Reflections on the life and death of Stephen Hawking

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone
( Psalm 118:22; quoted by Jesus e.g. Matthew 21:42)

Stephen Hawking died on Wednesday March 17. I feel it is a great irony that although he was a professed atheist few of us could ever be a better manifestation of the power of God working among us than Hawking.  The great revelation of the life of Jesus Christ is that God, more often than not, chooses to reveal herself through (apparent) human weakness.

Stories from the Old Testament tell of a young boy, David, defeating a heavily armed giant, Goliath (1 Samuel 17); Isaiah, finding and speaking with God, not in lighting and thunder, or earthquakes, but in a gentle whispering breeze (1 Kings 8:12); Jonah, regarding himself as a loser and persistently trying to run away from God, until he is practically forced into being a prophet (Jonah 1); and of course, the story of Jesus, being tortured to death and ultimately rising from death.

Hawking was a brilliant physicist/mathematician when he was stricken by Lou Gehrig’s disease in his early twenties. He was given only a short time to live, but managed to live to the Bible’s traditional 3 score and 10, and then some. In that time he contributed a body of work to the sciences of cosmology and astrophysics that has been compared by some to be on a level with Einstein. While I would say he did not reach that height he certainly became a giant in his field. 

Just as importantly, in my opinion, are his contributions to the popularizing of science and of disseminating the ideas and advances in physics in a forum that was accessible to millions of people outside the specialized areas of his own studies.

In the preface of one of his books (The Illustrated A Brief History of Time,  Bantam Books, 2008) he refers to being surprised at the number of copies an earlier edition of his book sold:

It was in the Sunday Times  best seller list for 237 weeks, longer than any other book (apparently, the Bible and Shakespeare aren’t counted)

This quote from him I interpret not as an example of vanity on his part, but of his sardonic wit. It is true that his writings were very popular and I believe did much to inform and expand the consciousness of countless number of people about the universe that we are a part of.

Not only did Stephen Hawking advance the boundaries of the disciplines that he worked in with his peers, but he also advanced the understanding of all human beings with access to his ideas.

He also did not shy away from engaging in discussion on religion and God. While I am personally disappointed that he did not find in his own life a capacity to believe in Jesus – the great sad irony I mentioned earlier – he did, somewhat like Jonah perhaps, in spite of himself manage to exhibit God’s real power and mercy among us.

One of the central revelations of Jesus’ teaching is that we see God manifested in the people around us. As Jesus himself is quoted as saying :

inasmuch as you have done these things for the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done it to me
( Matthew 25:40)

In choosing Stephen Hawking God certainly chose a remarkable lens through which to reveal profound truths about the nature of God. Not only has the collective mind of our universe (that is us) learned more about our physical nature – new insights into our own origins, our connections to one another and to the rest of the universe – through Hawking, but we have had the opportunity to see how wonderful qualities of the human spirit can overcome almost any obstacle and triumph.

Consider how Hawking might have chosen to spend his life – let’s engage in a series of “might have been” scenarios. To begin with it would be quite normal and indeed expected that anyone faced with the diagnosis that he was given early in his life to become bitter, resentful, inward drawn and defeated. Miraculously – and keep in mind that a miracle means “a sign of God” – he instead continued to push on, with his studies, his interaction with peers and in a hopeful and spirited way with the rest of humanity.

To do this, however, he needed the wholehearted support of those around him. While he exhibited a daunting personal spirit of his own, he needed and received the sustaining intervention of a great many others who obviously believed in him and were ready to stretch the boundaries of communication. It was of course fortunate that Hawking lived at a time when technology was able to assist him in continuing to communicate as his physical condition , including his ability to speak deteriorated.

He alludes to his thankfulness for the communication tablet in his books, but he was eventually in need of even more profound communication assistance – ultimately reduced to communicating using twitching of his cheek. Connected to an interface of sensors and a computer he was able to “speak” using an artificial voice and continue to interact with others, even though the degree of impairment of his communication and muscle function was extreme.
(See for example, scienceabc.com, “How Did Stephen Hawking Talk?”)

Among other things, this shows us not only what a remarkable person Hawking was and not only how remarkable the people who supported him were – but also how, potentially, wonderful any person may be. If we were able to respect each and every person as deeply and profoundly as was the case in his life, what might we learn about ourselves and from others. Of course few of us have the gifts of intellect given to Stephen Hawking – but few of us have the obstacles thrown in our path that he had as well. Equally though, few of us have the engaged support of others to help us fulfill our potential as human beings.

It is interesting to compare the situation in which hawking found himself with others who, for a variety of reasons may have been left in a situation of having a functioning aware brain trapped inside a completely dysfunctional body, unable to communicate by any traditional means.

Another “might have been scenario”:  Had someone like Stephen Hawking been raised in, say, Nazi Germany, without the technology and certainly without the social supports given him in his actual home of England, his tale would have been quite different. It is not hard to imagine that the “authorities” would have wasted little time on him and that he would have been exterminated much earlier in his life.

Even in our own time, there are many, who given the diagnosis that was given to him, chose their own premature extermination rather than face increasing barriers to normal living that would come their way. I do not mean to be judgmental here, but rather just wish to point to the alternatives of hope, support, yes, even love that are available to us if we choose to seek them and to give them with others. 

As well as the easier accessibility to self termination (euthanasia) our society seems to be increasingly drawn to, there is also of course the ever increasing societal support  that is being given to exterminating human beings with a wide variety of “defects” – aborting people in the womb who test positively for Down’s Syndrome or other unwanted characteristics. Gender of the baby in particular is a common reason for extermination of a fetus in many cultures in our present day. (Canadian Medical Association Journal, DOI:10.1503/cmaj.151074)

Flipping this many sided coin another way, we can be quite thankful that Hawking chose to devote his intellect to the study of the mysteries of the universe and to interpreting them to his fellow human beings. This is not always the case with the finest minds in our society, particularly in physics. Harking back to that Nazis era, there were many brilliant physicists who chose to contribute to the death and destruction of society (Wernher Von Braun, comes to mind, and there was also the Nobel laureate, Phillip Lenard). But even in our own day we see evidence of many brilliant minds devoted to furthering terror and destruction among us rather than contributing to enlightenment and insight into the nature of our being.

The direction that Hawking’s life took certainly cannot be taken for granted.

Hawking’s theories and his contributions to the science of our day may or may not stand the test of time and further experimentation, but certainly his life overall is a remarkable example of the triumph of the human spirit over seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It is also, a testimony to how important it is that we as human beings together must respect the dignity, rights and the potential capacities of every human being, without regard to perceived defects or weakness.

Just recently, for example we have all had an opportunity to see what people can do to overcome debilitating obstacles and achieve unbelievable triumphs through the performances of the athletes in the ParaOlympics in South Korea. Here on PEI we have the inspiring accomplishments of Mark Arendz and Billy Bridges.

To me all of these stories of human weaknesses being transformed into remarkable tales of accomplishment reinforce how wonderful each and every person is and how important is our place in the scheme of things. Such histories show how the power of God can be manifested in any of us and reinforce the Biblical stories of how God works in our midst.

Stephen Hawking, evidently would not have agreed, even though, as I see it his life was a testimony to the presence of God in  the human spirit, not just in an individual like himself, but through the combined actions of others in mutual support and cooperation.

In an earlier blog I mentioned the speculations of some physicists regarding the occurrence of Boltzmann Brains – the possibility of random fluctuations of the vacuum resulting in transitory consciousness, and how probable or improbable such things might be. In our own present day world we have seen the Hawking Boltzmann Brain – not randomly formed from the vacuum but existing and growing in knowledge in an increasingly disabled human body, until all that was left was a magnificent brain, communicating with fluctuations of a cheek, through the combined assistance and ingenuity of many other supportive fellow human beings.

One last “Might Be” scenario: Stephen Hawking being absorbed into the Black Hole of death that faces us all, and being dragged, kicking and screaming perhaps into the White Hole on the other side to join the company of others, who with saint -like  perseverance have pursued the attempt to understand the “Mind of God” – to use a phrase of Hawking’s – to understand more about the nature of our own being and of the universe we are a part of.

Saint Hawking, say hello from us to Saint Einstein, Saint Curie, Saint Newton, and Saint Feynman , and all the company of saints of physics who have strived to interpret and understand the “Mind of God” as it is manifested through the minds of human beings.

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