A Ton of Gravel and Ultimate Truth

A sermon by Mark Leonard and Rev. W. Matthew Broadbent

Foothills Congregational Church
Los Altos, CA

February 12, 2006


We've probably all heard the question, "Have you stopped beating your wife, yes or no?" What do you answer if you never did beat her? If you say "no" it sounds like you are still beating her, and if you say "yes" it sounds like you used to beat her. The truth is that there's something wrong with the question.

Scientists trying to figure out how the world works have sometimes discovered that there was something wrong with their questions, too. I think in some of the current religious and social debates there's also something wrong with the questions.

Let's use a ton of gravel to show what scientists learned about a hundred years ago. Imagine a ton of gravel with a sign "free gravel; please take only half". It starts as a ton; two thousand pounds. The first visitor takes one thousand pounds. The second takes five hundred, and so on. Gradually the pile shrinks until it's a handful, then a few pebbles, and then just one. It takes about twenty divisions to reduce a ton of gravel to a single pea-size pebble.

Now if you want to keep dividing, you need a different tool. Put away the shovel and start cracking with a hammer. Each time you crack it, it's still the same kind of "stuff", just a smaller piece. The ancient Greeks wondered if you could split forever or if eventually you would get to a limit. They suspected there was a limit, and even had a word for the smallest piece: atom. About a hundred years ago scientists started making real progress investigating that limit, and it turns out there is a limit at about seventy three splits.

We know now that the Greeks' "smallest piece" can still be subdivided, but a shovel or a hammer isn't the right tool. The accelerator over at Stanford is helping to break apart the small bits, but the final answer is still a mystery.

There was similar mystery about light. Sir Isaac Newton wondered if light is waves or tiny chunks of "stuff". He suspected it was “chunks”. It’s hard to imagine that it could be waves, because light travels just fine through totally empty space. It was like trying to imagine ocean waves, well, without any water.

But then in the early 1800’s the English physician Thomas Young did an experiment with light shining through two pinholes. His experiment proved that light must be waves. That settled the matter until Einstein got the Nobel Prize for the photoelectic effect. He showed that light arrives one at a time, like raindrops, so it must be particles.

Sometimes it's convenient for us to think of light as waves, and sometimes it's useful to treat it as particles. The underlying truth is that light is whatever it is. There was something wrong with the question that assumed it had to be one or the other.

That brings us to other questions. Does God care about us, yes or no? Does prayer make a difference, yes or no? Did life arise by accident and random evolution, or by "intelligent design"?

My guess is that in many of these cases the real truth doesn't quite fit our simple-minded quesions. There's nothing wrong with reality; there's something wrong with our either-or questions.

-Mark Leonard


Asking the right questions seem to be the key to understanding. This is consistent with our progressive Christian theology that says: [there is] more grace in the search for understanding than … dogmatic certainty - more value in questioning than in absolutes. So, what are the questions? I think it is helpful to use the five basic questions of a good investigative reporter: Who? What? Where? When? Why?

I think science asks the interior questions: What? Where? When? What is happening in our experience? Where does it manifest itself? When does it appear, is it predictable? Science is concerned with observable phenomena, measurable results, that are predictive of events.

Mark Leonard stated it simply to me last week, saying: “Science makes observations of the world, a multitude of observations. It collects data then distills the data in patterns. The patterns are then crafted into intelligible theories of how things work.”

In our materialistic world we often have the misconception that science defines “truth.” Dr. Anthony Carpi disputes this saying, “Science does not define truth; it defines a way of knowing.” We call this the Scientific method, a simple but critical procedure that allows us to gather knowledge in a systematic way with minimal bias. All of us grew up knowing the scientific method. We learned it in school at an early age.

A theory in science is not “just a theory” as we might say in casual conversation – a mere speculation. A theory is a framework by which we understand the way the world works. Theories last as long as they serve, or until an alternate theory better describes the observations and the data.

Science does get into a problem when it defends a theory as ultimate truth. Theory, after all, is derived from the Greek theos – for God. A “theory” is a “God’s eye view” of the world.

Theology is also derived from theos and means the knowledge of God. Being concerned with the Alpha and Omega of things theolog asks the first and last questions: Who? And Why? Who could have created this magnificent thing called life, and why? What is the meaning behind it all? What is the divine pattern that shaped this existence? Why are we worthy to be conscious of out place within it? Religion posits a divine hand shaping us like “a potter shapes the clay.” Or as the psalmist says, “when I was intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.” Who do we worship? Why have we been made in this divine image?

Notice that these questions are speculative questions. They are not measurable, quantifiable. These questions have to do with value and relationship. They are concerned with the narrative story of existence.

Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether, professor emerita of Pacific School of Religion, has outlined the narrative thread in the Biblical vision. In Genesis, God creates the world and provides for its welfare. “Humans are called to ‘image’ or reflect God’s careful attention to the needs of creation. We are the caretakers of creation. We are not given license to dominate the earth nor to abuse it.

Our relationship to creation is one of stewardship, and in this relationship we are responsible to God. Nature is, according to the narrative of the Bible, filled with soul and spirit – the mountains and the hills cry out the glory of God – nature has intrinsic value. But when we are irresponsible, and break our covenant with God and with one another by social injustice and war, the covenant among God, humanity and nature is broken. The earth mourns and withers, the world languishes, the earth lies polluted under its inhabitants (Isa. 24:4)

The divine judgment is described as desolation of society and nature, but if the covenant is renewed, just relationships heal the earth. The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom (Isa. 354:1).

The religious mind is concerned with first and last things, Alpha and Omega, the purpose of the primal garden of earth and the vision of a new creation in which all weeping and crying will cease and death will be no more. I am sure you have noticed that none of this is measurable, or collectible into data base storage. This is the language of poetry, the imaginative metaphors of story telling. It lends itself to the strange and the unpredictable. Science wants to know what is predictable and therefore understandable. Religion welcomes surprise and novelty that leads us to wonder and praise.

Religion needs science, good science, to ground its narrative in reality. Otherwise it tends to fly away into the strange netherland of goofy beliefs. The whole argument over evolution is a case in point. “Creation science” is not based on observation of the natural world, but of the Bible, and particular way of reading the Bible, then imposing that belief on the data collected. There is school of thought called “flood geology,” that assumes the earth is just 6,000 years old, and they study the evidence of floods throughout the world and say this proves it.

A more sophisticated version of this school of thought is “Intelligent Design” that begins with the assumption that the intricacy and interrelatedness of matter indicates the evidence of an intelligent designer behind it all. The proponents are careful not to call this God, but we know of whom they are speaking. As a religious person this language has a certain appeal. I look for evidence of the divine all around me. But, “intelligent design” is not good science. It begins with a bias that is not inconsequential or benign.

Science needs to hear the faith narrative. We do not live in a value neutral world. Good religion believes the biblical narrative that says God saw everything that was made, and indeed, it was very good. Science needs to hear that people value the earth and its inhabitants. Otherwise, science develops bombs lit by the fuse of political ideologies.

Science and faith need one another. Science observes and describes what has been created. Science explains the past. Darwin looked at the evidence of creation and described it as a waste – the predator/prey equation, survival of the fittest, and the extinction of species in a process of random evolution. Yet, even he was caught in the ambiguities of faith and science. After the publication of his book, On the Origen of Species, the critics quickly accused him of apostasy and atheism, but one of his closest friends Dr. Asa Grey, a distinguished Harvard botanist came to his support, favorably reviewing Darwin ’s work. But in private they maintained a lively debate about the place of the divine in the natural environment. Grey was a faithful believing Christian.

Unconvinced, the agnostic Darwin wrote this letter to his friend: I can see no reason why a man, or other animal, may not be aboriginally produced by other laws, and that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an Omniscient Creator… But the more I think, the more bewildered I become…” (James Dao, “Intelligent Design: the descent of a concept; Wall Street Journal, date unknown)

Bewildered? Good. Faith attempts to envision the future, the possible, where all the complexities of creation, where beauty and suffering exist side by side. Bewilderment is where faith begins. Teetering on the edge olf elegance we ask, “Who” and “Why?” But there is also wonderment, and this is where science begins, on the edge of mystery asking: “What? “Where? “When?”

Science and Faith need to be in dialogue. Science describes what has been and Faith imagines what could be and together they help us deal with what is.

-Matt Broadbent