December 13, 2007

A Cosmic Religion?

2007 1534 page14 capAMED POET WALT WHITMAN ATTENDED a lecture by a “learn’d astronomer” who buttressed his much-applauded words with proofs and figures neatly arranged. Anyone might have added, divided, or measured the swarm of data. Soon, however, Whitman began to feel tired and sick and desperate to escape! As he later recounted in a brief poem, “I wander’d off by myself, / In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, / Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”1
What point is Whitman trying to make? Is he not contending that the best way to understand nature involves more than copying or counting, but also insight and intuition and a sense of the mystical? Is he not saying that the best way to apprehend the processes of nature is to experience them oneself? And is not Whitman’s concern a common one? At one time or another, haven’t most of us opted for straightforward counting and categorizing over the out-on-a-limb desperation pressing ahead into the unknown—for fear of being accused of conjecturing or speculating?
Scientists Return to Metaphysics
With the essential union of theoretical speculation and careful observation, scientists are increasingly contemplating the origin of the universe in ways that bring them not only into the domain of the intuitive and mystical, but at the doorstep of the religious. Besides necessitating the cooperation of astronomers with physicists, the study of the origin and development of the universe (cosmology) requires that the conclusions of theoretical physicists be constantly validated by the practiced observation of astronomers and mathematicians.
With growing frequency scientists are sharing the results of their partnering in popular literature—from Gamow’s One Two Three . . . Infinity2 to Hawking’s A Brief History of Time 3 and the books by gifted science writers (e.g., Timothy Ferris in Coming of Age in the Milky Way) 4 who have the intellect to understand what the scientists are aiming at and the skill to communicate it.
2007 1534 page14Not without reason did we come to anticipate astounding revelations about God in Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. In the introduction, no less a figure than Carl Sagan declared: “This book is also about God . . . or perhaps about the absence of God. The word God fills its pages.” In fact, the final word in the book is “God.”
Physicist Charles H. Townes, 1964 Nobel Prize winner, reminds us that science seeks to know the mechanisms of the universe, while religion longs for its meaning. “The two cannot be separated. Many scientists feel there is no place in research for discussion of anything that sounds mystical. But it is unreasonable to think we already know enough about the natural world to be confident about the totality of forces.”5
Cosmology Morphs Into “God”
Articles relating cosmological research to God are increasingly common. Physicist Weinberg includes in Dreams of a Final Theory a chapter titled “What About God?”6 Physicist Vilenkin proclaims: “The bubble [i.e., universe] pops into existence in accord with the laws of physics. The laws of physics are already there.” When asked where that might be, he replies, “In God’s mind.”7
At the close of his Brief History book Hawking confidently announces: “Then we will know the mind of God.” In response to a satellite’s recording of unevenness in the formation of matter in the universe, astrophysicist Smoot declares: “If you’re religious it’s like looking at God.”8
Astronomer Allen Sandage argues that Newton’s laws are ultimately God’s—in a sense. Science writer Overbye enthuses that the singularity in Hawking and Penrose’s creation model “was the closest a physicist could get to God. It was God.” After reviewing Lindley’s The Myth of a Unified Theory, Teresi concludes: “The quasireligious search for a unified theory by Einstein, Heisenberg, Pauli, Weinberg, and others . . . has propelled physics into the realm of theology.”9
In very public ways, and from a variety of quarters, scientists are encouraging us to look to physicists and astronomers for information about the infinite. In fact, Friedman contends that the work of physicists and astronomers relates to the concerns of religion, regardless of whether the individual scientist happens to be religious, or even interested in such matters or not. He observes: “These people are speaking with theoretical and experimental sophistication about nothing less than the origin of the universe.”10 Though a Hebrew scholar, Friedman was mistaken for a scientist when he addressed the Council for the Advancement of Science. At the same time, astrophysicists at the same conference were sometimes mistaken for theologians!
In his book God and the New Physics, British theoretical physicist Paul Davies seems close to characterizing cosmological knowledge as redemptive, when he concludes: “It is only by understanding the world in its many aspects—reductionist and holist, mathematical and poetical, through forces, fields, and particles as well as through good and evil—that we will come to understand ourselves and the meaning behind this universe, our home.”11
A Cosmic Focus
When I first became entranced with astronomy in midcareer, I remember the sense of peace that settled upon me as I contemplated space, time, and the billions of galaxies that lie beyond our own modest solar system and galaxy. As a creation-believing Christian, I found myself relaxing within the realization that an all-powerful, watchful God had to be in charge. And if I someday returned to “stardust,” this God would have noted my life, tagged my “dust” for future reference, and anchored my name in His book of remembrance. Indeed, I remember wondering at that time what all my previous struggles had been about!
2007 1534 page14“What I’m really interested in,” wrote Einstein, “is whether God could have made the world in a different way; that is, whether the necessity of logical simplicity leaves any freedom at all!” Although Einstein seemed not to hold a view of a personal God, he wrote of a stage of religious experience that, as he suggested, was at a higher level than conceptions of a localized deity. Einstein’s following description sounds an awful lot like my previous paragraph, only he labeled his a “cosmic religious feeling”:
“The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole.”12
Sandage has confessed: “The world is incredible—just the fact that you and I are here, that the atoms of our bodies were once part of stars. They say I’m on some sort of a religious quest, looking for God, but God is the way it’s put together.”13 It’s possible that Alan merely has in mind a kind of pantheism, but to me he sounds suspiciously like he means more than that.
Words of Caution
We should remember that many (or most?) modern scientists mean something quite different than does the average churchgoer when talking about God. They may mean the intelligence behind the fantastic singularity at the moment of “creation” (or big bang), or the unseen forces of gravity that hold the worlds in space. They could be thinking of the “packages” of energy—or quanta—carried along within each ray of light. Or they could have in mind the amazing infinity of particles eternally chasing one another inside the atom and its nucleus.
On the other hand, scientists, like the rest of humanity, tend to lose perspective in the limitless space surrounding this tiny planet. Indeterminacy (uncertainty) in physical nature at the molecular level and beneath, with its attendant phenomenon of dual loci, continues to puzzle even the brightest. At the same time, most scientists have moved from poking fun at Einstein’s obsession with finding an overarching unified theory to exulting in the unifying possibilities embodied in superstrings. Although science is not itself fickle, its practitioners seem always to be in the process of discarding or modifying old paradigms in order to accommodate new ones.
Creation—Within and Without
Anders Tune thinks the indeterminacy principle, along with the role of chance and mutation in biological and other macro world processes, provides an invaluable opportunity to reexamine our religion.14 But this path is fraught with danger, as evidenced by the musings of Elizabeth Johnson: “Absolute Holy Mystery [God] dwells within, encompasses, empowers the evolutionary process, making the world through the process of things being themselves, thus making the world through chance.”15
Most Christians are convinced that the God of Scripture is the Author of science, and that He has ordained such research to open our minds to never-before-imagined possibilities, which should, in turn, better enable us to perceive His hand in both nature and world events.
Yet though we may be encouraged that astronomers and physicists are increasingly concerned to connect an incomprehensible cosmology to an inconceivable creation, continued caution is in order. “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever” (Deut. 29:29, KJV). Because God has not yet chosen to explain the secret of His creative energies or His spiritual being to humankind, the axiom stands: God’s creative power remains as incomprehensible as His existence.
“God has permitted a flood of light to be poured upon the world in both science and art; but when professedly scientific men treat upon these subjects from a merely human point of view, they will assuredly come to wrong conclusions. . . . The greatest minds, if not guided by the Word of God in their research, become bewildered in their attempts to trace the relations of science and revelation.”16
1Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Leaves of Grass (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1900).
2Gamow, One Two Three . . . Infinity (New York: Viking, 1947).
3Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988).
4Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way (New York: Morrow, 1988).
5Charles Townes, quoted in The Hand of God (Atlanta: Lionheart Books, 1999), p. 36.
6Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (New York: Pantheon, 1992), pp. 241-261.
7Dennis Overbye, Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), p. 336.
8George Smoot, as quoted in many sources, including Time magazine, May 4, 1992. (See,9171,975414,00.html, accessed October 31, 2007.)
9Richard Elliott Friedman, The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1995), p. 221.
11Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), pp. 228, 229.
12Albert Einstein, “Religion and Science,” in Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein (New York: Bonanza, 1954), p. 38; originally written for the New York Times Magazine (November 9, 1930), pp. 1-4.
13Quoted in Timothy Ferris, The Red Limit, 2nd ed. (New York: Quill, 1983), p. 114.
14Anders S. Tune, “Quantum Theory and the Resurrection of Jesus,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 43 (Fall 2004), p. 173.
15Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Does God Play Dice? Divine Providence and Chance,” Theological Studies 57 (March 1996), p. 15. Italics supplied.
16Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1958), p. 113.
Gerald F. Colvin, now retired, was professor of education and psychology at Southern Adventist University, in Collegedale, Tennessee, U.S.A.