Earlier this week I gave a presentation at my church with my friend Natasha McMann on the intersection between theology and astronomy. Natasha is a graduate student and research assistant in astrophysics, and her research involves studying pulsars and supporting the use of pulsars to detect gravitational waves. The title of our talk was “Finding God in the Unseen Universe,” and it was all about how the tools of astronomy and astrophysics enable us to see more of the universe than ever before, and what these discoveries can teach us about God.
Natasha gave a wonderful description of how the tools of modern astronomy have opened new windows to the cosmos, and I gave some reflections on how these ideas can shape our understanding of God and influence our Christian faith. Here are some of the highlights.
Visible light represents only a small fraction of what we can discover by “looking” at the universe.
Telescopes gather and focus light so that we can see objects and details not visible with the naked eye. Really big telescopes gather and focus a lot of light, so we can see even finer details and fainter, more distant objects.
But the full electromagnetic spectrum includes much more than just visible light. The electromagnetic spectrum ranges from radio waves, of the longest wavelength and lowest frequency, up through gamma rays, of the shortest wavelength and highest frequency. Visible light—that which human eyes are typically able to see—makes up only a small part of this spectrum. One cool tidbit I learned during this talk is that our eyeballs would have to be 30 feet wide in order to see radio waves!
Even though our eyes are limited, technology expands the range of what we can perceive.
Various earth- and space-based telescopes now give us the ability to detect radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, ultraviolet light, x-rays, and gamma rays. Thanks to these instruments and the technology they represent, we are now able to perceive much more of the universe than ever before.
When we look at the universe in radio waves, x-rays, or other forms of electromagnetic radiation, we discover things we couldn’t have seen otherwise. Radio waves allow us to see gas between galaxies in a galaxy cluster. X-rays allow us to detect superheated gas as it spirals into a black hole. Microwaves allow us to see the nearly uniform radiation left over from the Big Bang itself, known as the Cosmic Microwave Background.
New, cutting-edge technology enables us now to detect gravitational waves, ripples in space generated by massive objects such as two black holes colliding. Though research in this field is still quite new, it promises to bring even more of the universe into view.
When we recognize the limitations of human perception and experience, it can deepen our trust in God who made all things, seen and unseen.
Glimpsing the “unseen” things in the universe shows us the limitations of our typical perception and experience. Though telescopes and other technology enable us to detect much of the universe, our typical, everyday experience involves only the things we can see with the naked eye. What’s now become clear is that this is just a tiny sliver of all there is to see in the universe.
When we recognize the limitations of human perception and understanding, we receive a deeper appreciation for the power, wisdom, omniscience, and omnipresence of God. It’s only by pushing our understanding as far as it can possibly go—through science, technology, effort, and ingenuity—that we discover just how much lies beyond our capacity to see and comprehend. And if so much of our physical reality is unseen, is it really that much of a leap to believe in an unseen spiritual reality?
This realization moves us people of faith to praise God all the more–the One who made all this, who is, as we say in the Nicene Creed, the “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Moreover, when we see just how much of God’s creation is beyond us, it becomes all the more remarkable that God not only takes notice of us creatures but also loves us, cares deeply for us, creates a covenant with us, sacrifices his only begotten son for us.
Coming to understand the universe more deeply leads us to encounter and better understand the order with which God made the universe.
I very much believe that the physical laws that govern the universe—from the smallest subatomic particles up to the largest galactic superclusters—come from the mind of God. The laws of the universe are a reflection of the divine Wisdom, the eternal Word who is made flesh in Jesus Christ. This means we can learn about Jesus by observing the stars, a lesson we should already have learned from the Magi at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. And the more of the stars we see, the more we can learn.
Of course, we also learn something about the intelligibility of the universe by worshiping, by praying, by receiving communion, by studying the Bible, by serving our neighbor, and by loving our enemies. Scientific discovery and the practices and attitudes of the Christian faith can and must coexist.
The more of the universe we see, the more deeply we are drawn into God’s promises.
As I was preparing for this talk, I couldn’t help but think of Abraham (then called Abram), whom God told to look up and count the stars.
Earlier God had told Abram that he would become a great nation (Genesis 12:1-4), and Abram had so far obeyed God. But Abram is old, and he has no child. So he asks God, “what will you give me, for I continue childless” (Genesis 15:2). What he wants to know is, how can I receive this great reward when everything I have will pass to someone else when I die? How can I become the ancestor of a great nation when I don’t even have one child? In response, God tells Abram to look up and count the stars in the sky, if he is able to count them. “So shall your descendants be,” God says (Genesis 15:5).
Humans have actually done this. We have counted the stars, at least those that are visible with the naked eye like Abram would have seen, and many, many more on top of that. But still, even so, we have not yet reached the end. We have not counted all the stars…we’re not even sure if it’s possible to see all the stars.
Astronomy strains to count, understand, analyze, predict one more star, one more class of stars, one more galaxy, one more exotic or ordinary phenomenon in our universe. And at every stage, more lies beyond our horizon.
God links his promise to Abram with the vastness of God’s creation. And the more Abram is able to see of that creation, the more he will recognize that God’s promise is great indeed. The more we see into the universe, the more deeply we are drawn into God’s promises, which always lie beyond our ability to understand fully—they are forever more than anything we can ask or imagine.
When we see more of the universe, we see just how big our God is, and God’s promises to us become that much richer, that much bigger, taking on scales that defy our imagination.
We have faith but seek understanding.
When done in faith, astronomy and other scientific inquiry can be an act of faithfulness. It’s a way for us to get to know God through the universe God has made—from atoms and subatomic particles all the way up to the largest galaxy clusters and superclusters in the cosmos.