When I gaze into the night sky, am I included in a larger galactic whole? Is this whole more than the sum of its parts? Does the whole have consciousness in its own right? Is it the Mind of the universe? Is it God? Does it have something to do with the poetic rendition in Genesis where God says "let there be light." Are the lights of the night sky, and the black holes and supernovae as well, somehow evoked by the lure of a cosmic Mind within whose life they unfold? Can astronomy be connected with theology, such that they nourish one another. Ian Barbour, the dean of science and religion, says "yes." Read his essay here, the fifth chapter of Religion in an Age of Science (Harper San Francisco, 1990), and decide for yourself. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock and is republished in Open Horizons with permission, from Religion Online.
On Christmas Eve 1968, the first astronauts in orbit around the moon appeared live on TV in millions of American homes. Frank Borman read the opening verses of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the water. And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. Borman’s message concluded: "Greetings from the crew of Apollo 8. God bless all of you on the good earth."
Those astronauts were the first people to see the beauty of the earth as a blue and white gem spinning in the vastness of space, and the reading from Genesis seemed an appropriate response. But how can the Genesis story be reconciled with the findings of twentieth-century astronomy? What are the theological implications of recent cosmological theories?
I. The Big Bang
Let us look first at the scientific evidence concerning the early history of the universe and some initial theological responses to it. In subsequent sections, recent cosmological theories and interpretations of the doctrine of creation are examined in greater detail.
1. Theories in Astrophysics
Physical cosmology is the study of the physical structure of the cosmos as a whole.1 In 1917, Willem de Sitter, working with Einstein’s general relativity equations, found a solution that predicted an expanding universe, In 1929, Edwin Hubble, examining the "red shift" of light from distant nebulae, formulated Hubble’s Law: the velocity of recession of a nebula is proportional to its distance from us. Space itself, not just objects in space, is everywhere expanding. Extrapolating backward in time, the universe seems to be expanding from a common origin about fifteen billion years ago. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered a faint background of microwaves coming from all directions in space. The spectrum of those waves corresponded very closely to the 3 K residual radiation, which had been predicted from relativity theory. The radiation is the cosmic fireball’s afterglow, cooled by its subsequent expansion. Indirect evidence concerning the very early moments of the Big Bang have come from both theoretical and experimental work in high-energy physics. Einstein himself spent his later years in an unsuccessful search for a unified theory that would integrate gravity with other physical forces. More recent research has moved closer to this goal. There are four basic physical forces: (1) the electromagnetic force responsible for light and the behavior of charged particles; (2) the weak nuclear force responsible for radioactive decay; (3) the strong nuclear force that binds protons and neutrons into nuclei; and (4) the gravitational force evident in the long-distance attraction between masses. Recent attempts to develop a theory that would integrate these forces have moved through several stages.
In 1967, Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam showed that the electromagnetic and weak forces could be unified within an Electroweak Theory. The theory predicted the existence of two massive particles, the W and Z bosons, which mediate between the two kinds of force. In 1983, Carlo Rubbia and coworkers found particles with the predicted properties of W bosons among the products of high-energy collisions in the CERN accelerator in Geneva.
There has been some progress in attempts to unite the electro-weak and strong forces in a Grand Unified Theory (GUT). The unification would be mediated by very massive X-particles, which could only exist at energies higher than those in any existing accelerator. However, the GUT theory implies that protons decay spontaneously, very slowly, rather than being stable, as previously supposed. Physicists are trying to detect this extremely low level of proton decay with experiments in deep mines, where other stray particles are screened Out. A GUT theory would help us understand the structure of matter today, and it would also contribute to our understanding of the very early moments of the Big Bang.
The unification of gravity with the other three forces within one Supersymmetry Theory has appeared more difficult because we have no successful quantum theory of gravity. But there has been recent excitement concerning Superstring Theory, which escapes the anomalies of previous attempts. The basic constituents would be incredibly massive, tiny, one-dimensional strings which can split or loop. With differing patterns of vibration and rotation, they can represent all known particles from quarks to electrons. The theory requires ten dimensions; six of these would somehow have to disappear to leave the four dimensions of spacetime. There is no experimental evidence for strings; the energy required for their existence would be far beyond those in the laboratory, but it would have been present at the very earliest instants of the Big Bang.2 Physicists have a strong commitment to simplicity, unity, and symmetry, which motivates the search for a unified theory even when direct experimentation is impossible.
Putting together the evidence from astronomy and high-energy physics, a plausible reconstruction of cosmic history can be made. Imagine a trip backward in time. Twelve billion years after the Big Bang, microscopic forms of life were beginning to appear on our planet. Ten billion years after the bang, the planet itself was formed. One billion years from the beginning, the galaxies and stars were coming into being. At t500,000 years, the constituent atoms appeared. A mere 3 minutes from the beginning, the nuclei were starting to form out of protons and neutrons. Plausible theories concerning these events can account for the relative abundance of hydrogen and helium and for the formation of heavier chemical elements in the interior of stars (see fig. 3).3
TIME TEMP. TRANSITION
15 billion yrs. (today)
12 Microscopic life
10 Planets formed
1 Galaxies formed (heavy elements)
500,000 yrs. 2000_ Atoms formed (light elements)
3 mins. 109 Nuclei formed (hydrogen, helium)
10-4 sec. l012 Quarks to protons and neutrons
10-10 1015 Weak and electromagnetic forces separate
10-35 1028 Strong nuclear force separates
10-43 ‘ 1032 Gravitational force separates
(0 Infinite Singularity)
Fig 3. Major Cosmological Transitions
The farther back we go before 3 minutes, the more tentative are the theories, because they deal with states of matter and energy further from anything we can duplicate in the laboratory. Protons and neutrons were probably forming from their constituent quarks at 10-4 seconds (a ten-thousandth of a second from the beginning), when the temperature had cooled to 1012 (a thousand billion) degrees. This fantastically dense sea of hot quarks had been formed at about 1010 seconds from an even smaller and hotter fireball -- which had expanded and cooled enough for the electro-weak forces to be distinguishable from the strong and gravitational forces.4 Before 10-35 seconds, the temperature was so high that all the forces except gravity were of comparable strength. This is the period to which a Grand Unified Theory would apply. We have almost no idea of events before 10-43 seconds, when the temperature was 1032 degrees. The whole universe was the size of an atom today, and the density was an incredible 1096 times that of water. At these very small dimensions, the Heisenberg uncertainties of quantum theory were significant, and all four forces were united. This would have been the era of Supersymmetry. I will return later to examine some remarkable features of these very early stages. But what happened before that? At the time t=0, was there a dimensionless point of pure radiation of infinite density? And how is that point to be accounted for? To the scientist, t=0 is inaccessible. It appears as a singularity, to which the laws of physics do not apply. It represents a kind of ultimate limit to scientific inquiry, something that can only be treated as a given, though one can speculate about it.
2. Theological Responses
How might theologians respond to these new theories in astrophysics? Should they rejoice that, after centuries of conflict between theologians and astronomers, there now seems to be a common ground in the idea that the universe had a beginning -- a beginning that science cannot explain? Would it be appropriate to identify that point of radiation of infinite density with those words in Genesis, "Let there be light," since light, after all, is pure radiation?
Pope Pius XII welcomed the Big Bang theory as support for the idea of creation in time.5 More recently, the astrophysicist Robert Jastrow has argued that "the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world." He ends his book God and the Astronomers with this striking passage:
At this 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.6
On the other hand, some contemporary theologians claim that theology has no stake in the debates among astronomers. Arthur Peacocke, for example, writes, "Theology is agnostic about the how of creation. . . . Whether the big bang wins out or not is irrelevant theologically."7
I want to start with a word of caution about identifying the religious idea of creation too closely with scientific ideas of cosmology. Later I will indicate some points at which I think contemporary cosmology is relevant to theology. One reason for caution is that in the past God has often been invoked to explain gaps in the prevailing scientific account. This has been a losing enterprise as one gap after another has been filled by the advance of science -- first in seventeenth-century astronomy and physics, then in nineteenth-century geology and biology. The present case appears different because events at the time to seem to be in principle inaccessible to science. Yet this situation might conceivably change, for much of contemporary cosmology is tentative and speculative.
Thirty years ago, some astronomers thought they had avoided the problem of a beginning by postulating an infinite span of time. The Steady State Theory proposed that hydrogen atoms come into being, slowly and continuously, throughout an infinite time and space. Frederick Hoyle, in particular, defended the theory long after most of his colleagues had abandoned it. Hoyle’s writings make clear that he favored the Steady State Theory, not just on scientific grounds, but partly because he thought infinite time was more compatible with his own atheistic beliefs.8 But today Big Bang theories have clearly won the day.
However, it is possible to combine the Big Bang and infinite time if one assumes an oscillating cosmos. Before the present era of expansion there could have been an era of contraction -- a Big Crunch before the Big Bang. Any evidence for past cycles would have to be indirect, since their structure would have been totally wiped out in the fireball. One would expect from the law of entropy that there could have been only a finite rather than an infinite number of oscillations, though under such conditions the applicability of the law is very uncertain. Concerning the future of the cosmos, observations suggest that the velocity of expansion is very close to the critical threshold between expanding forever (an open universe) and expanding a very long time before contracting again (a closed universe). There does not seem to be enough mass in the universe to reverse the expansion, but there may be additional mass not yet detected (in black holes, neutrinos, and interstellar matter, for instance).
Some atheistic or agnostic astronomers feel more comfortable, with the idea of an infinite series of oscillations, just as some theists welcome a beginning of time. But I would say it is equally difficult to imagine a beginning of time or an infinite span of time. Both are unlike anything we have experienced. Both start with an unexplained universe. We have acknowledged (chap. 2) that the choice of theories and paradigms is inevitably influenced by metaphysical assumptions as well as by empirical data. But in this case I do not think that major theological issues are at stake, as has often been assumed. If a single, unique Big Bang continues to be the most convincing scientific theory, the theist can indeed see it as an instant of divine origination. But I will suggest that this is not the main concern expressed in the religious notion of creation.
II. Creation in Judaism and Christianity
What is the theological content of the doctrine of creation? To answer this question we must start with the biblical creation story and briefly trace the historical development of the idea of creation. We must also look at the function of creation stories in the life of religious communities. Only then will we be able to ask about the compatibility of the doctrine of creation with contemporary cosmology.
1. Historical Ideas of Creation
Look again at the opening verses of Genesis: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters." The relation between those first two sentences is not clear in the Hebrew, and the RSV Bible gives the alternative translation: "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void Instead of creation from nothing, ex nihilo, there is the creation of order from chaos. Scholars see here an echo of the Babylonian creation story, which also starts with a primeval watery chaos. Several biblical passages refer to taming the waters and conquering the sea monster Rahab, which are also features of the Babylonian story.9 Many texts in the Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures) assume a continuing struggle between order and chaos and acknowledge the persistence of evil and the fragility of creation.10
But clearly the biblical story differs from other ancient creation stories in its assertion of the sovereignty and transcendence of God and the dignity of humanity. Creation is orderly and deliberate, following a comprehensive plan and resulting in a harmonious and interdependent whole. God is portrayed as purposive and powerful, creating by word alone. In the Babylonian story, humanity was created to provide slaves for the gods; in Genesis, humanity was given a special status in God’s plan, superior to the rest of creation.11 The biblical narrative asserts the essential goodness and harmony of the created order. After each day, God saw that it was good; after the sixth day, "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good." It is a cosmos, a structured, harmonious whole.
Most historical scholars hold that within the Hebrew scriptures the first chapter of Genesis (through 2:3) is a relatively late writing, probably from the fifth century BC. (We will consider the story of Adam and Eve in a later chapter.) It appears that God was worshiped as the redeemer of Israel before being worshiped as the creator of the world. The exodus and the covenant at Sinai were the formative events for Israel as a people. Early Israelite religion centered on God’s act of liberation and revelation in history -- that is, the creation of Israel. Von Rad argues that the Genesis story was of secondary importance, a kind of cosmic prologue to Israel’s history, written to give the covenant faith a more universal context.12
But Westermann, Anderson, and most scholars today hold that creation was of considerable importance throughout the Hebrew scriptures.13 Challenged by the nature gods of surrounding cultures, the people of Israel asserted that Yahweh was both Redeemer and Creator. Several early psalms celebrate Yahweh’s enthronement as Creator and King (Pss. 47, 93, and 99). Again, Psalm 19 expresses gratitude for both creation and revelation: "The heavens are telling the glory of God," but also "The law of the Lord is perfect." "Our help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth" (Ps. 121:2). In Job, the voice from the whirlwind asks, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" and goes on to portray with poetic power the wonders of the created order (Job 38-41). In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as God’s agent in creation.
Isaiah gives the most powerful synthesis of creation and redemption, tying past, present, and future together. God is indeed the creator of Israel, but also of all humanity and all nature. Moreover, says Isaiah, God will in the future recreate a people out of the chaos of bondage and exile (Isa. 40, 45, and 49). Here is the theme of a new creation, including a new harmony in nature, which is picked up in the later apocalyptic literature. The idea of creation thus pervades the Hebrew scriptures; we do not have to rely on Genesis alone. In the New Testament, too, creation is closely linked to redemption. The opening verse of John’s Gospel recalls Genesis: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. . . . All things were made through him." Here the term Word merges the logos, the Greek principle of rationality, with the Hebrew image of God’s Word active in the world. But John then links creation to revelation: "And the Word became flesh." In Christ’s life and death, according to the early church, God had made known the purpose of creation. Paul, in his devotion to Christ, gives him a kind of cosmic role in several passages: "In him all things were created in heaven and on earth . . . . he is before all things and in him all things hold together" (Col. 11:16-17; cf. I Cor. 8:6). The Spirit was understood as God’s continuing presence in nature, in individual life, and in the gathered community.
The Nicene Creed (AD. 381) refers to God as "maker of heaven and earth." The creed was important in the liturgical life of the church in affirming its identity and its commitment to God and Christ. The doctrine of creation was formulated more explicitly as part of the self-definition of the Christian community in relation to rival philosophies, especially in response to the challenge of Hellenistic dualism. The idea of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, was elaborated to exclude the gnostic teachings that matter is evil, the work of a lesser being, not the work of the God who redeems.
Against claims that preexisting matter limited God’s creativity, ex nihilo asserted that God is the source of matter as well as of form. Against the gnostic disparagement of the material world, it asserted the goodness of the created order. Against pantheism, it asserted that the world is not divine or part of God but is distinct from God. Against the idea that the world was an emanation of God, made of the divine substance and sharing its characteristics, it asserted that God is transcendent and essentially different from the world. It is such ontological assertions, and not any specific reference to a temporal beginning, which were, and are today, of theological importance.
By the fourth century, Augustine was willing to accept metaphorical or figurative interpretations of Genesis, and he said that it was not the intent of scripture to instruct us about such things as the form and shape of the heavens. "God did not wish to teach men things not relevant to their salvation." He held that creation is not an event in time; time was created along with the world. Creation is the timeless act through which time comes to be and the continuous act by which God preserves the world. He said that it is meaningless to ask what God was doing before creating the world, for there was no time without the created world.14
Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century accepted a beginning in time as part of scripture and tradition and said that creation in time helps to make God’s power evident. But he argued that a universe that had always existed would equally require God as creator and sustainer. What is essential theologically could be stated without reference to a beginning or a singular event. To be sure, one of the versions of his cosmological argument did assume a beginning in time: every effect has a cause, which in turn is the effect of a previous cause, back to a First Cause, which initiated the causal chain. But in another version, he asks, Why is there anything at all? He replies that the whole causal chain, whether finite or infinite, is dependent on God. God’s priority is ontological rather than temporal. But we must note also that there has been a subordinate theme of continuing creation from biblical times to the present. Edmund Jacob has said that while there are many biblical texts referring to a primordial creation in the beginning, "Other texts, generally more ancient, draw much less distinction between the creation and conservation of the world, and make it possible for us to speak of a creatio continua."15 There is a recurring witness to God’s continuing sovereignty over both history and nature. God is still creating through natural processes. "Thou dost cause the grass to grow for cattle and the plants for man to cultivate. . . . When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; and thou renewest the face of the ground" (Ps. 104: 14 and 30).
The Spirit was mentioned in the opening verses of Genesis and in the psalm just cited. I will point out later that the Bible refers to the Spirit in relation to nature, history, prophetic inspiration, corporate worship, the life of Christ, and the Christian community. It is thus an important concept in any attempt to give a unified account of God’s activity in these diverse realms. I will suggest that the Spirit, which is God’s presence and activity in the world, is crucial in understanding creation and redemption as two aspects of a single divine purpose and activity.
Jaroslav Pelikan shows that the continuing creation theme was present but subordinate throughout the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. He holds that it assumes great importance in considering evolution and contemporary science.16 I will suggest that astrophysics, along with geology and evolutionary biology, shows us a dynamic world with a long history of change and development and the appearance of novel forms. Coming-to-be is a continuing process throughout time, and it continues today. We can see the emergence of new forms as signs of God’s creativity.
2. The Interpretation of Genesis Today
How then are we to understand the opening chapter of Genesis? A literal interpretation of the seven days would conflict with many fields of science, as we saw in chapter 1. The attempt to find scientific information in Genesis is dubious theology as well as dubious science. By treating it as if it were a book of science ahead of its times, we tend to neglect both the human experiences that lie behind it and the theological affirmations it makes.
I would list the human experiences that lie behind the idea of creation as follows: (1) a sense of dependence, finitude and contingency; (2) a response of wonder, trust, gratitude for life, and affirmation of the world; and (3) a recognition of interdependence, order, and beauty in the world. These were all part of the experience of the astronauts as they looked at the earth from the moon, and their reading of Genesis seems an appropriate expression of their response. The religious idea of creation starts from wonder and gratitude for life as a gift.
What are the basic theological affirmations in that chapter of Genesis? I would list the following: (1) the world is essentially good, orderly, coherent, and intelligible; (2) the world is dependent on God; and (3) God is sovereign, free, transcendent, and characterized by purpose and will. Note that these are all assertions about characteristics of God and the world in every moment of time, not statements about an event in the past. They express ontological rather than temporal relationships. 17
The intent of the story was not to exclude any scientific account but to exclude, in the first instance, the nature gods of the ancient world. In later history it stood against alternative philosophical schemes, such as pantheism, dualism, and the belief that the world and matter are either illusory or evil or ultimate. Against these alternatives it asserted that the created order is good, an interdependent whole, a community of being, but not the object of our worship. These theological affirmations were expressed in Genesis in terms of a prescientific cosmology that included a three-level universe and creation in seven days. But the affirmations are not dependent on that physical cosmology. Reform and Conservative Judaism, the Catholic church, and most of the mainline Protestant denominations today maintain that we do not have to choose between theism and science. We can look on the Big Bang and subsequent evolution as God’s way of creating.18
But should we take a beginning of time literally, even if we do not interpret the seven days in Genesis literally? Here theologians are divided. For one thing, the biblical concept of finite linear time has contributed to the Western view of history. The West has differed from the ancient cultures and the Eastern religions, which assumed an infinite succession of cycles; these cultures have generally evidenced less interest in historical development. But other theologians suggest that even a beginning of time is not crucial to the theological notion of creation. David Kelsey, for instance, says that the basic experience of gratitude for life as a gift has no essential connection with speculations about unique events at the beginning. Science and religion, he maintains, address different question, which should not be confused.19
Without denying the distinctive features of Genesis, we can note that creation stories in various cultures fulfill similar functions. They locate human life within a cosmic order. The interest in origins may be partly speculative or explanatory, but the main concern is to understand who we are in a framework of larger significance. Anthropologists and scholars of the world’s religions have looked at a variety of creation stories, studying their function in the ordering of human experience in relation to a meaningful world. These stories provide patterns for human behavior, archetypes of authentic human life in accord with a universal order. They portray basic relationships between human life and the world of nature. Often they express structures of integration and creativity over against powers of disintegration and chaos.
A religious community appropriates and participates in its sacred stories in various ways. Often the stories are symbolized or enacted in rituals. Streng speaks of one generation passing on to another stories that "manifest the essential structure of reality." Eliade says that exemplary patterns in primordial time are made present in ritual and liturgy.20 Consider an example from the traditional Jewish morning prayer, which uses the present tense:
Praised are You, O Lord our God. King or the universe.
You fix the cycles of light and darkness;
You ordain the order of all creation.
In Your goodness the work of creation
Is continually renewed day by day.21
The prayer goes on to express gratitude for the world and the gift of life, continuing into the present. The Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ also uses the present tense: "We believe in God. . . . You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image, and set before each one the ways of life and death." Or consider the prayer in one of the communion services in the Episcopal prayer book. These lines could not have been written before the space age, yet they express traditional themes. The celebrant (C) is at the altar and the people (P) respond:
C: God of all power, Rule of the Universe, you are worthy of glory and praise.
P: Glory to you for ever and ever.
C: At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.
P: By your will they were created and have their being.
C: From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.
P: Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.22 Here again the focus is on the significance of human life in relation to God and the world. That is what is important religiously.
III. The New Cosmology
So far I have been emphasizing that the religious idea of creation is not dependent on particular physical cosmologies, ancient or modern. I turn now to examine several features of recent astrophysics that raise some interesting questions concerning design, chance, and necessity. The general character of the argument can be followed, even if the details are somewhat technical. In section IV the theological implications of these ideas will be explored.
1. Design: The Anthropic Principle
In the traditional argument from design, it was claimed that both biological forms and the physical conditions favorable for life must be the product of an intelligent designer because it is inconceivably improbable that they could have occurred by chance. Even before Darwin, Hume and other critics replied that when we have only one case (one universe) from which to judge, we cannot make judgments of probability. But the argument from design has been revived by recent cosmologists who compare our universe with the set of possible universes allowed by the laws of physics.
A striking feature of the new cosmological theories is that even a small change in the physical constants would have resulted in an uninhabitable universe. Among the many possible universes consistent with Einstein’s equations, ours is one of the few in which the arbitrary parameters are right for the existence of anything resembling organic life. Thus Carr and Rees conclude that the possibility of life as we know it "depends on the value of a few basic constants" and is "remarkably sensitive to them."23 Among these fine-tuned phenomena are the following:
1. The Expansion Rate. Stephen Hawking writes, "If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million it would have recollapsed before it reached its present size." 24 On the other hand, if it had been greater by a part in a million, the universe would have expanded too rapidly for stars and planets to form. The expansion rate itself depends on many factors, such as the initial explosive energy, the mass of the universe, and the strength of gravitational forces. The cosmos seems to be balanced on a knife edge.
2. The Formation of the Elements. If the strong nuclear force were even slightly weaker we would have only hydrogen in the universe. If the force were even slightly stronger, all the hydrogen would have been converted to helium. In either case, stable stars and compounds such as water could not have been formed. Again, the nuclear force is only barely sufficient for carbon to form; yet if it had been slightly stronger, the carbon would all have been converted into oxygen. Particular elements, such as carbon, have many other special properties that are crucial to the later development of organic life as we know it.25
3. The Particle/Antiparticle Ratio. For every billion antiprotons in the early universe, there were one billion and one protons. The billion pairs annihilated each other to produce radiation, with just one proton left over. A greater or smaller number of survivors -- or no survivors at all if they had been evenly matched -- would have made our kind of material world impossible. The laws of physics seem to be symmetrical between particles and antiparticles; why was there a tiny asymmetry?26
One could list other unexplained "remarkable coincidences," such as the fact that the universe is homogenous and isotropic. The simultaneous occurrence of many independent improbable features appears wildly improbable. Reflection on the way the universe seems to be fine tuned for intelligent life led the cosmologists Dicke and Carter to formulate the Anthropic Principle: "What we can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers."27 The principle does underscore the importance of the observer, to which quantum theory also testifies. But it does not in itself provide any causal explanation of those conditions. However, this fine tuning could be taken as an argument for the existence of a designer, perhaps a God with an interest in conscious life.
Some physicists see evidence of design in the early universe. Stephen Hawking, for example, writes, "The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the Big Bang are enormous. I think there are clearly religious implications."28 And Freeman Dyson, in a chapter entitled "The Argument from Design," gives a number of examples of "numerical accidents that seem to conspire to make the universe habitable." He concludes, "The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming."29
2. Chance: Many-World Theories
One way of explaining the apparent design in these "remarkable coincidences" is to suggest that many worlds existed either successively or simultaneously. If there were billions of worlds with differing constants, it would not be surprising if by chance one of them happened to have constants just right for our forms of life. That which is highly improbable in one world might be probable among a large enough set of worlds. There are several ways in which many worlds could, occur.
1. Successive Cycles of an Oscillating Universe. Wheeler and others suggest that the universe is reprocessed in each Big Crunch before the next Big Bang. The universe and all its structures completely melt down and make a new start as it expands and cools again. In the quantum uncertainties entailed by those very small dimensions, indeterminate possibilities are present. If the constants vary at random in successive cycles, our particular combination will eventually come up by chance, like the winning combination on a Las Vegas slot machine. As indicated earlier, present evidence does not favor cyclic theories, but they cannot be ruled out.
2. Multiple Isolated Domains. Instead of multiple bangs in successive cycles, a single Big Bang might have produced multiple domains existing simultaneously. The domains would be like separately expanding bubbles isolated from each other because their velocity of separation prevents communication even at the speed of light. The universe might have split into many domains with differing constants or even differing laws.30 Some of the new inflationary models of the universe involve infinite time and regions very unlike ours, beyond our horizon of possible observation. Perhaps this just happens to be one of the few regions in which life could be present.
3. Many-Worlds Quantum Theory. In the previous chapter we noted Everett’s proposal that every time there are alternative quantum potentialities in an atom, the universe splits into several branches.31 This interpretation of quantum theory involves a mind-boggling multiplicity of worlds, since each world would have to split again into many branches during each of the myriad atomic and subatomic events throughout time and space. But being mind-boggling is not enough to disqualify an idea, though this proposal violates Occam’s Razor with a vengeance. More to the point, it seems to be inherently unverifiable, since no communication could take place between the various branching worlds.
4. Quantum Vacuum Fluctuations. A strange feature of quantum theory is that it permits very brief violations of the law of conservation of energy. It is permissible for a system’s energy to go into debt if the debt is rapidly paid back -- so rapidly that it could never be detected within the limits of the uncertainty principle. This means that empty space, a vacuum, is really a sea of activity in which pairs of virtual particles come into being and almost immediately annihilate each other again. Since the magnitude of the allowable energy debt is inversely proportional to the repayment time, the energy needed to create a universe could be borrowed for only a fantastically brief instant, but conceivably this could get things going. Moreover, the energy needed might be small or even zero if the negative gravitational energy is taken into account.
All four of these theories -- many cycles, many domains, many quantum worlds, or many quantum fluctuations -- would allow us to explain the combination of constants favorable to life as a chance occurrence among a set of worlds, most of which would be lifeless. John Leslie has argued that the God hypothesis is simpler and more plausible as an explanation of the fine tuning than these many-worlds hypotheses.32 These theories, he says, are all very ad hoc and unsupported by any independent evidence, whereas one can appeal to other kinds of evidence in support of belief in God. Note that Leslie assumes here that God and chance are mutually exclusive hypotheses.
I suggest, however, that one could interpret many-worlds hypotheses theistically. It is common for theologians to understand evolution as God’s way of creating and to accept chance and the wastefulness of extinct species as part of this long process. One might similarly hold that God created many universes in order that life and thought would occur in this one. Admittedly, this gives chance an inordinately large role, and it involves a colossal waste and inefficiency if there are many lifeless universes. But then again, one might reply that for God neither space nor time is in short supply, so efficiency is a dubious criterion. In any case, the first three of these theories are highly speculative and have no experimental support. It is simpler, from the viewpoint of both science and theology, to assume that there has been only one world.
The vacuum fluctuation theory is also speculative, but it is consistent with the fact that the creation of virtual particles occurs in the laboratory. It has sometimes been viewed as a secular version of creation ex nihilo, because it starts with a vacuum, which is, literally, nothing. Space and time would have come into existence along with the appearance of matter-energy in a random quantum fluctuation. However, all our experiments with a vacuum are within an already existing spacetime framework, in which a vacuum is the quiescent state of the ever-present quantum field. Most theories of an initial vacuum fluctuation assume such a framework. How do we account for the situation in which a gigantic quantum fluctuation could have occurred?
3. Necessity: A Theory of Everything
We have tried to account for the value of parameters favorable to the emergence of life, first on the basis of design and then on the basis of chance. But there is a third possibility: necessity. Perhaps the values of the constants, which appear arbitrary, are in fact dictated by a more basic structure of relationships. Perhaps there is a more fundamental theory which will show that the constants can have only the values that they have. In the history of science are recorded many apparent coincidences or apparently arbitrary numbers that later received theoretical explanation.
We have seen that a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) offers the prospect of bringing the two nuclear forces and the electromagnetic force into a single theory. Such a theory would help us understand that momentary era, prior to the hot quark era, when these three forces were merged. The theory already suggests that the slight imbalance between particles and antiparticles may have arisen from a slight asymmetry in the decay processes of the X and the anti-X bosons (the very heavy particles, which mediate the unified force of the GUT theory).
There are also promising new inflationary theories which may explain why the present expansion rate is so close to the critical balance between an open and a closed universe (the so-called flatness problem). Inflationary theories could also explain why the microwave radiation is isotropic (arriving equally from all directions). These theories entail a very rapid expansion at about 10-35 seconds, due to the tremendous energy released in the breaking of symmetry when the strong force separated out. Before inflation, the universe would have been so small that its parts could have been in communication and thus could have achieved thermal equilibrium, which would account for its later homogeneity over vast distances.33
Current theories are quite inadequate to deal with the even earlier period before 10-43 seconds when the temperature would have been so high that the fourth force, gravity, would have been united with the other three. Scientists hope to develop theories of Supersymmetry or Supergravity, which would provide a quantum theory of gravity. We saw that String Theory, in particular, may bring these diverse phenomena together. Because it would unite all the basic physical forces, it has been referred to as a Theory of Everything (TOE). Perhaps the whole cosmos can be derived from one simple and all-inclusive equation. Such a theory has been called the Holy Grail of the current quest in physics.
Successful GUT and TOE theories would seem to undermine the argument from design in the early universe. Perhaps self-consistency and fundamental laws will show that only one universe is possible, that is, that the universe is necessary and not contingent. I would reply that such theories would only push the argument back a stage. For it is all the more remarkable if a highly abstract physical theory, which itself has absolutely nothing to say about life, turns out to describe structures that have the potential for developing into life. The theist could welcome this as part of God’s design. Such an orderly universe seems to display a grander design than a universe of chance. A theory that starts with a superlaw and a singularity would leave unanswered the question, Why that superlaw and that singularity? And why the laws of logic that end with such amazing consequences? Can a TOE ever explain itself or how it comes to be instantiated in the real world?
In physics, moreover, predictions are ordinarily made from a combination of universal laws and contingent boundary conditions (particular initial conditions). From universal premises alone one cannot derive conclusions about particulars. To be sure, in some situations an outcome is indifferent to the boundary conditions; paths from diverse initial states may converge to the same unique final state (for example, thermodynamic equilibrium). But in other situations paths diverge because chance enters at a variety of levels. Evolution must be described by a historical account of events and not by predictive laws alone. Contingent boundary conditions would be present even if it turned out that time is infinite and there was no beginning. At any point, however far back, there was a particular "given" situation that, along with laws and chance, affected the subsequent course of history. But Stephen Hawking has developed a theory of quantum gravity that assumes neither infinite time nor a beginning of time. Instead, time is finite but unbounded. There is no initial singularity. The equations are relationships involving imaginary time, which is indistinguishable from the three spatial dimensions. Just as the two-dimensional surface of the earth is finite but unbounded, and three-dimensional relativistic ("curved") space is finite but unbounded, so Hawking’s spatial and imaginary time dimensions are all finite but unbounded. In that imaginary time frame, real time gradually emerges. He grants that the interpretation of events in imaginary time is not clear. It also seems to me inconsistent to think of time as emerging, since emergence refers to changes in real time.
Hawking makes some interesting comments on the theological implications of a self-contained universe without boundaries or initial conditions. Earlier Big Bang theory assumed a singularity at which the laws of physics break down. At the singularity, God would have had freedom to choose both the initial conditions and the laws of the universe. But in Hawking’s universe there are no initial conditions, and the choice of laws is restricted by self-consistency and by the Anthropic Principle: the early universe must provide the conditions for the later existence of humanity. He concludes,
[God] would, of course, still have had the freedom to choose the laws that the universe obeyed. This, however, may not really have been all that much of a choice; there may well be only one, or a small number, of complete unified theories, such as the heterotic string theory, that are self-consistent and allow the existence of structures as complicated as human beings who can investigate the laws of the universe and ask about the nature of God.
Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe.34
Hawking says here that the equations of a unified theory could not answer the question of why there is a universe at all. Yet his final paragraph seems to hold out the hope that a complete scientific theory may someday answer just that question: However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we would know the mind of God.35
IV. Theological Implications
Let us consider the theological implications of recent cosmology under four headings: (1) Intelligibility and Contingency, (2) Ex nihilo and Continuing Creation, (3) The Significance of Humanity, and (4) Eschatology and the Future.
1. Intelligibility and Contingency
We have seen that the search for a unified theory is partly motivated by the conviction that the cosmos is rationally intelligible. Physicists must, of course, check their theories against experimental evidence, but they are convinced that a valid general theory will be conceptually simple and aesthetically beautiful. To the critical realist, simplicity in our theories reflects a simplicity in the world and not just in our minds. Einstein said that the only thing that is incomprehensible about the world is that it is comprehensible. Historically, the conviction that the cosmos is unified and intelligible had both Greek and biblical roots. The Greeks, and later the Stoics in the Roman world, saw the universe as a single system. The Greek philosophers had great confidence in the power of reason, and it is not surprising that they made significant progress in mathematics and geometry. But historians have claimed that the biblical doctrine of creation made a distinctive contribution to the rise of experimental science because it combined the ideas of rationality and contingency. (This was cited in chapter 1 as an example of the boundary questions discussed by advocates of the Dialogue position.) If God is rational, the world is orderly; but if God is also free, the world did not have to have the particular order that it has. The world can then be understood only by observing it, rather than by deducing its order from necessary first principles, as the Greeks tried to do.36 The church fathers said that God voluntarily created form as well as matter ex nihilo, rather than imposing preexisting eternal forms on matter.
Thomas Torrance has written extensively on the theme of "contingent order." He stresses God’s freedom in creating as an act of voluntary choice. God alone is infinitely free, and both the existence and the structure of the world are contingent in the sense that they might not have been. The world might have been differently ordered. We can discover its order only by observation. Moreover, the world can be studied on its own because in being created it has its own independent reality, distinct from the transcendent God. Science can legitimately assume a "methodological secularism" in its work, while the theologian can still assert that the world is ultimately dependent on God.37
Einstein, on the other hand, saw any contingency as a threat to belief in the rationality of the world, which he said is central in science. "A conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a high order."38 He spoke of a "cosmic religious sense" and "a deep faith in the rationality of the world." He rejected the idea of a personal God whose acts arbitrarily interfere in the course of events; he subscribed to a form of pantheism, identifying God with the orderly structure itself. When asked if he believed in God, he replied, "I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists."39 Einstein equated rationality with orderliness and determinism; he never abandoned his conviction that the uncertainties of quantum theory only reflect temporary human ignorance, which will be left behind when the deterministic underlying mechanisms are discovered. He felt that Bohr’s ideas of paradox and complementarity were a departure from rationality. He was mainly concerned about the necessity of events, but he also thought that the laws of physics are logically necessary. In a similar vein, Geoffrey Chew holds that all the laws of physics will be uniquely derivable from the requirement of self-consistency alone.40 The physicist James Trefil describes the search for unified laws in cosmology, and in an epilogue he writes, But who created those laws?. . . Who made the laws of logic?. . . No matter how far the boundaries are pushed back, there will always be room both for religious faith and a religious interpretation of the physical world. For myself, I feel much more comfortable with the concept of a God who is clever enough to devise the laws of physics that make the existence of our marvelous universe inevitable than I do with the old-fashioned God who had to make it all, laboriously, piece by piece.41 Here the assumption seems to be that of deism rather than pantheism: the laws of physics are contingent but events governed by those laws are "inevitable."
John Polkinghorne, physicist and theologian, discusses the intelligibility of the world in a theistic framework. The key to understanding the physical world is mathematics, an invention of the human mind. The fit between reason in our minds and in the world would be expected if the world is the creation of mind. God is the common ground of rationality in our minds and in the world. Orderliness can also be understood as God’s faithfulness, but it does not exclude an important role for chance. Polkinghorne invokes the early Christian concept of logos, which, as we have seen, combined the Greek idea of a rational ordering principle and the Hebrew idea of the active Word of God. He maintains that the theist can account for the intelligibility that the scientist assumes.42 Robert Russell makes a helpful distinction between global, nomological, and local contingency.43 In the light of my earlier discussion of cosmology, I suggest a fourfold distinction by adding the second point below:
1. Contingent Existence. Why is there anything at all? This is the question of greatest interest to theologians. The existence of the cosmos as a whole is not self-explanatory, regardless of whether it is finite or infinite in time. The details of particular scientific cosmologies are irrelevant to the contingency of the existence of the world. Even if a theory shows that there is only one possible universe, the universe would still only remain possible; nothing in the theory provides that a universe actually exists or that the theory is instantiated.44
2. Contingent Boundary Conditions. If there was a beginning, it was a singularity to which the laws of physics do not apply, and as such it cannot be scientifically explained. If time is infinite, there would be no beginning, but at any point in time, no matter how far back, one would have to postulate a particular state of affairs, treating it as a "given." Hawking’s theory may avoid contingent boundary conditions, but the interpretation of imaginary time in his theory seems problematic.
3. Contingent Laws. Many of the laws of cosmology appear to be arbitrary. But some of them may turn out to be necessary implications of more fundamental theories. If a unified theory is found, however, it will itself be contingent. Insofar as it is required by laws of logic (for example, two-valued logic), those laws reflect axioms that are not necessary in any absolute sense. Moreover, some laws applicable to higher emergent levels of life and mind are not derivable from the laws of physics. Such higher laws would only be instantiated with the novel occurrence of the phenomena they describe. It is misleading to refer to a unified theory in physics as a "Theory of Everything," for its unity would be achieved only by a very high degree of abstraction that leaves out all of the diversity and particularity of events in the world and the emergence of more complex levels of organization from simpler ones. We could hardly expect a TOE to tell us very much about an amoeba, much less about Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Newton.
4. Contingent Events. To the critical realist, uncertainty in quantum physics reflects indeterminacy in the world and not simply the limitations of our knowledge. (Similar contingency is present in the bifurcations of nonequilibrium thermodynamics, random mutations in evolution, and freedom in human life.) We have seen that quantum phenomena played a role in the very early history of the Big Bang. The cosmos is a unique and irreversible sequence of events. Our account of it must take a historical form rather than consisting of general laws alone. The most important questions are not about beginnings but about subsequent historical events. Of course, many scientists today are atheists or agnostics and confine themselves to strictly scientific questions. Yet wider reflection on cosmology seems to be an important way of raising what the theologian David Tracy calls "limit questions."45 At the personal level, cosmologists often express a sense of mystery and awe at the power unleashed in the Big Bang and the occurrence of phenomena at the limits of our experience, language, and thought. If there was an initial singularity, it appears to be inaccessible to science. At the philosophical level, cosmology encourages the examination of our presuppositions about time and space, law and chance, necessity and contingency. Above all, the intelligibility of the cosmos suggests questions that arise in science but cannot be answered within science itself.
2. Ex Nihilo and Continuing Creation
The Anthropic Principle does not provide a conclusive argument from design. Nor is the Big Bang direct evidence for the doctrine of creation. In the Christian community, belief in God rests primarily on the historical witness to redemption in the covenant with Israel and the person of Christ, and on the personal experience of wholeness and renewal. The doctrine of creation represents the extension of these ideas of redemption to the world of nature. We have said that it also expresses the experience of wonder, dependence on God, gratitude for life as a gift, and recognition of interdependence, order, and novelty in the world.
But if the theological doctrine of creation is not derived from scientific cosmology, are the two sets of ideas in any way related? Ernan McMullin holds that between creation and cosmology there is no direct implication, but the Christian must seek coherence and consonance:
He has to aim at some sort of coherence of world-view, a coherence to which science and theology, and indeed many other sorts of human construction, like history, politics, and literature, must contribute. He may, indeed must, strive to make his theology and his cosmology consonant in the contributions they make to this world-view. But this consonance (as history shows) is a tentative relation, constantly under scrutiny, in constant slight shift.46
As possible examples of consonance, I suggest theological parallels with the four kinds of contingency mentioned earlier. 1. The contingency of existence corresponds to the central religious meaning of creation ex nihilo. In both the scientific and the theological contexts the basic assertions can be detached from the assumption of an absolute beginning. On the scientific side, it now appears likely that the Big Bang was indeed an absolute beginning, a singular event, but if there is new evidence for a cyclic universe or infinite time, the contingency of existence would remain. On the theological side, we have seen that Genesis portrays the creation of order from chaos, and that the ex nihilo doctrine was formulated later by the church fathers to defend theism against an ultimate dualism or a monistic pantheism. We still need to defend theism against alternative philosophies, but we can do so without reference to an absolute beginning.
With respect to the central meaning of creation ex nihilo (though not with respect to continuing creation) I agree with the neo-orthodox authors who say that it is the sheer existence of the universe that is the datum of theology, and that the details of scientific cosmology are irrelevant here. The message of creation ex nihilo applies to the whole of the cosmos at every moment, regardless of questions about its beginning or its detailed structure and history. It is an ontological and not a historical assertion. In terms of human experience, ex nihilo expresses the sense of wonder and mystery typical of numinous experience -- and sometimes experienced by astronomers in reflecting on the cosmos. In its theological articulation, ex nihilo has served to assert the transcendence, power, freedom, and purposefulness of God, and to express our dependence on God. It also expresses the eternal aspect of God as beyond time and related equally to every point in time. I believe these attributes must be expressed theologically. However, I think classical theism overemphasized transcendence and power; God was understood as the omnipotent sovereign who predestined all events, and other biblical themes were neglected.47
2. The contingency of boundary conditions also expresses the message of ex nihilo without requiring an absolute beginning. If it turns out that past time was finite, there was indeed a singularity at the beginning, inaccessible to science. Such a beginning was assumed by the church fathers in the classical ex nihilo doctrine, even though it was not their chief concern. As Aquinas said, such a beginning would provide an impressive example of dependence on God. On the other hand, if time were infinite, we would still have contingent boundary conditions; scientists could not avoid dealing with situations or states that they would have to treat as givens. In neither case could it be said that our particular universe was necessary.
3. The contingency of laws can be identified with the orderly aspect of continuing creation. Traditionally, creation has been identified with the provision of order. Such order, it was assumed, was introduced at the beginning, though it had to be continually sustained by God. By the eighteenth century, the order of nature seemed to be all-embracing, mechanical, and self-sustaining. In deism, God’s role was simply to design and start the mechanism. But now we know that the history of the cosmos involves both law and chance, both structure and novelty. Here the findings of science are indeed relevant.
I will argue in the next chapter that the laws applicable to emergent higher levels of reality are not reducible to laws governing lower levels. New and more complex forms of order have emerged in successive eras. Life and mind would not be possible without these underlying structures going back to the early cosmos, but they cannot be explained by the laws of physics. Yet cosmology adds its own grounds for wonder at the order, intelligibility, and aesthetic simplicity of the universe. We can still say that this order is not necessary and can be understood only by observing it.
4. The contingency of events corresponds to the novel aspect of continuing creation. We can no longer assume the static universe of the Middle Ages, in which the basic forms of all beings were thought to be unchanging. Coming-to-be is a continuing process throughout time, and it continues today. Nature in all its forms must be viewed historically. Here astrophysics adds its testimony to that of evolutionary biology and other fields of science. Time is irreversible and genuine novelty appears in cosmic history. Ours is a dynamic world with a long story of change and development.
On the theological side, continuing creation expresses the theme of God’s immanence and participation in the ongoing world. God builds on what is already there, and each successive level of reality requires the structures of lower levels. Here I find the insights of process philosophy particularly helpful. For Whitehead and his followers, God is the source of both order and novelty. This is one of the few schools of thought that takes seriously the contingency of events, from indeterminacy in physics to the freedom of human beings. In this "dipolar" view, God is both eternal and temporal: eternal in character and purpose, but temporal in being affected by interaction with the world. God’s knowledge of the world changes as unpredictable events occur.48
The God of process thought is neither omnipotent nor powerless. Creation occurs throughout time and in the midst of other entities. God does not predetermine or control the world but participates in it at all levels to orchestrate the spontaneity of all beings, in order to achieve a richer coherence. God does not act directly, and nothing that happens is God’s act alone; instead, God acts along with other causes and influences the creatures to act. God does not intervene sporadically from outside but is present in the unfolding of every event. Creative potentialities are actualized by each being in the world, in response both to God and to other beings. The process view emphasizes divine immanence, but it by no means leaves out transcendence. If it is carefully articulated, I believe that it can express the ideas that in the past have been represented by both the ex nihilo and the continuing creation themes (see chapter 8).
3. The Significance of Humanity
We noted earlier that the function of creation stories is not primarily to explain events in the distant past but to locate present human experience in a framework of larger significance. Creation stories manifest the essential structure of reality and our place in it. They provide archetypes of authentic human life in accord with a universal order. They are recalled and celebrated in liturgy and ritual because they tell us who we are and how we can live in a meaningful world.
Much of the resistance to Copernicus and Galileo arose because in their cosmologies the earth was no longer the center but only one of several planets going around the sun. Darwin carried further the demotion of humanity from its central place in the cosmic scheme, and this seemed to challenge the biblical understanding of the significance of human life. What are the implications of modern cosmology for our self-understanding? Can they be reconciled with the message of the biblical creation story?
1. The Immensity of Space and Time. Humanity seems insignificant in the midst of such vast stretches of time and space. But today those immensities do not seem inappropriate. We now know that it takes about fifteen billion years for heavy elements to be cooked in the interior of stars and then scattered to form a second generation of stars with planets, followed by the evolution of life and consciousness. A very old expanding universe has to be a huge universe -- on the order of fifteen billion light years. Moreover, as Teilhard de Chardin pointed out, we should not measure significance by size and duration, but by such criteria as complexity and consciousness.49 The greatest complexity has apparently been achieved in the middle range of size, not at atomic dimensions or galactic dimensions. There are a hundred trillion synapses in a human brain; the number of possible ways of connecting them is greater than the number of atoms in the universe. A higher level of organization and a greater richness of experience occurs in a human being than in a thousand lifeless galaxies. It is human beings, after all, that reach out to understand that cosmic immensity.
2. Interdependence. Cosmology joins evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and ecology in showing the interdependence of all things. We are part of an ongoing community of being; we are kin to all creatures, past and present. From astrophysics we know about our indebtedness to a common legacy of physical events. The chemical elements in your hand and in your brain were forged in the furnaces of stars. The cosmos is all of a piece. It is multileveled; each new higher level was built-on lower levels from the past. Humanity is the most advanced form of life we know, but it is fully a part of a wider process in space and time. The new view may undercut anthropocentric claims that set humanity completely apart from the rest of nature, but it by no means makes human life insignificant. But along with this interconnectedness, we have to recognize that cosmic distances are so vast that we are cut off from communication with most of the universe.
I. Life on Other Planets. Planets are so numerous that if even a small fraction of them are habitable, life could exist in many stellar systems. Most scientists are open to the possibility of intelligent life on relatively nearby galaxies, though biologists seem to consider it less likely than do astronomers or science fiction writers. But the possibility of beings superior to us, living in more advanced civilizations, is a further warning against anthropocentrism. It also calls into question exclusive claims concerning God’s revelation in Christ. Here we can recall that even on our planet the work of the logos, the Eternal Word, was not confined to its self-expression in Christ. If that Word is active in continuing creation throughout the cosmos, we can assume that it will also have revealed itself as the power of redemption at other points in space and time, in ways appropriate to the forms of life existing there.
4. Chance and Purpose. Traditionally, we said, God’s purpose in creation was identified with order. An emphasis on God’s sovereignty led to a determinism in which everything was thought to happen in accordance with a detailed divine plan. Any element of chance was viewed as a threat to God’s total control. It is not surprising, then, that some scientists and philosophers who are impressed by the role of chance are led to reject theism. (Bertrand Russell, Jacques Monod, Stephen Jay Gould, and Steven Weinberg, for example, view life as the accidental result of chance and assume that chance and theism are incompatible.) Whereas the appropriate response to design would be gratitude and thanksgiving, the response to pure chance would be despair and a sense of futility and cosmic alienation.
One possible answer is to say that God really controls all the events that appear to us to be chance -- whether in quantum uncertainties, evolutionary mutations, or the accidents of human history. This would preserve divine determinism at a subtle level undetectable to science. But I will argue in the next chapter that the presence of genuine chance is not incompatible with theism. We can see design in the whole process by which life came into being, with whatever combination of probabilistic and deterministic features the process had. Natural laws and chance may equally be instruments of God’s intentions. There can be purpose without an exact predetermined plan.
A contingency of events in personal life faces each of us at the existential level. We are all vulnerable to unpredictable events: the actions of other people, natural catastrophes, illness, and, above all, death. Our freedom is always limited by events we cannot control. We know the anxiety and insecurity of temporality and finitude. In the face of all such contingency, the gospel does not promise immunity from suffering or loss but rather the courage to affirm life in spite of them and the confidence that God’s love is with us in the midst of them.
4. Eschatology and the Future
We ask, finally, how religious and scientific visions of the future might be compared. We focus here on the future of the cosmos, though this is inescapably tied to two other dimensions of eschatology: the future of the individual and the future of society. The basic experience involved in eschatology is our orientation toward the future and our need for hope. In all cultures people search for meaning in the face of suffering and death. Death intensifies the problem of cosmic justice, for the incidence of suffering in this life does not seem to be related to any deserved rewards and punishments. Eschatology can be understood as an extrapolation into the future of convictions about the present cosmic order. Most cultures have had stories about the cosmic future, as they have about the cosmic past.
There are two basic types of eschatological story.50 First are the myths of cyclical return in which the world is repeatedly destroyed and reconstituted. Here time and history are viewed as cycles. Hinduism, for example, portrays a cycle of four ages: creation, deterioration, destruction, and recreation. Vishnu will be reincarnated in a new avatar, setting a new age in motion. There is also an eternal cycle of rebirth, in which every individual dies and is reborn in a higher or lower form, human or nonhuman, according to the merit (karma) earned during the previous life. Over an extended series of rebirths, the justice of the cosmic moral order is fulfilled. The cycle can be escapable only by enlightenment and absorption in Brahman, the all-embracing unity. In contrast to the short time span and geocentric outlook of the Bible, Hinduism has always assumed the vastness of time and space, which are features of modern cosmology.
This cyclical view makes events in history appear less significant in Hinduism and other Asian religion than in the biblically based religions. If the cosmic cycle repeats itself endlessly, there is no beginning and no ending, no sense of overall historical progress, and no long-term motivation to make the world a better place. Instead, the main goal is to find a transhistorical reality and to achieve through meditation a timeless mode of being.
The second type is the end-of time myth, which expresses a linear and irreversible view of time and history. Both Judaism and Christianity look to a future messianic age, but the ways in which that future has been envisaged have varied greatly in differing historical periods. (There have also been varying conceptions of resurrection, immortality, and heaven, but these are not our main concern here.) How did these ideas about the end of time develop, and how might we interpret them today?
The early prophets (for example, Amos, Micah, or Isaiah 9-11) held that Israel and its leaders had departed from the covenant. Believing in a God of justice, they saw God’s judgment in the disasters threatening the nation but hoped that a return to the covenant and the presence of a new leader from the Davidic lineage would restore the nation to peace, justice, and prosperity. But after the exile, when Israel was occupied by successive foreign armies, the prospect that human actions could liberate the nation from oppression seemed dim indeed. The only hope seemed to lie in a more dramatic intervention by God. The apocalyptic literature (for example, Daniel) looked to a supernatural defeat of the worldly powers. Here the Messiah, who would bring deliverance and establish the Kingdom, was portrayed as a supernatural being rather than a political or military leader. The struggle would involve the whole cosmos and not just the nation. The coming Kingdom was envisaged in increasingly otherworldly terms. This shift also reflected a strong dualistic influence from Persia and Zoroastrianism; the world was said to be the theater of conflict between two coeternal forces, those of light and darkness, or God and Satan. The last days would bring a cosmic battle and the final victory of good over evil. The Kingdom of God was a central theme in Christ’s teachings, and he said that it was "at hand" (Mark 1:15). Sometimes he spoke of present aspects of the Kingdom; it is "in your midst" and it grows like a mustard seed. More often, he said it would come suddenly and unexpectedly. After his death, his disciples asserted that he was the promised Messiah and that the fulfillment of the Kingdom would come soon with his return. But with the postponement of these expectations, diverse responses arose in the early church. Some writings, such as the book of Revelation, continued the apocalyptic tradition and identified Christ’s return with the final conflict between good and evil. Others, including the Gospel of John, focused on the community’s continuing experience of the living Christ, understood as a kind of "realized eschatology" or future made present. By the time of Augustine, the institutional church was equated with the Kingdom already present on earth, though a distant consummation was still expected. In the Middle Ages and Reformation, much attention was given to the end of the world and the last judgment, but this did not preempt concern for justice and righteousness in this world. The three main biblical stories were extended to five stages of history: Creation, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation.51
The diversity of future expectations continues among Christians today.52 Some groups take the book of Revelation literally and think that the final conflict is imminent. They seek a detailed timetable among the rich profusion of biblical images, and they look for "signs of the end" today. Global crises and the threat of a nuclear holocaust have encouraged such apocalyptic thinking, but it engenders irresponsibility if it leads people to assume that they can do nothing about the future. Neo-orthodox and existentialist theologians, on the other hand, take Christ’s teachings on the imminence of the Kingdom to be a symbolic way of expressing the urgency of decision and the importance of obedience to God’s rule in the present. For them, the Kingdom is not a future event but a dimension of current existence. Liberal Protestants and exponents of liberation theology go back to the early prophets, for whom the Kingdom involved obedience to God and commitment to justice in society. In addressing their nation, the prophets combined a sense of God’s judgment with hope for a new beginning. The majority of Christians would probably say that we must work to build the Kingdom, but that it is also the work of God, both within history and beyond history. This offers a middle ground between relying on God alone and relying on ourselves alone in facing the future.
What can scientists tell us about the future of the universe? We have seen that the expansion of the universe is slowing down, but current evidence is insufficient to decide whether it is open (expanding forever) or closed (expanding to a maximum before collapsing). If it is closed, it will eventually contract to a very small size (the Big Crunch), but it could bounce back again and continue in an indefinite series of cycles. This resembles the Hindu view of a cyclic universe with ages of destruction and ages of creation. The current structures of the world would be wiped out in such a "heat death," but new structures would appear in future cycles. The Second Law of Thermodynamics seems to imply a gradual "running down" in successive cycles, but it is not at all clear whether the law would be applicable between such cycles. The current expanding phase will last at least a hundred billion years, though our sun may not last longer than five or ten billion years. This is an incredibly long future in comparison to the half million years that human beings have been around, but it is not infinite.
Some scientists find this prospect very depressing. The astrophysicist Steven Weinberg holds that humanity is alone in an immense and impersonal universe, headed for oblivion. The earth is "just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe." Scientific activity itself is the only source of consolation in a meaningless world:
The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. But if there is no solace in the fruits of research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. . . . The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.53
If the universe is open, it will continue to expand and cool forever, but at a decreasing rate. It has usually been assumed that this would lead to the "freezing death" of all life as temperatures continue to fall. But Freeman Dyson has argued that biological life will be able to adapt to such new conditions in the future. Moreover, we could use genetic engineering to redesign organisms for extreme conditions. The energy requirements of a system are proportional to the square of the temperature, and very little energy is required at low temperatures. Dyson also holds that the "software programs" that exist in the human brain could be transferred to computers and other kinds of "hardware," so that new forms of intelligence and consciousness will be able to survive at very low temperatures. He expects communication networks to spread among planets and galaxies. Mind will take control of matter throughout the universe. "Life and intelligence are potentially immortal."54
A similar vision is set forth by Frank Tipler. The human brain, he says, is essentially a computer. As we colonize space, information processing in various forms will spread in networks throughout the universe. The information processing rate and the memory storage could both increase without limit, which would produce an essentially infinite intelligence. The computer network would be an "evolving God" emerging from the process and taking total control of the universe. There would be "an eternal continuation of intelligence," even if human beings are extinct, for computers would be able to replicate themselves. Even if we live in a closed universe, there could be an infinite number of thoughts before the final singularity, and this can be considered a form of this-worldly immortality.55
These projections are, of course, highly speculative and rest on many unverified assumptions. They seem to me inconsistent with the biblical message, not because they disagree with some of the imaginative future scenarios in the Bible, but because they reflect views of humanity, God, and the future that are at odds with basic biblical convictions. The Bible views the person as a unity of body, mind, and spirit (see chapter 7), not as a purely rational intellect defined by information-processing ability. Moreover, Dyson and Tipler propose a technologically based salvation that seeks control of the cosmos, whereas the Bible speaks of the need for personal transformation and social reconstruction in response to God. Though biblical eschatology takes many forms, all agree that future fulfillment will be the work of a personal God as well as of humanity, not the work of humanity apart from God. Dyson and Tipler think that a future heat death or freezing death can be avoided. But if they cannot be avoided, would that contradict biblical assumptions? Would such a future imply that the universe is meaningless, as Steven Weinberg holds?56 I do not think so. I would argue that biblical stories about both the beginning and the end of time are symbolic expressions of trust in God. Together they represent an ultimate framework for temporal history, not events in that history.57 The future of the cosmos, like the past, can also be seen as a phase of continuing creation. The long time scale does indeed make us aware that evolution will continue. It would be grossly anthropocentric to assume that we are the goal or the only purpose of creation. There is an immensely long time for this part of the cosmic experiment to continue. In the meantime, there are meaningful challenges to action in our own lifetime -- above all, to move toward a just and sustainable planetary society. Our hope is based on the conviction that God is at work in the world and that we can cooperate in that work.
According to process thought, every entity has value in three ways. First, as a moment of experience it has intrinsic value. The value of these experiences is inherent in each present moment. Second, every entity is valuable for its contribution to the future of other beings in the world -- both in the immediate future and in the distant future. Third, every entity is valuable for its ongoing contribution to the life of God. The values achieved in this world are preserved in God’s eternal life, and this is part of their enduring significance and permanence beyond the flux of time. In addition, some entities, such as human beings, have a fourth kind of future value, if as conscious individuals we survive death.
If we think that life on earth or in this universe will eventually be extinguished, only a portion of the second of these sources of value and meaning is threatened, namely the contribution of our present actions to the very distant future. The others are all unaffected. Moreover, there may be forms of life on other planets or in other universes. Who is to say what are the limits of new possibilities for God in this cosmic cycle or in future cycles or in another creation? These considerations take us far beyond science, and we will return to them in chapter 8.
In conclusion, then, I think we can join the astronauts in celebrating the beauty of our amazing planet and in expressing gratitude for the gift of life. Standing under the stars at night, we can still experience wonder and awe. Now we know that the cosmos has included stretches of space and time that we can hardly imagine. What sort of world is it in which those strange early states of matter and energy could be the forerunners of intelligent life? Within a theistic framework it is not surprising that there is intelligent life on earth; we can see here the work of a purposeful Creator. Theistic belief makes sense of this datum and a variety of other kinds of human experience, even if it offers no conclusive proof. We still ask: Why is there anything at all? Why are things the way they are? With the psalmist of old we can say, 0 Lord, how manifest are thy works! In wisdom thou has made them all. . . . When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created" (Ps. 104:30).
Footnotes: 1. Readable general accounts of recent work in physical cosmology can be found in James Trefil, The Moment of Creation (New York: Collier Books, 1983), and John Barrow and Joseph Silk, The Left Hand of Creation (New York: Basic Books, 1983). 2. Michael Green, "Superstrings," Scientific American 255 (Sept. 1986): 48-60; Mitchell Waldrop, "Strings as a Theory of Everything," Science 229 (1985): 226-28. 3. For data in Figure 3, see Trefil, Moment of Creation, p. 34; Barrow and Silk, Left Hand of Creation, pp. 86 and 156. 4. Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (New York: Basic Books, 1977). 5. Pope Pius XII, "Modern Science and the Existence of God" The Catholic Mind, (Mar. 1952): 182-92. 6. Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), p. 116. 7. Arthur Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), chap. 2. 8. Fred Hoyle, Ten Faces of the Universe (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1977). 9. For example, Isa. 51:9, Ps. 74:14, 89:10. 10. Jon D. Levinson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988). 11. Joan O’Brien and Wilfred Major, In the Beginning: Creation Myths from Ancient Mesopotamia, Israel, and Greece (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982). 12. Gerard von Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), pp. 131-43. 13. Claus Westermann, Creation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974); Bernhard Anderson, ed., Creation in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984). 14. See Ernan McMullin, "How Should Cosmology Relate to Theology?" in The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century, ed. Arthur Peacocke (Notre Dame: Univesity of Notre Dame Press, 1981), pp. 19-21. 15. Edmund Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958), p. 139. 16. Jaroslav Pelikan, "Creation and Causality in the History of Christian Thought," Journal of Religion 40 (1960): 250. See also John Reumann, Creation and New Creation (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1973), chap. 3. 17. Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaz~en and Earth (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959); also Creationism on Trial (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985), chap. 8. 18. Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion, chap. 12. 19. David Kelsey, "Creatio Ex Nihilo," in Evolution and Creation, ed. Ernan McMullin (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985). 20. Frederick Streng, Understanding Religious L~fe, 3d ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1985); Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality (New York: Harper & Row, 1963). 21. Weekday Prayer Book (New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1962), p. 42. 22. Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1977), p. 368. 23. B. J. Carr and M. J. Rees, "The Anthropic Principle and the Structure of the Physical World," Nature 278 (1979): 605-12. See also John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); George Gale, "The Anthropic Principle," Scient~fic American 245 (Dec. 1981): 154-71. 24. Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 121; also his "The Anisotropy of the Universe at Large Times," in Confrontation of Cosmological Theories with Observational Data; ed. M. S. Longair (Dordrecht, Holland: Reidel, 1974). 25. Carr and Rees, "Anthropic Principle." 26. Barrow and Silk, Left Hand of Creation, p. 91; Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), p. 30. 27. B. Carter, "Large Number Coincidences and the Anthropic Principle in Cosmology," in Cosmological Theories, ed. Longair. See also Davies, God and the New Physics, chap. 12. 28. Stephen Hawking, quoted in John Boslough, Stephen Hawking’s Universe (New York: William Morrow, 1985), p. 121. 29. Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 250. 30. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes, chap. 8. 31. See P.C.W. Davies, The Accidental Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). 32. John Leslie, "Anthropic Principle, World Ensemble, Design," American Philosophical Quarterly 19 (1982): 141-51; "Modern Cosmology and the Creation of Life," in Evolution and Creation, ed., McMullin; also "How to Draw Conclusions from a Fine-Tuned Universe," in Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, eds. R.J. Russell, W. R. Stoeger, S.J., and G. V. Coyne, S.J. (The Vatican: Vatican Observatory, and Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). 33. Alan Guth and Paul Steinhardt, "The Inflationary Universe," Scient~fic American 250 (May 1984): 116-28. 34. Hawking, A Brief History of Time, p. 174. A technical presentation of his theory is given in J. B. Hartle and S. W. Hawking, "Wave Function of the Universe," Physical Revieu’ D 28 (1983): 2960-75. See also C.J. Isham, "Creation of the Universe as a Quantum Process," in Physics, Philosophy, and Theology, ed. Russell et al. 35. Hawking, Brief History of Time, p. 175. 36. See Michael Foster, "The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Science," in Creation: The Impact of an Idea, eds. Daniel O’Connor and Francis Oakley (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1969). 37. Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981). See also Stanley L. Jaki, The Road to Science and the Ways to God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). 38. Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (London: Souvenir Press, 1973), p. 262. 39. Quoted in Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, p. 28. 40. Geoffrey F. Chew, "Bootstrap: A Scientific Idea?" Science 161 (1968): 762-65. 41. Trefil, Moment of Creation, p. 223. 42. John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 45, 63, and 98. 43. Robert John Russell, "Contingency in Physics and Cosmology: A Critique of the Theo1ogy of Wolfhart Pannenberg," Zygon 23 (1988): 23-43. 44. W. Norris Clarke, "Is Natural Theology Possible Today?" in Physics, Philosophy, and Theology, ed. Russell et al. 45. David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order (New York: Seabury, 1975), chap. 5. 46. McMullin, "How Should Cosmology Relate to Theology?" in The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century, ed. Peacocke, p. 52. 47. See Barbour, Myths, Models, and Paradigms, chap. 8. 48. For an introduction to process thought, see John Cobb and David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introduction (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976). 49. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: 1-larper & Row, 1959), pp. 226-28. 50. Roger Schmidt, Exploring Religion (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1980), chap. 7; Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, trans. W. Trask (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959), chap. 4. 51. Claus Westermann, Beginning and End in the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972); Ted Peters, Futures--Human and Divine (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), chaps. 1, 2; Brian Hebblethwaite, The Christian Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1985). 52. Carl Braaten, "The Kingdom of God and Life Everlasting," in Christian Theology, 2d ed., eds. Peter Hodgson and Robert King (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985); Zachary Hayes, O.E.M., What Are They Saying About the End of the World? (New York: Paulist Press, 1983). 53. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes, p. 144. 54. Freeman Dyson, lm!finite in All Directions (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 114. 55. Frank Tipler, "The Omega Point Theory: A Model of an Evolving God," in Physics, Philosophy, and Theology, ed. Russell et al. See also Barrow and Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, chap. 10. 56. Weinberg, First Three Minutes, p. 144. 57. See Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, p. 330.
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