Here it is in a nutshell, produced in a facility that also houses nuts. Let’s look at a particularly wide cosmological ditch between the old story and the new one—between the story that runs through the current culture like rusty rebar in a rubble heap and the one we need to learn if we’re going to survive.
You no doubt heard the news that scientists have observed gravitational waves, and that it’s a big deal. Lots of stuff to read and listen to, plenty of online simulations of warped spacetime fabric. (Spacetime fabric looks really warped when your online connection is as slow as it is in this corner of Vermont.)
What really lured me in about this doesn’t require fluency in physics (my own knowledge is “faded undergrad plus trade science books”). I’m totally lay on black holes and how the LIGO works. (i.e., (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory).
And while I’m sure it would be deeply cool to understand the discovery through a scientist’s mind–maybe that’s yours–it’s not necessary in order to get what we used to refer to as a contact high. Let’s simplify and use our mammalian facial recognition skills.
Look at these guys. How often do you see people that thrilled? They look like kids on a high swing, at the peak of the wave where that current zaps you from your crown to your crotch. But they’re not swingers, they’re scientists: Rainer Weiss of MIT and Kip Thorne of Cal Tech, who’ve worked for 25 years on the LIGO. These guys’ whole bodies know that they’ve opened the door to another dimension.
These guys are lit up, in great part, because of the darkness. Up until now, most knowledge of space derived from using light in some way. Black holes, dark matter, neutron stars—these powerful residents of our universe don’t reflect light. Because they don’t speak light’s language, they’ve usually been wallflowers at the discovery dance. But that tiny chirp of gravitational waves from two colliding black holes invites a conversation with the darkness that is most of space.
Gravitational waves vibrate with the promise of wild new knowledge. For example, they let us draw intimately close to origins. Light can’t penetrate the opaque energetic shield this side of the first 400,000 years after the Big Bang, so we’ve only been able to look back as far as cosmic kindergarten in understanding our evolutionary infancy. Gravitational waves, on the other hand, can reach back to the delivery room, if not conception: “We’ll be able to see the Big Bang,” one physicist said.
This is exciting! Then there’s the language. Just the five minutes I caught of a recent radio interview with some of the LIGO scientists were densely studded with words like “breakthroughs” and “we could encounter totally new phenomena ” and “we can explore the universe in its entirety.”
And multiple times, in so many accounts:
“There will be many new revelations.”
That may sound familiar, in a twisty way. Because if you were raised in one of the “revealed” religions (those that rely on scripture and prophets) you might recall that the revelation business closed about 2,000 years ago. (The timeline for Islam stretches a little further until Mohammed’s death in 632 CE; and a few forms of Christianity are considered “continuists” that tolerate the idea of further revelatory acts and interpretations.) For most believers, though, no new revelations. Here’s an explanation I found of what makes a “revealed religion.” It’s tellingly less objective than it had probably set out to be:
“Thus, spiritual truth is revealed to believers because it is not something inherently obvious or something one would naturally conclude.”
Even if those truths didn’t defy natural conclusions, the revealed religions aren’t making any more. The Catholic Church spells it out in the official Catechism it updated in 1992 (hey, all you parochial kids—it’s a lot bigger and shinier than the Baltimore Catechism we memorized and that’s still up on blocks in backs of our brains. And this one’s on the interwebs!). But some things haven’t changed—note that in 1992 we still have “first parents” who regularly socialize with the deity:
70 Beyond the witness to himself that God gives in created things, he manifested himself to our first parents, spoke to them and, after the fall, promised them salvation (cf ⇒ Gen 3:15) and offered them his covenant.
73 God has revealed himself fully by sending his own Son, in whom he has established his covenant forever. The Son is his Father’s definitive Word; so there will be no further Revelation after him.
No more for you. Don’t even ask.
So everything we need to know about living good and fulfilling lives, getting along with each other, finding our place in the world, and metabolizing what happens to us is fully contained in your Scripture of choice. For Catholics, add in Apostolic Tradition, which covers oral teachings and the Magisterium, the Vatican’s teaching authority. (This includes papal encyclicals, which couple so closely with related statements from previous encyclicals they’re like those holler folk in Deliverance.)
Because this is the only wisdom they can rightfully expect, lots of religious people spend lots of time picking through scripture to find some kind of nutritious bits that will sustain them through life. Undoubtedly there are some, but they’re suspended in translations and political agendas of dead cultures.
It’s like those Jello “salads” that were centerpieces of social gatherings in the 1950s.
Look at the shapes and colors. There’s an unreality to it all, it defies your expectations of food and gravity (and digestion), but still it presents itself as a worthy edifice capable of satisfying your hunger. All kinds of self-contradictory stuff in there. A shrimp, a marshmallow, a green olive. Bits who’d never met before fixed in a fruit-flavored, free-standing gelatinous ziggurat that had taken special pans and many hours to set. Sure, you could find some nutritious bits in there, but you had to dig for them, and all the while you’re thinking “what IS this stuff?” because people usually don’t know that Jello is what happens when you boil dead animal bones and hides and snouts, which is why hospitals just go ahead and dish it up to declared vegetarian patients. Even if you wanted a cherry tomato you could never get the dead, congealed lime green stuff off it. Plus it wiggled. Which doesn’t mean it’s alive.
Once a jello salad’s set, you can’t add anything, either (except for a tangy horseradish sauce!) All the sticky dead stuff won’t let you. The whole thing will fall apart.
But what if we had a worldview that’s always open for revision, even if it overthrows the whole worldview itself? In science and in life, the deep past changes shape as we learn about it, and that ripples out toward the present. It changes us. It’s a relationship.
Imagine two humans meeting a chimpanzee. One human recognizes her own membership among the Great Apes and the other still believes he’s unrelated, created by a deity in that deity’s image. One will feel a fellowship, an I/Thou, that the other can’t reach. And so it goes with how revelations shape our experience of life.
I’m not saying science is a preferred analog of religion. Science only knows what it knows at any given time, and anyone who’s worked at a university knows that research funding is often political, academically and otherwise. But that doesn’t prevent the real world, our universe, from revealing wild new knowing when we let it.
I’m also not saying these LIGO scientists intuited their gravitational wave findings or received them on a mountaintop. No doubt they were hunched over keyboards and screens of data for years, suffering similar ergonomic stresses as biblical scholars with their parsing, parsing, parsing.
Unlike the biblical scholars, though, the scientists were not looking to squeeze present knowledge into the past, like a sleeping bag into a sock. They were free to look as far outward as they had the equipment to go. They invited the deep past in. They asked a slightly different question, this time of the darkness. They listened. And the darkness sent a song vibrating back.
The host of one of the radio shows about the LIGO asked one participating scientist:
“In a hundred years, will our view of the universe up till now look like those old pen-and-ink maps of the world with continents missing and dragons in the oceans?”
She replied, “I hope so! We expect enormous surprises!”
I vote for her universe. The real world, constantly opening, constantly emerging, constantly revealing, even if it shakes what you thought you knew. The real world is thrilling. Let’s expect enormous surprises.
Here’s a really cool video about the advanced LIGO and gravitational waves.