The Philosophy of Let There Be Light
This is a book for people wondering about modern science and religion, and what each has to say to the other, if anything. It is also for people curious about the discoveries of modern cosmology and physics, or about the insights of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, but who know little about them.
The book addresses these issues directly — by explaining and interweaving the different insights of science and religion. Using simple language, the book introduces the reader to the modern scientific understanding of the creation of the universe — the Big Bang. The book explains the principles of creation by gently guiding the reader through concepts in physics from the basic forces and particles to relativity and quantum mechanics. Simultaneously, the book acquaints the reader with relevant mystical analogies from the Kabbalah, and highlights the similarity of thinking between science and religion. Suddenly the conversation becomes richer.
Some background: A revolution is underway in how we think about religion and science, one that should matter to every person – religious or secular – who cares about his or her intellectual honesty or spiritual wholeness. The “god of the gaps” – the derogatory term used to describe a divinity invoked whenever we do not understand something – that god is now dead. For millennia it seemed obvious that the Bible was supposed answer questions of origins. For centuries scientists speculated or bragged about the possibility of deciphering all the puzzles of nature, but only in the past twenty years or so – not earlier – has science been able to answer with some confidence the fundamental questions that used to be the sole domain of religion, especially the two big ones: How was the universe created? What is the nature of life?
Sophisticated people may feel like shrugging off this observation as old news. Whatever the details of Creation – billions of years, millions, whatever – both religious and secular people no doubt figured science would probably find some kind of answer. But as the pieces of the world puzzle come together, not probably but in fact, our relationships with God and Scripture become changed irrevocably. We are forced into a new, more mature, responsible, and largely unexplored kind of relationship.
For those of us who are religious, the revolution means that faith is not the result of being ignorant, but an acknowledgment of a sanctified relationship. It also means that attentiveness to Torah requires a deeper new understanding of its message. An example: We, like Adam, are made of “adamah” – the dust of the earth. But today we know that this is not just poetic speech but concrete certainty. That dust, however, was not made during the big bang, but long afterward, in the nuclear furnaces of stars that have since died as supernovae. Matter was tediously assembled into life through a intricate, finely balanced, time consuming, and I would even say miraculous dance. Torah’s imagery is not about magical incantations, but about fine craftsmanship. The world is far more amazing, special, and fragile than tradition suggests, and reveals all of its treasures through attentive observation and rational inquiry.
On the other hand for those of us, including secularists, who acknowledge the power of science, this new relationship lets us approach a Torah freed from the distracting, dubious baggage of having to provide satisfying answers to the mystery of origins. Our knowledge of the world is the fruit of our intellectual efforts. Our relationship with the world is the domain of our tradition. Confidence in science, however, by no means implies that we know everything. On the contrary, the mysteries increase in number as our questions become more sophisticated. We have only recently discovered dark matter and dark energy — 95% (!) of the essence of our universe and we have no idea what they are. Science is in a position curiously reminiscent of the mythical cosmology in which the earth sits on the back of a giant turtle standing on the back of another turtle. When asked what the bottom turtle stands on, the philosopher reputedly replied, “It’s turtles all the way down.” Science expects new questions all the way down.
Scientists have been admirably honest about admitting ignorance, and, it seems to me, offer a lesson in humility to theologians: we do not know it all, regardless of our Scriptures… or our egos. Not only does the living God reveal to us something deeper of these mysteries, secrets that our forebears did not understand, so too we acknowledge that future discoveries (and puzzles) await our children. God is not a “god of the gaps,” but the One who took us out of Egypt. And what lessons can secularists learn? An example: We humans are descended from a long line of species stretching back to the primordial ooze, a story of struggle and success encoded in our genes that biologists are now deciphering. But we are all, quite literally, one family, the children of an Adam and Eve, and are most assuredly responsible for each other and for the garden we have inherited.
The power of the scientific method is that every single person will see and hear exactly the same thing. Mistakes of interpretation will be found and fixed; cumulative wisdom grows, and as it does, we gain in understanding about God’s “Book of Nature.” In contrast, our relationship with the holy is communal and personal, and is sanctified. Together, our mind and our spirit, our shared and our personal experiences of the Divine, enable us to live in the natural world both aware of and grateful for its blessings. The psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92, celebrates the universe that was completed with Shabbat: “How amazing is Your Creation, oh Lord, and how subtle are Your thoughts! …. An ignorant person can’t understand it; a simple-minded person won’t get it.” Thanks to the revolution in science and religion we are reaching for new highs of awareness. May we also reach new levels of wonder, gratitude, and holiness.