In Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, the famous physicist opens with a story about a prominent scientist (probably Bertrand Russell) who gave a public astronomy lecture way back in the day. He explained how the earth moved around the sun, and how the sun is just one of an countless stars in our immense universe.
When the lecture ended, an annoyed little old lady approached him. She told him that he was talking nonsense, because all that stuff about the planets and solar system and stars was just plain wrong. “The world is really a flat plate,” she explained, “supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”
The scientist was unphased. He asked her, “What is the tortoise standing on?”
“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” the old lady replied. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
There are several different versions of this story floating around out there, often identifying different scientists (could have been William James). Hawking uses the story to explain the existence of different cosmological myths. But in O Me of Little Faith, I employ it a bit differently.
I love the visual of a turtle stack, suspended in space, turtle upon turtle upon turtle. Every turtle supports the turtle above it. Every turtle rests on the turtle below it.
It occurs to me that my faith is the same way. The world at the top of the turtle stack is me. Each turtle is a specific presupposition of my faith — all of the things that support who I am. Basic morality. How I live. How I treat people. How I raise my kids. My career. The books I write. Whether or not I attend church. The doctrines I hold about the Bible. What I believe about Jesus. All of these things link together in a chain that informs, supports, and sustains my life, turtle upon turtle upon turtle.
There are a lot of turtles in the stack, but it’s not turtles all the way down. Because all of these doctrines and viewpoints and ideas ultimately balance upon one thing: whether or not I believe God exists. That’s my first turtle, and that turtle rests upon nothing but starlit emptiness and space. We can talk about proofs for the existence of God and all that stuff, but let’s face it: the first turtle is supported by mystery. Faith.
Every turtle chain has a beginning, a foundational belief that everything springs from. Mine is that God exists. An atheist’s starting point may be that there is no God or gods. Both of us build stacks upon those first turtles. Both of us are depending on the strength of that first turtle, because it supports everything.
God is hard to prove. God is hard to disprove. The existence or non-existence of God is unprovable. But both of us — the believer and the nonbeliever — are basing everything on our starting turtle. And once the turtle is in place, switching it out with a new base can be incredibly disruptive, painful, and dangerous. Everything is at stake.
Of course, in the book, I go into a lot more detail about the turtles-all-the-way-down metaphor — including a brief tie-in to Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle — but that’s pretty much how the turtles work in O Me of Little Faith.
You had some great guesses about the turtle metaphor as it relates to faith, but as you now know, the winners were the ones who correctly guessed “turtles all the way down.” Josh quickly identified the ancient belief that the world rested on the backs of turtles, but didn’t quite predict the correct metaphor. (He’s right about one thing, though: a literal belief in the turtle arrangement is pretty easy to doubt.)
Angela was the first to introduce “turtles all the way down,” but then again, she’s my editor. She already knew. Radosh knew it, too, but 1) he’s already got Pocket Guide to the Bible and the other Pocket Guides and 2) he’s getting an advance copy of OMOLF anyway. I’m going to disqualify him on the amount of stuff he already has. (Sorry!)
So that leaves me with Myles, a theology student at Baylor. Congrats, Myles! We’ve met before, and I’m thinking yo may have PGTTB already, but if not, let me know. (And if you’d prefer one of my other books, just tell me which one and I’ll send it your way.)
Thanks for playing, everyone! Come back for some meaningless frivolity tomorrow, when I won’t be talking about turtles, theology, or OMOLF at all.
Update: When I checked this after posting it, the Google-based ad in the sidebar was for turtles. So awesome.