The Unfamiliar

July 3, 2012

“We find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before our eyes.”

The Screwtape Letters

This week my dad and I have been watching segments of the History Channel series The Universe. The narration is pretty awful (I really wish they had modeled it after BBC’s Planet Earth instead of Bill Nye the Science Guy), but the content is just mind-blowing.

A lot of the visuals have reminded me of the film Tree of Life. One of my favorite aspects of that movie is the juxtaposition of the subliminal scenes of nature and the universe with scenes of one family’s grief. In the movie, both are significant realities, but in life, I usually find it really hard to hold the two in tension.

This balance of two seemingly incongruent things–the value of an individual life vs. the physical reality of humanity’s place within the universe–reminds me of one of my very favorite passages about belief, from the epilogue of C.S. Lewis’s book Miracles. Here, rather than the universe, Lewis is talking about the existence of, you guessed it, miracles:

And yet . . . and yet . . . It is that and yet which I fear more than any positive argument against miracles: that soft, tidal return of your habitual outlook as you close the book and the familiar four walls about you and the familiar noises from the street reassert themselves. Perhaps (if I dare suppose so much) you have been led on at times while you were reading, have felt ancient hopes and fears astir in your heart, have perhaps come almost to the threshold of belief—but now? No. It just won’t do. Here is the ordinary, here is the “real” world, round you again. The dream is ending; as all other similar dreams have always ended. For of course this is not the first time such a thing has happened. More than once in your life before this you have heard a strange story, read some odd book, seen something queer or imagined you have seen it, entertained some wild hope or terror: but always it ended in the same way. And always you wondered how you could, even for a moment, have expected it not to.

Sometimes, the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection seems too far away from my ordinary, every day life to be true. Lewis argues that this feeling, while perfectly human, has little to do with the validity of that miracle, because (as he goes on to say later in the epilogue), reality is not determined by our ability to grasp or believe in it.

The strange thing is, I feel the exact same way about the universe as I sometimes do about the resurrection. Even while we were watching the DVD segments of real photos and hearing real scientists talk about black holes and quasars, I found it nearly impossible to believe that this place outside of Earth actually exists, that there things–massive, violent, beautiful things–happening billions of light-years away. It is even harder to believe that now, after I have, as Lewis puts it, “closed the book.”

And so I have experienced first hand the lesson I learned from reading Lewis years ago. My gut “it just can’t be true; it’s too weird” feelings aren’t always (or maybe, aren’t usually) right… and I’m thankful they aren’t. If my gut could tell me everything, there would be no wonder or awe, maybe even no growth.

As my dad said the other night, studying the universe is less like science and more like writing poetry. Maybe that’s why it’s so powerful to me…it seems like a place where the facts themselves are beautiful. They don’t need a narrative arch to speak, but they still tell a story–a story that, I am learning, is way too big to try and squeeze inside my small brain.

P.S. I think some people feel this way about math? I’ve lost hope of ever reaching that mysterious number nirvana, but I have no doubt it exists.

P.S.S. Also, as this week’s storms have shown, apparently I don’t have to watch DVDs about the universe to be terrified of/awed by nature! (our electricity is still out, but we just got internet back!)

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