Sunday Sermon – 25 March 2018

Inventors and Discoverers

There are some discoveries or inventions, even if comparatively few, which have changed the course of history. Two of those often referred to, dating from pre-recorded historical times, are the ability to make fire, and the discovery of the wheel. Two crucial discoveries on which the advancement of civilisation critically depended. There are other momentous discoveries which have led to fundamental changes to the way we live, and can be added to the list.

Among examples from more recent times is the ability to generate and harness electrical power, the discovery of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and the invention of the internal combustion engine. Not all discoveries have been to the unreserved benefit of mankind. But beneficial or not, they have led to deep and lasting modifications in the pattern of our lives.

Many of those associated with such grand, earth-changing revelations are undoubted geniuses, some of whose names which are recorded in the history books, whilst the identity of others has been lost over time.

What started me off thinking about great discoveries and inventions was not, as you may be thinking, because I was studying history or reading philosophy, but through a trivial, though at the time important, incident. It was the temporary loss of a product of some-one’s flash of inspiration; the absence of an essential tool which was preventing me completing the task in hand..

One of the most valuable of household tools is surely a pair of scissors. I have no idea which man or woman invented the first pair, but he or she must have been one of those gifted people with the ability to devise a simple solution to a pressing need. Knives have existed from earliest times, even if only in the form of sharp edged stones, but the idea of fastening two knives together to make a pair of scissors must count as the product of an accomplished intellect. Cutting a broken finger nail with a sharpened stone, or even a knife, is not easy. Haircuts in pre-scissors days must have been painful, particularly in the stone age.

My scissors were not in their appointed place on my desk, and I was, quite naturally blaming others. Who had borrowed them and not put them back where they found them? No-one owned up. Actually the scissors were found eventually where I had placed them after last using them. As you would expect, I kept quiet about where the blame really lay, but that is another story. Scissors might not have changed the course of history, but they are one of the essentials of life, for the invention of which we owe eternal gratitude to an unknown genius.

The other simple, modern discovery which has transformed our lives, even if not changing the development of the human race, is of course, sellotape. How ever did we manage without it! We must have struggled on with inadequate substitutes, no doubt, just as we did before biros were produced.

Satisfaction within our lives is crucially dependent upon the contribution of a comparatively small group of inventive people. Take medicine for example. Compared to the population at large, a mere handful of gifted and talented men and women have improved our life expectancy through the discovery of new drugs, appropriate surgical techniques, anaesthetics, nursing methods, vaccines and so on. These innovations have not only lengthened life expectancy, but also improved life quality. (Story of childbirth) Few have the skill, aptitude, mental agility, possibly coupled with good fortune, to uncover secrets, but vast numbers benefit from the contributions of this small number of people. And this continues apace.

Though perhaps discovery and invention are not the most appropriate words to apply to those whose work has lain in the arts – the painters, sculptors, architects, writers, poets, musicians, composers, and many others – a few in all these fields have by their genius or their creative thought, brought joy and happiness to many of us.

The debt owed, to paraphrase Churchill’s ringing tribute to the pilots following the battle of Britain, by the many for the contribution of the few, is not confined to material benefits, or to the area of aesthetic pleasure. It is the insight of prophets, philosophers, preachers, divines and others which has extended our understanding of matters spiritual.

All peoples from earliest times onward have had some form of religion, though initially this was pagan in belief and practice. The development of faiths which have shaped human development – Hinduism, Judaism, Muslim, Confucian, Christian and many others religions – has been through the influence, writing and preaching of the few. Just as the invention of fire or the wheel advanced human progress, so the pronouncements and analysis by religious giants have advanced human understanding.

But, as in the other areas of human progress, not all inventions or discoveries have been as dramatic as that of the discovery of fire or electricity. Biros, sellotape or pairs of scissors may not have changed the world, but they have made life easier and more convenient.

So in religious and spiritual development, there has been the equivalent of the invention of the pencil sharpener and the potato peeler, the drawing pin and the non-stick saucepan. Minor in the history of human advancement they may be, but all have played a part in adding to the sum of human happiness.

Prophets and religious leaders have opened the way to great advances, or have changed the direction of exploration, but numerous others have added a cog here, mapped a field there, stanched a wound and applied a salve. Human knowledge and happiness grows not only, to use another analogy, because some have given large sums, but also because widows have donated mites.

I remember wondering, when a child, if we had not nearly reached the end of wonders still to be discovered. After all, we had steam ships, aeroplanes, wireless sets, cars, electric trams, trolley buses, type-writers and telephones. We had named all the elements, and we had surveyed the heavens with our telescopes. Surely, there could not be much more in store.

My father died in 1947 whilst I was still a young man. He had never having seen a mobile telephone, (lucky man some might add), a television set, a photo-copier, a pocket calculator, a computer, a supermarket till which read prices on a bar code, a compact disc, a parking meter, a video recorder or much more which is commonplace today. No man then had trod on the surface of the moon, in no person’s breast beat a heart taken from another. Everest was unclimbed and cling-film unknown. As a child I thought as a child, and did not realise how much there was still for the world to learn.

What a long way we have come, with the help of thinkers, preachers and philosophers, both great and small, from the primitive, pagan beliefs of our forebears. Can there really be much further to go? How foolish the question. Compared with the advancement in material goods, we have scarcely begun the journey; childlike as we are, maybe we do not realise how much there is still to learn. We see through the glass dimly, not comprehending just how obscure is the lens.

Future advances in thought about, and understanding of, the spiritual world there will be. Some perhaps as dramatic and world shattering as the invention of the electric dynamo and the electric motor, many others more akin to the letter opener – helpful but not life-changing. We marvel at our inventive powers in the material and the artistic world, but we shall neglect the advancement of our spiritual understanding and maturity at our peril.

In the world of material things, in areas of art, literature, economics, music and the like, few of us are or ever will be, even minor innovators, let alone discoverers of world changing ideas or concepts. In the realm of religious development the out-standing thinkers and philosophers are few.

But the few do from time to time push us towards greater understanding of the meaning and purpose of life, of our relationships with others, and with that power we call God.

In this world of religion, we are all potential discoverers in the practical task of living what, in short-hand, we might call the good life. Within the larger framework we build our own structure. We adopt and adapt as we are influenced by others and as we are taught by personal experience.

Children often learn best by personal discovery. They re-invent or rediscover what is all ready known to the adult, but which comes new and revealing to them. The experience of exploration strengthens the lesson learned.

So it is within our religious experiences. We are as little children. We must become investigators and discoverers ourselves. So we learn, for example, the fulfilment of meditation, the purpose of self-examination, the joy of corporate worship, the value of solitary contemplation.

The inventor produces a pair of scissors. How we use them, for what purpose, and with what result, we invent for ourselves. The unknown genius discovered the wheel, which enables us to construct a chariot of war or a ambulance. The scientist reveals the secrets of the atom which we may use in a bomb or to build a power station to light a city.

Seers and thinkers have led men and women into the great religions of the world. Sometimes, too often sadly, instead of peace and understanding this has led to Sikh attacking Hindu, Muslim and Jew into strife, Protestant and Catholic into mutual terrorism.

As in all fields of life inventors give us the tools and the framework. We as individuals and nations, invent and discover how we take and use the gifts, for an inventor must have not only power, but responsibility.

It is as we proceed down the road of religious discovery that we take a small step towards achieving that responsibility. Material goods ease the path of living, but the quality of life lies in our attitudes and beliefs. Man may live without the aid of the products of the ingenious inventor, but his soul survives only as he learns the lessons preached by the religious leader as he maps the road to divine understanding. And we become explorers in our own right, discovering for ourselves the truths that ease our living, and smooth our path.

C.J. Rosling.  27 June 1993

Fulwood:  27 June 1993, 21 January 2001
Mexborough:   31 Oct 1993, 15 June 1997
Chesterfield:  22 May 1994
Hucklow:  12 June 1994, 5 July 1998, 7 Aug 2005

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