Monday, April 29, 2013
Debating Hawking's Rational Eye
I sat down and meditated the other day and saw an Egyptian's eye, perfectly almond and outlined in ebony. Other eyes came up. One particular eye I remember is the one trapped behind an angled brow, frigid and piercing. It was Stephen Hawking's eye, when he declared there was no God.
My husband and I watched the documentary on the Science channel one evening a while ago. In one scene, Hawking is in a wheelchair in a hall where there are elegant paintings and wooden floors. There is a narrator who expounds upon Hawking's thoughts and there are graphics of space stuff and black holes shooting toward us on the television. Stephen Hawking's reasoning proceeds as thus: A black hole distorts time; a black hole can stop time. Inside a black hole, time does not exist. Before the universe existed, there was only the black hole. If time does not exist in the black hole, than there is no creator, because a creator would need time to exist and create.
He continues, "There is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization; there is probably no heaven and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the Grand Design of the Universe and for that I am extremely grateful."
OK, hold on a minute here. Doesn't Grand Design imply a Grand Designer? I don't want to get into semantics or the Evolution/Creation debate. If you ask me, one of God's grand designs was to set evolution in motion; it's creationism on automatic, but that's another essay entirely. What I want to debate is not only using reason to find God, but attitude. The ego, through science and technology, tempts us into thinking we can build Towers of Babel, but the humbler, more reverent approach to God--which can be found in science and the arts, poetry in particular--is more appropriate for our finite minds.
Hawking uses if-then reasoning in his theory on the non-existence of God, and there's a boatload of established science on black holes, space, and time to back it up. But the tenet overall seems a bit hasty and oversimplified, and I wonder what Einstein would have said of the theory. Einstein claimed that he himself comprehended a tiny portion "of the reason that manifests itself in nature" and he had great reverence for it: "A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestation of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty--it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense and this alone, I am a deeply religious man."
Reverence is the hub around which Mary Oliver's poems revolve: "Of Course! the path to heaven/ doesn't lie down in flat miles./ It's in the imagination/ with which you perceive/ this world,/ and the gestures/ with which you honor it."
So perhaps if reason, for most of us, would fall short in our approach to God, we might try a different route. The imagination that Oliver speaks of in her poem is a separate entity, one that embraces irrationality and emotion--love. God is love is what we are told in nearly every religion. Love! an irrational entity, one that science does not condone, but love and its irrationality is a viable means, an alternative approach. Here is a beautifully irrational poem by Rainer Maria Rilke from The Book of Hours:
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
and I still don't know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
We can't reach out across the world, nor can we live a thousand years. But something in us leaps up when reading mystical poetry like this and shouts yes. Yes, that's soul, the rationale-defying part of self. And soul yearns for God, always circling and circling. That act of yearning is sacred and beautiful, like a song, and sometimes massive and overwhelming, like a storm.
Yearning is a prominent theme in The Book of Hours. According to the book's introduction, Rilke wrote the poems in the "persona of a Russian monk living in a cloister, summoned by the bell to the task of seeing and meeting what was most real to him in the world." Rilke had set out to find "the authentic ground to the superstructures of his culture's faith" and in this way established his own belief system and "loved God into being."
Here is another poem that addresses yearning from The Book of Hours:
Why am I reaching again for the brushes?
When I paint your portrait, God,
But I can choose to feel you.
At my senses' horizon
you appear hesitantly,
like scattered islands.
Yet standing here, peering out,
I'm all the time seen by you.
The choruses of angels use up all of heaven.
There's no more room for you
in all that glory. You're living
in your very last house.
All creation holds its breath, listening within me,
because, to hear you, I keep silent.
I love the lines "at my senses' horizon/ you appear hesitantly/ like scattered islands." Did Rilke recognize a timidity in God? It would make sense that God would respect our finite minds, our limitations, our fearfulness. In the poem "Jesus on the Lean Donkey," Rumi writes that "God's silence is necessary, because of humankind's faintheartedness." Annie Dillard touches upon this as well in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book where she stalks the divine in the natural world. She quotes the Old Testament and how Moses asked to see the face of God and God tells him "shall no man see me and live." But God allowed Moses to see his back parts and Moses returned to his people with his face aglow and they feared him. "Just a glimpse, Moses," Dillard writes, "A clift in the rock here, a mountaintop there, and the rest is denial and longing." Part of the reverence and respect for God is admitting that he is elusive and that we long for him. I wrote my own poem on this topic most recently:
There may be openings,
though I spend my life
banging at the door
there may be openings
at my head perhaps
or in the floor.
You subtle good rising
tucked away in some bud
some stone, some afterthought
you dangle, you plunge
you live your life
underneath my tongue;
a thirsted, distant entity
lies within me
a hatchling crying out
to embrace and dance,
to chance, chance, chance.
Flip a coin of mood and
I am staring at you darkly
and you don't move an inch
I cup your riddle
in my hands and sit, investigate
for a petal to release
for a scent, some sound
but what I don't know
unfolds behind me,
around me, blossoming,
in petals and sounds abound.
We search, we research, we pray, we feel nowhere with God. We are trapped within the fabrications, limitations of our own minds, as Rilke tells us. Then one morning a dove sits on the sideview mirror of your car when you are frazzled, confused, and wracked with anxiety. It's a very strange place for a dove to be. And so is the railing outside of your therapist's office when you are feeling so torn up inside, over something you can't quite define, and the dove seems to say, "Peace to you." You ask the therapist, "Does a dove normally come to sit on the railing?" And she replies no. A soft, cream colored mourning dove that embodies calm and wildness and freedom. And there it is, a small, simple offering. This is our glimpse.
In this last poem, Rilke talks of finding God in darkness. This is most ironic because we have always associated God with "the light":
You, darkness, of whom I am born-
I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.
But the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations - just as they are.
It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.
I believe in the night.
It is a subtle, subtle slip into consciousness, that hunch of " a great presence stirring." But it counts. It's not something you can calculate but that doesn't mean it isn't true. We yearn for God like we hunger for food, and we know food exists. We yearn for God like we yearn for touch, and we know touching is possible. Our yearnings do mean something; they count, but that doesn't mean they can be written as equations. The only formula that comes close to this is the Universal Law of Gravitation or "Every mass in the universe attracts every other mass." We could easily replace the word "attracts" with the phrase "seeks." One could correlate this to love and togetherness, or to seeking in general. To seek is the action part of yearning."You have to stalk everything," Dillard says. "Everything scatters and gathers; everything comes and goes like fish under a bridge...I am both waiting becalmed in a clift of the rock and banging with all my will, calling like a child beating on a door: come out!...I know you're there."
I champion Stephen Hawking's brilliant mind, but I think he's on the wrong track with pigeon-holing God to a theory. God is an offering, a supreme rationality and irrationality; God is the poem, the hunch, the dove, the primordial tower. The black hole our minds must learn to accept.