Fr Richard Waddell: Traces of God in the night sky

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Our ability to contemplate things we can’t understand, means that we should continue to ask the big questions. PHOTO: Unsplash

Science can’t answer every question, nor can faith

The bookshop at Central Railway Station is surprisingly highbrow. Travelling to Wagga recently by train – conclusive evidence of our third world status when it comes to public transport – I discovered this place of temptation and, on a whim, purchased a small paperback, Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (“the international no. 1 bestseller)”.

Questions like, is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe and, does God exist? He does not specifically discuss the meaning or purpose of human life but the implication is that it is merely survival. His vision of the future is of interplanetary travel and colonisation, with perhaps the earth becoming uninhabitable.

Contemplating the Trinity helps us see beyond what is merely visible and even to know who we really are

Hawking describes the nature of the universe in terms that, frankly, I cannot grasp. Concepts like the second law of thermodynamics, the big bang and the big crunch – the expansion and then the collapse of the universe – the sheer scale of things, black holes, space and time warps, the steady state and chaos theories – these all cause the mind to boggle.

Nevertheless, observing the lunar eclipse on Wednesday night a few weeks ago and just contemplating the fact that all the planets and their moons and the sun and the stars and all the galaxies are, in fact, moving, is an incredible thing. The fact that they are moving is a reminder of the immensity of space and then we are told that this immensity has an edge (otherwise it would not be expanding).

How do we cope with the idea of the nothingness that must be beyond the edge? Or the nothingness which, according to Hawking, existed before the big bang? In contemplating these things, one is also reminded, in a somewhat chilling way, of the seeming insignificance of the earth in this vast scheme and the utter puniness of humankind.

The most striking thing is the brevity of human existence in a cosmic timeline which extends for billions of years. Even the evolution of humans from the beginning of life on this singularly warm and hospitable planet has taken 3.5 billion years.

It is also difficult to contemplate the future of the human race, wondering whether we are something that will come and go in the blink of an eye, as the psalm says. And what of the question of God?

Hawking rather bravely ventures into this question. It is always unwise to venture beyond one’s field of expertise. For example, his views that the human race must and will travel in space and settle other planets as a matter of necessity simply begs the question, why?

The implied answer, which I have already mentioned, is survival. He envisages humans settling on other planets and, among other things, mining. Is it our mission to despoil the universe as well as our own planet? Is there not already enough space debris orbiting the planet? There is a science fiction naivety in the thinking of this great astronomer and physicist which diminishes the value of his opinions outside his field of expertise.

Likewise, with the question of God. One really needs to be a theologian to mount a convincing case for the non-existence of God, because one needs to be able to describe the God whose non-existence one is arguing for.

Further, the theologian will be tripped up by the philosopher who will say that, in fact, it is misleading to think of God “existing” – that God is something or someone who maintains a life which is distinct and separate – out there looking over us or into us or around us. Rather, God is.

As God says in the Old Testament, I am. God is not here or there. God is. Thus, when Hawking (and Richard Dawkins) say God does not exist, they are right. They have also asked the wrong question.

Interestingly, when Hawking says that before the big bang and beyond the edge of the expanding universe there is ‘nothing’, he has forgotten the mystical tradition of Christianity which finds God in ‘nothingness’, a nothingness which is real, because it is the origin of all reality and of existence. Creation out of nothingness. Reality out of nothingness.

And so, we come to the Trinity. The Trinity is a doctrine of the relationship between this nothingness and our reality. Its message is that the mystery of God is both beyond us (the Father) and within us (the Holy Spirit) and that our participation in being is our participation in divinity (the Son) (this is very broad-brush theology).

Notwithstanding our puniness, we believe that we can with our limited understanding and with the clumsy tools of language approach the mystery of the God who is. Moreover, we see in God the image of ourselves and in ourselves the image of God simply because we are and God is.

We then go one step further, and say that because our experience of being is a ‘personal experience’ that there is something personal about God, and because as persons we enter into relationships with each other, we can also have a personal relationship with God.

Yes, the universe is vast and probably beyond our comprehension but the fact of our existence – our participation in being – and our ability to contemplate these things, means that we should continue to ask the big questions.

On Trinity Sunday, we penetrate the mystery we call God, and each of our lives, mere points of time in the history of time, is made richer, and we find that we have a place in the cosmos, in the mind and heart of God, of the God who does not exist but is, in whom we believe, and as St Paul said, in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

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