Time has ticked a heaven round the stars

In the green fuse of the young Dylan Thomas’ imagination we find the perfect description of how humanity’s knowledge of the universe has proceeded from mute awe to a better but still imperfectly informed wonder. All it took was time – and science – and our notion of heaven was transformed from the clumsy metaphor of celestial theme park to something far richer, more vast and various, and beautiful beyond comprehension. And most wondrous of all, we humans are not only actively immersed within this heaven, albeit on the nanoscale, but we are conscious of being so, and of being so in the here and now.

It is easy for us to see today how religions ignite. While all other species seemed happy to proceed from meal to meal without any need for meaning along the way, Homo sapiens has sought explanations, patterns, and a sense of its place above and beyond the brutish rants and ruttings of everyone’s daily lives. Given what we knew about what we flattered ourselves to suppose was the universe two thousand years ago, it is not surprising that the revelations and rules comprising the Pentateuch, Bible and Koran emerged as the defining Operating Manual for Life on Earth. And in understanding more now about what we didn’t know then, and given our inbred venalities and credulity, it is even less surprising that these religions caught on.

With what has happened over the last two millennia – and in science and technology, what has transpired particularly over the last two centuries – it would be stranger if anyone were now to propose one of the “great faiths” as a credible belief system for today’s world. (Although, as a reminder of the limpet-like tenacity of human credulity, it is less than two centuries since the appearance of the “Book” of Mormon.) But on balance, our cognitive horizons continue to expand and, with them, our aspirations for new frontiers of intelligence and wonder in an enlarging universe. We may not wonder at the answers conceived by religion in the infancy of our species but, in our progress beyond I Corinthians 13:11 to the irony of John 8:32, we open up new vistas of potential in the flowering of human intelligence. The truth can indeed set us free, although perhaps not in the manner that the Jesus of scripture intended.

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