Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
The galactic census data is in! According to an Associated Press article released last weekend: “Scientists have estimated the first cosmic census of planets in our galaxy and the numbers are astronomical: at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way.”
When I would hear that kind of thing when I was an atheist, I’d muster up my most condescending facial expression and turn to the nearest believer to say: “You still believe all that Bible stuff now?” To my way of thinking back then, the vastness of the universe debunked the Christian worldview. Obviously we’re nothing special in the grand scheme of things. Obviously there’s not some Creator out there who values us over everything else—otherwise, why would he have bothered messing around with making all this other stuff? Why create the Triangulum Galaxy and the Horsehead Nebula and the 50 billion other planets here in the Milky Way if you’re mainly concerned about the goings on at tiny little planet Earth?
It’s too bad I hadn’t read Chesterton. He addresses that kind of argument with his typical wit when he writes in Orthodoxy:
Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God; a somewhat formless image; what one might call an impressionist portrait. It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.
Exactly. What I was missing back then was an openness to contemplating just what kind of God we might be talking about. I pictured that Christians believed in a man with a flowing white beard who lived off in the clouds somewhere. Sort of like my uncle Ralph, but with magic powers. With this limited, facile view, it’s no wonder I couldn’t get past the vastness of the universe. Uncle Ralph wouldn’t waste his time creating a bunch of planets no one was ever going to use, so, presumably, neither would this supposed God.
What I see now is a universe that gives us an ever-present reminder of who and what God really is. The vastness of the universe is unfathomable; to try to contemplate every detail of every object in existence is an exercise in futility. The human mind has nowhere near that kind of capability, and that understanding should inspire us to humility about our own intellectual powers. And so it is when we contemplate God.
It’s a perfect plan, really: the smarter we get, the more we can know about the universe around us. Yet the more we study and measure and chart the heavens, the more we realize how incredibly tiny we are, how very much there is that we will never, ever know. We get a glimpse of the reality that the sum total of human learning cannot ever scratch the surface of what there is to know. We see that we are surrounded by an unfathomably wonderful creation; which points to an unfathomably wonderful Creator.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).