VIEW VIDEO The interesting thing about living in the same town you grew up in is the almost daily reminders not only of your best moments, but also your worst. Every street, sometimes every house, is a picture album, eliciting a memory, good or bad. In between our house and town, just north of the courthouse, is an old house dating from the mid-1800s. There was a boy who lived there when I was a kid who was a bit of an odd duck, one of those kids who believed the most absurd things. He’d say things like, “One day, we’ll just carry phones with us. They’ll fit right in our pockets.”
He’d say something like that, and the other kids would laugh at him, throw rocks at him, and call him a weirdo, but that never seemed to faze him. He just went around in a constant state of fascination, and saying Wow! every five minutes. I remember one time, during recess, he was telling us there was intelligent life on other planets, that we weren’t alone in the universe, and one of the kids whose father was a minister told him he was crazy, that if there were other people somewhere else it would say so in the Bible, then told him he was going to hell. That kid ended up in prison, and the weird boy went to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, became an engineer, moved to California, met a wonderful woman, and has a lovely family. There’s no better revenge than being happy, is there? But boy, there for a while we thought that kid was weirder than a checkered dog.
Of course, we now realize he was right about everything–the phones, intelligent life on other planets. NASA predicts there are a minimum of 100 billion planets in our Milky Way Galaxy, and we know from the Hubble telescope that there are at least 100 billion galaxies in our universe, so the notion that we are alone is not only antiquated, but absurd. Our universe is teeming, brimming, overflowing with life, in numbers so vast we can’t comprehend them. And we thought he was weird.
We’ve been reflecting on the theme; You Might Be a Humanist If…” so this morning I want to mention the three basic assertions of humanism. The first assertion is that knowledge and wisdom are best obtained by studying the observable world using the scientific method as opposed to words from a god whose existence we cannot indisputably prove and whose actions we cannot reliably predict, 2) that humans arose through evolution, are self-aware, possessing the ability to discern right from wrong, and 3) that our moral principles are not determined by divine commandments, but by examining the results that our actions yield in the lives of real men and women. Simply put, if our actions result in happiness and well-being for ourselves and others, they are moral. If not, they are immoral.
I spoke about the first assertion last Sunday and am grateful to those of you who’ve returned to think more deeply about the second assertion, that humans, indeed the universe itself, arose through evolution.
We did not arrive on Earth with a snap of God’s finger, unless that snap lasted 13.7 billion years. Our evolution as humans required unfathomable, innumerable steps from the earliest microbes to our present-day form. Indeed, we are still evolving, to better survive our ever-changing universe. I was discussing this very thing with a man in our town who told me evolution was evil. He quoted the 139th Psalm about humans being fearfully and wonderfully made, which he thinks implies the creation of humanity was an instantaneous event. He finds such an idea awe-inspiring, that God could, in an instant, weave together the cells that comprise the human form. But how is it any less awe-inspiring to acknowledge that we began as one-celled microbes, probably discharged from a heated vent on the ocean’s floor, to complex beings capable of self-awareness, possessing the ability to discern right from wrong, all while living in a universe whose stars and planets defy calculation. How does that not fill us with awe?
This summer, John Essex, Fairfield’s own Gadget Man, purchased a combination smart telescope and camera. Recently, while viewing the night skies from a cemetery near Jamestown, he photographed a red smear of light, identified as NGC 3972, a galaxy 66 million light years away, receding from us at a speed of almost 2 million miles-per-hour. John notes that red smear of light he saw that night began traveling toward us when the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops ruled the Earth, and North America was a massive inland sea, whose receding waters would eventually form the Grand Canyon.
In John’s words (John Essex, not John the gospel writer), this is both “wonderful and humbling.” In those two words, John named the proper orientation to life. Wonderful and humbling. Wonderful. Wonder full. Full of wonder. It means to go through life in awe, with a reverential respect for the universe we inhabit and those who inhabit it with us. It has taken us billions of years to reach our current state, with trillions of infinitesimal steps, from which any deviation could have taken us in a whole other direction. Chimpanzees share 99% of our DNA. That we developed into a whole other species 6.5 million years ago should fill us with wonder. In fact, to experience this life and not be daily filled with amazement and wonder is to be like a petulant child who, rather than being grateful for all he has been given, grumbles because of the one thing he did not get. Do you live life with amazement and wonder?
The grandness of the universe, the marvel of creation, should not just fill us with wonder, it should humble us. We live in a universe where the stars in the sky outnumber the grains of sand on every beach on Earth. But think how often we inflate our own significance, how often we lack any kind of existential modesty. Perhaps the greatest sin of the medieval Church was its self-absorbed insistence that the Earth was the center of the universe, and the Church was the center of the Earth, the sole repository of Truth and Reality.
When I was a kid and would act selfishly, with little regard for others, my mother would say to me, “Who do you think you are?” I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a Quaker query, of sorts, an invitation for me to think carefully about not only my place and role in the world, but my attitude toward the world. It was an encouragement to look at life with a measure of perspective, to not inflate either my importance, or the significance of my problems. It was my mother’s way of reminding me that while I was important to her, I was nevertheless one among billions, and never to forget that, a reminder that my problems, while of critical importance to me, had to be interpreted in light of the reality of a vast universe. Or as the Robert Fulghum said, I had to be aware that “a lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in a breast are not the same lump.”
Friends, we are the product of trillions of changes over billions of years, living in a world of wonder, in a universe at once telescopic and microscopic. This is cause for both awe and modesty. We are fearfully and wonderfully evolved. But so is everyone else. When that boy from my childhood would tell us we were not alone, we would laugh and mock him, not realizing the truth of his words—that the world is so vast and our knowledge so small. It was the German mystic, Meister Eckhart, who famously said, “If the only prayer you ever said was thank you, that would be sufficient.” But this week I have learned an even shorter prayer. Wow! Wow! Wow!