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No Need for Religion to Appreciate the Wonders of the Universe

November 18, 2009 – 5:14 pm58 Comments
Source: ctr4process.org

Source: ctr4process.org

By Almoni

Every night, when I go into my backyard and look into the sky, I am drawn up into the heavens, the extraordinary time and space machine, and I am amazed.

Sometimes, I see red Mars or bright Venus, and occasionally, a gigantic moon leers overhead. Once, an iridium satellite whizzed up, and overhead its colours were flickering off its antennas as if it were close by. In the United States, I’ve seen the most amazing lightening and the flickering lights of the north, and in Jerusalem, storms have boomed like nowhere else.

I’ve even held a meteorite in my hands–it used to sit under the reception desk at Cranbourne City Council of all places, because a meteor struck and splintered in Cranbourne a couple of thousand years ago and for some reason, that fragment had not been sold or sent to a museum.  The meteorite wasn’t very big, but enormously heavy, and a nodule of the solid iron cut my palm when I lifted it. So I have touched a stellar object!  The heavens are amazing.

We now know that we are not seeing the present when we look through the sky, even though we live in the present. We are seeing light that has travelled, sometimes for millions of years, to get to us, as pinpricks. Even the moon’s light has taken some time, and of course, the Sun’s rays and heat have travelled through time and space to get here. The universe is old, enormously old: perhaps 14 billion years old, an almost impossibly large age to comprehend, but we also know that the universe’s time and space are multidimensionally complex.  And of course, there is no blue bowl of the sky above or below us, but remarkably, gravity holds the earth spinning around our sun in our modest galaxy.

The mind boggling complexities of the structure of the universe were revealed though Einstein’s work on the speed of light and relativity, which blew apart any idea that time and space are somehow fixed and found that they are in fact relative to one another.  And it keeps getting more and more wonderful and mysterious as new discoveries are made. It’s more than enough for a wonderful cosmology from which to celebrate natural creation.

Ancient man could only explain the universe in pre-scientific and pre-philosophical terms. Abstraction, separate to theology and linked to experimental science was not possible, at least until Ancient Greece. Then it was canonized in a limited way by Aristotle and others, and formed the basis of scientific speculation and discourse for centuries – including that of Jewish philosophers.

Henri Frankfort, one of the great writers on the ancient Near East, said the following about ancient (pre-objective) man, “Any phenomenon may at any time face him, not as ‘It’, but as ‘Thou'”. I see traditional Judaism carrying though this view.

Today, in distinction to ancient cosmology (including Jewish cosmology), bit by bit we are figuring out what the cosmos consists of, and what makes it work. Unlike religious texts which can only be interpreted religiously, scientific assumptions can actually be tested, proven, disproved, and improved.

How can we deal with the rupture between mythology and the facts of existence as rational, though emotive beings?  Mordechai Kaplan, one of the most profound non-Orthodox thinkers of the past century, and the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism had no problem with the traditional creation story, as a story. Full stop. He wrote “the main purpose of the opening chapter of the Torah is not to give an account of creation but to teach that the world, as God created it, is a fit place for man to achieve his godlikeness, or salvation.”

Kaplan was a religious naturalist: he could glory in the ‘what is’ without his ontology being undermined by the fact that mankind is but a speck in the unfolding complexity of the universe. His God didn’t interfere in the world; that is our job. Our mission, based on historical experience, is to improve the world. However, Kaplan and other Reconstructionists also saw am importance in religious symbolism and performance, because it help create bonds between people and convey tradition; tradition without ‘truths’ that cannot be taken seriously any more.

However, I am too rational and non-traditional for that solution. Emile Fackenheim’s post-Shoah imperative that we are obliged to be Jews to continue to prevent Hitler a posthumous victory, also fails to provide an imperative for me to act religiously.

For a humanist like myself, what we need to take from the Jewish historical and religious experience is that history obliges us, through living in time and space, to make the world a better place. As a humanist I am not bound to a traditional pathway of symbolism or performance. I will be satisfied if my descendants live in a safer and freer world, rather than an absolutely Jewish world, although I will be happy if our collective experience continues to enrich that world.

Yesterday in Venice, I saw Leonardo’s amazing 500-year-old drawing of a man from spanning a circle, something that he considered a kind of cosmic representation. To see that document in the original is remarkable because it seems to be chiselled into the original paper, giving it a 3D quality. Such human insight (not religious insight) is as fresh as the day it was created. We can gain a lot from considering the place of older religion in relation to insights from a humanistic understanding of man (and woman) in the cosmos.

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Further reading:

  • Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub, Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach
  • Emil Fackenheim, God’s Presence in History
  • Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos
  • Corliss Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism and The Illusion of Immortality
  • Society for Humanistic Judaism
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