"Genesis by Jonathan"
One Scientist's View of Spirituality

Lay Service for November 28, 1999
By Jonathan F. Ormes

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church


Good Morning. I tried to find a description of the Big Bang that I thought suitable for reading this morning, but failed. So I wrote my own. "Genesis by Jonathan" is my rendition of the modern scientific view of the Beginning of Everything. I tried to be faithful to the current thinking of cosmologists, but don't take the packaging too seriously. When a scientist "waves his or her hands", that person is speculating. Otherwise, you can assume what they say is based on quantitative calculations. Bear with me - I'm trying to cover 15 billion years in 5 minutes.

In the beginning there was a "Big Bang". Scientists waved their arms and said it was caused by a "vacuum fluctuation" (whatever that means). It was the Mother of all Explosions. The words "Big Bang" do not begin to describe it. It came from nowhere and of nothing. It happened everywhere and had enough energy to make everything. It had a temperature beyond imagination. This giant ball of energy immediately began to grow larger and cool down. The expansion and cooling had the exponential character of runaway inflation. Each microscopic increment of time led to a doubling of the distance between everything in this cooling fireball. This was the beginning. Seven scientists will describe what happened next.

The first scientist calculated that after a time so short it is indescribable to human experience, this fireball had cooled to a temperature where the energy began to turn into matter and the force of gravity appeared. The force of gravity was strong enough to slow the inflation and to make giant blobs of this massive explosion of energy start to build identity. Then the other forces emerged: the force that holds nuclei of atoms together, the force that makes nuclei radioactive, and finally the force responsible for electricity and magnetism. By now about 1 hundred billionth of a second had passed and we had the laws of force which govern the universe.

The second scientist said that the cooling allowed the forces to build the nuclei of hydrogen and helium. By now, the universe was 1 second old and left behind was the first evidence of the Big Bang.

The third scientist calculated that the continued expansion finally separated these nuclei so light could escape without hitting them. By now the pace of change had slowed and after 300,000 years there was light. We see this light today. It is the second piece of evidence for the Big Bang.

The fourth scientist showed the expansion finally slowed down to a barely detectable pace. Now most of space was empty and cold, cold enough for the hydrogen nuclei to condense and form giant balls of gas that started to burn. The stars burned the hydrogen and built the heavier elements like carbon, oxygen and iron - the building blocks of all things. By now 5 billion years had passed and there was the periodic table.

Then the fifth scientist proved the stars exploded, spewing the elements into the voids left behind. These elements disbursed into the cold space between the stars where they found each other to form water and primitive organic molecules. These elements and molecules coalesced into blobs around new stars that formed from the ruins and debris of the first stars. By now 10 billion years had passed and there were planets.

The sixth scientist waved her hands and said that the water and primitive organic molecules were subjected to lightening and radiation; an environment of the most unusual kind. The molecules collided with one another in an uncountable number of possible ways. Somewhere in this giant experiment of chance, a combination of molecules capable of self-replication formed. By now another few billion years had passed and there was life.

The seventh scientist was a physicist, incidentally not a resident of Kansas, who rested and exclaimed, "the rest is left to the biologists".


My first experience on this journey came when I was about 15 years old. I attended a high school on the prairie east of Colorado Springs, Colorado. The fall nights could be clear and the stars abundant. I went out one dark night, and looked toward the heavens for a "sign". I asked "God" to perform some kind of minor miracle for me so I could be convinced of his or her existence, just a little something to let me know he or she was out there. A shooting star might have done it. I would have considered hitting a nearby tree with lightning incontrovertible. Nothing. Either God didn't exist, didn't care or was playing a joke on me. I picked the first answer.

I realize now that I was thinking like an experimental scientist, treating the existence of God as an "experimental problem".

What else characterizes me as a scientist? A scientist is never certain. Even established scientific truth is always being reexamined and tested. For example, the idea of "belief" is an odd one to me. I never quite know how to answer the question "Do you believe in black holes?" To me it's not a yes or no question. At some level all scientific truth is "a working hypothesis". At one extreme we have laws, such as Newton's Law, in which confidence is very high - I might call this "belief". Laws make predictions reliable. We use them to design safe bridges. No one has much doubt that apples will fall towards Earth, but Einstein predicted, and experiments confirmed, that Newton's Law was slightly wrong near massive objects like the sun and black holes. For scientific work-in-progress the hypothesis might be a theory or a model needing validation by experiment or observation. The confidence in models can be quite low and there can be competing versions. The model may be useful only as a guide to further investigation. At the other extreme there may be "disbelief" or skepticism until the hypothesis is confirmed by experiment or observation. The most exciting times in the scientific community occur when a discovery comes along that shakes an established belief! This quality of dealing with doubt or uncertainty seems to me to be very "Unitarian-Universalist".

This talk is about the struggle between my hardheaded "prove it" scientist self and my spiritual side. I read somewhere that having a spiritual life was important to health and happiness, and who am I to turn down an offer like that?

Many years ago, I saw a TV program about some mice living in a cage. They had plenty of food and were healthy and energetic. The population grew and the mice became crowded. After a certain level of crowding, the mice started to become neurotic. They still had all the food they wanted. Nevertheless, they started to develop anti-social behaviors. The population continued to grow and eventually they came to killing one another. It was a kind of horrible experiment to see what might happen under extreme stress and crowding. I think of those mice whenever someone goes crazy with a gun or societies go crazy, as in Bosnia. I think of the continuing growth of the world's population and I worry that disaster in inevitable. It makes me feel helpless or hopeless. This depression is the dark side of my spirit.

But there is a whole other side of my spirit. I am in awe of the unbelievable creatures human beings are. Our potential seems unlimited. We have the ability to contemplate the complete history of the Universe in some detail. As my telling of "genesis" suggests, we presume to calculate what will happen under conditions unknown on earth in environments far beyond any we experience. Its amazing that we here on this small planet have figured out how to understand and predict what goes on at the limits of space and time.

If questions about our origins have become scientific, what is religion about? I have the view that it is about human beings and their quest for meaning: human relations-humans in community-and human psychology-human feelings and behavior. Think about the Gods invented by the Greeks. They were human-like with emotions. Their interactions reflected lessons about how to get along as humans.It is my opinion that humans have invented Gods and Goddesses, religion and other aspects of spirituality to help them deal with their feelings such as love, joy, pain and fear. These are primitive emotions with survival value; even animals have them. How better could the first humans have girded themselves for the hunt than by dispelling the fear of the tiger with the protection of a warrior God? But I don't imagine that the ancients left everything to the Gods. If it had been me, besides making the necessary invocations, I'd have taken care to sharpen my spear! I'll bet they did too.

What about the more modern God, the one true God? Is this God more believable? To me belief in any kind of a personal God with external objective reality is nonsense. I can't describe it any other way. But if the term "God" can be thought to be representational (for me Santa Claus is the personification or representation of the spirit of giving) then there are many things for God to represent. For example, God can represent the Spirit of Thanksgiving or the Spirit of Love. Religion provides a vehicle for the expression of these feelings. I often feel deeply moved by my experiences here at PBUUC.

Science and religion have often come into conflict. In Galileo's time they came into conflict over the relationship of the Sun and the Earth, and finally religion retreated. (The papacy did finally exonerate Galileo but it took 500 years!) Science and some religions are currently in conflict over the ideas of evolution. But whether the scientific view or the religious view prevails, the moral and inspirational aspects of "the miracle of life" remain unchanged.

Unitarian Universalists can disagree widely on the metaphysical aspects of religion and on the "existence" of God. Many prefer to avoid the question altogether by defining God differently. Most of us agree there are "good and evil" in the world.
Bad things do happen. When a loved one dies, other religionists may say "It's God's will" and receive comfort and solace from that externalization. Who among us would say that's a "bad thing" when it helps one to deal with a painful event such as the loss of a loved one? On the other hand, someone else might be furious at God for letting such a terrible thing happen. Would a compassionate God allow killer earthquakes and floods? Is this "proof" there must not be such a God? All this seems to turn on the meaning of the word existence. Off I go to the dictionary: "exist - to have actual or real being (so far so good; I like the word real) whether material or spiritual (oh dear, what now?)".

Then I realized that feelings like those of love and thanksgiving exist. Are they real? Ah-ha! There are quantifiable chemical changes to my body that I call feelings. Can I believe in God as shorthand for the spirit of love, or as representational of the feelings about the interconnectedness of life? Such a definition might keep my rational side happy.

Or perhaps I can define God as being within, stemming from something beyond conscious comprehension. God might represent the part of our humanity that is not from the center of rationality, the cerebral cortex of our brains. Maybe we have some unconscious sense of the power of our more primitive brains. Is this what we mean by "The spirit of life" - something about our internal life forces? This idea fits with there being an internal state we reach by spiritual practice such as meditation? Does it come from outside when we accept expressions of love from others? I'm comfortable with these ideas. Does the "Spirit of Life" come from the "collective unconscious"? Now I'm starting to have trouble, perhaps because I don't really know what it means. It invokes fears of mob mentality.

Religion is also about explaining or dealing with that which is beyond current understanding. I once was teaching a course in freshman physics and the subject was Newton's law of gravity. After class a student asked me "Where does Newton's law come from?" The realm of science pushes hard against our human capacity to understand our world. It is curious that scientific and religious questions often have a lot in common.

We can demonstrate using the known laws of physics that some questions are unanswerable by current science:

We can speculate and perhaps someday move the boundary between the testable and the speculative, but currently there is no known way to test any theory we might invent to answer these questions. So for now they remain religious questions.

The issue for this talk is not mine alone. Judging from the number of magazine articles and books on the subject, there is a great hunger out there. It seems many people are struggling with integrating the rational and the spiritual in their lives.

There are serious societal issues involved. The October10 Sunday New York Times carried an "above-the-fold" front-page article entitled "Science vs. the Bible: Debate Moves to the Cosmos" (by their lead science writer, James Glanz). I quote: "Nearly overlooked in the furor over the Kansas School board's vote in August to remove evolution from its education standards…the board deleted … a description of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins, the central organizing principle of modern astronomy and cosmology".

I find this pretty scary. The Big Bang is where most reputable scientists believe everything came from even as they quibble and fight over the details! Imagine not teaching kids that plants come from seeds. On the other hand, maybe I should celebrate that the Big Bang is becoming sufficiently quantifiable to be a threat - like the idea the Earth went around the sun in Galileo's time.

Scientists everywhere seem to be thinking about religion and spirituality. It's in the air and apparently there is money in it. Books abound. The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra is one you may have heard of. There is the series by Gary Zukov including The Dancing Wu Li Masters and his recent book The Seat of the Soul.

The writings I found most consistent with my own views are those of Richard Feynman. You can think of him as being in the tradition of Albert Einstein. He taught theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. Students know him for a set of lectures about physics that cover every aspect of the subject. The lectures are above the heads of the undergraduates for whom they were intended, but they are renowned among graduate students as being great for studying for comprehensive exams. Feynman became in demand as a speaker on a wide variety of topics after being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965. His daughter published these talks in a book entitled The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Feynman's talk "The Relation of Science and Religion" takes the approach to religion that one might expect of a scientist. He breaks it down into definable parts and tries to figure out what is going on. I can relate. Feynman describes three aspects of religion - the metaphysical, the ethical and the inspirational.

(I might have considered other aspects of inspiration to describe, but so be it.)

Feynman goes on to say that many people view these three aspects as interconnected. God defines right and wrong and provides us with the strength to follow her precepts. Without God, how can we motivate ourselves to behave ethically? He says "In my opinion, it is not possible for religion to find a set of metaphysical ideas which will be guaranteed not to get into conflict with an ever-advancing and always-changing science which is going into the unknown."

Feynman ends his essay by presenting a central problem - "the problem of maintaining the real value of religion as a source of strength, courage and inspiration while at the same time not requiring an absolute faith in the metaphysical aspects." He sees belief in God as a prerequisite for "doing the right thing".

Here is where I part with Feynman. I find in our UU principles an abundance of inspiration. I have seen the strength and courage of our ministers, both lay and professional. Witness the contributions of UUs to the civil rights movement in the 60s and 70s. Our members have plenty of strength and courage. Behold the unequivocal stand the members of this and other UU congregations have taken on the acceptance of gays, lesbians, transsexuals into our denomination. Notice my use of words like "witness" and "behold". For me these so-called "religious terms" apply!

One of our UU principles is "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning." The discovery of new truth or meaning is often a "religious experience". I pointed out earlier that being comfortable with uncertainty is second nature for scientists. UUs are scientists or "seekers of truth", too. Remember the UU bumper sticker from the '70s "Honk if you're not sure!"? This aspect of being a UU makes us different from many other religionists. Our religion is a value-centered religion. Our co-ministers speak of our first principle concerning the inherent worth and dignity of every human being as inspirational; I find it so. I'm proud to be reminded of it during the Welcome on Sunday. One strength of UUism is its ability to be inspirational without requiring that the metaphysical beliefs of its practitioners be identical or even known. I posit that they might not even matter except to the individual. A lot of evil has been done in the name of collective beliefs, especially of the us-against-them kind! UUism attempts to make our moral and ethical values intrinsically inspirational.

This is what I have come to see as the spiritual, it is the ethical and inspirational aspects of religion; our values; the aspects that transcend the rational - connections to feelings of love, thanksgiving and community with others.

So, for me, to be spiritual is to be inspired, psychologically and emotionally impacted. It is to be in awe of the beauty and wonder of the Natural World around me, of the excitement of discovery, of the ability of human beings to contemplate the furthest reaches of the Universe. To be spiritual is to have some sense of the profundity of our UU principles and to believe in their inherent "goodness". To be spiritual is to have integrity and behave ethically and properly according to our values. To be spiritual is to be interconnected to, interdependent with, and in community with, a like-minded set of wonderful people here at PBUUC.

These are my thoughts. I'd welcome yours.


Jan and Barbara wouldn't let me dress up as a mad scientist or a monk to give this talk, but I can not resist having a little fun, so I wrote a Zen poem:

If you ask me "Do you believe in God?",
I will answer "I believe in spirits that move us"
but if you ask me "What does God do?"
I will answer "I don't believe spirits move anything".

The closing is from "The High Tech Heretic" by Clifford Stoll. The author is anonymous. Stoll stole it off a bell in the clock tower at the University of Buffalo where he was hiding from the cops during a Vietnam war protest.

All truth is one.
In this light, may science and religion endeavor for the steady evolution of Humankind.
From darkness to light, From prejudice to tolerance,
From narrowness to broadmindedness.
It is the voice of life that calls you.
Come and learn.

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