Faith in science

That’s Brian Burghart inside that window right above the wing. He’s contemplating falling to his death.

That’s Brian Burghart inside that window right above the wing. He’s contemplating falling to his death.

Want to introduce Brian to your place of worship? Call 324-4440 ext. 3525.

I skipped an opportunity to write Filet of Soul from Ben Franklin’s church in Philadelphia this morning. Last Tuesday, my colleagues in Reno had argued against me doing a church review in Philly—offering the conceit that Filet of Soul had been local up to that point. But why should it? Spirituality is everywhere and nowhere, and someday the conflation of mysticism and quantum physics will prove that the space between electrons is thick with the substance of god, and we’ll discover the universe isn’t empty after all, but unimaginably dense. So why shouldn’t Filet of Soul occasionally be an essay? Things can change. The column’s definition of church expanded into the streets for food ministries and into Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

I’ve got to say, the music is rockin’ at 37,000 feet. An REM shuffle on my iPod sets the tone. Every seat of the blue, brown and white sanctuary is filled. At the front, an embroidered symbol of a Valentine heart in a winged circle announces the congregation’s denomination.

The clouds march by beneath me in weird rows, like soldiers, their drop-shadow shadows crossing over the patchwork green carpet of farms, the Eastern forests, highways and rivers looking like the sewn seams of cloth or, in the case of the rivers, stitched wounds. And if there are angels strumming harps on those clouds, I can’t see them from my perfect vantage point. Of course, if they’re really small enough to dance on pinheads, maybe they shouldn’t occupy my mind to the degree they do. I can’t see the humans below me, either, and I know those little vermin are down there, unappreciative.

I have a fear of flying. I don’t admit that easily. I also have a fear of heights. And while I don’t believe those two fears are related, I also have a fear of falling. Flight can almost make a person believe there’s an invisible hand buoying us up. The physics is beyond me, and since I don’t understand it, I don’t trust it. I’ve occasionally said the great irony of birds is that while they can fly, they’re too stupid to appreciate the ability. I guess the same is true for me. We stand on the shoulders of giants, don’t we? If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to see a single damned thing. A forgetful force would certainly explain these frequent reverse bounces—turbulence. It feels as though we come to empty pockets in the air and drop without warning—like for just one moment, the spaces in between the electrons and protons and neutrons of the plane match up with the spaces within the atoms of the air. Maybe the pilot has a momentary crisis of faith. Maybe if for just one moment, all these passengers awakened from the dream that this 40-ton jet can float, it would tumble out of the sky like a buckshot quail.

I’ll bet we’d see some pretty quick conversions up here at 37,000 feet, wouldn’t we? The screaming mothers would beseech God to save their children while the disgruntled men would curse science’s betrayal, and the plane, freed from the linear pressure of forward inertia, would plummet—end over end, wingtip over wingtip—to ground like one of Galileo’s balls.

And what then?