This past week, the Society of Ordained Scientists met for our biennial retreat in North America. The focus of this year’s retreat was Epiphany and the pilgrimages of perspective we take from worlds of faith to science and back again. In our closing Eucharist, I shared these words, thinking back on wonderful presentations by Marilyn Cornwell, Ted Peters, Mark Richardson, and Lou Ann Trost.
Collect for the Society
Almighty God, Creator and Redeemer of all that is, source and foundation of time and space, matter and energy, life and consciousness: Grant us in this Society and all who study the mysteries of your creation, grace to be true witnesses to your glory and faithful stewards of your gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Isaiah 52:3-6 (“My people shall know my name”)
The Magnificat – Luke 1:46-55 (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”)
Revelation 2:1-7 (“repent, and do the works you did at first”)
Matthew 12:14-21 (“He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.)
C.S. Lewis wrote “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Today’s gospel and our reflections over the last week have led me to think more carefully about this concept of seeing and believing. I wanted to say something about our role as ordained scientists, and return to two insights that were deeply moving to me as we shared our pilgrimage together this week. One was our dependence on a community of scholars, and the way we form a focal point as leaders in science and religion, for a much bigger community endeavor. The other was our need to deal with unsolved problems in applied science and, dare I say it, applied metaphysics – the concrete needs of the world. Matthew quotes Isaiah, but what does this mean that Jesus “will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets”? How are we to understand evangelism in light of Jesus ordering his disciples to remain silent about him? Here, and even more so in the Gospel of Mark, there is a suggestion that some things should be shared and some things kept quiet. And who are we in this Society? I do not think we are any more mediators of God, or truth, or reality than any other child of God. And yet we are mediators of knowledge, both sacred and secular. We are authority figures, for good and ill, regulating what it means to be in community and share a common understanding of the world. We are asked to reflect and refract the wisdom entrusted to us. Priests and deacons wear stoles to show we represent the larger church, the authority, both power and responsibility, that comes from speaking for a greater cloud of witnesses. Scientists, too, though the lab coat does not, perhaps, garner the same respect it once did, act as experts in our society. They have the authority, both the power and the responsibility, to speak the truths revealed by our searching, to be the face of inquiry and discovery in a society that deeply values both. Our education and experience gives us a deeper understanding of how the world works. Mark Richardson suggested in his talk that we cannot truly be Evangelists in the modern world unless we can navigate the languages of science and meaning that move our congregations. And I think this must be true, that the vernacular is increasingly a scientific vernacular – our challenges, our hopes, and our fears are all tinged by science. So we must do more than solve the abstract problems. We must bring all that we are and all that we have to finding our way in the world as communities. My own passion, as most of you know, has to do with how we act responsibly with both kinds of authority – how we exercise this trust, to always represent the best wisdom of both worlds, or perhaps the best insights of both perspectives, in all our interactions. How do we fulfill the trust placed in us, through our education, our opportunities, and our relationships? It’s not just about finding truth, it's about cultivating common understanding about the things that matter most, ourselves, our world, and our meaning. During the talks, I was reflecting on two images: First the telescope, so often iconic in science. Lenses focus our perceptions, allowing us to distinguish details or see patterns, large and small, that we would otherwise miss. Second, stained glass, so often iconic in Christianity, breaking the light into colored fragments, to harmonize, beautify, and order the light, which shining alone is too bright and too full for us to appreciate its depth. Perhaps, too, stained glass and prisms reminds us of the ways God uses our brokenness as individuals and communities as an opportunity for grace. The multiple reflections and refractions in a proper stained glass window allow us to see the subtleties of light in a way we never would, when blinded by the full spectrum brilliance of God. And I wondered, as I often wonder, whether these are competing images, whether they pull us in different directions. I must honestly admit that a stained glass telescope would be a poor instrument, at least in terms of the initial metaphors. It would distort the image while constraining our vision. It would, I suppose, be a kaleidoscope, a wonderful thing in and of itself, but neither fish nor fowl. This seems to be the fear of many faith/science discussions, that somehow we will lose the utility of both, if we attempt to put them together. Obviously, I don’t think that’s the case. I think we must bring our scientific and religious authority together in our applied science, our applied theology, and our applied community. But it may mean re-working my metaphors. It may mean doing a new thing. So I want to share a new image with you. Most of us agree, I think, that there is only one light, but we have trouble agreeing on what kind of lens we want to be, and what kind of lens we should be, for ourselves and for others. How many of you are familiar with gravitational micro-lensing? It sounds very complicated, but it’s a beautifully simple concept, increasingly useful in astronomy. For the most part, we can only see stars and planets in the sky when they are exceptionally bright. Mars is, on average, 225 million kilometers away from us, but if you hook up a giant flashlight, take 2 times 10 to the 30th kilograms of hydrogen and helium and set it on fire – That would be the Sun – and flash it at Mars, the light that comes back is bright enough to see. Similarly, the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away, shows up because of the light of a trillion Suns’ worth of mass all merrily burning in the night. Other objects, for example the light of tiny planets orbiting distant stars in the Milky Way of the light of galaxies farther out than Andromeda, may not be bright enough for us to see them, even with our best telescopes. They are too dim. Yet we care about them. We care about Orion and Pleiedes and the vast expanse of interstellar space. We care enough to ask what they are made of and where they are and whether they, like we, travel through the night. And we have discovered, that when the stars align, the light from a distant star will bend around a star passing in between us and it and that light passes on all sides of the passing star and focuses back upon us, with much greater intensity for a moment in cosmic time. As it does so, we learn something profound about the distant source of light, for we see it much more brightly, and about the passing star, for the way it passes the light onto us. The gravity of the passing star, or even galaxy, forms a lens, a gravitational micro-lens. And if we watch the distant star closely, and observe how the image changes as is passes into focus we can also learn about the lens itself, the mass and properties of the star that passes in between. Lensing around galaxies, when we let one galaxy to magnify a more distant galaxy, has allowed us to calculate galactic mass and understand dark matter – or more properly understand how we don’t understand dark matter. That is, it shows us galaxies far more massive than we would have guessed Based in brightness alone. Lensing around star-systems, when we are lucky enough to watch a star and its planets pass between us and a distant object, has allowed us to find extra-solar planets, otherwise invisible. As of last night, 43 planets had been discovered and reported on the basis of micro-lensing, including some of the smallest and most Earth-like currently known. The details are more complicated than I could hope to capture here, but hopefully I’ve given you a taste of this wonderful insight, I hesitate even to call it a technology, for we have no power to align the stars ourselves but we have this glorious curiosity that allowed micro-lensing to be revealed to us and allowed micro-lensing to reveal things we couldn’t have imagined. And it is, very much, both a telescope and a stained glass window, depending on your focus, a great kaleidoscope that reveals and fractures a heavenly image. And here I have waxed too poetic even for my own sensibilities. Let me bring this digression back to the very concrete biblical exegesis, and daily morality that it has sparked in me. Perhaps I can worry less about what kind of lens I am, when I magnify and when I refract, when I give a true image and when I break an image into it’s components. Instead, I shall worry more about how God has placed me between the light of Christ and the observer. I shall think about how my life and my actions bend the world around me in a way that can reveal a more distant light a more distant truth, and, for many, a brightness they had only dreamed of. It is not so different a metaphor than that used by the Orthodox speaking of icons as windows to divinity, or Augustine speaking of the finger pointing at the moon. Jesus may have taken the focus off himself, precisely because he, as the incarnate Christ, was the focus of a yet more glorious light, a lens, through which, was focused the full intensity of God. I don’t have that kind of intensity. I don’t have that kind of mass. But, returning to Marilyn’s insight from our very first reflection, the community gathered together, possesses a power greater than its parts. We are something when we gather here, at this table, in prayer, in service, and in love. Each of our ministries can be this, and I truly believe each of our ministries is this, a gathering of people through our authority as leaders in science and faith, whether or not we wear a stole, whether or not we wear a lab coat, we have this power, to gather light and mass around us, to gather a community of knowledge and wisdom, that bends the very fabric of the world, and lets the light shine through.