That modern cosmology suggests a Creator has long been argued by apologists. But what does cosmology—the study of our universe, or the cosmos—tell us about the kind of Creator we have?
That question was raised in a recent lecture I attended by Harvard astrochemist and Catholic convert Karin Oberg, who was at Brown University to discuss the theological implications of her professional work, which involves looking for other solar systems that might be hospitable to life. (I wrote about this for Aleteia.) In the lead-up to the main topic of the evening, Oberg briefly noted that something about the way the universe developed over time gives us insight into the nature of its Creator.
Cosmology has always revealed something about the Creator. For example, the clockwork model of the universe associated with the Enlightenment pointed to the kind of Creator envisioned by deists: a God who ‘wound up’ the universe so to speak, putting atoms and plants in place and instituting the universal laws that govern their behavior. This God was indifferent and absent.
But scientists now know that we do not live in a clockwork universe. Modern Big Bang cosmology suggests something entirely different: a dynamic universe that has developed over time, seeing dramatic change and instability.
One of the things the Big Bang theory tells us is that the composition of matter and the laws of physics as we know them haven’t always been in place. At one of the earliest moments, before a second had passed in the history of the universe, protons and neutrons—the basic building blocks of an atomic nucleus—weren’t around yet. Instead the rapidly expanding universe was awash in what one site describes as a ‘soup’ of quarks, which are the particles that make up protons and neutrons.
It is only some time later, at 10-5 seconds, those quarks start bonding together, producing protons and neutrons (according to this timeline).
Likewise, not all the forces of nature developed over time. Most people are familiar with two of them—gravity and electromagnetism. Physicists tell us there are two more that we don’t see in everyday life: the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. But, at the earliest moments of the Big Bang, when the universe was still fractions of a second old, the forces were ‘unified,’ so at least scientists believe. (See here for more.)
So the Big Bang is completely incompatible with the clockwork cosmos. In the beginning, the universe was a completely different place. It did not start out as we know it today, simply in need of laws to set it in motion.
Such dynamism and constant change continued throughout the early history of our universe.
A few minutes after the Big Bang, the first elements formed, including helium, lithium and a form of hydrogen. Stars did not start burning until 200 million years later. These stars would manufacture the heavier elements of our universe, like the iron used to construct our buildings and carry oxygen in our blood. But we’d have to wait a little while longer for these stars to die— exploding as either supernovas or shrinking to dwarves and casting off their outer layers—before these elements would be released into space.
The first galaxies started spinning about 1 billion years into the history of the universe—as long as 13 billion years in our past.
Our own solar system was born 4.6 billion years ago.
The story of life on earth follows a similar gradual timeline. About 3.8 billion years ago, the first primitive life forms—single-celled creatures—popped up. A little over 500 million years ago, the first fish swam the seas while a little after that the first plants took root in the soil and started harnessing the energy of the sun. Man took his first steps perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago or longer (sources here and here). (The Christian account of Adam and Eve in Genesis does not conflict with this timeline, but that’s a separate topic.)
So what does all this tell us about our Creator?
Oberg sees significance in the fact that all things were not in place from the beginning, but instead developed gradually over time.
“There is something that I think is very dignified about allowing the creativity of the universe to be present but … to slowly emerge rather than just put everything in order from the beginning. There is this sort of respect here for the universe, the cosmos, that I think is at play. I will say also a joy in creation in seeing something change over time,” Oberg said. (For the record, Oberg says her thinking on this was influenced by Pope Benedict XVI’s series of sermons, published as In the Beginning, and also John Haught’s Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation.)
There are two important ideas at work here.
First is the dignity of creation and the respect for it shown by the Creator. God lets things develop according to their inner principles rather than make it all happen at once.
This is a truth we recognize in our lives: You show respect for something or something by letting it be what it is, rather than making it be so. You don’t truly respect someone if you always do things for them—whether its parents who coddle their children or teachers who never let their students try to do something themselves.
Divine respect for the dignity of creation is a key theme in Christian theology. We ‘live, move, and have our being’ in God (Acts 17:28) but we also have free will: even we choose wrongly, God allows us to do so and enables us to do so by continuing to support our very existence.
Likewise, there is the Incarnation. Could God have made our sins disappear with the metaphorical snap of His fingers? As strange as it is to think about it, it’s hard not to see how the answer could be anything but yes. However, God took our sins seriously because He took our humanity seriously and that meant that an atoning sacrifice really had to be made.
But Oberg has discerned something else as well: the gradual process of cosmic development, she says, suggests a certain kind of joy on the part of God. This is the joy of a parent seeing their child graduate from high school. Or a coach in watching his hard-trained athlete win the race. Or a teacher having a struggling student finally ace an exam. Joy does not close in on itself but it opens outward toward others, taking delight in them.
Scripture says the Lord ‘will rejoice in His works,’ including mankind. As we learn more about the Lord and the joy He has in His creation, may we, in turn, ‘take delight in the Lord’ (Psalms 104:31, 149:4, and 37:4).