Sunday, September 9, 1989

Location - Brockton

Ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?

Matthew 16:3

For more than half of the Christian era, the church was the prime locus and source of learning. In

most communities, the best educated individual was the minister or priest. The universities were arms

of the church. As a result, there was no academically defensible alternative to the views of the

church. The earth was the center of the universe, and that of course was why God became incarnate here

and nowhere else.

Gradually, this led to a kind of stagnation. The church was buttressed by its monopoly on learning,

and resistant to independent thinking and new ideas. It is quite fitting that the latter centuries of

this total control were known as the Dark Ages. It is also not surprising that when change came, it

did not come from the outside. It came rather through the challenge of Muslim culture, for the Dark

Ages of Christianity were a brilliant age for Islam. Muslims had discovered Greek philosophy and

science, and with minds unfettered by dogma, had made significant advances in medicine, physics,

chemistry, mathematics, and philosophy.

This enlightenment did reach into Christendom, bit by bit. The story of Galileo is a familiar and

typical one, the story of an inquiring mind discovering basic facts about our universe and being

stifled by the church. But reality has a certain persuasiveness about it, and by the seventeenth

century or so, the church could no longer silence the voices of inquiry. The monopoly was crumbling.

About a century before Swedenborg, the brilliant French philosopher-scientist René Descartes had

visited Upsala University, and the issue of independent scientific thought had been raised. By

Swedenborg's own time, a kind of truce had been arranged. The church had sole and complete control of

the teaching of theology, but had no control over the teaching of "natural philosophy," or science.

The scientist was free to follow evidence to its conclusions, provided those conclusions did not call

into question the doctrines of the church.

Since that time, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. We have lived in an era in which many

held that nothing should be believed unless it was scientifically demonstrable. Anything else was

superstition. The strength of this attitude is perhaps best indicated by the fact that millions of

near death experiences are still not regarded as proof that the soul outlives the body. This is not

solid data from controlled experiments. It may suggest a field of disciplined research, but it does no

more than that.

What is at issue here is the nature of human knowing. Certainly in matters pertaining to the physical

world, the achievements of science have been impressive, and we have every reason to respect and to be

grateful for the strictness of its discipline. When we drive a car, we want to know that the metals

will hold up under the stresses to which they are subjected. When we take a medicine, we want to know

that its effects have been very carefully studied. We do not want these studies to have been

prejudiced by any theological or philosophical bias. We want them to have been "value-free" in the

sense that no matter what emerges from the testing, it is taken seriously.

But in other areas of life, these principles do not hold. They are basically inapplicable to all the

ways in which we come to understand each other on the personal level. We may learn something about

people from the relatively disciplined study of psychology, which many in any case would not regard as

a "true science." But when it comes to forming friendships, marrying, raising children, or dealing

with the people we meet from day to day, there is no way we can conduct controlled experiments and

gather precise and quantifiable data. In such relationships, we depend on other ways of knowing.

Our theology speaks of two levels of rationality, pictured in Scripture by Ishmael and Isaac. The

lower level is born when our basic love, our "inner person, becomes involved with the task of

understanding the physical world and how it works. The Biblical image for this is Abram's cohabitation

with Hagar, the Egyptian, and the offspring, Ishmael, turns out to be ambitious and essentially


The deeper level is born of the same basic love, but as it becomes involved with questions of human

value. It manifests itself as a kind of intuition or perceptiveness, not disclosing particular facts

so much as discerning particular qualities. It deals with such unscientific matters as kindness and

callousness, generosity and miserliness, courage and fear, affection and aversion. It deals, that is,

with matters that directly affect our peace of mind and our happiness.

Until very recently, there has been little if any public dialogue between these two levels of mind,

but lately, there are the beginnings of change. We might take as an example the lively issue of the

living will. Medicine as a science has focused intensively on the prolongation of life. It has

succeeded to the point that machines can now sustain life in a person who is totally incapable of any

kind of discernible human interaction. And this very fact, amplified by the staggering financial cost

of such support, has faced us with the question of human values. What is the value of a year of such


I was faced with this some years ago when an elderly parishioner entered a nursing home, leaving the

house she had lived in for at least fifty years, and the gardens she loved. She did receive better

physical care, and she was profoundly depressed. In effect, she exchanged some months of difficult and

dangerous contentment for a year of safe and secure misery. It was not her choice--in a way it was not

even her doctor's choice. It was the choice of our culture, which demands that the medical profession

do everything it can to stave off the moment of death.

Now that technology can stave off that moment for so long, though, we find ourselves as a culture

under increasing pressure to admit and give weight to non-scientific considerations. Theology begins

to enter the picture, crossing the line that was drawn some three centuries ago. But it is crossing

that line not simply for its own reasons, but rather by invitation. Individuals are faced with

situations in which they need more guidance than quantitative science can provide. They are faced with

situations in which their deeper intuitions "know" that the simple prolonging of life at all costs

does not make sense, and since this is not a "scientific" conclusion, science can marshall no facts to

refute it.

This is one example of what I believe is a major change that is taking place as we watch. There is

another example that, while it does not make the headlines, may be equally or more significant, and I

should like to offer a few particulars. Out exploration of space has had some unexpected consequences.

That is, they were unexpected by most of us. In 1948, Fred Hoyle wrote, "Once a photograph of the

Earth, taken from the outside, is available . . . a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let

loose." That has of course happened, and the idea is indeed proving powerful. We can see that we live

together on a single planet, in a narrow and fragile atmosphere that sustains life. We can see an

ocean lapping at the shores of two continents, and we can see continents without the boundary lines we

have drawn for our own purposes.

The astronauts, regardless of nationality, have been changed by their experiences. Aleksandr

Aleksandrov writes, "And then in struck me that we are all children of our Earth. It does not matter

what country you look at. We are all Earth's children, and we should treat her as our Mother."

Vladimir Shatalov writes, "The `boundless' blue sky, the ocean which gives us breath and protects us

from the endless black and death, is but an infinitesimally thin film. How dangerous it is to threaten

even the smallest part of this gossamer covering, this conserver of life!" Edgar Mitchell writes, "We

went to the moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians."

Mitchell in particular witnesses to a more profound change. He writes, "Instead of an intellectual

search, there was suddenly a very deep gut feeling that something was different. It occurred when

looking at Earth and seeing this blue-and-white planet floating there, and knowing that it was

orbiting the Sun, seeing that Sun, seeing it set in the background of the very deep black and velvety

cosmos. seeing--rather, knowing for sure--that there was a purposefulness of flow, of energy, of time,

of space in the cosmos--that it was beyond man's rational ability to understand, that suddenly there

was a nonrational way of understanding that had been beyond my previous experience. There seems to be

more to the universe than random, chaotic, purposeless movement of a collection of molecular

particles. On the return trip home, gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and the

planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious."

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of four words in this statement--"there was a

purposefulness . . ." Charles Darwin recognized a Frenchman named Naudin as "a distinguished

botanist," but disagreed with his explanation of the formation of species. Darwin writes, "But he does

not show how selection acts under nature. . . . He lays weight on what he calls the principle of

finality . . . ." Naudin wrote of a power which some would call destiny and others a providential

will, which "brings each member into harmony with thw chose, assigning it the function which it need

to full in the general organizm of nature, the function which is its reason for being." "Finality" is

simply another name for purpose, and to Darwin, this was unscientific.

Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution, not did he claim to have done so. In The Origin of

Species, he summarizes the view of thirty-four predecessors "who believe in the modification of

species, or at least disbelieve in separate acts of creation." What was new in his work was a theory

of evolution that depended entirely on linear, mechanical causation. It was essentially deterministic,

and ruled out any suggestion of purposefulness. It may highlight the fact that science comes into

conflict with religion not so much in what it affirms as in what it denies, and that what it has

denied is precisely that there is a purpose to the universe.

In the experience of the astronauts, once again the line between the two levels of rationality has

been crossed, and once again, it is not because religion has tried to extend its domain but because

scientists have made a transition. A new an powerful idea has been let loose, and it includes some of

the most fundamental principles of our theology.

What difference does this make to us? It may encourage us at those times when we feel overwhelmed by

the problems our world faces, and it may also provide some guidance. In summing up, Mitchell writes,

"The peaks were the recognition that it is a harmonious, purposeful, creating universe. The valleys

came in recognizing that humanity wasn't behaving in accordance with that knowledge." Behaving

humanely toward each other and being ecologically responsible are not options to consider once we have

taken care of the necessities of life. They are the necessities themselves. Purpose, harmony, and

creativeness are fundamental to the universe and fundamental to survival. And perhaps if we identify

that purpose as divine love, that harmony as divine wisdom, and that creativeness as divine activity,

it may be clear how profoundly this view from space is in accord with our own theology. The face of

the sky seems to be bringing us the signs of the times.


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