And then I wrote: As I have mentioned, in 2009 the Redemptorist Press invited me to write a series of reflections on issues of religion and science for the Sunday bulletins that are distributed in churches throughout the United Kingdom. The Feast of the Assumption is August 15, but in the UK it is celebrated on the following Sunday, 16 August. This is the final reflection that I wrote for that series.
One of the great successes of modern science is the Big Bang theory. This idea that the universe is expanding from a single point was originally invented to explain what stops the stars and galaxies from all collapsing together due to the warping of space-time proposed by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.
But the thought that the universe began from a single point at a certain fixed time (currently estimated at 13.7 billion years ago) was strongly resisted by many astronomers at first. They felt more comfortable with a universe that was eternal and unchanging. That this theory was developed by an astrophysicist who also happened to be a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaitre, may also have led some other astronomers to suspect his motivation. Was he just trying to find a “scientific basis” for the idea of a Genesis point? Father Lemaitre himself denied this, and he personally urged Pope Pius XII not to promote his theory as such a proof.
But like all good scientific theories, the Big Bang predicted a number of traits about the structure of the universe that astronomers could look for…
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… “echoes” of the Bang, so to speak. And so far, the theory has passed every test. This was more than any of its rival theories could do. And so the Big Bang is now the basis of most of our ideas about the nature and structure of the Universe.
Of course new knowledge is constantly adding to this picture. The discovery of surprising motions in distant galaxies has lately led to the postulation that the universe is dominated by strange entities called “dark matter” and “dark energy.” The darkness, here, is in us: the names simply mean that we know something is happening out there, but we’re in the dark as to exactly what or why. Stay tuned!
Theories about the origin and evolution of the Universe (and, closer to home, the origins of our own planet and solar system) are relatively easy to test, because we have information preserved from the past that we can compare against our theories. Looking deep into space, we are seeing light that left the stars billions of years ago and so we can see what things looked like back then. With rocks from the Moon and the asteroid belt we have samples that have lain essentially untouched since they were formed billions of years ago, which can tell us about the conditions prevalent when they and the planets were made.
Theories about the future of the Universe, however, are much harder to test. We have no samples from the future! Instead, the best we can do is assume that whatever is happening now, will continue to happen the same way into the future. If space continues to expand forever, as most versions of the Big Bang predict, then eventually all stars will cool off and die; the universe itself, they say, will suffer a “heat death.”
But experience tells us that such extrapolations are always very uncertain.
Indeed, our Christian faith suggests we have a different fate. It is not simply that our souls live on forever in some ghostly fashion; rather, we believe in more than just a spiritual afterlife. The Resurrection of Jesus – and the Assumption of Mary, which we celebrate today – tell us that God, who created our physical bodies in this universe, intends an eternal, and real, physical future with Him. What that future will be like, we can only wait and see.