By Owen Gingerich 51
Millennium Advent Sermon, Dec. 5, 1999
Washington National Cathedral
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
At the turn of a millennium, it is hard to
avoid some sort of assessment of the times we live in. When I am in a pessimistic
mood, I think perhaps we live in the best of times. We have watched our material
standards rise ever higher little things we take for granted would have
been a kings envy a century or two ago. But as we peer into a new millennium,
we have to ask, Will our children, and our childrens children have
it as good? Or will the best of times have come and gone?
Ive been invited to reflect, in the
context of cathedral and of science, on the prospects and challenges of a new
millennium. But all this fuss about a new millennium seems to me a bit phony.
We have 10 fingers, and 10 times 10 10s is a thousand or a millennium. Aliens
from a distant planet where they happen to have a dozen fingers would think
our fixation on a thousand is a bit idiosyncratic. Besides, I am from the school
of thought that believes you dont finish a century until youve counted
from one all the way through 100, so the next millennium wont start until
Jan. 1, 2001. Those celebrating at the end of 1999 are victims of the odometer
syndrome the excitement of watching all those numbers roll over.
But I am mellow about the calendar. My advice
is, Why not celebrate twice?
In any event, if you feel pious about the
millennium and think you are celebrating precisely 2000 years since the birth
of Christ, I am sorry to disillusion you: youve already missed it! The
year of his birth is still controversial, but all of the experts agree that
it fell somewhere between 3 and 7 B.C., so the 2000th birthday came a few years
Yet, despite my misgivings, it seems to me
that there is something very significant about a millennium, something that
may well be getting lost in all the millennial brouhaha. A thousand years is
a number that can still be grasped in human terms. Thats 30 to 50 human
generations a number small enough to feel comfortable with. Six millennia
take you back past King David and the prophets to Noah and Abraham. As human
beings we can almost comprehend the sweep of written history.
Not so with the vast eons brought in by the
geologists in the last century or the even more mind-boggling numbers introduced
by astronomers during the 1900s. Today the most commonly reported number for
the age of the universe is 12 to 13 billion years. Nowadays its relatively
easy to think of in such enormous quantities.
A few years ago I asked my class if they could
come up with some numbers in the billions that everyone should know, and to
my surprise they got them right away: six billion, the current world population
and 250 billion, the annual Pentagon budget in dollars. (Incidentally, they
also mentioned Bill Gates fortune and Harvards endowment.) Still,
none of us are entirely comfortable imagining how big billions really are, and
its much easier to cope with thousands. One can even have a little sympathy
for the young-earth Creationists, who cling to an age of the earth of only 6,000
years, with its much more human dimension.
calculate not only past ages in terms of billions of years, but the future as
well. How long will the universe last? Tens if not hundreds of billions of years.
Our sun? About five billion years before it runs out of its hydrogen fuel and
swells up into a bloated red giant star, huge enough to swallow the earth. And
Homo sapiens? No life on earth has lasted five billion years. The first
of the genus Homo appeared on earth about four million years ago, and already
half a dozen species are extinct. Homo habilis, Homo erectus, neanderthalensis,
they are all gone. A million years is a fleeting instant compared to the lifetime
of the sun, but a very large number indeed in terms of human generations. Yes,
even a millennium into the future stretches our imaginations.
Think with me for a few minutes about how
rapidly our world is changing. My great-grandfathers, who were alive and farming
a century ago, would probably have had more rapport with their farmer forebears
900 years earlier than with us today. They had no indoor plumbing, no telephones.
When it got dark, they lit kerosene lanterns. They rode in their buggies on
unpaved, muddy roads. As often as not, their infants hastened from crib to casket.
The world population stood well under two billion.
By the time I was a graduate student in the
1950s, the world population was pushing 2.5 billion. Biologists did not yet
know for sure how many chromosomes were in each human cell. Today they are decoding
the entire human genome, and (recently) biogeneticists announced that all of
the genes on one of the 23 chromosomes have been mapped. Meanwhile, in the past
35 years the world population has doubled.
With a still-increasing supply of people and
a diminishing supply of energy reserves, humankind seems headed, if not to extinction,
at least to a bleak and even brutish existence. The biblical story of the Apocalypse
and a final millennium seem all too real. Reluctant as we are to concede it,
perhaps now really is the best of times.
let us be genuinely optimistic, and imagine that somehow we will make the perilous
transition to a sustainable future with the runaway population explosion under
control. To harness the vast and generously distributed energy of sunlight,
we will need a thriving scientific establishment. This will surely bring an
exponential increase in biological knowledge, how genes work and how they can
be changed. Genetic engineering is already shaping grains in our fields and
vegetables in our shops. Correction of crippling genetic diseases should soon
be possible, a welcome gift for modern medicine. In another 50 years, barring
major nuclear catastrophe, geneticists will surely be able to manipulate the
genes to create a stronger, healthier, smarter superman. Within a millennium
Homo sapiens will indeed be smarter if it even exists as the same
Scientific progress seems inevitable as the
new millennium dawns, but will there be spiritual progress? In the special millennium
issue of Business Week, reporting on religion, the sixth of 21 ideas
for the 21st century, reporter Karen Penner wrote:
Theologians will welcome scientists insights into religions
physical manifestations, but they will not cede the role that religion plays
in providing solace, in mediating ethical disputes, or in celebrating moments
when a relationship to the unknowable fills worshipers with humility ... For
that reason, in the 21st century nothing will easily attenuate the tidal pull
that religion holds for most humans.
Lofty words, those, and I pretty generally
agree with them. But is she just making it up about religion still exerting
a tidal pull for most humans in the next century?
A hundred years ago, sociologists, psychologists
and anthropologists did not foresee such a continuing role for religion. August
Comte, in tracing the course of cultural evolution, had described the religious
stage as the most primitive. During this stage, he declared, human culture was
held in thrall by hallucinations and was at the mercy of passions. Science,
and particularly his science of sociology, would enable mankind to acquire a
more rational understanding of the world.
Psychologist James Leuba, writing in 1914,
predicted that progress in science would demand a revision of public opinion
about the two cardinal beliefs of Christianity, and that without these, Christianity
would not survive. Leuba went further, attempting to document the decline of
religious belief among scientists. In 1914 and again in 1933, Leuba surveyed
a cross section of American scientists using a statistical sampling of those
represented in American Men of Science. (Today the title has been
changed to American Men and Women of Science, but in those days
women were also included in the compilation.)
Leuba asked first, Do you believe in
a God in intellectual and affective communication with man ... to whom one can
pray in expectation of receiving an answer? and second, Do you believe
in personal immortality? Yes, no, or agnostic were the only options.
(In 1998), Edward Larson and Larry Witham
re-asked those same questions to a group statistically selected from the current
reference volume. Eight decades after the first survey, the answer to the first
question, about belief in a God who answers prayer, was essentially the same:
40 percent. Somewhat more answered the second question affirmatively back in
1914, about 50 percent, and today that number has dropped, but not very significantly,
to about 40 percent.
Thus, the authors conclude, one
of Leubas predictions, his general theory of disbelief, has failed.
In 1969, the Carnegie Commission sponsored a mammoth survey with 60,000 college
faculty respondents, and as a trained astronomer I was fascinated to discover
that their results showed that scientists were on average more religious and
attended church more regularly than those in the humanities or social sciences.
I will not argue that scientists are in a closer position to see that the heavens
declare the glory of God. Scientific findings have undoubtedly been destructive
of some of the once-traditional notions about the universe in which we find
But at the same time, scientists perhaps are
in a better position to appreciate the subtlety and grandeur of creation. They
can understand that the billions of years of creation are necessary for the
slow preparation of the elements required for life, elements that could not
form in the first three minutes of the Big Bang, but which are gradually cooked
up in the interiors of evolving stars. They know, too, that the whole structure
of the universe is astonishingly congenial not just to the formation of life,
but for thinking, self-conscious life.
Somewhat to my surprise, my paleontologist
colleague, Stephen Jay Gould, recently published a book, Rocks of Ages,
dealing with the relations of science and religion. These are two great magisteria,
he wrote, each with their own way of dealing with aspects of human existence,
but, he suggested, with very little to say to each other. Of that conclusion
I am not convinced.
Why? Because it seems to me that in thorny
questions of genetic engineering, of using science to build Star Wars shields,
of deciding who gets the medicine and who gets to be guinea pigs, religion has
something to add to the dialogue. In the Gospels, Jesus has a great deal to
say about salvation.
Now at this point I decided to follow the
advice of Alistair Cooke, that if there is something you dont know much
about, like salvation, you look it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
I tried the 11th edition, and salvation was not there, which immediately
gave the clue that this is not an easy subject. But the current edition was
bolder: it gave a definition: Salvation is the redemption of man from
such fundamentally negative or disabling conditions as suffering, evil and death.
Traditionally within Christianity, that has meant the restoration of body and
soul. For me, that restoration is a great mystery, philosophically baffling,
something that can only be approached in a spirit of trust.
But Jesus did not simply urge his disciples
to think of some future paradise, but he taught them to pray, Thy will
be done on earth as it is in heaven. He taught a gospel of loving ones
enemies, of selfless sharing, even of ultimate sacrifice as he showed by his
As we look into the next millennium, we can
see some redemption from suffering and evil in the hands of scientists. They
can stem the scourge of plagues, can help bring forth more abundant produce
from the earth, can tap the abundant energy of sunshine. Yet some of those same
keys also unlock biological warfare, can generate monsters, can destroy our
Salvation does not come from science. Salvation
comes from age-old insights into human nature, and the on-going quest to be
reconciled to God. It comes from Jesus not only reminding us to love our neighbors
as ourselves, but with the parable of the Good Samaritan, where he told us our
neighbors can be strangers anywhere. That path of salvation is not an easy one.
There will be difficult issues to confront
in the new century. Experts tell us the next round of wars will be fought over
water resources. Can we learn to share? Let us hope that in this and many other
conflicts religion and science can dialogue, that our religious insights into
sacrificial love can progress, and that they might steer our precocious, self-conscious
species from mutual extinction to eternal life. May the millennium be the best
Dr. Owen Gingerich is research professor of astronomy
and history and science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
He was honored with the Goshen College Alumni Board Culture for Service
Award in 1991, the second year of the award program.
Return to April Bulletin
Science and simplicity by
President Shirley H. Showalter
Traces of Gods handiwork in the universe
by Rachel Lapp
of God: The search for truth and beauty by Carl Helrich
community: General education guides discussion by Ryan Miller with Beth
Martin Birky 83
Science and spirit, hand
in hand by Debra Brubaker 79
Marrying science and religion, in classroom and
home interview with Elizabeth (Miller) 51 and Marlin Jeschke
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