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
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
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
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).