science + poetry + God

The universe is a miracle, and we’re all part of it. 13.7 billion years of stardust expanding and exploding and evolving, and we’re still born of the same stuff that God breathed into motion before everything. Saturn’s icy rings and the red dust covering Mars, the galaxies burning with stars we’ll never see; all of it is made of the stuff that has always been and will always be. The miracle of that, among other things, is that the raw materials that make up you and me may once have orbited Neptune or floated atop the Dead Sea or lay trapped in the dreadlocks of a Rastafarian. To say we’re all connected would be to say that outer space is kind of big. It’s more true than we can comprehend.

Before we had the technology to look past our sky and see into the vast expanse of space, God was believed to be someone up in the heavens who could reach into our world and intervene every now and again, providing rain and sunlight and the occasional miraculous sign. Our world happened right here, God happened up there. When things die we bury them in the ground, so the ancient poets and storytellers wrote about evil coming from down there. The idea was that there were 3 spatial levels to the universe- up there, right here, and down there- where God lived, we lived, and evil lived, respectively. When you read ancient stories, this way of seeing the world frames and is the basis for everything humanity understood about God for a really long time. They weren’t able to look into space and see the lack of Heavenly mansions, or probe deeply into the center of the earth and see a lack of eternal torment. They used the understanding they had at the time to talk about and try to understand God. It was all they had to work with. It wasn’t wrong, they just didn’t have telescopes yet.

Now, we do. We have a better understanding of how the universe came to be (Which is still largely a mystery, but we’ve got some solid Theories), we figured out that the Earth isn’t the center of it- nor is it flat- and we’ve sent people into space to see what kinds of things we can find. Science has given us incredible insight into how we got here, and it seems to suggest pretty strongly that it didn’t happen quite the way our ancient poets thought it did. Perhaps, though, the ancient poets and storytellers weren’t attempting to write a thorough scientific record of the history of the universe, but were doing what poets and storytellers do best- dress our most profound mysteries in language and words, so they could speak about the things at which we marvel.

I have always assigned a literal understanding to matters of God, but I’m learning more and more that God will not be contained in my literal understanding of anything. Because, you see, when we talk about God we’re doing what the storytellers did- wrapping up the infinite mysteries of the universe in words. When it comes to words, sometimes you need a scientist and sometimes you need a poet. When I hear Neil Degrasse Tyson lecture about the origins of the universe and the process by which stardust became the human race, that doesn’t minimize or explain away my concept of God- It tells me that I haven’t even begun to understand God and the miracle of life will not be contained to 6 literal days as I know them. When I consider that something like 96% of the knowable universe is dark matter and if you could compress all of the mass of human life down to its tangible parts all of humanity fit into a sugar cube, that tells me that I have not even begun to fathom how tremendous God is. It tells me that God cannot possibly be the meddling mansion curator we sometimes think God is, reaching down into Earth to provide convenient parking spaces or manifest sports cars to the faithful. God is the energy, the electricity, the very Source from which all life flows. God is not in the business of manifesting parking spaces when there is genocide happening in Syria. I reject that limited, nauseating, entitled, narrow idea of God.

He will not be contained by our words, but we do need words. When the Psalmist wrote:

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens,you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”
He wasn’t speaking literally, of course. He wasn’t suggesting that he would dig into the center of the earth and bury himself there to escape God. He wasn’t suggesting that the sunrise had literal wings on which he could sit, or even that God had literal hands with which to hold him. But those words hum with a truth that is exponentially deeper than any historical or scientific facts, don’t they? They resonate with a reverence and awe and abiding trust that the writer believes, somehow, God is with him. We can discuss the science of the oceans, the sunrise, or the center of the earth and grasp the facts. But the poetry… that is what brings me to my knees. I can understand intellectually that God is not a physical being with physical hands. But when I read poetry, when I read the stories of thousands of years of humanity working out how to think of God, when I meditate, I feel something that science and language cannot contain. I feel the hand of God.

We need the artists. This summer, I stood next to a sculpture by Rodin. It was a sculpture of Eve in the Garden of Eden. I am a person who does not believe there was a literal woman named Eve or a literal Garden of Eden, but when I looked at that sculpture I wept. I know what it means to feel ashamed, to be consumed by guilt, to want to run and hide. I know what it feels like to feel naked and vulnerable and unsafe. So, when I saw that sculpture of Eve it didn’t matter that science tells me she probably never walked around a garden and got tricked by a snake. The story of Eve and her shame is more true than literally true, because it speaks to a universal human experience. It tells the story of arrogance and loss and guilt and rejection and fear and shame. What human hasn’t felt those things?

The stories we tell and the poems we write and the art we create about God remind us that we’re connected to each other and we’ve all been trying to work this God business out for as long as we’ve walked the earth. We do a disservice to the artist, the poet, the storyteller when we force their art to be science. We do a disservice to science when we force it to be poetry. We do a disservice to ourselves when we force God to fit in any of those boxes, exclusively. It takes all of it.

The universe is a miracle and we’re all part of it. 13.7 billion light years of expansion and explosion and evolution and God always drawing us out of darkness and into Light. I believe God still breathes life into the world. We may be small, but we have great love to give because the breath of God- a God who loves and is Love- fills our lungs and drives our hearts to beat. Jane Fonda said once that there is a hum in all of us for reverence, for God. I believe that hum is a steady bass line of Divinity, drawing us closer to one another and deeper into God. It will not- God will not- be contained.

 

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