(and Cosmos: Possible Worlds)
This summer I’ve been preaching to you on my summer reading. I picked four sciencey books and this week I’m preaching on the last one: “Cosmos: Possible Worlds” by Ann Druyan.
Druyan is the widow and writing partner to the world-famous astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan and Druyan were cowriters of the original Cosmos, which was a PBS television series and book. The series premiered in 1980. I remember watching some of it as an 80’s kid and being absolutely transfixed by it. It was this potent brew of science, imagination, awe, wonder, storytelling, and a compelling synthesizer-infused theme song by the same guy who did Chariots of Fire.
So, I was really excited to see what this latest installment of the series would hold. Because right now with everything we’ve got going on I need a little inspiration for the future and to believe that another world is possible. And I wasn’t disappointed. In a time of extremely low self-esteem on the part of humanity, when almost every vision of our future in popular culture is dystopian, Cosmos: Possible Worlds is a soaring achievement of both urgency and optimism.
The book squarely faces our disenchantment with the 21st century. In the 80s when I watched the original Cosmos many of us thought that we’d all have flying cars, robot butlers, and a colony on Mars by now. Instead, we face tremendous problems over basic human rights and equality, healthcare and public health, political discourse and enfranchisement, and (to top it all off) a global warming climate catastrophe. But Druyan reminds us that these problems will be solved (as they have been solved in the past) by people who have awakened to the beauty, mystery, and sacredness of the universe and who are moved by that awakening to act in the best interests of humanity and the world we live in.
Many people believe that spiritual awakenings and turning your life around are the realm of religion. Druyan believes that science is what will lead us out the darkness of the current moment and into the light of a better future. Are science and religion so different from one another (and they are different) that they have to be at odds in our lives and in our culture? Or can they coexist and maybe even cooperate?
The science writer Steven Jay Gould recounted a typical story about the feeling on behalf of some religious people (and now some of the “new atheists”) that science and religion are not compatible. An undergrad at Harvard came to him and said, “I am a devout Christian and have never had any reason to doubt evolution, an idea that seems both exciting and particularly well documented. But my roommate, a proselytizing Evangelical, has been insisting with enormous vigor that I cannot be both a real Christian and an evolutionist. So tell me, can a person believe both in God and evolution?" Gould, who’s an agnostic Jew, was put in the strange position of having to reassure this young man that there was no inherent contradiction between Christianity and science—that fundamentalist creationism is the exception, not the rule in Christianity.
Gould goes on to say that the supposed conflict between science and religion can be eliminated by understanding a term he invented: “nonoverlapping magisteria.” By which he means that both science and religion have their separate realms over which they have authority to teach. Facts and theories belong to science. Meaning, morality, and values belong to religion. And never the twain shall meet. They do not overlap.
But nonoverlapping magisteria is not the sense that you get from reading or watching any book or show in the Cosmos series. Is it possible for science to get spiritual? I think that Ann Druyan would say, yes, for lack of a better word, science is spiritual.
She quotes Albert Einstein as one of the inspirations for the book. At the 1939 World’s Fair Einstein said, “If science, like art, is to perform its mission truly and fully, its achievements must enter not only superficially, but with their inner meaning into the consciousness of people.” This isn’t just about facts and theories. This is about meaning. It’s a “spiritual” mission to empower science to affect people with the same profundity that art does. Or, you could say, with the same depth of meaning that religion does. If science can get spiritual in its goals, I wonder if it’s possible for spirituality to be more (for lack of a better word) “sciencey.”
Science didn’t exist at all at any time that any of the books of the Bible were written. So, it’s difficult to turn to the Bible for a defining statement on how we should relate to science as Christians. But the burning bush from our scripture reading this morning may be a way of exploring this idea. One way that some Christians dismiss thinkers like Druyan and Sagan is to say that the universe, all of Creation, is sinful and fallen and impermanent and will ultimately all be wiped away by God and the good Christians will be whisked off to heaven to live a purely spiritual existence.
But the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart emphasizes the Biblical ideas of incarnation, resurrection, and that God’s salvation will be a salvation of the whole world (all of Creation). He points to the image of the burning bush as the way that our spiritual ancestors understood the universe, how it was made, and how important it is. The image of the burning bush is a metaphor for God and God’s creation: ordinary matter, fully infused with the glory of God, lit up like a divine fire, but not at all consumed, not destroyed. Holy! Holy ground! All around us. Everywhere we look. No division between the sacred and the profane.
The idea is that God made the universe and will save all of it, so our understanding of God can’t be limited to pie-in-the-sky and it can’t be limited to “spiritual” concerns. Because God’s plan for all of creation is and has always been a physical and a “spiritual” plan. And so when we understand the physical facts of God’s creation, we understand more about God. And we are better enabled to think about meaning and values.
Science is simply another a way (to use James’ language from our second scripture reading) of looking into the mirror of God’s Word and seeing ourselves. And as James said, if we look into that reflection and then walk away and don’t let it affect how we live, don’t let it turn us around, turn us to action—we’re lost.
So, here’s the situation as I see it: Science is on a spiritual quest to save humanity, save the planet, and understand the deepest mysteries of God’s creation. Some Christians have rejected that project all together. They don’t believe it matters. But there is no contradiction between being a devout Christian and being inspired by the spirit of the mission of science. Not because of nonoverlapping magisteria, in my opinion, but precisely because science is spiritual and spirituality cannot be divorced from facts or from the great human project of creating a better tomorrow by using the best knowledge and tools available to us. Christianity that stands in the way of learning and facts, risks becoming anachronistic and irrelevant. Christianity that embraces the best of science as a partner says to the whole world: science brings us closer to understanding God and closer to a better future.
I took a long five-month hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2004 right before I started seminary. And I remember meeting a hiker at a shelter one evening and talking with her about religion. And she asked me what I thought of Buddhism. I don’t remember my answer exactly, but I remember to my embarrassment saying things like, “Well, Christianity as all about incarnation and passion and Buddhism is all about emptiness and disengagement.” Now, there might be some truth there, but my tone was dismissive and my attitude was superior and surprise, surprise, I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I had barely studied Buddhism and I had never dialoged with a Buddhist.
When I arrived at seminary, one of my professors described herself as a Buddhist-Christian. I began studying Buddhism and interfaith dialogue. I started reading Buddhist texts, doing Buddhist meditation, and talking to real Buddhists. And that’s when I realized that these two religions—so different from one another—were not incapable of communicating. And as my understanding and experience of Buddhism grew, and the more deeply I engaged its values and worldviews, the more I felt my Christian faith expanding by the dialog, by the challenges, and by the very different but very valuable perspectives. For instance, I found my way to the ancient tradition of Christian contemplative prayer through the Buddhist practice of Zen meditation.
The same kind of dialogue and collaboration are possible between the religions and the sciences. Will science challenge what we think we know about faith, spirituality, values, and meaning? Of course it will. If the Perseverance rover, launched to Mars last month, discovers evidence that there was once early life on Mars (which is one of its objectives) that will radically change our worldview, our idea of life and our idea of ourselves, and our idea of God and what God is up to in this universe of ours. We will be challenged. But that’s OK. Our faith can handle it. And the rewards for thinking scientifically about our world will be a deeper understanding of God and God’s creation.
I believe in the biblical vision that God’s plan for salvation is a plan for all creation. I believe that the rocks, the trees, the animals, the planet, and the stars are all important and they’re all covered with God’s fingerprints. I believe that when we understand Creation—from the billions of lightyears of the observable universe to the four dimensions of spacetime, to the uncertainty of the quantum realm—we are better equipped to stand in the presence of the God who made and sustains and redeems them all, we are better equipped to worship that God, and we are better equipped to undertake the scientific and spiritual project of making a better future.
(and The Soul of an Octopus)
Every two weeks this summer I’ve been preaching on a book from my summer reading list. You’re all invited to read along and to join me in a discussion group before I preach on the book. This summer I’ve picked four sciencey books and the book I’m preaching on this week is “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” by Sy Montgomery.
Sy Montgomery is a literary naturalist who has written about all kinds of animals—tigers, and moon bears, and a pig named Christopher Hogwood, O my! Her books aren’t dry biology texts, they’re zoology mixed with memoir. The Soul of an Octopus isn’t about octopuses in general, it’s about four specific octopuses—Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. It’s about Montgomery’s relationships with them. And it’s about the aquarists, the marine biologists, the divers, the student volunteers, and the aquarium janitorial staff who also bond with these octopuses. It’s a book about how human lives and work and hearts intersect with octopuses.
There’s Bill, who’s the main aquarist at the New England aquarium and he can smell fish stress through glass and he carries great personal stress worrying about the welfare of his beloved octopuses. There’s Wilson, a retired engineer who builds the octopuses challenging toys and who visits with them even while his wife is in hospice. There’s Anna, a high school junior with Asperger’s who’s kept fish tanks since she was two-years old and who’s processing the suicide of her best friend in the company of the octopuses. And there’s Danny, who has a developmental disorder and wants nothing more than to meet a real, live octopus—and he gets his chance!
On the surface, it may seem incredible that human beings can bond with these eight-armed, underwater aliens. Human beings diverged from octopuses on the tree of life more than half a billion years ago. Instead of fingers, an octopus’ eight arms are each covered in hundreds of suckers that can exert thousands of pounds of force. If an arm gets bitten off, it can grow back. To swim they don’t use their arms. Instead they suck water up into their head and squirt it out a little funnel to propel them through the ocean on a jet of water. They taste and smell through every inch of their skin—even their eyelids. They have a beak for a mouth like a parrot’s beak inside their armpit and their bite is poisonous. Their brain is distributed through their body and they have more neurons in their arms than they have in their heads. They have three hearts and blue blood. They can squeeze themselves through a hole just a few inches wide. They can change colors and often do to express their mood. But they can also camouflage their skin by changing its color and texture to perfectly match their surroundings. If they’re threatened, they can squirt out a cloud of dark ink. They are solitary. They are cannibalistic. And they only live a few years.
As Montgomery writes, “Octopuses represent the great mystery of the Other.” It’s hard to imagine creatures more different than us. But octopuses are also smart, curious, and playful. They enjoy solving problems and puzzles and are renowned escape artists. Octopuses appear to be self-aware and to understand that other creatures have minds and motivations separate from their own. Each octopus has its own unique and varied personality. Their complex behaviors are more than instinctual and suggest that they have something like thoughts and feelings. When you look them in the eye, it feels like someone is in there looking back at you. And the people who care for octopuses in aquariums or meet them in the wild can feel deeply emotionally connected to them.
Montgomery learns to scuba dive in the book so she can meet octopuses in the wild on coral reefs. On one diving trip to Tahiti she goes to worship one Sunday morning at an eight-sided church. It has eight sides for a reason—it was built on the site of a much older temple to the local octopus god. And this is what she writes about the experience:
“The service is conducted in Tahitian, a language I don't understand. But I understand the power of worship, and the importance of contemplating mystery—whether in a church or diving a coral reef. The mystery that congregants seek here is no different, really, from the one I have sought in my interactions with Athena and Kali, Karma and Octavia. It is no different from the mystery we pursue in all our relationships, in all our deepest wonderings. We seek to fathom the soul.
“But what is the soul? Some say it is the self, the ‘I’ that inhabits the body; without the soul, the body is like a lightbulb with no electricity. But it is more than the engine of life, say others; it is what gives life meaning and purpose. Soul is the fingerprint of God.
“Others say that soul is our innermost being, the thing that gives us our senses, our intelligence, our emotions, our desires, our will, our personality, and identity. One calls soul ‘the indwelling consciousness that watches the mind come and go, that watches the world pass.’ Perhaps none of these definitions is true. Perhaps all of them are. But I am certain of one thing as I sit in my pew: If I have a soul—and I think I do—an octopus has a soul, too.”
The traditional Christian view of things is that, yes, God created all living things, but God created humans to be different and we’re the only living things who were given souls. Obviously, we are different from other animals—we have science, technology, language, culture, literature, art, and religion. But our growing understanding of evolution, genetics, and animal behavior forces us to ask if the difference between human beings and animals is one of kind or one of degree. Are humans and animals two different kinds of things on totally different trajectories? Or are humans with our incredible brains capable of reshaping the planet just one interesting branch on a tree of life full of complex, interesting creatures—and sometimes maybe even thinking, feeling creatures.
The Bible says that God created human beings in God’s own image. But it doesn’t say exactly what that means. And it doesn’t say that other animals or other parts of Creation don’t also reflect God’s image in some way. I believe we were created in God’s image, but I also think that God’s image is way bigger than us. Could the octopus be another reflection off another piece of God’s great big mirror?
If science is telling us that animals are more like us than we’ve previously wanted to admit, is it possible this similarity could extend beyond the boundaries of what science can tell us and go all the way to the soul? Is it possible that the belief that we’re the only ones with souls is just another example of misguided human exceptionalism—like thinking that the Earth is the center of the solar system?
Our scripture reading this morning says that on the sixth day God breathed the breath of life into the dust of the ground and the man, Adam, became a living soul. The word being translated as “soul” is the Hebrew word nephesh.
And our scripture reading says that on the fifth day God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm... And the word translated into English twice here as “creature” is the Hebrew word nephesh, the very same word translated as “soul” when it was referring to Adam. So, even when we translate the Bible, we sometimes like to separate ourselves from the animals.
Of course, we still haven’t defined what a soul is. Is it a supernatural part of you that is eternal and flies off somewhere when you’ve died? Is it your conscious experience living inside the phenomena of your material brain? Is it the great struggles and questions of your life? Or is it the simple enjoyment of a sunny day or the simple satisfaction of offering kindness to a stranger? Or is it a little bit of all these things?
I think sometimes words like “soul” and “spirit” can be too big to define. You could talk about them all day, you could write whole books about them, and the more you talk, the more you write, the bigger they grow. Sometimes, soul is just something you need to feel—feel without words: know, experience.
Sometimes, I just want to pray silently. And in my silent prayers I sometimes feel God more fully, more accessibly than I do when I’m preaching a sermon. All of God can be present in silence. But a sermon can only contain the tiniest little reflection of God. I think it may be the same for soul—for our own souls and the souls of other people and any other souls there may be in the other living creatures. Sometimes we need to stop thinking, quiet down, and just be present. If there is such a thing as soul somewhere, it won’t be defined by words or discovered by science. It happens within and between us.
As Montgomery writes, “While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege. It’s a shared sweetness, a gentle miracle, an uplink to universal consciousness.”
Perhaps we have been reluctant to assign souls to animals, especially squishy, slimy animals like octopuses, because we haven’t spent enough time with them—quality time, building meaningful relationships. It was only in the 1960s when Jane Goodall began studying our closest relatives, chimpanzees, in the wild by living with them that she learned that chimps made simple tools, and communicated, and (she asserted) were conscious beings more like us than different from us. Until she went to live with the chimps, we had no idea what or who they really were.
One of the things we have to consider when evaluating our beliefs is the consequence of those beliefs. The consequence of thinking of animals as soulless I believe has led to a reluctance to think morally about how we treat the animals in our care and how we treat animals in the wild. We often don’t think about the needs of animals at all because as soulless creatures we don’t imagine that they can be truly harmed, or if they can be harmed, then that harm doesn’t really matter morally because being soulless, animals don’t rise to a level of human or divine concern. We can mistreat them. We can wipe them out. Their suffering isn’t true suffering.
What would be the consequence of granting animals the benefit of the doubt? How might the world look if the birds and the fish and the wolves and the pigs were creatures with at least a little soul or the possibility of a little soul? Would we be kinder to the environment that animals need to survive? Would we work harder to protect endangered species? Would we stop animal testing? Would we raise the welfare standards for animals in factory farms?
Could animals with souls make the world a little better? I think they might. And I could even imagine a walk through the woods with your dog could become an even more beautiful, more spiritual, more God-filled experience. Imagine if a walk in the woods was not just an opportunity to spot living creatures, but an opportunity to meet and to get to know living souls.
Listen to how Montgomery describes one of her scuba dives:
“At last, in the warm embrace of the sea, breathing underwater, surrounded by the octopus’s liquid world, my breath rising in silver bubbles like a song of praise, here I am.
“There follows a parade of wonders: A splendid toadfish hides beneath a rock… It’s pancake flat, with thin, wavy, horizontal blue and white stripes, Day-Glo yellow fins, and whiskery barbels. A four-foot nurse shark sleeps beneath a coral shelf, peaceful as a prayer. A trumpet fish, yellow with dark stripes, floats with its long, tubular snout down, trying to blend in with some branching coral… A school of iridescent pink and yellow fish slide by inches from our masks, then wheel in unison like birds in the sky.
“I have known no natural state more like a dream than this. I feel elation cresting into ecstasy and experience bizarre sensations: my own breath resonates in my skull, faraway sounds thump in my chest, objects appear closer and larger than they really are. Like in a dream, the impossible unfolds before me, and yet I accept it unquestioningly. Beneath the water, I find myself in an altered state of consciousness, where the focus, range, and clarity of perception are dramatically changed.”
What if we altered our perceptions the way that Montgomery has? Because I think her description of that scuba dive is a description of a world filled will soul as diverse as life. Maybe that’s a world we’d all like to live in.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations