There are some drawbacks to getting older. Getting up in the morning and having to really think about moving because we are so stiff, or the sudden realization that we have lived more life than we have yet to live. But there are perks, like senior discounts. Getting a Senior cup of coffee at McDonalds seems like such a savings when we get change back from our dollar.
One of the least well-known senior discounts is education. Many colleges offer classes to seniors either for free or for a very reduced tuition. Rob and I are taking advantage of Colorado University’s Senior Auditor program and have taken a class for the past two semesters. This past semester we decided to stretch ourselves a little and took a science class entitled The Search for Life in the Universe. It was a combined astronomy and geology class that began with the Big Bang, carried through how life developed here on earth, and then explored how what we know about how life developed here on earth can be applied to other celestial bodies. And finally, we explored the methods being used to find life elsewhere in the universe.
Neither Rob nor I had taken any science classes since the required classes we took in college back in the 70’s. Not only has science advanced by leaps and bounds since the 70’s, but some of the things we learned as scientific “fact” are no longer “facts” at all.
The vastness of our universe is breathtaking. There are over 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, and there are an estimated 30 billion planets in our galaxy alone. Do the math to figure out how many planets may exist. The number is mind-boggling; I can’t even tell you how many zeros there are in that number. Our earth formed 4.6 billion years ago, and we think that the first life appeared fairly quickly, 3.8 billion years ago. Bacteria outweigh everything else on earth. Their numbers and functions are vast. Despite our thinking that we are so high and mighty, all animals can be found on the end of one small twig of the tree of life. We complex creatures are just a tiny, tiny bud in that vast tree of life. It is awe-inspiring and humbling to realize what a small life force we actually are.
Yet, for all we know, there is so much we don’t know. There is a common ancestor to all life which is nicknamed LUCA, or the Last Universal Common Ancestor. And we don’t know what type of being LUCA is. We know about DNA and how it contains coding for cell function, yet a full 95% of DNA is non-coding. We don’t know what function that the 95% serves, if any, so why is it there? There is a form of life called extremophiles that exists in extreme environments, hence the name. They can exist without air, in extreme heat or salinity or pressure or even radioactivity. We don’t know how they live, but they may provide clues for other life forms.
Scientists will continue to probe the universe and life on earth to find the answers to these unknowns, and eventually there will be many answers. Of that I am sure. But if we are able find all the answers, then what? Does God fit into this? My answer is, “Of course.” When one of our sons was a teen, he told me, with all the hubris of a 16 year old, that there was no God because science will ultimately answer all of our questions. My answer to him was, “Who created the subject of all the questions?”
A Jewish particle physicist named Dr. Pekka Sinervo recently wrote a piece entitled Confessions of a Jewish Particle Physicist. He said, “I am in awe of this world. Each and every day, I am reminded of the incredible complexity of our universe, whether it is in the diversity of galaxies and cosmic structures, how the universe forged the heavier elements that make up this rocky ball called the planet Earth, or how biological life formed and developed into such intricate forms as we see around us in this room.”
This is from a guy who collides particles that most of us don’t even know exist with really high energy to see what happens to them. And with all of the knowledge that he has, he confesses that, with all there is out there to learn and to know, that he does not believe that science will ultimately give us all the answers. Remember LUCA, the last universal common ancestor? We may never know what that is. Dr. Sinervo continued, “My God is that ineffable being or essence that must suffuse our world and make it just so – make it a world that continues to fill me with awe. It is the God that somehow —just don’t ask me how—has had a role in defining what the world around me looks like, that has allowed those emotions in me that bring me to love those around me, that compels me to leave this world a better place than when I found it.”
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi in Great Britain, explained science from the perspective of a religious person. Rabbi Sacks said, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. We need both.”
Ultimately, I think that it is more difficult to believe that our universe, our world, from the largest galaxy to the smallest atomic particle, is just a random occurrence. There is a purpose and meaning behind it behind all of it. And that is where science and God intersect. Albert Einstein admitted that “Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind.” We do need both. As Rabbi Sacks concluded, “We need science to understand the universe, and religion to guide our way within it, from the world as it is to the world as it ought to be: a world of peace, justice, compassion and love, when we, God’s creations, honor God, our Creator.”
Jews, in about the same percentage as non-Jews, will say, like my teenager, “I don’t believe in God; I believe in science and nature.” In a higher percentage than non-Jews, Jews believe that science and religion or God are independent of each other, and think if they accept science, they will need to reject God and religion.
That’s why I was very pleased to read that one of the 12 synagogues selected by the Sinai Synapses team to receive a Scientists in Synagogues grant this upcoming year is our congregation, Har Hashem. After what we have learned this past semester at CU, both Rob and I are very excited about the programming that will be created with the help of this grant. And maybe after the learning afforded by this grant, more of us will come to understand that science and God are not mutually exclusive, that one is integral to the other.
Keyn Yihi Ratzon.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is adapted from a sermon delivered by a congregant at Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, CO).