Not long after the start of an address at the University of Auckland, the director of the Vatican Observatory, Br Guy Consolmagno, SJ, talked about “family” relationships — all in the context of nature.
Br Guy cited G.K. Chesterton, who, in his work Orthodoxy, wrote: “The essence of all pantheism . . . is that nature is our mother. The main point of Christianity is this: Nature is not our mother, nature is our sister. . . .”
And the Jesuit brother told his Auckland audience, which filled the Maclaurin Chapel to overflowing on May 1, that to “St Francis [of Assisi], nature is a sister, and even a younger sister, a little, dancing sister to be laughed at, as well as loved”.
“If nature is our sister, we are both creatures of the same father; then that means you would never abuse your little sister, you would never try to dominate your little sister, but neither would you be so in awe and so in fear that you couldn’t appreciate and play with your little sister,” he said.
Br Guy, who was speaking in several New Zealand centres in April and May, said that all the amazing images of planets, nebulae and other astronomical phenomena, which he had shown his audience, depict aspects of “our family of creation”.
He explained that he had started his talk with such depictions “to give you an emotional sense of how we are tied to a universe, under a common Father, a common Creator”.
“Now you may be surprised to hear a scientist talk about this emotional
[thing]. But I think it’s important to remember — it is this love, love of nature, love of truth, love of the equations, that makes us want to be scientists.”
Br Guy had started by expressing his wonder that, “in one sense it is amazing that we as human beings, part of this universe, we are the part of the universe that allows the universe to be self-reflective, where the universe can think about itself”.
But, in that thinking, do we limit both universe and Creator? He spent much of his talk, titled “Our God is too small”, exploring ways in which cultures, modern and ancient, have thought about nature and the Creator, sometimes limiting both.
He did this within a framework involving three fundamental axioms upon
which, he argued, science is based.
• There is a real universe (it is not just a dream).
• It follows laws (it is not chaos).
• It is worth the effort to know these laws.
Every logical system has to start with assumptions, Br Guy said. “And in order to do the logical system we call science, you have to have at least these three axioms, which I claim are religious.”
He spoke of cultures which thought all natural phenomena were attributable to the actions of spirits or gods. He also explored the development of a “laws-based” approach to science, citing such figures as Aristotle, St Albert the Great and Roger Bacon, leading up to Isaac Newton.
But Br Guy also mentioned the development of the idea of “the God of the
Gaps”, where God was the explanation for phenomena that had left the science of the time baffled.
This idea eventually developed into the idea that there was no God. Br Guy cited Jesuit philosopher Michael Buckley: “The idea that there is no God came from people thinking that they could use science to prove God, and then when the gaps were closed, they discovered that the God they thought they had proved was unnecessary. But the God they were disproving is not the God of Scripture, it wasn’t the God they started with.”
Br Guy then moved on to the contributions of Albert Einstein and Fr Georges Lemaitre, the Belgian priest and mathematician who first posited what is now labelled the “Big Bang” theory of the cosmos, which Br Guy called “the best way we have of describing how the universe evolves”.
However, the Jesuit pointed out, there is “still this idea that the universe is starting at a Big Bang and that proves that at least there must have been a God that started things out”.
This is “carried on even by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, who
wrote a book a few years ago saying ‘I have got a new explanation for why the universe begins, why the Big Bang happened’”.
“[Hawking] says . . . the fabric of space and time that Einstein talks about has quantum fluctuations — the warping of space and time is what we call gravity, but gravity is not perfect, there are quantum fluctuations, and because there is a thing called gravity, he says, I can explain how one quantum fluctuation by accident happens to be big enough to start the Big Bang; therefore I don’t need God.”
“Now, logically, he is missing a point here,” Br Guy continued. “If [Hawking’s] definition of God is — the thing that started the Big Bang, and then he says gravity is the thing that started the Big Bang, he is not saying that there is no God, he is saying that God is gravity.”
“God has suddenly become a force alongside all the other forces and maybe
even a force we don’t need if gravity will do it. It is not the God of Scripture.”
But the God in which Br Guy believes, as pointed to in Scripture’s creation stories, is before space and time and outside of space and time — which means God is not a “nature God”, but is “super-natural”.
“And that means that creation is not something that only happened 13.8 billion years ago, but it happens at every time, at every place. And if Stephen Hawking is right about the quantum fluctuations in space-time, God is responsible for the fact that there is space-time, and laws that allow it to fluctuate ‘quantumly’, and this creation occurs everywhere, at
every time,” Br Guy said.
“Hawking does us an important favour in getting rid of this idea that God is this thing that starts the universe.
“To be an atheist, you know, you have to have a really clear idea of the God it is you don’t believe in. Otherwise, how do you know you don’t believe in him? The God that he [Hawking] doesn’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.
“But what I do believe in, not as the end of my logical reasoning, but as one of the assumptions, I believe that the universe is made by a supernatural God outside of the universe, and I believe that I can identify — the principle of equivalence, just as we do in physics — I can identify that creator God with also the God I experience in prayer, the God whom I see in salvation history, the God who was so powerful that, when he decided to enter into his own creation, he didn’t have to do it on a cloud of glory. . . but could do it as a little baby, born in an obscure part of a country halfway between Europe and Asia.
“And the advantage of making this assumption is that it is consistent with all the science that I know, just as my atheist friends’ assumptions that there is no God could be made consistent with all the science that we know, but [the assumption] also explains something that is remarkable.”
Br Guy showed an image of a galaxy warped after interaction with another such body. He said he can explain all the complexities depicted in the image with “beautifully logical laws of nature . . . “
“And so can my atheist friends. But what they cannot explain is why is it also so beautiful? Why is the universe beautiful? Why is it when I go out and look at the stars that I am filled with joy? That’s the thing that my assumption can explain that theirs can’t.”