Seeing God In the Stars?
For 21 years, Jesuit Father George V. Coyne has been watching the miracle of creation from one of the most prestigious vantage points on earth — the Vatican Observatory near Rome.
The 66-year-old priest, the first American to hold the observatory director-ship, said his faith continues to be enriched by the experience.
“Just in the last five years,” Father Coyne said, “the scientific knowledge of the universe that has been accumulated certainly has changed people's religious view of God and his connection with the universe.” He said that we now have “a much more mature view of the universe and God's role in it.”
Some scientific and theological experts say that little or no attention is being paid to the religious implications of recent discoveries in astronomy. However, others claim that many people have moved closer to a personal conviction that some omnipotent force must have masterminded the universe in all its complexity.
Father Coyne, who in his pre-ordination days passed all the tests to qualify for the U.S. space program except the one for vision, took over as head of the Vatican Observatory shortly after Pope John Paul II's election in 1978. Since then, he has been directing operations at the observatory in Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence 15 miles southeast of Rome.
He also spends about half of his time heading the Vatican Observatory Research Group at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
A Growth Factor
Father Coyne denied the claim that God had nothing to do with creation and that everything had come about by chance or necessity.
“God made a universe that would have within it a kind of creativity — a growth factor for growing up,” he said. God made the universe knowing that it would be inhabited by human beings, “the most eloquent image and likeness of God,” he added.
Father Coyne noted, however, that scientific discoveries do not support the idea that God predetermines the universe. “What now is coming to the fore through science is the notion that God made the universe to operate in the same way that parents deal with children.” He said that God gave humans freedom to make decisions like parents give freedom to their older children. At a certain age they need “to develop their own personalities.”
Father Coyne said that if he had not been raised as a Catholic, he would not necessarily have discovered religion through his scientific work.
“Neither would these discoveries have led me away from discovering God, but I don't think they would lead me to him,” he acknowledged. “I would have to say that I do have the faith and I love what science is doing because it is enriching my faith. But science doesn't give faith to me.”
A Rabbi's View
Others also believe that science today is enriching people's faith.
“I think the knowledge breakthroughs have brought some people into temples and churches,” said Rabbi Rafael Grossman.
Rabbi Grossman is based at the Baron Hirsch Synagogue in Memphis, Tenn.
The rabbi reflected on the 1930s when he said science and religion were at each other's throats over supposedly contradictory findings.
“Now, I find more and more people who are scientifically involved, are coming closer to God because the more they see and hear scientifically, the more they feel a need to express themselves religiously,” he explained.
“The more you see of God's wonders,” the rabbi said, “the more you must realize that only God could have created the world.”
Professor Lawrence Fagg, a retired physics teacher from The Catholic University in Washington, D.C., said that it “seems to me that there is a God who provided this universe as it is with all its wonders.” Fagg, who described himself as “my own brand of Episcopalian,” said he hoped that developments in the understanding of the electromagnetic interaction in the universe would provide “a fascinating parallel” to our vision of God's presence everywhere in his creation.
Developments in astronomy also lead to questions about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. Michael J. Crowe, of the University of Notre Dame, said that the debate over extraterrestrial beings goes as far back as 1750. Crowe, who has written extensively on the debate, said the Catholic Church has remained open on the question.
“I do not think the Catholic Church has committed itself to any particular positions on such life,” he said. “There is an awful lot that we don't know about creation, and until we know more, we don't have to take a position.”
“It is enough for us to know that God did create it all,” he said.
Father Ernan McMullin, a retired professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, said, “The average adult out there doesn't care a whit” about discoveries in science.
“But children sure are interested in space developments. However, they soon lose that kind of wonder when they grow older and start just taking things for granted.”
“But the average guy sitting in a pub somewhere having an ale, couldn't care less,” he insisted. “Yet when it comes to technology and a new type computer and the rest — as opposed to science — that's a different story.”
Robert Holton writes from Memphis, Tennessee.
- August 29 - September 4, 1999