Being Comfortable in the Presence of Mystery
by Krista Tippett, host
Mario Livio speaks with Brian Greene (photo: ©The Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination/Flickr)
When I first picked up Mario Livio’s book Is God a Mathematician? I knew I wanted to speak with him. Given that title, it is perhaps surprising to learn that he is not himself a religious man. But in his science, he is working on frontiers of discovery where questions far outpace answers — exploring the nature of neutron stars, white dwarfs, dark energy, the search for intelligent life in other galaxies.
In vivid detail and with passionate articulation, he reinforces a sense that has come through in many of my conversations with scientists these past years. That is, in contrast to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western, cultural confidence that science was on the verge of explaining most everything, our cutting-edge, twenty-first-century discoveries are yielding ever more fantastic mysteries. The real science of the present, Mario Livio says, is far more interesting than science fiction could ever be.
For example, the fact that the universe is expanding rather than contracting is new knowledge. That has led to the discovery of what is called, for lack of precise understanding, “dark energy,” which is accelerating this expansion. This utterly unexplained substance is now thought to comprise something like 70 percent of the universe. Likewise, the Hubble telescope has helped humanity gain intricate new detail on the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos and the relative insignificance of the space we take up in it. At the same time — and this is one of Livio’s intriguing mysteries — this new knowledge and perspective also shine a new kind of light on the inordinate power of the human mind.
Livio’s question “Is God a mathematician?” is actually an ancient and unfolding question about the uncanny “omnipresence and omnipotent powers” of mathematics as experienced by science and philosophy across the ages. The question itself, as Livio says, is as rich to ponder as any of its possible answers. And so is the fact, behind it, that our minds give rise to mathematical principles, which are then found to have what physicist Eugene Wigner called “an unreasonable effectiveness” in describing the universe.
Livio also picks up on an intriguing theme left dangling in my lovely conversation in 2010 with the Vatican astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — the enduring question of whether mathematical truths, laws of nature, are discovered or invented. Livio unapologetically offers his conclusion that there is no either/or answer possible here — that mathematics is both invented and discovered. That is to say, as he tells it, scientists habitually “invent” formulations and theories with no practical application, which generations or centuries later are found to describe fundamental aspects of reality. Even mathematical ideas that are at first invented yield real discoveries that are relevant, true, and wholly unexpected.
I was also interested to learn, as I went into this conversation, that when Mario Livio is not doing science he is a lover of art. “Beauty” is a word that recurs across my cumulative conversation with scientists, and Mario Livio infuses that word with his own evident passion. He is not quite sure, when I press, what that might have to do with his simultaneous passion for art. And yet there is something intriguing — mysterious even — about his description of how echoing allusions from science and art come to him effortlessly in his writing.
And in the backdrop of our conversation, images from the Hubble Space Telescope have brought a lavish beauty of the cosmos into ordinary modern eyes and imaginations. One senses that of all the accomplishments in which he has played a part, Mario Livio is most proud of this one. For him, science is a part of culture — like literature, like the arts. And he wants the rest of us, whether we speak his mother tongue of mathematics or not, to experience it that way too. This conversation brings me farther forward on this path.
I kept thinking, as I spoke with Mario Livio, of Einstein’s references to the reverence for beauty and open sense of wonder that Einstein saw as a common root experience of true science, true religion, and true art. His use of the word “God,” Mario Livio tells me, is similar to Einstein’s grasp for the word “God” as a synonym for the workings of the cosmos. I am struck once again with the capacity of modern scientists to be more comfortable with the presence of mystery, and bolder in articulating its reality than many who are traditionally religious.
Centenarian Woman Thanks God and Deputies Who Defied Court Order to Evict
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“I knew that they know what they were doing. God don’t let them do wrong.”
Here’s one of those feel-good stories that makes you smile for human decency and feel a little bit sad knowing that this act of kindness may be an exception. On Tuesday, WSB Channel 2 in Atlanta reported that Vinia Hall, a 103-year-old woman, and her 83-year-old daughter were about to be evicted from her home when deputies of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office and hired movers defied a court order to evict the two from their foreclosed home in northwest Atlanta.
For the purposes of this project, take note of the strong expressions of faith in God “making it right” and citations of the Bible, by Ms. Hall and also by a neighbor and community activist too.
If it is art — if it is honest to God, card-carrying, well done, well-crafted, well-honed art — it comes up so sweetly against the side of religion that they are essentially kissing each other. We can’t escape the fact that somehow religion is concerned with the subjective world, as is art. And they share a territory that somehow circumvents or circumscribes the mind, and they have a conversation together.
—Phyllis Tickle, from “A Return to Mystery: Religion, Fantasy, and Entertainment”
Looking back at this old transcript in anticipation of this week’s show, “Monsters We Love” with Diane Winston, I found these lovely lines worth pondering.
Photo by Wyoming Jackrabbit/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0
~Krista Tippett, host
I had an opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up. In my opinion, it was the beginning of the secular movement of politicians to separate their faith from the public square, and he threw faith under the bus in that speech.
The GOP presidential candidate, who, like John F. Kennedy, is also Roman Catholic, was speaking to a group at the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, New Hampshire in October when he made this comment about JFK’s seminal speech in 1960 in which the then-Democratic presidential candidate expressed his faith in the separation of church and state.
Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Is Justin Bieber the Evangelical Christian a Prophetic Figure?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
You don’t have to “get” Justin Bieber. Just look around and listen to your teenage nieces or your pre-teen neighbors living next door. It’s more than just a love affair with the seventeen-year-old singer and pop star. He’s a heroic figure to many of his fans, so I get what Cathleen Falsani means when she uses the word “prophetic” to describe him (although I do, admittedly, cringe a bit hearing her making the declaration).
In this interview with PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the author of Belieber!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber discusses the cultural icon’s religious background, the role of faith in Bieber’s life, and how the young Evangelical Christian talks about his faith in ways that make his fellow Christians uncomfortable.
Photo by Snow Belieber/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.
—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Q:The very subject discussed today was pivotal in my walking away from fundamental evangelicalism. No grace, no reverence. I am searching for individuals who are seekers of truth, not willing to accept pat answers from non thinking individuals. Any suggestions on a denomination that will allow me to question and think outside the box? I am not ready for Buddhism, even though some of the teachings resonate with me. I am at a crossroads and could use a little direction.
Anon, although we are mere journalists and not spiritual counselors, perhaps I could offer some words of wisdom from a former guest, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, who offers this advice in “The Spirituality of Parenting”:
“Don’t let the people who gave you a bad impression of your religious tradition be the only ones to define it. You, too, are a part of that tradition, and you’re not just a descendent, you are also an ancestor, and you helped to create the future of that tradition. So give it a second chance. Many times we have bad experiences with particular religious tradition, but that is not the best of the tradition. We need to look to the best of the tradition, because there are wonderful things within religious traditions, and they give us this language that allows us to speak.”
If this advice is not helpful, perhaps I can echo the suggestions of several wise elders I’ve heard over the years: simply put, “try on” a religion for a while and see how it feels and fits. Perhaps it’s doctrine or ritual that’s important to you or maybe it’s the individuals within a community that matter most.
I’d like to solicit our readers for their guidance and experience; please share your wisdom for this individual in the comments section.
~answered by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
When Doctrine Isn’t Enough: A Former Nun Awakens to the Responsibility of Her Own Spirituality
by Jan Phillips, guest contributor
Young girls dressed in white symbolizing purity shower flowers and rose petals before the passing of the Holy Host carried in solemnity by the parish priest. (photo: Peter Grima/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
At an early age, I learned that God was a being who dwelled in a place far from where I ever stood. I learned to commune with the transcendent God of the above, not the immanent divine within. But over the years, as I let go of childish thinking and took responsibility for my spiritual life, my perception of God changed dramatically. I am guided now not so much by teachings that were handed down to me, but by ideas that have risen up from within — a shift that began 30 years ago when I was a young postulant nun in a religious order taking my first theology class.
The Jesuit priest stood in front of the room and asked us what we believed about God. One postulant raised her hand, stood up, and said, “God made me to show His goodness and to share His everlasting life with me in heaven.” I nodded my head in agreement, having memorized this years ago just like everyone else in the room.
The priest looked dismayed. “That’s it?” he asked.
“Sit down,” he barked, looking around for the next hand.
Up it went, and the next brave soul stood up saying, “In God there are three divine persons, really distinct, and equal in all things — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
I nodded again, and the priest frowned. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Next,” he yelled, as she took her seat, looking around in wonder.
By now, we’re all confused, but one more raised her hand.
“God can do all things, and nothing is hard or impossible to Him.”
“Sit down,” he said.
He rolled his eyes, crossed his arms, and surveyed the whole group of us with a kind of silent disdain. By now, I’m feeling anxious and blood is rushing up my neck. I feel hot and sweaty. My first anxiety attack.
“How could he do this?” It seemed so mean. He asked for our ideas about God and yet, when we said them, it felt like he took a sledge hammer and smashed our beliefs into a thousand pieces. A tear rolled down my cheek.
It was a moment of devastating loss, incomprehensible sadness. I felt as if everything I believed in, everything on which I had based my life, was now being challenged. We sat there, 30 of us, for what seemed an eternity, reckoning with the obliteration of God as we had known Him. What if everything we believed wasn’t true? Did Father Grabys know something we didn’t know?
Finally the priest spoke. “You should be ashamed for having nothing more than catechism answers to this question. Are you just a bunch of parrots, repeating everything you’ve been taught? Hasn’t anyone here gone beyond the Baltimore Catechism in your thinking?”
The air was thick with silence. Hands were folded, eyes cast down. Tears cascaded down my face. I prayed he wouldn’t call on me.
“You must come to know what is true about God from your own experience,” said the priest. “If you are to be a nun worth your salt, you have to arrive at a faith that is deeper than your learning, one that is rooted in your ultimate concerns and rises up from the nature of who you are.”
I looked up at him, wondering how in the world to build a faith from my human nature. Wasn’t faith something I was born into — something I inherited from the outside?
I was a Catholic by default. They told me everything I was supposed to believe. That was the point, wasn’t it? I was just lucky to be born into the one true faith. I certainly didn’t have anything to say about it. That’s what infallible popes were for.
I raised my hand and asked him how someone could create a faith from the inside out, and why we even needed to since we knew what we needed to know from the catechism.
“What you believe, that is religion,” he said. “Who you are, what you live for — that is faith. And that is what we are here to explore, to create, and to declare — our faith and spirituality. You can let go of your beliefs for awhile as you learn how to create a faith that will see you through everything.”
I didn’t want to let go of any beliefs. They were all I had. And they were enough. I didn’t need anything more, or so I thought. As we continued on in the class, the biblical paradox that says we must lose our lives in order to find them suddenly began to make sense. Taking responsibility for our own spirituality was a painstaking process that lasted the entire semester as we worked to find and define our own commitments and ultimate concerns — a task that was supremely challenging for young women who had been taught all their lives what to think, but not how to think.
We never looked at another catechism, never recited another memorized belief, but step by step we built a new spirituality for ourselves that was deeply personal and rooted in our ultimate concerns. And every day during meditation there was something new and profoundly elegant to contemplate: myself as the creator of my own spiritual path.
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But I still pretty much think the same thing that I sometimes said to Kathie back when we were being raped. I can’t quite get over it. If there is a God, how could he let this thing happen to us? We didn’t deserve it.
This series from The Wichita Eagle will make you question everything about humanity, family, love, neighbors, forgiveness, God. “Promise Not To Tell” documents the perpetual rape of Kellie and Kathie Henderson by their father and two brothers since they were small children, the grace of a Christian family who rescued them and later baptized the assaulting brother in prison, and the shattered worlds these two women are trying to living into and emerge from. A courageous story we’re obligated to read and remember.
by Trent Gilliss, senior producer
Until religious people understand the spirit of the Word, especially the nature of unconditional love, they are trapped in an ethical prison. In the meantime, people can use Scripture to support any opinion. Why bother? Why not just go directly to what is right?
— Shepherd Hoodwin, in response to Krista’s recent interview with Richard Mouw in “Restoring Political Civility.”
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor