Dust to dust

As a Catholic, I try to go to church on Ash Wednesday. (As a bad Catholic, my batting average on this isn’t great.) If you’re an observer of the Lenten tradition of having a priest mess up your complexion, you’ve probably heard something like this:

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Really knocks you down a peg, doesn’t it?

Here’s the real kick though: It’s true! Stars and planets form from clouds of space dust. Almost everything we have ever seen or touched began in some amorphous cloud floating in nothingness, until the forces of the universe (like gravity) started working on it.

Then, sometime between tomorrow and several billion years from now (bet the over because you win nothing for the under), scientists speculate the sun will go red giant and swallow up the Earth before eventually collapsing into a white dwarf and turning back into a nebula, i.e. a cloud of gas and dust.

Wherever your composite molecules and atoms are in a few billion years, you’ll be stardust again.

Happy Lent!

Pray for the terrorists, too

(This one gets a little Churchy, so be forewarned.)

News from Yemen suggests that an Indian priest, captured in a terrorist raid on a retirement home, may be crucified today, on Good Friday.

There are plenty of “ifs” to doubt the situation’s veracity. No terrorist group has taken credit for the attack, and there are conflicting reports about whether the missing priest’s abductors have or have not made contact with his former order.

But terrorist violence remains an unquestionable reality, whether in Yemen or Brussels. Nailing a church leader to a cross, while symbolic, would sadly be but the latest in a chain of bombings and beheadings – another gruesome act meant to inflict a painful death on the victim and crippling fear upon the living.

Obviously, we pray for the victims, their families, and their friends, who have watched their very realities torn to pieces. We can’t imagine their burden, we can only hope it gets lighter with time.

But with each attack, I feel some pity for the terrorists, too. The rumor of a crucifixion of a leader on Good Friday offers a chance for perspective.

As He was being lead to His execution, Jesus Christ interceded on behalf of the very people about to nail Him to the cross. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” He implored. We are taught that sin is borne of ignorance, of turning a blind eye to God, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The men who drove the nails through Jesus were doing as they were told from the only authority they knew. It isn’t hard to imagine them as philosophical ancestors of today’s suicide bombers, so ready to commit grisly acts based on the promises of trusted elders.

Eventually, those elders go away, though. And that’s when terrorists will stand face-to-face with a very uncomfortable reality.

Have you ever said something hurtful to someone and regretted it? Perhaps, in a moment of weakness and thoughtlessness you pierced someone with an insult. Later, when your wits returned and you thought about it, you put yourself in the other person’s shoes. That’s when you realized the pain you caused. Once you knew just what you did, you hurt, too.

But what if the sin is much more grievous? What if, instead of a cutting remark, you robbed people of lives and comfort? What if you not only committed horrific acts of violence, but took pleasure in doing so?

During a discussion about penance and forgiveness, a priest told me once told me, “God makes a play for every soul.” When someone acknowledges and apologizes for his or her sins, and is willing to make amends, God forgives. But, very importantly, that process begins with an acknowledgement of sin.

That means there may come, for all of us, a moment of clarity. Each of us will have a moment when we understand the sins we have committed and the pain we have caused.

Now, imagine a dead terrorist who meets his Maker. Imagine him looking back on his life and the pain he has inflicted. Imagine the regret as he recalls how happily he instilled fear and how gleefully he made widows, widowers, and orphans.

Imagine his soul’s pain at that moment, when he realizes just how wrong he was.

When you get past the chocolate bunnies and dyed eggs, resurrection and redemption is what Easter is all about. Saul of Tarsus, whose acts against Christians made him the 33 A.D. version of a terrorist, saw a vision of Jesus and became (after suffering a very symbolic three days of temporary blindness) a devout Christian we know today as St. Paul.

Maybe it won’t be too late for our hypothetical dead terrorist. Maybe he will have his moment of clarity, suffer his punishment, and bear the pain which he has inflicted on others. And, when purified, maybe he will be welcomed into Heaven alongside his forgiving victims.

I’d like to think so. In fact, I’ll be praying for it.

Happy Non-Commercial Holiday

Easter isn’t Christmas. The Easter Bunny will never match Santa Claus’s marketing clout, and despite aisles of candy in Target and Wal-Mart, there’s no Easter Shopping Season. For that matter, even holidays whose roots are in religion – Halloween and Thanksgiving come to mind – have evolved to be more secular and have more cultural awareness than Easter.

There are no classic Easter TV specials on the level of “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.” It’s hard to place The Ten Commandments and The Passion of the Christ in the same “seasonal movie” category as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

It seems odd that a culture that does all it can to commercialize and secularize holidays has largely left Easter untouched.

Perhaps this is because the Easter season is much more profound than the others. Christmas celebrates a birthday, and there’s no downside to that. It’s easy enough to turn Christmas into a party. But to celebrate the resurrection, one necessarily has to acknowledge that a death precedes it. No amount of painted eggs or chocolate-distributing bunnies can gloss over that. There are also very clearly “bad guys” in the story of Easter. That makes for a better, more interesting narrative, but it doesn’t help market the day.

And maybe Easter is still religious because the celebrants would rather have it that way. Attempts to overly commercialize Eater may simply meet with deaf ears from those who want to spend quiet time with family reflecting on what has been given up on their behalf.

If you’re a Christian, Happy Easter. (If not, I hope the day I call Easter is still happy for you and you enjoy the half price candy on Monday. I know I will.)

Eric Metaxas missed the mark, but Lawrence Krauss missed the dartboard

As the world shakes off the dust of the Holiday Break and gets into 2015, here’s something to catch up on from the last week of last year. On Christmas, Eric Metaxas wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed (here’s the Google search) claiming, in its headline, that scientific findings bolster the evidence that God exists.

Specifically, he cites the fact that, despite constantly finding new planets, our astronomers aren’t finding any new life (Area 51 rumors notwithstanding). Predictably, atheists bristled; Arizona State University Professor Lawrence Krauss wrote an unpublished letter to the editor that sought to debunk Metaxes’s claim.

Krauss correctly answers Metaxas’s first main point – that the known conditions for life to exist on Earth are not the same as the conditions that might give rise to other life forms. (Heck, are we even looking for life forms based on silicon or boron? They found some on Star Trek.) The fact that we haven’t found little green persons is a poor point and Metaxas should have left it alone.

Krauss doesn’t mention it, but even Metaxas’s points about the numerically unlikely evolution of life on Earth don’t hold up well. Those who believe in infinite universes with infinitely various timelines would suggest that, if every single possible outcome is represented, then there would have to be a universe were Earth existed as it does today.

Krauss misses Metaxas’s best point – and, since he buries it so deep, maybe he missed it too:

[T]he odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here… Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? [Emphasis added.]

The key phrase is “talking about existing.” As our scientists explore the universe, they find that things make sense. Early mathematicians discovered that every single circle has the same ratio of its circumference to its diameter (pi). Before he put figs in cookies, Sir Isaac Newton discovered laws of physics. The gravitational force between any two objects in the universe is determined using a constant value, which physicists just pinned down this year (though approximations have been around for centuries). It’s not just that the universe developed as it did, but that it develops according to laws and rules which is somewhat amazing.

Krauss replies that the appearance of design is not design, and he’s right. There’s nothing there to prove that a cosmic Creator wrote the laws. Yet it’s undeniable the laws are there. There’s a parallel there from the Book of Genesis (1:2), too:

[T]he earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

This is what makes the supposed divide between religion and science so fascinating: The themes of the scripture don’t contradict scientific discoveries, nor vice versa. (The literal words may be a different story, but it’s hard to be overly concerned about that when factoring in the difficulty of translation, changes in humanity’s frame of reference, and linguistic changes over multiple millenia.)

Krauss and I may agree that Metaxas didn’t make the strongest case he could have in his Christmas op-ed, but it seems we are coming from different points. The snide derision of “Christian apologists,” implies that anyone who points out the similarity between scientific findings and Christian teachings, or who believes in intelligent design, is some kind of Lyle Lanley huckster peddling a bill of goods rather than someone looking for common ground with secular scientists.

One might call that type of opposition fanatical, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re just devout.