Dear Dr. Tyson,
Last week, I had the incredible honor of taking my son up to Richmond to see a rockstar–you. Ever since that first episode of Cosmos, Ronnie has been all about anything bearing the Neil deGrasse Tyson name. So, to see you in person from just a few rows back in the theater, he was especially elated at the opportunity (and so was I!).
We laughed and laughed and laughed the whole way through your “lecture” about science in the movies. Ronnie is only 9, so he was only familiar with one of the movies you discussed–Frozen, with it’s geometric fractals. It didn’t matter though; Ronnie walked away from the event begging to watch The Martian and we discussed The Drake Equation on the ride home. And the fact that you navigated the stage in your socks and did a moon walk at one point–those touches just made it so much more special for him.
Ronnie’s favorite clip? The Heineken beer commercial. Mostly, he loved your questions about alien butts afterward.
My favorite? The Guinness evolution commercial. “Bleh.” Maybe it’s because we just finished reviewing the Montessori Timeline of Life and have begun the Timeline of Humans in our homeschool study–and I’m like a kid again because I never had the opportunity to learn these things myself as a child. Nevertheless, it was a clever commercial.
But the best thing of all about this evening was that you portrayed a quality so much more important, in this mama’s eyes, than the scientific principles you discussed. Your display of critical thought and prophetic assertions throughout each example you shared is what caught my mind the most. How you’ve called out bad science when you’ve seen it and how you continuously educate those who might just need a little help in getting things right–I’m inspired by it. That’s why you’re a rockstar.
I am no rockstar, but I did notice a couple of points that had me wishing I had your tweeting power so that I could correct some misconceptions myself.
I could feel the tension in your presentation, and for most of it, I was totally in your lane. My heart pumped faster when the giant map of Virginia’s red and blue counties came up on the screen. The cheers from the crowd told me I was in a room full of people who I could connect with on a political level.
Upon the reveal of the Evolution slide, my son and I looked at each other with huge smiles. That very day Ronnie had sketched a timeline from Australopithecus Afarensis to Homo Sapiens. This is a touchy topic we can’t always discuss with our friends and family. But we were excited to hear what you had to say about it.
But, in all honesty, I was thankful at your language when you said, “Whatever allowed Jesus to walk on water wasn’t surface tension.” You left it open and I appreciated that.
And that leads me to the point in your talk that I’d like to respectfully confront, if I may.
You mentioned not understanding what coloring dead eggs has to do with celebrating the resurrection of Christ.
It does sound really weird, doesn’t it? If I’m being sincere here, I think since many of us have lost the significance in this tradition, we could probably throw it out and do without the custom now. I was also unaware of what eggs have to do with Easter until a couple of years ago. And our ignorance–even for those who grew up in the Christian faith–is interesting to me. Even more interesting–the truth has to do with a woman named Mary Magdalene.
You see, Mary Magdalene, a respected disciple of Christ and the first witness to the resurrection, was traveling around telling people about her experience and knowledge of Christ. Kind of like how you’re educating people about the truths you’ve discovered through science. Imagine if Mary had social media and production crews back then! That’d be something. Well, even without our technology, she ended up in the presence of some pretty important people, including Emperor Tiberius Caesar.
Legend has it that at the dinner table with Tiberius Casesar one evening, Mary picked up an egg (a common symbol of universal rebirth) and explained the principle of man’s rebirth through Christ’s resurrection. The emperor, mocking her, said laughingly that Jesus had no more risen than the egg in her hand was red. According to that legend, the egg immediately turned red in her hand and the emperor believed.
Now, don’t get caught up in the myth. Who cares if this legend is factual. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that something in history happened that had dozens, hundreds, thousands, of people going out into the world, confronting those in power, and faithfully bringing about a new social order. In religious circles, we call this the Kingdom of God, but I’ve recently discovered the latina feminist phrase “kin-dom of God” and I love the relevance to our cultural understanding today, so I’m stealing it. Among those people bringing about this new radical social order–a woman. An influential wealthy woman named Mary Magdalene was important enough to create legends about. And she wasn’t the only woman–just the most prominent one.
Unfortunately, her reputation was tarnished over time and this legend isn’t one that many of us have heard. It was almost lost along with other early myths and teachings that reveal truths that early Christians could only grasp at. Because of this loss, over time our faith has become an either/or choice (God or science?), rather than the revolution of non-duality that it started as.
So, if we ask ourselves why Christians don’t even know the connection between dying Easter eggs and the resurrection of our lord, I’d say it’s most likely because most Christians aren’t comfortable with the idea that a woman had such an impact on the early formation of our movement. Unfortunately, too many Christians cover their eyes, stick fingers in their ears, and sing “la la la” about this stuff.
As you alluded to in your presentation, this is also true for global warming and evolution, among other scientific truths that people of faith are hesitant to get on board with. And I appreciated your investigation of Morgan Freeman’s movie line declaring the strength of human immunity and it’s attribution to God as a rewrite of the original quote. Although, I wish you would have said that you investigated because it didn’t sound like something H.G. Wells would say on the basis that Wells wouldn’t have mentioned God, rather than the fact that H.G. Wells was scientifically literate. Because faith and scientific literacy aren’t allergic to each other.
This world we’re living in isn’t binary. There are many of us who believe in a higher power with open eyes, clear ears, and questions on our lips.
I can promise you that we’re sitting in your audience, too. Thousands of us. We see God in the phenomena of stellar nucleosynthesis and in the Mystery of quantum physics. We even see him in Chapter 12 of your book. Yes, my son and I listened to the audio book together and we finished it up on the way to NASA for an engineering class. Christ was all over that chapter, even if you don’t claim him. And I’m okay with that.
But just as I challenge my fellow believers to give up the search for “the bearded man” (your words), I’d like to extend that same challenge to you. If we’re critical of a bearded man in the sky, we’re directing our critique at a personification of something deeper–and that’s so misguided. Instead, if we’re looking for a Mystery, a Truth, an Energy, we can find it in all things and connect it to the spiritual path that early revolutionaries set us on.
Rockstars like you, bringing science to people who aren’t scientists–you’re revealing the divine every moment you stand behind a microphone and teach us something new. And for that, I’m deeply grateful.
I wonder if, in fact, the human intellect is sufficient to actually decode the full operations of this universe in which we live…Try not to ever forget that the history of this exercise–this beautiful exercise where we find out where we fit in this great unfolding of cosmic events and phenomena–that the larger that the area of knowledge grows, so too grows our perimeter of ignorance. It may be that, as much as we think we know, as much as we know we know, as much as the more things that we ultimately learn, for all we know, we could be steep in the center of infinite ignorance.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson
I love the quote above. St. Augustine said something similar, but with a spiritual lens. He said, “si comprehendis non est Deus.” Translated roughly, “If you think you have grasped him, it is not God you have grasped.”
In that same interview, you used an illustration about dimensions I’ve heard from Rob Bell as well. Although I can’t figure out if he got it from you or if you got it from him! Or maybe there’s a common ancestor to this one…
You admit that there are higher dimensions we can only grasp at. And if we think we’ve grasped it, we’re just limited again from seeing the next higher dimension. That tesseract reveals a lot, doesn’t it? For those of us that are existential thinkers, this revelation isn’t just about science, though. It reveals the divine, too–as long as we’re not boxed in by fundamentalist thinking.
Any illustrations, personifications, and objectifications we have of the divine are only a mere grasping at the reality of what he or she is (or they are). That doesn’t stop us from trying to get closer, though, anymore than your quest to understand dark matter when your human senses do not allow you to observe the matter that you know is there.
Science and Spirituality aren’t allergic to each other.
We can’t wait to see what you do next. Next month, when Titanic hits the movie theaters again, we’ll be there looking for your corrected night sky scene. And I’m looking forward to the day scientists find out something new about dark matter, because I know you’ll be the first to tell us about it.
But, you should know that I’ll have my eyes and ears open seeking connections between what you guys discover and the truths disciples were trying to convey at the start of this Christian experiment. Because I know they go hand-in-hand.
Grace + Peace,