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The Unseen Hand

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					                      The Unseen Hand
                           Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

      If the New York Times Bestseller list indicates what people are
reading, I may soon be out of a job! It has nothing to do with what
I’ve done or not done, or anything to do with you, either. Eventually,
it may have something to do with our budget, but more likely, it won’t
be due to anything unique to Noank or to this immediate area. Even
moving to another church or another part of the country won’t solve
it, since my value on the open market as a member of the clergy may
drop substantially over the next few years to the point where I
become completely irrelevant, if not anachronistic, to the brave new
world envisioned by Stephen Hawking.
      You see, Stephen Hawking, who is arguably the most intelligent
man on earth—the heir to Albert Einstein, whose brilliant brain in a
crippled body is able to discern and discover new ways of thinking
about the physics of the universe—has just published another book,
The Grand Design, which already is #1 on the New York Times
Bestseller list. In this fascinating book, he and his co-author, Leonard
Mlodinow, have concluded that “it is not necessary to invoke God to
light the blue torch paper and set the universe going.” In other
words, the concept of a pre-existing god is no longer needed to
explain the spontaneous act of creation.
      They base their arguments largely on the current thinking
around the M-theory, which actually is a composite of theories in the
fields of quantum mechanics and relativity. In their interpretation,
the M-theory purports that an unlimited number of universes could
have been created out of nothing when the Big Bang occurred, based


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on the physical laws that exist in the universe. They believe the
number of universes spontaneously created at that moment could be
on the magnitude of 10 to the 500th power! According to Hawkins,
       their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural
       being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from
       physical law. They are a prediction of science.
       Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states at
       later times, that is, at times like the present, long after their creation. Most
       of these states will be quite unlike the universe we observe and quite
       unsuitable for the existence of any form of life.
       Only a very few would allow creatures like us to exist. Thus our presence
       selects out from this vast array only those universes that are compatible
       with our existence. Although we are puny and insignificant on the scale of
       the cosmos, this makes us in a sense the lords of creation.1


       As much as I can comprehend and appreciate what they’re
saying, I might buy into the notion that we humans aren’t merely
insignificant specks of cosmic dust. However, I’m not as keen on the
idea that everything we know has come together merely by random
chance!
       According to Hawking, we humans are here only because we
happen to live in the right neighborhood in the cosmos! Life as we
know it exists here because of the luck of the odds. As he sees it, most
universes didn’t supply the right combination of factors that allowed
for the existence of living beings, but ours did. So if he’s right, then
God doesn’t need to be a part of the equation and you and I don’t
need theology or religious faith—we just need a lottery ticket because
apparently we’re extraordinarily lucky! So, instead of listening to



1From the Introduction, Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Random
House, 2010.


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sermons, you might be better served by running the tables at
Foxwoods!
      Well, I’m being a bit facetious about this, though honestly, I
don’t think that many people could wade through the dense prose of
Hawking’s spin on quantum mechanics, at least enough to be
convinced that the existence of God no longer matters. In fact, I think
this great existential question tends to be answered for most people,
not through the bold assertions of science, but rather by their own
personal experience and what they perceive is the evidence (or lack
thereof) of God’s presence in their lives. That’s what generates
religious faith and a belief in God in most people.
      That said, even if Hawking’s hypothesis makes logical sense (as
it will to many)—even if quantum mechanics was something that
could be fully grasped (which it can’t be), the question still remains,
how can it be proven any more definitively than a belief that a divine
hand is at work in the creation of the universe or universes? Stephen
Hawking may dream big, but can he actually prove his theory? The
answer obviously is no, which is why it is only a theory. However,
before we act smugly and assume that ends the argument, the same
can be said of a belief in God—it, too, is only a theory.
      You see, the arguments of both science and religion are
speculative—logical, yes, but still ultimately unprovable, even though
they are based on what we humans discover and believe to be true
about life. What I mean is, the scientific model works inductively,
putting together piece after piece of the cosmic puzzle until it forms a
larger picture. But the same thing is true of religion. But instead of
observing particles of matter, religion focuses on the things that


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matter! It’s based on the relational evidence of life—how everything
relates to each other—evidence that is apparent all around us,
biologically, ecologically, interpersonally, and spiritually.
      From ancient times, human beings have observed and studied
how everything in life is related, intimately and intricately, and in
those patterns of relation, we garner a sense of meaning.
Relationships exist between humans, interpersonally and collectively,
as well as between humans and other living creatures, between
humans and their environment, and between humans and their place
on a perceived time/space continuum that we call our past, our
present, and our future.
      It’s those relationships that matter to human existence. That’s
how we derive meaning in life—when things relate well together—
when they are in “right-relationship.” Religion, at its best, is an
attempt to help us be in right relationship with all living beings. The
relational evidence in our material world is what then leads us to
extrapolate this out and believe in an ultimate set of relationships that
exist beyond the world of our five senses—a world that is shaped in
many ways by our imaginations, our intuitions, and by our moral
consciences. That’s how we arrive at a belief in God. It is inspired
logic, based on what we discover to be true about the way various
forms of life on earth are meant to relate to each other for their best
welfare and survival.
      Now I admit the value and appeal of a book like The Grand
Design is that Hawking pushes us to think outside of a world that has
been controlled too much down through the ages by those who use
religion and its “divine mandates” for their own personal and


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institutional ends. In many cases, organized religion with its various
dogmas has “dumbed down” large segments of the population, even
creating an adversarial relationship, if not a false dichotomy, between
science and religion. Many religious people have demonized science
for destroying their mythological view of the world. Hawking merely
exploits a reaction to that approach to religion by bypassing the
authority of a divine being. Of course, some will buy it and some
won’t.
      However, a more genuine concern for me comes from those
who are religious and yet see their own experience validated by
Hawking’s argument against the existence of God. In my experience,
there are a number of religious people who are secretly agnostic
because they also have seen no real evidence that God exists, or that a
divine being intervenes in human affairs or even notices their
mundane existence or cares about their problems. Or they echo the
age-old argument of atheism based on the amount of suffering in the
world. How can there be a loving God if so much injustice and
needless pain and suffering occur around the planet? That’s not an
insignificant barrier to belief for many people.
      But as I see it, the issue of suffering doesn’t prove or disprove
arguments for or against the existence of God. There is no question
about the terrible reality of needless suffering. Every life, at some
point, suffers in some way. But God doesn’t cease to exist just
because there is suffering in the world. This may be where religions
like ours have presented a mistaken notion of what God’s presence
actually means and what we should expect God to do!




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          What I mean is, we often look to God to be a divine Protector—
the one to shield us from all trouble. This is very comforting and
appealing. Yet, it also makes God into something akin to a security
company, where we are under constant surveillance and angels
intervene whenever necessary so bad things don’t happen to good
people. That makes a relationship with God contractual (we are
faithful so God will protect us). But you know how this goes: if bad
things happen, then God has failed and there’s no more reason to
believe. It may sound a bit crass and simplistic, but that’s how it
often works; many who are agnostic or atheist are so because God
failed to protect them or someone they care about from needless
suffering.
          Bart Ehrman, one of the leading New Testament scholars of our
time, represents this well. He grew up in an environment of
Fundamentalism, but now claims to be an agnostic. He wrote a book
about it called God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our
Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. His argument simply
stated is “there is so much senseless pain and misery in the world that
I came to find it impossible to believe that there is a good and loving
God who is in control, despite my knowing all the standard rejoinders
that people give.”2
          I understand that response, since I hear it so often. But where I
take exception to it is in the underlying assumption that God is only
meaningful when God effectively “polices” the world, protecting the
good from harm. For one thing, do we really know how often God
intervenes in life? Besides that, Ehrman’s agnosticism seems to miss

2   Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, HarperOne, 2009, pg. 17.


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the heart of religion. It’s making spirituality nothing more than a
matter of preventative law and order.
      Instead, as we often discover to be true in relationships, our
awareness of God actually increases when we suffer. That’s when
relationships serve an important role in our lives, whether human or
divine. It is also in the process of suffering that we appreciate most
the concept of salvation. Salvation means healing and peace; we find
hope and purpose in it. The word in Scripture that is used over and
over again is deliverance. God delivers people from their suffering.
That isn’t a preventative measure, it is primarily a restorative one.
Again, we don’t know how often God prevents people from suffering;
but we do know that God delivers people from their pain, their
enslavement, and their depressed state in life when they do suffer.
It’s all relational. God’s presence is discovered when we respond to
each other with love and concern. It is in response to human
suffering that so many of our better virtues are brought out and our
awareness of God’s spiritual strength is evident. It’s all relational.
      Psalm 91, which is the lectionary text for the day, promotes this
sense of God’s role and presence as one who delivers us from
suffering:
      For [God] will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
      And from deadly pestilence;…
      Those who love me, I will deliver…
      I will be with them in trouble,
      I will rescue them and honor them.

Psalm 91 isn’t unique. There are far more references in the Bible to
God as a deliverer than in being a judge over human sin. The
predominant image of God in Scripture is one who saves people, who
heals people, who restores people, who has compassion for people—

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far more than one who judges or punishes. In fact, references to the
wrath and judgment of God are quite limited and are mainly directed
toward those who cause others to suffer. The bottom line is, God is
found not in preventing tragedies or human suffering, but in helping
us overcome the troubles that plague us as mortal beings in a natural
world. God is like an unseen hand of help.
      I discover this to be true far more as I get older. Over the years,
I have grown in my awareness of the unseen hand of God, evident in
those glimpses of grace that occur when a person is dying, when the
relationships that mean the most to the person are there by their side,
bringing them a peace and a purpose to their lives. I’ve noticed the
presence of God in “holy coincidences”—those moments when just
the right thing happens to see you through a fearful or stressful time.
I see it in the many mercies that come to us in the course of daily life
where frustrations are overcome, where relationships are made right,
where forgiveness is offered and accepted. I’ve even been
overwhelmed by it when miraculous healing has occurred in a person’
life, as well as when I’ve seen sufferers reach an acceptance of a
permanent condition that may limit them, but not defeat them. I’ve
been amazed by the sacred surprises that happen when people are
made well again from traumas that could have destroyed their will to
live. Often the unseen hand of God is found in the very tangible
caring hands of family, friends, service providers, and even strangers.
God’s unseen hands are the angels of mercy that sustain us in life.
      I know these are the delivering, saving hands of God because
they help to restore us with a will to live again and carry on. That is
far more of a truth to our survival and wellbeing and our development


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as a human species than anything that nature alone provides. It isn’t
something that science can quantify or calculate, because such
compassion, care, and intervention is a choice—a moral choice—a
spiritual commitment—to actually love one another as living beings.
Perhaps, in its ordinary relational nature, it makes a greater impact
upon the destiny of humankind than the grandest design of the
universe. That’s not luck or random chance. It is a grand design of
God in a world of mortality and suffering. That, for me, is powerful
evidence that God exists in a manner beyond natural law, but known,
and known so well, at the very heart of creation.
                                   The Rev. Dr. Paul C. Hayes
                                   Noank Baptist Church, Noank CT
                                   26 September 2010




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