The latest issue of Astronomy magazine is labeled “Special Issue: The Immensity of the Cosmos.”
The Greek word “kosmos” means “order,” “good order.” When applied to people it can mean “decorated” (think “cosmetics”). When applied to astronomy, it means “the biggest space we know about.”
In September 2014, the issue says, astronomers defined the “Laniakea Supercluster.” (“Laniakea” is the Hawaiian word for “immense heaven.”) The Milky Way is our own galaxy, 400 billion stars, among which our sun is one. The Laniakea Supercluster has 100,000 galaxies and is 520 million light years across.
I’m thinking about this as I pray morning prayer today. I am using words that people have used for over two thousand years to express their relation to “God.” I am a religious person.
My religion tells me that God made the universe, and that this God is triune, three Persons, whom we call Father, Son, and Spirit, or, feminists would say, “Creator, the Christ, and Spirit (Sophia).” It tells me that this triune God is personally involved with me, and that I can speak to this God and be heard.
A close friend of mine has rejected religion because he says it has done nothing but cause suffering around the world. Think ISIS. Closer to home, he is thinking of the Religious Right, which he blames for leading politicians to reject concern for the poor, in the name of the Invisible Hand.
We have two world views, science and religion. For the past couple of hundred years, intellectuals have seen the two in conflict, struggle to the death. They predict that religion will lose and will die. They point to the increasing number of people who say they have no religion. I think of the increasing number of young Catholics who drift away from the Church. Some of them drift into other denominations, but many of them drift into the “None” category. When the survey asks “Which of the following options describes your religion?” they answer “None.”
During my years of studying philosophy in the seminary, we had a course with the title “Cosmology.” Therefore I found it striking that astronomers are using that word these days. How can they take this fine religious word and use it for scientific purposes?
Stories about the Cosmos
The Laniakea Supercluster is a story about the cosmos. The story says that the cosmos came into being 13.82 billion light years ago, from the Big Bang, an explosion from an infinitesimally small source.
My faith’s story about the cosmos does not deny the Big Bang. But it says that a spiritual source was behind the Big Bang, and continues to guide its evolution. That source, which we call God, focused on one point of time and space and became human in the person of Jesus Christ.
Two stories. Both are collections of words, language used to describe things that no one has ever actually seen. The astonomer is basing the Big Bang on observing tiny spots of light or other radiation through a telescope or microscope, trying to explain why those spots of light behave the way they do. My story is based on a tradition of words passed on in many languages down through several centuries, and shaped into writings which we call the Bible.
Both stories are based in communities, the community of scientists and the community of Christians or members of other religions. Both communities need faith to tell their stories to others. They believe that the story they tell is true, that it reflects reality the way it really is. Neither community can ultimately prove that its story is true. Scientists know that the story they tell today may not be the story that they will tell a hundred years from now. Religious people know that the story they tell today has been shaped by many human factors, and that parts of the story may have to be revised in the light of what we learn as we make this journey through history.
But both communities believe that their stories are important and valuable, valuable enough for people to devote their lives to studying the stories and passing them on to others.
But what about ISIS and the Religious Right? Don’t religious stories cause more harm than good?
I have to admit that religion can cause a great deal of harm. Karl Marx claimed that religion was an opium that deadened people to their oppression so that they would not do anything to make things better. Sigmund Freud claimed that religion is a human response to a desire to go back to the womb, a comfortable place where there is no challenge. ISIS is clearly a bad thing. One can argue that it is really more of a political movement than a religious one, but it seems to appeal to young people who have the same hopes and dreams that young religious people have.
I am not equating the Religious Right with ISIS in the level of physical evil it causes, but the Religious Right is destroying our political system by creating an atmosphere of intolerance and rejection of compromise. The “Founding Fathers” were hoping to avoid that kind of intolerance in this land, because they had experienced enough of it in Europe. Intolerance freezes the political process into inaction and will ultimately bring it down. It could lead to civil war, which is what happens when two irreconcilable political forces collide. It is certainly leading to environmental disaster.
Science too can cause a great deal of harm. Alfred Nobel, who gave us the Nobel prizes, invented dynamite, thinking that its invention would bring wars to an end. What dynamite has done is make possible destruction on a scale unimaginable in earlier times. Atomic science raised that destruction level to such a height that we face the real danger that we could make our planet uninhabitable. Our science, allying itself with the Invisible Hand, allows people to pursue their individual interests to the point of destroying the environment, another way of making the planet uninhabitable.
Both religion and science can result in great harm, but on balance I think science can do the greater harm. Does that mean we should stop doing science?
It means that science and religion both have to be used in life-giving ways.
There are plenty of people both in science and in religion that already spend their lives hoping to give life to others. We need to encourage such people, and quit rewarding only the ones who make the most money.
All human activity has to be motivated by passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement of human beings with each other. Of course it won’t be, because we are not perfect. But we can work to bring about that kind of involvement on the individual level, where we all live our individual lives, and on the political level, where we need to write our rules so that such behavior is rewarded.
Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si, is one example of the kind of approach that we will need if we are to pass on a livable world to coming generations. But there are many other people, with many other writings, who are working toward the same goal.
I believe in the statement: “I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful.” Optimism predicts good things. Hope says that God is good for us.
Predictions of the future of our planet do not look good.
But I believe that God is good, and that God is good for us.