​The galaxy UDFj-39546284 is one of the
furthest objects in the universe.
 

Is cosmology - the science of the origin and development of the universe - about an absence of God, or is it about a surer path to God? The Revd Professor David Wilkinson, Principal of St John’s College, the University of Durham, and former astrophysicist, explored this question in the ISCAST Annual Lecture given at Glen Waverley Uniting Church in July.

I was on a train the other day and the person beside me introduced themselves and said, ‘What do you do?’ Well, I said, ‘I’m a Methodist minister who teaches theology.’ This man’s eyes seemed to fill with fear, because he thought to himself, ‘Oh no, all the way to London, sitting beside a religious fanatic.’ He said, ‘What did you do before that?’ I said, ‘I did research in theoretical astrophysics.’ This time, his eyes glazed as he thought to himself, ‘What on earth does he mean by that?’ But he knew it was something to do with science, so he asked me, ‘How can you be a scientist and a Christian?’

We live in a culture where a conflict model between science and religion is very strong. However, within cosmology, my own subject, what we’ve seen is a number of folk in the public arena beginning to say there are questions which may go beyond science, which may go into philosophy and theology.

In 1997 Stephen Hawking published A Brief History of Time. It sold over 10 million copies worldwide, translated into numerous languages. Why was this book so popular? Carl Sagan, the American astrophysicist said, ‘This is a book about God, or perhaps about the absence of God.’ I think Sagan was right to say this is a book where we begin to see how at the cutting edge of cosmology some of the questions of God appear.

In 1983 Paul Davies, distinguished populariser of cosmology, wrote the book God and the New Physics. Partly tongue-in-cheek he wrote, ‘In my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion.’ Is cosmology about an absence of God, or is it about a surer path to God? That’s what I want to explore.

Let’s start with the universe. UDFj-39546284, pictured, is a fairly unremarkable galaxy in some ways; it’s about one thousand times smaller than our own Milky Way. But what’s really interesting about it is that this is one of the furthest objects we’ve ever seen in the universe. The light from the sun takes about eight minutes to make its journey to the earth; the light from this galaxy has taken 13.2 billion years. That means that as we look out into the universe we look back in time, because we’re seeing the light that set off 13.2 billion years ago.

If the universe is awe-inspiring, then our current model for its beginning is just as awe-inspiring. Fred Hoyle nicknamed it the Big Bang. He didn’t quite like it; he said, ‘It has all the elegance of a girl jumping out of a cake at a party’—but the name stuck. The Big Bang model says that everything—100 billion stars in each of 100 billion galaxies, the whole lot—at some point was small enough to fit through the eye of a needle. At that point it began to expand rapidly in what’s called the Big Bang.

Our current models of physics allow us to trace back the history of the universe and we think we know what the universe was like when it was only one second old. And if that isn’t sufficient, we think we can trace the history of the universe with reasonable confidence back to a time of 10-43 of a second old. Now, if you’re not a mathematician that’s a shorthand way of writing 1/(10 with 42 zeros after it) of a second. That’s a very small fraction. If you’re a biologist or an engineer or a normal person, you’ll say, ‘Basically, that’s zero, isn’t it?’ Well, not quite. At that point, our current laws of physics break down. That’s really frustrating. It’s almost as if you’ve religiously watched or listened to a five-day test match and then when one team just needs 20 more runs to win, you happen to be driving on a road where you lose reception on your radio. You’ve watched the whole thing, and then just before it gets to the crucial bit you just don’t see the really interesting bit. And this is the case here.

At 10-43 of a second the universe is very small indeed. It begins to expand rapidly. As it expands it cools. Between one second and 1,000 seconds, in terms of visible matter, there’s 75 per cent of hydrogen and 25 per cent of helium. And then to cut a long story short, over billions of years our stars and galaxies form out of these vast clouds of hydrogen.

You may be thinking, ‘Well, that’s all well and good, but how do you know that’s true?’ As the Lord said to Job, ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?’ You could say the same thing to astrophysicists. Of course, when we come to cosmology, it’s a different kind of science. You can’t ask an undergraduate to go into a lab and explode a universe in a Big Bang. It’s rather like a detective story; when Inspector Morse or Miss Marple comes up to the scene of the crime, they haven’t seen the crime happen. What they do is look for various clues or pieces of evidence to reconstruct what actually happened, and that’s what cosmology has been doing.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that the Big Bang is proved. In fact, in this kind of big science you rarely deal with proof. What you have is an amount of evidence and then the best model which explains that evidence. The Big Bang model is pretty good, but it does have some problems to it.

Most embarrassingly for cosmologists is that we don’t know what most of the universe is made of. About 23 per cent of the universe, we think, is in the form of dark matter. We know it’s there, because it exerts a gravitational influence, but we’re not too sure what it is. And then 73 per cent is made up of dark energy, and it’s called dark energy because we don’t know what it is. That means that we actually only know what about 4 per cent of the universe is made of.

But there’s one other problem with the Big Bang—a major problem. Do you remember I talked about the laws of physics breaking down at 10-43 of a second? The problem is the limits of the two great theories of 20th century physics: quantum theory and general relativity.

General relativity, discovered by Albert Einstein, deals with things on the very largest of scales. It describes galaxies and the universe itself and does so, wherever you apply it, beautifully. Quantum theory deals with things on the very smallest of scales. It describes protons and electrons, and everywhere you apply it, it works beautifully.

Most of the time these two theories work independently, rather like different ends of the corridor in the physics department; they never ever meet, apart from at one point in the universe’s history, and that’s at 10-43 of a second. You see, at that point the universe is very small, and quantum theory says, ‘That’s my area of expertise.’ ‘Hold on’, says general relativity, ‘this is about the whole universe; this is my area of expertise.’ The trouble is that these two won’t agree, they won’t fit together, and that’s why we’re looking to find a deeper theory, a quantum theory of gravity that brings the two together.

A number of years ago Robert Jastrow, in his book, God and the Astronomers, talked about the frustration of our current laws of physics breaking down. He wrote,

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.

Let me go on now and take Jastrow’s cue; what are the big theological questions that may come from this? Questions from those like Paul Davies, who haven’t religious faith that’s controlling their thinking but have found themselves finding questions in cosmology, for which they are getting towards, pointing towards, stumbling towards God. Let me survey four of them.

1. The question of origins
Does the Big Bang prove God? You may have heard the type of argument that goes: If the universe began with a big explosion, the Big Bang, then who lit the blue touch paper? It must be God. Or, if the universe expanded from a little bit, then who put the little bit there first of all? God! In fact, it means that we replace the question mark in this type of argument by putting God in as the first cause of the universe.

Is this is a good argument for the existence of God? I’m not convinced, for a number of reasons. The first is that this kind of cosmological argument has had a number of problems with the logic of it over the years. Can you use cause and effect and apply it to the whole universe itself? And what about the nature of time and asking what came before the creation of time and all the rest of it?

But more importantly for me as a Christian theologian and indeed a Christian believer, is that this kind of argument leads to difficult pictures about God. The first is what Charles Coulson called ‘a God of the gaps.’ Coulson said, ‘Beware if science has a gap in it, of inserting God into the gap, because as science progressively explains more and more of its own area, so God is pushed out into irrelevance.’

The second is a problem of deism. A deist believes in a god who started the universe and then went off for a cup of tea, not to have anything more to do with it. But the images that the New Testament uses of God as creator are not of a god who simply started the universe off and then goes away, but a God who holds the universe in the palm of his hand, keeping it in existence moment by moment.

So in Hebrews—‘upholding the universe by his word of power’—the images are not of a God who smashes a champagne bottle against the whole of the universe, pushes it off to sea and says, ‘Cheerio, folks, see you on judgment day.’ The images are more of a God who holds the universe together, keeping it afloat.

Paul writes in Colossians, ‘In him all things hold together, all things cohere.’ The Christian understanding is of a creator who is in relationship with the universe not just at 10-43 of a second, but at every moment in the universe’s history. He is the creator, sustainer, keeping the universe in existence.

Kepler said, ‘Science is thinking God’s thoughts after him.’ And it seems to me that I don’t need to believe in a god of the gaps. I am passionate, as a physicist and as a theologian, to allow science to explore such things.

Even with the possibility of a scientific theory for the very first moment of time, we are left with a question that goes beyond a god of the gaps type question. You see, if the universe arises from a quantum fluctuation leading to a rapid expansion, we’re still left with the question: where does quantum theory itself come from? Where do the laws of physics themselves come from? And for me those are a reflection of this faithful God who sustains every moment of the universe’s history.

2. The question of purpose
Does the Big Bang disprove God? You’ve probably heard this kind of argument as well: ‘The Bible says that the universe is the sovereign act of a creator God, physics says that the universe arose through a quantum fluctuation leading to a Big Bang.’ And people often say, ‘Now, which one are you going to choose?’

Let me use a silly illustration. What is a kiss? Well, a kiss is the approach of two pairs of lips, a reciprocal transmission of carbon dioxide and microbes, and the juxtaposition of two orbicular muscles in a stage of contraction. That’s a kiss in scientific terms. But when I get home and I see my wife, if I say to her, ‘Alison, let me get together with you for a mutual transmission of carbon dioxide and microbes. Let me juxtapose my orbicular muscle in state of contraction with yours,’ she would say, ‘Get lost.’

You see, with my wife I talk not about the carbon dioxide, I talk about meaning, value and purpose. Which is true? The description, in terms of science, or the description in terms of meaning, value and purpose? Both are true, but different, and to fully understand a kiss I need both. Therefore, for myself as a cosmologist and a theologian I’m quite happy to live with these two different descriptions of the universe.

Does the Big Bang disprove God? No, of course it doesn’t, but we’re left with the question of why, or the old philosophical question: why is there something rather than nothing?

3. The question of design
This question has been around for a long time in Western culture: ‘Is there anything that you can look at in the universe and find a proof for God as designer?’ For the last few decades cosmologists have been playing around with questions of design—not proofs, but pointers. Why? Well, something called anthropic balances and the ‘Goldilocks enigma’; things seem to be just right in the laws and circumstance of the universe to make life possible.

Imagine we had a universe-making machine—it’d be very easy to construct. Two dials on it, one would set the expansion rate of the universe, the Big Bang force, one would set the force of gravity. Press the start button and out would come a universe. You could do this in theory. Not in practice, of course. Trouble is that this is a very, very boring thing to do, because after a few billion goes you’d find that it matters what these two are set to. You get the Big Bang force just a touch too high, the universe expands so rapidly that stars, galaxies, planets, human beings can’t form. If you get the gravitational force just a touch too high the universe appears but gravity is so strong that it collapses in on itself within a microsecond; the opposite of a Big Bang—the Big Crunch.

In order to get a galaxy of structure like ours, these two need to be set to one part in 1060. That’s almost like if you’re given a bow and arrow, blindfolded, spun round and asked to hit a target of one square centimetre on the other side of the universe. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not then going to say, ‘Therefore, God.’ But for a number of colleagues, they look at these extraordinary coincidences and say there must be a deeper story to the universe.

For me, as a Christian, this resonates with a God who created the universe to bring forth life and intelligibility. Albert Einstein famously said, ‘The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it’s comprehensible.’ Just think about that for a moment. Here we are in Melbourne and we’re talking about the universe back to 10-43 of a second, and it’s comprehensible. What allows the mathematics of our lives to resonate with the mathematics of the universe in such a fundamental way?

Under the complexity of the universe are some beautiful, elegant, simple laws. Anthropic balances, intelligibility, awe. Not proofs for the existence of God in any way but perhaps some pointers to God and certainly resonant with the Christian belief that this is creation.

4. The question of revelation
How can God be known? A number of years ago a physicist, mathematician John Taylor wrote a book about black holes. In it he said something like this: ‘The universe is very, very big. In fact, it’s probably infinite. Our minds are very, very small and very, very finite. How can a finite mind ever understand an infinite god?’ In fact, he concluded that we can’t, therefore there’s no point talking about it. We may as well say that God doesn’t exist. But, says the Christian, with respect, ‘What if the infinite God decided to reveal himself to the finite mind in a way that the finite mind could understand?’ In fact, it seems to me that’s a logical possibility.

Of course, for Christians  it’s more than logical possibility; it’s a central part of the Christian faith, that God has revealed himself in a way that’s understandable. Not telling us everything about everything, but telling us about himself. Richard Dawkins, with perhaps a characteristic humility says, ‘Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to obey the need to think and evaluate evidence.’ I’ve never found that with the Christian faith, I have to say.

I came to the Christian faith not by looking in the stars, but by encountering Jesus. You remember the beginning of John’s gospel, in its remarkable philosophical synthesis, where John takes two strands of thought in the ancient world: logos, the word, the Greek understanding of the rationality behind the universe, and he puts it together with a Hebrew understanding of the word, God’s personal, creative activity. Remember in Genesis, ‘God said … and it was so’? And John puts these two things together and writes, ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.’

And you think to yourself, ‘John, wow!’ Saying that the rationality behind the universe is exactly the same thing as this personal creative activity from God. What a remarkable thing to do. But then John just blows our minds and says, ‘And the word became flesh, became a human being and lived among us, full of grace and truth. We beheld his glory, glory as of the only son from the father. No one has ever seen God. The only Son he has made him known.’

Why do I believe in a creator God? I don’t believe in a creator God because of the pointers from the universe, although I find those fascinating. I believe in a creator God because I’ve encountered this God in Jesus of Nazareth, both in history and in experience. A God who self-reveals by becoming a human being. And this Jesus is the integrating point for believing that there’s a creator and for holding together cosmology and creation.

 

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