As a Christmas gift, one of the members of the Church gave me a beautiful little book called 8 Master Lessons of Nature: What nature teaches us about living well in the world.
In chapter 1 of the book, he suggests that if you want to learn to live well in the world, you will need to learn the lesson of mystery. Gary Ferguson the author gives a number of quite inspiring examples.
For example, scientists have discovered that Spiders can fly by using electrical charges in the atmosphere? Standing on their hind legs, they cast silk into the air. The silk is negatively charged and repels similar negative charges in the atmosphere sending the spiders ballooning into the air. Just amazing when you think about it.
Secondly, Gary Ferguson writes that contrary to the way we feel, our bodies are in fact not very solid at all. With the advent of quantum physics from about the time of Einstein, scientists have discovered that 99.999999% of our bodies are comprised of empty space. The way they know this is because our bodies are made up of atoms, and as scientists have looked at these atoms more and more closely with more and more powerful microscopes, they have seen that atoms are made up of 99.999999% space made up of electrons spinning madly around a nucleus creating the illusion of something solid, in much the same way that the spinning propeller of an airplane creates the impression of solidity, but when the propeller is still, you discover that it is actually mostly just space. Getting back to your body, scientists will tell you that if you got rid of all this space, then the actual mass of your body – your ‘substance’- would be so small you couldn't even be able to see it. In fact if you took away all the space in all the bodies of every human being on the planet, the mass that would remain would be about the size of a sugar cube.
What is perhaps even more amazing is the fact that quantum physicists will tell you that as you walk down the street today, you wont actually be making contact with the ground at all. Rather, the magnetic force of the electrons in your shoes will be pushing away the electrons in the pavement, which means that at a supremely close-up level, you really aren't walking through life with your feet on the ground at all. You’re floating.
Discoveries like this among scientists have increasingly caused scientists to use the language of wonder, amazement and awe, as well as to speak using the language of mystery.
Albert Einstein was a big advocate for mystery. He is said to have told his students that if they had a choice between gaining knowledge and maintaining a relationship with mystery, they should choose mystery and that people who didn't maintain an ongoing sense of mystery living in this world were, if not dead, then at least blind. For Albert Einstein, mystery awe and wonder belonged together with science.
Carl Sagan claimed that science wasn't only compatible with mystery, but was a profound source of it. The mystery that’s revealed he said, when we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life is in fact spiritual.
According to Gary Ferguson, Jane Goodall, one of the worlds leading primatologist and anthropologists. remains unwilling to explain life through truth and science alone. He quotes her as saying: “There is so much mystery. There is so much awe.”
Isn't it interesting how new scientific breakthrough’s have led scientists to use words like wonder, awe, mystery and amazement. This is traditionally seen as the language and the domain of religion. Religion at its best is meant to open our hearts with wonder, awe and amazement. Clearly, many of our scriptures show that they are the product of people who have experienced a sense of wonder, awe and amazement at the mystery of the world around them:
Psalm 104:24-25 How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small.
Psalm 95:4-5 In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.
Our passage from Exodus 3 also helps to communicate the sense of Mystery as Moses encounters the Presence of God in the burning bush. This sense of Mystery is communicated firstly in the imagery of the bush that is on fire but which does not burn up. Secondly the sense of Mystery is communicated through the name of God. When Moses asks God, “Who shall I say sent me?”, God replies with the Hebrew words “Eyeh Asher Eyeh”. It is a phrase that Hebrew scholars find difficult to translate. It could mean a number of things: “I am that I am”, “I will be who I will be”, “I cause to be what I cause to be” or “I will be with you, as I am I will be with you”. Christine Hayes from Yale University says “We really dont know what it means, but it has something to do with ‘Being’”.
God is the Mystery of Being, or the Mystery of Existence itself. When Moses encounters this Divine Presence in the burning bush, this ordinary bush becomes alive with a new sense of Being-ness and Existence. Through nature, this ordinary bush, Moses perceives a deeper Transcendent Reality.
Many of our own hymns also express this same sense of mystery, awe and wonder:
“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the works Thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder… then sings my soul, my saviour God to Thee, How great Thou art, How great Thou art.”
It could be said that the religious impulse in human beings is deeply connected with the sense of being lost in wonder, love and praise at the mystery of life and the world.
And so we are left with an interesting question: Are science and religion really at odds with one another…?
From the time of Copernicus, who first posited the theory that the earth revolves around the sun, there has been a sense of opposition between science and religion. In modern times, over the past 120 years or so, it has had a particular focus around Darwin’s theory of evolution with some arguing that the theory of evolution somehow undermines faith in God and faith in the Bible.
But from very early on, for many Christian theologians, this so-called dilemma was not seen to be a dilemma at all, but rather a mis-perception. Science and Religion need not be seen as opposed to one another.
Over the past few weeks I have been working my way through a file of newspaper cuttings, that Ernie Martin had collected in the Manse when Rev. Peaston died. Many of them were in act articles written by Rev. Peaston. In an article written for children in the Banbridge Chronicle 1969, he addresses the question of the apparent conflict between faith and science. It is an article on the Bible. In the article he reminds the readers that science and faith ask two different questions:
Science asks the question “how?” Faith asks the question “why?”. Science is looking for the facts behind creation – the ‘how’ of creation. Faith is looking for answers to the question of meaning – the ‘why’ of creation. The Bible is therefore not a book to go to if you want scientific answers about how creation came about. Science is much better equipped to gives us information on the how creation works and the facts of creation. But it is not equipped to answer the questions of why? Why are we here? What is the meaning of our existence here on earth? Rev. Peaston says that those are the questions that religion and philosophy are meant to answer.
Only if you read Genesis chapters 1-3 as if they were scientific and historical explanations for creation do you find yourself in conflict with science. If you view them as sacred parables and poetry, seeking to understand the meaning of our existence, then the conflict between science and religion becomes a false conflict. Its a little bit like saying that science and poetry are incompatible. Such a comparison doesn't actually make sense. Science fulfills one function. Poetry fulfills another function in life. For me, all of our religious language is much more like poetry. It is seeking to express something of the inexpressible meaning and purpose of creation, not trying to explain the facts and the how of creation.
And so for myself, and clearly for someone like Rev. Peaston, I would say that there is nothing inherent about evolution that would suggest that it is not compatible with an overarching and underlying guiding wisdom and intelligence. There is an intelligence embedded into the very fabric of life that enables evolution to take place. From mys perspective, that embedded intelligence and wisdom is the intelligence and wisdom of God.
Getting back to the beginning of the sermon, and Gary Ferguson’s book 8 Master Lessons of nature, the first lesson that Gary Ferguson says we can learn from nature is the lesson of Mystery. Nature invites us to get in touch with mystery. When we look at life through a microscope and when we look at life through a telescope, nature invites us into a world of mystery, awe and wonder. And in that sense, the mystery of nature invites us I believe also into a life of faith and trust that we are part of a world sustained by a much bigger wisdom and intelligence, which we as Christians would refer to by the word God. I believe that the more we are struck by the great mystery of life and creation, the more, like Moses, we will begin to see that every moment of every day we are walking on sacred ground. There are burning bushes of God’s Presence all around us that invite us constantly to take off our shoes because we are standing on holy ground. And the more we come to see the Burning Bushes all around us, the more and more we will want to care for and protect all that God has made.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and although it is not traditional for Presbyterians to observe Lent, I know that there are some in this congregation, going back to the time of Rev. Peaston who do observe Lent. But today, in light of the great ecological crisis that we are living in, I would like to invite all of us to consider giving up a single use plastic for 40 days. And in doing so, to metaphorically take off our shoes as we recognise that as we stand in the midst of this world that God has made, we stand on sacred, holy ground, as we respond by seeking to honour and care for the mystery of God’s creation.