Awe and Wonder

Horsehead Nebula

Of all the physics I taught – from electrostatics to harmonic motion – I think the greatest satisfaction came from dipping a toe into the panorama that is astrophysics, where astronomy, poetry and mathematics converge. We are, after all, just as Carl Sagan once described us as “starstuff”, the little blue dot we call home was forged in the furnace of an explosive supernova a very long time ago. The final retrospective photograph taken by Voyager, as she left the solar system for ever, was a little dot in the midst of a wide, limitless ocean of black, sprinkled with stars. Everybody we ever knew, or heard of, fought against, befriended, made love to, looked up to and celebrated, was found on that little dot – tiny and fragile.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin for “binding together,” to connect that which has been sundered apart which is, perhaps quite an unusual way of looking at it. And in this game of hide and seek, of trying to flush out the deepest interrelations among things that superficially appear to be sundered, the objectives of religion and science, apparently in cosmic conflict, in fact are virtually identical. But the question has always been concerned with the reliability of the truths claimed by the two jousting protagonists – or, perhaps, secret lovers –  and the methods of approach they employ.

An ancient and powerful way to engage our religious sensibility, our childlike sense of awe and wonder, is to look up on a clear night. In this part of southern France, light pollution is minimal and last night yielded a view, a panorama, Hamlet’s ‘brave, o’erhanging firmament’ writ huge across a cloudless sky. Unusually for me to assert a “belief”, I really do believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe looking at the sky – if you ever watch people doing it, notice that they often allow their mouths to fall open. The sense of the vast is tangible – the panorama of space and time unfolds before us like a glittering carpet. We see not as things are now, but as they were, sometimes millions of years ago as the light, blindingly fast as it can travel, takes centuries, millennia and more to cross the immense desert of space to reach us. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. From Albert Einstein: “I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” So, if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of being right.

Palmyra, Syria

It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that statuary and temples to various gods are always larger than life, as if we are smaller and less important than they. Gigantic, squatting Buddhas in Thailand, a great Christ with outstretched arms, the Redeemer of Rio; there are so many examples and even when we know that a religious building has been erected to a long-defunct god, or celebrates a decayed and redundant religion, we hate to see its destruction. ISIL wantonly destroyed the temple to Bel or Baal at Palmyra, erected in the period of the Crucifixion – an act of senseless vandalism. We do not call down strange fire from Baal or any other Canaanite gods in our day, yet the world mourned the loss of a priceless, irreplaceable artefact, and quite rightly. The worship of Baal is part of the journey towards our own tradition, reminding us that for the most part, hopeful travel is more useful than arrival. Indeed, there is impermanence, woven into the fabric of our religious practice as well as the cosmos we inhabit, just the timescales are different. Furthermore, when we understand something of astronomical dynamics, the evolution of worlds, we recognise that although we cannot capture them on the great cosmic timescales in which they operate, worlds are born and worlds die, they have lifetimes just as we humans do, and therefore there is death in the cosmos as well as the possibility of life. There is destruction on cosmic scales – little suns such as ours will balloon, becoming one day red and swollen, swallowing little Earths in the fires of their cooling. Yet, our God took pains to preserve us, for now, on a little island of creation – our theology is terracentric and it is beyond our wit and piety to speculate much on the creations beyond our own. Gottfried Liebniz – the great intellect that rivalled Isaac Newton’s argued that God should be the wall that stopped all further questioning, as he famously wrote in this passage from ‘Principles of Nature and Grace’:

Why does something exist rather than nothing – for nothing is simpler than ‘something. Now, this (is) sufficient reason for the existence of the universe, having no need of any other reason(there) must be a necessary being, else we should not have a sufficient reason with which we could stop.

Yet, we shall not. It is in our DNA never to stop, despite the certainty that we shall never truly find that which we seek, the eternal Fact, exalted above all others, the mind of God.


One thought on “Awe and Wonder

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.