The Relocation of Awe

January 12, 2010

When asked why he attended Catholic Church during his yearly visits to France, Paul Kurtz often said that he likes to see what the opposition is up to.

So, partially out of a Kurtz-inspired curiosity and partially to shock my very Catholic Uncle who had no idea I’d arrive next to him in the third pew, I went to mass at St. Daniel’s church in Wheaton, IL, with notebook in-hand on the morning of December 25th , 2009 – Jesus’ 2000th (and something) birthday.

There was a time before my own 10th birthday when I would have felt awe and reverence while in church. I can’t remember ever liking going to mass, but there was a certain gravity to it all. The Catholics are quite good at pomp and ritual. The St. Daniel’s altar was loaded with flowers, the priests were in full regalia, and a ½ scale crèche sat nestled below and to the left of the much larger (artist’s conception of a) crucified christ attached to the wall above the proceedings.

Even the occasional Catholics were in attendance sitting in rapt attention on this High Holy Day. But I just wasn’t feeling it. I marginally enjoyed the music and listened to every word – questions and counterpoints swirling around my mind through it all – but the awe and reverence was gone.

Inside the House of God

Inside the House of God

The elderly priest who lethargically celebrated (Yay!) the mass began his sermon by asking if Santa Claus had visited everyone. Ok… lead with a joke. I can see that. But later, the same priest spoke about how fortunate we all are to have Christ with us all 365 days of the year, while Santa – no hint of joke or irony here – only comes to town once a year.

Did I hear that right? He’s comparing Jesus to Santa? The smart-ass in me so wanted to raise my hand and ask, “You know Santa’s not real, right?” Out of respect for my Uncle I sat quietly and watched the rote movements of the rest of the ritual while musing about the psychology and sociology of belief, and how primitive it all now looks.

I didn’t go up for communion, by the way…

Contrast that morning to a visit I made a few days earlier to Fermilab – the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, IL. My wife, sister, niece, nephew and I took a tour of Fermilab and scratched the surface of what goes on there.

This 6800 acre facility run by the U.S. Department of Energy is home to the Tevatron, the world’s most powerful proton-antiproton particle accelerator. (The Large Hadron Collider at the CERN facility outside Geneva, Switzerland, is larger and more powerful, but is designed to accelerate protons and lead nuclei.)

The physics they study there is mostly beyond me, but the place itself was fascinating. A number of major discoveries unlocking the secrets of nature were made at Fermilab, including:

I didn't go up for communion, by the way...

I didn’t go up for communion, by the way…

  • The discovery of the bottom quark in1977, the top quark in 1995, and the tau neutrino in 2000
  • Fermilab’s Sloan Digital Sky Survey identified more than 100 million stars, galaxies and quasars between 1998 and 2005
  • In 2007, the Pierre Auger Observatory identified supermassive black holes as the most likely source of the highest-energy cosmic rays
  • Scientists are currently using Fermilab’s Tevatron to look for evidence for an entirely new class of subatomic particles as well as the first signs of new dimensions of space-time
  • Other Fermilab scientists are using ultrasensitive detectors as well as telescopes to unravel the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, the two mysterious components that dominate the universe
  • See more here
What could be simpler than quantum mechanics?

What could be simpler than quantum mechanics?

In addition to all the amazing science that is being done there, there is art and sculpture woven into the landscape and architecture, and much thought is given to the natural surroundings of the buildings. A section of prairie is being rehabilitated and a small herd of bison live on the property.

Outside Wilson Hall, Fermilab

Outside Wilson Hall, Fermilab

There was none of the church’s rote, unthinking ritual anywhere near the place. The staff and scientists seemed genuinely interested – no excited – about their work. They were learning and discovering things. They were paving a road to the future, not droning on reciting beliefs about an unprovable past.

Our docent was quick to remind the tour group that many useful benefits had come out of this facility – technology surrounding MRI machines, cancer treatment, superconductivity, giant magnets, computing, food sterilization, home security (the list goes on.)

Hell, unlocking the secrets of the universe was plenty justification for me.

When I learned that I was looking at the building where fundamental constituents of matter were first known to human beings, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. It was like standing in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and imagining Galileo at work.

I saw Fermilab as an inspiring cathedral of learning that made church seem rather sad in comparison.

The atrium in Wilson Hall

The atrium in Wilson Hall

My awe had found a new home.