Cosmology & Catholicism

Sad to say, it took the Catholic Church nearly three-hundred and fifty years to get around to officially apologizing for what it did to Galileo. But the question remains: will it take the Church (or even Christianity in general) another three-hundred fifty years to recognize or understand what Galileo really did?

Ostensibly, all the cantankerous Italian astronomer did was to promote, through his writings and his attempted demonstrations through the recently invented telescope, that the theory proposed by the Prussian-Polish mathematician, Copernicus, who held that the earth orbited the sun, and not the other way around, was in fact the case. That Copernicus, himself a cleric who did not hesitate to dedicate his book advancing his theory to the Pope, nevertheless postponed publication of his thesis until he was on his deathbed (1543) tells us much. Indeed, even over a half century later, in 1600, the most out-spoken advocate of the Copernican theory, Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake in Rome. In fact, the only scientists who dared openly admit that Copernicus might have been right were the eccentric Dane Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), who nevertheless somehow tried to combine Copernicus's views with the Ptolemaic system and the German Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), both safe in the Lutheran territories far to the North. But even Kepler had to defend his Copernican views against the Lutheran theologians by his hesitant suggestion that a sun-centered universe suggested a God-centered rather than a human-centered one.

This last point should cue us onto something: that it was not really so much a question of biblical interpretation. Most educated churchmen of the time were not biblical literalists (or "fundamentalists" as the word is so-often now misunderstood) but were relatively sophisticated "humanists" who were convinced that there could be no conflict between Christian beliefs and the Renaissance conviction (held by most of the Protestant divines as well) that God, in his creative providence, had made "man as the measure of all things". Indeed, it was not just his Copernican cosmology that did led Bruno to the stake, but even more such views as his suspected "pantheism" (or more exactly, his panentheism -- that God is present in all of nature and not just somewhere off in heaven as a neatly defined "Trinity") and his speculations that there might be other worlds with other creatures just as intelligent as ourselves, that upset the establishment back than and which most us religious or not still prefer to ignore today. For the fact is, that despite

our vastly expanded view of the extent of the universe in time and space, far beyond that ever dreamed of by Copernicus, Bruno, or Galileo, we still, for the most part, stubbornly cling to a view of the universe where we still think of ourselves as the measure of all things.

Two Major Questions -- Four Possible Outcomes

If anyone doubts the implications of all this for human self-understanding, let them consider the two most debated questions in cosmology today. The first is that raised by Bruno: are we alone in the universe? Recently, in its cost-cutting frenzy, the U.S. Congress gutted the NASA funding earmarked for the so-called SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) an effort ridiculed by many as a kind of science-fiction fantasy unworthy of even a modest expenditure of tax dollars. Well, maybe they are right, or as even some other scientists, vying for the same tax dollars point out, if there are such other creatures, we'll know about them soon enough -- assuming that their legislative bodies are not all dominated by Republicans.

But the second question is much older and much more fundamental: is the universe eternal or everlasting? For as we will soon see, while it may be masked by many other more technical sounding research projects, it is this question that is largely propelling the greatest expenditures of time and money in astronomy and physics today.

Why this overriding concern about the ultimate fate of the universe -- a fate which is so removed from our present situation that it makes the extra-terrestrial intelligence question seem like soon to be "current events"? The answer is, I propose, is really the same that concerned the theologians and churchmen of Galileo's day. For if the universe is not destined to last, and with it, creatures like ourselves. then how can we consider our own existence as somehow central to the meaning of the universe? For although we know that all life on this planet is destined to be wiped out some far-off day, how can we cope with the idea that all life, everywhere, will some day cease? In that case, what happens to our religious beliefs or even to just our humanistic convictions? Why should we bother to make this world or our lives any better?

Nevertheless, I propose that we keep the two questions distinct. The reason is, that if we presuppose that their is either a yes or no answer to each of them, then when together, the possible combinations leave us with four possible scenarios, each one of which present us with a distinct challenge as to how make any sense out of our existence here on planet earth.

The first combination would consist of the traditional assumption under which we have operated in Western civilization that has been dominated by at least the mind-set inculcated by Judeo-Christian beliefs. This point of view holds that humanity is entirely unique, an only-one-of-its-kind phenomenon in a universe that is itself the only-one-of-its-kind, created in (or more exactly with) time and destined someday to disappear, if not entirely, to be replaced by some kind of a spiritualized existence. Either that or nothing else at all. In other words, it lends itself to a view of the universe and our place in it that is either ultimately religious on the one hand, or else completely nihilistic, depending on whether one views the existence of the universe either as a complete accident or not.

The second combination, its polar opposite, would hold that the universe itself is eternal (without beginning or end) and that creatures such as ourselves have always existed with in it, although at different times and places, either with or without some kind of connection between these various creatures' successive lives. This kind of scenario, while it has dominated the great Asian religions, is commonly found (although not always fully expressed) in the religious cosmology of many much less sophisticated peoples. It is a view that seems to date long before any modern scientific ideas of evolution, and when trying to comes to terms with the latter, typically subsumes the modern evolutionary scenario as being but one of many repeated "cycles" within a process that never ends. Such a scenario can be interpreted either pantheistically (everything that is, is, at least in a sense "God") atheistically (as one recent book title puts it "If the Universe is the Answer -- What is the Question?")

The third combination, one that sees the universe as eternal, but humanity or intelligent life of any sort as a one-time occurrence in a universe that is otherwise devoid of life or at least intelligent life, presents a very peculiar contrast in possible meanings for us. Some would argue (like those who simply see the self-existence of the universe as the "answer" undercutting the need for any question) that our own existence is complete accident or fluke and that the problem of "meaning" is a peculiarly anthropocentric one. In such a universe, the God question, it is argued, has no relevance.

Others, however, especially those who see an "anthropic principle" at work in the outcome of evolution, argue quite differently -- apparently from the same basic evidence. The latter claim that the sequence of causes leading to the present state of the universe (be it a one-time thing or a cyclically reappearing phenomenon) is so unlikely to have just "happened" by accident as it were, that they see an ordering principle or factor at work, one which accounts for the appearance of such unlikely creatures as ourselves. Without actually calling such a principle "God", there are scientists who are very uneasy about the espousing of any such principle -- simply because it does suggest to them the old "teleological" kind of argument from "order" that was traditionally used by theologians in the past to "prove" the existence of God from reason alone. In fact, the one way most commonly used by those who would deny the working of any Anthropic Principle is to assert that our existence within this universe is just a chance happenstance within a whole sequence of "universes" (either successive or else simultaneously existing) of which one or two are bound (again by a chance combination of circumstances) to result in the existence of intelligent life.

Finally, (the fourth possibility) more in concert with what seems to be the present state of evidence combined with prevailing evolutionary views, is a combination of a universe that is going through a one-time largely irreversible evolutionary sequence (the so-called inflationary Big-Bang" theory), within which there is growing evidence that the conditions for the occurrence of life are manifold, whether or not we ever come into direct contact with such life. Behind such a view there lurks, of course, the philosophical question of what could possibly be the nature of the "singularity" from which the "Big Bang " occurred. For some, this philosophical question leads to a theological conclusion -- that the "singularity " is God. For others, it remains some kind of "particle" that seems to have all the attributes classically assigned to God -- or at least enough of them to account for the universe as it now is.

Much more telling, however, is the argument raging within the scientific community over the fate of this whole, something that takes us back the question as to whether or not this present evolutionary sequence is a one-time thing or a phase in a repeated cycle of evolutions proceeding from successive "Big Bangs". This explains, I believe, the huge amount of energy and financial resources being dedicated to the search for "dark matter" The search for "dark matter" whether in the form of various relatively large bodies in space or else in the form of tiny sub-atomic sized particles (to be encountered up close only by means of such gargantuan devices as the proposed "super-collider" -- the funding for which was also recently scrapped by Congress but still unseen) is in fact the overriding preoccupation of cosmology toady. In fact, so strong is the conviction that there has to be a lot more matter out there in space than that which we can actually observe, or even infer by observation of the gravitational behavior of the objects we can see, that belief in enough dark matter to guarantee that the universe will somehow go on forever seem to be the modern equivalent of the medieval belief that it was angels who were assigned by God to push the planets around in their orbits and who moved the celestial spheres from which hung the stars.

However, I do not wish to poke fun at such scientific research, even if I believe it is doomed to be a failure. Science can advance only through the repeated testing a various hypotheses, and until something is repeatedly disproved, it always has to be considered a possibility. So while it would seem that there has to be a great deal of unseen matter in the universe -- otherwise it would be impossible to explain the movement of the galaxies we can see -- the present estimate is that even when we add all that amount of unseen matter that makes the seen galaxies move in the direction they seem to be going (most of them away from us) that most we come up with a figure that barely equals ten-percent of the amount of matter that would be necessary to sufficiently slow down the residual effects of the initial Big Bang and cause the universe to reverse its outward movement in the direction of a collapse leading eventually to another big bang. Besides that, there are physicists who believe that even if another Big Bang were possible, one a very few could result before all the potentialities of matter-energy would become totally exhausted. In other words, even repeated Big Bangs would not result in an eternal universe. A second or third, or maybe fourth lease on life, but not a timeless one.

Are We Really Alone?

As ready-made as this fourth scenario is for a theologian, especially one who holds "creative evolution" as the only realistically possible explanation of the prevailing cosmological evidence, I prefer to by-pass the God question to focus on the challenge posed by the likelihood of multiple or even a myriad of forms of intelligent life in the universe. My concern here is "theological anthropology" in the very broadest sense -- i.e., the question of the purpose and destiny of every "anthropoid" which I take to any creature intelligent enough to reflect upon or assign to itself the meaning of its own existence. It is this latter "self-reflective" trait that we humans believe sets us apart from other forms of life. We may or may not be correct in assuming that we are the unique species on this planet with such capability. I would argue on the basis of the evolutionary phenomena, whether you deem it as anthropically oriented or not, that we are probably only one such example among perhaps even billions of others in the universe. Otherwise I feel that it is non-sense to talk about "design".

Nevertheless, I believe this scenario presents a very strong contrast to the old Judeo-Christian belief that we are entirely unique. For one, when we held the unique position of being the only self-reflective creatures in the universe (other than the angels -- and God, who of course was not a creature but still thought of in personal terms) the uniqueness of each and every individual and his or her spiritual destiny was of immense importance, so much so that their dignity as human being was seen a the foundation of their basic human rights, even long after belief in a future life after death ceased to an operative concept in ethical considerations. Belief in an eternal destiny was replaced by a belief in an untrammeled right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this world. I will not quarrel with this secularization of what was once more explicitly sacred in the religious sense of that term. However, I do question its adequacy in view of this fourth scenario. If human or intelligent life is, in fact, not all that unique in this universe, do we not run the risk, all over again, of over- evaluating our own importance in much the same way as the critic and persecutors of Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo -- all for the highest religious and humanistic principles, of course?

To give an example or two. Take the ecological movement. Practically speaking, this planet is the only one we human will most likely ever have, despite the space fantasies depicting human migration to other planets in other solar systems. This is truly the fragile "space-ship" earth pictured in the stunning photos from the Apollo moon landing flights. In any case, only a few would be able to make the trip elsewhere, while the rest of humanity is left behind to die out on a dying planet increasing baked and finally engulfed by the sun as it passes into the "red giant" stage. So in the long run, all our ecological efforts can only prolong or stave off the inevitable. The "Gaia" concept may contain a bit of truth, but a pitiably inadequate one in the end. We are very finite beings on a very finite earth. This does not mean we should "exploit" the earth regardless of a hastier ecological death as some fundamentalists turned politicians would seem to advocate. But on the other hand, we must not worship "Mother Earth" as some kind of Goddess or God. It is, statistically speaking, probably only one of millions if not billions of inhabitable planets in the universe, each with its millions or billions -- most of them undoubtedly thinking they are altogether unique! One would hope that in the face of this realization, however, humans would begin to realize that must be a limit to the biblical injunction to "increase and multiply". If God wants more intelligent creatures in this universe, he's already seen to it that new stars are busy forming new real estate to be occupied.

But on the other hand, to turn to other worldly concerns, I really don't see where this new scenario has really changed things all that drastically. Although intelligent life may come to a final end on this planet and the intelligent life science is played out on countless others now and yet to be, still, in the end, the Big Bang scenario points to a final end, perhaps even more surely than did the ancient biblical ones. (Although the ancient biblical view surely had its end, it was a more or less proactive divinely initiated one). The new scenario calls for a more natural and much more inevitable one. Either this universe and all life everywhere will die out as "open universe" expands infinitely into a cosmic deep-freeze, or else, if enough dark- matter is finally discovered to pronounce this a "closed universe", the fate for the descendants of its present inhabitants will be a series of fiery cataclysms that will make the apocalyptic visions of the Bible look like a small town fireworks display. That scenario, no matter how many times repeated, nevertheless leads to the same dead-end. What we as humans crave (as must all self-reflective creatures must, else they would no long be consciously themselves) is transcendence, not merely more of the same! We "want it all" so to speak, but even more than that.

Consider this. We are, as Julian Huxley said "evolution become conscious of itself." We will not give up. It may sound selfish, but without this transcendent selfishness, evolution shall eventually cease For us, either evolution transcend the limits of this world and the Big Bang that produced it, or else it has lost its meaning -- which is to say, for all intent, it has essentially ceased. We might make the world a bit better for awhile, feed more of its poor, ensue more human rights, raise the level of self-consciousness, but if, in the end, this leads nowhere, what good will have been accomplished?

Can Christianity Become Truly Catholic?

So it turns out, when all is said and done, the drastic revision of the world-view into which Christianity was born is inevitable. And if this is the case, can Christianity itself survive? This is what really worried the Cardinals who silenced Galileo, the inquisitors who burned Giordano Bruno, and the fearful Copernicus as he lay on his deathbed?

I cannot say for sure, but I'm willing to bet it will. I say that because, although "Christianity" is thought of as a wider term than "Catholicism" the true meaning of that latter term is much broader than that brand of Christianity that put Bruno to death or Galileo under virtual house arrest. Catholicism, in its fullest sense of that word, means "all-embracing" taking in the whole of reality, no matter what its immediate source. The Christianity of the apostles and the first Christians survived precisely because it took under its wind that learning and those new outlooks on human life many of the first Christians (and certainly Jesus himself) would scarcely have understood. You can see this happening even within the list of writings attributed St. Paul. It has been said, somewhat cynically, that Paul took the religion of Jesus and turned it a religion about Christ. There may be some truth in that. But in doing that, Paul, the once narrowly Jewish zealot, was turning Judaism into a religion universal enough for non-Jews to understand. His disciples did the same, reshaping his message for those schooled in stoicism, the growing gnostic cults of the time, and eventually, in the legacy of the Church Fathers, the neo-platonism that swept the late classical age.

And so it has been down through the ages. Mistakes were made, and corrections (at least somewhat adequate for the circumstances were also made). The Aristotelian adaptions made by Aquinas supplemented, and to some degree replaced the Platonism of Augustine. And back when Teilhard de Chardin was introducing Catholics to the potentials of evolutionary thought, Gabriel Marcel was bringing to light a type of Christian existentialism, which surfaces, here in there in the "personalistic" approach of Karol Wytola (Pope John Paul II)-- though hardly enough for the taste of some.

These things take time. It took Teilhard nearly a quarter of a century to begin facing more directly the implications of the likelihood of life on other planets, long speculated upon but given new urgency when he first noticed the reports by Edwin Hubble's decisive proofs of other galaxies other than our own in the early 1920s. By the 1950's Teilhard was convinced that the message of Christianity either had to adopt to what he now termed the overwhelming probability of other intelligent life elsewhere in the universe or else fall behind in its ability to remain the core of "the Religion of the Future". Teilhard continued, despite all his problems with Church censorship (he even prefaced one of his own books with a quote from Galileo -- "I still say it moves") fully conscious, like Cardinal Newman, that the price of being right before the rest catch up with you is to be considered a heretic. Catholicism may have quit burning its heretics and, lately, has even (at least eventually) learned to apologize to them. Hopefully, it will even begin to listen to them while they are still alive. Embracing their ideas years, even centuries after they died, is not enough if Christianity is to remain Catholic to its core.

Richard W. Kropf, August 1995


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