Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Fitting in to the scheme of things
Having had something of a Christian upbringing – at least until the age of 8 or 9, I have a certain grounding in biblical matters. Given the seasonal cycles of church offerings, every year the lessons and sermons and readings would come round again and again. And these were then repeated in school. By the time I became a teacher, I had immersed myself in the ocean of agnosticism. But that doesn’t stop phrases being quoted by my brain, whether I decree it or not. The extraordinary New Testament lines from John did this the other day: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God. And the word was God.”
It happened like this. I was reclining on the sofa, watching DSTV’s The History Channel, one of a clutch of programmes under the title, Space Sunday. Now, for any science and science fiction fan and proclaimed agnostic, the day was filled with goodies. Not that I watched them end to end but in recordings, like a string of pearls over a week. Anyway, the one I was worm-holing into was called something like The End of the Universe. Rather in the style of a holiday programme, it took the viewer from a camp fire in the American desert to the beginnings of time. On the way we met planets, stars, galaxies, super novae, hyper novae, wombs of stars, black holes, quasars, searching for the furthest point from which light has emanated. The Big Bang. At the end we were there. (The static snow flakes of your television, when waiting to be tuned to a station, are receiving this earliest broadcast from the beginning of time). And what WAS there? It all started with a singularity so small and so dense that when it exploded, the entire universe was formed as a result.
“In the beginning was the word and the word was with Jack. And the word was sub-atomic particle.”
That everything that we know (or imagine) was concentrated in this initial spark, whether we regard it as the wilful act of the Divine or an implacable law of a disinterested Nature we cannot comprehend, is probably the greatest paradox in our consciousness. Infinitely small and infinitely dense, containing neither space nor time but giving rise to both – and mass. It is hard to wrap one’s brain around it except as an utterly testing metaphor. To know, too, that we have atoms in our body that have travelled across galaxies from this initial detonation, is stupefying. We are, as the New Agers and Buddhists will aver, at one with the universe. Well, we would be, if we bothered to meditate on it.
Maybe Richard Dawkins is right and there is no God to be found in The Big Bang’s unrolling (after all, the end of space and time is now posited to be an icy nothingness with every atom that once constituted it at its most grand and architectural, dissipated into solitary aloneness, unable to interact with any other because of the vast distances between them). Whatever, I have exchanged the stained glass windows of a very rigid ecclesiastical building in my childhood for the colour enhanced wonders of space and time. It is more reassuring to imagine the atoms in my body heading off on their strange pilgrimages into the infinite when I finally succumb to the dissolution of the flesh, than visions of Paradise, whether with angels or virgins or the souls of the Good.
Religions seem incapable of stopping their adherents from visiting destruction on each other. They are all so earthbound, despite their protestations to the contrary. But look into the space time continuum and life down here seems a bit of a sideshow and not worth getting too excited about.
I want to end up like those early savants who wrote The Egyptian Book of the Dead (1240 BC). But instead of spending my remaining existence preparing myself and my boat for the trip across the river to the Afterlife, I’ll be giving a final service to my atoms so that they can continue on their fateful, onward journey.