‘Theatre of God’s Glory’ – Ways of Seeing the Cosmos
By Neil Earle
Here are two quotes about our stupendous universe from two very different individuals, both respected thinkers.
“The Universe is so miraculous,” Ray Bradbury told hundreds of us at a lecture in Duarte, CA in 2005, “It’s like a big theatre and it’s been created for us as the audience to celebrate it and to witness to it.”
The Edinburgh theologian Thomas Torrance summarized his reflections in his book Reality and Evangelical Theology claiming that “the more the created universe unfolds its marvelous symmetries and harmonies to our scientific inquiries, the more it is bound to fulfill its role as a theatre which reflects the glory of the Creator and resounds to his praise.”
These are two remarkable similar reactions to the glory of the created realm, even if the authors pointed to two very different conclusions.
The Skeptic Weighs In
The Universe as the theater of God’s glory is a phrase that leaps out at students of the Bible. Consider the words of Psalm 8: “When I consider your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit [pay any attention to] him” (verses 3-4).
Three diverse views, and yet not so different in tone when faced with the staggering realities of the created realm. Astronomer Carl Sagan, an agnostic and skeptic, presented much the same commentary in introducing his historic “Cosmos” television series back in the 1970s. “The Cosmo is all that is or was or ever will be,” said Sagan, not-so-subtly parodying the claims given to God in Scripture.” Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”
That is very well said. A reverent tribute from an irreverent scientist who is also a worthy dialogue partner for believers in God the Creator. No doubt about it the starry heavens – if you live in a place able to drink them in – presents quite a spectacle to our human senses each and every clear night. But Sagan is no fan of religion. He authored a book designed to rate with a religious classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience which Sagan altered in a 2006 production titled The Varieties of Scientific Experience subtitled “A Personal View of the Search for God.”
In reacting to the notion of an immortal Creator, Sagan and his editor Ann Dryan, claimed that such notions are illogical since this alleged Creator “sets about creating a universe in which at least many parts of it and perhaps the universe as a whole dies.”
Pressing on, Sagan and Dryan postulate that the God of religion is a cruel God since there is a great deal of suffering and death in the universe along with a great deal of life. “He, never having to face the fact of death creates innumerable creatures who do.”
In effect, the eventual death of the Cosmos may indeed present a challenge to reasonable religion. Hence the need for Christians to engage the creation in as thoughtful and insightful a way as possible.
The Contingency Hypothesis
This is Thomas Torrance’s brief. To answer Sagan and other such claims he advances the older theological notion of contingency. This needs a little explanation. Philosophers distinguish between Necessary and Contingent Truths. A necessary truth is true under all circumstances – e.g. water freezes at 0 degrees centigrade. A contingent truth is one that is true but could have been effected another way, or not at all. In theology it refers to events that are not predestined and have worked out even if there could have been another outcome. Adam sinned and we suffer the consequences but…it did not have to be that way. Many of the Old Testament prophecies were contingent upon Israel’s obedience or turning to God (Isaiah 1).
Pressing on consider that the Cosmos runs so well it looks like it could have come into being by itself, as Darwinian evolution has asserted. But by revelation, Bible believers know it was conceived and designed by a superior Intelligence. There is evidence both ways.
The Element of Surprise
This brings us closer to answering Sagan’s charge that God is cruel and capricious. Torrance would begin by answering from solid reality: the Universe is certainly characterized by an inherent rationality which is even mathematical in its working out and at the same time gives off a sense of a mysterious transcendence animating our response – as Sagan expressed so eloquently. But…the universe also throws up an infinite range of surprises and even contradictions – planets that rotate backward against the plane of their orbits, star systems blowing up as well as coming into existence, meteor showers, volcanoes that mysteriously create the richest soil on earth, forest fires that allow for a new regenerativity.
How strange. The cosmos is predictable and orderly enough to fly our crews into space and bring them back safely but the dynamism of processes that can appear quite random (contingent) means we must stay humble and appreciate its dizzying complexity. In astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s words, the Universe can kill us – easily! This wide range of reactions to the Cosmos works against any rigid system of interpretation such as Intelligent Design which can’t fit the contingent elements into the puzzle. But in its freedom to be itself – especially at the quantum level – we see a universe with an independent reality of its own, an independence we must respect. Hence, says Torrance, scientific theories are always revisable in the light of further disclosure and investigation. Preconceived notions notwithstanding.
In effect, the cosmos points to a Reality beyond itself, an overriding complexity beyond any human invention which has revised the 1700s physics based on a closed, measureable universe. The size and scale of the universe now makes folly out of our limited calculations of speed and distance.
The Strangeness of Things
Scientists and mastery writers such as Ray Bradbury have to be open to surprise, to the unexpected; indeed some of our grandest discoveries seem to reflect an element of chance or randomness as in the folktales of Newton’s apple and Watt’s steam kettle. One reason for this, argues Torrance, is because the universe is trapped in a mute condition – it cannot explain itself!
This, to Torrance and host of theologians, means we have to stay “open” to a world, a cosmos where virgin births, resurrections and ascensions can occur. The Cosmos functions so superbly and intricately that it has allowed men to construct a theory that it didn’t need a Transcendent Creator. Yet there are enough surprises and curve balls, enough mysteries, in a word, that we should be alert to the fact that the whole thing is grandly and unbelievably contingent. Things can indeed run off in different directions, the Cosmos itself can – and will – die we are told.
Indeed science writer John Bell makes special plea for appreciating and encountering this vast cosmos “in which we float as specks of dust” (Sagan). There is more “there there” than we can easily grasp. Nature is a Parable that points beyond us to the greatness of God, an English writer once exclaimed. Haydn’s “starry firmament” certainly points us beyond ourselves. This is also true in the invisible realm. “We have reached the end of the human capacity to form a sharp picture of what is going on,” writes Bell, “a piece of paper is a quivering lattice of energy pulsating as billions of particles gyrate, spin and dance.” What seemed solid and knowable, 200, 100, 50 or even 20 years ago is now being revised and extended almost daily.
The Call to Humility
Many scientists today would echo the wisdom of the man known as Agur, the son of Jakeh in the Biblical book of Proverbs: “Surely, I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom nor have knowledge of the Holy One. Who has ascended into heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name and what is his son’s name, if you know?” (30:2-4).
Agur’s call for humility is an antidote to the kind of advice the young Max Planck received from his professor in 1878. “Don’t get into physics, Planck was told, all the important discoveries in physics have been made. Planck went on to pioneer quantum physics, the implications of which we are still studying. Strange new cosmos. If a piece of paper is a quivering lattice of energy composed of pulsating billions of particles, if an atom is 99.9% empty space then we are living in a strange cosmos indeed. Popular audiences are only now beginning to come to terms with some of these implications from physics. Resurrections may indeed be possible.
The cosmos is indeed the theatre of God’s glory, breathless in its immensity, staggering in its complexity, yet mute and eerily silent. It thus points beyond itself, Christians believe, to the One who holds it together, the Divine personage who announced Himself in such uncompromising passages as Isaiah 40 – a testimony from the Supreme Architect who keeps everything functioning.
In an era of contingency this is not an irrational argument for our cosmos as the Theatre of God.