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Sunday, September 11, 2011

The New Universe by Brian Jacoby


By Brian Jacoby

A story can relate truths which can capture our hearts and imaginations in a richer way than bare rational concepts can. A story unfolds, creating a sense of anticipation and suspense. Does it have a happy ending? A moral? Does it offer hope for the future? The new universe story has a distinct narrative quality, telling of sequences of stupendous events and processes which amaze and grip the reader.

A person of sensitivity can discern that creation itself has a spiritual dimension. We are aware of ‘something more’, that the universe has a depth of reality which evokes a sense of mystery and awe. GM Hopkins describes it thus: ‘There lies the dearest freshness deep down things.’ We become aware of the sacred ‘deep down things’.

The new science of the past few decades has revealed some surprising things:
·         The universe is built on relationships.
·         Violence, suffering, death are necessary for life.
·         Chance events can be creative.
·         The universe creates and regulates itself.
·         Matter is being created out of nothing,
·         Gravitational force associated with matter is a creative force.
·         Time an essential ingredient.

A summary of the science of the universe story is appended at the end, for those who may be interested. What is of greater interest are the theological and personal implications that stem from this new cosmology. Our present understanding of cosmic evolution from the Big Bang onwards is well-understood by scientists. We therefore need to take it very seriously. At very least, this involves trying to reach a new notion of divine action.

IMPLICATIONS of the universe story:

1.    The universe is built on relationships
We are all connected, one. We were all potentially in that single particle 13.7 billion years ago. Therefore we are all related in a profound, physical way. There is an important relationship between the whole and parts, a different kind of causality. Each part of our body works toward the good of the whole, and vice verse. Everything in the universe seems to work towards the creation of the whole universe, and the whole each part. There seems to be a principle or force which governs this interaction of relationships.  Does WHOLE mean GOD?
2.    Out of death comes something new   (A grain of wheat needs to ‘die’ …)
For example, the dinosaur extinction opened the opportunity for the emergence of mammals. And the extinction of a hominid branch (Australopithecines) paved the way for the branch which led to modern humans. Is this a primitive expression of kenosis (the emptying of oneself, self-sacrifice?) Some cosmologists think that it is, and that, at root, the universe has a moral character. Violence, suffering and death seem to be necessary for the eventual evolution of human consciousness. If divine action is continually creating, does this mean that God suffers? Many theologians who are following all this say yes.

3.    Just right? (Goldilocks effect)
We live on a planet which is just right for our survival. Habitable zones require the ‘right’ temperature and gravity, and the presence of liquid water. If the initial conditions of the early universe (eg value of electron, gravity, etc) had been only very slightly different, human life would not be here today. Some cosmologists hold that, given these conditions, life was inevitable.  Does this mean that there was (is) intelligent design? If so, then we must accept the good with the bad. If God let gravity be, then we will hurt ourselves when we fall off a roof. Gravity is a two-edged sword: it is a force that is both creative and destructive. Does this mean that God is involved in destruction?

4.    Chance and necessity
Random events are a reality. Earthquakes, volcanoes, floods are violent and bring death and destruction, often in a random way. Are we here by chance? Where is purpose? This is the problem of evil in a new guise. Things could have been different.

The consensus of most cosmologists is that random events offer divine opportunities for creativity. Also, we humans see a limited view of events. If we saw the big picture, perhaps what we perceive as random may not be so from the point of view of the whole.

Fr George Coyne SJ says that God is willing to stand back and allow things to happen of their own accord. God does not intervene to prevent chance events. Just as there comes a time when a parent must let go of the child, to allow the child to grow as a person, so God lets go. But just as the human parent remains present even while letting go, so too does God.

Here are the comments about chance events, made by some researchers:
George Coyne SJ: Both chance and necessity act together to lead to fertility. 
Paul Davies:          Chance is God’s bestowal of openness, creativity, freedom.
George Ellis:         Chance is ‘slippage at the bottom’ needed for free will.
Keith Ward:           Indeterminacy needed for God to leave room for consciousness.
Bill Stoeger SJ:     Life is unpredictable to within a certain range of outcomes.

5.    The universe is self-creating and self-regulating
Divine intervention is not needed to run the universe.  (The researchers at the Vatican Observatory call this NIODA: Non-interventionist objective divine action).  This notion that God does not intervene is important to a contemporary understanding of the universe. It is consistent with the belief that God is continually creating. Yet it raises questions, such as: Is human soul created by a special creative act of God? Does God step in to perform miracles? Did God intervene to become human (incarnation)? Are special acts of God needed? Some think that God is always present during, say, the development of the embryo, but that God’s presence is more intense during humanization.

6.    Continuous creation
We know that gravity and energy are processes continually at work ‘deep down things’ in the universe. God acts ‘deep down things’, continually, on-going. God is closer to things than they are to themselves, sustaining in existence from moment to moment. Creation is on-going. ‘Depth’ is the really real.

7.    The last things
The end-of-world stories in the bible do not refer to what we understand by tsunamis, earthquakes, cosmic collisions. The writers had a different myth/worldview, and their agenda was different. However, modern cosmologists tell us that it is only a matter of time when Earth will be struck by a large asteroid, and that Sun will die in 5 billion years. Such predictions lead to a feeling of fear and despair. Yet there is hope and comfort in our belief that God is intimately close everywhere in universe. So don’t despair.

WHAT THEN IS DIFFERENT?   (from the clockwork universe of Newton.)
We were brought up on the old Newtonian worldview of a clockwork universe. It was a comfortable, stable, ordered and predictable world. But the new universe story is rapidly changing our worldview.

1.  The old view saw creation as a given, a stage on which the drama of human life was played. We humans were objective observers. Humans were lords of creation, free to control and manipulate and plunder it.
RATHER: Humans are an integral part of nature. Every one of our actions has repercussions on the environment (the Butterfly Effect). We are stewards of creation.
2.  The clockwork universe saw God setting up the universe, then retreating to the sidelines and intervening when needed.
RATHER: Divine action is central, immanent, intimately close, steady presence. So there is no need for God to intervene.
3.  The old view thought that the universe was complete, ready-made, perfect.
RATHER: It is still under construction. Anyway, if we believe that God made pretty flowers and cute puppies, we must also hold that God made viruses and germs that kill.
4.  The Newtonian world was ordered, predictable and stable.
RATHER: Our new understanding reveals that many physical processes have an inherent uncertainty, both at the micro and macro levels. The universe is dynamic and filled with change. We need to learn to live with change. Transformation into a radically new status, something really novel, lies at the heart of our understanding of the new universe. At a critical point of the growth towards complexity, a new reality emerges. Our destiny is to become radically human.

Thomas Merton:
We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. …  It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything. … The only thing is that we don’t see it.



The universe is incredibly old. It is 13.7 billion years old (13 700 000 000 years). We cannot comprehend how old this is. If 12 hours represent the entire age of the universe, then each hour is one billion years (1 000 000 000 years)!  And every three seconds is one million years.

If the Big Bang occurred at midnight, then our solar system was formed nine hours later, and life began around 10 o’clock. We humans arrived on the scene at 30 seconds before noon!

We need to understand that a huge amount of time was needed for the universe to produce humankind.


Time zero – 300 000 years after the Big Bang:
The universe began as a single, tiny particle, in which everything was contained. It exploded, and inflated very fast, releasing pure energy. Energy was transformed into matter (protons and electrons). Because of the electrons, the universe was opaque. As things cooled, protons joined up with electrons, forming hydrogen atoms, and the universe became transparent.

300 000 – 10 million years after the Big Bang:
Inflation continued. The hydrogen cloud was uniform at first. Soon centres of greater hydrogen atom concentrations randomly developed. In these regions of greater density, gravity pulling more hydrogen in. The universe was becoming lumpy. These lumps grew and formed large hydrogen clouds which were to become the first galaxies.

10 million – 100 million years after the Big Bang: The formation of the first stars
Further random lumpiness developed within the hydrogen of these galactic clouds. Gravity attracted more matter into these centres. As layer upon layer of hydrogen formed, pressure and temperature became so high that stars were born, giving off their own light. Stars ‘burn’ hydrogen and convert it into helium and lithium, the lighter elements.

Gravity was the creative force giving rise to the universe, leading it from simplicity to increasing complexity.

100 million years after the Big Bang: (The death of first stars)
The first stars began to run out of their hydrogen fuel and die (supernova). In its death throes, the star implodes, then explodes violently, at very high temperatures. Heavy elements (such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and iron) were forged. The explosion scattered the newly-formed heavy elements throughout the universe. These heavy elements were necessary for living organisms which emerged much later. So the elements needed for life were forged in the cores of dying stars. We are literally stardust, part of the universe.

9000 million (or 9 billion) years after the Big Bang:     (or 5 000 million years ago):
Our solar system was formed. The Sun began 5 billion years ago, followed by Earth 4.5 billion years ago. A cataclysmic collision between proto-Earth and a Mars-sized planet happened 4.3 billion years ago. Earth survived the impact, and the rubble from the collision produced our Moon. The infant Moon was very close to Earth, giving rise to huge tidal forces which stirred the chemical soup, facilitating the formation of large chemical molecules. Chemical complexity increased and was ready for living organisms to emerge. Human life depends on that random collision. Without our Moon we would not be here today.

10 000 million (or 10 billion) years after the Big Bang:   (or 3 500 million years ago):
Complexity reached critical point where something novel happens. A transformation, raising things to a new level (non-living to living) took place. This is a natural process, yet is amazing. During this transformation, a new interaction between whole and parts (top-down causality), as well as between parts and whole (bottom-up causality), began. Living organisms emerged.

13 400 million (13.4 billion) years after the Big Bang: (or 3 million years ago):
Human consciousness emerged. This was a major transformation


EVIDENCE for all this:
·        Universe is expanding, very large.  (1927)
·        Distribution of the lighter elements (H, He, Li)  (1990s)
·        Cosmic microwave background (CMB): afterglow of BB 300 000 years (2002)

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