It seems that at times, there is a discontinuity between science and religion. There is sometimes an attitude of mutual exclusivity between the two topics and I have seen it have polarizing effects on those who experience this discontinuity. I have known scientists who think that there is no room for faith in their lives because they can’t find God in an experiment, and I have known faithful people who are skeptical that science, especially the modern topics which tend to be controversial, can have a positive impact on society. The truth, however, is that not only can these two things coexist, they must coexist – the truth of the cosmos revealed by science simply cannot contradict the truth of faith. God is the creator of all things, natural and spiritual, both of which are truth. We express this idea in the Nicene Creed when we say that God is the “creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible”. We profess that God is creator of the natural world in all its splendor which can and should be studied by scientists (see also CCC paragraph 283). Additionally, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in an encyclical on Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason):
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2).
I think it should be clear that the Church’s position on science is a positive one. Science is not at odds with faith, and faith is not at odds with science. This post is intended to be a reflection on the creation of our universe through the complimentary lenses of science and faith. We will explore the scientific details of the miraculous and awe-inspiring creation of the cosmos.
Before we dive in, we must address the elephant in the room: the six “day” creation. In the English translation of the Bible, God creates the heavens and the earth in six days. Now, the literal understanding of the English translation is not quite sufficient in this case and we must discuss the language in which it was originally written: Biblical Hebrew. The Hebrew word for “day” used in the Bible does not necessarily mean a 24 hour period. The original word is “yom”, which can be translated into many different lengths of time – anywhere from a 24 hour period to an age or an epoch. It’s important to note also that Biblical Hebrew has a limited vocabulary, so special care must be taken to understand these passages in the correct context. Contrasted against English which is believed to have the largest vocabulary of all languages, the theme of the original language can be challenging to discern without a bit of background.
Not only is Biblical Hebrew somewhat limited in vocabulary, there also must be an understanding of the people to whom this information was being presented at the time of its writing. In God’s revaluation of Genesis, the literary style and scientific standpoint of the audience was tactfully considered. Having to describe the entire astronomical history of the Universe in complete scientific detail would have definitely been cumbersome and probably would have detracted from the message.
I’m of the opinion that in the end, it doesn’t matter very much whether an individual interprets Genesis with the 24 hour “yom” or the “yom” that spans billions of years. In the end, it is still God who has created the heavens and the earth and all life contained within it, and what a glorious creation it is. However, I’m also of the opinion that there is a source of great wonder and amazement in contemplating the cosmos, all 13.8 billion years of divinely guided stellar and planetary formation. Not only did the Lord write the narrative story of creation, he also wrote the laws of physics. He wrote them not on stone tablets, nor on any paper; he wrote them all over the Universe, just out of sight to those who do not look. Those who look, however, see the signature of the divine on the ground upon which they walk, in the stars upon which they gaze, and within the flora and fauna of the earth. God is, without a doubt, the best physics teacher there could ever be.
Since the first instant of existence, the Universe has been a dynamic place, unfolding and revealing the profound mysteries of God. In the first few sentences of Genesis, hundreds of thousands of years of development in the Universe are described: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep”. According to our scientific understanding of the early universe, the beginnings of time and space were chaotic and violent. For the first picosecond (that’s 10-12 seconds – an unimaginably small amount of time, to get a sense of the scale, comparing one picosecond to one second is equivalent to comparing one second to 31,710 years) of existence, we know relatively little about what the Universe even was, let alone how it looked. We have speculations, but no direct evidence from which to draw conclusions.
We do know a bit more about what the Universe was like after one picosecond; in fact, we understand it so fully that we are able to assign it a name like “quark soup”. When something gets a name like that, I imagine that it is 4:00 A.M. and a few physicists gathered around a chalkboard with pizza boxes, coffee cups, and crumpled papers littering the area, and as they make this profound discovery, they decide to name it “quark soup”. This quark soup, known more formally as quark-gluon plasma has been recreated on Earth – it is the highest energy experiment to ever be conducted at the Large Hadron Collider which is the largest and most powerful particle accelerator, the most complex experimental facility, and the largest single machine on earth. So the highest energy experiment at the world’s highest energy experimental facility has allowed us to see what it was like at one picosecond of existence. Description of the physical characteristics of this quark soup is impractical to attempt in this setting (yes, I am making that excuse in order to avoid displaying my lack of understanding), but it is important to grasp that it was incredibly hot and incredibly dense, so hot and dense that it is beyond practical understanding. At this point, I’d like to echo the words from Genesis 1:2: the earth, or as we have said, the incomprehensibly hot and dense plasma called “quark soup” was indeed “formless and void”.
From the first picosecond until the one-millionth picosecond – that’s 10-6 seconds, or one microsecond, the quark soup expanded and cooled enough so that the first familiar subatomic particles could form. At the age of one microsecond, protons and neutrons formed for the first time, and at the age of about 10 seconds, the Universe was calm enough to allow for nucleosynthesis, the formation of atomic nuclei. The Universe was, at that point, invisible, opaque in fact – there were no free photons: no light.
The Universe remained in this state for another 380,000 years, a hot plasma of nuclei, photons, and free electrons until finally, the plasma cooled enough for the free electrons to become bound in atomic orbit: the first atoms. A major consequence of these electrons joining to the nuclei to form atoms was that the photons, which were previously bound to the matter in the plasma, could travel freely through space without interacting with matter. Light could be emitted from these atoms through the excitation and de-excitation of the electrons between the atom’s orbitals and the Universe became transparent. These first light emissions are what we see in the Cosmic Microwave Background which is the earliest light in the Universe and has been traveling to Earth through space and time for about 13.8 billion years. This period, known in cosmology as “Recombination”, is the effect of Genesis 1:3, “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light”. That short sentence carries with it immense an complexity of physical phenomena. Give glory to God for being such a great physicist – at a simple utterance of his will, all that has been, is now, and will be was created, all the laws of nature defined.
Though there was light in the Universe at that time, it was not visible light. The Universe consisted almost entirely of hydrogen atoms and the photons that they emitted were microwave radio waves at a wavelength of about 21 centimeters. This wavelength is outside of the visible range so the Universe was still technically “dark”. The period between these first free photons and the formation of the first stars is affectionately known in cosmology as “The Dark Ages”. For another 150 million years, the Universe remained in the dark until the formation of the first stars. Groups of hydrogen atoms coalesced into larger and larger clusters to form giant clouds of the gas called nebulae. Within these nebulae the atoms “snowballed” to form dense regions of gas in which the gravitational forces became so immense that the atoms of hydrogen were atomically fused to make helium and of course, visible light: the birth of the first star and the end of universal darkness. With that, we have Genesis 1:4-5, “God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night.”
From that point on, the Universe was a place of cyclic star births and deaths – it was a place of formation and destruction that paved the way for the Universe to become what it is today. Eventually, rubble from the deaths of early stars formed into galaxies containing new generations of stars. This process repeated itself producing planets and still more stars until finally, after 9.2 billion years, our sun was formed in the outer regions of the Milky Way galaxy, and shortly thereafter, the planet upon which all of human history has been carried out made its appearance.
You may recall someone at some point telling you, “We’re all stardust”. Perhaps you remember that Carl Sagan saying, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff”. This is indeed statement of fact; at the time of the first stars, the Universe was almost exclusively made of hydrogen. So how did all these other elements get here? The answer is that at the end of a large star’s life, it runs out of the hydrogen fuel that keeps it “inflated” at which point, the gravitational forces overcome the star’s structure and it condenses. The core becomes so dense that the star begins fusing atoms into heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, and so on. This process happens several times forming heavier and heavier elements until finally, the dying star explodes in the final stage of its life, scattering the heavy elements throughout the Universe where they can become part of a planet, or a comet, or in our case, a part of our left arm.
I think the idea that we are made of stardust points to a deeper understanding of our oneness with God’s creation and gives a profound perspective on the Incarnation. With an earthly perspective, we simply see that God became one with his creation by taking on the human form and living among us. Now, I’m not saying this is not profound – it is. I’m saying that if we look at it with a bit of a cosmological flavor, we can realize that God, who guided the formation of the Universe and the stars within it, took on our human form by assembling atoms formed in a supernova explosion that happened billions of years prior into a human body. God became one with his creation by becoming his creation, by becoming stardust. He became stardust and lived in the same way that we do. Not only did he share in the humanity of creation, he shared in the whole cosmological history of the entire Universe! Not only did he become one with humanity, he became one with planet Earth, the moon, the planets of the solar system, the sun, the stars, the hundreds of billions of galaxies; he became one with everything.
This perspective makes it easy to see that no matter where we look, we see evidence of the divine. There is not one portion of creation reserved for the faithful, and some other portion reserved for scientists to study. There is one creation. It is a magnificent and complicated creation that needs to be studied by humans. This study is not a soulless or unimportant search to simply learn for the sake of knowledge, it is a quest of the soul to seek belonging. Humans have always wondered who they are and where they came from; seeking understanding from the world around us is the search for the Creator.
I’d like to conclude with a quote from Werner Heisenberg who was one of the pioneers in quantum theory and is most famous for his uncertainty principle. This quote underscores the experience of many scientists, including myself, who have tried to understand how faith and reason fit together. He said:
The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.
We must remember that God, who is the creator of everything, and the author of the natural laws, sent his only son to become one with the Universe, to exist as we do, with a body made of stardust, and in doing so, perfectly reconciled the things of the world to himself that in Christ, God and his creation would be purely and forever unified.