This column first appeared in The Tablet in September, 2007. We first ran it here in 2015.
A group working in the interface of science and theology at a Jesuit university in the American midwest invited me to give a talk at a workshop on “Cosmology Breakthroughs and the God Question.” When I agreed, I thought I’d be in North America already. Instead, I flew 5000 miles from Rome to make the talk.
I’m not a cosmologist, and God isn’t a question; not to me, anyway. I study planets. What’s the connection between planets and God? Well, in the opening words of the Creed we claim to believe in a God who created heaven and earth. And certainly my field has redefined the meaning of “heaven and earth.”
When you talk about God creating the “earth” we all instinctively look around and see this flat disk of dirt and streams and lakes we call “here,” the earth; and a sky overhead that makes a dome over this disk, the “heavens.” And so the first chapter of Genesis describes God creating such a sky, “a dome in the midst of the waters” that separates the “waters” above and below the land on which plants, animals, and people are eventually placed. The planets above move in their spheres of heaven, ordered into ranks like the angels are.
But then Isaac Newton found natural laws that acted the same both on celestial bodies and objects as humble as an apple falling from a tree. The Earth and everything on it was no longer at the bottom of a chain of creation, but raised to a status equal to that of the other planets. Newton’s physics showed that “Earth” was not in a unique place in the universe, favored or disfavored in contrast to the heavens. It completed what Copernicus had started: the death of the concept that the physical universe could be thought of as a parallel to the spiritual universe.
And this, in turn, freed up science to look more carefully at the concept of “other worlds.” The possibility of other planets has been understood, intellectually, since the enlightenment; indeed, we’ve had stories speculating about life on other planets since Roman times. But it was only when we’ve actually been able to see the real planets in our solar system, close up, that this reality has come home to us at a gut, emotional level. (Think of those spectacular images that the rovers have sent back from Mars: pictures that make you understand you’re looking at a real place where someday people will have adventures.)
Then there’s all those planets we’re discovering around other stars. Certainly they pose the ever increasing possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence. How does this affect the assumptions underlying the traditional explanations of original sin and Christ's salvation?
The most important aspects of this challenge is how it reveals the unrecognized assumptions we have made in our previous understanding of heaven and earth—and the assumptions we have made in our understanding of God as its creator. It is both new, and familiar. What we once thought was the physical universe, earth, turns out to be only one tiny bit of it. What we once thought of as heaven, the stars and planets, turns out to be just a bigger part of “earth.” What we now think of as heaven is not a location accessible to our telescopes; but whatever, wherever, whenever it is, it too is a creation of the same creator God we say we believe in at the very beginning of our credo.
We have to stretch our minds farther than we ever expected to. The universe, and its Creator, are a lot bigger than we could have imagined three millenia ago, before we learned the true nature of the planets. By contrast, the 5000 miles from Rome to St. Louis is a mere weekend’s jaunt.