The Need For Awe And Wonder (3 of 3)

Astrologers have roamed the world and been part of most every main culture. Astrology is the study of or the account of stars and predates science, especially the technical observation of the stars in astronomy using technical tools like telescopes to peer closer into what’s out there. It wasn’t enough to just peer vertically at the earth to help define who we are. Looking into the heavens, because we are part of the cosmos making it a source of definition of who we are, we scan the heavens for clues. It’s amazing how much we understood through observation using only our limited eyes and our brains. So much was correctly reasoned out, particularly the lunar cycles and its play upon seasons. With our bare eyes we watched patterns in the sky and their movements over time and what happened corresponding on earth.

Once we got away from the idea of pantheism, that God was in everything and the spirit was more real than the physical, nature—both of earth and the cosmos—began speaking to us through our observations. Order, not chaos was the natural way of things. Actions have causes and those actions had meaning that could be understood, if not completely at least enough to learn something meaningful.

All we had was simple observation and mental constructs and from that we made those observations. What was mind-blowing was that the precision of mathematics could be used in assessing our observations. But let’s be clear, none of this did away with the need for God or the role of God in all things. Doing away with fantastical mythologies as Greek philosophy did only did away with fantastical mythologies, not that God (either as the nous or logos) as author was also done away with. His world now could be understood outside the spiritual. Early Greek philosophy birthed physis (the study of Nature) which in turned birthed physics (a more detailed study of specific Nature)—science that deals with the structure of matter and the interactions between the fundamental constituents of the observable universe. It was our eyes and our minds observing the outside of nature and contrary to Aristotle and in line with Plato it was telling us so much. Remember these words of Paul in Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made . . .”

I just received via FedEx a bottle of chemo pills to take. Taped to the bottle was a very long description of the pills, everything I needed to know including the bad side effects. Nature doesn’t have taped to it such a description that we can read and say, “Okay, I understand.” That would be nice, save us a lot of problems with miscalculations and misunderstandings, but God didn’t do it that way. He expects us to use those creative brains he gave us.

I find it incredibly inexplicable that that mass of gray matter we know as a brain came about through evolution, through millions of years of unconscious trial and error? Likewise, an eyeball that somehow incredibly sees and can distinguish all that it sees draws conclusions that when the tools of observation like a telescope and a microscope it validates so much of prescience science.

Way back in the sixth century BC, Greek thinkers began asking is there an underlying reality (an unseen) to the seen world. What appears solid may in fact not be so solid.

“Leucippus of Miletus (ca. 435 BCE) and Democritus of Abdera (ca. 410 BCE) developed the atomic hypothesis. According to them matter can be subdivided only to a certain point, at which only atoms (that which cannot be cut) remain. The world is made up of atoms moving in the void. Atoms differed from each other only in size and shape, and different substances with their distinct qualities were made up of different shapes, arrangements, and positions of atoms. Atoms were in continuous motion in the infinite void and constantly collided with each other. During these collisions they could rebound or stick together because of hooks and barbs on their surfaces. Thus, underlying the changes in the perceptible world, there was constancy (atoms were neither created nor destroyed); change was caused by the combinations and dissociations of the atoms.”

The first concrete image we were given of the atom came in 1911 from Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealand-born British physicist. But in fact French physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin (1819-1942) had already guessed at the shape of the atom. And in fact, J. J. Thompson had already discovered that there were subatomic particles, even smaller particles inside the atom and it goes on and on from there. In the center of the atom is the nucleus that is made up of protons and neutrons and quarks and anti-matter and by now my head is swimming.

Everything on earth and in the cosmos is, we are learning, made up of 118 different periodic elements, each element different because of the combination of the protons and neutrons and electrons. Out of those 118 elements the human body is made up of 14 different elements: Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sulfur, Sodium, Chlorine, Magnesium, Iron, Copper, and Lithium. From these, 62% of our bodies is made up of H2O (2 Hydrogen molecules and one Oxygen molecule producing water). This is us.

In my neighborhood now, when the city was young and began building tract homes, they planted pine trees along the roadways. Our parks are also filled with pine trees. It’s one of more than a dozen different species of trees planted throughout this officially designated “Tree City” that gives it the pretense of being built in a forest. During windstorms the front lawns, sidewalks, streets are littered with dead pine needles windswept from the trees, an inconvenience we suffer for sake of living among the trees. Pine cones also fall but have no option of planting themselves growing new pine trees. They sometimes put a dent in your car when they fall.

But jump with me out of the city into the forest I love so much as I (we) lean up against one of a hundred different species of pine, a Sugar Pine. Remember that Periodic Table of 118 elements that make up earth, and as we discovered the Cosmos? We are made of between 18 to 25 of those chemicals, a pine is made up of some 18 of those elements. As I wrote before, think of those 118 elements as the different colors God uses to paint everything that is. Each painting looks different but each image uses those 118 colors in being formed. How interesting that using those same colors in different ways creates so many varieties of reality, so many differences in images. We can never be stopped from overwhelming feelings of awe and wonder just looking at those painted images, each beautiful in their variety, each fascinating in their differences, each mind-blowing in their functions. And you want to believe that blind chance created all this complexity and an ecosystem that fits its needs?

It’s a relatively cool day, the temperature hovering around 78F. At 11 A.M. the sky is a light blue with wispy clouds slowly floating above. The shadows are soft where earlier when the sun was lower in the eastern sky it created hard shadows. Soon when the sun will be directly overhead the shadows will be gone returning back to hard shadows as the sun retreats into the  western evening sky. Of course we know it is we who are moving changing our position relative to the sun. The smell of pine and bear grass and the mustiness of mulch (the degeneration of dead trees and grasses returning back to earth) is strong but a wonderful odor. We call pine trees evergreen because their foliage stays green year round. “Pine trees produce long, narrow needles 1 to 11 inches long. For example, longleaf pine trees (Pinus palustris) grow needles 9 inches long. Pine needles range from blue to dark green and are bundled into groups of two, three or five needles. The needles connect near the point where they attach to the branch.” How these needles are grouped tells us the variety of pine. “Needles bundled in groups of two belong to the lodgepole pine group (Pinus contorta). When needles are in groups of three, they originate from ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa), Jeffery pines (Pinus jefferyi) or knobcone pines (Pinus attenuate). Western white pines (Pinus monticola), sugar pines (Pinus lambertiana), limber pines (Pinus flexilis) and whitebark pines (Pinus albicaulis) grow needles in bunches of five.” I’m leaning against a sugar pine but around me are also ponderosa pines and white pines. I’m absolutely fascinated by the symmetry of those needles as they grow on the branches, and the symmetry of leaves of all trees where a main vein goes down the middle of a leaf with smaller veins reaching out from there to the edges of the leaves. Why this perfect symmetry in nature? I can stare all day at the branches and leaves in wonderment.

I pick up a pine cone off the ground. “Large woody cones are a key element for pine trees. Both female and male cones appear on a tree. The female cones produce seeds, while the male cones drop pollen. The pollen is carried by gravity or wind to the female cones, fertilizing the seeds. Sugar pines produce cones 10 to 20 inches long.” Tell me again how chance created this interesting dance of reproduction? “Pine trees reach a range of mature sizes that depends on the species. The dwarf mugo pine (Pinus mugo pumilio) grows to a mature size of 4 feet tall, while slash pines (Pinus elliottii) reach 100 feet. White pines reach up to 150 feet tall, growing only 8 to 12 inches a year, when planted in favorable environments.

“As a group, pine trees are long-lived conifers. Most varieties live over a century when growing in favorable conditions. Bristlecone pine trees are known to live at least 4,800 years.”

These pine trees I’m so mystified by not only share the same planet that is constructed to house us and feed us, we share from the same basic list of elements used to paint us though in different constructions. While we are not brothers, you can say we are cousins.

How can you not be silenced by the wonder that is all around you, that is you? Oh yes, there is that ant that is crawling up my leg. There are spiders and snakes and I wonder about them, but they are part of my world and I’m part of theirs and however we feel about each other we are a part of the wonderment of life.

I haven’t even got to the sky yet because it’s daytime and my visuals are earth bound. I know everything I see in the night sky is still there hidden by our sun’s light. It’s a faith statement though not a leap of faith. I believe every morning the sun will rise in the east because witnesses for thousands of years have recorded this daily occurrence. It’s part of the order of life, the consistency that gives us faith that tomorrow the sun will again rise. The ancients relied on this consistency for their hope as winter represented death, spring saw life beginning to rise again with summer finding life in full bloom, the fall began the cycle of dying, winter death, and it all began again with spring. Life would continue on and death was not the end of life. Where there is no hope there is no life.

The earth is filled with awe and wonder and the deeper you go the deeper awe and wonder fills you. Out of this awe and wonder you build a knowledge beyond understanding that has meaning, something dumb and deaf chance could never instigate. This awe and wonder is dulled in the city which is why from time to time we must get out of the city and sit under a tree and under the star-filled sky to remember that while we are not even comparatively the size of a grain of sand, we see and we understand and out of this we find hope because behind all this isn’t nothing but something wonderful, God.

When Nietzsche said “God is dead” he wasn’t so much making a declarative statement but asking the question, “If God is dead what then?” To borrow a book title from Christian philosopher/theologian Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? Paul, in the scripture quoted earlier: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made . . .” reminds us that the unseen speaks loudly defining the seen. 

The history of philosophy has been an argument over what we see and how we interpret it. We don’t all see alike or interpret what we see alike. Because of this we’ve questioned what we see and what it means and here comes a big word, the epistemological debate arguing how we know. Is it through reason or experience? Is knowledge inherent in the object we view or do we give objects their meaning? Is there really no knowledge just chemical firings in our brain? Is all this confusion because there is really no real answers only confusion unresolvable? Is sitting under that pine tree in the forest observing and taking in all that is around me only a “feel good” moment, nothing more? How can two people looking at the same thing find different and conflicting answers? Is everything relative?

Because of all these questions we find difficult to resolve we end up more comfortable with making truth relative believing that when we feel comfortable that our answer is correct over yours we must be wrong.

I’m 99.9% sure of my truths. I’d love to be 100% sure of them, so why can’t I be? If I could go in and out of the door to God’s realm, attend seminars given by God on how he created the world, who we are in his plan, there would be nothing you say in disagreement to what I learned that would ever challenge my truths. But this is not our reality and why we can never be dogmatic about our truths.

The good news is that while our visits to the forest, our nights staring at the sky, tells us so much it isn’t all we have. The story of God and man, the Bible, shows us in story form what we need to know. We can trust what we read because nature shows us trust is built-in the cosmos. The Bible reinforces nature, nature reinforces the Bible.

Both awe and wonder should be our reaction.