#2  The Better We Know God, the Broader and Deeper Will Be Our Understanding of the Universe and Everything in It

MANY PEOPLE SEEM TO think that embracing a religious faith narrows one’s understanding of the world. Some people have even jettisoned religion because they wanted a broader worldview. Such people have viewed belief in God as a straitjacket that limits thought about the world in which we live. But are such views well founded?

It cannot be denied that some types of religion do limit exploration of, and acceptance of, a more comprehensive view of the universe than that has traditionally been held. There has long been, for example, an anti-intellectual bias among some Christians. Such a position, though, is clearly a perversion of what Christianity is, or at least should be.

In spite of some grievous errors of the past that tend to linger in the present, it is important to realize as fully as possible that the better we know God, the broader and deeper will be our understanding of the universe and everything in it. And the reverse is also true: a better understanding of the universe and everything in it should also help us to have a broader and deeper understanding of God.

The Early Scientists’ View of God and the Universe

Many people have held the widespread perception that “warfare” between science and religion has persisted through the centuries. But investigation into the true nature of the situation reveals that most of the early scientists in the Western world were people of deep faith and that the real conflict was much more between “new” science and “old” science than between science and faith as such.

As most people know, Nicholas Copernicus initiated a massive change in how people understand the nature of the universe.[1] (The painting below is titled “Astronomer Copernicus: Conversation with God.”[2])

astronomer-copernicus-conversation-god1

Copernicus’s epochal book, whose English title is On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres and which was published just before his death in 1543, is generally regarded as the starting point of modern astronomy and one of the most important landmarks in the history of science. In fact, his ideas are often referred to as having begun a revolution in human thinking about the universe, and massive changes in thought about other matters are sometimes called a Copernican revolution.

Copernicus’ ideas were developed and publicized the century following his death by Galileo Galilei. And, as is also well known, Galileo was condemned for heresy in 1633. [3] What is not so widely recognized, though, is the fact that Copernicus and Galileo, as well as most other European scientists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were both devout Christians and their scientific endeavors were done for the glory of God.

In November 2008, a Catholic Cardinal publicly stated that Galileo “lovingly cultivated his faith and his profound religious conviction” and that he was “a man of faith who saw nature as a book authored by God.”[4] It is quite true that Galileo was one good example of many scientists who have revered and learned from “God’s two books,” that is, the Bible and the physical universe.[5]

Isaac Newton was one of the first and greatest English astronomers, as well as being a brilliant mathematician and physicist. In fact, he is widely regarded as one of the most influential persons in human history.[6] Along with being an outstanding scientist, Newton was also a man of deep religious faith.

Newton’s understanding of Christianity was not completely orthodox, but he embraced a firm belief in God as absolute creator. He writes,

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being.

And he goes on to assert that this Being “governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called ‘Lord God.’” Thus, God is the “Universal Ruler,” the “Supreme God,” who is “a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect.”

Then Newton declares that God is “eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is, his duration reached from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things and knows all things that are or can be done.”[7]

Surely here in the twenty-first century our concept of God can’t be less expansive or less inclusive that Newton’s concept in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. And with such a concept, it is clear that the better we know God, the broader and deeper will be our understanding of the universe and everything in it.

Theology, “Queen of the Sciences”

The word theology now has meanings that are narrower and much more limited than it once had. Theology literally means the study of God, and in the narrow sense of the word now, the term is used to refer to the study of God along with Christology, the study of Christ, ecclesiology, the study of the church, and so on.

Theology is also used now to refer to the study about the Christian religion in its totality. Thus, there is biblical theology, involving the interpretation of the Bible, historical theology, a study of the historical development of the church and its doctrines, practical theology, study of the relation of Christian teachings to daily living, and the like. But even when it is used in this broader way, it is still a much more limited discipline now than it once was.

Theology is now just one of many academic disciplines that is generally considered to be on the same level of importance as other fields of study—at best; others see it as ranking below other disciplines. That is much different than what was once the case.

There was a time, long ago, when theology was often referred to and generally considered to be the “queen of the sciences.” It was so called because of the belief that all other subjects, including philosophy, existed primarily to help with theological thought. Theological reflection was considered that important because it was about ultimate or eternal matters. It was also considered essential also because it included everything.

If, as we saw in the previous chapter, God is greater than we think or even can think, if God is the creator and sustainer of the entire universe from the beginning to the present and on into the vast future, there is nothing that is not related to God. So theology, the study of God, must include everything since it is related to God.

Because of various misunderstandings of God, mostly because of parochial views that failed to grasp the greatness of God, and because of a growing secularization which grew partly as a reaction against the narrowness into which religion had fallen, theology gradually lost its place as the “queen of the sciences.” Now it is even seen by many in the academic world as an unwanted stepchild.

With the explosion of knowledge in the modern world and the necessity of specialization, no one can possibly know enough to develop a theology that is broad enough. But the point is this: the study of God is never a limiting factor. The attempt to know God includes the desire to know everything related to God.

As we have seen, the physical sciences were developed as means not just to understand the universe better but also as a means to know God better. Thus, the study of God includes the theology of science and the theology of nature.

Consequently, the better we know God, the broader and deeper will be our under-standing of the universe and everything in it.

God and the Basic Virtues

In both Western and Eastern societies, truth, beauty, and goodness have long been understood as basic virtues. Before the time of Christ, Plato taught about those three virtues, and they are ancient East Asian values as well.

While misguided religious faith can be, and often has been, a barrier to expanding scientific knowledge, most of the pioneers of modern Western science, as previously stated, were men of faith. Their increased scientific truth led to a fuller understanding of the greatness of God. But is not the opposite true also? Can we not say that a fuller understanding of the greatness of God potentially increases our comprehension of truth in the natural world? As stated in the first chapter, all truth is God’s truth. Thus, every true thing we learn potentially helps us understand God more fully, and the more fully we understand God the more we are open to learning the truth about God’s great creation.

It is not prudent to make as direct a connection of God to the orderliness of creation as Newton did three centuries ago or as many “intelligent design” advocates want to do today. As indicated in the first chapter, the element of freedom (chance) in the development of the universe must be fully recognized. The providence of God cannot be seen in each and every aspect of the evolving universe. That process must be seen as a spiral as opposed to a steady ascending straight line.

Still, if we firmly believe that God is absolute Creator, that tenet compels us to see the universe in all its complexity as a part of God’s overall providential plan. Consequently, belief in God spurs in us a greater desire to learn more about the vastness, beauty, and intricate nature of the universe in which we live. Belief in God encourages and inspires our quest for greater knowledge and understanding of God’s creation.

If God is related as creator to the physical world of the vast universe, God is also intimately related to the world of the arts. That is, belief in God enhances our interest in beauty as well as truth. And truth and beauty are, according to many scientists including Einstein, intimately related. There are those who insist that “beauty equals truth”; truth is beautiful and beauty is truth. Thus, we can say that God is the source of beauty as well as the source of truth and that just as all truth is God’s truth, all beauty is an expression of God.

Beauty is expressed in music, of course, as well as in science and art. And many of the greatest Western composers were people of faith. Bach has even been referred to as “the fifth evangelist,” and his music is seen by many as an effective medium for telling the Good News of God. The music of Handel’s “Messiah” has inspired millions since it was first performed. One of my favorite composers is Beethoven. Even though it is a bit raunchy in places, one of my favorite movies is “Immortal Beloved,” which tells the sad story of Beethoven’s life.[8] But the scene of the composer looking up at the starry heavens and hearing the final movement of his Ninth Symphony, to which the “Ode to Joy” is sung, is magnificent. And that image in the movie is similar to Matejko’s painting of Copernicus’ “conversation with God.”

Of course, if God is intimately related to truth and beauty, God is naturally inter-connected with goodness. Good without God, a book by the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, was published in the fall of 2009. Like some earlier books, the author sought to show that it is possible for people to be good, that is, to live by high ethical ideals, without faith in God.[9] I have no desire to debate whether people have to be conscious believers in order to be morally good people. It seems indisputable that they don’t have to be. But just as God is the God of atheists, God is the God of humanists also. Denying, disavowing, or dismissing the existence of God does not affect God.

Even though people can be good, at least relatively speaking, without faith in God, there is nothing good which is not somehow related to God. Just as people can bask in the sunshine and enjoy the light and warmth of the sun without thinking about or knowing much about the sun, so people can, to varying degrees, enjoy goodness and even do good without an awareness of God, the source of all that is good.

So, if God is the basis for all truth, beauty, and goodness, as I have contended here, it is clear that the better we know God, the broader and deeper will be our understanding of the universe and everything in it.

[1] Copernicus (1473-1543), who was born and died in Poland, is generally regarded as an astronomer, but he was also a Catholic cleric, diplomat, economist, mathematician, and physician.

[2] This painting from 1873 is one of the best-known works of Jan Matejko, a prominent Polish painter. Even though it was completed two centuries after Copernicus’s death, this striking painting depicts the awe and wonder with which Copernicus looked toward the night sky. His study of the wonders of the universe was nothing other than conversation with God, as Matejko suggests.

[3] Galileo (1564-1642), who was born and died in Italy, escaped execution as a heretic only because he recanted before the Inquisition; still, he spent the remainder of his years under house arrest.

[4] Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, made these comments at a Vatican conference entitled “Science 400 Years after Galileo Galilei.”

[5] One of the best recent books on this subject is Kenneth J. Howell’s God’s Two Books: Copernican Cosmology and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002).

[6] Newton (1643-1727) said on one occasion, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Copernicus and Galileo were most likely two of the giants he had in mind. Newton’s well-known words, “standing on the shoulders of giants,” are engraved on the edge of the British two-pound coin.

[7] Newton’s statements are from H. S. Thayer, ed., Newton’s Philosophy of Nature: Selections from His Writings (Hafner Publishing Co., 1953), pp. 42-43.

[8] The 1994 movie was written and produced by Bernard Rose, and Gary Oldman stars in the role of Beethoven. In recent years Oldman has portrayed Sirius Black in Harry Potter movies.

[9] The author of Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe is Greg M. Epstein (b. 1977), who holds an M.A. degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. An earlier book closely related to Epstein’s is Can We Be Good Without God? Biology, Behavior, and the Need to Believe (2002), by Robert A. Buckman (b. 1948), a British-Canadian doctor of medicine who was president of the Humanist Association of Canada from 1999 until his death in 2011.

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