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January 30, 2011: “Infinity and More”

I’m not sure we have time for this sermon on infinity and more; I might just go and on and on about it! When one discusses infinity, where do we draw the line? And if we get into a discussion on the time and space continuum, who will tell us when our time is up? Or when we are out of space? Is eternity the same thing as infinity?

        Indeed, I am tempted to turn to that wonderful book, Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, made into a strange movie a few years ago that I highly recommend, because the author Douglas Adams is a comedian, not 

a physicist. His characters ask a computer to provide the ultimate answer to “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” What’s the meaning of life? Why is there life? etc. The great physicist Stephen Hawking, and his coauthor, Leonard Mlodinow, point out in their book “The Grand Design,” the computer’s response — 42 — was less than helpful. But think about for that a minute, Hawking, too, actually refers to Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy!

        In Hawking's 1988 best-seller, A Brief  History of Time, he begins with this great story: 'A well known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun, and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said, 'What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.' The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, 'What is the tortoise standing on?' 'You're very clever, young man, very clever,' said the old lady, 'But it's turtles all the way down!'

        I don't know if he realizes it, but that symbolism is from an ancient creation story, one of countless cultural/mythological/religious attempts to answer the question of how it and we all began. One could argue that science is just the latest myth to try to answer the great mystery of existence, time, and ultimately, meaning.  Do we need a god a God for creation? Not according to many scientists including Hawking, though Einstein 

claimed God did not play dice, though thought of God as mystery

In a famous lecture, ‘Does God Play Dice?’ Hawking writes,
        'Gradually however, people must have noticed certain regularities in the behavior of nature. These regularities were most obvious, in the motion of the heavenly bodies across the sky. So astronomy was the first science to be developed. It was put on a firm mathematical basis by Newton, more than 300 years ago, and we still use his theory of gravity to predict the motion of almost all celestial bodies.  Following the example of astronomy, it was found that other natural phenomena also obeyed definite scientific laws. This led to the idea of scientific determinism, which seems first to have been publicly expressed by the French scientist, Laplace. I thought I would like to quote you Laplace's actual words, so I asked a friend to track them down. They are in French of course, not that I expect that would be any problem with this audience. But the trouble is, Laplace was rather like Prewst, in that he wrote sentences of inordinate length and complexity. So I have decided to para-phrase the quotation. In effect what he said was, that if at one time, we knew the positions and speeds of all the particles in the universe, then we could calculate their behavior at any other time, in the past or future. There is a probably apocryphal story, that when Laplace was asked by Napoleon, how God fitted into this system, he replied, 'Sire, I have not needed that hypothesis.' I don't think that Laplace was claiming that God didn't exist. It is just that He doesn't intervene, to break the laws of Science. That must be the position of every scientist. A scientific law, is not a scientific law, if it only holds when some supernatural being, decides to let things run, and not intervene. ..Not only does God definitely play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can't be seen.'

        Remember, however, that that word, God, is not so simply defined; indeed, one could argue that there may be God within quantum physics, since no one fully understands that either!  It all depends on one's definitions and even limitations. I would argue that because billions of people even today find meaning in the, or some, concept of God, that God is brought into existence by us!

        Indeed, ancient religious scriptures from many sources speak of the mystery and the infinite existence, the eternal now, or the eternal ONE. Those Scriptures from many religions, from the Western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the most ancient religion of Hinduism, seem to have a sense of connection with one another, as do all religions. The Genesis creation story that most of are familiar with is one of those examples which can be read, understood, and interpreted on many different levels and always has been!  It is only one interpretation, the very literal, that is threatened by science, and that is the minority interpretation!

        Much of this comes down to our interpretation of reality, and trying to understand quantum physics and some of the theories of science may be as difficult as trying to understand the theory of God, or various religion's sense of the sacred or holy. The old story that says 'God created the universe,' begs the question, who or what created God? Or, to put it another way, how did God 'exist' before there was a creation?  When did God create the universe, and then what existed before creation? Turtles all the way down? So we can also ask what existed before the Big Bang? Is there a difference in this question?

        When the ancient scriptures tell us that God is eternal, without beginning and without end,  how can our finite minds grasp the idea of the infinite? Aristotle didn't believe in a creation, but like many thinkers that existence always was; in other words, we can't conceive of a beginning because there WAS NO BEGINNING!  But it all depends on one's concept of time.

        What Hawking says is that 'the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe. This was first pointed out by St. Augustine. When asked: what did God do before he created the universe? Augustine didn't reply; He was  preparing Hell for people who ask such questions. Instead he said that time was a property of the universe that God created and that time did not exist before the beginning of the universe.' It seems to me that Hawking comes up with a remarkably similar conclusion, but puts it in scientific language, which you'll have to admit, sounds a lot better. 'In order to talk about the nature of the universe and to discuss questions such as whether it has beginning, you have to be clear about scientific theory. I shall the simple minded view that a theory is just a model of the universe, of a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations we make.  It exists only in our minds and does not have any reality, whatever that might mean.)' from 'A Brief History of Time.'

        What I want to suggest is that religion and science here have remarkable similar ideas with science finally catching up with the wisdom of ancient scripture!  Quantum physics starts to sound like eastern thought, especially Taoism, and there are some great books by both theologians and scientists that talk about it. I'm thinking especially of the book, The Tao of Physics, by physicist Frizjof Capra.

        Hawking's latest book, The Grand Design, written with Leonard Mlodinow, I gather from reading various reviews and Google sources, is about the way theories about quantum mechanics and relativity came together to shape how we understand  how our universe (and possibly others) was created out of nothing.  They explain the something called "M-theories," which are 11 dimensional theories (which is a few dimensions beyond my understanding) that predict that not just one universe (the one we live in) but a huge number of universes. Not only is Earth is just one of several planets in our solar system and the Milky Way one of billions of galaxies, but our known universe itself is just one among uncounted billions of universes.

        'M-theory is not a theory in the usual sense,' the authors write. 'It is a whole family of different theories.....,' ours is not the only universe... Instead M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing...

        ...Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.'

        Much of this is mind-boggling and has not convinced me that something can be created out of nothing, whether it is quantum physics, the Theory of Everything, now called M-theory, or the book of Genesis where it is a creator God, it does not, if you'll pardon the pun, compute for me.

        Ancient scriptures, especially those from India and the far East, have talked about infinity long before quantum physics, and there have been a number of similar philosophies that speak of parallel universes, fate versus free will, or the possibility that there may be some kind of force that makes a difference in what happens being random occurrence, shaped by some force, or a repeat of something over and over until we get it right! Not only is there a theory of reincarnation but also something called eternal recurrence or return which 'posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time and or infinite space.' Time is understood as being not linear but cyclical.

‘In the new version of the TV Series, ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ one critic writes, ‘the polytheistic religion of the humans of the Twelve Colonies is centered on the belief of eternal recurrence, and the religious elements of the show frequently incorporate this idea with the scriptural phrase “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.” The monotheistic Cylons also adhere to this doctrine and repeat the phrase as often as the humans.

 * The first line of Disney's Peter Pan is "All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again." This line has been cited as the inspiration behind the same theme in Battlestar Galactica.

 * Woody Allen, in 'Hannah and Her Sisters,' considers the theory of eternal recurrence. 'Great', says Woody, 'that means I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again."

        Religions have long posited ideas like this, usually because there was thought to be some way to influence our lives, and ideas like eternal return, reincarnation, the wheel of life, even eternal life are various ways of trying to understand time and meaning.

        In an article, 'Is Time Finite or Infinite' Time Before the Big Bang?' by Roger Costello, the contemporary philosopher ,Mortimer J. Adler, is quoted as saying 'An examination of the most carefully written scientific treatments of the astronomical evidence, and of the cosmological theory which appears to fit the evidence, will discover that the big bang theory does not posit an absolute beginning of the cosmos 'a coming into existence out of nothing' but only an initial event in the development of the cosmos as we now know it, an event that occurred at a time that is estimated as between fifteen and twenty billion years ago.

        Our present techniques of observation and measurement, and the technical facilities they employ, do not permit us to penetrate the past beyond the time, some fifteen to twenty billion years ago, when the big bang occurred.

        What is being said here is not that past time is limited (finite rather than infinite), but only that our knowledge of past time is limited 'limited to a time beyond which our observations and measurements cannot go. Time may extend back infinitely beyond that initial explosion of matter, out of which the present shape of the cosmos has developed, but unless some radical alteration in our techniques and instruments of observation and measurements occurs, we will never be able to penetrate the veil that hides the infinite past from us.'

        Humanity has created religions throughout history and gives no inclination that it will not continue to do so for as along as there are questions of meaning, time, life and death. Where were we before we were born? And where do we go when we die?  And in between, does anything that we do, believe, or say, have any relation to what happens after we die? All kinds of metaphysics, that is, the idea that there may be something beyond what we can physically or mentally understand, have proposed different universes, god, goddesses, guides, or ancient knowledge or secrets like the ancient alchemists who wanted to turn basic metals into Gold!

        I define myself theologically as a mystical, spiritual, humanist; it is not that I don't believe in a supreme or supernatural being named Mr. God, but that I can't conceive of it or metaphysics. All I can know is within my human brain, I experience feelings like love or even something called religious spirituality, but I think that it is all psychological, all within the human experience, hence humanism. I am comfortable with the mystery, like one scientist who said time is a mystery at both ends, in other words, we cannot conceive of a beginning or end of time, or of an infinity where time has no beginning and no end, and the Big Bang as beginning doesn't satisfy me, either.

        Notice that I'm not saying that none of this is true or false, but that it is relative to each of us, our experiences, and our beliefs. I am neither an atheist nor a theist, but more properly, agnostic, which means we can't or don't know about, say the existence of a supreme being named God, for instance.

        Yet I say I felt 'called' to ministry, I just didn't get the name. I believe we measure ideas like truth or feelings like love with our own experience related to our senses as well as the culture in which we grow up and find our meaning.

        What happen to us when we say we 'fall asleep'? Are our dreams simply Freudian nightmares or messages from the gods? What is it that actually makes us alive? What is that spark that breathes us whether we are conscious or unconscious? How do we know to breathe when we are asleep? Is there a soul or life force within us?  How are we related to our families? We know something about genetics, but what is it that we really inherit from our ancestors? Is it a kind of reincarnation? Does evolution go on forever? And those two mysteries, where we before we were born and after we die, I think are related to our concepts of time and meaning.

        I believe that there must be some kind of connection that we experience with all life, some kind of what we call consciousness, or what I like to call the divine spark within. Everlasting life, as the Bible says, may be interpreted as the connection that our sparks might have if we can become fully aware, maybe even enlightened, perhaps even in the genes somehow that some of us pass on biologically and some psychologically. Maybe religion is one attempt to explore that consciousness of connection that we have felt as humans since civilization began 5 or 6 or maybe even thousand years ago. The earliest cave paintings seem to indicate that there may be an inherent religious impulse, though not necessarily for everyone. As we've seen, for some science is their religion! And, of course, there's the none to slight differences between the religions according to some that are powerful enough to kill or die for.

        Ancient scriptures and religions all have potential for great meaning and purpose with an endless interpretation that has made sense to billions of people all over the world throughout history right up until this very moment. So we gather together to form a religious relationship of search and yea, of finding- comfort, inspiration, love, dedication to various issues of social justice, perhaps even God. At least one of the meanings of life is to search for meaning and perhaps learn how to cocreate it with others in relationships. For me 

the meaning is in the journey and the search, and we use language, symbols and ritual, to try to express how we experience life and love as well as with whom we express it. The meaning is interdependence and connection with one another around the whole world, working for peace, economic justice, environmental harmony, and universal kinship. We don’t have forever! Let us live now as if time were running out and we only had a measured number of days on earth, making each day the most important day of our lives. Let us live, knowing, feeling, that we are connected to the universe, made of the stuff of stars and seas, of the eternal verities of nature, now and forever.

May it be so.