The universe according to Jarvis

Evidence, experience and a broad education have shaped religion professor Jarvis Streeter's views about the ultimate reality. His battle with cancer has not.

Photo: Brian Stethem

The story of everything, Jarvis Streeter thinks, goes back before the Big Bang 13.75 billion years ago, perhaps infinitely back through other universes. On distant worlds, intelligent, reflective creatures have probably lived inspired by revelations from God. And Homo sapiens will eventually populate other solar systems, provided we don’t first destroy ourselves.

These are not essential beliefs for Streeter, an ordained pastor and a CLU faculty member in religion since 1988. They are just some of the guesses and inferences that he has made in roughly four decades of grappling with Christian faith, modern science and what he sees as their overlapping concerns. His notion of multiple universes, which he entertained before he was aware of related hypotheses by scientists, fits his vision of a God whose nature is to give life and seek creatures to shower with love.

“Theology is, to my mind, serious play,” Streeter says. “It’s play in the sense that you are trying to conceive that which cannot be conceived by finite minds, and so you take your best shot. But anybody who knows much about it knows that whatever your best shot is is going to be ridiculously inadequate to the reality. You just hope you get a couple of central things right.”

For more than three years, Streeter has been making progress on an ambitious, second book project called God and the History of the Universe, which will convey, among other things, his sense of religious awe about reality as it is described in the signature scientific discoveries of the past century. The universe offered up by Einstein, Hubble, Bohr and others is not something that theology can ignore, Streeter suggests, a view that aligns with Augustine of Hippo’s gesture to the Book of Nature as a source of revelation.

Streeter’s book will provide, in plain language, an up-to-date account of our universe’s development combined with “a theological understanding of where God fits into all of this – what God is doing, how God does it, what God can or cannot do.”

The stakes of this inquiry rose for Streeter last August when he found out that he had cancer of the pancreas.

The first sign of trouble came one morning before the annual faculty retreat, when Streeter woke up so weak that he could hardly move his arms and became dizzy upon standing. Was it mono? A bleeding ulcer? “Excruciating” abdominal pain sent him on a second trip to the hospital with his wife, Susan, possibly to remove gallstones. More tests revealed the source of the pain to be at the bile duct, which was blocked by the growth, soon revealed to be malignant. All this happened in less than a week.

Under the stress of the unexpected news, Streeter’s thoroughly rational approach to living showed its worth, not for the first time. He recalls spending all of five minutes in a hospital room, still with his thoughts, “making peace” with a diagnosis that raised “the odds … very high that you don’t live very long.”

Consolation was not hard to find, he says.

I’m 62 years old. I’ve had a good long life, longer than most people have in the history of the Earth.

I’ve been able to have an active life of the mind. I’ve been able to spend my whole career trying to understand who I am and who we are and where we fit into things.

If I lived another 20 or 30 years, I couldn’t be any richer in the relationships that I have with people.

A lot of people will say, “Why me, why me?” We all think this bad stuff is going to happen to other people. But why not me? Am I so special that I shouldn’t get cancer? I’m just another person.

None of these thoughts ruled out hope for longer life. Characteristically, Streeter has become very familiar with the disease and the particulars of his case. He’s thorough. When he and Susan Streeter renovated their Santa Rosa Valley home in 2010, he took charge of the woodworking and decorative finishing, and designed a media room for sound.

He’s a perfectionist with a zeal for new subjects, says his friend Tim Hengst in the Multimedia Department. Religion professor Julia Fogg and philosopher Bill Bersley both describe him as a “Renaissance man” with a passion for the arts – painting, playing guitar and serving as president of the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company’s board – and a command of diverse subjects that touch on his writing.

Streeter lost about three months of work on his book late last year because of a major operation to remove the cancer from his abdomen and the difficult side-effects of chemotherapy. He mentions, almost in passing, that he fell, cut his forehead and might have bled to death because of drug side-effects that made him disoriented and dizzy during the night. That hospital stay stretched out to eight days when cuts to his foot led to systemic infections, another very close call.

This spring, he returned to teaching and writing on campus. You can sense the pleasure that Streeter, a person with a strong sense of having chosen his life’s path, has taken in getting back to choosing his daily routine.

During a session of his team-taught course on Faith and Reason, he responded to a student’s objections to the idea of free will. It’s highly unusual, he said, to think that you don’t make your choices. “I believe that the belief in freedom is fundamental. I believe it explains everything we do,” he added, before launching into a summary of Alfred North Whitehead’s account of freedom.

Here are some of Streeter’s choices: Walking out on his hard sciences classes in the late 1960s to think about social issues and social science at the University of Southern California. Teaching secondary school math and science in the foothills of Mt. Kenya. Three advanced degrees including a Ph.D., plus a year of reading as a research fellow at Yale University. Getting involved in politics, including the push for putting repeal of the death penalty on the ballot.

While working at an insurance company 40 years ago, after college and Kenya, he began to make his most important choice of all. At the time his supervisor was a fundamentalist Christian who handed him religious tracts, which had little appeal for Streeter. 

“But he showed me a person who was vitally concerned with his faith, for whom that was really a central part of his life, and he was really a good guy,” says Streeter. “It was really in dealing with him that I came up with this idea that [faith] should be the center of my life if there really is a God. If there’s a God, God is the center of all existence, God’s the most important thing there is, and it ought to be central to everybody’s life.”

Add this determination to the person Streeter always was – the sort of kid who quizzed his teachers about dinosaurs and dreamed of becoming an astronaut or an engineer in the space program – and you get a special kind of theologian. He has never shown an aversion to evolutionary theory or, for example, the idea that life has chemical origins. The thesis that science and Christianity are at odds, he explains, has a short and disreputable history.

Streeter is untroubled, and quite thrilled, by how much science has changed the picture of the cosmos, particularly in the last century. Observation of the visible universe – no one can say what fraction it is of what sort of whole – confirms the existence of perhaps 100 billion galaxies, all fleeing one another like dots on an expanding balloon. These visible galaxies must contain some 1023 stars, he writes, “or approximately ten times the number of sand grains on all the beaches and deserts on Earth, along with the planetary systems that surround some, perhaps most of them.” At the Big Bang, the whole contents of the universe occupied a kernel smaller than an atom.

The very distant future is an even stranger place for mammals to think about, in Streeter’s summary. All life in the universe will have long been extinguished a trillion years from now, when the last of the shining stars have exhausted their nuclear fuel. No creature will watch the remaining elementary particles decay into radiation, or feel temperatures sink to absolute zero, perhaps some 10150 years out.

A person might wonder, what is a dead universe for?

“To me, it’s for the production of all of the life that’s lived,” says Streeter. “It’s been not just for humans, but for all of the forms of life. The estimates are that something like 99.9 percent or greater of all the life that’s ever existed on this planet has gone extinct. That’s just a part of the natural world. We’ll go extinct eventually.”

In Streeter’s narrative the remarkable thing is how quickly life began on Earth – as if taking the first opportunity after the planet solidified, cooled and “quit getting bombarded by other things in the solar system.”

A fascinated Streeter tells Earth’s story as one of leaps in the complexity of life, all the way from single-cell organisms to, eventually, the production of mind, consciousness and the human ability to regard the self as an object.

“Thinking burns a lot of calories, and it’s about all I do these days,” he says with a smile. Before I leave his office, with its books and waiting visitors and the unfinished thoughts on the monitor, he adds: “I can’t think of another time in my life when I’ve felt so happy or so at peace.”