My God, are you there?
John Ebdon on intelligence of the infinite
Like most performers (and I use that word advisedly to include anything from circus seals and chimpanzees to the more advanced primates enthroned in the palaces of York and Canterbury), I keep a scrapbook of press cuttings which, from time to time, I open, not wholly as an ego excursion but to appraise myself of the highs and lows of my career. I did so the other day as I continued to put my house in order before my final departure and noted that, not infrequently, I was described as ‘broadcaster, author and Director of the London Planetarium’ The descriptions were correct, but it was the last appellation which often provoked misunderstanding. Rightly it was deduced that I was an astronomer but inaccurately assumed that I was a scientist. I am not. I had no formal scientific education at all. I read Classics and English for there lay my forte. Nonetheless, my marriage to the Arts did not prevent me from having a lifelong love affair with the heavens. Unlike some, that science has never soured my faith and belief in God, despite the revolution which has occurred in the world of astronomy.
Radio telescopes have brought us whispers from the abyss of space, as they detected galaxies hitherto far out of reach of optical instruments, our conception of the universe has enlarged and the ranks of the theologically uncertain have been swollen. On one afternoon phone-in programme on Radio 4 they made their presence felt. ‘How’, I was asked, ‘in a world of increasing technological advance and particularly in the field of astronomy, can you believe in God?’
It is not often that I bridle my tongue, but to my dying credit I did not instance St Augustine who, when asked by disbelievers what God was doing before he made heaven, replied somewhat acidly that he was creating hell for people who asked foolish questions.
It was a foolish question. Asinine because it assumed that knowledge of the enormity and complexity of creation reduces the reality of the Creator, as if somehow the material can reduce the spiritual. It cannot. It never has and it never will. What the material can do, and often does if we let it, is to blunt our sense of the spiritual; but the spirit remains. And God is spirit and ‘they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.’
Ergo, one has the choice between taking a theistic stance or standing upon the platform of atheism. Patently, I support the former option, but I cannot prove scientifically the existence of God, and by the same token the existence of God cannot be disproved. It is, therefore, a question of belief. And on an astronomical and technological plane one can either embrace the concept that the universe in which we live is the result of a cosmic accident (and we have been given the luxury of several alternatives), or believe that it was created by an omnipotence and for a purpose. Once again, it is a question of belief. And in that respect the situation has not changed since the cosmologically ignorant days of Chaucer, and before.
Four hundred years ago – a mere grain of sand in the hourglass of time – men still clung to the notion of a geocentric or Earth-centred universe as postulated by Eudoxus and later modified by two other Greeks, Aristotle and Ptolemy. It was a cosy, easily explainable world, full of moral purpose, composed of a series of concentric, transparent spheres made of ether which fitted one upon the other like the skins of an onion. To each in turn was attached one of the heavenly bodies, and at the core of this system was the round but motionless Earth. Around it rotated the crystalline spheres all moving at different speeds, and all, save one, travelling in an anti-clockwise direction and taking their incumbents with them. But one sphere turned clockwise from east to west and, moreover, completed its cycle in twenty-four hours. This was the Prime Mover, the furthest sphere from Earth, and the most powerful. Indeed, so great was its influence, its 'inflowing', that its power was communicated to the other spheres below it. Consequently, although they were inching their several ways around the Earth from west to east, their general movement was from east to west. And in that ingenious yet ingenuous way our forebears accounted for the daily passages of the Moon, Sun, planets and stars across the sky.
Although basically Greek, this cosmological onion was christianized. God, flanked by cherubim and seraphim, dwelt on the Prime Mover, and from that empyrean throne he governed the skies and issued warnings to erring mankind. If anything untoward appeared in the heavens, clearly it was a sign of God's wrath; constantly man was being signalled that his enormities were not going unnoticed. If he sinned in moderation, it was accepted that when his time came he would travel upward. If not, he had a very disagreeable journey to the other side of the Earth, to what we know as Australia, but which they called Purgatory, and thence to the bowels of the planet to live in torment in the company of Lucifer. In brief, the medievals lived between Heaven and Hell in a comfortable parochial universe in which quite properly, according to their lights, they had been given pride of place. But the picture changed; and man's ego took a beating.
In the sixteenth century, and contrary to the established theological and cosmological arguments of the day, a Polish Canon, one Copernicus, had the temerity to suggest that the Earth moved round the Sun, and not vice versa – a theory later ratified by Galileo. The rot had set in.
Now the truth is known. We are not the centre of creation. We are intelligent specks, living upon one planet which with eight others is moving around another dot in the cosmos – our Sun. And the Sun itself is just one star of thousands of millions which form our galaxy. And that galaxy is but one member of untold millions of other stellar empires which, like the one in which by chance or design we live, are cartwheeling their ways through the vastness of space. So the picture has been transformed yet again. But it is the same unaltered universe. It is our concept of it which has changed.
Unquestionably, in future years the canvas will become even broader. As man probes – and, I would argue, by the grace of God – deeper and deeper into outer space, increasingly more of its secrets will be given up. Yet, paradoxically, the more man learns, the more he will realize how little he knows. But the newly acquired knowledge should also bring about a greater realization of God; and the more discoveries that are made, the more we should find out about Truth, the tenet of Christian faith. And when in time it is revealed that we are not the only intelligent beings to inhabit a planet in just one of many solar systems (and I believe it arrogant to suppose that we are, for, as a Greek philosopher observed, 'it seems absurd that in a large field only one stalk should grow and in an infinite space only one world exist'), even though the revelation will present theologians with a field day as they debate if or no the beings are with or without original sin, we shall have more proof of the greatness of God the Creator. So, in a sense, and despite some views to the contrary, the march of technology and space exploration is not eroding divine authority, but adding to it. We are, in effect, measuring God's size.
The exploration of space is important, for the missions are concerned not only with the hunt for scientific truth, but also in the search for what is man. For example: when Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot upon the Moon, made his historic landing upon that geological museum a quarter of a million miles away from its parent planet, it was as though the whole of mankind had stepped on to its surface with him. He and the other astronauts represented all of us; and we learned something. We were shown what a miracle man is; but we saw also how small and fragile he is – in every sense. And there perhaps lies the danger: that by becoming technological giants we may be evolving into spiritual dwarfs. I do not believe that man is at risk of over-reaching himself, but I do fear that he is in peril of discovering something that he cannot handle.
In short, his intellectual progress has not been matched by his spiritual advance. Consequently, because of this failure there is a tendency to cry: 'Look what man is doing! What need have we of God?'; to cast upon the dust heap of oblivion the words of the Creed, 'I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible' – including man. Man, with his God-given gifts of sight, hearing and intelligence, and a superb planet on which to live. Agreed, the cynic will ridicule such assertions. ‘A superb planet,' he will mock, 'superb? What about famine, pestilence, bigotry and other allied manifestations of man's inhumanity to man? Show me, I pray, the evidence of God's omnipotence and beneficence!'
I have heard that argument often. It is as old as the cedars of Lebanon. But the answer is very simple. The sunset is no less real because it is blotted out by the smoke from the pyres of man's iniquities; and muffled though it can be by the ugly sounds of conflict and terrorism, the voice of God still calls to us through the sound of the wind, the waves, bird song and the laughter of innocent children. Hourly the presence of God is about us; but if man chooses to ignore it, therein lies his tragedy.
John Ebdon DFC, author, broadcaster and former Director of the London Planetarium
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