And then I wrote… So, this is an odd article; not in that it’s unusual, itself — it is typical of the stuff I have written about faith and astronomy. In fact, it’s a nice summary of my ideas.
What is odd is that, though I find three or four different versions of this in my files for “stuff I wrote in 2011” and I can see that it was edited (by someone named “Mike”) I have no record of where it was actually published. If anyone reading this can find it in print anywhere, that would be great! I don’t always remember to update my CV with non-science publications. Anyway, what I do see it that it originally was written in the fall of 2011… and the version I am publishing here is actually more or less my original draft, which I think is the freshest if not the most polished version.
As with earlier articles that I have published here, this whole article is about 5000 words long so I have split it into three parts.
How do we come to know God? It is a question at the heart of all religious experience; and ultimately, of all human experience. And it is – and must be – the question behind our scientific experience of the universe.
The role of the human senses: This insight was directly stated by St. Paul in the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans: "since the beginning of time, God has revealed himself in the things he has made," namely in this physical universe. This is illustrated throughout the Bible, our record of the times and ways that God has made himself manifest: from the breath of activity over the chaos described in the opening of Genesis, to the burning bush seen by Moses, to the still soft voice heard by the prophet Elijah as described in the first Book of Kings.
If God expresses himself in creation, then our experience of God is mediated through our created human senses. The way our senses experience God’s creation is at least one way that we come to know God. This is why we do science; if our ultimate longing is for Truth, then the search for truth is the search for God. Indeed, “how do we come to know God?” is ultimately the question that shapes the choices we make of what science we do, and the standard against which we judge the success of our work.
But science is more than merely experiencing the universe. Science is understanding what we have experienced. Our reflections about this experience, the way we come to know its meaning, is also mediated through our own mind’s processing of what it senses.
In spite of these innate human limitations, we do nonetheless grow in our knowledge of God by experiencing what God reveals in the universe. That this is possible, is a tribute to the power of God and the nature of the gifts of understanding that God has given us.
Insight and Image: One of those gifts is reason. But even in science, reason does not operate alone, in a vacuum. Science itself also is dependent upon the tools of insight and image. Insight is what guides us; it directs our hunches of where to look, and it suggests how to apply our reason to understand what we see when we look there. Image allows us to shape our newly won understanding so that we can communicate that it, both to others and to ourselves, and remember what we have understood, after the flash of insight has passed.
No image is perfect. Any attempt to treat an image as perfect turns it into an idol. But so long as we recognize an image for what it is, it can allow us to become emotionally familiar with the way we understand God, and thus incorporate our insights into the way we live and interact with God in this physical universe.
What are cosmologies? When a common image underlies all of our understanding of the universe and how it works, we call that image a cosmology. It is impossible to think of the universe without resorting to some sort of cosmology. Our choice of cosmology not only allows us to understand what we see, it also suggests new places to look and the necessity for a new understanding of those things we learn that do not easily fit into our given cosmology. And, like any image, our cosmologies are always imperfect and incomplete, and if taken too seriously can turn themselves into idols that get in our way of understanding the reality of God.
To take one example, recall that one of the most powerful of images we have to help us come to know God is that of “Father.” In recent times, as we struggle to understand the role of the sexes in the contemporary setting (where our expectation of traditional gender roles has changed significantly in the past 50 years) we have come to appreciate some of the limitations of this image. In addition, our personal history – for example, the nature of our relationship with our own father – can strongly color this image in each one of us, in ways that are as different as every family is for every individual. (As Tolstoy famously put it, “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”) Thus, those who had a bad relationship with their own father can often have a hard time relating to God as Father.
Now consider the prime attribute given to God the Father in our Creed: “Creator of heaven and earth.” In the days when that phrase was devised, just as the word “father” carried a different connotation than it might today, so too the terms “heaven” and “earth” envisioned a cosmology very different from what we currently believe. (And, of course, future developments in understanding our cosmologies will probably move them beyond anything we could imagine today.) Thus, inevitably, just as there is a personal effect in attributing to God characteristics that are particular to our experiences of our own father, there will likewise arise a tension between the ancient cosmology assumed by the authors of the Creed, and what can survive of that image as our picture of the universe changes...
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