Posts Tagged ‘infinity’

SERMON: “It’s a Small World” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

The East Coast of the United States as seen from space. NASA photo.

I heard a commentator on Christian radio proclaim that the way in which God had “hung the stars” in so “perfect” a manner was a clear sign that behind our vast universe resides an intelligent designer.

She did not explain by what measure the stars were perfect in their arrangement, or how, precisely, said perfect arrangement necessarily required an intelligent star-hanger.  She did, however, use the ancient imagery of someone hanging stars in the heavens in the way that someone might hang ornaments upon a Christmas tree.  And in so doing I think she gave me a glimpse into the mind that finds evidence for God in the apparent organization of nature.

For doesn’t the idea of “hanging” the stars give you an immediate image of someone working on an relate-ably  human scale, only on a somewhat enlarged basis?  What do I mean:  We imagine God in a gigantic (yet) human form, with face, beard, arms and hands that are able to reach out across the night sky, literally hanging stars against the black fabric of the night (which itself implies an ancient conception of there being a sort of dome stretching out across the (flat?) earth).

Which brings me to this: the only way that the idea of God as ruler of all, creator of all, knower of all — and yet intimately involved with our individual lives down to the number of hairs on our head —  works at all is because we humans naturally think small.  It makes sense.  We have to think small, for underneath everything else about us, we remain earth-bound animals that must see to our own survival.  There is no reason for our brains to be conversant in the stretches of time or distances necessary to properly grasp the age and expanse of the universe we live in.  Of what use is any sense of time or distance beyond the span of our own life times?  Why not simply invoke “God”, “eternity”, and “infinity” to paper over this yawing conceptual void in our cognitive, imaginative abilities?  This approach — this coping mechanism — has served our species well, to be quite honest, and has only, really, been challenged in the last 150 years by the discoveries of modern science.

I am firmly convinced that the average believer in God (or the average human, as far as that goes), carries a rapidly diminishing hierarchy of other beings and concepts in their mind at any one time (I’ve checked this in myself).  We are the center of our universe (that goes without saying) so we start with a conception of ourselves in physical space and time and then move out to our immediate family, friends, those we know in our community, our collection of famous personages (that we are familiar with), a modest collection of small bands of African tribesmen (and/or Europeans or Asians), some penguins or elephants, an anthill (topped with some ants), a couple of bees, a forest, a picture of something living in the sea, the moon, some stars sparkling in the night sky and at least one image from a space probe.  Oh, and dinosaurs.  We all know about dinosaurs.

But it is the way in which we picture these things that matters here.  We almost always see them in ones, twos, threes, or small groups.  In the same way that we do not picture billions of humans living in the narrow temperate zone of an actual-sized earth, we don’t picture thousands of varieties of dinosaurs, but perhaps imagine one Tyrannosaurus chomping down on one plant-eater, not millions of them evolving, reproducing, adapting, and then going extinct of a period of 165 million years.  We see them in the numbers that almost the entire history of  our evolution has accustomed us to: small family and tribal groupings.

And we imagine the stars (if we’re honest with ourselves) as all being equidistant from where we stand as we look at them — convinced, on some level, that we could almost reach out and touch them.

And why shouldn’t we be able to touch them?  After all, we are enormous, and they are merely pinpoints of light!  We can blot them out with a fingertip held in front of our eyes!  This fact is not insignificant (and I’d love to hear about any research into how our visual perception of the world colors our cognitive organization of it).

Try this experiment:  We know that our binocular vision is only effective for a short distance, and beyond that we use inference to interpret the size of more distant objects.  What I have found is that I can disengage that part of my brain that tells me that those distant, tiny objects aren’t really tiny at all, but merely appear small because they are far away from me.  When I do that, I can actually feel like a giant — surrounded by mountains that are only a few steps away, and which I could stride over with one step.  Cars on the freeway ahead of me are suddenly the size of matchbox toys which I could pick up between two fingers (try it — it’s fun!).  It’s kind of a trip, and as disconcerting as it is entertaining, for it offers a glimpse into just how much we rely on perceptions that are not as immutable as we might like to think.

The religious criticize the non-religious for being motivated most by a desire to avoid responsibility to God.  The underlying assumption is that the non-believer is fighting against nature (the same nature that so clearly proclaims His presence) by refusing to obey God.  On one level, this is true.  For if there is one thing very clear about humans, it is that we are natural believers.  Therefore, those that move beyond belief are, in essence, fighting against their nature.  But what does that say about the believers, then?  Could it be they who are the ones most locked into their natural, animal nature?  That would be truly ironic: if it turned out that they are not the enlightened ones, but instead are the deniers of reality that they imagine all those nonbeleivers to be!  The believers, then, turn out to represent the primitive in humankind, and not the enlightened after all.

I don’t blame them.  I’ve been a believer and so I get it.  And I don’t expect their numbers to drop dramatically in my lifetime (if ever).  I just want it to be known that they are, ironically, the very thing they criticize in the non-believer: they are the ones maintaining a reality almost completely dependent upon belief.

(I need to be clear here that irrational belief is not the sole domain of those that believe in God.  A human is just as capable of attaching irrational belief to non-theistic sources, be they aliens, computers or any number of conspiracy theories.  I am equally opposed to all irrational belief).

So, to get back to where we started:  Did an actual God reach out millions of light years away from us, and hang every single star (as well as every grain of cosmic dust that floats in any number of the galaxies we will never be able to see from earth)?  Did he create those long-dead stars that coalesced and collapsed upon themselves in titanic explosions, creating the elements that he then used to form the individual cells with which each of our bodies (and every other living thing on earth) are formed?  In light of what we actually know about the universe, could this idea be any more absurd?  And it is the non-believers who are the deniers of reality?

We humans struggle so hard with who and what we really are.  It’s really a difficult thing for us to imagine with any sort of consistent clarity.  But, then, evolution did no better job preparing our brains for a realistic self-conception that it did setting us up for grasping the distance between the stars.

One thing is for sure, however: the distance between us and the stars we see at night is not just greater than our human brains can comfortably imagine: it is greater than any God we humans can imagine could possibly reach.

t.n.s.r. bob