Are you listening?
If you want to see something spectacular then you will have to get away from the city lights. On a clear night in Texas you can start by looking high in the northern sky for the Great Square of Pegasus. The upper left corner of the Square is the star Alpheratz, from which two chains of stars spring outward, the lower one brighter than the upper. If you start with the third star of the lower chain and the move up to the third star of the upper chain (the first star of both chains being Alpheratz), and then keep going the same distance again in a straight line, you’ll find a mysterious, fuzzy puff.
Astronomers call it M31 because it’s number 31 on the Messier List, a catalog of 110 astronomical objects. French Astronomer Charles Messier was only interested in hunting for comets, so starting in 1771 he made a list of non-comet objects that frustrated his efforts. And at first M31 may not have seemed that interesting—an odd thing to look at, certainly not as interesting as a comet. But the more astronomers learned about it, the more it began to captivate them. And the same is true for anyone who sees it: the more you understand, the more you will stare. For it’s the Andromeda Galaxy, home to about a trillion stars (well over twice the number in our Milky Way), spanning 220,000 light years across. It’s 2.5 million light years away from us, but on a clear, moonless night you can see it with the naked eye. And when you can see it not just with your eyes but also with your mind, it will beggar your imagination.
Well in similar fashion, I want to show you a couple of other mysteries. The first one—what Albert Einstein called “the eternal mystery of the world”—may appear dim and fuzzy at first, an odd thing to look at. But the closer we look at it, and the more we magnify it with technology, the more it will enthrall us. As with Andromeda, it gives us evidence of a universe vastly more intriguing than anything we might have ever imagined in our wildest dreams.
The Book of Nature
“The eternal mystery of the world,” said Einstein, “is its comprehensibility.” You see everywhere we look in nature, whether we look through a telescope or through a microscope or just take a walk in the woods, we comprehend rational, creative explanations—explanations such as relativity, gravity, DNA, photosynthesis, the Krebs cycle, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, quantum entanglement, heliocentrism, adaptation, etc. It takes an intelligent, creative person ten or twenty years of study before they can begin to comprehend these explanations. Yet they are simply there, like books sitting on a library shelf, waiting to be read. And the closer we look, and the more carefully we listen, the more fascinating they become. Scientists discover these explanations and then translate them into English (or Arabic, etc.) so that students can read about them in their textbooks.
So what is “the eternal mystery”? It is that even though we can know what the explanations mean, we do not have the slightest clue what the explanations are. What exactly are words and sentences? Again, the question sounds odd, but stop and consider that without words we would have no governments, no technology, no science, no sports, no songs, no recipes, etc. We fill libraries with words and ask children to spend years studying them. We use words to work and to rest and to praise and to destroy. So exactly what are they?
That actually turns out to be a spectacular question that leads to a watershed of understanding. Words and sentences appear to be quite unique to the human species. “’They’re completely unknown in animal systems,” says famed linguist Noam Chomsky. “We have no idea how they evolved, when they evolved, where they came from.” He says we don’t really even know how they work. “We have very little understanding of how each person has [words] innately as part of their fundamental nature.”[i]
But if what we don’t know about language isn’t enigmatic enough, what we do know about it takes the mystery fathoms deeper. For even though we do not know what words are, we do know what they are not: they are not physical. We can actually observe the complete absence of physical qualities in words. In other words, this is an objective, testable, falsifiable, scientific fact: sentences and paragraphs are immaterial.
But now just as we have to get away from the city lights in order to see the Andromeda Galaxy—no matter how powerful our telescope is—so also we will have to get away from the city lights in order to perceive the nonphysical nature of language. You see when we ask this age-old question, “What are words?”, the universities will bombard us with an unending chorus of professors who want to enlighten us with understanding.
- Philosophers will call them “Platonic Forms” or “items in a superseded ontology”.
- Neuroscientists will call them “qualia” or “intrinsic entities”.
- Linguists will call them “syntactic objects” and “units of language”.
- Physicists will call them “emergent properties” or “a fifth phase of matter”.
- Biologists will call them “evolved memes”.
They will expound and extrapolate and pontificate until the cows come home. And all this “enlightenment” will be about as helpful as pointing a dozen spotlights at the night sky.
I don’t want to tell you what words and sentences are. I just want to help you see what they are not. They are not physical. For that matter, any and all information or data is immaterial. It doesn’t have any tangible qualities at all. If that sounds like a strange observation, consider how it might be similar to concluding that rationality, creativity, and consciousness are nonphysical phenomena—and thus attributable to what we might call a soul. Suddenly this investigation will have cosmic implications. However, things like rationality and intelligence can be very difficult to define, quantify and study—much more difficult than the simple phenomena of words. So for this investigation I simply want to focus on the nature of words and what they reveal about the book of nature. That’s what we call natural revelation.
And that will lead us quite naturally to another mystery—another book that reveals truth about the world—what we call special revelation.
The Book of History
Why does the world put the turning point of history—the year 0 CE—when it does? Why not instead use, for example, the Islamic calendar, which places the year 0 a few centuries later, thus making this the year 1441 CE? Or why not use the Buddhist calendar, making this the year 2562 CE? Or what if we tried to be as culturally neutral as possible and instead choose a technological turning point, such as setting the year 0 at the invention of world’s first movable type printing press in China, thus making this the year 980 CE? Or we could go with the first Olympic Games, thus making this the year 2796 CE?
Why is this the year 2020? In answering this question, some scholars and historians might offer some very insightful analysis about cultural imperialism and geopolitical movements. They might be able to give a dozen reasons why Europe dominated the globe for so many centuries. And yet when it comes to our view of history and to why it turns when it does, there is one, simple fact that towers above all the others: Christianity is the one and only worldview that bases its beliefs about history not upon any presuppositions, nor upon any mystical revelations that came through angels or visions, but rather upon eyewitness accounts of historical events.
Not one other worldview even tries to make this claim.
Yet Christianity not only claims it, but insists upon it. The Bible uniquely relies upon eyewitness accounts and explicitly rebukes blind faith. Although it has many revelations given through angels and visions, those are always only about the future, not the past. When it comes to the past, it rests on that “…which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands.” (1 John 1:1) The prophecies buttress the events and give them meaning, but do not reveal the events. Those are revealed by eyewitnesses. And the more eyewitnesses you have, the stronger the evidence.
That is why when Christianity makes a claim about history any other worldview worth its weight in dust has to say something about it. In particular, they all have to say something about the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth at the turn of history. Now when we ask, “What exactly happened 2020 years ago?”, the various answers to that question mark some of the most contentious political issues that we have ever known. Indeed, from the day he was born—when some foreigners arrived and asked, “Where is he who was born king of the Jews?”—to the day he was executed for accusations of treason, Jesus was perceived as a political threat. Wars have been fought over how to even ask the question, “What happened?” Here is a survey of the main stances:
- Gnosticism’s Question: “What secret knowledge about Jesus of Nazareth did various teachers say that God revealed to them through angels or visions?” Gnostics presupposed that the mystical revelations about history were true.
- Islam’s Question: “What did the prophet Muhammad say that the angel Gabriel revealed to him about Jesus of Nazareth, starting in the year 622 CE?” (The current Islamic year is 1441, for they started counting in 622 CE and then have a lunar calendar with 354 or 355 days in a year.) Muslims presuppose that the mystical revelations about history are true.
- Mormonism’s Question: “What did the prophet Joseph Smith say that the angel Moroni revealed to him about Jesus of Nazareth, starting in the year 1823 CE?” Mormons presuppose that the mystical revelations about history are true.
- Hinduism’s question: “What can we learn from Jesus of Nazareth about living edifying, uplifting, and fruitful lives?” (There are several Hindu calendars, but the primary ones start counting in the year 78 CE. The origin of these calendars is highly controversial.) Although they admire Jesus and his teachings they presuppose that the Biblical account of Christ cannot be accurate, for they believe that there are many gods.
- Buddhism’s question: “What can we learn from Jesus of Nazareth about compassionate living?” (The current year for Theravada Buddhism is 2562, for they started counting in 544 BCE when Siddhārtha Gautama attained nirvana.) Although they admire Jesus and his teachings, they presuppose that the Biblical account of Christ cannot be accurate, for they say that there is no one personal God.
- Naturalism’s question: “What fits within the naturalistic worldview?” They presuppose materialism, so accounts of the miraculous are unacceptable.
- Christianity’s question: “What did the eyewitnesses claim to see and hear?” (Luke 1:1-4; 7:22-23; John 18:20; Acts 4:20; 1 John 1:1-3; 2 Peter 1:16; etc.)
So the Judeo-Christian faith uniquely treats history as something sacred, not something to be shoe-horned with a jackhammer into a particular worldview. It teaches that we are to interact with the world and with our Creator as rationally and humbly as possible, and to base beliefs upon evidence. The Bible’s claims may be outrageous. They may open the door to believing in a world that is ten thousand times more unusual than anything we could have thought up on our own. Nevertheless, unlike any other worldview, they claim to be based upon eyewitness accounts that unfold the meta-narrative of history. “That is why Christianity comes as such a threat to so many people,” says theologian Albert Mohler. “For the Christian story is a meta-narrative—a grand story that explains all other stories, and to which all other stories must answer.”[ii] The God of the Bible respectfully calls people to examine the evidence and think.
So also, he expects people to use their heads and think rationally about morality and ethics. “Come now, let us reason together,” he invited his people. “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Isaiah 1:18) He told the people that they will gain moral and ethical understanding “if you seek it like silver” (Proverbs 2:1-5). Likewise, Jesus was continually challenging people to ask and seek for understanding. He said some very unusual things that appalled some listeners and drove them away, but simultaneously drew other people closer to try to understand what in the world he meant. Such polarization pervades the Bible from beginning to end as it proclaims both the attributes of the God and the ethics of life—all through rational words.
And as with our view of history and of ethics, so also the God of the Bible made it clear that he expects people to base their beliefs about the physical world upon rational words that—for some eternally mysterious reason—can be perceived in the creation.
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard. (Psalm 19:1-3)
So let us get away from the city lights, look up to the heavens, and ask some excellent questions. In 1867 the German mathematician Georg Cantor, discoverer of set theory and devoted follower of Jesus, said, “To ask the right question is harder than to answer it.” Come, let us ask. Many want to dictate, but let us instead listen.
First image (Andromeda with the naked eye) by Sojan Janso from Pixabay
Second image (Andromeda with a telescope) by Guillermo Ferla on Unsplash
[ii] R. Albert Mohler, He Is Not Silent (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 92.