Questions of Meaning, Science, Randomness or Design?

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash
Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

            I recently came upon  a thought-provoking three-part series on PBS called “Searching: Our quest for meaning in an age of science”. It is a project of the Templeton Foundation and hosted by scientist Alan Lightman. The programs, each about fifty minutes long, explored issues related to the expanding universe, the fact that in a very basic way we are all part of the universe and, while we are advancing the science of life, we are still stumbling around trying to figure out the issue of consciousness. In other words, science is great at the “how” of life, but we humans still struggle with the “why”!

            Now I watched these programs as the great story of our tradition, the Exodus and the events at Sinai are unfolding in our texts. So many traditional commentaries see, in these events, the mystical hand of God controlling history for a desired purpose. Often at classes that discuss these passages people will ask as to the role of we humans in these stories. If we are put cosmic pawns, then where is that freedom of will and choice. What does this mean?          

            The question of our meaning is at the heart of the Searching series and, likewise at the heart of our own personal religious quest. Now it is interesting to know that there is a growing discussion in many academic and religious corridors of the linkage between science and religion. Indeed, our colleague Rabbi Geoff Mitelman has created an entire organization that focuses on this. (Science and Synapses)  

            This quest for what this life means and what is our place in it becomes more relevant and important as we get older. This shift from the material to the spiritual becomes part of just about every class in which we are involved. Does God, in whatever manner you choose to define that, have a plan for us? Or is the universe neutral, uncaring and we have the challenge to choose our path, our meaning, our purpose. Is there a reason or purpose for us to be alive here, now, for what amounts to a “blink of an eye” in the grand scheme of the universe? These Torah passages open this discussion for once you remove yourself from the “divine revelation” at Sinai and see Torah as a product of human beings over centuries, then the basis for our actions as a Jew shift. Do we become the authority for our own actions? If so, on what basis do we make choices? Or is there this invisible hand of God behind our actions? Or is the answer someplace in the middle? Or this life, as some maintain, absurd?

            Let me suggest that you try and watch that Templeton series. It will raise some important questions. In the end, however, it opens the door to the need to celebrate the fact of our creation and our time that we live. We ARE part of nature, we are part, as Ecclesiastes chapter 1 so beautifully describes, of something larger than ourselves. As such, we are history, and this gift of life is the most precious of all gifts.


Rabbi Richard

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