Stephen Hawking -- the world’s most famous expert on the big bang, black holes, and other things cosmic -- died March 14. Despite the fact that Hawking was an atheist, his ashes will be laid to rest on June 15 in England’s most famous church, Westminster Abbey. Nearby will be Sir Isaac Newton, known for his work on motion and the laws of gravity, and Charles Darwin, the naturalist who developed the theory of evolution.
The Abbey is also the final resting place for hundreds of other national heroes, from kings and queens to the nation’s unknown soldier. You can find just about anybody at the Abbey, dead heroes buried under the pavement or very-alive people walking around atop them. Even Vladimir Putin. My wife and I were there when Putin placed a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier in 2003.
But why Hawking? “We believe it to be vital,” said the Very Rev. John Hall, Dean of the Abbey, “that science and religion work together to seek to answer the great questions of the mystery of life and of the universe.”
Yet this might seem strange to many people. Aren't science and religion rivals? What are we to make of people like Stephen Hawking? His scientific mind and courageous struggle with ALS inspired us. Yet he was a skeptic about God. Is doubting a bad thing? I can’t help but think about the Book of Ecclesiastes. If there is one word that describes this Biblical book, it is skepticism. It’s clear from the author that there are limits to our understanding. The fact that this book is in the Bible reveals that faithful people may express doubts and ask difficult questions. It helps me to understand that life is filled with mysteries, some of which we can observe and explain and some that we cannot.
Curious people naturally want to expand their understanding of God and the universe. The English theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne comes to mind. Polkinghorne, now retired, was involved in the discovery of quarks, one of the elemental components of atoms. He’s also a priest in the Church of England. He said that when he “turned his collar around” he did not stop seeking the truth. “If religion is to take seriously its claim that the world is the creation of God,” he has written, “it must be humble enough to learn from science what that world is actually like. The dialogue between them can only be mutually enriching.” That dialogue, he believes, gives him binocular vision. Regrettably most people have only monocular vision.
But won’t science cause religious people to have doubts? Yes, but that’s okay. Our skepticism and curiosity encourage us to be uncomfortable with simplistic answers and to ask deeper questions. Doubts, a favorite author of mine says, are essential to faith.
“If you don't have doubts you're either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.” (Frederick Buechner in “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC”)
Let’s take it further. What about good people who don’t believe in God who seem “more Christian” than the rest of us? Can a person be Christian without knowing it? The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, suggested we might call such people “Anonymous Christians.” They do the will of Christ, but for some reason they do not know him. Some more rigorous Christians object. Maybe they want heaven to be a gated community instead of a house with the roominess of many mansions.
I wish everyone could know and experience the power of Christ consciously in their lives, but that’s just not the case. For a variety of reasons many people do not know him. Maybe, like Hawking, they find too much dissonance between science and religion. What happens to them? Do they go to hell?
I love what Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has said to say about these things:
“We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.”
Rob Bell shook up the evangelical world about ten years ago with his book, “Love Wins.” In fact, his ten-thousand-member church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, fired him for questioning the existence of hell. Some people, I guess, just need pitchforks and damnation to feel good about being Christian. Bell looks at Jesus and sees love and redemption trumping fire and damnation.
The more we explore this universe, the more we realize we don’t have all the answers. Like all good scientists, I think Hawking realized this. For those of us who turn to God, I think we likewise ought to admit that there is great mystery to life and the universe. This too, is a good thing. It keeps us searching and humble, something that seems in short supply these days.
While we still breathe, I think we should release love and care and delight into this amazing little island we call earth. It’s good to be generous in our judging of others and their worthiness to be with God. I would hope we would have minds as open and curious as those who delight in the mysteries of the big bang, quantum mechanics, relativity, black holes, and itty bitty building blocks of the universe like quarks and neutrinos. Let us be open to surprise, to the unknown, to all of life’s amazing and unanswerable realities. That makes it a good thing for Stephen Hawking to be buried beside others who have challenged us to enlarge our understanding of the universe. Requiescat in pace.