When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns

before me;

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add,

divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he

lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

This classic poem by Walt Whitman is a profound reminder that knowledge of something and the experience of it are two very different things. It is indeed one thing to listen to lectures about the stars, it is another entirely to look up at them in wordless wonder. All description of God pales in comparison to the experience of God. Our theology and our arguments may be met with much applause in the lecture room, but if we are not connecting people to the presence of the living God, chances are they may leave our church tired and sick.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…





Origin of the Teacup

Suppose you walk into a room and find a hot cup of tea on the table. You ask aloud, “How did this teacup come to be here?” In response to your question, I might tell you one of two stories:

Explanation #1- The process starts with the the molecular compound known as h2o pouring in its liquid state into a steel vessel, which is then sealed and heated by an exterior source. As kinetic energy passes from the exterior source to the liquid, the temperature of the liqiud rises until stabilizing at the boiling point (which in average atmospheric conditions is approximately 212 degrees Farenheit). At this point in the process, the h2o begins to convert from a liquid state to a gaseous state. As the vapor rises, it fills the steel vessel and it attempts to expand. Restrained by the shape of the vessel, the vapor forms a jet which then passes through a cylindrical tube situated at an angle at the of the top of the vessel. At the end of the tube are two small holes. As the jet of vapor passes through the first hole, so too do the sound waves formed during the boiling. As the jet passes through the second hole, the sound waves spin off in vortices at a high frequency. At this point in the process, the steel vessel is removed from the exterior heat source and tipped at a 90 degree angle st that the remaining hot liquid flows freely through the tube into a second smaller vessel. At the bottom of this vessel is a packet of herbs and leaves which combined with the hot liquid forms the solution commonly referred to as tea.

Explanation #2- In the beginning, the table was empty and bare. But your wife loves you. She knew you had a tough day at work so when she arrived home before you did, she decided to make you a nice cup of tea to calm your nerves. She went into the kitchen and got out that old red stainless steel tea kettle you two bought on your honeymoon in the smoky mountains. She filled the kettle about halfway and set it on the stove then she spent a few minutes checking messages on her phone. One of them was from you. You told her you were sorry for snapping at her on the phone earlier; you were just having a real stressful day. She thinks of a couple different responses, but finally just deletes the message and decides to let it go. After she heard the whistle she poured the water into a teacup and put in the last bag of Twinnings Irish Breakfast Tea, stirring in a teaspoon of honey just the way you like it. She also blew on it slightly and took a sip. She doesn't really like tea but she always takes a sip to make sure it's not too hot and in case her tastebuds may have changed their minds. Just then, she heard your car pull up so she put the teacup on the table and went to the bedroom to rest.

Which of these stories would you say is the most true?

This is my embellishment of an analogy used by John Polkinghorne to describe the relationship between science and faith. Each story answers a set of questions the other cannot. Your level of satisfaction with the respective stories will depend on what you are really asking when you ask “how did this teacup come to be here?” If you are inquiring into the process of how cold water becomes hot tea, the first explanation will be the most satisfying. If you are wondering more about who poured the tea and for what reason, the second story will be more satisfying. The writer of Genesis didn't know what we know about the scientific process by which the universe was created, or by which life evolved on our planet. But he did know a story about who created us and for what purpose. A story that is true. Likewise, the writers of our current scientific models can tell us a great many things with stunning accuracy, but there are a great many intangible things that cannot be explained through mathematics and observation. Things like: who created us and for what purpose? Religion and science are both plentiful wells and we can draw from both so long as we understand the difference between “how?” and “why?”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…



Sherlock Holmes and Watson Camping

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on a camping trip. After a good dinner, they retire for the night, and go to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes wakes up and nudges his faithful friend. “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

“I see millions and millions of stars, Holmes” replies Watson.

“And what do you deduce from that?”

Watson ponders for a minute.

“Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful, and that we are a small and insignificant part of the universe. What does it tell you, Holmes?”

Holmes is silent for a moment. “Watson, you idiot!” he says. “Someone has stolen our tent!”

This old joke is a favorite of mine and I do think it serves as a wonderful parable about human nature. Sometimes we human beings make things way more complicated than they need to be and we miss the obvious. Religion and theology are supposed to help us connect our everyday experiences to a God that is beyond our comprehension. These tools do help us to make sense of the night sky but if we're too busy looking up at the sky and pondering to notice our neighbor in need of that our own tent has been stolen then we are severely missing the point. The book of James reminds us that true religion is this: “to look after the orphan and the widow in their distress and to keep oneself unpolluted by the world.” Pure and simple… One might even say: “elementary”.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…