Thursday, September 3, 2015

Tiny Cells and Large Planets

In the last week, two articles caught my attention and contributed to my sense of wonder. One article spoke of new microscope techniques for viewing very small chemical processes inliving cells. The other article was about images taken of very large objects: the planets and dwarf planets in our solar system. We live in an amazing era in which we are able to see both ends of this spectrum of size. Now of course, there are objects much larger than planets that we can see: large stars, cloud nebulae, and galaxies; and there are objects much smaller than cells, some of which we can see and some of which we can infer from the properties of matter: DNA strands, individual molecules, atoms, electrons, and quarks. For thousands of years, humans sat out under the skies and looked at the sun, moon, and stars and wondered what they were and what they would look like close up. This mystery of the heavens struck people with awe and led them to theological and philosophical thinking. They also looked down at their bodies and noted that they were “fearfully and wonderfully made.” When they cut their hands and saw blood they wondered what it was and how the body healed itself.

Today, we have much more collective data than our great-grandparents and ancestors before that. Yet, there is still much mystery in the world and in our universe. To what theological and philosophical thoughts are we now inclined? Do we have as much wisdom as our ancestors? Sometimes, because we can explain that Jupiter is a planet and not a star, and can understand how it stays in orbit around our sun, we think that we have no more need for explanation. We might think that we know most of what there is to know about Jupiter. What of the deeper questions? Why is Jupiter there? Philosophically, we might ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Theologically, we might ask, “Why is there a Jupiter – since, as far as we know, there is nothing living out there?” Why, indeed, are there other galaxies filled with billions of stars and billions of planets?

There are some in the world who would suggest that because we can see biological processes working in a cell and can explain how a living being functions that we have no need of philosophy or theology or a reference to a God to understand the nature of our existence. Certainly this attitude is short-sighted. Even if we were to adequately explain the essence of life and consciousness, being able to imagine a world in which no God was necessary does not preclude His existence. I would suggest that we are still far from an adequate understanding of what constitutes life and we have barely scratched the surface of an understanding of consciousness. We see much, we have much information, we have a great deal of understanding; yet, what we don’t see, don’t know, and don’t understand, far outweighs what we do see, know, and understand.

It makes sense that we express a large degree of humility in recognizing that we don’t have all of the answers. Perhaps the best way forward is to develop our best understanding of who we are, why we are here, and whether or not there is a God to whom we answer. We can each lay out principles by which we will live while looking to others for guidance. Then, we humbly hold to these understandings and principles of life until such time as things shake us from that approach to life and we find that we must embrace a different understanding that better fits our present knowledge.

There is little room for hubris or self-sufficiency. Every person on this planet must admit to incomplete knowledge of life and the universe. May we rejoice in what we do know and may we humbly walk alongside each other teaching and learning as we go.

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