Columnist Robert A. Jonas: Stephen Hawking healed our imaginations

  • In this March 30, 2015, photo, Stephen Hawking arrives for the Interstellar Live show at the Royal Albert Hall in central London. Hawking, whose brilliant mind ranged across time and space though his body was paralyzed by disease, died March 14.  AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 3/19/2018 7:07:22 PM

The great spelunker of our universe, physicist Stephen Hawking, died on March 14.

I never met Stephen, but when I was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1980s, I often saw him coming and going from his apartment across the street. Someone, perhaps his wife, Jane Wilde, drove the van that opened out to reveal a lift that raised and lowered his wheelchair.

I had a vague knowledge of Stephen’s mathematical study of the origin and interstellar dynamics of the cosmos, but I didn’t yet fully appreciate the magnificence of his research, his personal courage, or his will to live.

At first, I couldn’t understand how someone could be so brilliant and yet so physically wounded and apparently incapacitated. How could someone with such a severe disability also be a Harvard professor and a world-renowned physicist? Eventually I came to understand that one can be wounded in some respects and a majestic human being in others.

Perhaps Stephen is why I chose to override the advice of my professors and to do my clinical internship in psychology at Wrentham State School, helping the dedicated staff to see the gifts of residents with physical or mental disabilities and to create a loving community with them.

A few years later I met Father Henri Nouwen, a Harvard Divinity School professor who had just begun his association with the L’Arche communities in France and Toronto for people with handicaps. Henri had recently published his now classic book, “The Wounded Healer,” and eventually left academic life to minister to people with disabilities. He understood that our greatest gifts can arise from our wounded places.

I wonder if Stephen Hawking was a wounded healer. Can a scientist be a healer? I think so. Like Henri, Stephen healed our imaginations by manifesting curiosity, even joy, in the midst of despair, and hope in the midst of hopelessness.

Doctors had told him that he would live only a few years after he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. But he lived another 50 years to communicate his brilliant insights. For decades, he spoke through a technology that translated his cheek and eye movements into a computer voice that was monotone, but which opened our eyes to see the universe more vividly.

Stephen once said, “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

Stephen was completely absorbed in exploring the infinite expanses of galaxies, black holes and the ultimate forces that shape the evolution of the cosmos. He took all this personally because it was his way of being true to his ultimate search: “Why does the universe bother to exist?” In this Stephen echoed the age-old and most fundamental of all philosophical and spiritual questions: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” and “What is time?”

I am neither a scientist nor a genius, but I have reflected on these same questions all my life. I have addressed them in a different way: as a psychologist and theologian in the Christian and Buddhist traditions.

The news of Stephen’s death made me feel as if I had lost a brother, someone woven in a different design but from the same human cloth. Stephen called himself an atheist, but then added that he was searching for “the mind of God.”

He said that “the whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.” Stephen’s journey brought him to the very brink of the scientific project: to a beauty and mystery that cannot be corralled by cognition. But isn’t this the same brink to which all spiritual traditions point?

Stephen accepted the scientific conclusion that our universe began in a cataclysmic Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. As far as he and cosmologists can say, there was no thing and no time in the nanosecond before that Big Bang.

But science cannot tell us where the Big Bang happened or even when it happened. Because there was no place and no time when it happened. It happened in eternity. And where is the Big Bang of our cosmos exploding to?

The Hubble telescope has determined that the cosmos is expanding, but unlike any “normal” expansion, there is no outgoing edge. It appears as if the “edge” has no edge. We are expanding from eternity into eternity. This astounding realization echoes the spiritual insight of the 15th-century Christian mystic Nicholas of Cusa: “God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Stephen once denigrated theology as “unnecessary,” but one wonders if he said that because he was exposed only to a conventional (and theologically inadequate) version of the Judeo-Christian tradition in which God is imagined as a separate Old Man in the sky.

As contemplative theologies make clear, the divine mystery that we call “God” is understood to be everywhere, in all places, in all times. There is no place where God is not.

The divine dimension is transcendent, yes, but in the contemplative tradition, God is the beyond within, or what the 4th-century mystic, Marguerite Porete, named as “my dear FarNearness.” From this non-dual perspective, the Big Bang occurred within God, and all the evolutionary dynamics proceeding from the moment of creation are also occurring within the divine.

Stephen understood that he was a participant observer of the universe: he was not separate from the cosmos that he was observing. He was not standing outside the universe, looking in. He was a part of what he saw. As he pointed out, “There’s no way to remove the observer — us — from our perceptions of the world.”

This is the same insight reached by another 15th-century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, who realized that he could not stand outside God in order to perceive God, but could only perceive God from within the divine mystery. As Eckhart put it, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”

It would have been fun to reflect on these things with Stephen Hawking. God bless you, Stephen, on your way.

Robert A. Jonas, of Northampton, is founder and director of the Empty Bell interfaith sanctuary (emptybell.org) for the study and practice of Christian meditation and prayer.




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