Embracing Ignorance: How Modern Science Helps Us Rediscover Our Ancient Faith

Embracing Ignorance: How Modern Science Helps Us Rediscover Our Ancient Faith

This was a talk given at Theology With a Twist.

I want to tell you a story.

In the 1960’s, Bell Laboratories in North Jersey built this funky-looking 20-foot antenna, this horn-shaped antenna, in North Jersey. It was a part of an experiment that they were doing with NASA called Project Echo, and the point of Project Echo was to bounce the signal from New Jersey off of a mylar balloon in space and then to a receiver in California, so that they could communicate basically, long distance communication before there were satellites, before there was any of that.

It didn’t really work. So after only a couple of years, this crazy-looking thing was vacant and useless, no one was using it, so, almost immediately two scientists working from Bell Labs named Arnold Penzias and Robert Wilson set about using this new toy. They were astrophysicists, sky watchers, they were really into this, and this particular antenna could look, in a unique way, at different radio waves you couldn’t get with your backyard telescopes.

So in 1964, they set about calibrating their new toy. They wanted to look at the dark spaces in between galaxies for just random clouds of hydrogen (you know, the sorts of things that keep you up at night, getting real excited about random clouds of hydrogen).

So the first thing they did was they set it to a dark space in the sky to calibrate the device, right, kind of set the zero, so that they could then look at what they found. It’s kind of what we’re getting out of these speakers. A low constant hum, really more like static. You know when you’re tuning in between stations on the radio and you hear that static? That was what they were getting. Very low, very low on the frequencies, but enough to mess up their measurements. So they do what any scientist does, they try to figure out what it was, OK. So they pointed out the dark sky, there was static. He pointed out a bright star, there was static. They point to that New York City, there was static. They called up a local military base and said “hey, do you have your high powered radar on?” And the general said “Who is this?” and he hung up.

So then they tried to figure out “was it the nuclear test a couple years back?”. No, wasn’t that. So was it maybe the pair of mourning doves they had made their home inside of antenna. Well, a day of scrubbing bird poop and a box of shotguns later and, no. Still static, and a couple dead birds. They could not, for the life of them, figure out what was wrong with this wonderful, beautiful new toy that they were really looking forward to playing with, until someone told them about some controversial research that was being done out of Princeton University just down the parkway.

See, these people in Princeton were trying to prove the Big Bang theory – not the sitcom, but the theory. You see, back then, the Big Bang Theory was somewhat controversial, because the prevailing wisdom of the day was that something called the solid-state universe – in that the universe is unchanging, it is static, it is simply a stage in which we play out our lives. It was never created, it will never be destroyed, it is infinite, and that’s it.

So the idea of the universe exploding into existence sounds like science fiction, or worse, religion – sounds a lot like Genesis, doesn’t it? But, due to the discoveries of Edwin Hubble, which showed that galaxies were moving away from us all at the same – every galaxy was moving away from us, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity said that the universe should be expanding. So if the universe is expanding, then you should be able to go back in time and compress it, down to an infinitesimally small singularity, followed by an enormous explosion.

And that expansion should have left a trace. You should be able to look in every direction in the sky and see faint microwave radiation – echoes of the Big Bang. And that was it. They had accidentally stumbled upon the Big Bang – a vision of the universe merely 380,000 years after the Big Bang, which, in human terms, is about 17 hours after birth.

The Baby Picture of the Universe

So this is the baby picture of the universe. It’s adorable, isn’t it? Maybe that’s not your thing, that’s OK.  (laughter) But it might not look like much, but those quantum fluctuations in there are the reason why you and I exist. If this were all uniform, then gravity would have had no way to gather things together, to make all of the interesting things that we see in the universe. It would just be evenly distributed hydrogen across the entire galaxy.

But instead we have the Kutztown Tavern, and Theology With a Twist. But maybe that’s not cute enough for you.

Awwww. So just like that picture, and just like how you can see the universe developing, you could look at this wonderful and perfect and adorable and just the greatest-ever newborn baby of all time. And you could see the hints in the eyes, in the nose, and in the mouth and the ears, that would one day become this big bearded fellow fellow in front of you. (laughter) Do you see it? He needs glasses. That’s fine.

The God of the Gaps

Well, it’s no exaggeration to say that this picture represents one of, if not the, greatest discovery of all time. We went from talking about what the early universe might have been like to being able to measure what it was like. That’s enormous. It’s an incredible day for scientists, and a very difficult blow for religious fundamentalists, who were still trying to figure out how to disprove Darwin 100 years after he wrote his book. And it’s a tough time, right. First they lost geocentrism – found out that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe –  that we’re not so special in the universe. And then when Darwin came around, we realized that we’re not so special in the animal kingdom. And now this baby picture shows up, and we realize that the universe is 13 billion years old. And the spaces where God used to live were quickly getting smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller.

And that’s where most of the friction has occurred between scientists and religious leaders. When you use God to explain all the things that you can’t currently understand, then you are setting God up to be gone one day, when we do understand those things. The God of the Gaps, as it’s called, is a God that simply cannot live, it cannot last, if humanity is going to continue to grow in our understanding of the universe.

You know, in ancient times, people believed that God was responsible for just about everything, from the growth of corn, to fertility, to how battles were won and how kings were made. But by the time of the Enlightenment, in the 17th and 18th centuries, God was primarily just responsible for cosmic and human origins, as well as ethics and social structures.

And then after this, suddenly, in the 1960’s, all God is left with are ethics and social structures. And now where are we today, friends? Humanists have come around and have realized that “oh, you don’t need the threat of Hell in order to have an organized society. It turns out that secular societies can govern themselves pretty well.” And the gaps that God used to fit in get smaller and smaller, and God gets squeezed out into oblivion. Phew.

Now, sure, to be fair, we don’t know where that singularity came from, where the Big Bang exploded from, but if you are clinging to that last shred of unknown cosmology to house your God, then it’s only a matter of time before that last eviction notice comes in, and you lose that. Besides, a God who created the Singularity, blew it up, and walked away – is just not all that interesting to me. That’s not compelling, that’s not the sort of God that I see in Scripture, the kind of God that I would even want to worship. It’s no wonder that younger people are leaving religious organizations en masse these days. The God of the Gaps that explains what we don’t currently understand is just too small, it’s too conditional, it’s too fragile, to establish one’s ground of being on in a scientific age. So is that it? Should just shut this all down, close the doors of the church and get better-paying jobs? (laughter) Of course not. Not least because I’m not qualified for better paying jobs. (laughter)

Not Knowing Things

But also because I think there is another way, a more ancient way, a way that, ironically, the scientific revolution has perfected. The title of my presentation is taken from my favorite poet, Wendell Berry, the second stanza of “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”. It goes something like this.

“So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.”

Now some of you are scratching your heads, and you were scratching your heads when you read this description last time as well, because that doesn’t sound very scientific, does it? Isn’t science all about facts and data and numbers and boring stuff that you slept through in high school? Well, yes and no. While science is really good at making sense of the natural world, it can only succeed because it values ignorance. As the great physicist James Maxwell once said, “thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”

Scientists love not knowing things. I remember reading an article right after the scientists at CERN had used a large hadron collider to discover the Higgs Boson particle, you may have read it, [that] called [it] “the God particle,” which really annoyed those scientists, because it has nothing to do with God – just that it was really hard to find, and may not exist. It was a joke.

So I read an article by Stephen Wolfram, the physicist and programmer, about this discovery, and instead of being elated that they finally found the last piece of the standard model, he was disappointed. He was just bummed out by the whole thing. Because the particle behaved exactly like it should, exactly like the equations predicted that it should. And that was it. It was a dead end. It was the answer, but there were no strings to pull. There was no loose ends. There was there was nothing in the distance that we could run towards, that we could get excited about it.  It just ended. It was kind of like a dog who finally catches the mailman and has no idea what to do with it.

Science is only able to progress because in science, nothing is sacred, nothing is unchangeable. Every model of reality, no matter how accurate or helpful it is, must be held loosely, and is subject to revision when new data arises.

Take, for example, Sir Isaac Newton. You know him, he’s the guy who had the apple fall on his head. Quite possibly the most brilliant man in the Western world. This is a man who literally invented calculus over a weekend, basically on a dare, OK.

So he came up with his Laws of Motion, which are able to precisely calculate the trajectory and the motion of anything from a falling apple to a rocket ship. And they work incredibly well when you’re dealing with things on our level. But Albert Einstein much later realized that gravity kind of messes the whole thing up, when you have large gravitational things like planets and black holes. He discovered that space itself becomes distorted by heavy objects, by massive objects, and that space and time are two – one in the same thing, and it all gets kind of confusing after that, but relativity rewrote everything, it changed the whole game, established new rules and new assumptions about curved spacetime and  the fabric of the universe.

But at the same time there was another group, another group of people led by people like Niels Bohr who were looking not at the big things, but at the very small things, looking at the atoms themselves, and they discovered that at the atomic and subatomic levels, stuff doesn’t behave. It gets real wacky. And the laws of Newton, well, they don’t apply down there, and these new laws of Einstein, well, they don’t even come close to applying down there. Things are so wacky down there at the subatomic level that Einstein spent his dying days trying to disprove it in vain.

It turns out it’s true. At the subatomic level, there are different rules that apply. I mean, any of you here who have cell phones, they only exist because of quantum physics. If you have ever used a computer, they only exist because of quantum physics. It works, and we can make cool stuff out of it. But here’s the thing about scientific models. As the statistician George Box famously said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Do you have a smartphone with you? Most of you probably do. Does it have a GPS? Do you know how a GPS works? It’s a particle accelerator. There’s a satellite. So here’s our GPS works. A rocket precisely launches an array of satellites into orbit just right using Newton’s laws. And within that each and every one of those satellites, there is an incredibly precise atomic clock, the most precise in the world, and your phone picks up those signals from them, calculates from three or four of them the difference in time, and then tells you exactly where you are.

However, Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us that gravity affects time as well as space. And so, because there’s less gravity up there in orbit, they’re experiencing different time than we are. And so we have to use Einstein’s equations to change their time to match our time. And you just push “Hey, Siri. Bring me to a gas station.” And then it all just happens without thinking about it. But you have these three models, none of them are right, they’re all wrong, but they’re all useful to an extent. Now, maybe someday we’ll discover a comprehensive theory of everything, maybe we will, maybe we won’t.

As the Dr. Stuart Firestein writes, “Questions are more relevant than answers. Questions are bigger than answers. One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate  whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand often, often end the process.”

So this openness to well-vetted new truths, and enthusiasm for the unknown, and are not only characteristic of science but also about health and spirituality. Unfortunately, the public discourse around science and religion has missed this entirely, and they’ve either gone [to] one of two dead ends. Either you go the Ken Hamm way and you twist science to try to fit your interpretation of scripture, or you go the Richard Dawkins way and you try to use science to disprove the stories of the Bible, and by proxy, religion itself.

I was on the turnpike this past week, and in the gift shop they had a little spinning carousel of books, and I saw a book in there by an adjunct professor of biology at a community college in St. Louis about how there are dinosaurs in the Bible, and how both the Bible and archaeology prove that there were dinosaurs up until the Great Flood, when God killed them. And that still makes me so angry that that book was even there, for so many reasons. That it distorts, and it’s so dishonest to scripture. It mistreats scripture and it mistreats science and it makes us all look really bad in the process.

A Way Home (through visions)

So instead of those two dead ends, let me propose for you a third way. A Way Home, a way back to the ancient roots of our faith. After all what is faith? What is religion? What is spirituality? How do religions get started? Has there ever been a religion that started was some guy sitting at home going “hey, I have a really good idea for a God, I think I’m going to write some scriptures and give my life to this God I just made up.” (laughter)

No one has ever done that in the history of the world. Why would they? It makes no sense. Of course not. Abraham had a vision of God, Mohammad had a vision of God, Zarathustra had an image of God, even Jesus had an image of God descending like a dove. Moses saw God’s back. Mary saw an angel, the disciples saw tongues of fire, Saul saw light, and John saw the end of the world.

Every religious tradition starts with Revelation, an uncovering of reality given to a person by a being beyond this realm, whether that be God or an angel, or whatever it may be. Revelation is given to you, it is not deduced. It is not measured. There is no experimental aspect to this. And why do people come aboard and take someone else’s word for it? What was so appealing about Jesus that so many people gave their lives to follow him? Hmm.

Well, I think maybe some people get brought along for the ride because they’re afraid of Hell, or they’re really excited about heaven. But that kind of coercion only lasts for a little bit. That does not give a person a long and lasting spiritual connection that can only come from a union with the Divine, a mystical oneness of the sorts that Jesus prayed for you. When he said “I ask, not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me,because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

This is mystical, ineffable miracle of Jesus that is in the heart of my faith. We affirm that God is completely Other, incomprehensible in eternity, but God also broke into time, in the person of Jesus, and as St. Athanasios said, “he became what we are that we might become what he is.” So God is also knowable in Jesus, but also not really.

And that tension of knowability and unknowability flows, and out of that tension flows two streams of Christianity from day one: Dogmatics and mysticism. The dogmatic stream is really more of a river at this point. They use the human reason, and the philosophies of their day, to try to explain the mysteries of God, to make them clear and compact. They insisted that our religion be orderly and reasonable and able to be compartmentalized and memorized and consumerized. Their religion wrote the Creeds and held the councils and decided who was in and who was out. They killed Galileo.

They control the narrative, started the wars, and defined our religion, but beneath that stream of Christianity, there is always a second underground stream, the mystical stream which preserves the soul of Christianity when the mainstream lost it, who affirm in the words of the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa, “The one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond  all that is visible, and lifting up his own mind as to the mountaintop, to the invisible and in comprehensible, believe that the divine is there, where the understanding does not reach.”

Phyllis Tickle writes that every 500 years or so, the Christian church has a sort of rummage sale of our spirituality, where we get too comfortable with worldly power and influence, and we upset the whole thing, flipping it over, and figure out what we want to keep and what we want to get rid of, as we rediscover this original ancient faith.

You know, it was the early mystical monastics who fled when Rome seized Christianity and made it the official religion of the Empire. You know, it was St. Francis and Clare and their wacky band of mystics who revitalized the faith, during the midst of all of the Crusades, and all of the bloodshed that the Church was responsible for. And while the Protestant Reformers didn’t really trust the mystics, unfortunately, the Counter-Reformation brought about just the most beautiful medieval mystics that changed the face of Catholic spirituality.

And that brings us to today. When the American Church got fat at the table of empire, losing its soul with every act of genocide and denial of human dignity, we tried to prop up our decaying spirituality on the edifices of the Age of Reason, but no reconstructed historical Jesus or well-designed philosophical treatise could contain the soul of Christ, and that’s when the tides began to shift.

In 1906, in a little church on Azusa Street in downtown Los Angeles, the Holy Spirit came down onto that church in a powerful way. People began speaking in tongues. There were healings in the streets. Folks’ lives were changed, in radical, relational, mystical ways that defied expectation and explanation. And those early Pentecostals were experiencing the wild, undefinable, uncontrollable, uncontainable Spirit of God in the face of a Christianity that demanded the same empirical certainty that science requires. We were trying to put God in a petri dish. So God busted out, as God often does.

Now unfortunately, the modern-day Pentecostal movement has lost some of that mystical roots, and is instead some of the most legalistic groups around. I knew, I grew up Pentecostal, I can say that sort of stuff. But the Pentecostal movement is still the fastest-growing section of the Global Church, especially in the Global South, and the reason that it spreads so fast is because it is deeply relational, personal, mystical – it is a connection to the Divine.

God and the Brain

And I think religion is at its best when it leads people to the water and lets them drink on their own – when it provides a sacred space of helpful practices, but then gives space to the individual, to experience the indescribable divine love that refuses definition. As the anonymous author of the medieval work the “Cloud of Unknowing” wrote, “God is incomprehensible to the intellect. Even angels know him by loving him. Nobody’s mind is powerful enough to grasp who God is. We can only know him by experiencing his love.”

And so what does that look like? What does it look like to experience God’s all-consuming love?

It looks like this. This is a brain scan of a Franciscan nun before and during intense meditation and prayer. Did you know that there is a burgeoning field called neurotheology, that is – basically, most of that work is being done right here in Philadelphia. Dr. Andrew Newberg, who has written a couple of really good books, – spoiler – is doing a lot of this sort of research.

The long and short of it is this: in deep, mystical, meditative states, these nuns had increased activity in their frontal lobe, up here. The frontal lobe is what’s responsible for your conscious thinking, for your problem-solving, for your attention, for your focus, which makes sense, because if anybody here has tried to meditate in the past, you know it’s not easy. Your brain wants to wander; it takes focus to drift off.

People who practice this kind of meditation experience a deeper sense of concentration and focus than those people who just sat and thought about God. People who sat and thought about God who had no meditation or religious affiliation – their brain scans looked exactly the same before and after.

Also, you will see a decrease – and you see this on the one on the right – in the activity of the left and right parietal lobes. Now, your sense of spatial awareness is found in your right parietal lobe. And in your left parietal lobe is your sense of self, as in the space you occupy. Have you ever thought about how you know intrinsically how far you have to reach to touch something, or how you can eat without looking at your mouth? That’s because of this part of your brain. Your brain knows how much space your body takes up, where it is, and puts together all those sensations without even having to think about it.

But, during a deep, prayerful, meditative state, both of these parts start to shut down. It’s almost like their conscious brain, their frontal lobe, puts in a dam on either side. So what you begin to see is that these people who are meditating lose their sense of place, of orientation. They no longer can pay attention to the world around them, and they lose their sense of self, their sense of ego, of who they are in this space.

And as the frontal lobe begins to shut down, the person in meditation begins to feel absent from their body, from the world and from the sense of self. And the more the nuns closed off those orientation centers, the more the brain sent bursts past them – you know how it works when you dam something up and the water has to go somewhere, right? Instead it goes down their limbic system, into the older, more instinctual, more animal parts of your hypothalamus, which sends the signal back up to the frontal lobe, and closes the loop.

And this loop of neurons brings a state of peace. A state of contentment. A state of oneness. And without that sense of self or of place, they move past themselves, past their egos, and into a deeper part of their brains that go beyond intellect, that go beyond language, that go beyond understanding, that are simply instinct. The land of the ineffable. And in these places, in these deep and meaningful places, we experience the Divine in personal, transformative ways too deep for words, the Apostle Paul says.

And maybe you haven’t experienced this level of transcendence – maybe we don’t have any Tibetan monks in the room today – that’s OK. You have experienced glimpses of this before. You know that final scene in Les Mis, when the song is starting, the crescendo, and everyone’s parts are coming together, and you just get filled with this emotion, and you forget that those are actors up there? And you just want to cry and “do you hear the people…”? (laughter) You’re getting a glimpse of it.

Or on Christmas Eve, when it’s about midnight, and you’ve been in church all day long, and you’re tired, and the organist pulls out all the stops for that final verse of “Joy to the World,” and you just start singing out of whatever gut feeling you have left, and you forget where you are for just a moment? That’s a glimpse of what I’m talking about. Or maybe in the final minutes of the Super Bowl this year (laughter), you were so wrapped up in the anticipation, the energy, the electricity of it all, and the communal experience of you and your friends and family in that room watching that TV, that you didn’t realize that suddenly you were standing. That’s a taste of the sort of state that I’m talking about. It’s just a taste, just a nibble, it’s just a little tease, it’s not the full pie.

What Do We Consider Profound?

See, in 2015, Andrew Newburg and some other folks did a study in which they got 777 – which is a wonderful Bible number, by the way – 777 participants explained their most profound religious experience. And in that study, they, without the participants knowing, split them up into groups of people who had mystical experiences and people who didn’t. People who had claimed to have personal experiences with God and those who hadn’t. And they took those responses and they ran them through a computer and they brought – they made a word map of the most commonly used words, and the bigger ones are the ones that showed up more.

And here are the results. The top one are the people who had had mystical experiences, who had claimed to have personal experiences with God. The bottom ones are folks for whom religion was a more cerebral activity. And you’ll notice that the top folks, you see the words like “oneness” and “everything” and “world” and “us”. There’s also “LSD” in there as well. (laughter)

But the words that show up are words of togetherness, of oneness, of us-ness, of being a part of something bigger and grander and more beautiful and wonderful than yourself. Whereas the other people’s words showed up – there’s Christ, directly, pastor, monk, Christian, prayed, wife, Jesus, Eve, they’re all very technical terms, they’re other people.

The people in the first group also reported more peace and more joy than the other group. They were able to find comfort in the mystery of God, and found satisfaction in simply loving God again. To quote the “Cloud of Unknowing,” “God is not asking for your help”– he’s talking about in meditation. “He’s asking for you. He wants you to lock your eyes on him and leave him alone to work in you. Your part is to protect the door and windows, keeping out intruders and flies. And if you’re willing to do that, just ask him, praying humbly, and he will help you immediately.”

And that, friends, is the sort of spirituality that compels me today, a deeply personal, profoundly mystical, intrinsically indescribable union with the very source of life. And like a scientist, I hold my beliefs loosely, using them like tools to uncover new questions, and possibly revising those tools when the new data arises, when better arguments are presented.

You know, Paul writes in First Thessalonians to test everything. Don’t just take anything at face value. I believe that Scripture is also a tool, a divine gift, not just a gentle suggestion from God. Like us, it is very human, but it is very divine, and worthy of our affection and devotion, but only as a means to an end, only as a map that sends us headlong into that cloud of unknowing, headlong into the arms of our loving God, a God that is at once unknowable but deeply relational, completely other but fully embodied, unchanging but ever unfolding, incomprehensible but perfectly rational.

And I have no interest in debating whether or not science and religion can exist together. I know they can. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that. And to leave you with a quote from the physicist Sir William Bragg, “Sometimes people ask me if religion and science are not opposed to one another. They are: in the sense that the thumb and the fingers on my hands are opposed one another. It is an opposition by means of which anything can be grasped.” Thank you for your time.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *