(This article is written for college students who may be struggling with issues of faith as they are confronted with the “stretchings” of higher education.)
It still sends chills down my spine when I think about that moment of revelation fifty years ago. I was on my way to one of the libraries at the University of South Carolina. It was a crisp autumn night, and the sky was filled with stars. I had never noticed before how many stars are in the heavens and how terrifyingly awesome the universe is. Recently Susan and I were on the university campus and I was able to show her the exact spot where I was “star-struck” that evening. That experience both overwhelmed and threatened me at the core of my being. I felt so small and wondered what place the faith I had been taught had in such a universe. How much religion is no more than wishful thinking? And what place does humankind have in the expanse of time and space? And does humankind (not to mention myself) have a place in this immensity? Is there any purpose, and is there really a God? Or is my existence just a pointless accident in a blind evolutionary process? Is humankind a tragic development of self- consciousness in a universe where it is pointless to ask “Why?”
Those questions have never left me over the past half a century. I refuse to mutter some mindless religious dribble to escape what happened to me that night. And in my own limited way I have tried to pursue truth wherever it may lead, because I firmly believe that only truth will lead us to God in all of God’s wonder, mystery, and profundity. If necessary, I would rather come to the conclusion that there is no God and be honest in my pursuit of truth than to “believe” what my mind and heart know cannot be true.
Some years ago PBS treated its audience to a six-part documentary entitled “Stephen Hawking’s Universe.” As I watched this series I was reminded again of how vast and awesome our universe really is. And as I now reflect on that series and on the readings I have done over the years in my pursuit of truth, I would like to share three thoughts.
For every discovery scientists make, for every question they answer, and for every door they open, they are confronted by greater mysteries, more profound questions, and additional closed doors. The more we learn about this universe, the more we realize how much we do not know. Hawking reminds us that the universe’s trillions of stars account for only one percent of its total matter. The rest is something called “dark matter,” and no one, not even Hawking, knows what dark matter is. We do not even know enough about the universe to even hypothesize the nature of 99% of what is here. (A UK, Canadian, and Italian study, published in January of 2017 has provided what researchers believe is the first observational evidence that our universe could be a vast and complex hologram. Other scientists doubt this possibility, but the very fact that there is a debate over such a mind-blowing possibility demonstrates the mystery and lack of certainty even the best of scientists must contend with.) Such ignorance should grace all human beings with humility on all questions, religious and otherwise.
The more we learn about the universe, the more we learn how insignificant our galaxy, solar system, planet, and species are. We are at best a part of a vast web of existence, the nature of which is far beyond our understanding. The more we learn about the universe and our place in it, the more we approach the perspective of the original inhabitants of this continent (the First Nations) who saw themselves as one part of a grand mystery and who understood their identities and destiny as inextricably wrapped up with all the rest of the world. Eastern Orthodox Christianity has said for centuries that God’s salvation is for the universe of which we are only a small part. We are “saved” as a part of this creation. If there is a salvation from God, then the more we learn about the universe, the more necessary this insight becomes.
J. B. Phillips wrote a book many years ago entitled Your God Is Too Small. I believe those words should be engraved on our minds and hearts. The universe as we are beginning to understand it requires a God far greater than any human being or religion has ever imagined. We do God no honor by refusing to expand our understanding of God by taking refuge in outdated religious dogma. If God is far more than any of us can understand, then we would be foolish to close our minds to truth wherever we may find it. I know that if I am to be true to what I already know and am beginning to intuit, then I will need all the help I can muster to have a faith with intellectual integrity. None of this negates the rich heritage we have inherited. It simply reminds us that if we are to be a people of faith, then we must be pilgrims in this universe, ever open to the expanding ways of God. I am not required to have Abraham’s faith or Peter’s or Paul’s or that of my parents. I am to learn from them how they were able to come to a faith in their time and place and be faithful to their God. I am then required to come to my own faith in my unique time and space.
Now all this is threatening to us. It would be easier to rely on “that good ole time religion.” But we must never forget that “that good ole time religion” was once as radical and threatening as any leap of faith we might pursue in our day. If we take seriously what I have outlined above, then we will find a humbler place in the universe than previous generations (at least Euro-American generations) have assumed. But we might feel more at home. And we might discover that we are a part of a mystery far greater than we could ever imagine. And that we are kept by God in wonderful and grace-filled ways along with the rest of the universe.
I want to close with some words from Stephen Hawking which point to how awesome this creation is.
“Yet, in another way, the universe and the laws of physics seem to have been specifically designed for us. If any one of about 40 physical qualities had more than slightly different values, life as we know it could not exist. Either atoms would not be stable, or they wouldn’t combine into molecules, or stars wouldn’t form the heavier elements, or the universe would collapse before life could develop, and so on. . .”
Science can neither prove nor disprove God. But increasingly science is revealing that if there is a God, that God is far greater than any world religion has ever imagined. And when I think on that, those cold chills run again up and down my spine. And I offer a prayer of humble thanks to be a part, even an infinitesimal part, of so great a mystery.