Outside of Guelph, Ontario, is an old Jesuit monastery. There are only a few monks left, but the place still hums with energy. Rechristened the Ignatian Spiritual Centre, the complex includes offices for nonprofit organizations, an organic farm, an old-growth forest that is being restored, and a retreat house. Beyond the old monastery building, at the edge of the farm, there is a walking path for meditation. Traditionally, such paths at a Roman Catholic monastery would trace the final steps of Jesus before his death, the walk called the Stations of the Cross. More recently, such walking paths have been labyrinths, a mazelike walk without any specific Biblical reference. But here the path is unique: the Stations of the Cosmos.
The day is crisp, after a warm September the first truly autumn day in Ontario. I was glad for the jacket loaned to me by my hosts. I paused at the entrance. A sign explained:
Thomas Berry, Passionist priest and cultural historian, argues that our culture needs a “new story” to guide it into a less destructive ecological age. Such a story would integrate the scientific account of the emergence of the universe with an understanding of its inherent sacredness. The Stations of the Cosmos tells such a story by way of a spiral meditative walk. A spiral representing the entire 13.7 billion years of our cosmic and evolutionary journey is laid out on the ground. Major milestones are marked at a proportional distance along the length of the spiral. Each station presents key points in the universe’s time line alongside beautiful photographs that celebrate God’s magnificence as revealed in Creation.
I entered the spiral. At the center was a fire pit, symbolizing the big bang, the moment the universe flamed forth. I walked, circling out slowly to the next station, quite far from the center. At this station, a sign appeared marking the clustering of matter into gases and clouds. And so it went, the spiral and the stations of creation. Seventeen stations went by before human beings appeared. Seventeen stations without us – of the walk’s twenty-five stations. I looked toward the sky, feeling both amazed and insignificant at the same time. The cosmos is more than we imagine.
Interest in the cosmos is not confined to a spiral walk built by a monastic order. In June 2014, Time magazine reported: “Every Sunday night for the past three months, millions of Americans chose to spurn The Bachelor and instead accompany astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on an hour-long trip across the universe.” With more than three million viewers per week for three months, Tyson’s Cosmos, an ambitious television program about the big bang, black holes, dark matter, and climate change, topped all other shows during its run. As the reviewer wrote, “Not terrible for a country where a quarter of the population doesn’t get that the Earth revolves around the sun.”
Critics love ridiculing the large number of Americans who reject scientific ideas. Indeed, a regular feature in American polling is showing how many people do not believe in things like evolution or a multibillion-year-old universe. Such persistent ignorance is regularly blamed on a combination of bad teaching and bad religion, the latter of which is generally thought to issue from fundamentalist preachers and politicians. But the popularity of Cosmos points in another direction, that, indeed, large numbers of North Americans – religious, spiritual, and secular people alike – are fascinated by science. Although not much mentioned in the general media, if you want to start a conversation these days on science and faith, in most circles Darwin is passé. Instead, people in thoughtful faith communities are talking about the big bang and multiple-universe theories. They are taking their cues from the likes of Cosmos, geneticist Francis Collins, and physicist and priest John Polkinghorne, and they are even reading skeptics like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. The North American cultural conversation about science may not always be academically well informed, but it is lively. And much of it centers on science and spirituality.
For more than a decade, people attending events where I speak have asked me questions about physics, emerging understandings of science, and Christian faith. They were not hostile questioners – they were curious and eager inquirers. Since my training is in history and theology, I could not imagine why people were addressing such questions to me. But then I realized that they did not want me to answer the questions. Instead, they wanted to tell a roomful of people that the territory of faith and science was changing and that it was no longer at war. And I could also intuit that these new understandings of faith and science were changing their conception of God.
In one such room, a Presbyterian minister stood up holding the book, Field of Compassion, by Judy Cannato. “Do you know this author?”
I shook my head, no.
He went on. “She’s a Roman Catholic, and she writes about how the ‘new cosmology’ is transforming our spiritual lives.”
A new cosmology? Cosmology is the science of the origin, structure, and fate of the universe, an academic discipline of physics, astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy that seeks to explain, well, everything. Cosmology looks beyond the immediate sky toward the distant deeps of space, wondering about where we came from, why we are here, what mysteries are revealed in the stars. Because we cannot directly experience the far reaches of the universe, human beings developed scientific tools to observe, chart, and explain the order of things. Physical cosmology has always had to contend with religious cosmologies, the body of mythologies and doctrines about creation, divine order, and the Earth’s destiny as related by faith traditions through time. Often physical cosmologies have supported – or been supported by – religious cosmologies. But scientists habitually unsettle theological convention and have found sometimes, especially throughout modern history, their research at odds with customary creation accounts.
That is what makes the big bang so interesting: it presents a cosmology that brings the disparate strands of science and faith back into conversion with one another, with fascinating implications for both. The theory argues that once the universe did not exist. Then, at a particular moment almost fourteen billion years ago, everything that now exists came into being as a singularity of infinitely dense and hot matter. Only seconds after this singularity appeared, it began to expand, flaring forth tiny bits of matter; as the particles and dust cooled, they formed clouds of gases that eventually coalesced into larger bodies, creating the stars, galaxies, planets, and moons. The big-bang theory replaced an older view – the steady-state theory, which had posited a static universe that constantly produces matter – as the prevailing explanation of physical cosmology at the center of contemporary physics.
The theory was first proposed by George Lemaître, a Jesuit priest, in 1927, two years before Edward Hubble proposed the same idea. In 1951, the Pope suspected that the big-bang theory reopened the door to Genesis and hailed the theory as scientific proof of Roman Catholocism. Lemaître, however, insisted his was a neutral scientific theory plain and simple, with no apologetic intention involved. The big-bang theory coincided with the biological and theological work of another Jesuit scientist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who suggested that the cosmos was unfolding in a spiritually purposeful way, an evolutionary expansion that would culminate in a communal human awakening of complexity and consciousness in what he called the Omega Point, another way of speaking of God. At times his work seems to press at the edges of Christian theology toward new interpretation, yet even theologically conservative Pope Benedict XVI warmly commended Teilhard and praised his insights. Pope Francis appealed to Teilhard’s work in his encyclical on the environmental crisis. Teilhard de Chardin was a much better theologian than scientist, the opposite of George Lemaître. Taken together, however, their work has conspired to a reimagining of Christian theology, cosmology, and the environment.
The big bang’s simplest insight, and the one with the most profound implication for understanding God and contemporary spirituality, is straightforward: everything that exists was created at the same time; thus all things are connected by virtue of being made of the same matter. That matter burst forth seconds after the singularity appeared and is all the matter that will ever exist. Throughout time, that dust has formed and reformed itself into gases, worlds, and living beings. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains:
Out of the big bang, the stars; out of the stardust, the Earth; out of the matter of the Earth, life. Out of the life and death of single-celled creatures, an advancing the tide: trilobites, fish, amphibians, insects, flowers, birds, reptiles, and mammals, among whom emerged human beings – mammals with brains so complex that we experience self-conscious intelligence and freedom. According to this scientific theory, everything is connected with everything else. British scientist and theologian Arthur Peacocke explains, “Every atom of iron in our blood would not be there, had it not been produced in some galactic explosion billions of years ago and eventually condensed to form the iron in the crust of the Earth from which we have emerged.” Quite literally, human beings are made of stardust.
The first time I ever heard anyone in church say that we are “made of stardust” was in an Ash Wednesday sermon. It had been a long time since I had taken college science, and I was not entirely sure I believed the preacher. So I started reading and paying attention to new discoveries in physics, about the big bang and the inflating universe, about dots and strings. Not only were we made of stardust long ago; every day more than sixty tons of cosmic dust fall to the Earth, where it mixes with exiting soil and enters the food chain. Stardust is a source of ongoing creation. We eat and breathe stardust. I am no scientist, but even I can grasp physicist Brian Greene’s claim: “The reality we have known is but a delicate chiffon draped over the thick and richly textured cosmic fabric.” There is so much that we cannot see, so much just beyond our awareness.
As I walked through the spiral making up the Stations of the Cosmos on Jesuit property in Ontario, I considered God. Somehow, God is beyond even this, the big bang, the process of creation, and emerging cosmology. Yet God is not distant from it either. And I wondered: Is God initiator, presence, and horizon, the one behind, within, and just beyond the cosmos?