Friday, December 16, 2005

When meteors fly

On rare occasions the Leonid meteor shower of November puts on quite a show. Such was the case on the night of November 13-14, 1866, when the sky over Europe was ablaze with shooting stars. By all reports the spectacle was both terrifying and beautiful. It was, in any event, a sobering reminder of the precarious and impersonal power of nature.

A week or so later, the English author and divine Charles Kingsley preached a sermon The Meteor Shower which is still relevant today. In that sermon he said: "Terrible enough Nature looks to the savage, who thinks it crushes him from mere caprice. More terrible still does Science make Nature look, when she tells us that it crushes, not by caprice, but by brute necessity; not by ill-will, but by inevitable law. Science frees us in many ways (and all thanks to her) from the bodily terror which the savage feels. But she replaces that, in the minds of many, by a moral terror which is far more overwhelming." Only faith in a higher guiding power can keep us from despair, preached Kingsley.

How I long to see a meteor storm such as Kingsley observed in 1866. When several years ago a powerful Leonid shower was predicted, you can bet I was out there waiting, only to be disappointed. We now know exactly what causes these unusual events, and can predict them to some extent years in advance. No longer do we experience the raw terror which our ancestors felt on seeing the heavens fall. We can appreciate meteor storms for what they are: demonstrations of nature's grandeur -- and of the power of the human mind to grasp nature's laws.

For this Kingsley insinuates a Father, outside of nature, loving to be sure, but also just, a Father who can suspend nature's laws to exact retribution, to punish the sinner, even to confine the unworthy to hell fire. Yes, science frees us in may ways from the physical terror which the "savage" feels. Why then do we insist on remaining in bondage to a moral terror of our own making? Can we not find a basis for moral action in joy, in beauty, in the gracious possibilities of human evolution? As a father, I want my children and grandchildren to be good not because they fear punishment or hope for reward, but because being good does honor to themselves. Call it grace if you wish. It is the same grace that illuminates the sky when meteors fly.

(Kingsley's complete sermon can be found here. Scroll down to the beginning.)