As in all these blog posts, any pictures below are all linked to full-sized versions.
(Let me just say at the outset that there's a really fun interactive tool down at the bottom, but you'll have to read through my intervening essay if you want to play with it.
Also a word or two...OK, six words, about using "God" vs. the lower case "god": "I can't possibly please everyone with this."
On the other hand, the NASA style manual1 says to never capitalize the word "universe", so I will attempt to follow that direction, even though I've been capitalizing "Universe" for my entire life...whoopsie.)
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If I were asked, and I almost never have been, whether I believe in God, I would say that yes, a deity, or the idea of one, does seem to exist in the universe. And furthermore, I think that a deity, or the idea of one, exists in the universe within the concept of time and place known as infinity.
My problem, (well, one of them), is that I often lose my grasp on this whole "infinity" thing. I should say that I often lose my grasp on what I think my concept of infinity is, and therefore I lose my concept of what I think the spirituality that infuses the universe may be. Everyone seems to have their own version or their own understanding of infinity, or god, or God, or spirituality, or what have you. From Physicists to Janitors, Astronomers to Wal-Mart Greeters.
Interestingly, even Mathematicians have a concept of infinity. So when I lose my mental construct of infinite spirituality, as often happens because the whole idea is rather slippery, I begin reconstruction with the familiar example of the number line. I can easily imagine a set of numbers increasing from zero to infinity, out to the right of zero. I can then, more often than not, grasp the fact that there is yet another set of numbers decreasing to that same infinity, on the left of the zero. But is it the same infinity you reach by going out to the right as well going out to the left? By getting smaller do we also become larger? Are small and large truly opposites when discussing infinity? Do the two meet up? Does one loop around to the next? I don't think anyone knows, I'm just asking here. I intuit that perhaps they do meet up.
I need to ground myself on the number line before taking this next step, because I’m almost certain that the idea of god, the idea of the infinite, that spirituality at least for me, exists in the fact that there is also an infinite set of numbers between 1 and 2, like this: 1, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and in turn an infinite set of numbers between those numbers: 1.11, 1.12, and so on. Is anyone up to carrying this on to its logical conclusion? Carrying it on, so to speak, until the cows come home?
Of course, those bovines are herd animals, and as such follow themselves around constantly, never really making it home, unless they’re prodded by some other, thinking animal. Yes, the herd mentality; tell enough people something utterly unbelievable often enough, and they’ll believe it’s true. Don’t believe me? What about virgin birth and rising from the dead? Millions believe these things have happened. These facts, if true, should be of much comfort to parents of frisky adolescents, and very bad news for undertakers everywhere. I merely point out the logical incongruity; I pass no moral judgment.
For myself, I’m comfortable with letting the concept of god lie in the lofty realm of sleeping dogs and infinity. I don’t require the concept of a personal god that I can pray to, or talk at, believing that this entity might cause something to happen that would make a difference in my life. Staring squarely into the face of infinity, my problems, wants, and needs are so small as to be non existent, so it would be quite presumptuous, dare I say useless for me, to try to lay something of mine so trivial at the metaphysical feet of something so indefinably large.
I am humbled in the face of eternity, which I presume is also the face of God.
I intuit this infinite eternity of universe and "Subatomicia", (did I just coin a toponym for the sub atomic realm? I think I did!), because once, I went for a walk in the desert, and stumbled squarely upon god and the vastness of the infinite universe. My walk began at sunrise. There was a nice dry wash behind the house where cactus wrens and Gila woodpeckers squawked and chattered. Where coyotes made regular forays in search of rabbits and squirrels to supplement their diet of trash stolen from my garbage cans. (These are sleek, suburban coyotes, bearing little resemblance to their scruffy, wild kin, what with their bushy tails, full, shiny coats even in the summer, and their haughty demeanor.) There was a pair of Harris hawks that made their home in a large mesquite tree between the wash and the house, and to round things out, a family of 20 or so javelina called the ecosystem home.
As I walked downstream, I was preoccupied with thoughts of the infinite while enjoying the wild sunrise bursting around me. The desert is a good place to think about these things – after all, many have come here in the past to simply ponder the imponderables, or, on the other hand, to go slowly mad while pondering these things, under the blazing, life-giving, desiccating, killing sun – mad enough to see God face to face, or to scream prophesies of a savior at anyone who would listen. I was not dressed in skins, but the crazed glint in my eyes was unmistakable.
In the wash, dry now after a series of heavy, drenching rains, I found much evidence of late winter storms. At a bend, caught in the branches of a large paloverde tree 10 feet above my head, was some debris which included a shirt and a deflated football. This flotsam had been deposited in the branches a couple of weeks ago when the wash contained a raging torrent of muddy water many feet deep, and marks the high water mark. Everywhere in the wash was evidence of the power of water. Huge boulders, ripped from the banks upstream, had been rolled downhill and lay in the channel, draped with branches on their upstream sides. Still-alive, but uprooted, doomed and confused Mesquite and paloverde trees slowly withered in the wash, branches buried in silt, their roots reaching in vain toward the cloudless sky.
I leaned against a granite boulder that dwarfed me; it must have weighed in at 10 tons – I looked upstream from where it had come and pictured it, crashing and rolling down the channel, propelled by the sheer force of flowing atoms of gas: hydrogen and oxygen.
Held together by chemical and electromagnetic bonds, the atoms of hydrogen and oxygen form molecules of what everybody knows and recognizes as water, but the essential makeup of the stuff is undeniably gas. These atoms of gas in turn are composed of electrons, protons and neutrons; particles that whiz around a nucleus, forming what is called the “atomic cloud”. Now, imagine the space between an orbiting electron and its nucleus within the atom: this empty space makes up most of the mass of the atom. What this means is that most of the matter in the universe is made of. . .empty space.
(Physicists will no doubt argue that when the inter-orbital space appears empty, it’s actually filled with electromagnetic photons and something called the “weak force”, so the space is not empty, but that’s all just argot for invisible stuff.) Since the space between the subatomic particles makes up most of the actual mass of the given atom, that means that atoms are made mostly of open space. Carried along gently to the next logical step, since everything in the universe is composed of atoms, everything must be mostly constructed of empty space. It’s flawless logic, really.
As I leaned against my 10 ton boulder, made up of mostly empty space, which was moved here by atoms of gas, made up mostly of empty space, I pictured the atomic clouds mentioned above, and considered the orbiting subatomic particles. I was lead, kicking and screaming, deeper into subatomic space. “What”, I asked myself, “makes up those subatomic particles that go whizzing and whirring in a cloud-like frenzy around the atomic nucleus?” They have to be made of something, right?
Quarks and anti-quarks make up the subatomic particles. Quarks in turn come in several varieties: up, down, top, bottom, strange and charmed. My favorite, of course, is the charmed quark, followed closely by the strange one. Everyone should have a favorite quark. You're quirky if you don't.
From here, the argument descends still further into that realm of infinity existing between 0 and -1 on the number line, and into particles known as hadrons, gluons, fermions, and kaons. I’m sure you see where I’m going with this: what are the hadrons, gluons, fermions and kaons made out of? Next of course, what are those things made of? It goes on and on, descending endlessly into the vastness of infinity.
I adjusted my position on the boulder, and turned to look at a crystal of pink orthoclase feldspar. I looked at the silver-gray quartz crystals and the green-black plates of biotite mica that combine to produce granite. I considered the silica, aluminum and potassium atoms that combine together to produce those minerals. Then I descended again into the realm of sub-subatomic particles, and I leaped away from the boulder, convinced that all the empty space would collapse on itself, and I feared losing control of my universe. Then there would be hell to pay.
No worries though. It didn’t. I didn’t. There wasn’t.
In fact, the empty space of the boulder stared back at me with infinite stoniness, its equanimity contrasting with my agitated mental state.
I inched closer, bending over to peer more intently at the boulder. I leaned in. I wanted to see into the boulder. My eyes widened, gaining that certain, crazed expression mentioned earlier. I wanted to utilize the empty space those atoms and molecules are made out of, to see through the boulder. I stood up suddenly with the realization that if I saw through the boulder, I would necessarily see through the little mesquite tree standing behind the boulder. In fact, I would indeed be able to see through the Earth itself and out into the vastness of star studded space. . .but I wouldn’t see the stars. I would see through them, too, since they’re made out of subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, and vast empty spaces, just like we are. (We are stardust, we are golden, and we have to get ourselves back to the garden. . .) But I digress.
What would I see?
Standing in the wash, the sun rising orange and red in the cloudless eastern sky, brittlebrush and marigold flowers standing bold and brave and yellow against the muted sands of the wash, the boulder looming large and solid under my hand, I realized that I would be staring squarely into the eyes of infinity.
And that is where I believe we are most likely to see the face of God: hidden in plain sight.
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OK, here's the fun slidy thing. Click the image below; a frame will open up where you can click the language you're most familiar with and then you can play with the slider and consider infinity in both directions on the number line:
1. Capitalization of the word "universe", The NASA Style Guide, http://history.nasa.gov/printFriendly/styleguide.html Accessd April 13, 2016