Cosmic Updating: The ‘Wow!’ Reaction
By Neil Earle
The other night I was sitting back watching either the Discovery or the NASA channel and who should appear but Dr. Jennifer Wiseman. When I met her some years back at a Fuller Theological Seminary three-day seminar titled “Talk of God/Talk of Science” she was senior project scientist with the Hubble Space Telescope Project for NASA. She was updating 250 of us ministry leaders and theologians in Pasadena, California, about the present state of the universe and what it shows about God.
Most ministry leaders are not “hard scientists” as the language has it, and it has been a long time since our last Science class (myself included). Therefore it is intriguing to get updated first-hand on such subjects as “dark energy,” “dark matter,” and “gravitational lensing.” I was surprised to learn how casually the number of stars in the galaxy and the number of galaxies has been updated from 100,000,000,000 for each category to 200,000,000,000. (Thanks in large part to the Hubble.) My speaking and writing will have to reflect this cosmic updating.
An Active Universe
Dr. Wiseman was witness to the launch of the shuttle Atlantis as it set out to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. The Hubble gives witness to the picture of an active, emerging universe, one that reverses somewhat the picture of “the silence of the eternal spaces” which terrified the philosopher Pascal. Notions of “cold empty space” haunts science past as well as science fiction. “The universe is active, not stagnant,” claims Dr. Wiseman. “Black holes are forming, stars are dying and exploding, centers of galaxies spue out jets of gas. We seem to be in a universe that is forming and reforming. Our own sun seems to be a second generation object. All of this hints at underlying elements of progression and purpose behind what we see going on out there.”
But Dr. Wiseman is a thoughtful scientist. She acknowledged that the life and death of stars out there can raise questions about how God views negative affects over time differently than we might have imagined. She considers the evidence for a developing unfinished universe as seized upon by such astronomers as Carl Sagan. In my own brief exchange with her I mentioned how unusual it was that both Sagan and Professor John Polkinghorne – England’s quantum physicist turned minister – both saw homo sapiens as originating from animated star dust.
Polkinghorne loves God and Science and has been lecturing audiences for years on the fact that carbon is one of the primary ingredients for human life and that carbon is found plentifully in the cosmos.
The Cosmic Timeline
One thing that dazzles students of cosmology on both the agnostic and Christian side of the spectrum is the utter size and magnitude of the universe and its undeniable beauty. The Fuller seminar was hard on those in the Christian community who want to cling to a 10,000 year old earth and a young universe to match the seven days of an apparent recent creation.
“We have a cosmic time line,” says Dr. Wiseman. “We have this energized effect from Cosmic Background Radiation throughout the universe that was predicted to be there from the Big Bang theory. All of space is expanding and filled with this cosmic background microwave energy – this burst of light energy all at once that fits with the theology of God.”
The Old Testament declared of the heavens that “He spoke and it was done” (Psalm 33:9) indicating a very rapid start to the whole process. Truly, the speeds at which parts of the universe are moving away from each other are, well, astronomical. There is also the fact that our galaxy and Andromeda appear to be on collision course (in a few billion years!).
Some Christians want to argue that God built “apparent age” into the universe but this is negated, claims Dr. Wiseman, by the very real charting that can now be done of stars that grow, mature and explode. Meanwhile others are constantly coming into being. It’s a busy place out there, a continuous creation, not a straight line on a one-dimensional blackboard.
Others argue that the universe and our planet are so hospitable to human life that it must have been “fine tuned” to accommodate us. This is the Anthropic Principle which speculates that we live on the Goldilocks Planet, a world specially designed for human life. Dr Wiseman feels that this is a noteworthy argument but one that is more a supplement to faith than a cornerstone evidence for God. “I became converted before I knew about such a thing,” she added.
Professor Philip Clayton of Claremont School of Theology, and another conference speaker, has written elsewhere that the better word is “biophilic” – the universe is friendly to the emergence of life (Religion and Science: the basics, page 74). Dr. Wiseman also pointed to the rapidly accelerating science of Exoplanets – tracking solar systems like ours that might be able to support life. This is a vibrant new field. The question comes up, What would it do to Christian faith if other life was discovered “out there?”
Fuller President Richard Mouw addressed that issue tangentially (and lightheartedly) in his keynote address. Joking that he always “takes comfort from hymns when Biblical logic fails,” he referred to George Beverly Shay’s “How Great Thou Art.” The first line reads “consider all/ the worlds Thy hands have made.” Even more pertinently, the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) – quoted by Dr. Wiseman – touched on this issue in his 1930s/1940s Space Trilogy, a landmark series that begins with “Out of the Silent Planet” covering three earthlings’ eventful trip to Mars.
“Religion and Rocketry”
Even more relevant was Lewis’ short essays, one of them written after the first cosmonaut, the Russian Yuri Gagarin, returned to earth and reported that “he didn’t see God up there.” The Communist world and atheists in general had a fine chuckle over that. But Lewis retorted that it depends on what you want to see. The God who hides (Isaiah 45:15) is not interested in putting on a show. Essentially, Lewis said, Send a saint into the desert and he will find God. Send a skeptic and he’ll see sand. POV, Point of View, is everything.
In “Religion and Rocketry” Lewis speculated about three possible effects of discovering life on other planets. First, it might show us we earthlings are indeed the “lost sheep” in the cosmos, the sick that needed a physician (Jesus and the Redemption). Other worlds might be doing much better in relative to the Fall of Man. Lewis’ second Space Novel, “Perelandra” addresses this very thing – what might have happened on other planets if rational creatures had chosen wisely.
Second, we earthlings may be the prototype of Redemption. God may have worked with us first to pave the way for future redemption of the cosmos. Lewis sees this hinted at in Romans 8:19 where the creation waits for us to be perfected. Thirdly, thought Lewis, the vastness of space could be a divine form of quarantine showing a cosmos denied to human expansion until we are in better shape spiritually, a variation on argument number two.
The significance of linking the Fuller Seminar with Lewis’ speculations is that it shows the skeptic that – unknown to many – Christian thinkers have been pondering these questions a long, long time and often quite creatively. In the main, however, as Richard Mouw expressed, the best Christian reaction to the Universe is still the WOW reaction. Psalm 8 builds on that – David wondering why God loves him in relation to the size and scope of the cosmos. This is a New Testament starting point as well – Revelation 5:13 shows all creation praising its Creator. Here is a venerable perspective not at all out of date the more we know about the cosmos, says Dr. Mouw. The old hymn had it right: “All nature sings and around me rings, the music of the spheres!”