Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Some reflections on our humongous universe

This will be my 100th post since I started this blog on April 13, 2011. Since then I received almost 100,000 pageviews. In order to celebrate the occasion, I wanted to pick a big topic, and there is certainly nothing bigger than the universe. This is the subject of my reflection this week. Enjoy!
The universe is commonly defined as the totality of everything that exists, including all matter and energy, the planets, stars, galaxies, and the contents of intergalactic space. Definitions and usage vary, however, and there are similar terms including the cosmos, the world and nature.

Up until the beginning of the modern period, the geocentric model of the universe reigned supreme. In this model the Earth was the center of the universe. From the late 16th century onward, this was replaced by the heliocentric model of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler.

Christian theologians were initially reluctant to accept a theory that seemed to contradict certain Bible passages and they offered much resistance. Muslims also adopted the geocentric model very early, but they were ahead of Christians in proposing an alternative. Muslim astronomers were among the first to suggest that the Milky Way consisted of many stars, although proof for this awaited Galileo's use of the telescope.

It was not until the early 20th century that astronomers recognized that there were many more galaxies outside of the Milky Way. Thus our understanding of the universe has grown through the centuries.

This high-resolution image of the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field shows a diverse range of galaxies, each consisting of billions of stars. The equivalent area of sky that the picture occupies is shown as a red box in the lower left corner. The smallest, reddest galaxies, about 100, are some of the most distant galaxies to have been imaged by an optical telescope, existing at the time shortly after the Big Bang.

It is now estimated that there are as many as 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy and probably 400 billion galaxies in the universe. In addition, some scientists have postulated that there are also other universes that are not connected to our own universe. These are called multiverses.

I have purposely refrained from providing many details, except for the numbers that I already mentioned. My concern now is to describe how our understanding of the universe has inflated greatly to the point where it has become impossible for our finite minds to fully grasp.

When the Bible was written, the geocentric model was widely accepted, and remained so until the beginning of the modern period. Then the Milky Way was added, and the explosion began. Less than a century ago, a further explosion took place. With the discovery of dark matter and dark energy the picture has become even more complex, since these two account for 95% of the mass-energy density of the universe.

The announcement of the existence of the Higgs boson, the so-called "God" particle, which gives mass to other elementary particles is yet another advance in our understanding of the universe, which has now become so large that even the word humongous is not adequate to describe its immensity. 

Since I am a theologian, it has caused me to reflect on what this development means for my science. The old anthropocentric theology has been questioned many times, but perhaps not as severely as today, after these cosmological explosions.

Our God is an extravagant God. Why did he create such a mind-boggling universe? Our solar system would have sufficed. Why create such a large stage if only the tinniest part of it is necessary for the biblical drama?

Christians say that, according to the Bible, the Earth is the centerpiece of God's creation, and the only place where he created life. God has given humanity the task of taking care of what has created. But does this stewardship extend beyond the Earth to the entire universe -- all 400 billion times 400 billion stars together with their planets?

Is there life on any of these planets? More pertinently, is there any intelligent life? If so, how should we relate to those extra-terrestrial beings? Fortunately, we haven't discovered them yet (although they may already have found us), because then the theological sparks would really begin to fly, not only for Christians but also for Muslims, Jews, and adherents of just about every religion, except the Raelians who it seems have met the aliens and cooperate with them.

Claude Vorilhon, a former French journalist, is the spiritual leader of the Raelians

The idea of aliens is the stock-in-trade of science fiction writers, but few Christian writers seem to have openly espoused this idea. C.S. Lewis, however, speculated that aliens may never have experienced a "Fall."

Some contemporary Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians who do “exotheology” have speculated about the nature of these extraterrestrial races. They are not afraid to raise theological questions that may, seem in the absence of aliens, to be premature to many people, yet these questions deserve to be asked. 

Many science fiction novelists and filmmakers have already raised interesting parallels with the Christian faith, whether intentional or not.

Spielberg’s classic 1982 film E.T. has some of the most striking christological parallels in all of cinema: so much so that one could almost consider the film an allegory of the Christ story. Consider that E.T. comes from the heavens to bring healing. He performs miracles, including bringing things that have died back to life. In a Garden of Gethsemane scene, he goes out into the woods the night before he is captured and “phones home”. After he is taken captive, dies, he is resurrected, and ascends back to the heavens in a space ship.

Is the idea of other sentient beings so absurd? Even if we were the only sentient race in our own galaxy, and if other galaxies had on average one form of sentient life, there would be 400 billion species, at least some of whom would be space faring, and who may be able to overcome the incredible distances involved.

The odds of us eventually finding other forms of intelligent life are probably much higher than the figures that I used. No committed gambler would place a bet using such dismal odds.

Some of the questions that arise for me include the following: the "historicity" of Adam and Eve, the meaning of the Fall, the nature of sin, the necessity and means of salvation, the nature of God, and the role of Jesus Christ. Raising these questions does not mean that I deny these doctrines, but rather I want to open them up for discussion.

Other faiths will raise different questions. That is to be expected, yet there may be some overlap as well as some fundamental differences.

I want to reject biblicism, since that will not answer these questions in a meaningful way. Christian theology must be prepared to address the myriad issues that have arisen since the cosmological explosion that I have described. 

Instead, I am pleading for a frank discussion of issues. In the Middle Ages people already asked these questions. Increasingly, however, I find myself unhappy with the answers provided by past generations. Textbooks in theology over the years have left me dissatisfied, because the answers they provide no longer speak to me, and thus I find it difficult to convey them to my students without hedging them with caveats.

Anselm's theory of the atonement, for example, is encased in legal jargon that totally misses the drama of what Jesus accomplished during his 33 years of life. The story of his death and resurrection can be grasped intuitively by ordinary believers. 

Note that I do not deny what Anselm taught; rather, I question its relevance in the 21st century. Many churches are able to retell the story of what Christ did without any mention of Anselm and his theory. 

This is only one example. I could give more, but this is not proper venue. I do want to raise some important questions, however, that deserve further discussion, especially in the light of new cosmological developments.

Theology is not a museum where we can calmly peruse past relics, even though knowledge of the history of theology is invaluable; theology is something that is living and growing. The current dismissal of theology by many people is due in part because it has not sufficiently kept up with new developments in the wider world.

When theological pronouncements are made they are often seen as reactive and not proactive. The issue of the role of women is a good example. Instead of pressing for a greater involvement of women in an official capacity, the Roman Catholic Church has dug in its heels and consistently refused to countenance any change in its official teachings and practices. 

The same goes for the issue of clerical celibacy, which is demanded urgently by many African Catholic clergy who do not possess the necessary charism, not to mention that this is also counter-cultural. There are many more issues that I could raise, but won't at this time.

To widen the circle again, I keep wondering why God created such a humongous universe for a species that lives on a small planet circling a medium-sized star. Is our old anthropocentric and geocentric theology still sufficient to answer this question? Or do we need a new theology that is as vast as our universe?

The answer to these questions will aid us as we struggle with the other questions that I raised. We must begin formulating a new theology that is fully cognizant of the many developments in the intervening centuries since many of our doctrines were formulated. Somehow, many matters have been excluded.

For those for whom theology is a foreign language that they are totally unfamiliar with, my apologies for these theological reflections. This blog, as I explain in the sidebar, focuses on our world, with special attention paid to religion. 

For those who have imbibed deeply from the old theological fountain, I suggest that they drink from the new fountain as well. They may discover that the new water tastes as good as the old; in fact, it may even taste better when they have overcome their skepticism. 

All theologians, however, both old and new, should be humble enough to realize that they too may have made errors, and that they will continue to make them. That is a valuable lesson.

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