Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Astronomy and the nature of God

Jennifer Wiseman, astronomer, author, and chief of the Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics at NASA Goddard Space Center, delivered the annual Pascal Lectures on Christianity and the University, a series of three, of February 8 and 9, 2010 at University of Waterloo. Here is an excerpt from the first lecture, delivered at the Center for Environmental and Information Technology on February 8.

Does the character of the heavens reflect the character of their creator? If we allow ourselves to imagine just for a moment that there might be a divine creator of the universe, what would the universe tell us, if anything, about the character of that divine creator or upholder or purpose behind it? As an astronomer, I thought about that to some length and I came up with this little list of my own. You might come with you own thoughts as well, so this is not anybody's definitive list: it's what came to my mind viewing this question.

From astronomical observations and the resulting inference, within this view of considering a divine creator a possibility - then this God, this creator, would appear to me to be very powerful: we've seen already some of the astronomical objects and forces that are powerful.

Creative: a creator and a lover of beauty.

We've seen the beauty of galaxies and nebulae and stars, and most interesting to me is the connection between that beauty and us, being creatures here within this universe, who can recognize that beauty. I'm told that our brains are hard-wired to recognize design and beauty, and I think that there's purpose in that.

Patience: there are 13.7 billion years of history of the universe, as we can best guess right now. Now, this God would have a different view of time and efficiency than we have. We would gauge things by our life spans. But if that's not the important feature for this God, then this God would appear to us to be patient, allowing things to unfold according to processes that are needed to create the conditions that eventually would lead to life.

Faithfulness: allowing these fundamental physical laws of the universe, of gravitation, and of time moving forward. These kinds of things don't jump around and change from moment to moment, so this allows for the ordered development of the universe according to these fundamental physical laws.

And yet whithin this context of faithfulness, we see a desire for freedom, because there are elements of our universe set up that allow for freedom. We have things such as chaos theory, quantum theory, and so forth, that allow a sense of freedom within this ordered context. I believe that that's related to perhaps our ability in our experiential sense to understand that there really are such things as pain, and choices, and good and evil.

And we obviously see that our universe enables life, so this God would be one who gives and enables life, and enables a fruitful universe. We're here; there may be life elsewhere, as well.

And then, I would call this love: that we are enabled to investigate, appreciate, and also understand the magnificent cosmos of which we are a part, as we are seeing more and more of what's out there.

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