My wife and I have been getting into the new Fox show “Cosmos”, a reboot of the old Carl Sagan show which (I’m told) raised the country’s awareness of science and inspired countless young people. I truly hope it’s a success and stays on the air, though I’m not so sure the appetite will be there in the end. We’ll see. So far, at least, the reviews appear to be good and the show is great in terms of combining scientific content and entertainment/style.
One thing I’ve been pleasantly surprised by is the show’s willingness to tackle the dichotomy of science and religion. This is especially refreshing to a Baha’i who was taught from childhood that the two branches of human knowledge are complements rather than adversaries. Abdu’l-Baha once said:
Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.
In the very first episode of “Cosmos”, we’re introduced to a historical figure named Giordano Bruno (whom I had never heard of previously) who was viciously persecuted and ultimately burned at the stake by the Catholic authorities in the 16th century. His crime, apparently, was to insist that the Earth was not in fact the center of God’s creation, and that a limitless Creator must necessarily imply a limitless creation.* Bruno was not a rigorous scientist (Galileo, the show tells us, later proved with a telescope some of Bruno’s hunches), yet he was an astounding spiritual visionary.
After watching this I was compelled to think: Every person of faith should be a Bruno. For Bruno’s epiphany, as I understand it, was not that he had stumbled upon a new truth. It was quite the opposite: it was that he understood that the human being is but a speck of dust in God’s infinitely mysterious creation, and that God’s universe must range well beyond the outer limits of the solar system. Other words, to encapsulate God within the confines of human experience is to violate all of our previously held assumptions about the His nature.
For a religious person to claim he understands God is about as senseless as a physicist to claim he understands the origins of the Big Bang. After all, how can we understand something that originates outside of our physical universe (that is, what caused the Big Bang, or whether or not anything “caused” it in the first place)? As we are constrained by the boundaries of our own physical reality, we can begin to understand something so profound only by observing its imprints on the universe around us. Coincidentally, astrophysicists recently took a big step forward in proving the Big Bang recently, by finally detecting long-theorized gravitational waves.**
The Baha’i Writings tell us repeatedly that God is an “Unknowable Essence”, too large and overwhelming to be comprehended by His creation. It is not the first nor the last religion to preach this message. The ancient Baghavad Gita, for instance, recounts the story of Arjuna’s conversation with Krishna, the Incarnation of God in human form. In it, Arjuna begs Lord Krishna to reveal his true form. At last Lord Krishna accedes to this request, but for just a moment. The result is for Arjuna to beg Krishna to once again cover up this overwhelming vision:
O all-pervading Visnu, seeing You with Your many radiant colors touching the sky, Your gaping mouths, and Your great glowing eyes, my mind is perturbed by fear. I can no longer maintain my steadiness or equilibrium of mind. / O Lord of lords, O refuge of the worlds, please be gracious to me. I cannot keep my balance seeing thus Your blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth. In all directions I am bewildered.
Like I’ve written before when discussing addiction, humility is part of being a faithful person. But humility is about more than just admitting to ourselves that our powers and capabilities are limited (a powerful tool in defeating alcoholism and other vices). It is also about admitting the same about our capacity for knowledge. It’s about admitting that our puny minds can not comprehend something as vast as the universe in its entirety, let alone the Creator who dwells beyond the cosmic curtain.
As we were watching that “Cosmos” episode tell the story of Bruno’s rejection and eventual execution, my wife aptly remarked, “No wonder so many scientists don’t believe in God.” It’s true. To any scientific thinker, the idea of God as a white-bearded grandfather or a man with an elephant head is about as believable as a giant Flying Spaghetti Monster (which is a real thing, by the way). I hope more and more scientists come to realize that there are other ways to have faith, and that some of us approach the concept of belief with the same humility and wonderment with which they themselves approach science.
*I’m hardly an expert on this, but I realize the show may not have given the whole story on Bruno and why he was so heavily persecuted. For some discussion on this, see here.
**Science-y person reading this… please explain this in dummy’s terms for us.