On November 7, 1492, just before noon, a brilliant fireball exploded over Switzerland, leaving a fiery trail for over 100 miles before its 280 lb remains plunged three feet into the ground across the border in an Alsatian wheat field outside the town of Ensisheim. Terrified, the locals wondered what it could mean. The king himself came for an inspection (Maximilian I, who would become the Holy Roman Emperor). Consulting his counselors, Maximilian was advised that, lucky for him, the stone’s fiery entrance was nothing short of a miracle from God – a sign of God’s favor toward the king. The stone was henceforth put on display at the local church.
This past Friday we had a taste of the stir that a plummeting meteorite can engender as one exploded over central Russia, releasing over 10 times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb in the air over Chelyabinsk injuring at least 1,200 and traumatizing many thousands of others. Soon after the event, a priest was quoted claiming that the meteorite was a sign of God’s intervention bearing a warning to humanity about the fragility of life. Surprisingly, the priest didn’t seem aware of God’s real message, which was to tell the world to tune in to Darkwood Brew’s “Evolving Universe, Evolving Faith” series!
Seriously, though, these days such claims from Christian leaders about significant astral events are few and far between. You are likely to hear atheists, agnostics and believers alike turning to natural law to explain a wide range of phenomena that used to be considered divine intervention.
Some people worry that scientific discoveries make God smaller. They wonder how many years we have left before society completely does away with God, replacing divine authority with human ego. The great Creation vs. Evolution controversy of the last century can be seen as a line-in-the-sand moment for some Christians who refuse to budge with Darwin, feeling that if the theory of
Evolution were allowed to advance, it might just signal the end of faith (or at least Christian faith).
On the other hand, some people celebrate when science seems to make God smaller. “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens look forward to the demise of God with the level of enthusiasm an oncologist might have for a cure for cancer. They view atheism as liberation from primitive superstition, fear and prejudice. They dream of a day when a God-free world creates everlasting peace and prosperity as humans turn their attention from the heavens to the earth and quit fighting with those who don’t believe in the same god they do.
As science continues to explain more and more of life through natural, evolutionary processes, are these our only choices – between atheistic science and fundamentalistic religion?
II. God of the Gaps
Really, the only god who is dying with the advancement of science is a god who never lived in the first place. Theologians call this god the “god of the gaps.” The “god of the gaps” is the god we turn to when we have no other explanation for something. When the inhabitants of Ensisheim could not explain why the sky was torn open and a fiery boulder plunged through it in 1492, many turned to God to fill the gap in their knowledge. Of course, some found it to be of great political use to explain the meteorite’s appearance as a sign of God’s favor upon the king!
The fact of the matter is that if your belief in God is founded upon providing explanations for that which you don’t understand, then your god is doomed to smallness. Eventually perhaps, annihilation.
A little over a century after the Ensisheim meteorite, Galileo would offer the first hard evidence that the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around, which contradicted the way the Bible explained how the cosmos was created by God in Genesis 1. While this discovery posed no threat to Galileo’s faith, it did threaten those whose faith was in a “god of the gaps,” who filled in what the Iron Age biblical writers did not understand about the cosmos. One of the leading Catholic theologians of the era, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine, would famously write in a letter in 1615 countering Galileo’s claims, “To affirm that the sun is really fixed in the center of the heavens and that the earth revolves very swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.”
Has your faith crumbled in light of the fact that the earth revolves around the sun? Of course not. Even the most conservative of Christians nowadays holds a heliocentric view of our solar system. Yet isn’t it interesting that one of the most learned figures in the Christian world had once insisted that such a notion would be a disaster for faith. This is the way the “god of the gaps” theology works. Whatever you believe to be a threat to faith will, in hindsight, almost always turn out to be no trouble at all – or even helpful. The only ones that hindsight reveals to have threatened true faith are those who most vigorously defended a god who could only exist in the gaps.
Now, if you think that our modern world bears no relation to the god-of-the-gaps world of Cardinal Bellarmine, think again. Even the New Atheists fall into the trap. The New Atheists are certain that science will eventually do away with any need for God, but their certainty is based on the assumption that God has nothing organically to do with Nature and therefore can only exist within the space that Nature leaves vacant. The more we can explain through natural causation, they believe, the less room there is for God. The very god they prop up only to deny the existence is the “god of the gaps” – a god who never lived in the first place! (In this sense, we should all find common ground with the New Atheists.)
Yet aside from the New Atheists, most of us harbor some form of god-of-the-gap mentality when we run up against things we don’t understand. When attending a funeral for someone whose life has ended suddenly, we hear “It was God’s will.” Often what this means is, “I don’t know how to make sense of this person’s death, and it’s comforting to presume that God had a reason.” Or how many of us may draw comfort in the fact that science has never found a way to create life, feeling like our belief in God is “safe” so long as the origin of life cannot be explained through natural causes? If science eventually is able to create life in a test tube (something I sincerely hope they will never be able to do), what crevice will the “god of the gaps” inhabit then?
III. The God of Reality
No, true faith has never been based on inserting God into the gaps in human knowledge. It is exactly the other way around. We worship a God whose presence and power pervades all of Reality, not just those parts we can’t explain.
Psalm 148 proclaims,
“Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise God in the heights!
2Praise God, all God’s angels; praise God, all God’s host!
3Praise God, sun and moon; praise God, all you shining stars!
4Praise God, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
5Let them praise the name of the Lord, for God commanded and they were created.
When the Psalmist assumes that God is responsible for creation, we need not assume that God may be found only in those processes we can’t explain in any other way. In fact, one may fully embrace a scientific notion of creation while still maintaining belief in a God who created the processes of Nature to begin with. And while this is a faith statement, not a scientific one, it is much more than a god-of-the-gaps kind of faith statement.
By analogy, if I were to claim that the cake baking in my oven is there because Melanie is making a birthday cake, my statement is in no way undermined by a scientist who explains the cake’s baking by way of electromagnetic processes, atoms and biochemical transformations. I can appreciate both explanations, even finding that each enhances the other. For instance, while I might originally have considered a cake baking in the oven to be a rather humdrum affair, being aware of the science behind the cake’s baking might make the whole process incredibly engaging, even awe-producing.
Similarly, a scientist who is unaware of why the cake is in the oven might like to know that it is there because Melanie is baking a birthday cake. And if you did not insist that the scientist would burn in hell if he thought there might be another explanation or would be damned if he did not turn his life over to Melanie, he might find your assertion palatable even if he was skeptical. Yet if the scientist were to counter that the only way to explain why the cake was baking in the oven was to explain how it was baking, insisting that there was no will or intention for it being there, he would clearly be making a faith statement that is unsupported by science. Science that moves beyond describing how things happen and tries to explain why things happen is as off-base as “god of the gaps” theology. This is science-of-the-gaps; science filling in the gaps of its own uncertainties with the assumption that science can explain everything.
IV. What Hangs on the Big Bang
So after all this, how did that meteor enter our world? What is the message of the meteorite? Let’s trace this from the very beginning.
About 13.7 billion years ago, give or take, the universe was a single dense speck of pure energy. There was a giant explosion. Within the first billionth of a second, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light. Tiny, subatomic particles began to form out of this pure, expanding energy (E=mc²), but at first there was so much energy around that the particles kept resolving back and forth between energy and mass. Within the first second of creation, the universe began to cool sufficiently for more and more subatomic particles to remain in material state. Some of them became matter, and some became anti-matter. As matter and anti-matter came into contact with each other, they cancelled each other out and ceased to exist. Happily for us (and our meteorite), for every billion particles of anti-matter, there were a billion-and-one particles of matter. Our entire universe was formed out of the “billion-and-one’th” particles left over from all the collisions between matter and antimatter in the first second of existence in our universe!
When the universe was about one second old, it began to cool even further and gravity took greater hold, slowing down the expansion of the universe. Had gravity been even a trillionth of a percent greater, the universe would have collapsed back in on itself. Had it been a trillionth of a percent weaker, the universe would have expanded too quickly and simply flown apart without creating stars or galaxies or planets. Talk about precision!
With the universe slowing down and cooling below two trillion degrees, subatomic particles began to bond with each other, forming hydrogen atoms. Over the next three minutes, the helium and lithium atoms would also form. Yet there were still so many unattached electrons swirling around that the universe would have appeared like a milky soup. Only, for the next 300,000 years you wouldn’t be able to see the milky soup because as it continued to expand it was still so dense that no light could escape.
After 380,000 years, the universe was trillions and trillions of miles across. And it was finally cool enough for the electrons to slow down and bond with other atoms. When this happened, the milky fog finally cleared and the universe became transparent. (We actually have a photograph of what the universe looked like at just 380,000 years old, taken by the WMAP space probe! Lighter areas indicate hot spots where the universe was more dense).
It would take another 200 million years for all these gases to swirl together, compress tighter and tighter through greater and greater gravitational pull and then ignite into the fusion reactors we call stars. At that time, the universe began to glow like someone had just turned on endless chains of Christmas lights!
Many of these first stars were so enormous that they could hold billions of our suns within them. Within these stars, the heavier elements of the universe were first created – elements critical for life on our planet, like carbon, oxygen and iron. The bigger the star, the more quickly it used up its hydrogen fuel. When this happened, gravity caused the star to collapse in on itself so quickly that the friction caused a tremendous build-up of energy resulting in a giant supernova. In this explosion new, heavier elements were created, such as magnesium, uranium and gold. Supernovas spread all these life-sustaining elements throughout the universe. You see, if the universe weren’t extremely old, we wouldn’t be here, since the primary elements that sustain life wouldn’t even be formed or spread about until the first stars ran out of fuel and exploded. You and I, the sun and the meteorite that fell to the earth at Ensisheim are made of the ashes of these early supernovas!
Speed up the time clock to around 4.6 billion years ago. It was then that our sun formed from the gravitational collapse of a region within a large molecular cloud. Most of the matter gathered in the center, while the rest flattened into an orbiting disk that would form our solar system. Scientists estimate that as many as a hundred planets formed from the dusty disk, as gravity drew it together in ever-increasing pieces. These planets crashed into one another, creating larger and larger planets. At one point, two planets of sufficient size may have crashed together with such force and been so widely scattered that their gravity never drew their bits together. Instead they became the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The meteor that fell to earth this week, like many before it, may have come from this asteroid belt. In any case, many scientists believe that meteorites like this, and much larger ones besides, are responsible for seeding our planet with the nutrients that sustain life.
So after this extremely brief history of the universe, which explanation fills you with a greater sense of the numinous. On the one hand, we could say that the meteorite that landed in central Russia last week was a supernatural message sent by God to warn us about the fragility of life. On the other hand, given what we know of the evolution of the universe, we could say that the message of the meteorite is … is what??
I can think of many messages, not just one. All of them speak to me and all may reflect God’s word, though none of them involve God breaking the laws of nature. Considering the meteorite from the perspective of its deep, evolutionary history, one massage that speaks to me is that we are all intricately connected in a vast web of relationship – not only with each other but the universe itself – in ways that exceed our imagination to conceive.
Another message that resonates is that the universe we live in is a creative masterwork. Even a simple rock is as worthy of reverence as the most precious of gems. Perhaps if we could hold the sacred nature of even a common rock in our imagination, we could see more clearly the sacred nature of living things.
Yet another message I find in the meteorite is similar to that of the priest. Yes, life is indeed fragile. We can’t count on life always going our way. Sometimes tragedy strikes that is beyond your control or ability to predict. It may strike even when you have done nothing to “deserve” it. Yet the meteorite reminds me, too, that when we pull back a bit and see the bigger picture, we find that death is part of a larger context. In our universe, life arises out of death. In fact, without death, there would be no transformations that lead to higher forms of life. There would be no universe if it weren’t for a Big Bang and a billion pieces of anti-matter surrendering its life for every billion-and-one pieces of matter. There would be no earth if it weren’t for collisions of planets with other planets and asteroids. There would be no life upon the earth if it weren’t for dying stars and supernovas – and the seed-bearing minerals and organic materials provided by crashing meteorites.
Hmmmm, where have we heard a message of transformation from death to higher life? “This is my body, broken for you … this is my blood, shed for you …” When we look upon the Cross of Christ, what do we find there if not the essential “DNA structure” of the universe?
Still another message – one I accept through faith in the God of Reality informed by science – is that the One who is responsible for all these cosmic processes is a God who is vastly more amazing and wondrous than I could ever have dreamed up on my own. This God is not a god-of-the-gaps and is hardly destroyed by science. Rather science provides an ever-expanding revelation of what God is up to in our world and universe, and the mind-blowing processes by which God is accomplishing it. This God is truly One who is worthy, in the words of Psalm 148, to be worshiped in the heavens, and on earth; whose name is to be praised above all names.
, the universe was a single dense speck of pure energy.
Mmm, I think your cosmology is a bit off, unless you can explain where this pure energy existed prior to the existence of space and time. Nevertheless, good post.
About a year ago, we hosted a science and religion series funded by the Scientists in Congregations initiative. We covered the standard model of physics (here’s the video) but we didn’t take it all the way this post did. Masterful work. Sharing with our congregation!