Have you ever heard of Pando? Pando is a forest of birch trees in the western US. Burton V. Barnes started studying the forest in the late sixties, and noticed something peculiar: the trees in the forest all seemed to be just alike. Simply based on morphology, what the plants looked and acted like, Barnes believed that the trees in the forest made up a single unit. Future tests and techniques bore him out: Pando is a forest of genetically identical trees, trees that are connected by a single root system. Pando might very well be the largest living thing on this planet, the largest living thing humans have ever encountered. But from the outside, without digging around for miles underground, or digging into microscopic genetic code… Pando just looks like a bunch of trees.
I have come to think of human beings as resembling Pando. From the outside, we look like a bunch of individuals of a particular type… but if we look deeply enough, if we are willing to dig… we will discover that not only are we more alike that we ever imagined, we are in fact all a part of one connected entity.
Genetic science has made incredible progress and discoveries; it is now within the grasp of many humans to submit their own material and find out specifics of their background. We discover that all of us trace back to a few lineages. Something like ninety percent of all humans can be traced back to sixteen historical fathers… some known to us, some lost to history. Genetically, our family tree grows from few roots. I have no doubt that with continued improvements in testing and data mining, we will eventually narrow those roots even further. I think it is obvious that, like the trees of Pando, individual humans grow from the same genetic root.
I also believe something less obvious, something that we have not developed the tools and methods for which to dig. Humans seem to have a further connection that science has not yet understood. Linguists have noted that, based on the amount of the language human children are exposed to, there’s no explanation for how we learn to speak, how we learn to communicate. Psychologists have described the collective unconscious, that which we all seem to know innately, that which seems to be passed down through generations without our realizing it. This connection is not the only thing beyond the limits of current science… the simple question “where do we come from” ends with the mysterious and poorly named Big Bang; which, for all we can explain, happened for no reason out of nothing at all. We can’t explain how the elemental forces that affect us work together, or really, work at all. We have ideas, theories… string theory is one that could help explain the nature of these forces; but string theory requires we do our theoretical math in sixteen or twenty-five dimensions, rather than the three we can point to and touch.
The Big Bang, the beginning of everything from nothing… and the the equal but opposite mystery of what lies beyond the universe we know… are particularly difficult to wrap our minds around. We understand height, width, and depth, and even the quasi dimension of moving inexorably forward through time. But we literally have no frame of reference for what might be above height, farther out than width, behind depth… or before that time zero when everything we know and understand just simply… started.
What if it is really that simple, though? We are creatures created within that realm of time and three dimensions, our perceptions are only built to conceive of those axes. What if the outlandish prediction of string theory is correct, and there exist dimensions outside our perception, outside our reason, outside our comprehension?
Human beings are Pando, individuals sprung from the same genetic stock, appearing separate and distinct but exactly the same underneath. The Big Bang is the ground from which these apparent individuals grew, hiding the nature of our connected root system. That root system, that connection we have noticed but can’t define or explain, simply lies in dimensions beyond those which we were built to sense and comprehend.
Looking at life and lives in this framework, science and religion avoid their apparent dichotomy: science understands its limits are these three dimensions, and religion understands its implications lay beyond and aren’t always measurable or actionable in those three dimensions.
This probably sounds like a strange “sermon,” but it is an important plank in the platform I want to build, the church I want to attend. My church is intended to be an exploration of religion, a celebration of the paths and methods man has used and continues to use to find a larger sense of order, to find their place in the “Grand Scheme” of things. My church wants to deal with human information as far back as we have records… and my church isn’t trying to force those historical narratives to adhere to the three dimensions we can actually perceive. My church values the history of religion beyond its adherence to the limits of our science, and values science constantly improving the world within those limits.
I’d love to hear what you think of my church.
Discussion thread for this post in the jjewell forum.