Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Good News of Creation in Light of Contemporary Science

The icy blue of Lake Tahoe's waters
[This is excerpted from Creation and Last Things. I wrote it over ten years ago. So I've adapted it, and I'm interested to hear any comments about how it needs further updating.]

I have sat many times at the edge of Lake Tahoe under the summer sun, breathing the fresh mountain air and contemplating the beauty and austerity of its icy blue waters surrounded by gorgeously majestic peaks. There I find witnesses to God’s mysterious power and deity. More than once, Paul’s words from Romans 1:20 have come to me: 
Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.
Creation as a finished artistic product witnesses to the Master Artist. A stanza from the whimsical twentieth century poet, e.e. cummings (admittedly not without a whiff of pantheism) describes the beauty and joy of creation: 
I thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees 
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything 
which is natural which is infinite which is yes.
        In fact, the entire cosmos is an enormous Yes to God the Creator. From this wide-angle, cosmic perspective, the doctrine of creation affirms first of all that the universe began at an initial point at the command of God. It then says that the world—it all its magnitude and complexity—depends ultimately on God. Most of all, it proclaims that these affirmations are good news.
        We often think that the “good news” begins in the opening chapters of the New Testament. There is, however, probably more blessing pronounced in the first paragraphs of the Bible than anywhere else in the Scripture. Repeatedly in Genesis 1, God declares that creation “good” (verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 25) and even “very good” (verse 31). This makes all the difference for how we understand the doctrine of creation.
        When we think of the cosmic level, we do well to think beyond the tangible of space and time, and of the world that our senses describe. The most ancient church-wide statement of faith, the fourth-century Nicene Creed, speaks of God’s creating things “seen and unseen.” God creates not only the world that science discovers and measures, but the world of spiritual beings or angels. Since I usually focus on the relation of theology and science—and thus the tangible world (more or less)—I rarely comment extensively on the angelic (and demonic) realm of creation. Still the angelic world keeps us reminded of the full depth of creation and the limits of even our greatest scientific discoveries.
        Within the bounds of space and time, we will do well also to remember the scope of the cosmos. We need to think big. Let us never forget that our God is the Creator of the universe, and natural science can point us to the grandeur of God’s creation. Contemporary astrophysics portrays the enormous scale of the universe, which began 13.7 billion years ago. This fact cures us of self-centeredness. If the age universe were reduced to twenty-four hours, human beings would only appear just two or three seconds before midnight.
        Furthermore, big bang cosmology describes an “initial point of singularity” where time began, which scientists call t=0. At this singularity, all laws of physics break down. The Belgian priest and mathematician, George LemaĆ®tre spoke of t=0 as a “ day without yesterday,” where space was infinitely curved and all energy and all matter was concentrated into a single quantum. The big bang is derived from Albert Einstein’s 1916 theory of general relativity, which pointed to an expanding universe. Einstein initially resisted this implication, preferring a universe that remained relatively static. So he fudged his equations with the “cosmological constant,” which removed expansion in the universe, keeping it in relatively constant stasis. It took two powerful minds to persuade Einstein that an expanding universe—and therefore one with a beginning point—could be empirically and mathematically verified. LemaĆ®tre, who was fond of saying, “There is no conflict between science and religion,” offered the theoretical structure for this expansion. The unparalleled master of astronomical observation, Edwin Hubble, provided the observational data. Their work eventually convinced Einstein that the universe was expanding. (Einstein later fumed: “If Hubble’s expansion had been discovered at the time of the creation of the general theory of relativity, the [cosmological constant] would never have been introduced.”) Extrapolating backward, this expansion implied an initial singularity.
        But Einstein would not be the only scientist in need of persuasion. The reigning view of the time was Cambridge professor Fred Hoyle’s “steady state” cosmology, which he and two colleagues, Herman Bondi and Thomas Gold, presented in 1948. This theory stated that the universe was virtually unchanging and of infinite age. The cosmos always was, and always will be, the same. Hoyle did not like the implications of creation out of nothing for theological and philosophical reasons:
Unlike the modern school of cosmologists, who in conformity with Judaeo-Christian theologians believe the whole universe to have been created out of nothing, my beliefs accord with those of Democritus who remarked "Nothing is created out of nothing."
Hoyle argued forcefully for the steady state theory and disparagingly described its alternative as the “big bang.”
        In the 1950s and ‘60s, these two theories vied for scientific approval. It was not until 1965 that Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias at the Bell Laboratories detected background static radiation in the cosmos. This static was so unexpected that Wilson and Penzias believed pigeons had roosted in their huge instruments. In fact they had, but once they were removed, the background static remained as “echoes” of that initial moment of explosive creation. The COBE satellite probed outer space in 1989 and found further confirmation of this background radiation (technically, through its Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotemeter). The COBE homepage puts it this way.
The cosmic microwave background (CMB) spectrum is that of a nearly perfect blackbody with a temperature of 2.725 +/- 0.002 K. This observation matches the predictions of the hot Big Bang theory extraordinarily well, and indicates that nearly all of the radiant energy of the Universe was released within the first year after the Big Bang. 
        These discoveries seem to provide an amazing consonance with the concept of creation out of nothing by God’s command. Robert Jastrow, an astrophysicist formerly at the Mount Wilson Observatory and a self-described agnostic, has penned these rather striking comments on the Big Bang cosmologist who looks at the first chapters of Genesis:
A sound explanation may exist for the explosive birth of our Universe; but if it does, science cannot find out what the explanation is. The scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation. This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth…. At the moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
     Theologians have long held that creation happened “at once,” and can be flattered by Jastrow’s conclusions about big bang cosmology, but will be wise to continue listening to scientists’ developing theories about the nature of our universe. There are even some questions theologians need to ask: What about new theories (such as the Hartle-Hawking model or Lawrence Krauss's more challenge) that impugn the big bang scientifically? Are creation out of nothing and the moment of the big bang the same thing? I will leave responses for another post, but I'd be interested in your comments on the way there.

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