Friday, March 14, 2008

The Pearl of Great Price

All I know is where the cosmos is right now. Not at the beginning. Not at the end. But somewhere in the middle, two minutes after a most remarkable turn of events. (The Story of Everything, Chap. 25)

I'm dead-drop certain of one thing. Everyone agrees on it. Theists and atheists do. So do those who believe the universe has an outside, and those who don't. Also on board: those who endorse a strong version of the anthropic principle, those who endorse a weak version, and those who refer to it as the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (CRAP). Even Goldilocks would say okay.

Here's that one thing: the universe did produce an observer. It produced its own scientists, philosophers, theologians, poets, and storytellers. And, in cosmic time, it did it moments ago.

Right now we treat this indisputable fact like an old slipper. We're comfortable with it. We're used to it. We take it for granted. The wow factor disappeared millennia ago. We're not astonished by what is truly astonishing:

The man pointed down the coastline. "Look at all the sand on this beach. Suppose we came across a grain of sand, a single grain, that talked. How improbable would that be? How improbable that it existed? How improbable that we found it? One grain of sand is not the center of anything. But when one starts to talk, you've got to listen."
No slipper there. This character from The Story of Everything is not wowed by 400 billion galaxies (and counting), not by the trillions of stars they contain, not by God-knows-how-many planets. The universe is a veritable Sahara of sand, but he's astonished by just one grain. And with good reason.

It's almost impossible for us to get into this man's shoes and see the way he does. We carry too much history. For thousands of years, all we have known is the talking. We cannot, in fact, remember not talking. But only recently have we glimpsed all the sand. Of course we're astonished by the wrong thing.

So how can we put the sand in its place? How can we flip figure and ground? Here's a way of starting:

(1) Appreciate how out of place our talking is. I remember the first time I found sea shells embedded in sandstone in the middle of a southern Indiana field. I chipped a few out just to remember the eerie strangeness of it all. How in the world did they get there? Talkers circling a nondescript star are equally out of place. How did they get there?

(2) Appreciate how recent the talking is. On a scale where the age of the universe becomes one year, it began two minutes ago. All the stars and planets and galaxies aren't new. This bit of talking is. And it began--literally--right under our noses.

(3) Sell everything in your Story for this little grain. It's the pearl of great price. It's the rock-hard evidence. Forget about beginnings you weren't there for. Forget about endings you have no way of knowing. What was it like, this dawn of observing, of narrating?

"What's it like for a planet to wake up? And to do it for the first time?" That was the hard part, the impossible part, the man said--to picture the first time. "I can't imagine a first awakening. I've tried to do it, but I cannot. It's not like getting up in the morning. When you get up in the morning, you put on history, like clothes. Every day. But the first time . . . ."
I welcome the cloud that covers the beginning and the end of Everything. I'm happy, at the end of my life, to be in the middle. But I'm left in a quandary. What do I tell my grandchildren? It has to be something they will love, as I loved what I was taught as a child, but I don't yet know what it is. I honestly don't.

P.S. This is the last article in the Goldilocks-enigma series. I will be taking time off to prepare another series on journeys. In the meantime, I will post some thoughts on your latest set of comments.


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Gary Kirby said...

Beautiful! You might have caught what answer there is by being in the middle of the wonder. Is the answer in the wonder itself? The wonder appreciated by the wonderer? Just as the enfolded wonder in the micro and the macro, in the beginning and end is caught in the incredible wondering of the talking grain. We are in the middle of it all, in the mystery of it all, and we can revel in it all—and perhaps wish it lasted a little longer.

And what to tell our grandchildren? For me it is the unfolding wonder of what is as I know it. I never told my kids about Santa, because the uncovering hurt so much. Instead I taught them the real spirit of Christmas, the real wonder of persons who give and love, a spirit which exceeds the Santa fantasy. Yet I did tell them stories, many stories, because analogy is the way we understand. So what to tell our grandchildren? I will tell them the richness of the mystery of the Story of Everything, that they are the pearl of great price, and that they will continue seeking and writing the story.


Anonymous said...

Dear John,
Two years ago today, on the Ides of March, I was ambushed by Necrotizing Fasciitis. For a two-month induced coma I was a micromillimeter from collecting on Pascal's Wager. So today, I sent notes to the two lay teachers who dissuaded me from going to class that morning, the nurse who called the doctor, and the doctor who refused to let me go. And this morning I read "The Pearl." How about that for proof of Providence? Thank you, too!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Anonymous said...

What an experience.... Lazarus-like, at the end of one's life. So what does one say when waking up after two months?

Readers can see for themselves at Click on "Homalleys."

Anonymous said...

Most interesting. I want to say just a bit about some of my mental wanderings which include Teilhard’s concept of tangential and radial energy and how they may just be somehow related gravity and that mysterious dark energy. Gravity keeping us bound in like a skin around the earth and the dark energy force pulling outward. I am also pondering just how to think about using the term “God Particle” for what they expect to come from the big peashooter in Cern. A bit like the first cars being called “horseless carriages” and the internet being an “information Highway”. They are all so much more. I keep thinking that our existence, at its most fundamental level, is part of an energy field which is not limited to just three dimensions. And isn’t that how the universe is described.