The paradox of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Some of you know that I’m in Jerusalem at the moment on a tour of Israel. Today we had a chance to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as part of our itinerary.

It is my first time in Israel and I am both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by what I am seeing. Underwhelmed because the reality of the holiest sites of Christianity is not at all what I had imagined them to be and overwhelmed for exactly the same reason. I now understand better what a friend of mine meant when she said that Jerusalem is a place of profound paradox.

The Holy Sepulcher, at least as I experienced it today, is crowded, noisy, hot and incredibly human and mundane. People stand and talk as others are falling on their knees and weeping with what they are experiencing. Children run and laugh, tour groups pose for staged pictures, and guides seek lost tourists just like any other major tourist attraction I’ve ever seen. And yet, in the midst of all of this teeming life, there is the reality that something profound happened in this place that changed the course of human history.

A companion of mine and I were later reflecting on a short passage from the Book of Acts where it is related that St. Paul said “these events did not happen in a corner”. They happened in a busy city, in a place where people have always gathered and where people still stream to visit for many reasons other than the fact of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Seeing the Church drove home to me that point that Paul was making. This happened in a mundane, human scaled place. It is hard to get my mind wrapped around the simple small scale of a church building which easily contains the place of the crucifixion and the place of the resurrection, but it is just as it is, and just as it was. Small, noisy, and common.

And it seems to me that it really couldn’t have happened in any other sort of place – at least now that I have been there.

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Pursuing the Mystery of Science and Faith – a sermon

I preached this sermon last week at the 2014 Ecumenical Round Table meeting on Science, Technology and the Church meeting in Salt Lake City last week.

A rabbi once told me, in a conversation about faith and science, that God hides the truth from us, and expects us to work, using all of our faculties to find it. That’s a counter to the common understanding of how Science or Theology work, but for those of us who are seekers in both fields, it’s something that we know to be true because we encounter its reality every day of our lives.

I was hoping to call out everyone who lives in both worlds and ask them to be living examples that one could be a believing scientist…

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Science and Religion. The road show

Great evening speaking to a group of people at Glencoe Union Church last night. The pastor is very active in issues surrounding the interactions between Science and Religion (and in particular with the Templeton Fund). He invited me to give my talk on best practices in conversations between scientific and religious thought.

I’m taken by an off-hand comment he made in introducing me. It was that I was the first speaker they had in the series (which has been nearly a year long one at this point) who was trained as both a scientist and a theologian. What the community seemed particularly interested in was the way that I, and others with such background, integrate the two disciplines.

I know a number of people with the same sort of background as I have – though most are much better scientists than I am or was. But when I think about the people I know, most of them are in the Society of Ordained Scientists, and there’s only about 150 or so of us. That’s a small number actually, even though it feels like a lot of us when we’re all together.

Perhaps it’s time for those in the SOSc, and those who have similar sorts of backgrounds, to become much more intentional about speaking publicly about the integrative work they have done in their rule of life. People seem to need to know it can be done. And it’s a proof best done by example it seems.

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What’s going on with the new data from BICEP?

I’ve seen a number of news reports over the last day talking about the newly announced detection of primordial gravity waves by the BICEP program at the South Pole. Most of them trumpet these results as proving the Big Bang. That’s not what’s going on here.
What’s been found is the first experimental evidence of a theory that’s been widely accepted but never “proved” by primary data, that very early on in the existence of our Universe, space-time expanded at rate far exceeding the speed of light. We don’t really know why that happened, and we don’t really know for sure that it stopped happening, but the fact that it happened was used to explain the relative homogeneity of matter and energy in the early Universe, and the fact that the space-time manifold is nearly flat.

The “nearly flat” part was the motivation for the original idea behind what’s called the “Inflationary epoch” of the Universe. When I was a physics student back in the mid seventies and mid eighties the big push in observational cosmology was to try to determine whether we lived in an open or closed Universe. A closed Universe would have had a overall curvature of space-time that would be “spherical” in a four-dimensional sort of way – like the two-dimensional surface of the earth is curved in a spherical way in three dimensions. An open Universe would have been curved like a saddle shape. A good chunk of my graduate studies were involved in working out some of the basic mathematics of a curved Universe (specifically: finding coordinates under which the Klein Gordon Equation was separable into individual spatial unit vector terms). We talked about the funny but completely unexpected possibility that the Universe was “flat” – and had exactly zero curvature. That was the Euclidean ideal, but no one executed to find it.

Except we did. The data kept coming in and as it got better and more precise, the observed curvature was shown to be about as perfectly flat as anyone could measure.

That was a big surprise. Of all the infinite values that the Universal curvature could be, the odds of it being exactly flat were vanishingly small. Something must have made it that way.

So cosmologists guessed that for some unknown reason the Universe had gotten very very big at some early moment in its history. And that while it was curved in some fashion at the largest scale, we could only observe a very very small portion, and that small portion was so stretched out that it looked flat to us. (That link is from 2011 btw.)

What the BICEP data is showing is something that was expected if Inflation was real, but hadn’t yet been observed, that the would be gravitational perturbations from that early epoch that would still be visible. The discovery of these waves is experimental proof that Inflation happened. So the idea that was invented to solve a puzzle about the flatness of space is now seen to have really happened.

Here’s an excellent sort of technical explanation of what is going on in these observations. (It was posted the evening before the announcement was formally made.)

And here’s a superb(!) explanation of why this might be a very very big deal – we finally have data that takes us back to the very beginning. From this we might be able to say something about what was going on before our Universe was born. Note that I said “our” Universe. Because this almost directly implies (and maybe not almost) that there was something before we were. That’s a big deal.

(I have a book in front of me that argues from these principles and others that the possibility that there is something existence before we were might just give a full physics based reasoning for something we in theology call “eternity” – and maybe even more. I’m reading the book for my Lenten journey. Hope to be able to post on it later.)

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You made the heavens and the earth, with all their vast array

From today’s meditation:

“The universe is essentially a giant empty, soundless, cold, chaotic void. In incredibly rare instances, there are small pockets of organized matter. The little pockets represent very simple things like electrons, a proton, a cosmic ray. Even more rarely those little bits of organization combine into something complicated—a hydrogen or helium atom. Even more rare than that are clouds of hydrogen. Stars, planets, and everything else that we can see are very small and very rare things when we think on the cosmic scale. It’s hard to imagine that God fills all of this vastness with the fire of love, or that God can comprehend its totality.”

More here.

Every now and then I read something that I’ve written and think, wow. That’s not bad.

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Ash Wednesday meditation from Lent is Not Rocket Science

You might be interested in some of the thoughts of mine about Ash Wednesday that we’ve posted on our diocesan blog. Here’s a taste:

“I find it very evocative that the ashes we use on this day come from the destruction of the work of creation. The microbes and cellular creatures of creation labored for years to organize the minerals and chemicals that made up the structure of the leaf of palm. When we cut the leaf off the tree, taking it away from its source of nourishment and water, those cells began to die. They dried out and become mere husks of what they once were. But the fire of Fat Tuesday released the molecules back into the atmosphere so that a new plant could use them again. Fire, water, air, and Earth are all present in the moment of the creation of the ashes. And though we put the end product on our foreheads, the life-giving parts have been returned to creation to be used again and again.”

The full meditation is posted here.

It’s from my new book published by Forward Movement. You can read the first week’s meditations on our diocesan blog linked above, and download the ebook for Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, or iTunes at a discounted $1.99 price to follow along as we discuss this book the rest of Lent. The print editions of the book sold out three weeks ago, but there will be additional copies printed for next year and following. (Links to the ebooks are also found on the diocesan blog.)

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Relationship trumps vindication

Cof orange hexEpiscopal Bishop Jake Owensby (of Western Louisiana) is one of the sharpest people I know. So when he writes something calling for a change in our corporate behavior both in the Church and in our society, I pay attention.

In his recent post on resolutions for the New Year, he ends by sharing the following list which he offers as a way to move us beyond the corrosive partisanship that just about everyone agrees is tearing us apart, but no one seems to be able to escape.

  • Seek the common good, not just your own narrow self-interest.

  • Ask what you can contribute in every situation, not merely what you will get out of it.
  • When we disagree about ideas, assume the good will of those with whom you disagree.
  • Refuse to indulge in contempt for those with whom you disagree.  Look actively for the good in them.
  • Find the one thing you agree upon and commit to working together on that with all your might.
  • Remember that right relationship is more important than being right.

We need a new tone in this country.  We need a positive, cooperative spirit that takes disagreement as a process for finding common solution instead of battles to have our own way all the time.

We are all in this together.

More here. (With graphics and a movie even!)

I added the emphasis on Jake’s last point because I think it’s so important. We need right relationships with each other more than we need to be able to protect God from the errors we fear someone else might be making. God doesn’t need our protection. And for people that might argue that we are trying to protect the person making the error, rather than protecting God, I’d like to be shown proof of how uniformly successful they’ve been in changing the behavior or ideas to which they object…

It seems to me that the opening of John’s Gospel, where we remember the moment that the Word of God literally “pitched a tent and lived among us” points us to the method that God used to finally gain our attention and change our direction. God lived among us in relationship first – our understanding and change takes place as a result of that relationship. Relationship seems to precede amendment of life – at least in most of the biblical narratives. We are called, I believe, to seek relationship with others more than we are called to find vindication of our ideas about others.

I make a further point in the opening chapter of the book “Entangled States” when I argue that the Church has a special charism in creating these sorts of healing relationships in such a moment in our history.

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