"This Universe is a Weird Place"
By Rev. Dr. Orville James
Sunday, February 27, 2022
Reading: Luke 9:28-36
I want to start with a thought from one of the great research scientists in history. Louis Pasteur once said, “A bit of science distances one from God, but much science nears one to Him.”
Just let that sit for minute and let me tell you a story. I recently learned of a woman who had been in the hospital for ongoing cancer treatment, lying in bed thinking that she wasn’t going to make it. She remembers being lower than she’d ever been before, filled with despair, wondering if she was going to die soon, when the night-shift nurse entered her room and began to lovingly care for her. Throughout the night the nurse returned repeatedly, checking on her, calming her, reassuring her, and speaking to her in a way that lifted her entire being and gave her hope. In the morning she woke up feeling like a different person. She then asked the morning nurse for the name of the woman who had been caring for her, giving a detailed description. The nurse said that no one fitting that description worked on that floor of the hospital, not to mention the night before in this woman’s room.
What do you do with that story?
Some people hear a story about a mysterious nurse in the hospital and immediately say, “Yes, of course! That was an angel taking care of her! They’re all around us, watching over us, guiding and protecting us,” and then they proceed to quote verses from the Bible while telling their angel stories. Others hear people responding like this and roll their eyes, dismissing it all. They are quick to point out that no one has any proof of such things.
One says, “Of course she was an angel!”
The other says, equally emphatically, “Angels don’t exist!”
Rob Bell says, "We live in a very, very weird universe. One this is roughly 96 percent unknown."
He’s right of course – yet we’re learning and discovering… Recently they found seven new planets orbiting a small star; and they are the right distance from their sun, like Earth is from our sun, that they could conceivably have oxygen, water, life. So, why don’t we go check it out? The discovery, which has thrilled astronomers, and raised hopes that the hunt for life beyond the solar system could start much sooner than previously thought, with the next generation of telescopes that are due to switch on in the next decade. Of course, this quest has gone in both directions – toward the vastness of “out there” to stars and solar systems and galaxies; and the reverse – what is at the root of it all.
For thousands of years people have wondered what the universe is made of, assuming that there must be some kind of building block, a particle, a basic element, a cosmic Lego of sorts – something really small and stable that makes up everything we know to be everything.
That was the quest that compelled scientists and philosophers and thinkers for thousands of years until the late 1800s, when atoms were eventually discovered. It turns out they’re SMALL. About one million atoms lined up sid-by-side are as thick as a human hair.
But atoms, it was discovered are made up of even smaller parts called protons, neutrons, and electrons. The protons and neutrons are in the centre of the atom, called the nucleus, which is one-millionth of a billionth of the volume of the atom. Get your mind around this: If an atom were enlarged to the size of a stadium, the nucleus would be the size of a grain of rice, but it would weigh MORE than a real stadium (it’s so dense and heavy).
The discoveries continued as technology was developed to split those particles, which led to the discovery that those particles were actually made up of even smaller particles. And then technology was developed to split those particles and it was discovered that those particles are actually made up of even smaller particles. And then technology was developed to split THOSE particles… Down and down it went, smaller and smaller into the subatomic world…
New technology and research are constantly emerging, the most impressive being the 16-mile circular tunnel below Earth on the Swiss-French border where they are firing two beams at each other hoping that in the collision, particles that haven’t been observed will emerge.
Now, the staggeringly tiny size of atoms and subatomic particles is hard to get one’s mind around, but it’s what these particles DO that forces us to confront our most basic assumptions about the universe.
Many popular images of an atom lead us to think that it’s like a solar system, with the protons and neutrons in the centre like the sun and the electrons orbiting in a path around centre as a planet orbits the sun. But scientists have learned that this is not how things actually are. What they learned is that electrons don’t orbit the nucleus in a continuous and consistent manner; electrons exist in what are called “ghost states”. What they do is disappear in one place and then appear in another place without travelling the distance in between. Particles vanish and then show up somewhere else, leaping from one location to another with no way to predict when or where they will come or go. Particles are constantly in motion, exploring all the possible paths from point A to point B at the same time. Electrons are ... simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. They explore all possible routes they could take, until they are observed, at which point, all those possibilities collapse into the one they actually take.
So, what does that mean? What does that look like in real life? Have you ever stood on a sidewalk in front of a store window and seen your reflection in the glass? You can see the items in the display window, but you can also see yourself, as if in a fuzzy mirror. Some of the light particles from the sun (called photons) went through the glass, illuminating whatever is on display. BUT Some of the particles from the sun didn’t pass through the glass but essentially bounced off it, allowing you to see your reflection. Why did a certain particle go through the glass, and a certain other particle not? It can’t be predicted.
Have you seen those special pictures that have a dual image – depends on where you look from – your angle – will determine what you see… So, let me cycle back to the woman in the cancer ward and the mysterious nurse who cared for her in the night. Some say it was an angel – and some would decisively dismiss that out of hand, saying people and things don’t appear from nowhere. But the problem with that is, we now know they do… subatomic particles – we’ve learned actually DO disappear in one place and then in another place without traveling the distance in between. Strange things do happen, things with no precedent and no explanation, every single day and every single moment, billions, and billions of times a second, all around us. Light travels in a straight line, AND it bends and curves. Time in the universe is relative, depending on where you are and what speed you are travelling; the cosmos is curved, and moving, and expanding and interacting and if Earth were slightly closer to the sun, we’d all cook and if it were slightly farther away, we’d all freeze. So, to be closed-minded to anything that does not fit within our little predetermined categories is to deny our very real experiences of the world.
We’re here, this is real, subatomic particles travel all possible paths and then choose one when observed, and there is no precedent or predicting such a thing. This is not to avoid important things like evidence and proof and logic; this is the tacit acknowledgement that some events, experiences, and truths simply exist outside of our particular verifiable categories. So, to believe that there’s more going on here, that there may be reality beyond what we can observe, or comprehend – that’s being open, and that’s being wise.
You remember the whimsical way the Irish acknowledge this truth – they talk about “the thin places”. What they mean is, there IS this world that we can see clearly, and touch and experience. But maybe there’s another world, unseen, but very real – and sure, but isn’t there a veil, a curtain, between us and it, and every once in a while we catch a glimpse of the other side – the curtain is drawn back, the veil is thin enough to see through, for a brief moment… Something happens – a loved one passes – but then there comes a moment of comforting clarity – and we see… we glimpse her spirit on the other side…
So, I picture those disciples trudging up the mountain with Jesus, maybe going up there thinking that they were climbing up the mountain to get a better view of the world. People sometimes use mountains for that. In a sense, that’s just what happened, but not in the way that the disciples had expected. There they are, walking alongside Jesus who, from all appearances, looked much like them, obviously human, a fellow Jew, gifted teacher perhaps. Then there on the mountain he is transfigured before them. They catch a glimpse, a vision. There is Moses, and Elijah, the great leaders from centuries past, standing talking with Jesus.
And they hear a voice. For one moment the routine expectations of mundane, ordinary, everyday appearances are peeled back and they see Jesus as the long-promised Saviour, the Christ, the one sent from God. When they walk back down that mountain, their worldview is changed; they walk back into a very different universe, a reality now considerably expanded. They’ve seen something more, beyond the pale, behind the veil. They saw the true reality that was hidden, undiscovered by the rest of the world. A wee glimpse.
I’m wondering, here in the 21st Century, if our infatuation with observable facts and data, and empirical proof, as necessary and helpful as they can be (to a point), has caused our vision to actually shrink rather than expand? As a minister, listening to you, listening to myself, I believe that there is more happening – in you, in me, than science and technology has ever, or will ever, be able to grasp and quantify.
We long for more. In our better moments we know that there is more going on in the world, more going on in us, than clinical research can identify or document. Remember Louis Pasteur, the scientist who discovered and developed vaccines for rabies, for cholera, and ‘pasteurized’ our milk? He said, a little science distances us from God BUT much science draws us nearer to God. Pasteur was French, but doesn’t he almost sound Irish when he said, "I am on the edge of mysteries, and the veil which covers them is getting thinner and thinner."
Maybe that’s why you are here on a Sunday morning. Maybe one of the most helpful things about church is that it is one place that we have the courage to explore that mystery, to venture forth into that too little discussed territory called the supernatural, called divine, called the holy, called God.
The minister noticed her at church over several weeks. She hadn’t been for a while. So, he asked her, “What has brought you here, after so long an absence?”
“A feeling,” she said. “A feeling of being drawn toward something, someone, a feeling of which I wasn’t really clear about until last Sunday.”
“Last Sunday?” he asked.
“Last Sunday, toward the end of the service, we were all standing, as usual, and as usual the choir was singing, ‘The Peace of God be with You’ and I got taken up.”
“Yes, like taken away. Like I lost consciousness or maybe gained a new consciousness. It was as if I were alone, standing in the church. Just me, bathed in this soft, warm, wonderful light. When I came to, the choir was finishing their singing, and I was genuinely surprised to see people standing there with me, in church. I had to sit down to regain my composure. And I smiled because I knew. I believed. YES. I believe!” Amen.