The Bible and the Big Bang

From The Book of Lemaitrians, Chapter 1, Verses 1 & 2:

    1. In the beginning was the dot, no larger than the end of a human hair. When it exploded, that dot released everything that exists and has ever existed in the Universe: time, space, light, energy, and all the matter that makes up the stars, the planets, the moons, the comets and the asteroids in 125 billion galaxies.
    2. That dot contained all the components of all the bodies of all the people who have ever existed on this earth, including yours.

Father Georges Lemaître was a Belgian priest who earned a Ph.D. in Physics at MIT.  A brilliant mathematician and astronomer, Lemaître was the first to calculate that the Universe is not static, as Einstein had held, but is pushing itself outward into nothingness at a rate of 18,000 miles per second. Our apocryphal passage above is how he might have written the first lines of the story of creation, according to the Big Bang theory.

But these postulations – the primeval atom as Lamaître called the dot, and absolute nothingness, along with biblical concepts like infinity, eternity, and omnipotence — pose serious challenges for many of us as we try to make sense of the stories of creation, either in Genesis or with the Big Bang, using conventional and familiar thought processes, grounded in human experience.

For most of us, accepting either the story of Genesis or the story of the Big Bang involves embracing concepts that the human mind is not equipped to fathom: Our distant ancestor, a fiery atom 16 billion times hotter than our sun, or God creating the Universe in six days using only his will and his word. These are stories told in terms that are abstract and even obscure, terms that transmit emotions and may inspire awe, but baffle cognition and deep understanding. Incapable of truly fathoming whatever powers and processes might have created the Universe, we fall back upon dictionary definitions (Eternity: “a time with no beginning and no end”), because we cannot achieve true comprehension of the concepts. The terms used are a way of convincing, rather than explaining. We accept the usages, but we don’t really understand them.

Not surprisingly, Fred Hoyle, the British astronomer, explained that he coined the metaphorical term “Big Bang” in a series of lectures for the BBC in 1949 precisely because the scientific terminology and concepts were so difficult to understand, and he did not want to lose his audience.

Clearly, it would be convenient to be able to believe both. Lemaître said that the Big Bang explains the origins of the Universe; the Bible explains how to achieve salvation. He had no trouble reconciling the two, possibly because he had faith in both. In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1951, Pope Pius XII hinted that there was no conflict between the Church’s teachings and the Big Bang Theory: “the Creating Spirit billions of years ago, called into existence…the Universe…[and] there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements…formed into millions of galaxies.” The fact that some religious scientists today attempt to reconcile the two by holding that God brought forth or at least planned the Big Bang hints at the same process of reconciling the two, seemingly opposed, versions of creation.

When we attempt to use our human experience to try to come to grips with the concepts of the original creation, we must fall short. These stories can be confirmed only through faith, and in this way the two versions of creation are clearly related, if not in their origins as Pius XII believed, at least in their manifestations in the human mind.

It has been a tradition, at least since Copernicus and Galileo, to argue that science corrects religion and reason opposes faith. In the 21st century, we have Hawking and Hitchens at one extreme and anti-science fundamentalists at the other. But in the creation stories, science doesn’t so much correct religion as co-exist with it. The opaque and improbable science of the Big Bang is presumed to undercut the equally opaque and improbable chronicle of the Book of Genesis.  A standoff.

Neither creation narrative seems more plausible than the other. The story of the Big Bang is far more detailed than that of Genesis, but in itself, that does not make it more conceivable or more comprehensible. Since in neither case can we ask questions like “just how did that happen?” and receive an answer we can understand from our own experience, we are in the realm of faith. Or possibly faith’s brother, imagination. British astronomer George McVittie (1961) referred to those trying to explain the Big Bang as “imaginative writers.”

And even if we accept one or both of the creation stories, fundamental questions remain: If God created the Universe, where did God come from? What came before the Big Bang? The answer that God “has always existed” is confounding enough (that “eternity” concept again), but what created the primeval dot, how long did it exist before it exploded and what caused it to blast when it did? Scientists’ answers are elusive: Since all time was contained in the tiny dot, there was no time before it existed.  Therefore we cannot measure time before the Big Bang or the age of the “primeval atom.” The laws of physics as we know them do not apply, so don’t try to use your human experience to comprehend. We are in a completely unique realm.

To some, it might seem easier to accept an origin created by an omnipotent God than one that exploded from a tiny atom to spontaneously spew out the entire Universe. The modern tale has so many more moving parts, so many revisions and rectifications, and we are not yet at, or even near, the final version. Every decade brings updates and modifications to the theory. But insisting that one or the other, or neither, or both stories are “true” slightly misses the point.

We should recognize that for us, as humans of flesh and blood, the process of appreciating both is the same: have recourse to faith to accept as truth something we cannot understand. What we mean by “true” in these cases is “true for me, using the instrument of my faith.” Faith in science or in scripture, but faith nevertheless, because a complete, rational, experience-based understanding of the origins of our Universe is impossible for most of us.

An earlier term for the immediate pre-Big Bang moment was “the Singularity,” implying unique circumstances that had not existed before. The same term could be applied to Genesis: concepts outside the realm of experience, impossible to understand, that have never been repeated. A kind of one-off, one-of-a-kind state blasted into infinity by the Big Bang, or miraculously brought forth by the mind of God.

All these puzzling conundrums do not mean that we should give up this noble quest. Keep looking, pray for faith, study for illumination. At the same time, sit back, contemplate the majesty of the earth and the heavens, and imagine how you’ll explain their origins to your grandchildren.

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