I Don’t Know Everything & I Wish I Knew More

Star gazing not only invites but almost insists on serious reflection. Years ago, lying on my back at the beach with a young son, looking up into a brilliant star-filled night sky, he broke the long silence I was enjoying by asking, unbidden, the ultimate ontological question: “Daddy, who made God?”

The June 10 edition of Christian Century magazine contains two marvelously thoughtful and thought provoking articles that approach Andy’s question: Karl Giberson’s “At the Edge of the Universe” and Amy Frykholm’s lively interview with Vatican Observatory researcher Guy Consolmagno, S.J.

Giberson’s begins with the provocative observation that the timelines of the 13.7 billion year history of the universe in Freshman Astronomy textbooks often begin with a question mark. Science has pushed all the way back to the Big Bang, but not before the Big Bang. In fact, there is a debate within the scientific community about whether or not the matter of ultimate causation is even a scientific question. Professor Giberson cites Freeman Dyson, distinguished scholar but not a conventional believer: “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense knew that we were coming.” The laws of nature which allowed the universe, the world and life to happen, and which scientists have discovered, are so elegant that astronomer Fred Hoyle, a religious agnostic, wryly commented that common sense suggests that a “superintellect monkeyed with physics, chemistry, and biology.” And, Stephen Hawking, who is clear that he does not believe in God in any conventional way nevertheless asked, in A Brief History of Time, “What is it that breathed fire into the equation?”

It is neither appropriate nor honest to attempt to squeeze unwilling astronomers and scientists who are comfortable agnostics or atheists into the mold of conventional belief. Nevertheless, they do end up asking, or their research and discoveries end up asking, profoundly theological questions. To complicate the public conversation evangelical, fundamentalist Christians not only refuse to embrace modern science, but frequently condemn science and scientific inquiry and research as an enemy of faith. Is there anything more depressing or appalling, and ultimately dangerous, than Presidential candidates, courting evangelical voters, refusing to acknowledge the science of global warming and climate change?

I have vivid memories of my first experience with that kind of closed- minded religion that regards science as a threat. Home for Christmas after the first semester of Freshman Geology, I couldn’t wait to announce my new discoveries to my next door neighbor friends who were fundamentalist Baptists. It was the encounter that first taught me about fundamentalism. The world is really old, I proudly announced. Creation took millions of years, not six days. They were aghast and borrowed the family car to take me to an”expert” from their church who confidently explained that Genesis was literally, factually true in the way it presents creation. He had simple answers for all my questions and let me know, in no uncertain terms, that what I was being taught in college was not only false but inconsistent with Christian teaching and Christian faith. It didn’t satisfy me. In fact, it inspired a life-long suspicion of religious certainty that easily becomes an anti-intellectualism. It also didn’t compute with my Geology professor who was not only not an enemy of faith but a regular worshipper in college chapel services.

Guy Consolmagno, Vatican Astronomer, answered Amy Frykholm’s question about why the  Vatican had an observatory: “Every religion should” and expanded: ” The tone is set by the person in the pulpit. The keys are curiosity and humility. Religious leaders need to say ‘I don’t know everything and I wish I knew more.'”

The stars took my breath away again in the high desert night sky outside Santa Fe, New Mexico recently as they do every summer at the ocean. I recalled a favorite Walt Whitman poem:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shone the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer when he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wandered off by myself,
In the mystical moist air, and from time to time
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece, John. I’ve just read an interesting book by two physicists entitled “Quantum Enigma.” Based on quantum mechanics, their question has to do with the power of observation in making the universe what it is. It’s accessible but mind-boggling.

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