The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.Psalm 19.1
President Joe Biden unveiled this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, known as Webb’s First Deep Field, during a White House event. The image covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground – and reveals thousands of galaxies in a tiny sliver of a vast universe. Webb’s sharp near-infrared view brought out faint structures in extremely distant galaxies, offering the most detailed view of the early universe to date
On December 25, 2021, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was launched into space. A successor to the immensely successful Hubble, the $10 billion telescope was designed to peer back billions of years to document the formation of the earliest stars and galaxies in the Universe. It was a project 25 years in the making.
NASA’s James Webb telescope is potentially game-changing. What we will learn from it will not only change what we understand about the origins of the universe but also how we fit into this history. And people are already raising questions about what challenges these discoveries may pose to more traditional views of creation. New discoveries could introduce new debates and provoke new questions about religious teachings and theology.
One of the central challenges is what these discoveries would mean for how we understand the significance of human existence. Some might conclude as Carl Sagan once put it, that: “We live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”
Some will want to resist anything that is seen as a threat to traditional ways of reading Scripture (eg Big Bang vs creation).
Look far enough back in time, and almost everything we know about our universe could have been different. Matter and energy existed in different forms than they do today, and they may have experienced forces that have not yet been discovered. Key events and transitions may have taken place that science has yet to illuminate. Matter likely interacted in ways that it no longer does, and space and time themselves may have behaved differently than they do in the world we know.
The further away we peer into space, the older the light we are receiving, so we will effectively be able to take snapshots of the early days of our universe. English particle physicist Brian Cox explains the utility of this capability well in an episode of his “Ask Me Anything” podcast.
It’s no secret that science and religion have long been at odds. Still, the validation of scientific theories regarding the origin of the universe will continue to challenge theologies of religions that believe firmly in the Bible’s creation story.
I am reminded of a friend’s brother who was writing a doctoral thesis, and whose research indicated those opening words in Genesis were ‘in beginning (comma)’ not in THE beginning. It was a revelation that God’s work is unfolding and dynamic, not static and fixed in time. It moved the researcher from a ‘factual’ premise to a more dynamic understanding of creation – full of wonder and mystery.
Orthodox Christianity is deeply associated with the word “mystery.” Its theological hymns are replete with paradox, repeatedly affirming two things to be true that are seemingly contradictory. The mystery is considered as essential as the knowing. (Fr Stephen Freeman)
For some Christians, comfortable with a propositional faith, these images from deep space will be challenging and confronting, and will be seen as contradictory to the Genesis account. Such a quandary invites a fresh and thoughtful way of looking at Scripture, of myth, of historical and cultural context.
It also invites a stance where we open ourselves to mystery, awe and wonder as we look at the images being received from deep in space.
The scientific (and global) community will marvel at these images from deep space. They will also provide an opportunity for thoughtful reflection on our Scriptures, our place in the universe, our relationship with God.
They will invite mystery, awe and wonder.
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!Psalm 8:1,3-4
You have set your glory in the heavens. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is humankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?