The James Luther Adams Papers
The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993
Part 18: The Bridge of Confidence
An Easter Address
One of the more vivid recollections of my youth concerns a long railway trestle which spanned a deep gorge near my boyhood home. It was generally agreed by the boys of the town that the sign of manliness and bravery was to be able to walk that long railway trestle which had no plank walk, but rather only railway ties. It was always a major event in the life of the youth of the town when still another boy could announce, with proper credentials and dependable witnesses, that he had crossed the trestle. Just because our parents knew that all the youngsters were under a perpetual dare, they warned us repeatedly of the extreme danger. What if we should get to the middle and become dizzy and be unable to continue the crossing or be unable to return? What if an unexpected freight train should happen to cross the bridge when a boy was on the way across. If these warnings were not enough, the boys got some sense of the height of the trestle by looking up to it from the valley below. Then, too, there was the fearful sign at each end of the bridge: NO THOROUGHFARE. PEDESTRIANS CROSS AT THEIR OWN RISK.
The feelings that a small boy felt in looking across that trestle are somewhat similar to the attitude that everyone feels at times with regard to the valley of the shadow of death. Is there a bridge that leads from this life to the other side? Is there another side?
For us modern people, the view of the bridge has considerably altered from what is was for the medieval or ancient populace. Our predecessors inhabited a much smaller world than ours. The ancient Ptolemaic universe was a convenient and manageable scheme of things, with the earth at the center of a neat little cosmos with existed primarily as exterior decoration for our terra ferma, which was created on March 4, 4004 B.C. Science has revealed to us an utterly different universe, vastly larger and vastly older. We are just now told it is seventy-six light years to the Pole Star, which like all the other stars, is another sun like our own, only larger, and possibly the center of another system of planets. If we imagine our globe to be 16 inches around the equator, i.e., four inches in diameter, our sun is a mile away and is larger than this church. If we adopt the scale of one in ten thousand million, the earth and the sun would be invisibly small: the orbit of Neptune would be the size of a pin head; the nearest star to the earth would be four yards away; the Milky Way would be a good day’s walk away. This new universe is vastly older, as well as larger.
The earth no longer occupies the center of the stage but seems to be a second-class planet following a second class sun somewhere out in the suburbs of the universe. Is it any wonder that Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century mathematician and natural philosopher credited with substantial scientific research, exclaimed: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. It is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. Mankind may regard itself as lost in this remote corner of nature.”
Moreover, we find that the solid earth is an illusion since everything is in motion. Indeed, we are poised between two infinities, the infinitely great and the infinitely small. Within this setting occurs the human comedy. Is it any wonder that the most noted modern poet should say:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
Is it any wonder that we are told that religion, and especially belief in immortality, is only trivial and irrelevant wishful thinking, illusion, colossal human egotism?
Is there no bridge by which we can traverse the valley of death to the ground of all being? Is there nothing on which we can depend?
As the spectroscope reveals, throughout the known universe there seems to be a unity of matter and a marvelous correlation of forces. We seem to be living in a universe which is not mere anarchy or blind confusion. It summons our reason and intelligence to understand it with our groping minds. Still, you may ask: What support is there in this worldview for religion, and especially for immortality?
Religion implies that there is something of utmost significance in our very appearance in the universal process. It urges us to recognize the fact that there have been a Socrates, a Shakespeare, a Confucius, a Buddha, a Christ. I do not propose to offer any arguments for immortality. Indeed, when anyone begins arguing for or against immortality, the affect on me is usually pretty cold. I would only remind you that there are some good evidences to show that there is meaning and purpose in that corner of the universe that we know. The fact that we are children of the universe and heirs to all its glories is trustworthy.
What then about the bridge which leads across the valley of the shadow of death? We may answer that what is yet unknown will probably bear the same quality as the known. The bridge to the unknown is a bridge in which we may have some confidence. The possibilities of the universe are not exhausted. Thornton Wilder gave expression to this conviction with these words:
We ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will be enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.