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A wonder beyond human ken

11 April 2014

New cosmology points to the immensity that the Creeds affirm, argues Rod Garner


Two related astronomical events have taken place in the past month which have important implications for Christian believing. The Fox TV network launched a remake of the acclaimed series Cosmos, first presented by the American astronomer Professor Carl Sagan in 1980.

The original series was watched by more than half a billion viewers, who were enthralled by Professor Sagan's passionate account of the origins and beauty of the universe. Then, also last month, the work of scientists at the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation (BICEP 2) observatory in Antarctica appeared to confirm the theory of astrophysicists about how everything began (Comment, 4 April).

The debate on cosmic origins has intensified since Professor Sagan attempted to explain the nature of things; but the human curiosity and ingenuity underpinning it is not new. In 1225, centuries before Isaac Newton and the rise of modern science, Bishop Robert Grosseteste wrote a treatise, De Luce ("On light"), which suggested that an explosion of primordial light caused the universe to expand into a huge sphere.

Employing theology, physics, and the mathematics of his day, Grosseteste attempted to describe the structure of the intelligible universe in terms that resonate with the prevailing Big Bang theory of recent times.

What is new and exciting in the BICEP 2 team's discovery is the opportunity that it presents to Christians to think again about our distant beginnings, and our belief in a Creator God who is the source of all that exists, and who is disclosed in Jesus Christ.

The science alone invites contemplation, as it sets out the precise conditions and unimaginably powerful elements that grew the universe in a sliver of time that we cannot even begin to comprehend. Within a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second of the moment it began, the universe "inflated" and became bigger. A world of unbelievable vastness emerged and, within it, as scientists continue to discover, billions of other worlds dispersed across our own galaxy alone.

All this has been unfolding over billions of years: our distant origins as self-conscious beings stretch beyond Eden to the nuclear furnaces of burning stars, and the world we are called to cherish has arisen from the interrelation of matter, energy, space, and time.

FAITH can hardly be unmoved in the face of this vista. Before our thoughts even turn to God - and mindful of the venerable definition of a Christian as "a human being who is fully alive" - there is a duty on our part to be dazzled by the fact that there is a world at all. The sheer improbability of the cosmos's evolving in the way it has, so finely tuned and constant in its governing laws, should induce in us a sense of awe.

Yet our amazement will have less to do with how the world is - its complexity, structure, and order - than that it is. Against immense odds, there is a habitable earth, with persons on it seeking explanations for their comings and goings, as they ponder the ache that lies at the heart of things.

Aristotle once observed that philosophy begins in wonder. The same possibility still exists for religion now, when the majority no longer march to our tunes or subscribe to our creeds. For those of us who routinely recite them dutifully and sometimes carelessly, the work of cosmologists offers a propitious moment to try to grasp the immensity of what the creeds affirm.

To say that we believe in God "the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen" requires us to "inflate", so to speak, our conception of God. The author of worlds without end, including the speck of sand that we inhabit, is infinitely more mysterious than the divine object we too often and too easily presume to know and worship.

Cosmology is revealing what the creeds unwittingly conceal and theology has long insisted on: that God is not a person in the sense that we normally understand the term - not, that is, just another being in the world like the rest of us, only vastly superior and some distance away.

The full extent of his nature and being - and here the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament concur - cannot be known. What God essentially is remains hidden and incomplete, and we do not have total access to his essence, as he is in himself. In the incarnation, Jesus discloses his Father's love, and points us to his goodness and gracious purposes for our world.

Yet the grandeur of space does something else. The countless stars - each representing millions more that we cannot see - and the near certainty of species and civilisations other than our own reveal that God is more than we can picture or indeed can imagine. He is more than the sum of all our creeds, hopes, and fears, and possesses a reality beyond our minds.

To suppose that God is less than this, that he lies within our grasp or formulations as one more item of human knowledge, is to make him an idol of our own devising - something explicitly forbidden by the second commandment imparted to Moses on Sinai.

There is wisdom in this prohibition. The God of Israel was sovereign, free, and beyond manipulation: the shrines of Israel were to remain imageless. True religion does not present God as an object to be observed or controlled, but as a mystery inviting the wonder that can lead to adoration. A cosmos of awesome symmetry alerts us to the creative power of one who is unmistakeably real, and yet, in the end, indubitably elusive.

Canon Rod Garner is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Southport, and Theologian for the diocese of Liverpool. He is the author of several books, including On Being Saved (DLT, 2011), and How To Be Wise (SPCK, 2013).

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