UTRUM SIT DEUS?
IS THERE A GOD?

SEPTEMBER 24, 2000
JAN VICKERY KNOST
THE FIRST PARISH IN NORWELL


Text: Utrum sit Deus? Videtur quod non. - St. Thomas Aquinas

The question we are considering today is not new. It may fairly be deemed a perennial question. And I think it is highly appropriate for us to appraise its implications during the fall season as “the days dwindle down”. The Latin quotation which I just shared appeared in one of the greatest theological works of all time. It was called the Summa Theologica and was written over 600 years ago by St. Thomas Aquinas. “Utrum sit Deus?” (Is there a God?) Videtur quod non. (It seems not.)

It is difficult to believe that one of the greatest Roman Catholic theologians would answer the question in such a way. But he did it with a purpose. He wrote the question in that way in order to set up an opportunity to argue several other reasons FOR the existence of God. Here’s a close approximation of his words:

This may be one of the great arguments of theological history with respect to the question of the existence of God. I will admit that it requires a metaphysical line of thinking and I realize such thinking is none-too-popular in today’s world. And yet. Aquinas was not alone. Others support his point.

Voltaire, that indomitable French author and philosopher of the Enlightenment once stated in a letter to Emperor Frederick the Great that:

Jonathan Edwards, the great American preacher and reformer was quite convinced of the nature of deity as he stated in his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”:

Fifty years later, the British radical by the name of Tom Paine wrote a book to defend his belief in deism. Paine was a singular initiator of many of the ideals of the American Revolution. In his essay “The Age of Reason”, he observed that:

Even Origen, the early Christian father remembered for his departure from main line Catholicism in his radical embrace of the concept of universal salvation, was careful in his description of what he meant by the word “God”:

It would seem, though, that our modern world is quicker to recognize passing impressions and feelings than it is to consider eternal questions propounded by ancient sages. For instance, Anselm was said to have been the greatest thinker ever to adorn the throne at Canterbury Cathedral. He was often called “the second Augustine”. He, too, wrestled with this problem. Perhaps his greatest contribution to this continuing dialog was his “ontological proof of God”:

The matter of whether one believes in some form of being or existence beyond the limits of human experience does not depend upon Thomas Aquinas and his power to convince, any more than to take the more philosophical approach of a great thinker like Anselm.

Each of us has his or her arguments for or against the existence of some transcendent being. The fact of the matter is that humanity has ALWAYS had an innate perception of god - or the lack thereof. A person’s understanding of God or not is tied with some of the deepest strains of consciousness.

Most men and women seek “the good” in their lives. Despite false starts, endless failings and the cynical denial of hope, people tend to work to that end; that is, to the accomplishment of “what is good” in life.

In our solitude we may find ourselves asking “What it is all about?” “Who am I?” “How did I come to be here?” “Where am I going?” We hear a newborn baby’s cry or, more wonderfully, witness the birth of a baby; or we stare in wonder into the massive reaches of space; we stand motionless watching a beautiful bird or know the joy of autumn’s incredible colors. In any of these we are no different than those of time previous who wondered and wandered in the that same universe of thought.

Even in the darkness of lost hope when people war upon one another, killing and being killed, or committing unspeakably cruel acts in the name of their selfish interests, even then, as the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer affirmed in the death camp -"the thought of God is witnessed in that dark night when one is most alone.”

Let me share the way one man approached these questions. He was once a Missouri farm boy. Today, he is ranked with names like Galileo, Newton and Einstein. He was one of the greatest scientists in history. His name was Harlow Shapley and he was an astrophysicist. He often said of his work that “he liked to look through the windows of the milky way . . . and beyond.”

Someone once kidded him by asking if there was any milk in the milky way. He replied, “Of course, and they’re one of my favorite brands of candy!” Shapley had an innate sense of wonder and a wish for world unity. It made him larger than life. Some have opined that Shapley was a spiritualist of sorts. One wonders at such an unlikely prospect. Why? Consider. He once wrote the following:

I . . . am a pretty good operator with a forked twig. Once I had a dousing twig cut under a waxing moon from an apple tree growing beside a graveyard. (Ed. Note: all the ingredients necessary for a stick that “finds water”.) It was supersensitive; it ignored the nearby Charles River but it located a pint of bourbon in a friend’s hip pocket!

In his later years, Dr. Shapley wrote a number of books in addition to those he wrote on the subject of astronomy. Two were titled Science Ponders Religion and The Scientist Speculates. In them, he talked about the possibility that the sky must contain not only the stars we see glowing, but dark ones we cannot see.

Dr. Shapley also founded a magazine called Science News and was a frequent speaker at Unitarian Universalist Summer Institutes. One explanation of his reasoning was an explanation of Fuller’s Equation: “1 + 2 = 4”. Odd? Not at all. If you take one equilateral triangle and add two more in a pyramid, you form a fourth triangle in the middle.

Shapley described this as an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. He even suggested that it might explain the creation of oceans. If you add one atom of oxygen to two atoms of hydrogen, you create something more than these two invisible gasses.

In the 17th century, Lord Orrery of Northern England ordered a model of the solar system constructed for his gardens. It was a marvelous piece of machinery. It was constructed in total keeping with Kepler’s discoveries. There was a brass sun and globes that represented the planets which revolved around it. Lord Orrery had a friend who was an outspoken atheist. He came to the castle to see this new invention. “Who made it?” he asked. “Nobody made it . . . it just happened” answered Lord Orrery. “How could that be? I don’t believe it. These intricate gears and wheels couldn’t just create themselves. Who made them?”

Lord Orrery kept insisting that it just happened. The atheist friend rapidly worked himself into a snit of hysterical frustration. Finally, Orrery said, “I was just testing you. Now. . . I will offer you a bargain. I will promise to tell you truly who made my little `solar system’ here in my garden as soon as you tell me truly who made the infinitely better, more wonderful, more beautiful sun and planets there in the heavens!”

His friend turned pale. For the first time he realized that there existed the possibility that the universe might be more than impersonal, neutral and non-random. Orrery’s theorem, then, states that

If the model of any natural system requires intelligence for its creation and its working, the natural system itself requires at least as much intelligence for its own creation and working.

We must be careful, however, in stating that Orrery’s theorem is not a proof of the existence of God. Lucretius was a Roman poet who wrote well over 2000 years ago. His six-part poem, “De Rerum Natura” is written in the form of a dialog between Lucretius and Democritus.

In the dialog, they talk about the grains of sand on a beach, hardly distinguishable, on from the other, at a distance of ten feet. One suggests that perhaps the sea is made of such invisible grains. The exchange proceeds until Lucretius comes to the conclusion that one of the most beautiful experiences a person can have is to comprehend the mystery that is beyond one’s comprehension. As a matter of fact, the passage engraved on the gravestone of Harlow Shapley was chosen by him as it appeared in the works of Lucretius. But even there, Lucretius admitted that it had been written down many years before he had lived and he was simply quoting it. It read:

One man ventured far out beyond the flaming ramparts of the world and voyaged in mind throughout eternity, returning victorious. He proclaimed to us what be and what cannot . . . and we, by his triumph, are lifted level with the skies.

Perhaps you’ve wondered, as I have, whether some intelligence observes us as some grand experiment. Does the research biologist feel that the same right he or she assumes in experimentation with large numbers of laboratory animals may also apply to some sort of super-intelligence unknown to us but using us for a similar purpose?

Every race of humanity has recognized some sort of mystic force and have attributed power to many varied phenomenon; the sun, the moon, the stars, thunder and lightning, volcanos or some living creature.

Pygmies in central Africa commune with their nightly chants of devotion. They explain that they cannot see any god while alive, so they have no idea what form god takes. They also know that such a god is wise and good because they are given everything they need. They are confident that spirit is of the forest where they live. So they sing to the forest and listen reverently for whatever whispers come to their hearts in reply.

I am sure most of you remember the movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy”. It was actually more than an excellent comedy. It was also a commentary on the hope that there still remains those of a simpler nature in this world who are unspoiled by what the columnist, Walter Lippman once termed “the acids of modernity”. The “bushmen” of the Kalahari Desert say to us, in so many words:

“There is a great dream across the world that we are part of. It is not like any ordinary dream in sleep. For we do not dream this dream. Instead, this dream dreams us. It dreams us all the time, even while we are awake, and we know that it must be lived out on this earth, through everything we do.”

These concepts seem disconnected, I know. They come as if from two boughs of the same tree of human experience. One is the widespread parallel religious teachings of such major prophets of the race as Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Gandhi, Teresa and King.

Each figure is unique in place and time - but the differences that stemmed from such sages were only picked up by their followers, never by them. The first bough of this imaginary tree, then, is the bough of religious parallels.

The other bough spreads into the parallel of scientific teaching and discovery. Great teachers such as Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Shapley, Curie, Fuller and Einstein make up that list. Theirs was a natural progression of evolving thought. Each built on the shoulders of the other.

Now...look again at the religious bough. Try, with me, to see it, not as a story of opposing principles in confrontation -but as connected boughs stemming from the same trunk of Life. The harmony of thought shared by these great souls rested ultimately with much the same thoughts, ideas and transcendent realities no matter what they called the: Jehovah - God - Allah - Great Spirit - The Force - Spirit of Life, Scientific Method or Cosmic Design.

They are no more or less enemies of each other than was Ptolemy toward Copernicus or Einstein was jealous of Galileo or Newton. Correct me if I am wrong, but I have been hard-pressed to find any example of the Buddha denying Krishna or of Jesus opposing Moses or striking down the Ten Commandments. On the contrary, it was Jesus who said very clearly that “I came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.”

Over the years I’ve had occasion to know and talk with people who embrace the Bahai faith system. One of their teachings is shared in our liberal religious tradition. Bahaists believe that everyone is entitled to his or her own independent investigation of the truth. This leads to the essential harmonization of science with religion. Bahai’s founder, Baha’u’llah once wrote:

There is no doubt that many of the scientific world would insist that the criterion of human experience is infinetly superior to what might be called “the dogma of religion”. Guy Murchie, a scientist of no small stature wrote a book titled The Seven Great Mysteries of Life. In it he wonders whether:

Scientists were ever made aware that science can experience only what it measures, while religion may tune in on the ever-wider experience of things beyond measure. (P.625)

Of course there is no proof for such a statement. Religious experiences are spiritually-bounded and can’t be measured. By the same token, common sense and deductive reasoning sometimes don’t make sense. We have to go deeper. We have to use what the scientists call “axiomatic” proofs. In Euclidian geometry, we learned an axiom. Remember it? “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points.” This was self-evident. It needed no logic. It proved itself and, indeed, as students, we felt it to be so in our bones.

We know, as well, though, that through the science of astronomy we have learned that it is ALSO true that the shortest distance between two points is NOT a straight line, but a curve. Therefore, as a matter of fact, we also learned that in order for something to BE an axiom, it had to be unprovable. If it can be proved, it isn’t an axiom. It’s a theorem.

An axiom may convey a feeling of absolute conviction that it is right or true though unprovable. An intuition or knowledge deeper than thought accompanies it and this comes from the heart . . . not the mind.

So hold fast to those axioms, my friends. To do so is to realize that there is a profound, yet irrational quality in something that is beautiful. It needs little argument. Indeed, it should stand by itself.

I think it was the Romantic poet, John Keats who wrote in his poem, “Ode to a Grecian Urn” that

“Utrum sit Deus?” (Is there a God?) If we sometimes catch a glimpse of what sparkles in life; of what is joyous; of what is good and right in ways of serving the needs of others, it will be by seeking some concept of that presence within our lives we can gather and praise together.

A three-year-old looked wonderingly over the side of the crib at his new baby sister. Quickly, he whispered, so that no one would hear, “How was it there. Tell me. I forgot!” And a parent was listening and wondered at the wisdom of the exchange.

I watched a brief interview with Dr. Lizbeth Kubler-Ross the other night. She is dying of cancer and impatient for death to claim her. She said at the end of the discussion for her hearers not to be afraid of death. It will be like the chrysalis opening out of its enclosure to spread its wings to a new existence and we needn’t trouble ourselves anymore than we were able to before realizing we had been born.

Utrum sit Deus? Is there a God? Videtur quod non. It seems not.

The answer for each of us is and shall remain an open one. And that is as it should be. That is as it has been. . . and shall remain.

Be of Good Cheer and depart this blessed place with peaceful, loving hearts.

Amen.