“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist.” I have been thinking about this advice from Stephen Hawking, who passed away last week after a long and remarkable battle with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
We still know very little about A.L.S. What doctors do know is that it is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and that it is diagnosed by ruling out all other causes of symptoms. They can tell you that it will be debilitating, that a patient’s muscles will slowly atrophy, affecting voluntary movement and eventually involuntary movement like breathing and swallowing. They can say that the average patient with A.L.S. lives two to three years after his or her diagnosis. But what they cannot say is what causes the disease in patients without a genetic link to it. They cannot say for sure why some people like Stephen Hawking beat the odds.
I imagine it was profoundly aggravating for Hawking to have a disease about which so much remains unknown.
And they still cannot say how to cure it.
This mystery must have been frustrating to Mr. Hawking, who spent his life seeking to unlock the mysteries of the universe through physics. I imagine it was profoundly aggravating for him to have a disease about which so much remains unknown when his life was spent in pursuit of the “theory of everything.”
I have also been thinking a lot about Mr. Hawking because last year my mother was diagnosed with A.L.S. I hope that she beats the life expectancy odds like he did. I hope that she lives long enough for a cure—miraculous or medicinal, it would not matter to me.
My approach to the mystery of A.L.S. is a bit different than that of the famed physicist.
My approach to mystery is a bit different than that of the famed physicist. As a Catholic, I believe in a personal God. Up until his death last week, Stephen Hawking said he did not.
I do not blame Mr. Hawking for not believing. The disease alone would be enough to make one doubt the existence of a loving God. But his public pronouncements about belief and unbelief seemed to be related to his life’s work more than his life’s lot.
At one point, Mr. Hawking seemed to concede that what some people called God was what he called the laws of nature. In 2010, he told Diane Sawyer, “What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature.” In other words, the universe operates in ways that are not random. If some people want to call that God, that is fine. He said if scientists did discover the theory of how the universe hung together, “It would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we should know the mind of God.”
For Stephen Hawking, knowing God would mean knowing as God knows.
But he also added a qualification. Most people believe in a “human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship,” he said. “When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible.”
Later in his life, Mr. Hawking doubled down on his atheism. In a 2014 interview with the Spanish publication El Mundo, he said: “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”
For Mr. Hawking, knowing God would mean knowing as God knows. If we could understand the mind of God, we would know not only the “what” but the “why” behind the things that are seen and unseen.
That is the rub with believing in a personal God. You have to accept that he knows everything and trust that you know enough.
That is the rub with believing in a personal God. You have to accept that he knows everything and trust that you know enough. And it can be extremely hard to accept that we may never know why good people suffer. It has been a challenge for me after my mom’s diagnosis to profess each Sunday that I believe in things both “visible and invisible.”
What has made it possible for me is that my mom approaches her suffering with the belief in a God who suffered a fate not unlike hers. Like my mom, Jesus was given a death sentence at far too young an age. He experienced the agony of knowing in advance how his suffering and death would play out. His feet also gave out from under him, due to the weight of an impossibly heavy cross.
A.L.S. patients are eventually unable to move their limbs and are confined to one location due to muscle weakness. Jesus, too, was confined to the cross by the nails in his hands and feet. And from what I have read of crucifixion, Jesus would have had tremendous difficulty breathing until he “breathed his last.”
In the face of the mystery of suffering, the Bible tells us that Jesus cried out to his Father, asking if God had forsaken him. I, too, have wondered if God had abandoned me and my mother. But I have also heard my mom recite another prayer from Jesus’ final hours: “Not my will but your will be done.”
My hope for Stephen Hawking, who gave us so many insights into the universe, is that he has at last encountered the God who Dante described as the “one whose love moves the sun and other stars.” That would be a fitting end for a man who looked upward to the end.