Nothing is Impossible: A Place for Miracles

Al Carroll – July 27, 2014

Some number of months ago, what I thought was a catchy title for a sermon crept into my brain, and I foolishly said at a PCC community meeting that I could probably provide a sermon during this summer of uncertainty for the Hammonds. Unfortunately, despite what Peggy keeps saying about her poor memory, she remembered what I had foolishly said, and called me up a few weeks ago to say that it would a good thing if I would actually give the sermon for which I only had a title.

The thoughts that had been vaguely rambling around in my skull, resembled a physics lecture – but that really didn’t seem like a suitable form for a sleepy, summertime Sunday. However, this is probably no more than my 6th or 7th sermon that I have given in my lifetime, and preparing a sermon is good time to try to gather the various strands of my life. – and at age 78 this sermon might possibly be my last. So bear with me, a rather confused older person.

I have always liked the story about a preacher who had put together what he thought was a pretty good sermon, but there was a bit in the middle that didn’t quite hang together. However, it was late Saturday night, and his wife was saying, “It is time to come to bed, dear.” So he hastily scribbled in the margin of his notes, “Not sure about this, SHOUT!” But I’m not that kind of person. At Peace Camp, just over a week ago, Bishop Mark MacDonald, bishop of the indigenous people of Canada who are Anglicans/Episcopalians said for indigenous people it is particularly important to know who are ancestors are – particularly those on our maternal side. Well, my Mother was a graduate of Wellesley in physics, as well as one of my older sisters. I couldn’t go to Wellesley, but I was a physics major here at Oberlin College. All this is to say I have physics in my DNA, and I should be calm and collected, and not shouting to cover up my uncertainties — of which there are many this morning – particularly since this sermon is about uncertainties.

What has evolved for this morning is a ménage a trois, a mixture of science, religion, and my obsession that peace through nonviolence is what we really need. Since this is church, I thought I should begin with the religion part. A couple of weeks ago, Polly & I received an email from Rachel Naomi Remen, who has written books relating her Jewish heritage to her professional career as a physician who counsels people with serious diseases, in particular cancer. Via the Internet she read a story from her book My Grandfather’s Blessings to us, her linked in audience. As a child Dr. Remen said she was often tired and fidgety, during the long Passover Seders in which the story of how Moses had freed the Jewish slaves from bondage in Egypt was told, much of the story in barely understood Hebrew. Her Grandfather, an orthodox rabbi, realized that that this story was too much for a young child, and told her a shorter and simpler version in English:

He told Rachel, “Thousands of years ago the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. Like slaves everywhere, they suffered greatly and they had a dream of freedom. So as you remember, Moses pleaded with God to let his people go. God answered Moses, and backed up Moses by sending one plague after another when Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrew people go. After smiting the first-born of all the Egyptians, and passing-over all of the Jewish people, Pharaoh finally lets them go and they have their freedom. At this point the little girl Rachel asked her Grandfather, “Were they very happy?” We know the answer from the verses from Exodus [16: 1-3] we read this morning. Her Grandfather answered, ‘ No, Naomi, they were not. “They knew how to suffer. “They had done it for a long time and they were used to it. They did not know how to be free.”

Rachel Remen’s conclusion was the opposite of slavery is not freedom but the opposite of slavery is the unknown — uncertainty. A difficult idea to accept — BUT, President Eisenhower once said that the most secure man, was one with a life sentence. Every day was predictable, and he didn’t have worry about where he would sleep or what he would eat.

But at this point, you might say that we, a modern, well-educated congregation, have science to tell us what are the facts about the world. This brings in is the science part of this sermon that has been rattling around in my brain. Despite what we hear on TV and read in the news, in my understanding, there actually are no scientific FACTS, only scientific THEORIES. A couple of days ago I was reading responses to a blog by Professor Stephen Zunes (he was here at Oberlin this spring) on the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis. One responder after another stated what they thought the “FACTS” of the situation were. But in actually, all they had was opinions or at best evidence. This would be evidence in the best of circumstances, which in this long-standing heated emotional debate, this clearly isn’t. Evidence in the legal sense would be “Beyond a reasonable doubt.” When this legal standard is applied in the most serious criminal cases involving the death penalty, it has been found that in a substantial number (300 in the State of Illinois) that legal decisions were wrong and innocent people had been executed. The then governor decided that the only reasonable policy was to abolish the death penalty instead of making irreversible decisions that might be wrong.

To the anti-science crowd, this uncertainty says you evolutionists, climate-changers, and peaceniks are just guessing, you don’t aren’t absolutely sure about you are talking about. This is true, scientists are never absolutely sure of what they believe is true. Let me illustrate from a very rapid history of the THEORY of gravitation.

Unfortunately, this portion is liable to be a little lite on scripture, and probably too heavy on science, because Jesus gave us few parables on the nature of science– so these are mainly my opinions without much scriptural authority to back them up. It is not too surprising that Jesus didn’t dwell at length on science because modern science didn’t come into being until late in the 16th century. Prior to that time, respected philosophers, like Aristotle, thought and pondered the question of falling objects and then wrote down in elegant Greek that it was obvious that a heavier body would fall faster than lighter one. Since Aristotle said it, everyone believed it until Galileo had the simple, but brilliant idea to go up to the top of the leaning Tower of Pisa and drop two balls of unequal weight – and have his friends at the bottom of the tower observe that the two balls reached the ground at the same time as accurately as they could tell. So people gradually came to the conclusion, that thinking and pondering are great, but one’s great thoughts needed to be tested by experiment against the real world. Albert Einstein was a great thinker and ponderer, but he proposed experimental tests to check out his radical new ideas of relativity. So does this mean that modern day science establishes by experiment “facts” that are indisputable? No it doesn’t. The “Laws of Science” are fact only theories with high, often extremely high, probabilities of predicting outcomes of particular situations. All scientific “facts” are provisional, subject to further test. As an experimental physicist you can get to be famous, by showing that a seemingly well established theory is wrong in some way.

If all scientific “facts’ are actually uncertain to a certain degree, does that mean we can just ignore them if we wish? Of course not. Even if there are uncertainties as in the study of climate change the evidence is strong enough that we would ignore it out our peril. The “Laws of Physics” are guides that if not followed in building, for instance, a bridge, or travelling to the moon, will most likely result in disaster. But are these “laws” derived from the work Sir Isaac Newton, absolutely true? Another diversion – for a long time it has been on my scientific bucket list to try to understand Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. As an experimental nuclear physicist, I was very familiar with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity which deals with objects like sub atomic particles observed travelling at speeds near the velocity of light in a fixed direction. General Relativity deals with objects, like planets, that are subject to changes in velocity and direction as they travel in their orbits around the sun under the influence of gravity.

I was in the College’s science library looking for another book when I happened to notice a new book titled, Einstein: Relatively Simple. Aha, I thought to myself, it is summer, a perhaps even at the age 78. Mr Egdall, will be able to finally explain to me the complex reasoning and difficult mathematics that is necessary for gaining insight into Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity – which by the way is actually more accurate than Newton’s Law of Gravity. One could design a bridge or plan a trip to the moon every so slightly more correctly using but Einstein’s General Relativity, but you would be crazy to do it because it is almost certain that you would make a mistake in using the complex mathematics of relativity.

However, there is a practical, every day use for General Relativity. Because the satellites that provide information to the GPS systems in our cars travel high above the earth at high velocities, small, but significant, corrections based on General Relativity are needed. The atomic clocks in the high-flying satellites run faster than the same clocks on the ground. Without these corrections from General Relativity our GPS position would be inaccurate by about 15 feet in 2 minutes and then accumulate to an error of 6 miles in a day. Last week, The GPS system in our car did not have the map information for Canada, and we found ourselves wandering around confused without this miraculous device on which we had grown dependent.

So far, General Theory of Relativity has passed every serious test proposed, but that does not insure that this will be true in the future. Perhaps research that Dan Stinebring is now undertaking, will uncover in some way that General Relativity to be less valid than originally thought.

Is physics really a better science than chemistry, biology or psychology? Sometimes we physicists think so, but the actual situation is that physicists choose to work on simple, well-defined problems like a single planet revolving around the sun or a single electron revolving around the nucleus of an atom. Because these systems are simply described they are subject to precise mathematical analysis using proposed theories.

Molecular biology, which is the most precise part of biology, deals with great big molecules with thousands of atoms for which only approximate mathematical solutions are known. The psychologists and other social scientists are dealing with humans who are made up of a 100 trillion cells and each of them contains thousands of great, big molecules under the control of our not very well understood brains. If we find that in the simplest of sciences, physics, there is no absolute certainty, how can we ever say that there are established scientific facts about “Laws of Human Behavior?” Modesty is required at all levels of science.

What is the upside of all of this uncertainty? The answer is that while a given course of action is very improbable, it can never be scientifically proved that it is actually impossible. Since the scientific theories of human behavior are known to contain a lot of uncertainty, if the occasion warrants it, it worth having a try at “violating” them. So “miracles” which are violations of the known laws of science are nearly always possible, even if unlikely.

While research in physics and astronomy related to the fate of the universe is definitely interesting, at least to some of us, there is general agreement among scientists, that we have a few billion years before anything other than man made disaster, causes something catastrophic to happen to our planet. So for these questions scientists can afford to be slow, careful and reasonably dispassionate. Human related catastrophes as we were reminded again and again at Peace Camp may be just on the next page of history.

We would like definite scientific answers now! One example is medical research. There are number of serious diseases killing people daily, like cancer. It is painful to watch researchers carefully conduct one clinical trial after another before releasing a pharmaceutical for general use, particularly when early results showed such promise. The alternative, however, is the possible introduction of drugs, which at best are only useless and expensive, but at worst have terrible unanticipated side effects. Hearing Mary Hammond’s struggles with treatments for her cancer is a reminder of the great complexity in medical research. I think reasonable religious people and scientists are in near agreement here. Studying the evidence in a slow, careful way is the most probable way to achieve the best result.

This brings me to my personal obsession – achieving world peace by “stopping the next war before it starts.” In the complicated and emotionally charged questions of war and peace, there are no scientifically proven FACTS. History books are filled with stories of battles and famous warriors. Powerful political leaders and moneyed interests generally support the war side of history. The histories of peacemakers are considerably fewer and slimmer, but the peacemakers do have the founders of the world religions on their side. If you go to the Multifaith Center in the College’s Lewis House, you will find at least 20 versions of the Golden Rule. As Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures when confronted by the religious scholar, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These Golden Rules are not FACTS, but FAITH in moral rules which people have felt in their hearts, and have witnessed in their lives.

At Peace Camp, I was checking my email, when up popped an announcement from Google that today, July 18th, was Nelson Mandela International Day. Good for Google! For Nelson Mandela is a remarkable example of miracle-like leadership. What could a man confined in prison for 27 years possibly do to free his African brothers and sisters from the horrors of apartheid? Any reasonable political scientist would say that he didn’t have a chance. But with his remarkable sense of justice and compassion for all races, and with help of the visionary religious leaders of South Africa, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev Alan Boesak, they achieved what nearly everyone considered impossible – freedom and reconciliation. As Mandela and his co-workers found, achieving peace takes time and patience. Trying to settle disputes after the killing starts is not the best way.

Right now the world is focused on the conflict between Israel and Palestine and between Russia and the United States. These are critical problems, which require as much diplomatic effort as possible. From my physicist prospective, we should not neglect another, simpler international problem, which nearly has a solution in hand.

As many of you know, my obsession has generally been focused on avoiding war with Iran by first reaching an agreement on nuclear and economic issues, and then re-establishing diplomatic relations. It would be a good, positive of news in a region mired in violence. I managed to convince the members of Community Peace Builders that this should be one of two priority projects for the next few years. I view it as a miracle-like occurrence that a war with Iran has not already happened. War has been looming on the horizon ever since the hostage crisis in 1979. Peace-minded people like the Quakers’ Friends Committee on National Legislation, and military leaders who realistically assessed the consequences of war, have held off the forces of aggression.

President Obama came into office with a promise to talk with the leaders of Iran. Of course, the President of Iran at that time was Mr. Ahmadinejad, a difficult person to say the least. Last August the Iranian people decided that they had enough of Mr. Ahmadinejad and his chosen successor, and elected a much more reasonable person, President Rouhani. So we now have two heads of state who desire peaceful relations. But others consumed by their own bloody conflicts, particularly Mr Netanyahu of Israel and his supporters in the United States insist that the Laws of International Relations state that the only way to deal with Iran is with maximum economic pressure and overwhelming military force. Of course this Law has been subject to experimental test. The United States applied overwhelming military force in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – and there was a notable lack of success.

We have seen miracles of reconciliation through the use of nonviolence; so I think we can go with our Christian gut reaction – our Jesus-given moral and ethical sense, and say let us seize this opportunity for peace. The consequences may be uncertain, but we cannot afford to do otherwise.

So in conclusion, don’t be excessively overawed by scientific “FACTS.” Even, if in the best of cases, like the so-called “laws” of physics, there still is an element of uncertainty. For the scientific “FACTS” related to our experiments with human behavior there is considerable uncertainty. While it is important that we listen to the evidence from multiple sources concerning which path of action to take, it is always required of us, as people of faith to keep in mind the wisdom that Jesus and the prophets of other faiths have said. For if we act out of love for our neighbor, no matter who he or she may be, we will be right on the border of God’s kingdom.