I. Evolution, the Universe … and Jesus?
I hope you have been enjoying our Lenten Darkwood Brew series as much as I have. Someone asked me the other day what the evolution of the universe has to do with Jesus and Lent. I thought the answer was obvious. I should have known better!
The great themes of Lent are humility and repentance. When you get away from the city lights and look out at the night sky, do you not feel humbled when you consider the vastness of it all? When you consider the immense distances that the thousands of pin points of light have travelled to reach your eye, do you not feel a bit smaller than you thought you were? It is hard not to resonate with the words of Psalm 8: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
Some people think that in order to be humble you must focus on your faults and how bad a person you are. Yet the ancient Christian and Jewish traditions knew a surer way to get humble: behold God’s glory. Yes, you can find a certain amount of humility by getting down on yourself, but you can find so much more by getting high on God!
As the Psalmists of old knew well, one way of getting high on God is through reflecting on the majesty of God’s creation. Modern science has not taken away any from God’s majesty. Science may increase one’s sense of it by many orders of magnitude! Along the way, science has also provoked no small amount of our second Lenten quality: repentance.
By now you know that the primary New Testament word for repentance, metanoia, means a “complete change of thinking.” Repentance has to do with turning away from false paths and the world of illusion and basing our thoughts and actions on reality. Over the last several centuries, scientific investigation of the cosmos has “changed our whole way of thinking” on quite a number of levels. It has cleared away some of the illusions we have held for centuries about how God’s universe works that were previously accepted as fact. We now know, for instance, that we are not the center of the universe. Since Galileo, we’ve known that we’re not even the center of our own solar system. This single insight involved such an enormous change of thinking that it took the Catholic Church nearly 500 years to repent and revoke its excommunication of Galileo!
In certain respects, we all wrestle with what it means not to be the center of the universe. On one level, we feel disappointed to learn that God’s universe is not “all about us.” We may even feel like God doesn’t love us as much since we’re clearly not the focus of everything God does in the universe.
Yet what we give up by repenting of our previous assumptions and facing this humbling reality head-on is tiny compared to what we may gain. What science offers those of us who believe in a God is an awareness that God is up to something far more vast and wondrous than we could ever have imagined. While we may not be the center of the small bubble of a universe envisioned by the ancients, we are intimately connected to a much grander one. The fact that the carbon, oxygen, and iron in our bodies came from exploding stars practically screams at us that we are not afterthoughts in God’s design. While this is a statement that only a “believer” can make, the point is that science need not be a threat to faith. It may be a significant ally.
As physicist Brian Swimme once observed, “It’s possible that our primary role as humans is that of celebration. We have this destiny – and even duty – to become astonished by the universe.” If we believe that God is behind the evolutionary processes of the universe, or that God is intrinsically a part of its unfolding (as yesterday’s Darkwood Brew Guest, Michael Dowd, has asserted), then science not only increases our astonishment over the cosmos, but the awe and wonder we feel for God.
This awe and wonder over what God is up to in the world is another significant theme of Lent. We are spending forty days just getting ready for the awe and wonder of Easter. This forty days of preparation is meant to parallel the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. What do you think Jesus felt on a dark night in the desert, gazing at the Milky Way Galaxy many miles from so much as a shepherd’s campfire? Do you suppose he experienced more, or less, awe and wonder than you and I do? I’m betting that if we spend forty days absorbed in even a fraction of the awe and wonder Jesus would have experienced on those desert nights, we will be far more prepared for the astonishment of Easter than we would have been through the self-flagellation and shame some Christians indulge in during Lent.
Last week, a number of folks at Countryside Church told me they experienced intense awe and wonder over the Big Bang, which we reenacted during worship (See that service here). We explored creation from the earliest quadrillionths of a second through the formation of the first stars 200 million years later, that acted as incubators in which the essential carbon, iron, oxygen, and other molecules were formed, to the first supernovas that not only created new elements like gold, uranium and magnesium but scattered all the basic building blocks of life as we know it throughout the universe.
Now, we’re going to consider what happened next, and a rather astonishing implication …
II. A Star is Born
Last week’s Darkwood Brew Guest was Dr. Grace Wolf-Chase of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago (See that program here). Grace’s primary area of research is star formation in the Milky Way Galaxy. When we look out at the night sky, the single points of light we see besides the planets of our solar system are stars of the Milky Way. On an exceptionally dark, clear night, we may be lucky to see 3,000. Yet, as Grace told us, our eyes are attuned to only a small spectrum of the star light in our galaxy. There is much more out there than meets the eye! Therefore on August 25, 2003, NASA launched the Spitzer Space Telescope which was built to take photographs of the infrared spectrum, which picks up on star light shining from much greater depths in our galaxy. The infrared spectrum can also pierce through the vast galactic dust clouds that obscure the view of other telescopes. Images sent from the Spitzer have been nothing short of amazing.
Consider the following image, which is a two-dimensional infrared view that penetrates tens of thousands of light-years to the center of the Milky Way and beyond:
If you look closely, you can pick out thousands of points of light, and these points of light are stars. But the really mind-blowing thing is that all the blue of this photograph (black if you’re seeing this in black-and-white) actually resolves to a star. In other words, this view is so densely packed with stars that the whole field of vision is packed, “from floor to ceiling,” so-to-speak, with stars. This is because we are seeing all the stars on a flat plane which really sit back at various depths in our galaxy. Pretty extraordinary, don’t you think?
Last week, Grace offered her best estimate of how many stars are in our galaxy based on the latest astronomical data: about 400 billion! How may is 400 billion? If each star of the Milky Way were represented by a single grain of Morton table salt, it would take approximately 25,000 22-ounce cans to represent them all. Considering that the Milky Way is just one of 100 billion or so galaxies, the number of stars out there is, well, astronomical.
The Spitzer also reveals huge clouds of dust and gas in various areas that serve as the basic nurseries of star formation. Gravity brings these clouds together, and compresses them. As the mass at the center grows greater over hundreds of thousands of years, so does its gravity, which attracts even more dust and gas, which creates even greater gravitational pull. The pressure continually builds until huge jets of gas burst out from the center. Finally, after a half-million years, the star compresses so vigorously that the energy created exceeds 15 million degrees. The heat is so intense that the molecules literally fuse together and nuclear fusion takes place. Enormous energy is unleashed and a star is born. A sun!
After a star’s birth, we still have a lot of dust and gas swirling around it. Some of this dust and gas forms into its own clusters, and these clusters exercise their own gravitational attraction. Clusters merge with other clusters, or crash into each other, creating ever larger clusters with greater gravity. Small planets are born. In our own solar system, astronomers estimate that there were at least 100 of these small planets. Close to the sun where it’s hottest, the sun burned off gasses and boiled away water. This is why only rocky planets survive close to the sun. Further out, gas and water survived, which allowed atmospheres to form and, in the case of earth and a few of the moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, oceans formed, which make possible the formation of life. One day, we may find life swimming beneath the icy crust of these distant, watery moons. Of course, whether or not we find other life in our solar system, we know for certain that life formed here on Earth. Could we one day discover life beyond our solar system?
We once thought that we were the center of the universe, but eventually we had to face the fact that we are just a tiny part of something far more vast than we could imagine. Perhaps a similar process of realization awaits us in the future with respect to life. Throughout most of human history we have assumed that we are the only life in God’s universe. Yet we may be just one of countless civilizations out there. If so, what impact would this discovery have on our identity as human beings, or on our faith?
On August 15, 1977, astronomer Jerry Ehman was monitoring Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope which was listening for signs of intelligent life in the universe as part of the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) project. Suddenly, from the constellation Sagittarius near the Chi Sagittarii star group, a signal bearing the expected hallmarks of a potential alien transmission was detected. The signal lasted for the full 72-second duration that Big Ear observed it before moving on in its automated schedule. The signal matched so closely what astronomers expected to find in a signal coming from an intelligent civilization that Ehman circled the signal on the computer printout and wrote a single word meant to express the inexpressible: “Wow!”
The signal has not been detected again. While many theories have been brought forward to explain how the signal could have been generated on earth and mistakenly picked up by the Big Ear, its source remains a mystery to this day.
While it’s possible that the Big Ear telescope picked up some sort of human-generated military or spy agency signal, many high level astronomers predict that some of us who are alive today will live to see incontrovertible proof of intelligent life in our universe.
Why do they believe this? First off, the basic compounds necessary for the formation of life have been scattered throughout the universe by stars that exploded some12 billion years ago. Second, as Grace Wolf-Chase told us last week, the most recent data from the Kepler Space Observatory launched in 2009 to look for planets in our universe suggest that the process of planet formation in our solar system was not unique. The latest Kepler data indicates that most stars – perhaps even all stars – have planets orbiting them.
Imagine this: Planets orbiting every single star you see in the night sky.
Now imagine this: Planets orbiting every single star that took up nearly every single pixel of the Spitzer Infrared photograph of the Milky Way.
Now imagine: Planets orbiting the stars of the 100 billion or so other galaxies in the universe!
The chances of life forming on any single planet are small. As in our own solar system, some planets are too close to the sun and some planets are too far away to sustain life (or at least life as we know it). Yet even if we allow that “Goldilocks” planets are one in a hundred, or even one in a million, there are still billions if not trillions of planets on which life could conceivably form. And if we worship a God who loves life, then perhaps the evolutionary patterns of the universe are even weighted toward the formation of life. A couple weeks from now on March 10th, Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich will be our guest at Darkwood Brew. One of the things Gingerich will tell us is that evolution seems to follow “preferred pathways” that favor life’s formation. In other words, seemingly random chance may not be as random as we think it is. The cosmic dice may be loaded!
Just for fun, imagine one day within this century a mother taking her child outside on a clear night and saying with knowledge based on scientific evidence, “You see that star up there? It has a planet just like Earth orbiting it, and there’s life on that planet!” Or imagine a mother centuries from now being aware of so many planets with intelligent life on them that she sweeps her hand in a wide arc and says, “we are just one civilization among millions out there!”
Would the universe seem like such a lonely place anymore? Would God seem a bit closer, perhaps more real? Wouldn’t you just be itching to find out about these civilizations – what these life forms were like? And if you could find out about them, imagine how your understanding of God and God’s purposes might expand. For instance, imagine finding that as diverse as the civilizations and life forms are, there are also certain commonalities they share. Imagine discovering that alien civilizations know of love, grace and forgiveness. Imagine they have a concept of loving one’s neighbor as oneself and treating others as one would wish to be treated. Imagine they even know something of the deep wisdom of loving one’s enemy, and have experienced the very suffering we experience when our nations and societies only act in hatred for their enemies. Would these lessons and qualities not point beyond themselves to what God is like and what God’s intentions are for us? Would they not move us into those deep Lenten themes of humility, repentance (“complete change of thinking”) and awe and wonder?
Funny, isn’t it, how the presence of abundant life out in the universe would make God seem all the more real and life in this vast universe less lonely; and how learning of the diversity of life out there might help us understand God more concretely? Funnier still, we need not wait for life to be discovered to experience all of this. For we are already surrounded by intelligent life – here on Earth. On Earth we are already just one of a great number of civilizations that are as different from each other as night is from day, and through whose commonalities we can find something concrete to say about God and God’s will for us … including God’s command for us to love our enemies.
No, one of the messages I take from all the data scientists are conveying from the Spitzer and Kepler space observatories and other scientific instruments is that regardless of whether other civilizations are discovered in our lifetime, we have all that we need right here to understand profoundly that we are not alone and that God is not far off. We need not wait to discover and compare diverse alien life forms in order to discern God’s will. We can start right here, right now, appreciating how the face of our neighbor reveals the face of God … on earth as it is in heaven.