20190505 Touchstone – Mystery

The Eternal Mystery Story by Rev. Mark Belletini (Excerpt, full text at http://www.firstuucolumbus.org/images/sermons/2005/2005-04-24%20The%20Eternal%20Mystery%20Story,%20Rev.%20Mark%20Belletini.PDF) (1,446 words)
   I remember the first time I had a mystical experience. Now don’t get thrown off by that phrase. I’ll define it for you in a minute. But first, let me tell you what happened. I was a junior in high school. My high school was a long E-shaped building, a straightforward single-story glass, metal and brick affair. The windows in the longest corridor mostly faced south, so, in the afternoons, the sunlight slanted down through those windows in thick slabs of light, warming the terrazzo flooring in the hall.
   One afternoon I was walking alone down the corridor, with the windows on my left. The sun was pouring through brightly. Suddenly I noticed dust-motes floating in that light. They were kindled by it, like tiny stars, a miniature model of the universe hanging before me.
   As soon as I noted the dust, I was suddenly shivering with a sense of awe that everything exists. It seemed to me that the vast universe, stretching out to the mysterious quasars, then newly named, and yet containing everything here on earth… elephants, eagles, the Mississippi, the bloodshed in Vietnam, the crowds at Mecca, the rocks in Tierra Del Fuego, the terra cotta cliffs of the Grand Canyon, my grandmother and her fig tree…all of this seemed suddenly astounding and impossible and unlikely. I was filled for a few moments with a sense of the indescribable, the sheer wonder of it all, the whole cosmos quivering inside me, and me inside it, for that one moment, a single reality.
   Even though I was going to a Catholic school, and had read the writings of the great mystics like Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart and Ruisbroec, I did not attach Christian imagery to the experience. I did not call on the name of God, or imagine I was visited by an angel or seized by the Holy Spirit. I simply fell quiet for a time.
   When I went to college and began to read philosophy, I found a philosopher who summarized the meaning of that experience for me with great clarity. Ludwig Wittgenstein was that philosopher. In his 1922 masterwork, the Tractatus, you may find the following Assertion: “It is not how the universe comes to be that prompts the mystical experience, but that the universe is.” And later he concluded, “When you experience something about which you cannot speak, remain silent.”
   The mystical experience, in short, is a sense of wordless awe before the mystery that everything is.
   …Now over the years, I have spoken with many people who describe experiences similar to mine, but they interpret it with a more concrete theological language. They might describe such an experience as the visit of an angel, or even of God speaking with them. Me, I find that I’m distrustful of most cultural interpretations forced on such ineffable experiences: I’d rather take Wittgenstein’s advice and keep silent about possible theological meanings.
   But, still, I’m convinced that such experiences are found in many cultures and in many human beings, regardless of temperament or physiology. And I am well aware that many people do indeed tie such experiences to their religion.
   Thus, because some folks experience awe before the vastness of the mysterious universe, they may be quick to say the God whom they adore must have created it.
   …[T]he Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe was developed by a Roman Catholic priest-scientist, a Belgian named Georges Lemaitre. Fr. Lemaitre did not use the term “big bang” for his own theory, however. That phrase was invented, somewhat satirically, by cosmologist Fred Hoyle, who held to a different theory of the universe. Hoyle felt that the infinite universe never had a beginning, because it always was and always will be.
   …In the Middle Ages… Hildebert of Lavardin, the archbishop of Tour, thought of the universe, or nature, as self-generating. Thierry of Chartres, in the 12th century, even wrote of “evolutionary principles” and spoke of matter as “self-generating.” Thierry, like Fred Hoyle, felt that there was a God in the universe, but this God was not a creator, evolution being “self-driven.” Even some of the ancient scriptures suggest that God did not so much create the universe out of nothing, as simply shape what was already there. The book of Genesis/Bereshith was distorted by the King James translation committee. Nowhere does it say: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” The Hebrew “Bereshith bara Elohim” is accurately translated in this way “When God began to fashion the sky and the earth, the earth was nothing but a whirl of watery chaos, with a powerful wind blowing over the primordial abyss.” You see? God does not create the universe, but rather finds this great big watery mess and then simply structures it for human need. Many other creation stories follow the same pattern, not creation out of nothing, but a sudden outburst of order in the middle of chaotic eternity. When read in scholarly fairness, many of the most ancient human stories do not seem too far removed from our own modern creation story. “There was once neither existence nor non-existence. There was neither space, nor the sky. Was anything stirring? Who really knows how the universe came to be?” asked the ancient Hindu scripture, the Rg Veda, written down, we think, 3500 years ago. “Maybe it formed itself, and perhaps it did not.”
   Of course, to any conservative theologian, the idea that the universe may have simply popped into being is very threatening. Religious conservatives have always harassed scientists who wanted to study the universe and what made it tick. This was true a thousand years before the Scopes Monkey Trial and the invention of fundamentalism, too. William of Conches wrote the following around the year 1120: “Because these conservatives do not understand the forces of the universe, they wish to impede all research in these areas. They want us to become comrades in their ignorance, and join in the foolish faith of peasants who ever refuse to ask the question ‘why?’ Whenever they think someone is engaging in science and research, they immediately brand that person a heretic.”
   Now myself, of course, I think that scientific research into the origins should continue without ceasing. And I must add that the scientific method is a way of approaching things that has nothing to do with theology, since theology is an arrangement of assertions, and the scientific method is an orderly approach to research. You must know that there are conventionally religious people who are also scientists…like the priest who first came up with the Big Bang theory of creation. They find no conflict in such dual work. This is because they are not fanatics.
   …No, for me, the creation or origin of the universe remains deliciously mysterious. The story as it has been developed by modern cosmologists is a great story, and one that fills me with wonder and astonishment. But that wonder and astonishment is not the deepest source of my religious feelings. Wittgenstein’s old dictum that “It is not how the universe comes to be that prompts the mystical experience, but that the universe is” remains in force for me. That there is anything at all, rather than nothing astounds me day after day. The how’s and whys are interesting, sure. They get me to thinking. Or sometimes, if I am reading Steven Hawking or some other modern physicist of note who takes up this question, I even arrive at a state of mind which must resemble that of a zen abbot at meditation…what, after all, does a quantum fluctuation look like? It’s pretty imageless. And it’s not all that cuddly, that’s for sure.
   But that’s why I tend to down my meal of hard “how’s and whys” with a sweet glass of mystical experience, something that warms me on the way down, and speaks of relationship more than cause, of deep connection more than cool information.
   …It is the universe, which sparkles around me here and now, which I experience. I can have no experience of the source of the universe. And I am convinced that my experience of belonging and love in the universe is what moves me through the world with whatever confidence, care, fierceness and fidelity I have.
   I cannot know what your own experience of the universe might be, or if you have a theory of its creation which you favor. But I hope you, at least now and then, know an experience within this universe in Wittgenstein’s words, “about which you cannot speak.” And then you, like Van Gogh, can remain silent under his starry night, or sit down in peace….

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