The Infinite and the Finite


as preached at Goddard Chapel, Tufts University, Protestant Student Worship, November 18, 2012

Several years ago, when I lived in Southern California, I went to visit my great aunt Dorothy. Along the way I managed to get lost in Rancho Palos Verdes, a small town perched in the verdant mountains on the edge of the ocean. I zigged when I should have zagged and found myself driving along the coast. It was there that I saw a sign: “Whale Watching Site, Next Right.” I had never seen whales before. So I pulled over, parked and walked to the cliff’s edge.

And there they were, in the distance, tiny black specks cresting above the waves. I was so excited about seeing the whales that it took me a moment to notice an older man next to me. He was quiet and like me distracted by the whales. After a few moments of shared silence he started to talk. He told me about whales, their migratory patterns and the sixty some years of his life along the coast.

It was a strange moment. We were both caught in the glory of the ocean, its bounty and the wonder that is nature. And then, after the whales had moved on, we parted company without exchanging names.

The best moments of life are often like that interchange. They are moments of wonder in front of those things greater than ourselves–oceans, stars, the twin mysteries of birth and death–shared with loved ones and strangers. We never quite know what they will consist of–a conversation in the grocery store, a hike along a trail, a hand held in the hospital–or when they will happen. But when such moments come they leave us altered, our views of the world changed from what they were before.

Such experiences often leave me aware of my reality as a finite creature in a limitless universe. The ocean that I gazed upon, the mountain that I sat on, the sky that was filled with undulating clouds above me, are all more vast and more ancient than I. The spans of time they encapsulate–the ocean’s billion years, the mountains millions–are beyond even the wildest reckoning of my mind’s calculations. Such large numbers of years at first mean a lot, then even more than a lot and finally they are but symbols for lengths of time longer than I can comprehend.

It is the human task to make meaning from all of this mess, this richness. We are infinitesimal specks cursed and blessed with an awareness of limited our place in the cosmos. So much happened before we were born. So much will happen after we die. During our brief spans we glimpse but a fragment of what is. As the great American essayist and Unitarian, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote, “We wake and we find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us which we seem to have ascended, there are stairs above us… which go out of sight.”

The contemporary folksinger Ani Difranco puts it slightly differently in one of her early songs, “i was a long time coming / i’ll be a long time gone,” she sings. After this stark observation, Difranco’s verse continues with another, “you’ve got your whole life to do something / and that’s not very long.”

The questions become: What, precisely, are we to do? If we are to make meaning, what meaning are we to make? How shall we live? What is our place in the world? These are major religious questions. They are asked upon the brink of the void, when we become aware of our limited place in the great order of things. We gaze into the heart of life and see it measured, as T. S. Eliot would have it, in coffee spoons–filled with trivia, slipping away even it as comes.

There are, broadly speaking, three tacks to be taken when searching for the answers to religious questions. The first tack is to embrace some overarching meta-narrative. The second is to find meta-narratives as insufficient and retreat into either nihilism or hedonism. The third is to seek a mid-point between the other two, rejecting the validity of meta-narratives while, at the same time, acknowledging the importance and power of the narrative in life. Let’s briefly consider the efficacy of each tack.

A meta-narrative is a grand narrative that describes the structure, purpose and content of reality. Such narratives provide answers when answers are hard to find. They help the individual to understand their place in the world. The meta-narrative provides it adherents an overarching story and a role to play in that overarching story.

A common meta-narrative in our society, and one what that is familiar to most of us, is found in the basic outlines of orthodox Christian theology. God created the world. God created humanity. Humanity turned away from God and fell into sin. God then sent Jesus, his son, to redeem humanity from sin. Through his crucifixion and resurrection Jesus triumphed over both sin and death, the fruit of sin. By accepting Jesus salvation eternal life can be obtained.

The convenient thing about such a meta-narrative is that it provides all of the answers that one could seek in life. The structure, the purpose and the content of reality are all neatly defined. There is no need to look elsewhere. In moments of doubt assurance can be found by referring back to the meta-narrative.

For most of human history meta-narratives have held sway. They are present in all of the great religions of the world and have ordered most of the world’s societies. In the 19th century the scientific discoveries of Charles Darwin and others began to call into question the traditional meta-narrative. The theory of evolution and the geological sciences challenged the idea that God created the world. More recently post-modernist philosophers have rejected meta-narratives as unsatisfactory because they oversimplify life and make claims of universal truth that, upon closer examination, are only the truths of particular communities.

This realization has left some to conclude that life has no meaning. Meta-narratives are found to be unsatisfactory but replaced with nothing. This can lead to our second tack, a sort of nihilism where people either give their lives over to hedonism, seeking pleasure, for example, in consumer goods, or despair. Gazing at the night sky, with its innumerable stars, they feel impossibly small and inadequate.

The third tack that people take when confronted with the reality of finite existence is to seek to make their own meaning. Meta-narratives may be acknowledged to be insufficient but narratives do not need to be. The meaning of life comes from what we either construct individually or construct together.

The essayist Loren Eisley writes eloquently about this in his well known piece “The Star Thrower.” Eisley’s essay takes place, like my story of the whales, on the ocean’s edge. As he walked the “beaches of Costabel” Eisley contemplated the struggle for life and death as it is to be found in the wake of the ocean’s tide. “Along the strip of wet sand that marks the ebbing and flowing of the tide, death walks hugely and in many forms,” he wrote.

A scientist and advocate for Darwin’s theories, Eisley found life to be a brutal struggle for existence that ended inevitably in death. The great forces of nature give life, the ocean nurtures it, but, ultimately, he wrote, “the sea rejects its offspring.” Describing the strength of the waves as they push living matter at the water’s edge onto the sand, Eisley wrote that the animals cast out “cannot fight their way home through the surf which casts them… upon the shore. The tiny breathing pores of starfish are stuffed with sand. The rising sun shrivels the… bodies of the unprotected.” Tiny creatures, caught by powers greater than themselves are rendered helpless and doomed.

This futile struggle against the brutal onslaught of death is, in Eisley’s view, the natural order of things. There’s no intrinsic meaning to be found here, just the incessant beat of the cresting water.

Amid this background Eisley found another drama playing out, what he called, the “vulturine activity…of the professional shellers.” These are those who scamper the coast line in search of exposed shells and starfish to render into trinkets for tourists. Not content with merely witnessing the death and desolation of the beach’s inhabitants the shellers further it through their commercial activity.

Walking the beach at the precipice of dawn, flashlight in his hand, Eisley encountered someone who rebelled against both these tidal dramas. Instead of preying off the dying, collecting them only to preserve their corpses, this man, who Eisley called “the star thrower” sought to prolong the lives of the living. Night after night he flung starfish back into the briny water, helping them to reach such depths and distances from the shore that they might survive.

To Eisley, the naturalist, such actions made no sense. They ran counter to what he described as the “tangled bank of unceasing struggle, selfishness, and death” that comprises life. After meeting the star thrower Eisley spent a sleepless night contemplating, in his words, “in all its overbearing weight, the universe itself.” The selflessness of the star thrower should not have existed in the natural order of things. And yet it did.

In the curved arcs of the thrown stars Eisley saw meaning being made. Value was placed on the continuation of the lives of the starfish. This value was not intrinsic to the starfish from the naturalist’s perspective. It was created by the star thrower himself. “The act was…an assertion of value arisen from the domain of absolute zero. A little whirlwind of commingling molecules had succeeded in confronting its own universe,” Eisley wrote. No inherent narrative existed. The star thrower and Eisley created one that offered a modicum of meaning, of purpose, the continuation of life for life’s sake against “the insatiable waters of death.” This narrative and these needless acts of compassion left them tinged with joy.

Like many of you, I imagine, I am like Eisley and the star thrower. Confronted with the gaping maw of the infinite I do not seek comfort in an all encompassing cosmic meta-narrative. Instead I look for meaning where I think it can be more honestly found, in the moment to moment, in the experience of connection that occurs when the finite brushes the infinite.

I had a series of such brushes the summer between my first and second years in seminary. As part of my ministerial training I was required to do a ten week internship as a hospital chaplain. I went into the experience terrified. Our society hides death and terminal illness in the corridors of sterilized medical facilities and somnambulant hospice centers. At twenty seven I had never experienced the loss of a close relative or seen a corpse anywhere other than a funeral home. I did not understand how I, with such scant experience, could provide comfort to the dying or solace to the grieving. I was frightened of how I would react when I stood next to someone crossing the threshold between life and death.

For these reasons internships as hospital chaplains are described by some as “boot camp for ministers.” In a few short weeks they force the untested to confront their known and unknown baggage about mortality and suffering.

The tests and confrontations began almost as soon as I started. My internship supervisor believed that one learned by doing and reflecting. Within two days he had me and the other interns–almost all untried seminarians like myself–visiting patients by ourselves. After our visits we would check-in with him and describe our encounters. Consistently he would gently berate us for everything that we did wrong.

My own mistakes often revolved around my efforts at information gathering. Entering a room with the sick or the dying I wanted to know about them. I would ask them a series of questions that provided basic information about who they were. These conversations never really went anywhere. I was more an annoyance than a balm. It was as if the star thrower had stopped to identify the starfish–discern their scientific name and perhaps their place in the ecosystem–without ever throwing them back into the water. Such information gathering might net information but it did not produce a genuine connection.

And that was what I could offer. Not trained as a medical professional, any information that I gathered about person was really irrelevant. My gift to give was merely myself and what I represented as a member of the clergy. A human presence in a hospital room coupled with an invitation to consider the divine or the ultimate, whatever that might mean.

Compared with the care of the nurses and doctors it did not seem like much of a gift. But sometimes it appeared sufficient. With a few words of prayer or meditation or the offer of a hand to hold I would sit with a dying person or a family about to lose a loved one and my presence would bring comfort. It was not the words I offered but the connection that I brought that mattered. On the very edge of death my being there brought a sense to someone that they were not alone.

And, of course, it was not my unique presence that really mattered. It was the presence of another human being to witness suffering and pain that was important. Anyone, not just a minister, can provide connection and grounding in the finite when one’s fellows face the infinite. In its own way, my experience as a intern hospital chaplain was about learning my finite place in an infinite world. There was a particular role I could play, there were things I could do and could not do.

Offering a moment of connection is my way of finding a purpose, constructing a narrative, when confronted with the infinite mysteries of pain and death. Others might find different purposes or construct different narratives. Indeed for society to function it is necessary that, at least in some times and places, they do. It is probably best that medical professionals in a hospital find a different purpose than simply offering connection.

Yet when confronted with the infinite any one of us might offer another the opportunity for connection. There’s a parallel here with my experience on the ocean shore witnessing the whales. That anonymous other, that man whose name I never learned, provided me with a deeper connection to what surrounded me than I would have had on my own. We shared in the wonder that was the whales. In its own way that was enough.

Looking into the infinite we are often made aware of our own finitude. The mortal facts of existence come into contrast against the ordinary veneer of the everyday. We become aware of our own beginnings and endings.

This is why we celebrate during the holiday season. Day by day, the light lessens, the Earth grows cold and the year dies. Then at the darkest moment, on the darkest night, light begins to increase again and the year is reborn. Every solstice marks the death of the old year, the narrowing in on the time of our own oblivion. Yet every solstice also brings with it the promise of new life, a new spring. We are finite but the Earth stretches out infinitely before us. Waiting for us to connect with it, to make meaning, to find some purpose to help order our lives.

And so, when we gaze into the yawning void and are aware of our own limited natures let us be wise enough to hear these words from T.S. Eliot, “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”


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