Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle: Cosmology, Christmas, and Salvation from the Stars

For Advent, a post I originally put up for Christmas, 2014:


Tu scendi verse


        “WHAT IS COSMOLOGY?”, asks Jane, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s future wife, at the beginning of the film, The Theory of Everything, about Hawking’s urbi et orbiromance and marriage with fellow collegian, Jane Wilde. “Religion for intelligent atheists,” answers Hawking. She rejoins, “What do cosmologists worship?” He replies, “A single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe.” Indeed, many cosmologists are on a quest to find a Theory of Everything (a TOE) that unifies General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory; a single, necessary, and self-evident formula, according to which time, space, energy, and matter must inevitably unfold into the universe we see today. And for secularized cosmologists the quest is holy, a substitute for worship and submission to a Creator.

But cosmology, the study of the origin and structure of the physical universe, is not of necessity atheistic. In fact, the last several years have seen a revitalization of the allegedly discredited design argument for God’s existence in the form of the cosmological “fine-tuning” argument. The existence of life, especially human life, is staggeringly improbable, so the argument goes, and so dependent on such a large number of physical and cosmological parameters and constants that must be precisely tuned, that nothing other than an Intelligent Designer could account for it. Treatments of the fine-tuning argument range from theologian and molecular biophysicist Alister McGrath’s scholarly A Fine-Tuned Universe, to the more accessible The Case for A Creator, by popular apologist Lee Strobel.

        COSMOLOGY IS LIKE A DEEP OCEAN, with shoreline shallows and waves we can play in, but also with nearly unfathomable depths and abyssal mysteries, in which we mayeagle nebula get lost. Pondering the science of cosmology gives some Christians a sense of vertigo and disconnection from a traditional “biblical” cosmology, but this need not be so. It is true that some cosmological theories are purely speculative—like the multiple universe theory—wandering well beyond extrapolations from observational science into realms of metaphysical imagination. Well-established cosmological science not only does not diminish God’s role as Creator, it induces a sense of awe and wonder at his handiwork. To borrow C.S. Lewis’ thought in The Four Loves, cosmology never taught me that there is a God of glory, but it gives the word “glory” a meaning for me. Not to mention the word “awesome”. In standard cosmological reckoning the observable universe may be 100 billion light years across (100 billion times six trillion miles). Billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars are spread out in this inconceivable vastness, in strings and “bubbles” which mark the earliest infinitesimal differences in the expanding fabric of space: “He stretches out the heavens like a tent” (Psalm 104:2).

        ACCORDING TO THE STANDARD BIG BANG MODEL, the universe began about 13.8 billion years ago. The earliest state of the universe is called the singularity, a point of Big Banginfinite density and no spatial dimensions. Physically, and mathematically, it isn’t really there at all. It would not be wrong to call it an idea. The singularity became an expanding primordial fireball, an event for which there is no natural explanation. This was the first intersection of the supernatural with the natural; it would not be the last. Breathe in and breathe out. In that space of time the first fire of creation cooled from 1032 Kelvin to a few billion degrees, photons of electromagnetic radiation separated and streamed into expanding space, quarks and anti-quarks formed in that unimaginable forge annihilated each other, leaving only a slight excess of quarks, electrons won the same contest with positrons, quarks merged into protons and neutrons, nuclei of hydrogen, helium, and lithium began forming. In a thousand more breaths the fabric of the universe was woven. In about 100 million years time the first star would shine . . .

        A STAR IS A MASSIVE CONCENTRATION OF MATTER, an unbelievably dense thermonuclear reactor suspended in the heblack hole diagramavens. Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us that in the presence of such dense mass, space bends and time slows. This warping of spacetime is called “gravity”. And the more mass, the more warping. Neutron stars—the remnants of supernovae explosions—are the smallest and most dense stars; only about six miles in diameter but twice as “massive” as the Sun. A few tablespoons of neutron star would weigh billions of tons. A supernova explosion from a star even more massive than that which would form a neutron black hole artstar leads to the formation of a black hole; an object so massive and dense that it bends spacetime back on itself. No light or radiation can escape a black hole. Near a black hole time would slow down. What happens to time on or within a black hole is debated. Some cosmologists say that, relative to outside observers, time within a black hole moves “infinitely slow”. Effectively, time stops.

ALL THIS IS TRUE AND WONDERFUL; in many ways it points to God. But cosmological discovery can neither transform us nor rescue us from ourselves or from this world. The astonishing strangeness and seeming mystery of the deep structures of material reality have only the appearance of transcendence, without the actuality or the power. If we inhabited a purely material and closed Reality, no matter how marvelous, there would be cold wonder at the stars above, but no salvation. Yet much contemporary science fiction has taken our yearning for transcendence and deliverance, woven in the fabric of cosmological wonder, and fashioned a new narrative of salvation.


        IN THE FIRST GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION FILM in the 1950s, the war of the worlds posterstandard, nearly universal paradigm for depicting alien visitors from the solar system and the stars was that they were implacably hostile to humanity. The classic film in this genre was the original War of the Worlds (1953), based on the classic H. G. Wells novel. A rare exception was The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), in which a committee of extra-planetary intelligences sends a representative with a warning to Earth to clean up its nuclear act, or “this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. We will be waiting for your answer.” The narrative of alien hostility continued into the 60s, until Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel”, the 2001 space odyssey postermovie’s storyline implied that a higher being, or beings, had overseen humanity’s evolution and was shepherding humanity into a better future. Thus a new narrative was born into science fiction cinema: Benevolent beings bringing salvation from the stars. The new narrative was embedded in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and part of the background in his ET the Extra-Terrestrial. Ron Howard’s Cocoon (1985), features a race of benevolent extra-terrestrials who possess and can impart a “life-force” which confers near immortality. They offer to take a group of elderly retirement home residents back to their home planet of Antarea where, Ben (played by Wilford Brimley) tells his grandson, “We won’t get any older and we’ll never die.”

interstellar poster          Last year’s sci-fi blockbuster Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, continues and extends this trope of salvation from the stars, further investing it with the wonder, and supposed power, of contemporary cosmological speculation. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, an expert in relativity theory and the related concept of “wormholes”, was an inspiration for the storyline of Interstellar, and an advisor for the movie. The movie presents a somewhat convoluted set of plot developments in which humanity is saved from its environmental exploitation of Earth by astronauts who travel through a spacetime wormhole kindly provided by vaguely sketched higher-dimensional beings. A wormhole provided by friendly extra-terrestrials also figured in the movie Contact (1997), based on the book by Carl Sagan. Kip Thorne was also an advisor for that film. A wormhole is a conceptual phenomenon that emerges from somewormhole diagram solutions of equations emerging from relativity theory. Such a wormhole could connect distantly separated regions of space and even different times. There is no observational evidence for wormholes, but the concept is a staple of science fictions films because it enables interstellar travel on human timescales. Interstellar also features, as another key to humanity’s salvation, a version (and fascinating visualization) of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which all possible histories and futures are real and actual.

Nolan’s Interstellar does not so much try to spiritualize cosmology and physics (like Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism [1975]) as cosmologize and physicalize spirituality. Even love, which one wormhole-traveling astronaut tells another “is the one thing that transcends time and space,” remains on the human plane, with no referent or reach beyond itself. Material reality may contain higher dimensions and stranger things than we may have dreamt of, but salvation here is still strictly this-worldly, both in means and destination. In apparent paradox, ultimately resolved as contradiction, Nolan seems to see transcendence as available within this world, simply as a heightened experience of the world. While he recognizes and respects the human yearning for transcendent love, his narrative of salvation from the stars—though gorgeously filmed and poignantly acted—eventually loops us back on ourselves, still adrift within a closed cosmos. Nolan asks the question of salvation, but has no compelling answer.


Jesus birth        IN THE PREFACE TO HIS GOSPEL, the apostle John describes the Logos—the Word—who was with God and was God, “in the beginning”, from all eternity, and through whom “all things were made” (John 1:1-3), and who therefore transcends time, space, and matter—all of created reality; the stars within their galaxies, and all creatures great and small. If the story stopped there the Logos would be inaccessible to us; we who are closed within our material space-time existence, as well as caught within the ravages of our own sinful selves. Christmas is the Good News that the story does not end there. Salvation has come to us, not through an extra-dimensional wormhole, but because “the Logos became flesh and made his dwelling among us” to bring us “grace and truth” (John 1:14). The birth of Jesus of Nazareth as the Incarnation of the Logos of God is a mystery. Not a contradiction, puzzle, quantum paradox or relativistic effect; but a Reality that truly transcends, and is therefore not explainable by, merely material explanations or a “single unifying equation”.

In a Wall Street Journal column the day after Christmas last year(http://www.wsj.com/articles/eric-metaxas-science-increasingly-makes-the-case-for-god-1419544568) Eric Metaxas recapitulates the fine-tuning argument and concludes that the facts of cosmology and physics point to “something—or Someone” beyond themselves. His article is a fair summary and assessment of the highlights of the argument. Yet in the last paragraph he attaches an unnecessary and misguided coda: “The greatest miracle of all time,” he gushes, “without any close seconds, is the universe.” Metaxas is wrong. The greatest miracle of all time is the Incarnation, the mystery of Christmas, and the second is like unto it and equal, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The Logos who made the stars came from beyond the stars, from transcendent realms of glory, and for us and for our salvation was made man.


About Michael W Nicholson

I am a follower of Jesus Christ, a husband, father, and grandfather, a brother and a friend. My professional career has been in education. I taught Industrial Arts in Middle School for six years, four years as an adjunct professor in theology and philosophy, and fifteen years teaching classes in Old Testament, Apologetics, and Worldviews in a Christian High School. Like everyone else who breathes in American culture, I am infected with chronic postmodernity, but I am aware of this and regularly administer the treatment: Historic Christian Orthodoxy as contained in the Scriptures of the Old & New Testaments. I am fascinated by almost every subject imaginable, except economics. I have a Ph.D. in systematic theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I believe in a God who wants to be found; who leaves signs and suggestions, trademarks, signatures, and signposts scattered throughout every aspect of our existence. And if we are truly looking, He will find us. God is the great Story-teller, and the story he is telling is the great drama of Reality, unfolding before us and of which we are all inescapably a part. And so I am collecting fragments, in Philosophy, in Science, and in Art and holding these fragments up to the light and turning them this way and that, and trying to see and say how the Story—the metanarrative, the Christian Worldview—is involved in, and makes sense of, every aspect of our being-in-the-world (to borrow a term from Heidegger and take it where perhaps he did not intend for it to go). And by doing this I hope I am helping to light the way Home; back to the sea, the ocean, the Ocean of Infinite Love. My blog covers a wide range of topics around this central theme that the transcendent realm surrounds and permeates our existence. I put up new posts periodically. I hope you enjoy them. I hope they help.
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