A FEW years ago, while I was visiting some family members on the Gold Coast, one of the household had turned on the television and was deeply engaged in that favourite past-time of so many people; providing a running commentary on the program being viewed for the benefit of those around them.
In this instance, the show in question was actually the presentations associated with the “Australian of the Year Award”.
Prompted by the interesting and insightful comments that were arising as a result of this broadcast, I too turned to watch the speeches that were being delivered.
One comment in particular has stayed with me ever since, nagging at the back of my mind.
The presenter was delivering an encomium regarding the work of a particular physicist – truly remarkable research leading to many fascinating developments.
It was not that which struck me.
The phrase that caused me to tilt my head ever so pensively was contained in his opening remarks.
The man delivering the panegyric had begun by saying that physics was a particularly engaging field of enquiry because it concerned, ‘the most interesting question there is – “What is stuff?”’
My Catholic metaphysical sense tingled at those words and immediately thought, ‘That’s not the most interesting question. The most interesting question is, “Why is stuff?”’
Matter is certainly interesting; physics and chemistry are terribly engaging subjects and tell us much about the world and universe we inhabit.
But an analysis of matter – “stuff” – in terms of what it is and the form that it takes, is only part of the story.
Surely the question of “why” there is stuff at all is even more interesting, even more engaging?
Why is there something, rather than nothing?
That is the question with which people have wrestled for millennia – certainly the attempted answers are evident from the dawn of recorded thought to our present day. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the tortured writings of Martin Heidegger, human beings have been concerned with this truly fascinating fundamental enquiry: Why is stuff?
And it is a question that we would be well-advised to re-inject into our public discourse and efforts at evangelisation.
As Catholics, we evidently have very firm views concerning the answer to this question of “Why?”
We maintain that the universe was created by God as an expression of the love that He is.
As St Thomas Aquinas puts it most poetically, “Creatures first came into existence when the key of love opened His hand.”
God wanted His creatures to share in His being, wisdom and goodness and thus fashioned us in love.
You may feel that no secular-minded individual is ever going to find that a compelling account for the “why” of the world.
I think otherwise.
Any purely materialist explanation of the origins of the universe does not account for that reality which all humans acknowledge and perceive – love.
As Pope Benedict XVI once wrote in his open “Letter to an Atheist”, any explanation of the world and history that, “knows of no answer to the question of freedom, ignores love and does not give us any information on evil (…) is empty.”
Love is a far more compelling an answer than you might otherwise think.
This Christian explanation of the reality of the universe has even started appear – in sublimated form – in popular culture.
The film Interstellar (released in 2014) depicts a world that is dying and follows the journey of an intrepid band of astronauts who are visiting the few other planets that could replace earth as our “home”.
As they hurtle through time and space encountering one tragedy after another, the crew of the spacecraft are compelled to confront some of these more existential questions.
At a crucial point in the film, these astronauts – scientific experts in their respective fields – must decide which of two remaining planets they will visit.
There is fuel sufficient only for a trajectory towards one of these alternative prospects.
It so happens that one of the scientists on the space ship is in love with the astronaut that had been sent to one of those planets over a decade previously.
Clearly, she is arguing for a visit to that particular world.
And she argues, with much pathos and against her skeptical colleague, on the basis of love.
Scientist: “Love isn’t something we invented … it’s observable, it’s powerful … it has to mean something.”
Colleague: “Love has meaning, yes; social utility, social bonding, child-rearing …”
Scientist: “We love people who have died. Where’s the social utility in that?”
Scientist: “Maybe it means something more, something we can’t yet understand … maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive … I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade who, I know … is probably dead. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.”
Love is not something that can be examined under a microscope or abstracted into a formula – it is not the “stuff” with which much of science is concerned.
Yet it is undoubtedly an evident reality in all of human history – and Christianity would say it is the explanatory, causative, teleological principle behind the whole universe: “God is Love.” (1 John 4:8)
Love understood not as an emotion, of course, but as a willed reality – a state of being.
As Christians, as men and women of faith, we are still subject to the problems, crises, sufferings and interior struggles attendant upon life here on earth.
But we are aware of this reality; that we are willed, that we are loved, that we have a purpose and meaning.
Those famous words at the beginning of the Gospel of John “In the beginning was the word” can also be translated, “In the beginning was meaning”. (John 1:1)
As Christians, we acknowledge this prior meaning, prior will, prior love that conceived of us before we were able to conceive of ourselves.
In terms of evangelisation, the interesting thing is that people who attempt to enter into the faith by means of purely theoretical proofs generally don’t get very far.
And that is because they are only engaging reality in a half-hearted way.
We experience all the essential aspects of our life as a reciprocal interplay between action and thought; between a lived experience and that which we learn from it.
This means that if a person refuses the experience and does not even begin to engage with reality, then the subsequent insight is also unable to arise.
So, if somebody assesses Christianity simply on the basis of proofs, rather than engaging with it as a lived reality – as an encounter with the Risen Christ – they are unlikely to be convinced.
Therefore, if that someone was genuinely seeking the answer to the ultimate question – “Why is stuff?” – I suggest a different approach.
If that someone truly wished to examine the viability of the Christian answer and worldview, my proposal would be that he or she begins to live and act as though there exists that meaning of which the Gospel of John speaks.
I would suggest that this earnest seeker of the truth bear him or herself in life as though he or she is willed and loved; as though every person is willed and loved – as though an eternal meaning and significance stands behind all perceptible reality and sustains it in being at any given moment.
I feel that a person who undertakes this challenge will then see a reality transformed; life will be revealed as richer and more precious than previously thought.
This experiment based on lived experience will reveal the truth that is inherent within the Catholic metaphysic of love.
So if you ever find yourself speaking with a genuine seeker of the truth, perhaps consider posing this question: “Why is love?”
I promise you the conversation that follows will be far more interesting than any debate on “stuff”.