“Radiance Like a Rare Jewel”

I’m not a natural when it comes to science and math. One day in college, in my calculus 2 class I woke up (literally) and thought to myself, “nice try but maybe you just aren’t cut out for this.” My brain is a humanities brain, no doubt about it. So this week I consulted the children’s non-fiction section of the library in an attempt to understand the scientific story of the universe.

In Born with a Bang, Jennifer Morgan imagines the universe telling its story to a human being.  “Once you were a tiny speck buried deep in the dark, inside your mother. But you couldn’t stay small. You grew and grew until one day you were ready to leave the darkness. On that very special day, your birthday, you were born into the light. I, too, had a special day when I was born. But there was no light for me to be born into. I am the Universe. You were inside me from the very beginning—but not in your human form. Like you, I started as a tiny speck. About 13 billion years ago, or so, I was smaller than a piece of dust under your bed… … if you ask me where I came from, I would tell you that I don’t know. It’s the greatest of all mysteries…. I was bursting with wild and dazzling dreams of galaxies, stars and planets in radiant colors… In other dreams, I saw strange creatures—fish cruising deep blue seas, insects alighting on flowers, reptiles basking on hot rocks in the Sun, birds swooping down on their prey, and I saw you, too, gazing at stars. Could such amazing things really happen, I wondered? …

Then suddenly I realized I could BE the things in my dreams… Ah, yes, it began to dawn on me. Everything would have to come out of me. There was no other way. And everything would BE me…. I burst into a grapefruit-sized fireball of a Universe, packed with surging energy. It took only an instant. Space and time had just begun … In a flash, space exploded inside me with unimaginable power. Like a gargantuan balloon, I blew up to the size of a galaxy. And it all happened faster than you can snap your fingers…. Hotter than one trillion degrees, I was blazing with the heat of billions of suns. Suddenly gigantic glowing bolts of energy flashed everywhere and shrank into teensy things… Yes! I had turned energy into the very first THINGS—tiny particles.” (Born with a Bang, Book One, by Jennifer Morgan, excerpts from p. 1-19)

The story the universe tells continues with the making the first atoms: hydrogen. Out of hydrogen, stars form and group into galaxies. Inside the heat of the stars, elements are born – carbon, oxygen, calcium. When one particular star died and exploded, our sun and its planets came into being. The earth formed and cooled. Life emerged when the conditions were right, in the oceans, beginning an evolutionary process that led, over billions of years, to the birth of all earth’s plants and creatures, and eventually to the appearance of humans.

“In the beginning, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, and a wind from God swept over the waters. And God said, ‘let there be light’ and light was” (Genesis 1:1) We think of the first two chapters of Genesis as our faith-based creation story. But as I ponder Revelation, with its promise of a new heavens and a new earth, I realize that the Bible also ends with an account of creation. Progressive Christians tend to shy away from the wild imagery of Revelation for some good reasons – believe me, I’ve done it myself!  But I wonder if this book is actually a key link between the scientific story of the universe and our spiritual story. Perhaps it can offer a theological perspective as we negotiate the transition from an industrial to an ecological age, an awakening which Joanna Macy calls “the Great Turning”.

“And in the spirit an angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” Biblical scholar Barbara Rossing writes: “Contrary to popular apocalyptic thinking, there is no “rapture” or a future snatching of Christians up from the earth in Revelation. Instead, it is God who is “raptured” down to earth to take up residence among us. Revelation is profoundly ecological in the sense of declaring God’s commitment to the earth as the location of salvation.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1696) I would add that “salvation”, in this sense does not mean entrance to heaven after death; it describes a whole life here and now.

The author of Revelation offers a remarkable picture of this salvation life. The new Jerusalem that comes down to earth from heaven is a reconciliation of earth with Eden. All creation is a thriving urban garden. The earth does not need a temple, because the whole planet is acknowledged as God’s sacred home. The radiance of the stars resides in all things—God is all in all. The earth is conscious of itself as holy. Its rivers are the waters of life. Its trees bear fruits to nourish every season of body and soul. The leaves of the trees offer the potent healing for which the nations yearn. This week in the news it’s the cruelties of the prison at Guantanamo, the lack of support for gun control legislation, the hundreds dead in Bangladesh for the sake of cheap clothing– these are the kinds of unclean, accursed practices of empire that are not allowed in the holy city. God’s new creation heals the alienations that mar the first creation. A greater human consciousness evolves to address the abominations of ignorance, violence and greed. The holy city is a place of full welcome, welcome that is like an endless day. And the gates of the city of inclusion are never shut.

For me, the scientific story of the universe and our faith-based story compliment one another; each deepens and expands the other. I thought until recently that the supposed conflict between evolution and creation was largely settled in the minds of our larger society, that those who continued to deny science were a small remnant. I was startled to learn, in an essay for the Star Tribune by Peter Leschak that “according to a recent Gallup poll 46 percent of Americans believe ‘that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.’ (http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/163231226.html?page=2&c=y) The lesson I draw from this statistic is that theology is one key to addressing the ecological crisis we face, that we must find new ways to connect theology and science.  That’s why today, in the presence of physicists and engineers and mathematicians and chemists and biologists, I am daring to muse, ever so inexpertly, over the spiritual meanings of our scientific origins.

In today’s scripture, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, “has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel.” Apparently the big bang is also sometimes called “the Great Radiance.” That seems a fitting name for the event that set in motion the astounding process by which we were all born out of the dust of the stars. What if the Great Radiance, through which the universe was created, is also the glory of God, and the energy that powers Revelation’s holy city?

Radiance, or energy, is, after all, what seems to be at the root of our struggle with climate change. After worship today, Jim Lenfestey will speak to us about the campaign to divest from the fossil fuel industry.  As a society, we view oil, coal, and natural gas as raw materials that exist for the sake of human exploitation. Energy is pure profit for the companies who extract it from the earth. In the blink of a cosmic eye, we are expending the radiance of earth, stored and perfected over billions of years. With our reckless gluttony, we are literally killing the life-sustaining system that is our planet. The divestment campaign is about shifting our assumptions and behavior. It asks us to view fossil fuels not as raw materials, or as profit, but as sacred, precious members of our earth community. It prompts us to use coal, oil and natural gas sparingly, mindfully, gratefully, as partners with the energies of the wind, sun, water, and those of our own bodies.

Week after week, we pray: “Thy kin-dom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In an article for MinnPost, Rev. Mark Vinge, pastor of House of Hope Lutheran Church writes about his congregation’s engagement with legislative issues this year: “[We might hear Jesus’ words] as a far-off promise, that one day there will be a great reversal — in heaven — on judgment day. But Jesus wasn’t talking about the far distant future or the end of time. He was describing what justice looks like and how we get there… We know that the [kin-dom] of God is more than a promise of what will be — it is the promise of what is — right now — whenever and wherever we are living the love of God.” (http://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2013/05/forget-about-over-reach-legislators-should-do-now-what-we-know-right)