Pondering big questions

On my bookshelf is a copy of the bible that belonged to my grandfather. I keep it in a cedar box because my mother kept it in that same box. As things go, it isn’t really all that old. He received it in 1927 - less than a century ago. Like his parents and in-laws he was a devout Methodist and learned about the bible as a child growing up in a faithful household. This particular copy of the Bible, with his name embossed on the cover is the King James Version, a particular translation that Christians have been using since its first publication in 1611, though it took several decades after its first printing before it was more commonly used than the Geneva Bible. That adds a few more centuries. But in the span of history even that isn’t all that old. It stands in a line of faith that stretches back thousands of years. Some of the texts gathered together into what we call the Bible are stories that faithful people had been sharing for many, many generations before there were any written documents.

I don’t use my grandfather’s bible very much. I have a lot of copies of the Bible and there are versions that I prefer for devotional reading and study. Once in a while I will take it from the shelf, open the cedar box, remove the leather-bound book and read a bit - perhaps the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke or the call of the prophet Jeremiah or Psalm 90. I suspect, though that the words I have scanned the most are those from the opening of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” Those familiar words aren’t the most ancient words in our Bible. They aren’t even the most ancient story of creation contained in the Book of Genesis. We don’t know exactly when those words first emerged, but we do know that they first emerged in Hebrew before the English language existed. When I studied Biblical Hebrew, I memorized those first few verses in that language and when I say them it provides a bit of a connection between me and those who came a long time before I was born.

Many biblical scholars believe that the words of the first chapter of Genesis arose within the community of faithful sometime around the Babylonian Exile. Up until that time, the questions of origin were more frequently answered in terms of family heritage. The book of Deuteronomy gives the declaration of the history of our people with the liturgical response: “My ancestor Jacob was a wandering Aramean who went to live as a foreigner in Egypt.” Our people had formalized the answer to the question of origins in terms of the experience of being slaves in Egypt. The experience of exile in Babylon, however, brought the need for a different kind of origin story. Exposed to the ancient stories of those among whom they lived during the exile, the people of Israel began to feel a need for a cosmology that explained more than family lineage. They pondered questions about the origins of all existence as separate from the questions of where our people came from.

Over the centuries, the words of the beginning of Genesis emerged as the way we start to tell our story. These words were in common use, memorized by generations upon generations long before the emergence of scientific method, long before there was any teaching that we might call the discipline of physics, long before there was a distinction between science and religion. And yet they contain a concept that continues to be pondered by modern scientists. The cosmology textbook, Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett states: "Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” Perhaps it is not accurate to call Pratchett’s book a cosmology textbook. Wikipedia refers to it as a fantasy novel. It is an attempt to think about the universe by someone who is at least schooled in contemporary science including physics. The book has been around for about 30 years and there have been plenty of discoveries in the field of physics in those decades, but it is popular among those who ponder the origins and scope of the universe from a scientific perspective. It is entirely possible, however, that Pratchett’s idea of darkness being first has its roots in the cosmological thinking of Jewish thinkers who encountered Babylonian and pre-Babylonian organ stories: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

We, whose ideas are shaped by modern scientific theory, tend to think in terms of certain laws of physics. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. The problem with thinking of physics as a set of laws, however, is that the laws don’t quite explain all observable phenomenon. Quantum physicists observe that subatomic particles do not behave independently. They are entangled. They emerge in balanced pairs. Quantum information appears to be transferred between particles instantly - that is faster than the speed of light. The laws of physics, however, state that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Even the most astute of minds, wrestling with the nature of the universe, find the universe to be more complex than our capacity to understand: “the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”

Somehow at this particular phase of my life, it is reassuring to pick up an actual book that is more than a century older than I, that has been treasured by generations of my family, and read the words of people much more ancient than any I can remember and realize that we have been pondering big questions for a long, long time. I don’’t have to come up with all of the answers on my own - the important questions are bigger than a single generation.