The newest and greenest member of my personal cosmos. These guys like sunning themselves atop our wooden fence
It’s been five weeks since Dad died. In that time I have found it difficult — impossible, really — to do thinking work, creative work, which is the work I love. I try to write and can’t. I find it difficult to manage my time effectively. I try to create engaging projects for my astronomy students but my mind seems to be taking a long nap and won’t be bothered.
Meanwhile social media have become increasingly intolerable. The political climate has a lot to do with that as does the mass murder in Orlando over the weekend. The associated weeping and gnashing of teeth on Facebook and elsewhere is exhausting, honestly, and Dad’s passing has made it seem more inappropriate than ever to spend time worrying about things I can’t change.
Not that I begrudge my friends their thoughts and feelings. My heart is broken also and I too have opinions. I have ideas about what should be done about gun violence in our country, and I know exactly for whom I’ll vote in November, and why. I have opinions on Islam and the dignity and integrity of LGBTQ folk too.
But life is brief and the days are dark, and talking about this stuff online never works out for me. It just leaves me wired and unhappy and distracted.
And, like I said, I can’t really think too well these days anyway, so why bother?
Into this bleakness two things have stepped in to save me: (1) spending time with friends and family, and (2) simple, mindless offline tasks: sorting laundry, doing dishes, carpooling the kids, working in the yard.
Especially the latter. We have wonderful yards, front and back, and when I work out there I’m never alone. The back yard is an especial wonder. It is a smallish fenced-in sanctuary full of life, our happiest discovery since we moved in last summer. In it I have counted 19 species of bird, including one Cooper’s hawk. We have moles and lizards (like the green anole above) and rabbits and bats and an assortment of other creatures sharing the modest space. It’s a nonstop nature show. The more I look the more I see.
It is a surprisingly effective balm. These animals bring me peace and make me happy.
In this calm revelry I must be much like Dad of course, whose own back yard was (and is) a living city of trees and bird feeders and sunlight. I’m sure he spent many hours absorbed in the comings and goings of catbirds and lizards. Maybe I’m becoming more like him.
I won’t fight it. That kind of fight always turns ugly. Anyway, it’s totally okay with me if I turn out that way.
Kristen, our youngest, under the CSX bridge at Ira Melton Park, a very short walk from our house. My son Henry took the picture last month
Dad, my counselor and my rock, died Wednesday after fighting various cancers for several years. In the end it was acute myeloid leukemia that took him.
Since that day, between bouts of tears and laughter, I’ve mostly been overwhelmed by the beauty of this world.
A few days ago I was working with my teenage daughter on her math homework and I noticed her hands. Miraculous creations, hands. I saw that Julia’s are a near-perfect blend of mine and my wife’s. Turn them one way, they’re mine, turn them another, they’re Elizabeth’s. But of course they’re neither mine nor Elizabeth’s.
Yesterday my teenage son played at a piano recital. His Bach was nuanced and perfectly organized, his Debussy fluid and pure. It was an overwhelming six minutes, and I couldn’t help but cry, quite a lot actually.
Earlier today I was grading exams in a downtown coffee shop. I looked across the street and watched a man stringing lights above a restaurant’s outdoor patio. He was up on a ladder arranging the bulbs with great care. It was one of the most wondrous things I’ve ever seen.
Over the last week I’ve stopped — involuntarily, it seems to me — and looked at leaves and the moon too many times to count. I’ve been left speechless by the sight of my seven-year-old picking mulberries and dropping them in her toy watering can. I’ve heard Elizabeth laugh and it sounded like water. I’ve observed the rabbits and squirrels and moles and chipmunks and birds in our backyard with an admiration bordering on worship.
Grief has a way of hollowing us out, is what I think. It clears out the garbage and allows us to be filled by the brilliance surrounding us: life, the world.
I think I understand Job a little better now than I did before Dad died. Loss empties us of conceits and trivia and then the whole world changes. It seems automatic. You suddenly see through to the miraculous essences of familiar things and they are made new. For Job it was the stars and the ostrich and Leviathan; for me it’s the moon and thrashers and Bach.
The wonder of life: Dad’s final gift to me, fitting from one who loved the world so well. May I never forget it or lose it or trade it for anything finite.
Luke Norsworthy and I had a nice chat last week and the podcast is now up. Tune in to hear about religion and science, the book of Job, evolution, Isaac Newton, God as presence, the pros and cons of ex nihilo, Stars Beneath Us, the supreme un-shoehornability of God, and the irrationality (or not) of Christianity.
Master Bertram, Grabow Altarpiece (detail showing the creation of the beasts), c. 1383. I love how the lower section of the robe has been made to look like the sea
Greetings, dear readers. I’ve had a very busy month of traveling and speaking and teaching and lots of other gerunds too. But no writing.
It’s good to be back!
In this post I’ll finish off the list of questions posed to me a while ago by the youth group of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina, Minnesota. So here goes.
How have you furthered your faith through your work as a scientist?
I have a double answer. On the positive side, it is delightful to glimpse a slice of nature no one has ever seen. This has happened to me twice, and in both cases the slice was very thin. One had to do with a tiny detail of the atomic nucleus we call Phosphorus 30, and the other had to do with the peculiar nature of a remote galaxy called 3EG J2006-2321. These discoveries were unremarkable; they did not make headlines or upend any established scientific theories. But in both cases I was thrilled by the sense of having learned something no one had ever known. They were for me small but undeniable glimpses into what Stephen Hawking likes to call the “mind of God.”
On the negative side (and more powerfully) science highlights for me our profound ignorance. From the point of view of understanding, the world is not finite. We have no complete knowledge of anything. In science as in life, we see through a glass darkly. Several weeks ago I heard Rob Bell speak and he said, in a very Rob Bell kind of way, that no explanation is ever complete. This is definitely true in science: every theory, no matter how successful, multiplies questions while pushing them deeper. The cosmos is not self-explanatory. We know next to nothing about reality. Realizing this is a powerful driver of humility, a virtue Jesus calls us to embrace time and again.
How do you explain the Old Testament story of creation with your scientific methods?
In one sense I don’t. The Genesis accounts of creation (there are two) were not written with modern science in mind, and scientific accounts of origins cannot be made to match up in any specific ways with biblical stories. Some folks say the six days of creation correspond to six events or periods of cosmic history, or some such thing, but that is a misuse of scripture. The real point of the Bible stories is theological: they tell us how God relates to the cosmos and to human beings in particular.
Yet there are resonances between the Old Testament and scientific accounts of creation. Genesis actually encourages the practice of science. It, unlike other ancient creation narratives, considers created things to be neither divine nor corrupt. The cosmos is seen as a thing of great goodness and integrity but is not of itself sacred — the sun and moon are lights, not gods. Also creation is not intrinsically debased — human bodies are beautiful and worthy creations, not prisons for souls. According to Genesis matter is valuable and worth studying in its own right because it is good. And because it is not divine we are free to study it on its own terms.
There’s more. The Bible describes the cosmos itself as having the capacity to generate life. It is integrated and robust, just as biology tells us. I cannot help but hear overtones of evolution in God’s command for the sea to “bring forth swarms of living creatures” and for the earth to “bring forth living things of every kind” (Gen 1.20, 24). Now I don’t mean that the authors of Genesis foresaw evolution in any meaningful way. But the writer(s) must have observed just how vigorous and sturdy and life-producing the world is, and how creation itself holds the potential — drawn out and realized through the divine word — to create.
Thanks for the questions, folks. Never stop wondering and asking.