The Flaring Forth
January 14th, 2018
It’s all a question of story.
“We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The Old Story—the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it—is not functioning properly, and we have not learned the New Story. The Old Story sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with a life purpose, energized action. It consecrated suffering, integrated knowledge, guided education.
We awoke in the morning and knew where we were.” (Thomas Berry)
We awoke in the morning and knew where we were.
The man who wrote these words was a Catholic priest who became convinced that the new story is the story of the big bang. Thomas Berry, a priest, turned academic, believed that the stories of the bible were no longer large enough given the advancement of scientific knowledge.
He saw people becoming separated from the earth, losing a sense of participating in the larger earth community.
Berry saw that we needed a new story. He believed the scientific story of the universe is the cosmological framework that can inspire meaning and hope.
While my colleague Carol Martagnicco calls this the Everything Seed, Berry called it the Flaring Forth.
“Thirteen point seven billion years ago, in a great flash, the universe flared forth into being.
In each drop of existence a primoridial energy blazed with an intensity never to be equaled again.
Thick with power, the universe billowed out in every direction so that the elementary particles could stabilize, enabling the first atomic beings of hydrogen and helium to emerge.
After a million turbulent years,
the frenzied particles calmed themselves enough for the primeval fireball to dissolve into a great scattering,
with all the atoms soaring away from each other into the dark cosmic skies opening up in the beginning of time.” (The Universe Story, Swimme and Berry)
The Everything Seed.
The Flaring Forth.
From the moment of creation when the universe burst into being, all life came.
All galaxies, suns, planets, plants, creatures and people come from this moment, all of us have elements within us that came from the flaring forth thirteen point seven billion years ago.
We are all cousins. We belong to one another, to the earth, to the universe.
This is a powerful lineage.
This is where science meets spirit.
The Flaring Forth is a true story, as true as the best of our knowledge at this time. It’s how humanity came into existence. It’s science but it is also a cosmology, a way to shape meaning and understanding.
The Universe story can help form our emotional attitudes, provide us with a sense of purpose, energize us to action.
Thomas Berry believed the universe story is where the scientific community and religious traditions find common ground. Where a new way of being might emerge.
How might we live if we lived by the knowledge that we are “hitched to everything else in the universe”? (John Muir)
The story lets truth inspire wonder, letting values arise from the very structure of the universe, from the ground of reality.
Science, at its most fundamental, is a way to systematize how life is, from the micro level of atoms to the macro level of the universe. It depends on testable and reproducible experiences. As astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson says, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
The expansion of scientific knowledge has led our progress in the western world.Medicine, technology, genetics, physics, all the science fields have contributed to the rise of western civilization.
Science means there is light even on the darkest night.
Science is a fundamental base of western society.
Religion, in this scientific society, is in decline. The old stories don’t make so much sense anymore, with miracles that defy natural laws. But religion is more than believing the stories, religion binds communities together through care for one another, common values, and shared experiences.
A religious perspective helps us make sense of our lives, helps us “make it through the night”, in a way a light bulb can not, religious thought helps us to navigate the painful depths and joyful heights of life itself.
Being part of a religious tradition helps us to wake up in the morning and know where we are.
So while we might not need the old religious stories, we do need religious community.
Our religious community embraces the magnificent story of the Flaring Forth. Unitarian Universalism sees no contradiction between scientific knowledge and religious meaning, indeed we embed our meaning in scientific revelations.
Richard Dawkins says: “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.”
Albert Einstein once said: “One cannot but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”
Never lose a holy curiousity.
As people of the chalice, we have a holy curiousity.
Notable Unitarian and Universalists scientists include Joseph Priestley, who revealed the element of oxygen, Maria Mitchell, the first American female astronomer, and Sir Tim Berners Lee, creator of the world wide web.
Science, at its finest, elicits a sense of reverence and awe.
As physicist Carl Sagan said: “The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
That science and spirituality are mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.
I know quite a few scientists and skeptics that are dismissive of spirituality, even annoyed or angered by it.
Yet they speak with great wonder about their area of expertise, astonished by the beauty of the world.
Science and spirituality form a Mobius strip, that strip with a half twist which allows one side to morph into the other. Science is a source of awe and wonder, and scientific research arises out of a desire for knowledge and meaning.
Science and spirit are entwined ways of knowing. Scientists have a holy curiousity about the world, which leads to learning, which leads to wonder and more curiousity and so on.
Science is not the only way to experience spirituality, but it is not excluded from it either.
“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” To breath is to be alive, to breath in air that has been circulating since the evolution of the atmosphere, to be alive is to be matter, to be material, of this earth, of this universe in this moment.
Spirituality for many – especially for people of the chalice – is embedded in the wondrous experience of life itself.
Science and spirit are a mobius strip, entwined together.
In the 1840s, the Unitarian Maria Mitchell discovered a comet through her home telescope. At this time comets were still rare, and her discovery launched a professional career as an astronomer.
Mitchell was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Science, and taught astronomy for many years at Vassar College. In speaking to her students at Vassar, Mitchell said
“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic,but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.
There will come with the greater love of science greater love to one another. Living more nearly to Nature is living… nearer to the world’s people: it is to be of them, with them and for them, and especially for their improvement.
We cannot see how impartially Nature gives of her riches to all, without loving all, and helping all; …
we can…learn to promote spiritual growth while we are together, and live in a trusting hope of a greater growth in the future.” (from Maria Mitchell’s Life, Letters and Journals)
Maria Mitchell was clearly a Unitarian.
Mitchell saw no contradiction between her work and her Unitarian principles.
Science and spirit have a common ground in the awe and wonder that arises when we observe the world.
Some may use scientific observation and meticulously record all observable details.
Others may use a contemplative gaze, and simply be present and see closely.
Both observe with attentive love.
We can appreciate both science and spirit.
Author John Updike says that “ancient religion and modern science agree: we here to give praise. Or to slightly tip the expression, pay attention.”
While I am not sure all scientists would feel they are praising the world, they are certainly paying attention.
And while we have tended to equate praise with praise of God, giving our full attention to the world, truly seeing the delicate beauty of a snowflake, is a way to offer gratitude to the earth.
Attention is an act of love.
A scientific approach is not the only way to pay attention to the world.
Science is focused on revealing the fundamental laws of the universe, from the flaring forth to how a bee flies.
Writer Robert Spalosky notes “I am not worried if scientists go and explain everything. This is for a very simple reason: an impala sprinting across the Savannah can be reduced to biomechanics, and Bach can be reduced to counterpoint, yet that does not decrease one iota our ability to shiver as we experience impalas leaping or Bach thundering.
We can only gain and grow with each discovery that there is structure underlying the most accessible levels of things that fill us with awe.”
Science can explain what we are seeing but our lived experience is more than what we know or what we do, it is greater than the sum of its parts.
Awe comes from being present in the moment, from the impala leaping, the sun shining, the violin playing, the notes soaring, and how we – the totality of body, mind, emotions, spirit – respond in that moment.
Life is not just knowledge and experience, our lives are our response to that knowledge and experience and all the mysteries that lie beyond.
There is no scientific method for demonstrating why the night sky filled with an immensity of stars brings me to tears.
We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or even agree what the “meaning” of meaning is.
What is good? Or what is right or wrong?
These considerations are the realm of the arts, and of religion.
Science depends on the “well posed problem” – a question stated so clearly that there will be a definite answer.
This is how science becomes repeatable and reliable – scientists are taught to not waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers.
But questions with definite answers aren’t the only kind of questions. Many vital questions don’t have a clear answer. Deeply religious questions, questions about the spirit, aren’t meant to have a singular answer.
What does it mean to live well?
How do we choose the common good?
What does it mean to love?
We live into these questions, gaining insights and wisdom and experience, the answers may emerge over a lifetime.
As human beings, we need questions with answers, and questions without answers. (section adapted from Alan Lightman)
As Unitarian Universalists we embrace both, and it is the questions without answers that bring us back to stories.
Stories are a way to explore all those unanswerable questions about life and meaning and love and value.
The everything seed, the flaring forth of all that is, allows our personal stories rest in the greater story of the universe.
It’s a true story of life itself, organic, mysterious, wondrous.
It invites us to create our own meaning and purpose within the glorious and real whole.
It connects us to the dirt beneath us, to the stars above us, and to one another, all made of the same matter.
It’s a story of science and spirit, of questions with answers and questions without answers.
It’s our story. May we live it well.
So Say We All.