have words to talk about it, nor did it occur to me to share it with anyone. It was an early, memorable experience of being swept up completely with awe. Maybe you have had an experience like this.

We humans are forever striving to understand the cosmos—from the ocean depths to the farthest reaches of space and from the intimate complexities of the human mind to the behavior of the smallest particle. We want to know how everything came into being—seen and unseen.

This morning we heard the creation story from Genesis, an ancient touchstone for Jews and Christians as we wonder about our place in universe. I invite you to put aside for now some of what we might consider “problems of the text:” the binary system of dark and light, water and land, male and female, human and animal, dominion and subjugation. The masculine gender of God. Just gently tuck those away for another day.

Were you able to hear the story with new ears through Everett Fox’s translation from the Hebrew? I hope so! His simple, powerful and poetic language conveys so well what the Genesis story really is: an ancient creation myth. The Genesis story is not unique in all of literature, but follows closely a pattern found in other ancient near eastern creation stories, such as the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic.

It bears striking similarities to the Enuma Elish—a creation story of ancient Babylon, inscribed on clay tablets dating to about 1700 BCE. The tablets were unearthed among the ruins of King Ashurbanipal’s library at Ninevah, which stood on the banks of the Tigris at the present-day location of Mosul Iraq.

The Enuma Elish speaks of Apsu—the fresh water, Timat—the salt water, and Mummu—the mist. In it’s opening lines, see if you can hear the parallels between Enuma Elish and our Genesis creation story.

When the heaven had not yet been named,
And below the earth had not yet been called a name,
When Apsu primeval, their begetter,
Mummu and Tiamat, she who gave birth to them all,
Still mingled their waters together,
And no pasture land had been formed and not even a reed marsh was to be seen…
When none of the gods had been brought into being,
When they had not been called by their names,
and their destinies had not been fixed…

Can you hear the similarities? Like the Enuma Elish, the Genesis creation story arises from a pre-scientific world-view. The ancients know nothing of subatomic particles or quantum physics. They understood very little—even—about how our own solar system operates. Like the Enuma Elish, the Genesis creation story is not a scientific account at all and does not even address the same set of questions that cosmologists take up. Rather it describes the miracle of life in all things, the relationships between things, and the greatness of God.

Is the Genesis story compatible with a scientific worldview? Not if we take them to be the same genre, addressing the same questions. Only then do they conflict. Is the earth six days old? Six thousand years old? Or millions and millions of years old? (Tip of the hat to Carl Sagan.)

In Western philosophy, it was Aristotle who first wrote of an “unmoved mover,” that which moves without being moved, or a “prime mover.” It was a strikingly monotheistic concept articulated by a polytheist: that there is a primary cause of all motion in the universe. The prime mover “moves other things, but is not itself moved any by prior action.” In his Metaphysics, Aristotle descries the unmoved mover as being perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplating only the perfect contemplation.
Is the prime mover like God?

I want to skip centuries ahead to modern cosmology—which is based not in story, or philosophy—but in scientific inquiry. We know so much more about the universe than the ancients and our understanding is growing at warp speed.

In 1543 Copernicus surmised that the planets revolve around the sun. In 1609 Kepler demonstrated for a fact that the earth orbits the sun. In 1687 Newton first published his theory of gravity. In 1905 Einstein published the Specific Theory of Relativity and in 1915, the General Theory of Relativity. In 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth. On July 20, 1969 (exactly 46 years ago tomorrow!) Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon. In 1977 NASA launched the Voyager space probe. VGR. This week New Horizons reached Pluto.

For most of the modern era, scientists believed in a “steady state theory” based on the assumption that the universe always existed. But in the early 1960’s scientists using a radio telescope discovered “cosmic wave background” –a kind of visual white noise suggesting that something was in those apparently empty interstellar spaces where there was no visible light.

This important evidence for a “hot” early universe led scientists to posit that the universe had a beginning and is continuing to expand. And the “big bang theory” originated earlier by Georges Lemaître came into currency. In the 1960’s Stephen Hawking did ground-breaking work on black holes and space-time singularities.

And the field of cosmology continues to develop. Let me slip in a quick apology to any particle physicists who happen to be here today. There is great fun in being a generalist and admittedly some danger in speaking about things outside one’s field of expertise.

So are these worlds on a collision course—the world of intimate observation, our ancient narratives about the meaning of life and our place in the order of things, and our most sophisticated scientific understandings? I propose that they may all be engaged—as dance partners in this human process of wondering and investigating this miraculous world in which we live and our place within it.

Stephen Hawking wrote, “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.” Hawking is a noted atheist.

But here are some of my own words, put into poetry many years ago, that evoke some of the mystery of our existence.

can it be
that the One
who formed crystal
who ordered interstellar
who made the neutron
and neutrino
who laid a green carpet
over earth’s magma
and designed
the very carbon
stuff of life
cares also for me
a single earth creature?

Can we understand—in the words of physicist Paul Davies—“The Mind of God?”
Of course there are limits to what we are capable of understanding—given how our brains work, given our language systems and technological capabilities. But we will always ask and wonder and strive to know.

And so I conclude: Creator. First Mover. Big Bang. Cosmic Singularity? Author of time-space. Source of life and love. Holy One. Ground of Being. All that Is. I am in awe of you. I sing of your beauty and grandeur. I thank you for all that is!

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