Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: Part 4
In part three (see side bar for link), Kennedy highlighted the views on science and faith held by several of the promoters of evolution for whom the mountains of the Evolution Range were named. Today he reflects on our limited understanding of time, both in the Bible and through physics and astronomy, and what that understanding says about our knowledge of God.
Christianity is not supposed to be romantic. Christianity is prosaic. It would be fun to talk around a campfire with Darwin, Muir, and LeConte, along with Fiske, Wallace, Haeckel, and Solomons. A High Sierra campfire encourages musings about near-infinite time, universal laws, and ultimate beauty. Darwinism is a big theory that deserves a big sky. Biblical Christianity, however, is irritating and unpleasant. Abraham is a cowardly liar. David is a murderous adulterer, leader of a severely dysfunctional family. Most of the main characters we meet in the Old and New Testaments would be hard to work with. Laws and judgments are unstable in the Bible. God relents to negotiations. Jesus seems to recommend whiny petitioning that will wear God down. The whole story of the Bible pulls together as a history of undeserved salvation. As for nature, even though the Psalms wax eloquent about creation, apparently the whole thing is going to end in divine decree while a new creation is indicated for the long-term future. As for people, many bystanders die horrible deaths. Children are killed. Children suffer.
History is not a romantic discipline. Historians in general are best at causing intellectual problems, not solving them. We find the flaws in heroes and problems with grand public policies. Historians rarely find or preach the simplicity of it all. Ours is one of the few academic disciplines that does not believe that the simplest answers are probably the truest. We thrive in complexity, disorder, and the general messiness of human life. What could be less romantic than a Christian historian?
Under the Night Sky with Carl Sagan
The ranger station in the town of Bishop is a multi-gabled Western ranch house. Inside, Dave, the boys, and I stood in line waiting for the young woman ranger to give us a wilderness permit and tell us the trail regulations. I asked the ranger about the boys being able to climb Mount Darwin. She said it would be a push but was pleasant and smiled at the kids.
Leaving Bishop, the road to Lake Sabrina climbed fast while the temperature dropped. It is a minor matter of joy to me that, upon arriving at a campsite near Lake Sabrina, I can now, as a father, get out of the car and say, “Boys, you set up the tent and lay your sleeping bags out while I go look around.” This of course does not mean that they won’t be goofing around by the creek with no tent in sight when I come back; however, there is joy in the idea that the kids can carry some of the weight of the trip.
After dinner, the temperature was in the 30s on its way to the 20s. The boys and I went to bed early to keep warm. Three of us in a two-man tent was cozy. Around midnight I got up. The sky was crisp with sparkling stars. Standing out on a rock at high altitude looking into a clear night sky, I sensed the complexity of time. What I see with my eyes are reports from millions of separate instances ranging over millions of years. Multiple times are registering at what is to me present time. “Nothing puzzles me more than time and space; and yet nothing troubles me less.” I know nothing of the quote’s context, but shouldn’t I be troubled by what I was looking at?
Time is a wonder. It is not a line. It is not a circle. Time and distances shrink with acceleration and lengthen with deceleration. Speed, not time, is a constant in Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Time is something wholly different than any analogy we use to try to describe it. The Bible pictures past, present, and future as entwined with Jesus at the fullness. Time isn’t a line. It is like a cup overflowing. It lays back on itself like bread being kneaded. John the Baptist declares that the one who comes after him was before him. Maybe the sun standing still for Joshua was actually God speeding up the time surrounding Joshua.
Astronomers are awash in the wildness of time. Like historians, astronomers try to domesticate time, to make it into a manageable model, but time refuses to be made easy. Historians and astronomers like to think of themselves as standing on a dock studying the sea, when really there is no dock and everybody is swimming in that sea without a lifejacket.
Physics tells us that light is squirrelly. It can be bent or even sucked into darkness by gravity. The speed of light is a boundary in physics; but, then again, it doesn’t work all the time like a boundary. As a believer in miracles, I take comfort in reading books by mathematicians and physicists who wonder at the apparent lack of physical or mathematical logic in some of the things we experimentally see that defy common sense.
Time is squirrelly. Roger Penrose, a mathematician willing to contemplate the puzzlements of physical reality, describes the possibility of a causality violation in which a signal can be sent from a future event to cause a past event. Of course, the math doesn’t justify movies like Back to the Future or the Star Trek episodes I enjoyed as a kid; however, reading about the amazing possibilities in physics makes it easier for me to read accounts of miracles. The more we know about God from the Bible and about God’s creation from the mathematicians and physicists, the less anyone should think that God or nature is known best by formal logic. Certainly logic gets all of us pretty far toward understanding; but logic does not satisfy. Time, space, the very small, and the very fast make crooked the straight ways of logic and common sense. The preacher asks: “Who can straighten what God has made crooked?”
There are Christian astronomers trying to work with alternative physics and astronomy to support their assertion that the universe is much younger than supposed. Hugh Ross is a Christian astronomer who finds much in normal academic astronomy to support the Bible’s story of creation. Maybe they are on the right track. I don’t know. As for me, I look up at the night sky and wonder.
Carl Sagan was a professor of astrophysics at Cornell University who became a pop icon of the 70s and 80s with his television series Cosmos, his novel (now movie) Contact, and his government-funded project to listen for messages from space called SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). Johnny Carson on late night television had a comedy routine imitating Sagan’s way of trying to impress people that there were “billions and billions of stars.” To his own huge audiences, Sagan taught that humans should be humbled by the size and age of the universe. Part of his belief that there might be intelligent life on other planets came from a humble insistence that humans should not think themselves too special. If people wanted to feel special, they could remember that they are partly made of atoms that were born in stars that exploded long ago. “We are made of star-stuff,” he would say.
I stood out in the cold for a while looking at the sky. I felt humbled by the stars; however, what makes me special is not leftover atoms from stars. The God who created and sustains the universe loves me and communicates with me. Such thoughts are astonishingly cocky by all human standards. Christians are guilty of thinking themselves absurdly special in a vast cosmos. The God of it all wants to communicate with you and me.
William Dembski, in his book Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (1999), points out that SETI shows that when scientists find patterns in nature—in this case some high level of patterned complexity in the radio waves that wash through the universe—they infer intelligence behind the pattern. Dembski further points out that most scientists change the rules of this game when any Christian scientist infers in a similar way the action of an Intelligent Designer. Dembski is right about the double standard; however, looking at the crisp stars, I am not much interested in an Intelligent Designer. Historians wrestle mostly with the individuality of people and human events. I am interested in the human speech and actions of Jesus.
Here in the mountains, away from my classroom, the stars don’t inspire me with the natural order and mathematical simplicity of the cosmos. I don’t worship an Intelligent Designer. I am overwhelmed by the disorders of time when I look into the night sky. “Nothing puzzles me more than time and space; and yet nothing troubles me less.” I worry more about the overconfidence of academic disciplines than about the gullibility of people.
Do I sound jaded about scientific discovery? I don’t feel jaded. It would be fun to have Carl Sagan standing with me on a rock looking at stars. He was humble enough to allow himself to promote what people laughed at: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He was cocky enough to become a television “personality” preaching the vastness of the cosmos and the lack of any God out there. He was smart and loved the information that his discipline produced. I could learn a lot from Sagan. I flatter myself that he would enjoy having a willing student like me sighting stars down his arm as he pointed into the sky. I have been blessed in life to work in university settings and further blessed to have had long conversations with very smart people. There are few things more fun than a bunch of faculty sitting around a dinner table. Get everybody away from grant-writing rhetoric, away from textbook simplicities, away from posturing for publication, away from professionalism, and into a friendly conversation about what we know, what we don’t know, and the limitations of the ways we do investigations—then you have the makings of not only a great evening, but a great university.