No scientist since Albert Einstein has captured the public imagination and spotlight like Stephen Hawking. Diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, doctors gave him two more years of life; he defied all odds and lived another 55 years, during which he transformed our understanding of the universe. He is now one with the universe that he roamed and explored with his mind.
It was close to midnight last night. I was working on some Bible Study notes with the TV playing in the background, on a so-called “news channel” that talked on and on about Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump and other such non-entities, when suddenly Brian Williams interrupted his own unimportance to announce that Stephen Hawking had died. I immediately went to my favourite source for news, The Guardian newspaper of London, and already there was a front page story on their website. It is well worth reading.
I referred to Stephen Hawking last Sunday in my sermon, which I also posted here. I referred to his search for a “theory of everything” with the hope that he and his fellow physicists will indeed discover such a theory. It will have to be other physicists who will continue the search. As a follower of Jesus Christ – I’m trying to avoid over-using the term “Christian” as it has become so defamed and trite in contemporary American society – I find the Cross at the heart of the universe. There is a spiritual heart to the universe that goes beyond the theories of physicists. Hawking, like Einstein before him, never achieved the dream of finding the “theory of everything”, but he is now one with that “everything”, and I bet he now sees the “cross” that is at the heart of everything.
Hawking was to all intents and purposes an atheist, and he cared nothing for what the Evangelical thought police would say about him. He roamed the universe with his brilliant mind and enabled us to roam with him. That was one of his greatest gifts to us: he opened our imagination to the infinite reaches of the cosmos. One famous Christian rebel of the 1960s coined the phrase, “Your God is Too Small.” Indeed, the Christian god had become too small for Stephen Hawking to believe in. Just think of the meanness and narrow-mindedness of the Evangelical god; or the Orthodox god whom we call upon to bless our ethnicities. Can I blame Stephen Hawking for rejecting what most “Christians” call “God”? I believe that now that he is one with the universe he finds there a God more worthy of his belief. The cross of Jesus Christ is an invitation to lay aside all our pre-conceptions of God and to throw off the mental shackles of religiosity.
Hawking had a beautiful mind. He stated what his own goal and purpose in life was: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” His children quote him as saying, “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.” Amen to that. He probed the universe with his intellectual powers, and beyond all the intricate mathematics that he worked with his brain he found love at the core of the universe’s meaning and purpose. That is the love that moves the stars. At the very end of the Divine Comedy, in Canto 33 of Paradiso, Dante wrote:
ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle. (Par. 33.143-45)
but my desire and will were moved already—
like a wheel revolving uniformly—by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Dante, writing his massive 3-part “poem” 700 years ago, saw the unity in diversity that exists in the universe, a unity manifested and sustained by God. The universe is our home, and love is at the heart of the universe, the reason why the universe exists. Hawking saw that as he reflected on his own loved ones. God sees Love at the heart of the universe as He contemplates His Son and the Cross of His Son. There is mystery upon mystery… and beauty.
“Hawking was driven to Wagner, but not the bottle, when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963 at the age of 21.” Nicely stated by the Guardian article. I love Richard Wagner’s operas more than any other music or any other intellectual pursuits, and it warms my heart to know that Hawking was a fellow Wagnerian. But the same man who loved Wagner also became a pop-culture star, appearing in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, where he appeared in a holodeck poker game with Einstein and Isaac Newton, and several episodes of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, where he enjoyed hilarious interactions with Sheldon Cooper and his nerd friends. He even appeared in animated form on The Simpsons. YouTube has a great compilation video of Hawking’s appearances in these shows. He lived according to his own motto: “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”
The Guardian website has a great collection of pictures to illustrate the life of Stephen Hawking: here.
And the official obituary in The Guardian today was written by a fellow great physicist, Roger Penrose: “Mind over matter”
I conclude my own homage to Stephen Hawking with some of his memorable quotes:
- “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus”.
- “People who boast about their IQ are losers.”
- “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”
- “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
- “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
Hawking lost his ability to speak and had to communicate through computerised voice synthesis. In an age such as ours where fewer and fewer people bother to communicate with coherent thought and sentences, Hawking was a master communicator, able to express the deepest mysteries of the universe in ways that even children could understand. At a time when talk has become cheap or is being replaced by social media and trivial texts and tweets and when people don’t talk but shout at each other from inside their political and religious bubbles, Hawking’s advice is more needed than ever:
- “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”
Rest in the Love that moves the stars, Stephen Hawking!