June 1, 2015

Cliff's Edge

What’s with the ancients worshipping idols of wood and stone? Certainly skeptics must have existed among them, even without the caution of Isaiah, who mocked the one who plants a tree, watches it grow, cuts it down, burns it for cooking, warmth, and light, then “from the rest he makes a god.” He even prays to it: “Save me! You are my god!” (Isa. 44:17).

Many of these people were not stupid; they were just hewed out of the stuff that defined their age, as we are of ours.

Comedian Steve Martin portrayed Theodoric of York, a medieval barber who practiced medicine. Theodoric tells the mother of a patient not to worry, that even though science is not exact, “we are learning all the time. Why, just 50 years ago they thought a disease like your daughter’s was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.”

even in ours, the most advanced age of all—much of what we know is certainly wrong.

Because we have been etched out of finer, more advanced stuff than were previous generations, we smugly mock their ignorance. (After all, what’s more obvious and commonsensical than the earth’s yearly orbit around the sun and diurnal rotation on its axis?) But the vast gap between what we know and what can be known should help us realize that even with the Hadron Collider, the Human Genome Project, and the Hubble Space Telescope, we’re only a few notches up the intellectual food chain from either Isaiah’s idolaters or Theodoric of York.

A young man told a professor that he wanted to study physics. The professor dissed the idea, arguing that in this advanced age (the late 1800s) no more discoveries in physics were to be made. The young man, Max Planck, soon discovered quantum theory, which overturned classical physics’ most basic assumptions. Even today, quantum mysteries flaunt our ignorance and rub it in our faces.

In some areas we are surely advancing. But in others? Those ignorant ancients assumed we came from the purposeful acts of God or gods. Today the best and brightest proclaim that we, including the universe that contains us, arose from nothing. For most of human history people saw in the world’s beautiful and complex design evidence of a Designer. Today, much further advanced, we’re assured that all design, from the sonar of a bat to the brain that created The Slavonic Dances, arose from random mutation and natural selection. No doubt, too, if time should last, we’ll advance beyond those beliefs, just as people advanced from demon possession to stomach-dwelling dwarfs.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” wrote Shakespeare, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Than in our philosophy (and science) as well, much more in fact. That’s why—even in ours, the most advanced age of all—much of what we know is certainly wrong. And though the context here was spiritual truth, the principle remains valid for physical truth as well: even with electron microscopes and space telescopes that extend our vision into unimagined realms and hidden vistas, we still “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12, KJV), more darkly than our age even imagines.