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June 16, 2019 - "Powers of Ten" by Neb Duric


One of the iconic events of my generation was Woodstock, a 4- day music festival held in August, 1969, which attracted an audience of half a million people. It’s 50th anniversary is coming up. It was held at Max Yasgur's farm near Woodstock, NY. It is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history, and for defining the counterculture generation. The song itself was written by Joni Mitchell to commemorate the event. It captures the relationship between us and the natural world. It was popularized by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young who performed with the following slightly altered lyrics. It is printed in your order of service so you can follow the lyrics if you wish.

Well, I came upon a child of God

He was walking along the road

And I asked him. Tell me, where are you going

This he told me

Note here the Jesus allusion: the child of God is spreading the word about the event.

Said, I'm going down to Yasgur's Farm

Gonna join in a rock and roll band

Got to get back to the land and set my soul free

Note the emphasis on inwardness, the soul: reconnecting with nature

We are stardust, we are golden

We are billion year old carbon

And we got to get ourselves back to the garden

The astronomy allusion is my favorite part of the song because it is literally true. We are carbon-based life forms and that carbon is old, ancient and came from distant reaches of the galaxy to form us. In my view, the garden of Eden is a two-fold metaphor. First, it represents the crucible of carbon and stardust that gave rise to us, a symbol of our physical nature. Second, it is a symbol of our inner nature, the part that aligns with the natural world in all its original purity, before we messed it up.

Well, then can I roam beside you?

I have come to lose the smog,

And I feel myself a cog in somethin' turning And maybe it's the time of year

Yes and maybe it's the time of man

And I don't know who I am

But life is for learning

Note the biblical analogy. Like an apostle following the child of God. Disconnected from the natural world but searching for truth and meaning as in the 4th UU principle.

We are stardust, we are golden

We are billion year old carbon

And we got to get ourselves back to the garden

We are stardust, we are golden

We are billion year old carbon

And we got to get ourselves back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock

We were half a million strong

And everywhere was a song and a celebration

And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes

Riding shotgun in the sky,

Turning into butterflies

Above our nation

Woodstock represents a world community striving for peace, goodness, fellowship and communion. Aligned with the 6th UU principle. And the final verse,

We are stardust, we are golden

We are caught in the devils bargain

And we got to get ourselves back to the garden

We have ancient roots that bind us together, we ARE a part of nature and it is a part of us and somehow, we lost our way. We need to get back on the right path.

Note again the repeated references to the garden, and to the universe. The interconnectedness of our spirituality and the natural world, woven over vast distances of both time and space. The need for self-discovery.

So yes, maybe it’s the time of year, or maybe it's the time for us, and we don't know who we are, but life is for learning.


The original version of this video was called Powers of Ten.

In mathematical terms, powers of ten simply refers to the exponents above the numeral 10 that describe the number of zeros in a numeral. Thus 1 power of 10 is 10, 2 powers of 10 is 100, 3 powers of 10 is a thousand and so on.

In this video, look for lines that look like those scales you find on a map legend. They will be expressed as powers of ten.

Powers of Ten

In the powers of ten video we zoomed out and back in to get a sense of both the outward and inward physical universe. This is how it appears today based on all the world’s accumulated knowledge. But, in the past, our perception of the universe was much more limited. Furthermore, our inner spiritual selves were also much more limited. So, let’s rewind the powers of ten video, figuratively, to a time when humans first began to think about themselves and the universe and then play the video forward in time (figuratively again) to try and understand what key events and developments led to our present understanding. For the sake of brevity and our UU roots, I will follow Western history recognizing that other civilizations around the world have their own unique histories. Along the way, we will discuss the development of our inner selves in relation to the universe, in the spirit of Woodstock.

The Babylon Era

Our story begins in the Babylonian era in the region corresponding to present day Iraq/Syria/Iran/Turkey. The first scientific revolution occurred here, during the 7th and 8th centuries BC. The Babylonians developed an empirical approach to astronomy. They could predict lunar and solar eclipses based on recurring patterns that appeared in their extensive record keeping of the sky. They combined astronomy with philosophy and mythology, the earliest known attempt to combine the inner workings of the mind with the external world.

There was a growing realization that the world and the heavens needed an explanation for their creation. While there were many creation myths, it was the Jewish people who were exiled in Babylonia around 600 BC that defined the biblical God using the Genesis narrative as a monotheistic creation story. This I learned in Ed Sharples’s class “Bible as Literature."

The Old Testament Era

Genesis, Chapter 1-3: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” (note that this happened before he created the Sun). And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So, God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.”

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. Note here that the Sun governs the day, it does not cause the day. Hence the need for the separate creations of day and Sun.

The universe was simple, consisting of a vault, land and sea. There was no concept of Earth as a planet. The inner world, that of the mind, was still in its infancy. An omnipotent god ran your life and instructed you on rules of behavior (i.e. the commandments). The inner self was tied collectively to God. Your inner self was thus taken care of for you.

The Greek Era

The Classical and Hellenistic periods of Greek history followed, from roughly 500 BC to 100 BC, giving rise to Alexander the Great and an empire that extended from Italy to India. In the centuries leading up to Jesus, philosophy and science flourished from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle. There was no distinction between scientists and philosophers (even today, PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy). In fact, it was Aristotle that deduced the earth was round based on the shape of the shadow cast by the Earth on the Moon during a lunar eclipse.

Astonishingly, Eratosthenes (220 BC) used the concept of a round Earth to make the first measurement of its size. The world grew in size by a power of 10 compared to the land of the Old Testament. In Aristotle’s geocentric system, the spherical Earth is at the center of the universe, and all other heavenly bodies are attached to transparent, rotating spheres surrounding the Earth.

Plato, a pupil of Socrates, tackled the search for the meaning of life (a key element of the 4th UU principle). He claimed it could be found in attaining the highest form of knowledge, which is the Idea of the Good, from which all good and just things derive utility and value (Gnostics Christians took this up). Zeno of Citium, taught that living according to reason and virtue is to be in harmony with the universe's divine order. You can see how the integration of the inner selves with the natural world was beginning to take shape, recognizing how one affects the other, in contrast to the old testament.

Greek knowledge culminated in the establishment of the library of Alexandria, Egypt around 300 BC which served as world headquarters of all things written, housing at its height as many as 400,000 books.

The Roman Era and Rise of Christianity

After the Greek era, as the gospels were being written, and the new testament was being compiled, from the time of Jesus onward, the Roman Empire had formed and spread over 5000 miles from Persia to England and all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. The Romans borrowed heavily from their Greek subjects who had developed philosophy, geometry and science. The greatest scientific achievement of this period was a refinement of Aristotle’s geocentric model of the universe by Ptolemy around 100 AD. The new model, would last for 1500 years.

Jesus and his ministry collided with the Roman Empire and the Old Testament. For the first time in the biblical land, we were asked to look into ourselves for enlightenment. He taught of love as a force for doing good instead of fear and punishment. Jesus introduced a positivism in how we think about ourselves and each other. In the gnostic Gospel of Thomas: Jesus said: “there is a light within a man of light, and it lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is darkness”.

The world did not grow physically during the Roman period but its greatest contribution was the birth of Christianity.

The Dark Ages

This was the state of the universe up until the fall of the Roman Empire around 460 AD. The library of Alexandria declined under its rule, culminating in its destruction, a harbinger of the dark ages, the 1000-year period from 400 AD – 1400 AD during which knowledge was lost and not regained.

Little did Jesus know that humans would use his teachings to build hierarchies and institutions that re-instituted rigid rules of behavior, administered top down by powerful and ultimately political figures.

Theists held sway, saying that if there were no God to give life ultimate meaning, value and purpose, then life would be absurd. However, that meaning, and purpose was dictated from above and was the same for all. Furthermore, the inner self was again defined by religion and had little relationship to the natural world. The old testament and the new testament combined to squeeze out Hellenic thought. The struggle between religion and reason was won by religion. The Earth was flat again (literally and figuratively) and it sat squarely at the center of the universe. It would not be until the Renaissance in Europe that our universe would have another opportunity to grow.

The Renaissance

Until the Renaissance period from 1400 to 1600 AD, it was generally believed that the Earth was flat. Columbus made it to America despite the chance that his ships would fall off the edge of the world. Ferdinand Magellan proved the world was round by circumnavigating it. A quote attributed to him goes: “The Church says that the Earth is Flat, but I know that it is Round. For I have seen its Shadow on the Moon and I have more Faith in a Shadow than in the Church.” Interestingly, it took his crew three years to circumnavigate the world. (Today it takes the ISS 90 min to circle the world. That’s 10 thousand times faster).

Copernicus’ heliocentric theory (published 1543) suggested that the Earth, along with the other planets, revolved around the Sun. The modern concept of the solar system was born. Empirical flesh was put on the bones of Copernicus’ theory first by Kepler and then Galileo.

Kepler developed the idea of elliptical orbits which made the sun centered (heliocentric) model more accurate than Ptolemy’s geocentric model thereby accelerating its adoption.

Galileo (1610) was the first to use a telescope to study the heavens, proving that the planets orbited the Sun. His research ran afoul of the church and he became a target of the Roman Inquisition: “heliocentrism was foolish and absurd in philosophy and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scriptures”. His response, quoting from Bertolt Brecht’s Play: Life of Galileo “yes we know what’s written in the books but now let’s see what our eyes tell us.” By challenging the church, Galileo represented a turning point in how we view the relationship between our inner selves and the natural world.

The Renaissance was a busy time. Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas More revived the ideas of Greek and Roman thinkers. Mirandola wrote the "manifesto" of the Renaissance, the Oration on the Dignity of Man, dignity being a key element in the first UU principle. The philosophers Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbs were making waves in England. Bacon developed the scientific method as we know it today. Hobbs was the founder of modern political philosophy and the notion of social contracts. Together Bacon and Hobbs relied on human reason even when it was in opposition to the scriptures. Quote: “True revelation can never disagree with human reason and experience."

The Gutenberg press enabled widespread printing by 1500 which helped Martin Luther challenge the papal authority that stood between the bible and the people, leading to the Protestant reformation.

Michael Servetus (1511-1553) went much further (too far as it turned out), challenging the trinity and advocating an inner and more direct path of self-discovery. For his efforts, Servetus was burned at the stake. The Protestants were only willing to go so far. But his legacy helped propel the Renaissance and laid the foundation for the eventual formation of the first Unitarian churches in Transylvania.

In a 100-year period during the Renaissance the universe grew in size by another 5 powers of ten, after a pause of a thousand years. It was now a million times larger than the lands of the old testament.

Human minds were changing the universe and challenging the notion that inward discovery is separated from outward discovery. The struggle between religion and reason, epitomized by Galileo during the Renaissance, swung toward reason and ushered in the age of enlightenment roughly defined as the period from 1650 to 1750.

The Age of Enlightenment

Notable scientific achievements in this period included Isaac Newton’s (1687) proof that the planets, including the Earth, followed the laws of gravity which put the final nail in the coffin of the geocentric model. Though, the universe did not grow in size during this period, it grew greatly in understanding.

The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was essentially a philosophical movement that took place primarily in Europe and, later, in North America. Its participants thought they were illuminating human intellect and culture after the "dark" Middle Ages, building on the Scientific Revolution that occurred during the Renaissance.

It was influential in ushering in the French and American revolutions. Notable figures of the Enlightenment included the Unitarians Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, two of America’s founding fathers and framers of our constitution.

Devotion and subservience to God were largely replaced by classical liberalism which cast humans as beings with inalienable natural rights finding meaning for existence through labor and property and using social contracts to create an environment that supports those efforts. Our 5th principle is based on these concepts. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

While the Renaissance set the pendulum swinging away from organized religion, the Enlightenment ensured that it had swung fully into the realm of secular social structures that would facilitate the development of our inner selves and the pursuit of happiness. Philosophy and science could flourish under a supporting state.

The Romantic Period and the Dawn of the Industrial Age

During the Romantic period, from roughly 1780 to 1850, the next big leap in the size of the universe occurred when stellar parallax was first measured by Friedrich Bessel in 1839. Explain. This method established that the nearest star was 1,000,000 times further from us than we are from our sun and defining a universe that was now 10,000 times larger than the solar system. Distances so large that we need a new yardstick to measure them: the light year. The universe grew by another 4 powers of ten. It was now 10 billion times larger in size compared to the lands of the old testament.

This period witnessed more refined attempts to reconcile the inner self with the natural world that surrounds us. Kierkegaard spoke about a "leap of faith", arguing that inwardness is most likely to arise from external stimuli. Quote: Thinking can turn toward itself in order to think about itself but this thinking about itself never accomplishes anything. The less externality, the greater the possibility that the inwardness will entirely fail to come. The externality is the watchman who awakens the sleeper.

Thus, in an ever-growing external world, there is an equally growing development of the inner self. Not coincidentally, the first Unitarian churches in North America formed during this time.

20th Century

Early in the 20th century, as the use of Stellar parallax and other measurements matured, the concept of the Milky Way Galaxy arose, as a system of stars that rotates around its own center, 100,000 light years in size, containing roughly 300 billion stars. These discoveries indicated that our solar system revolves around the center of the Milky way and a new center of the universe was born. It was no longer the Sun.

The universe just grew by an additional 5 powers of ten. It was now a quadrillion time greater in size compared to the lands of the old testament.

Until 1920 there was a great debate as to whether the Milky Way contained all the stars in the universe. In 1926 the matter was settled by Edwin Hubble who showed that the nebulas being debated were other galaxies that were moving rapidly away from us. With this knowledge, the universe suddenly grew from 100,000 light years to 100 billion light years in size, an astonishing increase by another 6 powers of ten. The center of our galaxy was no longer the center of the universe. In fact, the universe has no center all since everything is expanding from everything else.

In the mid-20th century, Stellar nucleosynthesis began to develop as a theory. Stars create heavy elements using nuclear fusion and disperse them through explosions. Our solar system formed from gases enriched by these heavier elements from a previous generation of stars, which in turn gave rise to us. We are literally stardust (Woodstock again). We are all made of billion-year-old carbon. The metal in the ring on your finger, the bones in your body, the iron in your blood, all came from the centers of stars thousands of light years away billions of years ago in time. The 7th UU principle truly applies to the entire universe and our place in it. We are not just spiritually connected with each other; we are physically connected with each other and all parts of the universe. We are inescapably connected. It took the whole universe to create us not from a single speck in a sea of stars and galaxies but as the net result of all the stars and galaxies.

In total, the 20th century grew the universe by another 11 powers of ten. It was now sextillion times greater in size compared to the lands of the old testament. All through the exercise of the human mind toward reason and the use of the scientific method.

With scientific discoveries moving so fast, philosophy and religion had a lot of catching up to do. Not surprisingly, religion was not supple enough to adapt quickly. The Catholic church adopted the heliocentric model, almost 300 years after Copernicus and Galileo. It adopted evolution in 1950, a full century after Darwin (something fundamentalists do not accept even today). But philosophy evolved quickly. In fact, a proliferation of philosophies emerged in the 20th century as we tried to reconcile our inner selves to the ever growing and complex natural world. The knowledge disclosed by modern science had rewritten the relationship of humankind to the natural world.

Existentialism, the first atheistic philosophy of the self, peaked in the 20th century. It espouses that each person’s experience is unique and truly known only by that person. According to existentialism, each man and each woman creates the essence (meaning) of their life; life is not determined by a supernatural god or an earthly authority, one is free. The transition to the individual was now complete.

According to secular humanism, "values and realities" are determined "by means of intelligent inquiry" and "are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience", (the growth of the universe over time proves this point – our reality is driven by our inquiry). Humanism is based on the premise that the happiness of the individual person is inextricably linked to the well-being of all humanity.

Today, our understanding of the universe has grown to unimaginable levels, revealing a universe that is rich with a vast menagerie of planets, stars and galaxies. If we divide it all up, that represents 10 trillion planets for every man, woman and child living today. Let’s think about that for a second. How could this knowledge not affect how we think about ourselves and the search for meaning?

And what if we share this universe with others? They too will have been made the same way, from stardust. Our 7th principle may not be limited to humanity alone. Our interconnected web may tie together a universe of life. In that case we would have to ponder not only our relationship with the physical universe but also our relationship with a living universe.

We have come a long way in defining ourselves and our universe since the Old Testament. The universe grew by 21 powers of ten and our inner selves grew correspondingly. But one thing is for sure, we’re not done yet. For example, there is trouble brewing in our understanding of the expanding universe. Dark matter and dark energy have become the unexplainable flies in the ointment of our knowledge. Our perception of the universe is still changing and will continue to do so. Our philosophies, religions and spirituality will continue to attempt to reconcile the ever-growing universe and its complexity, continuing to provide the mirror by which the outer world and inner worlds reflect off each other. Life is indeed for learning.

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