NASA recently released this great new picture of the earth from space. It makes me think of scenes we sometimes see on television, video footage from the International Space Station, with our planet in the background.
We live in such a different time from when Jesus walked the earth, and taught his friends about God’s love, and how to pray. Jesus used the images and poetry available to him at that time. In the ancient world, in Jesus’ time, and for centuries after, most people believed the earth was flat and round like a pancake. Below the part we walk on was the underworld, also called the land of the dead. Above was the sky, which was a dome, that separated us from the heavens.
Mortals lived literally in the middle of the sandwich, or layer cake, between the land of the dead, and the heavens above. Depending on what culture or religion you came from, your god or gods was “up there”. This view of things persists, to some degree, in popular thinking.
I did a funeral yesterday for a lady from another congregation. More than one person who I spoke with before and after the service, when talking about the person who died, tilted their heads slightly upward, when talking about how this woman is now with God, and her husband, and will always be looking down, and watching over her family.
When people say these things at a funeral, the last thing I would ever do is challenge their view. That imagery, that poetry still has meaning for many people. But not for everyone. At the height of the cold war between the USA and the former USSR, Premier Nikita Khrushchev was speaking about the Soviet Union’s anti-religion campaign, and commented that Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut, had flown into space, but didn’t see any god there.
Khrushchev had his own reasons for saying what he did, but he also put into words one of the basic existential problems of life in our time. How do we think about God, when the ancient ideas about God’s location are no longer viable?
The question of “where” is God is closely related to the questions about what God is. If God is not the old guy in the throne in the middle of the heavenly city that floats above our heads, then who/where/what is God?
The questions raised by a modern view of the universe, and how religions deal with it or duck it, or push it away, may have as much to with how seriously religion can be taken in our time, as anything else. I don’t think the church is at its best when it rejects science, and puts people in a position of having to choose between faith and reason.
When I was at the writer’s conference earlier this month, I chatted with someone who writes for a journal called The Christian Century. One of her recent assignments was to interview a man named Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit priest who recently retired from his job as the Vatican’s astronomer. The Vatican has its own observatory in Italy, operates a telescope in Arizona, and has been doing scientific research since 1774. Fr. Consolmagno recently published a book called “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-Box at the Vatican Observatory.”
In the interview, he said, “For me faith has always come first. When you grow up, you don’t learn that everything that you were taught as a child was wrong; rather, you see that you didn’t have a very complete picture. It was right, but not in the way you thought it was. Any religious person has this experience over and over again. “
The astronomer, who also used to be the Vatican’s curator of meteorites, which sounds like a great thing to have on your business card, went on to say, “We need the humility to say that we don’t understand it all. I know my science is true, but I also know it is not completely true, so I have to keep improving it. I think my faith is completely true, but I know I don’t understand all of it—my understanding is in constant need of revision.”
We don’t stop trying to sort it all out. That I think is much healthier than saying if your science doesn’t agree with my religion, then you must be wrong, or vice versa.
There is a story I like, from a book called “The Song of the Bird”, by another Jesuit priest named Anthony De Mello. Born nand raised in India, her wrote several books which introduced Western Christians to the spiritual wisdom of the east. This story is called “The Little Fish”.
“Excuse me,” said an ocean fish, “You are older than I so can you tell me where to
find this thing they call the Ocean?”
“The Ocean,” said the older fish, “is the thing you are in now,”
“Oh, this? But this is water. What I’m seeking is the Ocean,” said the disappointed
fish as he swam away to search elsewhere.
A student came to the Master in sannyasi robes. And he spoke sannyasi language: “For years
I have been seeking God. I have sought Him everywhere that He is said to be: on
mountain peaks, the vastness of the desert, and the silence of the cloister and the
dwellings of the poor.”
“Have you found him?” the Master asked. “No. I have not. Have you?”
What could the Master say? The evening sun was sending shafts of golden light into
the room. Hundreds of sparrows were twittering on a banyan tree. In the distance one
could hear the sound of highway traffic. A mosquito droned a warning that it was going
to strike… And yet this man could sit there and say he had not found Him.
After a white he left, disappointed, to search elsewhere.
Stop searching, little fish. There isn’t anything to look for. All you have to do is look.
One of the effects of the collapse of the layer cake model of the universe is that it pushes, or encourages us to think of God less as a human-like figure that sits on a throne far away from us, and more as a present, if invisible spirit, that pervades everything.
This is a change, and like every change, there is good and bad about it. Part of the bad is it is change, and we do not always welcome change. Another challenge is if God really is everywhere, many of exclusive claims made by religion about how to access god, how to be right with god, where god is, and how god is, and who god likes, all seem pretty petty, and more obviously human constructions- or at least reflective of the limits of human understanding.
How can we claim an exclusive route to heaven, when it turns out that heaven is actually everywhere? If there is no place that god is not, we don’t actually need special permission to be with god. We only need to look, to listen, to breathe, to swim, to be.
This is bad news in a way for the franchise model of religion. It radically undermines fear-based preaching and teaching, that still says, you need to get right with God, the way we tell you, or you will face eternal damnation.
But this is good news in other ways. If our imagination opens to the possibility that God is everywhere, in everything, that we are swimming in God, like the little fish, then we are never really far away from God.
If the world we live in, and all the trees and rocks and lakes and flowers and the soil and animals and bricks and bridges and buildings are all soaked through with God, and heaven really is all around us, then taking care of the earth becomes a holy duty.
This suggests that heaven is not some distant place, far above the dome of the sky, but that heaven is all around us. I love the idea that those we love who have died, even though they have left their bodies behind, are still very much with us. Amen