This homily began in my head several months ago. Some of you may remember me telling you about it around the time the Voyager II space probe moved beyond the influence of the sun, left our solar system and entered interstellar space.
What had struck me most, I remember, - moved me quite deeply, in fact - was what a scientist who had spent most of her professional life on the project said when asked what she hoped to learn from this historic event. ‘I would be happy’ she said ‘to learn anything at all.’ I just loved the humility of those words, the wisdom she had clearly acquired, the same wisdom attributed to the Greek philosopher, Socrates, when he said that the truly wise person knows that he/she knows nothing.
One of the things that has happened to me since then, of course, is that I have been inundated on YouTube with videos and lectures on all manner of related topics. And I have loved it. I’ve got to know a man called Donald Hoffman, a Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, who claimss that the way we perceive the world around us bears no relationship to reality, with what is actually there. Evolution has led us, he says, to the point where what we experience as reality is not reality at all, but simply what we need to know to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. What I love about him, however, is that, in his very next breath, he tells us that his theory is wrong. All our theories, he says, are wrong, and its by finding out what’s wrong with them that our knowledge progresses to the next stage. I have also tried to understand physicists who deny the existence of free will. I have struggled in vain to understand Einstein’s theory of General Relativity and have had my mind boggled by what quantum physics tells us about the world around us; that something can exist in two places at the same time, to give one example. But I have loved it all, and what has become so clear and so liberating for me is the title of a book I am currently trying to read. It says quite simply, “Reality is not what it seems.”
So why do you think I am saying this today? What, if anything, do you think it has to do with today’s readings? Well, of course, the story of the Transfiguration is about reality not being what it seems. There’s so much more to the Jesus story than meets the eye, and not just Jesus himself, but the whole mystery of faith in all its shapes and forms. Millions dismiss the world of faith today, but they are making a fatal mistake. They are making the mistake of thinking that reality is fully expressed in what we see, hear, touch, taste, smell or believe. But at every level we know now that this not true. From evolution to general relativity, from quantum physics to the outer reaches of the cosmos, we are learning every day how little we actually know. We are surrounded by mystery and until we understand, or more accurately open ourselves up to it, we understand nothing.
But how do we come to terms with mystery? How do we come to know things beyond the limits of our current limited view of reality Well to answer that question I invite you to go back to someone we mentioned a moment ago, Albert Einstein, one of the greatest names in the history of science. Einstein had a problem. He was not good at maths. And this was a serious problem, because maths was the language he needed to use to express what was thinking. And so he had to get people who did know maths to help him. His own greatness, you see, lay not in his powers as a mathematician, but in his powers of intuition, his imagination which enabled him to ‘seein his mind’s eye things others could not see. His theory of General Relativity seemed gobbledegook to many. It was only a theory and he had no proof of it. But as the years have passed – and this is the crucial point – what Einstein intuited in 1917 has slowly but surely been proved right. In 1919 an eclipse of the sun proved that light bent around bodies in space and as recently as 2015 a key prediction of his General Theory of Relativity was proved to be accurate when scientists were able to measure gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime, caused by two huge black holes – another prediction of Einstein – coming together and causing an explosion 30 times the mass of the sun which took place 1.3bn light years ago.
And now we come to my main point: that what is true of Einstein is also true of Jesus and the world of faith. People at the beginning of the 20th century thought Einstein was mad, just as many today reject the whole Jesus thing as mad. And as happened with general relativity, the only way to resolve this one way or another is to test it. Jesus tells us that the world will find happiness and peace by loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us. Well, there is only one way to find out if this is right; to try it and see what happens. But such an idea seems as ridiculous to millions as the idea that one thing can be in two places at the same time or that one could equal three. It means thinking outside the box, imagining a whole new way of living and being human. Jesus tells us that the future of the world lies in the powerful becoming the servants of the weak and powerless. And more than that, that the future actually belongs to the weak and the powerless. Well, try it and see if it works. Faith tells us that Jesus is God made flesh and living among us; that the source of everything that exists has become one of us. This makes no sense to the world. But neither does a crash between two black holes 1.3 billion light years ago producing more energy that the rest of the cosmos put together, the effects of which are still going on around us today. A hundred years ago, people thought there was only one galaxy; ours. Now we know that there are billions of them
G.K.Chesterton famously said that the trouble with Christianity is that it’s never been tried. And in a sense that’s what we are called to do. To test it. To try it. To experiment with it. And then, having tested it, to see the whole cosmos gradually transfigured before our very eyes.