God indeed has a peerless sense of humor.
A few months ago, a friend and colleague, Dr. Eric Sweet, asked me if I would be interested to give a short talk at his church. The topic? Essentially about any aspect of science and faith. In the spirit of full disclosure, I told him that I’d be happy to do it, but that my relationship with faith is kind of… complicated.
He said that he and the congregation would be fine with my relationship with faith, so I happily signed on. You see, if you ask an unapologetic science nerd to talk about science pretty much guarantees a positive response.
In retrospect, I am sure that at that point, God chuckled.
On February 17 of the year of the Lord 2019, I drove to the Unitarian Congregation of West Chester church, which turned out to be less than a five minute walk from my work (but about a 35 mins drive from home; this was a Sunday after all).
I found a parking spot, and as I walked towards the main entrance I looked at the sign at the front of the church. This is what I saw:
At this point I was just amused, and I confess, a tad flattered; I guess it is human nature. Anyway, I got into the building and was received and welcomed by my friend (Dr. Sweet) as well as other members of the congregation. At one point, I got the day’s service program booklet. It looked like this:
I opened the program booklet and I saw this:
In my mind, I said something in the lines of “Holy %$$##%!” and I got very nervous. You can imagine why; yours truly, in charge of the %$$##% sermon?
What. Were. They. Thinking?
I am pretty sure that at exactly this point God had a loud, hearty, and majestic laugh at my expense.
Despite my nervousness, it went very well; in fact, it went way better than I expected (I have an inkling that He knew how would it go!).
After the service, quite a few people came to me and thanked me for my words. This warmed my heart. I hope to see them again and look forward to have many stimulating conversations.
Below I am posting the text of my sermon (I still smile when I say that) in its entirety. Additionally, here is a link to the podcast. I “ad-libbed” a little bit and it turned out pretty good!
I want to thank again the members of the congregation as well as Dr. Sweet. Also, I want to thank, well, you know Who … (:-).
By the way, I am sure He is still laughing…
The Biodiversity of the Universe: How its majesty gives me an inkling of the creative nature of God
Dr. Oné R. Pagán
I want to thank all of you for welcoming me into your house today, and I thank Dr. Sweet for the invitation…
Despite the best efforts of the very best minds that humanity has produced throughout all of history, we still don’t know what life is. We do not even have a definition that truly explains it, and that is part of its majesty. Because of this, one could say all known forms of life are mysterious.
Moreover, you could almost say that mystery is a fundamental property of biological life.
Modern science tells us that microbes like bacteria are the ones that really rule our planet. However, it is only recently that we have recognized that microscopic life permeates every single nook and cranny of this beloved planet of us.
Think about this:
From high up in the atmosphere – Up to 10 miles up (A normal passenger plane goes up to 7 miles up or so) to the deepest ends of the ocean (about 7 miles down or so)… There is life literally everywhere!
However, historically, bigger organisms are the part of biodiversity that we can see directly. Plants, animals, and fungi have kindled our sense of wonder, for as long as humans have walked on this planet.
It is a safe bet that if you like nature in general and science in particular, your interest started with animals. This is not to say that plants are not interesting, nothing is farther from the truth! But animals, after all, are generally the ones that move and do things in our own time frame, grabbing our attention.
You may have had taken long walks and saw some nature firsthand. I know I did!For example, by taking a stroll by a pond and noticing the little critters that make childhood so precious… Or by collecting bugs, with the ever present possibility of a sting, which added some spice and a sense of adventure…
However, no one, not ever, has been able to see firsthand every single living thing in our planet. Not even with access to unlimited books or nature documentaries, not even with the Internet, is a single lifetime enough to truly know of, let alone experience, the majesty of life in its full glory.
We are not even sure exactly how many species exist right now in our planet; scientists have described close to a million and a half, but some estimate that the actual number is in the tens of millions or more, much more. And sadly, it is common knowledge that many forms of life are disappearing as we speak. As sad as this thought is, I’ll do you one better (or worse):
Think about the biodiversity of our planet in long gone times; the immense variety of plants and animals that are no longer with us. Even extinct humans!
Many a young mind got interested in nature for the first time by learning about one of those long lost life forms: the dinosaurs… Some of us never outgrew them! Interest in dinosaurs naturally led many a young mind to a keen interest in other extinct forms of life.
Alas, just as we are not quite sure about how many species of organisms are around today, we are even less sure of how many species have disappeared forever. We are certain that we do not have fossil representatives of all extinct life.
And understandably, the farther back in time that we go, the less certain we are about our knowledge of ancient life. Further, no matter how much we explore, no matter how much we look, it is a virtual certainty that many forms of life never left fossil traces and even if they did, many rare fossils have surely been lost forever due to the ever active geological nature of our planet. We believe that we know of only about 1% of extinct life.
As I think about these things, I oftentimes get nostalgic of the things that I never saw… I get nostalgic of all the things that I will never get to see. I know this does not make much sense, but it is exactly how I feel. I confess that I long to see life in all its majesty. I really do.
I want to learn what makes life tick. From the as yet undiscovered ways in which an immense variety of inanimate molecules work together to bring forth what we know as “life”… All the way to the behavior that all life forms express, without exception. I want to experience all its awe-inspiring beauty.
I have been thinking about these matters for a very long time. When I was a young boy, virtually every time I thought about heaven, I imagined that my heaven would include the opportunity of asking God to give me an “infinite book” showing all the animals that ever lived here. As I grew up and learned more about nature and life, I learned about microorganisms, and I learned about plants, and more. The more I learned about biological life, my ideal “infinite book” became even bigger, if that’s even possible…
Over time, it was only natural that biological life became a professional interest for me. I eventually became a pharmacologist and neurobiologist and developed a keen interest on a specific kind of organisms, certain flatworms with a fascinating biology. However, as much as I love my worms, the longing to know it all never left. If anything, it grew stronger!
I want to know what dinosaurs *really* looked like… Imagine seeing a real T. rex (from a safe distance of course…)
I want to see (again, from a very safe place) a saber-toothed tiger…
I want to see … well, yes, a prehistoric flatworm…
I want to see a wholly mammoth…
I want to see… I want to see—and understand—all of life.
Moreover, I do not only think about the life that we know on Earth. Let’s suppose that we take a quick trip to space… up there. Can we even begin to imagine all life that likely existed and might still exist on other worlds?
I know that many before me have expressed a version of the following, but just think about the following:
How big is a billion (with a B as in boy)?
Let’s try this: how much time is a billion seconds? If we count one number per second, nonstop… 1, 2, 3…
32 years and change… let this sink in.
A billion is a big number indeed. Now let’s think about the following:
…there’s about 100-300 billion stars in our own galaxy…
…we are reasonably sure that pretty much every star out there has at least one planet…
…there is a high probability that quite a few of those planets will have life of their own…
…there’s at least 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe (and likely many more than that)…
…about the distinct possibility that our universe is just one universe out of many…
The numbers keep adding up… Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?
Now, can any of us, anyone at all, truly grasp the **true** biodiversity of the (multi?) universe, past, present, and future?
I’d like to think that God has FUN with biological life. Not as a puppet master, or as a micromanager, but as a proud parent who delights on seeing children grow up…
Enjoying their successes…
Cringing at their mistakes…
And rooting for them all the way…
I want someone to thank for my life and experiences on this beautiful planet. In these lines, when I think about BIODIVERSITY (all in uppercase) I wish with all my heart that there is a higher power that would answer all my questions.
I no longer harbor my childhood dream of owning an “infinite book of life”, as I won’t need it if a true infinite God, the only kind of God worth believing in, exists… I want to believe in the kind of God that is not a mere magician, but the kind of God with the incomprehensible intelligence capable of being able to make “something” emerge from **truly** nothing….
The kind of God who could imagine the natural laws that will endow that very “something” with the capacity of organizing itself into what we recognize as life… The kind of God that imagined the natural laws that endowed that life with the capacity to evolve into countless varieties and eventually generate that equally mysterious property of consciousness…
Such a God, and only such a God, would be able to show me … everything. If it is at all possible to annoy God, I will be the guy who does it! I will ask oh so many questions!
In conclusion, in the words of someone who loved nature as much as I do—a fellow named Charles Robert Darwin:
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Thank you (:-)
***Note: This sermon (Yes, I still smile at this…) is a much expanded version of a blogpost of mine: The Biodiversity of the Universe.
May I ask you small favor? Please do not quote theology at me or at this post. This experience humbled me in a wonderfully unexpected way and brought me closer to You Know Who. Pretty please?
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