The Size of the Universe5
August 24, 2013 by lucieromarin
Some time ago, a reader left the following question in the combox:
Out of interest, has the Catholic church addressed the question of how its theology works given our now radically different understanding of the size and nature of the universe? I would be very interested to read it if it existed.
I left it alone at the time, mostly because it was unrelated to the topic of the post, but also, in part, because this isn’t primarily a blog for catechetics or apologetics. Still, it doesn’t hurt to wander off the main road from time to time, and turning my mind from the tissues and herbal teas that surround me at present, to the stars and moons and planets overhead, has been quite pleasurable, so here are my thoughts:
First, I don’t think we need to deny that we do know some things about the universe that were unknown in previous centuries. Even if we disagree about how old the universe is, I’m pretty sure we’re all agreed that heaven is not two or six miles above the earth. So, does this mean:
1) That there’s no God;
2) That there must be aliens;
3) That the Incarnation seems less probable?
1) The size of the universe doesn’t alter our belief in its created-ness. Looking at nature doesn’t teach us that small things need makers but big things don’t; it teaches us that things that did not make themselves must have been made by another, and this holds true irrespective of the size of the universe or the number of its planets.
2) I don’t think there’s any ban on speculating about life on other worlds, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with wondering what else God might have created. I believe that Saint Augustine (sorry, I can’t reference this; I read it about twenty years ago and didn’t write it down) wrote about whether or not centaurs could or should be baptised, and then concluded that we might as well just wait till we actually meet some before worrying about it. Wondering about life on other planets is just the modern version of wondering about centaurs; in the end, it just doesn’t matter as much as other things.
At the same time, the size of the universe doesn’t force us to conclude that God must have created life elsewhere. Why? It’s because the question, the wondering, comes from a feeling of the vastness of the universe; we think of billions and trillions of miles of uninhabited space, and it seems like a waste. Why make all that space? What’s the point of it? Also, it gives us an uncomfortable sense of smallness – almost of isolation. Man is a social animal, which means, that, by and large, we’d rather have neighbours.
The thing is…the universe isn’t vast to God. ‘Vast’, and all words like it, aren’t really statements about mathematical proportions; they’re statements about how it feels to look at a billion trillion kilometres when you’re only a metre-and-a-half long. I’m not saying that the feeling is invalid; I’m just saying that it’s human. To the microscopic critters that hang out on your eyelashes, you are vast! God knows how the size of the universe makes us feel, but He Himself doesn’t have those feelings, and therefore He’s not necessarily going to make the choices that we ourselves would make, based upon those feelings.
God is the only necessary being. This means He could make a world full of pink elephants and mermaids if He wants to, but He doesn’t have to. If He made life elsewhere, it won’t be because He felt that all that empty space needed to be filled up, but because all being is a reflection of His being, and He chose to reflect that Being in a particular way elsewhere that He has not done here.
3) Seeing oneself as one tiny little planet in a giant universe does make it more difficult for some to feel that God could possibly be sufficiently interested in us to intervene in our affairs, particularly in terms of the Incarnation and Redemption. It seems almost arrogant to think that He would concern Himself with the details of our lives – you know, like the toddler who thinks the whole world revolves around him, when it doesn’t!
But this, too, isn’t a theological insight, but a feeling based on a sense of distances that God doesn’t share. I mean, He’s everywhere. He’s outside time. The things that make us say, “Golly!” don’t make Him say the same thing. He told us Himself that He’s counted the hairs on our heads, that He notices every sparrow that falls to the ground. If He had said, “This is because I have the power to see for six thousand kilometres,” then discovering ourselves to be surrounded by more than six thousand kilometres might have been a problem. But He didn’t. He counts the hairs and notices the sparrows because He is not limited at all by any distances or proportions.
For someone who takes Scripture and/or Tradition and/or the lives of the saints as a guide to things, it’s clear that God’s main interest isn’t mathematical proportions but degrees of grace. Theology is about Who and what God is and what He wants, and the number of stars in the universe doesn’t change the primacy of grace, either for God or for us. The number of galaxies in the universe doesn’t change our certitude that God would care about our souls, because an intellect is ontologically superior to a planet.
Every human being is, in fact, something like the TARDIS, bigger on the inside than on the outside. Once we realise that God looks at graces rather than distances, we realise how it is that He could remind the saints that apparently tiny, unnoticed duties, performed with great love, could be powerful. He doesn’t look at the size of the action any more than He looks at the size of the universe, but at the measure of grace and love with which the action is performed.
A personal opinion here (in that I’m not speaking for God or the Church in this paragraph!): I can think of a reason why God might choose to populate only one planet in a universe deliberately made to feel vast to the people of that planet.
Creation is meant to teach us about God. It exists in order to turn our minds to Him. If the universe makes us feel small, that’s good, because that’s the first step towards realising how small we are compared to God, and that is the first step to relating to Him properly (and also to having reverent liturgies.) Now that we can zip from one side of the globe to the other in a matter of hours, and now that we have a partial mastery over weather and disease that our forebears lacked, it can be easy to miss the lessons that creation might once have taught us. Thus, the discovery of a new way in which creation mirrors the immensity of God’s being is not a challenge to theology, but Divine Providence.
That was very nicely done. And thank you for bothering! By strange coincidence I remembered the question in the middle of the night last night and meant to re-ask privately. I’m still curious, tho’, whether there’s a line in official Catholic apologetics to deal with questions arising from our expanding knowledge of the universe? Or is it not considered much of an issue for believers for the reasons you give? I would imagine that it poses a bleak or strange or even quite seductive challenge for some, though – wouldn’t it, at least at some moments? The last thing I read on the topic, that I recall, was C. S. Lewis’ beautiful stuff, esp ‘Out of the Silent Planet’. There’s a bit, I think in ‘Discarded Image’, about the comfort of the old Platonic universe as opposed to the modern infinite and rather nihilistic one.
Thank you! As far as I know, the only official line is that scientific discoveries can’t disprove certain truths of natural theology and/or Revelation (e.g Creator, the Trinity, the Fall, the Incarnation, the Redemption) but other than this, we can just take the questions as they come, because each new scientific discovery is also an opportunity for further exercises of natural theology. Different subcultures within the Church will have different levels of commitment to this line, of course, but I think that roughly sums it up.
(I have to admit to the occasional private hope that we will find out one day that the stars really are singing! I love the idea of the music of the celestial spheres, and think, well, maybe we just can’t hear it because the sound-waves travel too slowly for us.)
It seems for some that the bigger the universe is perceived to be, the colder, the darker, the emptier is its meaning. But I wonder if the ‘nihilistic’ element comes not from the size but from the absence (in their minds) of a Creator. Perhaps atheists back in the old Platonic days did not get much comfort from that model either…
There’s a bit in Jane Eyre, when she’s alone and destitute on the moor and she takes comfort from the night sky: “We know that God is everywhere; but certainly we feel His presence most when His works are on the grandest scale spread before us; and it is in the unclouded night-sky, where His worlds wheel their silent course, that we read clearest His infinitude, His omnipotence, His omnipresence….[I]saw the mighty Milky-way. Remembering what it was—what countless systems there swept space like a soft trace of light—I felt the might and strength of God. Sure was I of His efficiency to save what He had made…”
Thank you for reminding me of that lovely bit of Jane Eyre, which I’d forgotten.
To be fair, I’m not actually sure that C. S. Lewis had it right about the nihilism in all cases. I can’t speak for all atheists, but certainly some find the idea that the universe was created by some kind of deity rather depressing by comparison with the wonder and excitement of a universe that exists through its own extraordinary workings; life that evolved through the astonishing chances and stages that took us from single-celled organisms to complex beings capable of, for example, composing the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. They would see the notion of a creator as the product of a limited/limiting, rather than an expansive, imagination.
I guess what’s important, though, is the way that humans of all kinds find wonder and comfort and existential challenge in looking up at the cosmos. It’s one of the nicer things about us, I think.