Time to Take His Measure

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 31, Issue 3
May – June 2018

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It is often said that “Catholics know how to do death.” I recall this expression on the lips of reporters covering the funeral rites of John F. Kennedy. They were struck by the structure and solemnity of the ecclesial ritual. The riderless horse only added to the effect. But the recent passing of Stephen Hawking brings up this question: how do we adequately remember a scholar?

There is a tradition that tries to do justice to the loss of a gallant mind. Among Jewish scholars learning is treasured and memory runs deep. So, a month or so after the funeral of the deceased, scholars come together to converse, share, and even debate the contributions and insights of their departed colleague. Such a critical conversation, conducted after the first waves of sorrow have run their course, can catch the hope and courage of a person’s thought. In fact, such a conference can ignite an even deeper appreciation of what that scholar’s work entailed.

It has been now a couple of months since the passing of Stephen Hawking. The tremors of loss have encircled the world. It is time to recognize the measure of his vision.

The professional career of Hawking would never have begun without the remorseless presence of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Until he was told that he would have only a few years to live, Hawking had been a rather indifferent albeit brilliant student. The disease that reduced his bodily control ultimately to the flexing of a finger and voluntary eye movements simultaneously motivated him to focus his meandering mind.

Within ten years of the initial diagnosis, Hawking’s imagination roamed from the world of subatomic particles to the gargantuan dilemma of black holes. Indeed, in applying quantum theory to what seemed to be the embodiment of cosmic doom—black holes—Hawking discovered to his own amazement that black holes did not absorb everything forever into themselves but actually leaked particles and radiation. Indeed, he saw that black holes did not continue ad infinitum but would finally explode and disappear. Declaring that he wasn’t looking for such results, he modestly confessed, “I merely tripped over them. I was rather annoyed.”* Instead of disproving Dr. Jakob Bekenstein’s claim that black holes had entropy, Hawking’s findings confirmed Bekenstein’s. This amazing “trip” became the first step in joining relativity and quantum theory, a significant movement toward a theory of quantum gravity. Hawking later added that the most important aspect about “Hawking radiation” was that “it shows that the black hole is not cut off from the rest of the universe.”

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Hawking continued to plumb the deepest questions of the universe. All the while his disease ravaged him. He lost the use of his arms and legs, he could no longer feed himself, and then a tracheotomy in 1985 removed the use of his vocal cords. The motorized wheelchair and the computerized voice synthesizer transmitted his nimble mind to millions. For, as he went on to become his generation’s pioneer in exploring gravity and black holes, he developed into a cultural icon, dropping into the televised worlds of the Simpsons, Star Trek, and The Big Bang. Audiences around the world waited upon the timed delivery of his voice synthesizer. With a word or a phrase his razor wit cut through a scene.

But some might wonder what Hawking has to do with Westar Institute? Didn’t he declare: “There is no god. I am an atheist”? We cannot overlook that he said: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for brokendown computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” But there was more to that difficult mind. What was his deepest desire? His goal was quite simple: “A complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” Such a vision energized Einstein. In fact, the ancient wisdom traditions around the globe have had the same dream. Moreover, contemporary theologians now work precisely in that no man’s land where even the name of God is at best problematic. Indeed. Our seminar on God and the Human Future presupposes many recent findings of physics in their deliberations. Perhaps it is time to honor Hawking et al. with a full-bodied conversation. Hawking would set the stage for such proceedings with his wry wisdom: “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe.” Like Bob Funk, Hawking could not bide dissembling (an occupational habit for many clergy and theologians). He put it this way: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Precisely through the “little ease” of his life Hawking discovered more than mathematical precision. In commenting on black holes he noted: “They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up—there’s a way out.” Like Plato, Hawking had been delivered from the clutch of shadows and found illumination in the heart of puzzlement. At the same time, he stayed in touch with the rest of us and reminded us of something more alluring in this vast enterprise: “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.”

All the quotes from Hawking can be found at: nytimes.com/2018/03/14/world/europe/stephen-hawking-quotes.html

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

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