An MIT astrophysicist trying to reconcile science with a quest for spiritual truth wrote upon the death of his parents, “I wish I believed.” I believe he just might.
When These Stone Walls was just a few months old back in 2009, I wrote a post about the death of my mother. It told a story about an event that occurred on her birthday a year after she died. At first glance it seemed an ordinary event, the sort of thing usually chalked up to coincidence. But its meaning and timing and how it unfolded made it extraordinary beyond comprehension. It required that I set aside the mathematical odds of such a thing and see it foremost in the light of faith.
It remains to this day a pivotal moment, a wondrous event that shook my faith out of the closet of doubt where I tend to store it when times get rough – which is often. The story told in that post may shake you, too, if it hasn’t already. By that, I do not mean that it will challenge your faith. It’s just the opposite. My story lifted for me a corner of the veil between doubt and belief. So the title I gave it was “A Corner of the Veil.”
My friend, Pornchai Moontri was with me that night when the event occurred while I offered Mass in our prison cell. It was ten years ago. I asked Pornchai if he remembers it. “How could I forget it?” he said. He described it as an “ordinary miracle,” the kind he says he has seen a lot of since his eyes were opened.
I could repeat the whole story here, but it will take too long and I have written it once already. it is but a mere click away. I will link to it again after this post. You can decide for yourself whether the story it tells is mere coincidence or something more. My analytic brain tends toward coincidence, but sometimes that just doesn’t add up. This was one of those times.
I then came upon a strange little book of fiction by Laurence Cossé first published in French as Le Coin du Voile, and in English, A Corner of the Veil (Scribner 1999). It fell at my feet from a library shelf after my post with the same title.
Laurence Cossé was a journalist for Radio France when she wrote this book described by Notre Dame theologian Ralph McInerney as “a theological thriller that makes a mystery out of the absence of mystery.” It is a spellbinding account of what happens to the people and institutions of Church and State when a manuscript surfaces that irrefutably proves the existence of God.
Science, religion, and politics all transform as their experts ponder its meaning and their own continued relevancy. The reader is left to wonder whether the discovery will spark a new era of harmony or launch the final battle of the apocalypse.
“Six pages further, Father Bertrand was trembling. The proof was neither arithmetical nor physical nor esthetical nor astronomical, it was irrefutable. Proof of God’s existence had been achieved. Bertrand was tempted, for a second, to toss the bundle into the wastebasket.” (p 15)
As it does for people who awaken to faith on a personal level, the discovery immediately altered the way its readers face both life and death. The transformation was astonishing. Death came to be seen not as an entity unto itself, but as it really is a chapter in the continuity of life, of me, of the person I call my self-integrated into the Great Tapestry of God.
I happen to know a lot of people whose experience of living is suddenly overshadowed by the prospect of dying. They have come to know that death is drawing nearer day by day. Some of them struggle. What does death mean, and why do we wage such war against it? The age of individualism and relativism distorts death into a fearsome enemy. As Dylan Thomas wrote,
“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, Rage against the dying of the light.”
IF THAT’S ALL THERE IS, THEN LET’S KEEP DANCING!
While writing this post, I received a letter from a reader in Ohio who asked me to write a note of encouragement to a friend whose death is drawing near. After a lifetime of faith, he wrote, the friend is having grave doubts and fears about the end of life and the finality of death. He is asking the age-old question put to song: “Is that all there is?”
But that is our problem. We speak in terms of “finality” as though when faced with death, all that we once believed with hope takes on the trappings of a mere children’s fantasy. I know too many people who are dying, and many of us treat it as the silent elephant in the room because we know that sooner or later we will join them just as our parents did before us. It is part of the flow of life, but we ward it off as a terror in the night. In the face of death, science alone comes up empty.
When you think of it, death is best seen as an act of love. Imagine the inherent selfishness of a humanity without death. Those we love the most in this world – those who fulfill our very purpose for being in this world – would be left out of existence if this life were ours alone to keep. But facing death with no life of faith casts both life and death into a formless void without meaning.
I recently came across a review of a book by noted MIT physicist and astronomer Alan Lightman entitled Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (Pantheon 2018). It was reviewed by UMass physics professor Alan Hirshfeld in “A Longing for Truth and Meaning” in The Wall Street Journal April 7-8, 2018).
In some previous science posts on These Stone Walls, I have cited both writers for other books and articles they have written. Mr. Lightman’s book, and Mr. Hirshfeld’s review of it, both raise provocative questions about “the core mysteries of human life” and the way science explores the Universe:
“Why are we here? What, if anything, is the meaning of existence? Is there a God? Is there life after death? Whence consciousness?”
I am very happy to see science ponder these questions, but they can never be answered by science alone. It comes up short when the task moves beyond the mere physics and chemistry of life to its meaning and purpose. Consider this explanation of the self, of who and what you are as a conscious being, offered by Mr. Lightman:
“Self is the name we give to the mental sensation of certain electrical and chemical flows in our neurons.”
It is too tempting for science to reduce us to fundamental biology and chemistry, but the mere mechanics of what I am do not at all define who I am. If science is the only contribution to the meaning of life and death, then it becomes obvious why so many spend significant time in denial or in dread of death.
In his new book reflecting on the Cosmos, MIT astrophysicist Alan Lightman takes up these questions and more. Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a view of the world through a scientist’s lens which requires him to see in it, as Alan Hirshfeld describes,
“Tangible bits of matter and energy, all governed by a set of fundamental physical laws… In keeping with his ‘Central Doctrine of Science,’ he eschews unprovable hypotheses, most significantly the existence of God and the afterlife.”
But these hypotheses are only unprovable from the point of view of science which concerns itself, as it concerns astrophysicist Alan Lightman, with matter and energy and fundamental laws. But Professor Lightman has acquired the wisdom not to stop there. His reflection on the death of his parents brings him to the “impossible truth” that they no longer exist, and he will one day follow them into this nonexistence.
Is that all there is? “I wish I believed,” he wrote. But “a precipice looms for each of us, an eventual plunge into nonexistence.” As Alan Hirshfeld described it:
“A depressing prospect, for sure, yet the inevitable judgment of those for whom religious or spiritual alternatives carry no resonance.”
THREADS OF THE TAPESTRY OF GOD
I have written numerous articles about the sciences of astronomy and cosmology, the origins and mechanics of the Universe. But these are not the only tools with which to explore the universe and measure life and death. The conclusions of science and faith are not as inseparable as science might have you believe.
I have raised this analogy before, but consider these two passages from two sources that have become meaningful to me. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 296) expresses a fundamental truth of faith God created the Universe and life “out of nothing.”
Among the many contributions of science that I hold in high regard, this is one by the mathematician Robyn Arianrhod whose book, Einstein’s Heroes: Imaging the World Through the Language of Mathematics (Oxford University 2005) draws the same conclusion. Don’t let the scientific language dissuade you from understanding this phenomenal bridge between science and faith:
“The Belgian priest and astrophysicist, Georges Lemaitre began to develop expanding cosmological models out of Einstein’s equations… In 1931, Lemaitre formally sowed the seeds of the Big Bang theory [which] showed that Einstein’s equations predicted the universe had expanded not from a tiny piece of matter located in an otherwise empty cosmos, but from a single point in four-dimensional spacetime… Before this point, about 13 billion years ago, there was no time and no space. No geometry, no matter. Nothing. The universe simply appeared out of nowhere. Out of nothing.” (Arianrhod, pp 185-187)
Reflecting on the death of his parents, Alan Lightman wrote that he wished he believed in the continuity of life after death. It could be at least a starting point that sometimes science and faith share some of the same language and conclusions about the origin of life. Faith, to have any real depth, is not simply an emotional experience to assuage our fears, but rather one arrived at also through reason. Catholicism presents 2,000 years of faith seeking understanding, of belief built upon reason.
And sometimes reason just cannot explain away our intuition that life has an Author. I am intrigued by Professor Hirshfeld’s use of the term, “resonance” for I have also used it in some recent posts. I have described it as a sort of echo that finds its way among the”threads of the Tapestry of God” in ways that give life meaning and purpose, in ways that connect us. One way spiritual resonance manifests itself is by giving meaning to suffering.
Consider this stunning action of spiritual resonance that I once described in my post, “The Science of Creation and a Tale of Two Priests.” After researching and writing about the science of cosmology, the origin of the Universe, I discovered that Father Georges Lemaitre, Father of the Big Bang and Modern Cosmology was an intimate family friend of Pornchai Moontri’s Belgian Godfather, Pierre Matthews.
I live with the Godson of the Godson of the very Father of Modern Cosmology! The mathematical odds against this are… well… astronomical!
And yes, that is unscientific, but science would be the first realm to hold that there are elemental forces in the Universe that require specific receptors to detect them. No one can “think” the existence of God, but I can, and have, intuited it. We all have if we’re prepared to be honest with ourselves, and this receptivity of spiritual intuition exists in humanity for a reason. It shapes both life and death.
It is a long time since I have viewed with awe the expanse of our galaxy spanning the night sky in all its brilliance, but like Alan Lightman, I have done so, and find it unforgettable. He is on the right track, and may one day come to see that the awe it instills in him is not the awe of science alone. “I wish I believed,” he wrote. I hope he will. I think he just may one day. It is, after all a matter of life and death.
Now, if you haven’t already, please go have a close look at “A Corner of the Veil.”
Editor’s Note Journey among the stars with these other posts from These Stone Walls:
- The March for Life and the People on the Planet Next Door
- Science Makes a Case for God and Respect for Life
And prepare for the Solemnity of Pentecost with these memorable posts from These Stone Walls: