Cosmology inspires faith and science dialogue

The Orion Nebula: a glimpse into the vastness of space. (Photo by Tim Yaworski)

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News

New scientific insights into the nature of the universe present a timely challenge to reflect on the relationship between Christian faith and science, says Fr. Bernard de Margerie.

In recent years, the retired diocesan priest and renowned local ecumenist has been exploring a new area of study and interest — what he describes as “the new cosmology.”

“A new incredible thing has happened: we presently are the first human generations ever to have some new and reliable information and understanding of what the whole universe (or cosmos) is all about empirically,” he explains.

“This is because scientists have, over the last 100, and especially the last 50 years, made overwhelming discoveries about the universe. They achieved this through the combined efforts of astrophysics, astronomy, math-ematics, geology, evolutionary biology, etc., using new, powerful instruments of explor-ation and discovery.”

“Cosmology” is defined as the scientific study of the origin and development of the universe. For Christians, this study is an opportunity to deepen apprecia-tion for the work of God the Creator, says de Margerie.

Contrary to what popular culture would have us believe, science and faith are not at odds, but are a coherent part of under-standing creation, ourselves, and the glory and power of God, he says.

“Christian faith welcomes the secure results of science in general, and in particular, the new scientific understanding of God’s creation,” stresses de Margerie, quoting Genesis: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” He adds: “Christian faith is about meaning, indeed ultimate meaning – and it probes in faith the God-given meaning of the new cosmology.”

“Never perhaps, thank God, has there been so clear a possibility as today of a deep understanding between real science and real faith, mutual servants of one another in the one truth. Do not stand in the way of this important meeting. Have confidence in faith, this great friend of intelligence. Enlighten yourselves with its light in order to take hold of the truth, the whole truth.” – Pope Paul VI addressing scientists during his “Closing Message of the Council” [the Second Vatican Council], December 8, 1965.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops recently released a short document entitled Science and Catholic Faith (January 2019) which offers introductory philosophical and theological concepts for the dialogue between faith and science, drawing upon Saint Pope John Paul II’s intellectual legacy.

Key points include confidence in reason, an integral part of the Catholic intellectual tradition. The document affirms that science offers “a splendid testimony” to humanity’s tireless search for understanding.  “Yet science and technology do not free us from the obligation to ask religious questions, but spur us on to face the most difficult questions of the heart and conscience.” (Paragraph 2)

The “Church sees this relationship of science and faith as one of complementarity and mutual stimulus,” the document continues.

“Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world in which both can flourish.”  (Paragraph 3)

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states: “God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.”  (Paragraph 6)

In turn, faith spurs reason: “It is faith which stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true.  Faith thus becomes the convinced and convincing advocate of reason.”  ( Paragraph 11)

This new CCCB document is “well worth probing and assimilating,” says de Margerie.

Cosmology is a topic that warrants exploration and discussion among Christians for a number of reasons, he adds.

“We can try to understand and connect, as best we can, the discoveries of the new cosmology with the firm data of Christian faith. It is reported that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that an error about our understanding of creation will lead to an error about God. Basically – broad and deep education is needed, for everyone.”

Christian faith “searches for, and meditates on, the God-given meaning of things, of everything, with the help of human reason and the Holy Spirit,” he says. “By exploring the meaning of the ‘new’ cosmos, Christians will be able to give deeper glory, and clearer worship to God.”

In the process, he predicts, Christians will also be led “to offer God truer obedience regarding the development and safeguarding of all creation – especially here on Earth, through the ecological care of our blue planet. Planet Earth is now in dire straits because of human beings, because of our neglect and abuse.”

Possible fruitful encounters between science and faith include reflecting on “deep time and deep space.” The new cosmology describes how the universe that we see was created approximately 13.7 billion years ago in an unimaginable burst of energy, followed by lightning-quick expansion. He reflects: “It is now estimated that the universe may contain a hundred billion galaxies (vast groupings of stars) and the size of the known universe is calculated in billions and trillions of light years across. Such is deep space!”

Such new cosmic vistas open an invitation to “larger and wiser praise of the Creator,” he says, citing the Psalms: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all” (Psalm 104:24); and “All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you” (Psalm 145:10).

After spending time exploring and discussing the new cosmology, de Margerie and an ecumenical group of friends are now looking ahead to a possible public event of education and discussion on the topic, with a series possibly presented in the fall.

“A great and worthy homework of faith awaits and beckons us regarding the God-given meaning of the new cosmology,” he says. “May the Holy Spirit inspire us with wisdom and courage.