Summer 2009 marks the 40th and 25th anniversaries of probably the two most pivotal Summers of my life.
It has nothing to with six strings, Bryan Adams or rock music, none of which is particularly appealing to me. In the Summer of 1969, two big events happened in my life. About a month at the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies, and about two months in Europe.
No, I was not a scientist at the level of ORINS; my dad was, and mom and I tagged along. It was an eye-opener indeed to see you could be elsewhere in the United States and yet be in a rather different kind of place that I knew growing up in Minnesota. It was my first extended time in a culture different than, and at least at that time to some extent foreign to, a culture and environment I knew.
But way more than that, it was the exposure to the level of scientific thought going on there. The absolute high point of that was a lecture by the director of ORINS, William Grosvenor Pollard, a physicist who was also an Episcopal priest (which did not call to mind then quite what it does now).
It seemed to me the lecture was about nothing. Literally. Not a lecture that had no particular topic or point or content, a lecture about nothing, that in looking at the coming into being of the universe we don't really get that nothing is not something that is empty, it is nothing.
We think of nothing as emptiness, or more formally the Empty Set, the set with no members in it, but that too is something. If something, even something that is empty, is not eternal but began, then what came "before" it and may "exist" outside of it is literally nothing, not emptiness, nothing, out of which nothing in the usual sense of an empty something comes to be. And since it is outside any frame of reference we have, being part of the something that has come to be, being members of a set that is not empty, we have no terms to describe it, can therefore barely grasp it and usually confuse it with emptiness.
And yet, Christian faith speaks of an existence outside of the universe. Distinct from the totality of the universe, not identified with any part of the universe. The gods of the world identify god with one or another or all, either collectively or as a whole, of the forces and powers in the universe, but the Bible speaks of a god apart from any and all of that, on top of which calls and wills all of that into existence. A Creator. The universe is then a creation, and the being outside of it creates even the nothing from which the something we experience and are a part of is created.
This takes the mind around the block. But once outside the confines of the terms of the existence we experience, the slight glimpse afforded into the God beyond it is overwhelming. The revelation of Genesis stood out in absolute distinction from human mythology -- no theogony here, no evolution of the gods or God, no primal chaos, but God himself, so fundamental a fact that it is not proven because proof no less than mythology falls short of that which simply is, and is revealed to us.
God is not the universe or anything in it or anything in the heart and mind of that aspect of the universe that is us, Man. All that is overthrown by the revelation of God, whose overwhelming greatness we yet barely grasp at the frontiers of human knowledge. Genesis reveals:
1) a God who is the Creator of the universe, which universe then as a whole and in its parts is not god but a creation of God, who having no dawn will have no twilight either;
2) that Man is the goal of the universe, which universe is not simply then a process without meaning except that with which we invest it, and Man as that goal of Creation shares an image of the God who created everything;
3) that Creation is fundamentally good, a goodness which is from and of God, so much so that when Man ruins it by turning from God to his own will, God promises a deliverance from that state;
4) that the Sabbath is not simply a day off but a demarcation of work from the essence of Man, which is to rest in the Creator who is the source of all, a breaking forth into this life and time of the eternal Sabbath which is the company of God and now of his creation too.
Next to this stunning revelation of God, dragging it back into the confines of the thought of fallen Man by such things as whether "day" means a set of 24 earth hours or not is the real anthropomorphism. Dr Pollard's lecture was indeed a "journey through a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind", "between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge", but the signpost up ahead was not that our next stop was a twilight zone but the God who began to reveal himself in Genesis, and who after in the past speaking to us in various times and ways through the prophets has now spoken to us in His Son, drawing all men and all creation unto himself toward the great Omega point of convergence in the Sabbath rest of God, the Alpha and the Omega, an expression of totality, who created an Alpha Point so that there would be an Omega Point to include us and all creation in the joy of fellowship with God. A love unfolding.
Following that was my experience of other parts of that Creation, namely, Ireland, England, Holland, Germany (West Germany at the time), Austria, Italy, France and Spain. At the time I had no idea that my ancestors came from England, and I was grateful too that growing up in Minnesota and being in the process of being educated by a bunch of German descended Benedictines I was able to enjoy this time and these places on their terms rather than force it into mine. A turn of mind that has stayed with me, though these days my "travels" are via the Internet.
Fifteen years later another pivotal event would happen. That was when, having come to Nebraska, a place about which I previously "knew" only three things, that it had a one-house or unicameral legislature, that there was a club in Lincoln called The Zoo which often features Blues, and that there appeared to be so little else that they actually went on about college football after Saturday, I found it actually a rather nice place to be, and when I became the then newest victim of university politics, decided to stay and seek a new life and career in this new place.
Twenty five years later I am still doing that, in a series of situations absolutely unknown and unthought by me at the time. And in the course of that, this God who not only broke into our existence but created it in the first place broke into mine with the Gospel, the word rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered and the grace to believe it and I became what is called a "Lutheran".
And I experienced a miracle -- no, not becoming part of Husker Nation though that happened at the Homecoming game in 1983, but that into this shaken reed blown and tossed by every wind, the Holy Spirit could breathe and create a faith that would not be shaken even by being thrown into widowerhood and single parenthood. Gott sei dank!