Last week I had the privilege of leading a discussion about religion with a men’s group I belong to (about 25 of us, mainly old codgers, smart—eight with PhDs– and interfaith, though for the most part, secular. In fact, toward the end of what was a vibrant discussion, I asked anyone who believed in life after death to raise his hand. There were no takers.) This post is inspired by that discussion dealing with the big questions which we humans try to understand in our feeble effort to make sense out of our experience living on this fragile planet.
How do we humans make sense of our lives and the world around us? Science and religion have been the methods used in the past but often have seemed at odds. I believe we find ourselves now where the approaches may be coming closer together. The common denominators are mystery and wonder.
Here is what we have learned from science: The universe began with the “Big Bang” about 13.8 billion years ago. The planet we live on came into being about 4.5 billion years ago, at tad later than our sun and about the same time as the rest of the planets in our solar system. The first humanlike creatures on our planet appeared about two million years ago. Homo sapiens, our species, only 200,000 years ago. And “modern writing” only about four to five thousand years ago. And for the “modern era” as we call it, just a few centuries ago. All the stuff we are learning in the first part of the 21st Century amounts to less than a second if human time on this planet is perceived as a 24-hour day. But goodness gracious! Think about all we are learning in the digital age. Who knows what is store for us next?
For many thousands of years, the human population of the planet Earth remained steady at around 300-400 million. During most of this period, we humans were in the middle of the food chain, an easy meal for large predators. Then someone discovered fire. Somebody else figured out how to make weapons using rocks and how to make spears from trees; and when others discovered the benefits of human families and relatives sticking together as “tribes,” that was the end of the dominance by lions, tigers, and big elephants. We grew and multiplied. This past week the planet’s human population just passed eight billion.
We also have learned from science that Earth is not the only planet and that we are not at the center of the universe. From time immemorial we humans have looked up at the night sky and have been enthralled by the flickering lights we call stars. It was not until Copernicus and Galileo in the 1500s proved that celestial objects—including our sun–did not circle the Earth, but rather it was the other way around.
We now are on the cusp of even more extraordinary discoveries regarding those flickering objects in the night sky. This we do know: The planet Earth is a run-of-the-mill planet (though special for us) that circles an average star in what we call the Milky Way Galaxy. While no one really knows for sure, the consensus among astronomers is that there are at least two billion stars in our galaxy. Many believe there are at least twice as many.
Can you comprehend that? Now that the new telescopes can identify planets circling other stars, estimates are that there are at least 350,000 rocky planets in the Milky Way Galaxy about the same distance as from their star as we are from the sun. We are a tiny, almost invisible grain of sand in a vast desert, a mere drop in a magnificent sea. What is going on out there where trillions of stars and planets make their home? Will we humans ever know?
In 1924 Edwin Hubble, using what was at the time the world’s largest telescope, identified a fuzzy light in the night sky that did not behave like a normal star and was thought to be a cosmic cloud of gas– a “nebula.” With more examination it turned out that this nebula—the Andromeda Nebula–was a vast cluster of stars circling around a dark center and was actually another galaxy! And how many other galaxies are out there? Well, thanks to the space telescope named after him and now the James Webb telescope, it turns out there are a whole bunch—like two billion. Maybe more. Some astronomers have put the number as high as a trillion. Of course, no one knows. I read somewhere that almost half the astrophysicists involved in space discovery today speculate that our “universe” may actually be only one of perhaps an infinite number of universes that are part of a “multiverse.”
Can anyone get their minds around this? I can’t.
And I would argue that neither can scientists or anyone else living on the planet Earth. We humans may be smart, but we are not that smart. Humans do not have a definitive answer to why the Big Bang happened or why there are trillions of stars and planets out there or why our lives come to an end or if there is life after death. These questions fall into the realm of religion, which from the cave paintings thousands of years ago we know has been part of human experience for a very long time. It seems we are hard wired to seek answers to the big questions involving why. Religion, of course, involves faith in what we humans believe is real but can’t be proven—the spiritual dimension of human existence. It also embraces the ultimate mystery and wonder of life.
And given what we are learning about the vastness of the universe, I believe science must now surely embrace this awareness of the mystery and the wonder of what it all means. It seems the more we know, the more we realize how much we do not know.
The best part of the discussion in the men’s group was a statement made by my best friend in the group, who is also my partner on weekly walks around the neighborhood. He is a scientist and a retired professor in the Department of Engineering at the University of Maryland, an active member in his synagogue, and a cantor on High Holy Days in another. He said this:
“Spirituality involves an awareness and appreciation of our connection to a larger world, to the Divine and all of creation, to all humanity, an awareness of the mystery of life. It involves letting go, not always trying to be in control of ourselves and the world, being open to unexpected experiences. It involves being open to being touched and being changed by these experiences, not distancing ourselves from them. It means responding to the mystery simply and directly.”
I have nothing more to add.