When it comes to the immensity of the universe, the initial response must almost certainly be, “Beats me.” The question is about as big as a question can be and, for most of us, both humbling and rhetorical. It feels like that early stand-up joke by Bill Cosby. His philosophy major girlfriend asks, “Why is there air?” Cosby, the phys-ed major, replies, “To blow up volleyballs and basketballs.”
Still, in this column we aim to make the imponderable ponderable. So let’s get to it.
The universe is very big. The universe is very scary. The universe, as science fiction luminary Sir Arthur C. Clarke was fond of observing, is “not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine.”
Ask a physicist. Take Ernest Rutherford’s breakthrough insight of a century or so ago that atoms are mostly empty space. That leads, as Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw note in The Quantum Universe, to the inevitable question: “Why don’t we fall through the floor?”
They go on to note that “a pleasing bonus of working with elementary fragments . . . that have no size at all is that we don’t have any trouble with the idea that the entire visible Universe was once compressed into a volume the size of a grapefruit, or even a pin-head.”
Head throbbing yet? There’s more. Nearly 30 years ago, John Gribbin published a reasonably accessible introduction to quantum physics, In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. If you think the universe is big just from looking up at the night sky, try this on for size. Quantum theory, Gribbin observes, suggests that “everything that we can see in the universe (is) inside a bubble within a bubble of some much greater expanding whole.”
I love working with physicists. Their sense of wonder is positively biblical in scope.
Speaking of the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians hold dear as our Old Testament, were light years ahead of contemporary science — pun intended.
Consider the Hebrew creation myth as it is described in Genesis. St. Jerome identified it as myth back in the fourth century, by the way. Myth, as Joseph Campbell taught us, is not make-believe. Myth is story that is true not only once but for all. And what a myth!
Unlike virtually all other creation narratives, the Hebrew account describes God calling the universe into being ex nihilo: out of nothing. Or perhaps, from a mass the size of a grapefruit or a pinhead.
Then there is the sheer wonder of Psalm 8 (I paraphrase for inclusivity): “When I consider the works of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; what are we, that Thou art mindful of us?”
In Job, that greatest of all works of protest, mystery and wonder, the text tells us of Job’s unfailing conviction that he is a just man, that God is a just God, and that God will not be deaf to Job’s appeals in the face of unbearable suffering.
When God finally addresses Job, it is out of the whirlwind (Job 38, selected verses): “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth. . . . Who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy. . . . Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? . . . Do you know the ordinances of heaven? Can you establish their rule upon the earth?”
The galaxies in their billions are but God’s playthings. In this, science and religion are of one mind; or at least, of one heart.
Theologically, maybe that’s it: that it is the nature of God to think big. Theologians have been wrestling with the nature of the universe for centuries. St. Augustine is honoured by both mathematicians and theologians for his reflections on infinity. Pascal, the 17th-century scientist and theologian, wrote on the sublime terror the universe inspires.
In the end, our contemplation of the inconceivable vastness of the universe (or, who knows, universes) is a grand speculative adventure. For Christians, and not for Christians alone, that adventure is tempered by the conviction that God “sees the little sparrow fall,” and God loves us too.
Surely that’s a big enough notion for any size universe.
Rev. James Christie is a professor of ecumenism and dialogue theology at the University of Winnipeg.
Keep it free!
If you enjoy reading our online stories about ethical living, justice and faith, please make a donation to the Friends of The Observer Fund. Supporting our award-winning journalism will help you and others to continue to access ucobserver.org for free in the months to come.