The Void



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Scripture Text:

Job 38:4-12, 31-38

4“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements – surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

8“Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb? –
when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

12“Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place?

31“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
or loose the cords of Orion?
Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season,
or can you guide the Bear with its children?
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
Can you establish their rule on the earth?

34“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
or given understanding to the mind?
Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cling together?”


Image credit: NASA/JPL


I feel a bit strange (perhaps even hypocritical) being before you today as your preacher. In describing my faith journey, I've said that I'm not certain what exactly my beliefs are and have characterized my faith as being very weak. Furthermore, though I've taken plenty of courses on physics and mathematics, my academic transcripts are entirely devoid of theological instruction. However, as many of you know, I will (Deo volente) graduate from Harvard University this spring with a PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics and shortly thereafter leave Cambridge to start the next chapter of my life. I first passed through the doors of this church almost exactly five years ago, and I can honestly say that becoming a part of this community has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  You have opened my mind in so many ways and taught me so much that I welcome you to treat this sermon as my OCBC final exam.

Consider the image on the cover of your bulletin. At first glance (and even thereafter), it's probably not apparent what you're looking at. In fact, this is an image of the Earth that was taken on July 6, 1990 with the Voyager 1 spacecraft. At the time, it was over 3.7-billion miles away from us, which made it more distant than any other human-made object had ever been: a superlative that it will continue to hold for the foreseeable future. Across the vastness of interplanetary space, the Earth was just barely detectable: it can be seen, half-way down on the left, as a pale blue dot, not much brighter than the detector noise, resting amid beams of stray sunlight that scattered off of the camera's optics.

There can be no doubt that this image, aptly titled "Pale Blue Dot," is a technological marvel. The construction of a device sensitive enough to capture this image, powerful enough to travel billions of miles, and rugged enough to survive decades in the harsh environment of interplanetary space is surely a testament to human achievement.

Even so, I don't think that this is a particularly awe-inspiring image. It lacks the the grandeur of the more commonly seen images of the Earth: “The Blue Marble” has become an inspirational icon of Earth's majestic beauty and “Earthrise” (though somewhat erroneously named) has perpetuated a sense of triumphal glory for generations. But, I think that most people feel somewhat uneasy (perhaps even a little fearful) when they first see “Pale Blue Dot”; not only does this image lack any aesthetic value, it distills the entirety of human history and civilization into an ignoble speck. In his book on this image, Carl Sagan wrote:

The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Of course, the situation is even worse than that – not only has our beloved Earth been reduced to a mere speck, that speck is the only object in the entire image. The Book of Genesis begins with the immortal words, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void [Genesis 1:1-2a],” and that's what we seem to have before us: not an image of the Earth but one of a vast void that just happens to envelop our tiny, fragile, lonely world that was described so poetically in Orson Wells' radio drama War of the Worlds as a “small, spinning fragment of solar driftwood.”

In full disclosure, I'm now writing my doctoral dissertation on the diffuse wisps of gas that do occupy interplanetary space. Nevertheless, one need not study astronomy for very long to appreciate quite how small and isolated our planetary home is. As I said, Voyager 1 was over 3.7-billion miles away when it captured this image and was the very limit of humanity's physical reach. In contrast, the nearest star to the Sun is 6,600 times more distant.

We human beings tend to be quite proud of ourselves, so we inevitably find it unsettling to see everything that we are, everything that we know, and everything that we've done reduced to such isolation and insignificance. Our species' collective superiority complex is nothing new. Across virtually all cultures, there has been at least some tendency for people to view themselves as being “special.” Even in our own Abrahamic tradition, we hear of “God's chosen people” – created in the very image of God, who wrought this vast and wondrous Universe.

Of course, over the years, we've used our own discoveries to push ourselves farther and farther into obscurity. The Earth become one of a handful of planets gyrating about the Sun, which in turn became just one of a few-hundred-billion stars in our galaxy: a rather unremarkable Population I star with spectral type G2V. As for our galaxy, the Milky Way has been classified as a typical SBbc galaxy and cataloged as just one of at least one-hundred billion other galaxies in the observable Universe. Not only are we a speck, not only are we alone in the void, we're ordinary.

I could quite easily dwell more on the vastness and diversity of God's creation and on the marvel that so powerful a God nevertheless loves us individually. However, doing so would overlook a critical question: what is God's place in the modern vision of the Universe?

Our scripture reading today enumerates mysteries that undoubtedly baffled and astounded our distant ancestors. Power over and knowledge of these forces were reserved for God alone. Indeed, God seems to be almost taunting poor Job – repeatedly and sarcastically ask him what he knows and what he can do. Of course, Job would presumably have had to respond, “No,” to each question, but if we imagine these questions instead being posed today to human society as a whole, wouldn't we have to answer in the affirmative to at least a few? In my office, I have shelves filled with books describing the “ordinances of the heavens.” Last summer, I toured Itaipu Dam, which spans the Paraná River between Brazil and Paraguay and quite literally “shut[s] in the sea with doors.” Considering that each of Itaipu's twenty hydroelectric generators is rated for 700 megawatts, it would seem that humanity has made significant progress on “send[ing] forth lightnings.”

So, the question at hand is this: have we humans achieved so much that we can relinquish the very notion of gods and discard the God of Abraham to the philosophical ash heap along with Osiris, Gaia, Jupiter, Thor, and countless other quaint deities? As I said, my faith is weak, but I nevertheless consider it precipitous to cast off religiosity so capriciously. I am a scientist; I passionately engage in scientific pursuits; and I almost instinctively use scientific methods in my everyday life. However, I have also become aware that science alone cannot give meaning to my existence.

Science has enabled us to live longer, more secure lives with comforts and conveniences that Job could scarcely have imagined. But, for all the questions that science has allowed us to answer, it's confronted us with more moral and existential ambiguity than any other society has ever faced. The development of special and general relativity has allowed us to probe the remote history of our Universe, but with it we lost the notions of absolute space and time. The discovery of quantum mechanics has enabled the Digital Revolution, but it's also undermined the concepts of objective reality and causal determinism. Advances in biology and medicine have allowed us to live longer and healthier lives, but they've simultaneously called into question what it even means to be human.

We, as individuals and as a society, now find ourselves in the midst of a new void – not a void of empty space but a void of ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt. Scientific progress, for all that it has done to improve our lives, has provided precious little insight into how we should live our lives. Nevertheless, we should not condemn science for bringing us to this place. Appropriately, the Latin root of the word “science” is scientia (knowledge), and knowledge, per se, carries no inherent good or evil. Rather, it is left to us, as recipients of this knowledge, to decide what to do with it – how to navigate the void that it has opened before us. Traversing this void is a genuinely frightening prospect. It's easy for us to become lost when we can't find a path to lead us or a point of reference to tell us where we are. At such times of trepidation, faith can be our powerful and steadfast guide.

Many of the moral and existential questions that modern science has raised are deeply unsettling (to say the least) and call into doubt some of the most cherished and revered tenets of our faith. However, I do not believe the opposite of faith to be doubt but rather apathy – a complete indifference about the purpose and meaning of our existence. Doubt, though it acts in conflict with faith, is essential to it's proper development; it strengthens our faith by keeping us from stagnantly clinging to the fallacious and outmoded dogmas that separate us from God.

I think that the role of doubt in faith is curiously similar to the one that it plays in science. Most great scientific discoveries begin with doubt – with someone testing an assumption, examining a theory, or making a proposition. Though I'm only in the beginning of my career as a researcher, I've already realized that answering scientific questions is not nearly as difficult as determining what the right questions are. Finding those questions requires entertaining doubt and venturing into the void. A certain degree of reverence is needed to accept that you'll never have all the answers and that the ones that you do have are (at best) incomplete.

And so too with faith, we must have the humility to doubt – to accept that God's power, purpose, and very existence transcend human understanding. Though it's never an easy or comfortable process, doubt allows us to filter the human from the divine. Socrates famously said that, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and I would offer as a corollary that the unquestioned faith is not worth having – it's not faith at all. We all must make our way through the void, for with that journey come both the need for and possibility of true faith.


  • Ben Maruca