Wednesday, April 12, 2017

RHETORICAL QUESTIONS

At the time that the Bible was written, roughly during the millennium running from 800 BCE to 200 CE, we understood that the earth was flat and, importantly, that it was at the center of the universe.  That was understandable since we considered ourselves the most important beings in the universe, the very reason God created the universe in the first place.  We observed that, in addition to the sun and moon, there were stars in the night sky and we surely had observed that some of them (the planets) moved against the otherwise fixed background of stars.  Of course, all of the objects in the sky revolved around the earth, because we could see that they rose and set each day.  We had no idea how large the universe was, since our ability to travel through it was so limited.  But the sky appeared to be a dome that fit over the earth, so that defined the extent of the universe.  Beyond that was God’s realm.  In terms of age, we understood the universe to be old—as we understood that term—as old as all the generations of humans that we could recall or invent stories about.  We believed that the universe, since it was God’s creation, was perfect, but we didn’t know the rules under which it operated, and so we assumed that God continued to “operate” the universe much as a human might operate a mechanical device that he had made.  From time to time there were unexpected celestial events, such as meteors, comets, and eclipses, but we assumed those were orchestrated by God for purposes about which we could speculate.

Here is an illustration of an early Hebrew cosmology that I borrowed from The Big Picture, by Sean Carroll.  Note the size of the earth compared with the remainder of the universe.


Today our understanding of the universe is vastly different:  

First, it is much older, nearly 14 billion years old.  The earth, our home, formed some 4-1/2 billion years ago, and life began here more than 3-1/2 billion years ago.  This compares with the biblical age of less than 10,000 years.  But careful observation and scientific analysis have shown that much of what we observe simply could not have occurred within the timeframe laid out in the Bible.  

Second, the universe is governed by uniform rules—the laws of nature.  Science makes the assumption that those rules operate everywhere and at all times and that they do not require any “supervision.”  They simply are part of the fabric of the world and operate all by themselves.  We have an imperfect understanding of those laws, but the assumptions of uniformity and the application of the scientific method have allowed us to make great advances in our understanding and in our ability to manipulate our world.

Third, even though the universe is governed by orderly rules, the results can appear chaotic.  Astronomical observation has revealed such phenomena as supernovae, black holes, and colliding galaxies.  We know that in several billion years our sun will expand into a red giant, incinerating earth.  On a terrestrial level we witness hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, all as the result of the operation of those same uniform laws of nature.  We no longer need to resort to divine action to explain their causes or consequences.

Fourth, the universe is huge, virtually beyond human (or at least this human’s) comprehension.  And its structure is very different from the model we conceived in biblical times.  We know that celestial objects (except the moon) do not revolve around the earth; rather, the earth, as well as the other planets, revolve around the sun.  The sun, in turn, is a run-of-the-mill star whose closest neighbor is nearly four light years—25 trillion miles (that’s with a “t”)—away.  But wait, as they say in the infomercials, there’s more.  The sun is one of perhaps 200 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is some 100,000 light years across.  The Milky Way’s closest major galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, is another 2.5 million light years distant (15 quintillion miles away, if you are keeping score).  Of course, the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxies are just part of a “Local Group” of galaxies, all part of an observable universe of upwards of perhaps a trillion galaxies.  

Here, again borrowed from The Big Picture, is an illustration of the structure of the observable universe.



Keep in mind, this is not an actual selfie.  It is an illustration meant to show how the galaxies are arrayed throughout the observable universe, in apparent filaments each comprised of perhaps hundreds if not thousands of galaxies.  Note that each pixel in this illustration represents at the least a group, not of stars, but of galaxies.  In other words our galaxy, not to mention our solar system, is too inconsequential to be represented by a single pixel in this illustration.  

*    *    *    *

Where am I going with all this?  As a child, I was taught that God created the universe for the benefit of humankind, that we were the reason that the universe exists, and that, figuratively if not literally, we were at the center of the universe.  It was all about us.  Considering how rudimentary our understanding of the world was at the time the Judeo-Christian religions were established, such a theology was at least compatible with that understanding.  But, given what we have learned about the nature of the universe, such theologies are, I believe, no longer rationally sustainable.

With respect to fundamentalist, young-earth Christianity, that position is wholly untenable, particularly on the issue of age.  The universe is undeniably nearly 14 billion years old and life began here over 3-1/2 billion years ago.  Fundamentalists have had to engage in a great deal of rationalizing—and outright denial—to accommodate the advances in our understanding.  That is what they have done, but it has left them marginalized in the marketplace of rational thought.

But what about mainstream Christians who have embraced contemporary science?  They argue that our current understanding of the nature and history of the universe is compatible with their belief in a personal deity who created that universe, who is intensely interested in humankind, and who answers prayer.  

Really?  Based on the rate at which we are discovering exoplanets in other star systems just in our local stellar neighborhood, there must be trillions of solar systems where life could have begun and evolved.  To put things another way, since there are more stars in the observable universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches and in all the deserts on earth combined, we are essentially equivalent to a mote of dust on a grain of sand in a dune in a remote corner of the Sahara.  

That does not mean, of course, that there could not be a personal god, but it raises a couple of questions:  

  • Why is the universe so large?
  • Why did it take nearly 14 billion years after creation and over 3-1/2 billion years after life first appeared on earth for humankind to evolve?

I consider these questions to be rhetorical.  I say that because I feel strongly that the more rational explanation is that we live in an impersonal universe.  That is just the way it is.  I know that many of my friends do not agree and consequently do not feel that such questions are rhetorical.  They believe that there are answers to these questions that are consistent with their faith.  Of them I would ask that they not simply respond that their faith tells them that God exists or that it is a mystery to which God will ultimately provide the answers.  I would ask that they consider carefully whether their faith is based on a woefully out of date cosmology that has failed to keep up with scientific understanding.

Let me end with a brief poem of one of my favorite neglected poets, Stephen Crane:

           A man said to the universe: 
          “Sir, I exist!”
          “However,” replied the universe, 
          “The fact has not created in me 
           A sense of obligation.”


© 2017 John M. Phillips

3 comments:

  1. I found Your writing of most interest. I am so in wonderment of the size of the Universe. Which strengthened my faith. To think that the vast universe, H still cares for us on a personal basis

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But, Wanda, my (rhetorical) questions were, if God created the universe specifically for us, why did he do so in a way that took nearly 14 billion years for humans to come on the scene? And why did the universe need to be so huge? My argument is that when Judeo-Christian theology was originally formulated, it was consistent with our (primitive) understanding of the nature of the world. But if one were formulating a theology in light of contemporary knowledge of the universe, it would have been illogical to posit a personal god who created it for us and who took a personal interest in us, given the size and age of the universe.

      Delete
  2. I have no idea John. I just know that my faith tells me that HIS ways are not our ways. He is God

    ReplyDelete