Faith, the Universe, and Wisdom

I think the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; Earth isn’t flat; Adam and Eve aren’t German; poetry isn’t science; and thinking is not a sin.

If you’ve been reading my posts, you know why being a Christian doesn’t interfere with my interest in science.

Feel free to skip the rest of this post. It’s mostly about reading the Bible, the universe, and getting a grip.

I’ll be back next Friday,1 most likely talking about Proxima Centauri b, a planet orbiting the next star over from ours: in Proxima’s habitable zone.

Meanwhile, maybe you’ve got something better to do: like sorting your socks, taking a walk, or watching grass grow. Or maybe looking at my ‘science posts’ link list:

Reading the Bible, Using Our Brains

I take Sacred Scripture, the Bible, seriously. It’s a vital part of my faith. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101133)

The Word of God wouldn’t do me much good sitting on a shelf, though, which is why reading the Bible, often, is so important. (Catechism, 133)

“…in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them….”
(“Dei Verbum,” Pope Blessed Paul VI (November 18, 1965))

The idea is that we learn what we need for our salvation: and “…learn the deepest meaning and the value of all creation, as well as its role in the harmonious praise of God….” (“Lumen Gentium,”2 Pope Blessed Paul VI; Catechism, 337)

We don’t read the Bible to learn how the universe works.3 That we can work out on our own, using the brains God gave us: which is what we’re supposed to do. Use our brains, that is, and keep learning about this marvelous creation. (Catechism, 35, 50, 159, 22922296)

“Waters Above the Heavens”

I could follow our Lord if I believed that we live on a flat plate with nothing between us and the cosmic ocean but a solid dome that holds the stars.

But maintaining ignorance of what we’ve learned over the last two dozen or so centuries isn’t necessary.

Imagery in 1 Samuel 2:8 and Psalms 148:4 is beautiful, poetic, and consistent with Mesopotamian cosmology. No surprises there, considering where the Hebrews lived.

We’ve learned quite a bit about the universe since the days when Urukagina tried cleaning up the government in Lagash. Then Lugal-zage-si conquered Lagash, after which Sargon of Akkad came along, and that’s another topic.

Ancient Mountains, Grasshoppers, and Baron Kelvin

We’ve known the universe was big and old for a long time:

3 Terrible and awesome are you, stronger than the ancient mountains.”
(Psalms 76:5)

“He sits enthroned above the vault of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; He stretches out the heavens like a veil, spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.”
(Isaiah 40:22)

3 Raise your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth below; Though the heavens grow thin like smoke, the earth wears out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies, My salvation shall remain forever and my justice shall never be dismayed.”
(Isaiah 51:6)

James Ussher wrote “Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti” around 1650: in which he pegged the day of creation as near the autumnal equinox in the year 4004 BC.

It was pretty good scholarship for its day, and some Christians still insist that Ussher must be right. I’m not one of them.

If Christianity depended on a 17th-century British cleric being right, our faith would have started unraveling in 1778, when Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon published “Les époques de la nature.”

He had carefully measured how fast iron cools, extrapolated from that data, and found that Earth was about 75,000 years old. He was wrong by several powers of ten.

William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, using similar methods in 1862, calculated an age of Earth at somewhere between 20,000,000 and 400,000,000 years. That was pretty good work, considering that scientists didn’t know about heat from radioactive decay, and effects of convection currents in Earth’s mantle yet.

So how come I don’t cry out “let the smiting begin?!

Basically, it’s because I’m a Catholic: and understand my faith.

I must believe that God created, and is creating, a good and ordered physical world: one that is changing, in a state of journeying toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 282308)

Studying of this astonishing creation honestly and methodically cannot interfere with faith, because “the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.” (Catechism, 159)

Like I’ve said before, I figure part of my job is admiring God’s creation, not telling the Almighty how it should have been made. That, I think, is pretty much the opposite of humility. (July 31, 2016)

The Last Few Billion Years, Briefly

(From Efbrazil, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(This universe, so far: 13,800,000,000 years mapped onto a 12-month calendar.)

About 13,799,000,000 years back, give or take 21,000,000, this universe started so abruptly that Fred Hoyle called it a big bang.4 The cosmic fireball cooled down and became transparent, some 380,000 years later.

Massive stars formed, ran out of fuel, collapsed, and exploded; adding heavy elements to this galaxy’s interstellar mix.

About 4,600,000,000 years ago a cloud of the stuff got dense enough for molecules to form. Part of it collapsed into a dusty spinning disk with a bulge in the center — which became the star we call the Sun.

Earth took shape some 4,540,000,000 years back, plus or minus 50,000,000. These numbers have changed, by the way, over the last few years: but only by a few fractions of a percent.

Our home cooled down, oceans formed, and life began here. The oldest fossilized bacteria are about 3,000,000,000 years old, and we’re still not sure exactly when the first microcritters began.

Fast-forwarding over the next two and a half billion years, Dickinsonia costata flourished from 560,000,000 to 555,00,000 years ago. Scientists think it was an animal, a fungus — or something else, a member of an “extinct kingdom.”

Something dreadful happened about 66,000,000 years back, one of Earth’s glacial epochs started some 63,000,000 years later, we appeared, and that brings me back to James Ussher, William Thomson, and Fred Hoyle.

Cosmic Scale and Wisdom

ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM, OmegaCen/Astro-WISE/Kapteyn Institute; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.The scale of this universe doesn’t bother me. Even if it did, my preferences wouldn’t count for much. As Psalms 115:3 says, “…whatever God wills is done.”

I’m quite confident that God isn’t overwhelmed by the size of this creation, and that’s yet another topic. Topics.

4 Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.

“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.

“For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.

“And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?”
(Wisdom 11:2225)

Somewhat-related posts:

(From NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) – ESA/Hubble Collaboration; used w/o permission.)

1 I plan to get next Friday’s post ready by Friday. But like Proverbs 19:21 says, “many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the decision of the LORD that endures.”

The August 19 ‘Friday’ post is a case in point:

2 Resources:

3 Background:

“…Know what the Bible is – and what it isn’t. The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with the people he has called to himself. It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto. In the Bible, God teaches us the truths that we need for the sake of our salvation….”
(“Understanding the Bible,” Mary Elizabeth Sperry, USCCB)

That’s from “10 points for fruitful Scripture reading:”

  1. Bible reading is for Catholics
  2. Prayer is the beginning and the end
  3. Get the whole story!
  4. The Bible isn’t a book. It’s a library
  5. Know what the Bible is – and what it isn’t
  6. The sum is greater than the parts
  7. The Old relates to the New
  8. You do not read alone
  9. What is God saying to me?
  10. Reading isn’t enough
    (From “Understanding the Bible,” Mary Elizabeth Sperry, USCCB)

4 That was 1949, after astronomers had noticed that galaxies were running away from us, but before COBE data backed up the Big Bang model.

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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16 Responses to Faith, the Universe, and Wisdom

  1. Naomi Gill says:

    Missing article: “tried cleaning up government in Lagash.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

  2. Naomi Gill, Oops! Fixed, and thanks! I’m (finally) looking at comments. (Another oops.)

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