In the beginning was a Big Noise, and we live in its echo and are made of its stardust.
Some Christians struggle with this, as did many physicists when the “Big Bang” theory was young. Einstein after all had based his theorizing on the concept of a steady-state universe: notwithstanding forces of change, everything has always existed as it does now. And the archetypical, most-honored, and most famous physicist of them all flatly rejected the idea of a Beginning.
Atheists – in and out of physics – love the steady-state idea, because that word “beginning” gives them the shivers. But, old or New, atheists cannot explain how an always-existing universe manages to defy the logic of causation, which is a bedrock of materialism. A steady-state universe has no beginning, they say. But how can anything exist without having a beginning – a first cause – that gives rise to each and every subsequent moment in space and time? Their answer: We don’t know, except we know it wasn’t God!
Now the Big Bangers themselves – most of whom have made little or no effort to answer those same causal questions – are not exactly a college of cardinals. Indeed, most are content to have triumphed over the steady-staters (for various reasons to do with later discoveries) in asserting that the universe most certainly did have a beginning, and they remain unconcerned about the genesis of the condensed matter that exploded nearly 14-billion years ago and began expanding and is expanding still.
That ball of matter was the size of (depending upon who’s doing the speculating) either a fist or a pin head, presumably one upon which angels were dancing (and are dancing still). And within this cosmic pinhead was simply everything, actual or potential. According to Stephen Hawking, matter’s density before the Big Bang was a billion-followed-by-sixty-three-zeroes tons per square inch. (Does such a number even have a name?) But to Hawking and other cosmologists, the radiant dust of that explosion has been expanding and cooling and condensing ever since, forming planets and solar systems and us, but all of this was just a matter of “chance” – no dancing angels and no music to set them dancing and no Maker of angels and music and of all that matter before the Big Bang. It all just . . . was.
Cosmology has always been a matter for study, although almost literally until the last century it was primarily a philosophical or theological discipline, whereas now it’s almost exclusively the province of physics, mathematics, and astronomy. This makes it wonderfully appropriate that the scientist who first proposed what he called the “Big Noise” (“Big Bang” was a sarcastic coinage of astronomer Fred Hoyle) was a Belgian priest, Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître.
If you poke around in this area you come across arguments by Protestant authors asserting the Big Bang as proof of Genesis, yet most of these ladies and gents seem never to have heard (and certainly make no mention) of the man who first articulated it as “a day without yesterday.” Other writers confirm or deny, with equal and alarming ferocity, that the Big Bang proves everything or nothing.
Lemaître (1894-1966) himself was cautious about the use of his work in Catholic apologetics, and so cautioned Popes Pius XI and XII, who came very close to asserting that Lemaître’s work did indeed confirm the Biblical account of Creation. Lemaître knew only too well that, through new discoveries and methods of measurement, science is constantly refining its explanations of everything, and the last thing the good monsignor wanted was to see the Church painting itself into a cosmological corner. Fr. George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, points out that “scientific knowledge is relative. Conclusions will alter as more evidence produces better knowledge of reality. Therefore a theology which justifies itself in scientific terms lays itself open to being proven wrong.”
“As far as I can see,” Lemaître wrote in 1931, “such a theory remains entirely outside of any metaphysical or religious question.” Indeed, Lemaître also wrote that the theory “leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being.” But by that he did not mean to imply that his belief in what he called the hypothesis of a “primeval atom” (hypothèse de l’atome primitive) isn’t, in fact, a confirmation of Genesis, only that – as science – the validity of the explanation works without theological referents. God may cross faith with science; physicists and theologians need to travel parallel paths.
Lemaître was emphasizing what we all ought to know – that no description of any sort ever adequately reveals the thing itself, and he asked rhetorically: “Should a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes.”
So, the physical universe (the only thing materialists recognize as actually existing) is finite. The clock is ticking. Christians have always known that; known that we exist in time and space both physically and spiritually, with Kingdom (eternity) to come. The revelation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was that God is present; the revelation of Jesus Christ is that each of us, stardust though we partly are, has a unique role in His cosmic drama. And there are no bit parts. Not just stardust are we, but stars.