They say a good title can tell the reader the essence of an entire work. I’m not sure if I achieved this goal, but my guess is that the title of this post provokes one of two responses. If you are familiar with G.K. Chesterton, Cosmology, and Liturgical Theology, you may be thinking that this title gives away the entire post, leaving no reason to read on. If you’re not familiar with any of these subjects, then the title may sound like nothing more than gibberish, again, leaving no reason to read on. In either case, I invite you to enter into this collision of worlds (pun intended) to experience what I was trying to communicate with this title: A brief moment of intellectual play while exploring the subject of faith and science. To do this, we will delve into a fairy tale from G.K. Chesterton entitled Tremendous Trifles, explore a little astronomy and cosmology, and then conclude with a touch of Liturgical Theology and see what comes out of this symphony of ideas.
About a week ago, I found a lecture posted online from one of my former Professors, Dr. David Fagerberg. entitled, Humility without Humiliation: A Capacitation for Life in Elfland in the Thought of G.K. Chesterton. In this delightful stitching of the wit and wisdom of one of the more colorful figures in Catholicism, Dr. Fagerberg begins with G.K. Chesterton’s work, Tremendous Trifles.
Once upon a time there were two little boys who lived chiefly in the front garden, because their villa was a model one. The front garden was about the same size as the dinner table; it consisted of four strips of gravel, a square of turf with some mysterious pieces of cork standing up in the middle and one flower bed with a row of red daisies. One morning while they were at play in these romantic grounds, a passing individual, probably the milkman, leaned over the railing and engaged them in philosophical conversation. The boys, whom we will call Paul and Peter, were at least sharply interested in his remarks. For the milkman (who was, I need say, a fairy) did his duty in that state of life by offering them in the regulation manner anything that they chose to ask for. And Paul closed with the offer with a business-like abruptness, explaining that he had long wished to be a giant that he might stride across continents and oceans and visit Niagara or the Himalayas in an afternoon dinner stroll. The milkman producing a wand from his breast pocket, waved it in a hurried and perfunctory manner; and in an instant the model villa with its front garden was like a tiny doll’s house at Paul’s colossal feet. He went striding away with his head above the clouds to visit Niagara and the Himalayas. But when he came to the Himalayas, he found they were quite small and silly-looking, like the little cork rockery in the garden; and when he found Niagara it was no bigger than the tap turned on in the bathroom. He wandered round the world for several minutes trying to find something really large and finding everything small, till in sheer boredom he lay down on four or five prairies and fell asleep. Unfortunately his head was just outside the hut of an intellectual backwoodsman who came out of it at that moment with an axe in one hand and a book of Neo-Catholic Philosophy in the other. The man looked at the book and then at the giant, and then at the book again. And in the book it said, “It can be maintained that the evil of pride consists in being out of proportion to the universe.” So the backwoodsman put down his book, took his axe and, working eight hours a day for about a week, cut the giant’s head off; and there was an end of him.
Such is the severe yet salutary history of Paul. But Peter, oddly enough, made exactly the opposite request; he said he had long wished to be a pigmy about half an inch high; and of course he immediately became one. When the transformation was over he found himself in the midst of an immense plain, covered with a tall green jungle and above which, at intervals, rose strange trees each with a head like the sun in symbolic pictures, with gigantic rays of silver and a huge heart of gold. Toward the middle of this prairie stood up a mountain of such romantic and impossible shape, yet of such stony height and dominance, that it looked like some incident of the end of the world. And far away on the faint horizon he could see the line of another forest, taller and yet more mystical, of a terrible crimson colour, like a forest on fire for ever. He set out on his adventures across that coloured plain; and he has not come to the end of it yet. (Tremendous Trifles, G.K. Chesterton)
Dr. Fagerberg explains that these “little boys” signify two approaches to how we view the world. The boy, Paul, who wishes to be a giant, is out of proportion to the world, choosing pride over humility, and, in the process, losses a sense of wonder as he chases after all the wonders of the world. The boy, Peter, on the other hand, chooses to be small, the pigmy, embracing a stance of humility toward the world. The end result for Peter is an endless sea of wonder from his small state. G.K. Chesterton uses this story to argue that the sin of Satan is to view creation as something tiny and minuscule that can be controlled and dominated. Instead, the Christian disposition, the disposition Chesterton claims for his own, is that of the pigmy: a radically small creature that seems to have little if any significance. From this small vantage point, the pigmy lives in constant awe and wonder at the marvels of creation, leading to one of the most often quoted lines of Chesterton, “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” (Tremendous Trifles, G.K. Chesterton)
One may question the use of a fairy tale at the beginning of a reflection on faith and science, but what modern astronomy teaches us is that the moral of this fairy tale is truer than even Chesterton may have intended. When gazing upon the vast expanse of the known universe, we are the pigmy, small and insignificant, gazing in wonder at a universe that we cannot fully comprehend. Though the human heart deeply desires to become the giant that can leap from our Milky Way Galaxy, to the Andromeda Galaxy, to M51 like a child leaping on top of large stones in a shallow river, reality shows us that Peter’s response to be “about half an inch high” is our material fate. Therefore, with no magic potion at our disposal, here we are, the tiny pigmy, looking up at the vast darkness of the night sky, in constant wonder over a simple question: What is out there?
As we gaze at the night sky in our smallness, we have come to learn some fascinating truths about our universe. One of them being that we do not see the night sky as it is, but rather as it was because of the time it takes for the light from these objects to get to our eyes. There are many helpful analogies we can use to understand this phenomena. While in college, I was first introduced to the idea of the night sky as a history book, peering back, chapter by chapter, at time’s origin. Another helpful analogy was presented by a fellow contributor to the The Catholic Astronomer, Dr. Brenda Frye in her post “Looking back in time…” in which an astronomer is like an archeologist, digging back further and further into time, receiving a glimpse into our past with the discovery of each galactic “fossil.” What I find amazing about the metaphor of both historian and archeologist is that the astronomer is dealing with “living history.” When someone gazes at a night sky object, it is like they are watching an old video of Babe Ruth at the plate before he calls his shot, but seeing it as if it happened for the first time. If the night sky were like a history book about Napoleon, we would experience far more than a mental reconstruction of wars told through words. Rather, we would see Napoleon standing tall (as tall as he could) to wage war as if we were viewing the battlefield from afar (or frighteningly close). Therefore, we are not dealing with a history or archeology that is a musty book upon a shelf or are boney remnants of a past species. Rather, it is a living history, being made present to us again, even if some of the objects we gaze upon no longer exist.
This idea, however, leads to a fascinating question: What if there is a real living history of the universe? Is there a way for us to manipulate the fabric of time so we could jump on the stones in the pond, not as a giant, but as the pigmy? What if our smallness could become so small that we could survive entering a worm hole to be transported to a part of the galaxy that, as of now, is impossible to reach? What if we live in a multiverse in which each universe is like a droplet of rain on the hood of my car after a storm? What if there are parallel universes where other “mes” exist at the same time? Is this not the grandest of all cosmological fairy tales? Doesn’t the non-scientst (and perhaps some scientists) hear these reflections and wonder what episode of Star Trek or Dr. Who I am referencing? And isn’t it also true that, just as G.K. Chesterton meant his story of the pigmy to illustrate the real importance of a humble disposition of heart in the real world, the astronomer and cosmologist who pursue these theories do so in the hopes of discovering the truth of the material world? This illustrates my first point of this exploration of faith and science: Just as well written fairy tales and science fiction can teach us a lot about the human condition, so, too, does good theology and good science assist us in the ascent toward truth.
Before people of faith dismiss these scientific investigations as science fiction, we only need to explore our own theology to hear faint echoes of a collision of worlds and realities: Its called the Mass. The theology of the liturgy is that we “reenter” the great events of salvation history in the timelessness of the Eucharist. This sense of timelessness is not meant to be a remembering of our past like the pictures I hang on my wall. Rather, the Greek word used to explain this reality is anamnesis. It is, for theology, a unique remembrance in which we are present once again to the Incarnation of Christ, his life, death, and resurrection. We are preset again at the exodus of the Jewish people, the Pentecost of the Holy Spirit, and the future “New Heavens and New Earth” referenced in Revelation. This theology of anamnesis is derived form the words of institution at Mass, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The English word “remembrance” is where we find the Greek word anamnesis, reentering the one, eternal sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Therefore, this unique understanding of remembrance is rooted in the Eucharist itself, allowing the pigmy to skip upon the stones of the lake of salvation history, while still maintaining a sense of wonder and awe we call in theology, the fear of the Lord.
At this point, the hard cynic may protest that this idea of anamnesis cannot be true because when we attend Mass we sit in pews, not finding ourselves back in first century Jerusalem. Do we actually see Jesus on the cross again? Do we actually see God say, “Let there be light?” Do we actually see Jesus in the upper room asking us to examine his wounds? There are even some of my own flock that would embrace this protest, like the woman who sits in the back at Church who raises the parish bulletin to her face half way through my homily, implicitly quoting my favorite thought of Mark Twain, “No soul has ever been saved after the first ten minutes of a sermon.”
I could turn to the cynic and ask, “Have you ever seen a multiverse or a parallel universe,” to which I might receive pages of equations that show the mathematical probability of their existence. The cynic may state that science has gotten to the point that if a thing can be shown to exist in mathematics then it most likely exists in reality, challenging me to show any proof that anamnesis is real. To that, I would say that I experience anamnesis ever time I walk into a hospital room to anoint someone who is near death, gasping for every breath, with family keeping watch at the foot of their mother’s “cross.” In that moment, I am made present again to the Cross of Jesus Christ. When a family asks me to baptize their child and I allow water to flow upon the crown of their head, I am present again at the moment of creation in which we were all, to quote Chesterton, “younger than sin.” And when I see a parishioner return to Mass for the first time after a severe brain surgery and we embrace with joy because their greatest fear of irreversible memory loss miraculously has not occurred, I am present in the upper room once again to the wounds of Jesus Christ, hidden beneath the baseball cap upon his shaved head.
At this point, I will not turn around and become the giant, taunting the cynic. Rather, I will respect the cynic, and simply say that science has yet to verify what the math suggests. What saddens me is that what can be verified of anamnesis among Catholics has, in turn, been reduced to a series theological “equations,” distant from the lived reality of the faith of many. It is time to allow our own “math” to point us to a reality that we ignore. We, as Christians, need to acknowledge that we have chosen the heart of the giant that ceases to find awe and wonder in the world, wanting our faith to be reduced to a Mass that is forty-five minutes long and a faith that conforms to our desires. Let us remember, as science reminds us, that we are the pigmy. Let us put down our endless chasing after material wonders, and in that detachment rediscover our sense of wonder at the timeless love of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, perhaps there is more in common between faith and science than we first thought. Perhaps our problem is that we have treated each other like two bookstore junkies that are engrossed in their own interests, forgetting that other sections exist in the store worth exploring. Perhaps we need to acknowledge that both, at times, have acted like the giant, needing to re-embrace the heart of the pigmy. Let all of us gaze in wonder at the world we live in and may all of us enter into the timeless wonder known as the love of God.