Does the universe have space for God?
Does The Universe Have Space For God? was the question addressed by Rev Professor David Wilkinson, Principal of St John’s College, University of Durham, at Norwich Cathedral on May 20. Mark Sims reports.
Prof Wilkinson tackled issues of science and faith, including What is a Kiss? at the annual Science Faith Norfolk Cathedral Lecture 2015.
‘A kiss is the approach of two pairs of lips, the reciprocal transmission of carbon dioxide, microbes and the juxtaposition of two orbicular muscles in the state of contraction. That is a kiss in scientific terms. But if I go to my wife Alison and (ask for a kiss using those terms) she would say, “get lost!”…The scientific description is true but not appropriate in this context!’
The scientific version misses the meaning, purpose and emotional value of a kiss and so it is, Wilkinson argued, when considering the universe’s origins from spiritual and scientific viewpoints. Both are necessary to gain a full understanding but ‘there are questions of meaning, value and purpose that lie beyond science…why is there something rather than nothing?...Where do the laws of physics come from?’
‘”Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?”’ Wilkinson quoted God’s words to Job in Job 38:4; ‘You might say the same to astrophysicists.’ The Big Bang theory is science’s ‘best reconstruction of the evidence.’ He did not go as far as to call it science’s ‘best guess’ since, of course, scientists do not like to guess.
Current theories like The Big Bang are able to date our universe at 13.8 billion years, reaching as far back as 10 to the minus 43 of a second old (not quite zero). ‘It’s extremely frustrating’, Wilkinson admitted, likening it to watching Midsomer Murders but getting a phone call just before the murderer is revealed. No such luxuries like ITV Player with science, then…or an answerphone.
Wilkinson admitted that physicists only currently know what 5% of the universe is made of, the rest is ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ – ‘we’ve got no idea what it is.’ He hopes that the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland will eventually reveal this, however. Our own galaxy is one of 100 billion in the known universe and is made up of 100 billion stars, each as big as our sun.
Wilkinson suspected that the universe’s age would not interest the writer of Genesis, who would prefer the book to enable us to better understand our creator and be ‘…filled with praise and thanksgiving.’ Wilkinson himself sees Genesis chapter 1 as a ‘song of worship’, not a literal scientific description of creation.
He said that ‘one of the tragedies’ of debate in the church over a literal interpretation of Genesis is that ‘we have not listened to some voices in the scientific community who’ve said that science is raising questions that it goes beyond science’s ability to answer.’ The church is ‘so obsessed with its own inner wrangling, it forgets that God is at work in the world and not just the church.’
Wilkinson cited an argument by physicist John Taylor in his book Black Holes: The End of the Universe? Where he says it is pointless discussing God, since ‘how can the finite mind ever understand an infinite God?’ Wilkinson believes that Hebrews 1 and John 1 counter this by mentioning how God has revealed himself to finite minds in many ways, most supremely through Jesus Christ.
For Wilkinson, this was central to his becoming a Christian. ‘I didn’t come to Christian faith by gazing at the stars and having God proved to me.’ He said. ‘I (did so) by encountering Jesus of Nazareth, both in history and in experience. That’s allowed me to integrate science and faith, even with all of the questions I don’t know the answer to.’
Although Wilkinson was an effective speaker and his lecture was well constructed, I struggled to remain engaged over the whole hour. This was partly down to the uninspired PowerPoint-style projection that augmented what he said. Surely a talk regarding such awe inspiring subjects like the beginning of our universe needs suitably wonderful imagery to really hit home?
I know Wilkinson is a physicist, not a graphic designer and I wasn’t expecting visual fireworks on the scale of the BBC’s Wonders Of The Universe but some nice graphics to illustrate the Big Bang, for example, would not have gone amiss. Especially since I had heard a lot of Wilkinson’s information presented more eye-catchingly on other Professor’s TV shows.
In the end, though, no amount of flashy graphics or fancy words can help the reductive nature of presenting astronomy through facts and figures, however interesting these may be. Whilst it is impossible to comprehend things like the expansion of the universe when merely looking up at the stars from our gardens (however powerful our telescope), there is nothing like perceiving creation - and our place in it - for ourselves.
Find out more about Science Faith Norfolk