“Gravity and Other Weighty Matters”
March 6, 2016
From out of the whirlwind, the God who
created heaven and earth, who made light shine out of darkness, asks the lowly
“Do you know the
ordinances of the heavens?
establish their rule on earth?
These are rhetorical questions really.
The answers are: “Of course not.”
And yet we are now closer to knowing
those heavenly ordinances. We are closer to understanding the ways in which
they rule us.
Zen masters have long asked, “What is
the sound of one hand clapping?”
We still don’t know.
But now we do know what it sounds like
when two black holes collide.
Last month scientists at the Advanced
Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—I love that name, but it’s
known by its acronym, LIGO—announced that they had detected gravitational
waves, the rippling of space-time that was the result of a collision of two
black holes some 1.3 billion years ago. These were the waves that Einstein
predicted 100 years ago to be a consequence of his general theory of
relativity. At the time he thought that such waves would be impossible to
detect. But they were detected and the scientists at LIGO “translated” them
into a pulsing sound for all the world to hear.
The LIGO works by splitting a laser beam
and sending the two resulting beams back and forth along two mile-long tunnels
built at right angles. One of the beams is then subtracted from the other.
Because they are identical, the beams normally cancel out so that nothing is
seen in the photo detector. When a passing gravitational wave briefly deforms
space around the detector, the two beams are temporarily out of sync and the
photo detector registers a signal.
Two orbiting black holes of enormous
mass emitted gravitational waves as they whipped around each other. The waves
got shorter and stronger as the black holes got closer and they peaked when the
black holes merged violently. The LIGO did not detect the light or the sound
that came from the collision of those two massive black holes. No light, no
sound can escape from the extreme curving of space that a black hole creates.
The LIGO detected the waves of gravity that resulted from the collision—weak
ripples, barely registered.
At least that’s how scientists who know
about these things describe what happens. I’m still trying to wrap my mind
around all of this.
What do we make of this discovery?
No one can really say what, if any, effect this new knowledge will have on our
lives or on the lives of future generations. Certainly, as with other
scientific achievements, it will no doubt offer opportunity and challenge. But
this confirmation of Einstein’s theory is being hailed—and rightly so, I
think—as of major importance in our understanding of this vast universe in
which we occupy such an insignificant part.
Something happened over a billion years
ago in a place more than a billion light years away from us—and we know about
it! What amazing beings we are, able to uncover such secrets and yet posing
such destructive threats to this small planet that is our home, our only home. After
all, the other science news of the past month told of coming extinctions of birds
and bees that pollinate much of the food we depend on, of global warming and
climate change advancing far more quickly than we thought, and of new and
growing class of refugees who are being displaced from their homes as a result
of climate change.
What amazing beings we are.
Speaking from faith, we also say, what
amazing creatures! We recognize that
our very being is dependent upon a God whom we call the “Creator.”
Harvard astronomer and Iowa native— and that’s
the greater qualification, isn’t it?—Owen Gingerich, who visited with us a few
years ago, calls our attention to the one of the “astonishing features” of the
Big Bang: the incredible balance between the outward energy of the expansion
and the gravitational forces trying to pull everything back together again.
…the initial balance had to be accurate to about one part in 10 to the 59th
–a ratio of 1 to 1-followed-by-fifty-nine-zeros, an unimaginably larger
number.” Without that balance there would be nothing rather than something.
Gingrich says that the balance between the energy of expansion and the braking
power of gravitation had to be extraordinarily exact—to such a degree that it
seems as if the universe must have been expressly designed for humankind.[i]
And billions of years later, we find
ourselves on a planet that is the right distance from the sun to allow the
development of life, that circumstances over earth’s five billion year history
have led to the existence of creatures like us who are capable of not only
knowing great things but of giving thanks, of even worshipping the source of
all things, the ground of our being, the living God.
We call ourselves Christians because in
some way, to some degree, we believe that this creative ground of being was
manifest on our planet as one of us in Jesus of Nazareth—“the visible image of
the invisible God” in whom all things in
heaven and on earth were created,“ and through whom God was reconciled to the
world,” as Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians. That is a profound affirmation
of faith and about as far away from a scientific statement as we can get. If we
will linger over those words, however, they will point us toward a deeper
understanding of this world, this cosmos in which we live. They will help us
grasp the divine source of our life—of all life.
We listen to the teachings of Jesus and
seek to follow in his ways, known and to be made known to us, as we say in our
congregation’s covenant. Our faith is like that of the early astronomer,
Johannes Kepler, who wrote at the conclusion of his Harmony of the World that he would praise God his Creator, “for
both those things of which we are entirely ignorant and those of which we know
only a tiny part, because there is still more beyond.” Or, as that UCC motto
puts it, “God is still speaking.” God speaks from the whirlwind—that place
where all our assumptions and conclusions are called into question, a place of
As a congregation, we affirm that we are
a people who don’t know it all, who are seeking to discover just what it means
to follow the One in whom all things in heaven and on earth were created.
And as we follow this Jesus, we are now
in a time of year in which we give particular attention to his life and his
death, and his resurrection. They are all of a piece—and if we separate them
out it is only to better understand something that is as close to us as
breathing and yet as distant as the farthest star.
Now, death is a kind of darkness. “Rage,
rage against the dying of the light,” the poet says.
Eventually the light does die.
Eventually we die. We remembered that again on Ash Wednesday. And death is like
a black hole—no light can escape it; all we see are its results: our grief, our
thanksgiving for a life well lived; our hope that human life will be enriched
because we have lived.
But Ash Wednesday is only a beginning
and death is not the final word. Christianity is the joyful announcement of the
resurrection. Writing to the Colossians, Paul quoted what was even then an old
hymn affirming that Christ is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.
As with death, we can’t see
resurrection. We can’t see the resurrection of Jesus any more than we can see
light escaping a black hole. What we can see are the results: the way in which
the followers of Jesus acted and how their actions continue to ripple across
history. It hasn’t always been a pretty
sight—and we are in one of those times right now when many would rather not be
associated with those who call themselves followers of Jesus.
Still, we take
the name of Christian. We act. It often takes a while, but what at times are
barely detectable signals do show up:
Christians recover the basic equality between men and women that the early
followers of Jesus knew and lived,
After centuries, Christians recover the
message of peace, the message of concern for the poor, the call for justice.
After centuries, Christians recover the
biblical call to stewardship of the earth.
After centuries, Christians awaken to
God’s unlimited love for all people—of all races, gay or lesbian or straight,
rich or poor.
We accept the
invitation to journey toward possibility, miracle, and wonder. We
welcome the stranger; we support the marginalized; we work with those who are
poor or poor in spirit.
Little blips of resurrection waves are
detected by those within these walls and beyond our doors—waves of resurrection
generated by amazing creatures such as us.
[i] Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe, pg. 49.