The Wonder of It All

It’s 7530 Annus Mundi, according to the calendar adopted by Roman Christendom (otherwise known as the Byzantine Empire). Every method of measuring time must have a starting point—a year zero—and for Eastern Christians it was the year in which the world was created, calculated using the historical markers and lifespans documented in the Septuagint. Today, this system of dating is usually only found in monastic literature, as modern nation states such as Russia, Romania, and Greece have long since adopted the “Anno Domini” reckoning of Dionysius the Small. This latter convention allows for all the centuries before Christ to recede into the murky past, before the building of civilizations and the advent of written languages.  Scientists often date the age of the earth at 4.5 billion years, and the age of the universe at roughly 14 billion years; but once we move past recorded history, they tend to speak of ages: the Neolithic, the Mesolithic, the Paleolithic, the Jurassic, the Cambrian, the Hadean, and so forth. Beyond the texts produced by societies we have only time immemorial.

In 2014, Ken Ham of “Answers in Genesis” debated Bill Nye the “Science Guy” on the topic of whether young earth creationism can be considered a viable model of origins in the contemporary scientific era.  The spectacle garnered much public interest—never mind that neither was qualified to represent the scientific community, both possessing only bachelor’s degrees in science-adjacent fields. But had they the expertise to properly defend their positions it would have made no difference, for the general populace lacks the training necessary to dissect and examine such arguments. We are asked so often to trust the experts because they know we have no other choice (unless we do our own research, and that often leads us down a rabbit hole and into all sorts of trouble). We are not specialists, and so the specialists hold us hostage.

The more important question is, why should it matter? Does belief in a 14 billion-year-old universe have any effect on our day-to-day decisions? Perhaps, depending on the narrative we couch this datum within. It’s all in the exegesis: how do we interpret this “text”? If we use such information to justify materialism, then it stands in stark contrast to the narrative we discover in the Scriptures. Therein we encounter the God who creates all things out of nothing, who overshadows the tohu wa bohu, gives it order and fills it with life. This is the cosmos we experience each day; this is the Creator we interact with through his creation as he upholds all things as though suspended above the abyss on a razor-thin adamantine bridge (as St Philaret of Moscow once remarked). For those who are not specialists, it is as though the world was just born. To nick an idea from Jonathan Pageau, the universe is 7530 years-old most of the time. Can our minds possibly move past the origins of civilization into the dark annals of prehistory? And can we even speak of time when there were no humans there to observe it?

It is not that simple. No matter how much we may try, we never cease to be a part of the age and place we occupy. We cannot simply reject the framework we’ve inherited, often based as it is upon the best observations and data we have at our disposal. We cannot unlearn, merely react. However, we can imitate the ancients in one respect: by interpreting the cosmos through the lens of faith, and the texts that polish it. The Scriptures provide us with an understanding of the world that is more true than any scientific textbook; though we err in trying to impose our modern presuppositions on the text rather than allowing the text to interpret us. So how do we avoid this snare?

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor outlines how we ended up in a disenchanted world. The mindset indicative of medieval man is all but dead. And while some lingering vestiges of magical thinking persist, we can never return to that era. We’ve come too far, he says. But as G.K. Chesterton posited, Christians—if they are to remain true to revelation—must rediscover that hidden realm. The world God has created is a work of art, a place of beauty and wisdom for sure, but also a place of spiritual mysteries. It remains for us to experience the wonder of it all. Science therefore represents a challenge, not a foe.

When physicist and priest Georges Lemaître published his equations in 1927, few (including Einstein) expected that hard evidence would be found to prove his Big Bang theory. But as the century rolled on, the data became undeniable. The old Steady State theory was no longer tenable, and creation ex nihilo became viable, leading astronomer Robert Jastrow to opine:

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

When modern physics points to a finite universe originating from nothing, and the complexity of DNA points to an omniscient intelligence that has caused an intelligible sequence, we are no longer faced with a God of the gaps, but a science of the gaps. Despite its shortcomings, it is better we make peace with science than reject it outright (for without it we lose our technology and medicine). Besides, the war between religion and science is mostly myth anyway (see Galileo Goes to Jail). We need not add more fuel to the fire.

Such a reconciliation is only possible if we establish a proper epistemology—one that envisages God’s direct revelation as primary (even if understood symbolically), and empirical observation as secondary. If approached in this way, it is possible today, more than ever, for science to be a handmaiden to reënchantment. For example, experiments in quantum physics have shown that particles only assume an exact position when observed. This points us towards the reality of an emergent universe whose structure and order are rooted in information streaming from an infinite consciousness. Thus, our mind images that eternal Mind, and our inner perceptions may in fact be a reflection of divine truth. To ponder such things should naturally inspire awe.

While scientific paradigms continue to evolve, our theology cannot. We can never move beyond the experiences at Sinai or Thabor. They inform and shape our understanding of reality, being unique irruptions of transcendence into the material world that draw back the curtain to show us what always is. In Hegelian fashion, we may pursue a synthesis between the old and new world visions: between a revealed faith in things unseen, and the acquired knowledge of God’s cosmos. This is the confluence of religion and science. But at the same time, we must acknowledge that only those who climb the mountain of God and proceed into the luminous darkness will ever fully reconcile the heights of heaven with these plains inhabited below.

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