The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Is your God too small?

Science and religion must combine their visions to comprehend our unimaginable cosmos and its unlimited Creator

Human beings are reality seekers. Our need to know what reality is all about makes us different from all other life-forms. But in recent centuries we've been divided. We've used two competing stories--one primarily scientific, the other religious--to define our reality.

Society, too, has had a split personality. In part it's quite religious, in part very scientific. But it's seldom both--at the same time and in the same person.

We need a new unified story, rooted in fresh perspectives of the oneness at the heart of reality, a story that sees the deep complementarity between scientific and religious understandings of the universe. That story is a ways off, but we're closer to it today than we have been for centuries.

Throughout most of human history, we've used only religion to seek reality. At about 550 B.C., we also became scientific reality-seekers. Greeks known as Ionians developed the first science, philosophy and natural theology. They combined these with religious concepts to describe the unity and purpose of a cosmos in which humans played a central role. Calling this effort cosmology, they saw science and religion as complementary tools for seeking reality.

Over the next 2,100 years or so, Greek cosmology flourished and declined in influence several times. After about 1600, the rapid rise and success of modern science increasingly fragmented cosmology. Today, 400 years later, science and religion are largely independent--science primarily answering "how" questions and religion answering "why" questions--yet often offering seemingly incompatible perspectives of the nature of reality.

We need a return to cosmology, to a unified understanding of reality.

Deep reality

Operating independently of religion, science has made amazing and increasingly focused discoveries about how reality functions. These discoveries increasingly reveal a mysterious, unsuspected deep reality (invisible, non-obvious atoms) in operation within and beyond observable commonplace reality. This deep reality is mysterious. Although it dictates how reality functions on the surface, it seems to be distinctively different.

First and foremost, the discoveries reveal an expanding universe that is so immense it's beyond our imagination. If Earth was reduced to the diameter of the period at the end of this sentence, the Milky Way, a galaxy of about 100 billion stars of which our sun is a member, would be about 50 million miles in diameter. The universe, which contains about 100 billion galaxies, would be about 15 trillion miles in diameter.

And yet about 15 billion years ago this immense universe was packed into a "ball" of unimaginably dense "oneness"(light)--perhaps no larger than a softball. This "super reality" inexplicably exploded in a big bang, almost simultaneously inflating, expanding and fracturing into the seemingly unrelated "parts" of current reality--energy, light, space, time, matter and the four forces that hold matter together.

Mind-like universe

For several reasons we can argue not only that the universe is too finely tuned to be an accident but also that the universe's original oneness must have contained an awesome mind-like creative power.

* First, we now know that light remains the underlying, relative "stuff" at the heart of our current universe. Our universe is comprised of interrelated forms of frozen light. At unearthly speeds, pressures, temperatures and gravitational forces (such as those in black holes in space or in atom smashers) the current universe can be reblended into the oneness (light) present at the big bang.

* Second, the four fundamental forces operating in the universe (gravity plus three inside the atom) are collectively balanced by such finely tuned constants as the speed of light, the masses and electrical charges of subatomic particles. Slight changes in any of these would have produced a far less hospitable universe than ours--if there could have been a universe at all.

* Third, the expanding universe continually becomes more disorderly in terms of energy, space and time. Simultaneously, the universe converts disorder to order, producing the spiraling complexity found in subatomic particles, galaxies, stars, living cells, organs and conscious organisms.

* Fourth, quantum theory tells us that light, energy and matter--and possibly time and space--are comprised of subunits or "grains" (quanta), which can behave like waves and particles at the same time. The smaller a quanta is (for example, photons of light and electrons) the more wave-like, more peculiar and less predictable its behavior becomes. For example, the universe is filled with a mind-like, invisible quantum field, a network of nonlocal, instantaneous relations. There is awareness and communication between photons and between electrons even though they may be physically far removed from each other. Some scientists believe the quantum field can be altered merely by observing it with instruments--or even with the mind.

* Finally, the realities described above can't be directly seen or even imagined but must be described mathematically. This raises a provocative question: Are we inventing mathematics to describe reality, or are we discovering a mathematical, mind-like universe?

Integrating faith & science

The developing scientific understanding of deep reality generates a different set of adjectives to describe the universe than those religion traditionally used. Modern science depicts reality as being unimaginable, complementary, interrelated, unified, holistic, finely tuned, relative, dynamic, self-organizing, evolving, mathematical and mind-like.

Western religions often depicted creation as finished, finite, unchanging, causal, deterministic, mechanical and made up of separate physical parts.

The new scientific understanding of reality leads to the possibility that science and religion can again see their quests as being complementary components--not opponents--in the ageless human need to know what reality is about.

A small but growing number of scientists realize that the current scientific adjectives for reality (particularly fine-tuned and mind-like) point to the presence of a wondrous, pervasive oneness at the heart of reality. But that oneness, in turn, is now raising a host of "why" questions, which are at the heart of the religious quest to define reality.

For example, why was there a big bang? Why is the universe finely tuned and mind-like? Why did life form on Earth? Why are humans apparently the only known form of life that is self-aware, able to think conceptually and aware of the existence of reality? Such questions culminate in the greatest why question of all: Why does reality exist?

A new vision of creation--and hence of God's creativity--is emerging from within modern science. Science is increasingly revealing the "hows" of a wondrous, mysterious, awesome cosmos of which the writers of Scripture were totally unaware.

For example, the first four words that God speaks in the Bible are, "Let there be light." Light is a major theme throughout the Bible's message and is said to be the essence of God.

We acquire an intense, new feeling for creation and the Creator when we realize the universe's original oneness, the light present at the big bang, still flows throughout its seemingly separate parts. The omnipresent, awesome creativity that flows through light also flows through every other part of the cosmos as well--including ourselves. We are creatures of light, even as our Creator is light. No wonder we might feel filled with God's Spirit when we witness the miracles of creation.

Science and religion are on converging cosmological paths today. A limited universe is becoming an unlimited cosmos. A limited anthropomorphic God is becoming an unlimited Cosmic Creator.

But too often both science and religion continue to operate separately, not understanding each other's assumptions, continuing to tell their conflicting old stories about reality. They do not have a combined new set of adjectives to adequately convey the oneness of reality or of God's reality within it.

We need a new story, a reunified cosmology. But what would this look like? Sir John M. Templeton, who founded the Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Prize in religion, has offered some of the best advice available: "Every person's concept of God is now too small. The 'new story' should be written reverently and flexibly. It must be a 'humility theology.' "

The new story, he adds, would provide us with a pervasive sense of wonder and awe about creation and "a true perspective of the infinity of God [that would lead us to] kneel down in humility and worship the awesome, infinite, omniscient, eternal Creator."


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February issue


Embracing diversity