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Monday, December 4, 2017

'Do the heavens declare the glory of God?'

(by Daniel Peterson 10-6-17)

A few weeks ago, a certain Christian conspiracy theorist gained notoriety with his prediction that the end of the world as we know it would commence on Sept. 23, when Earth experiences the disruptive pass-by of a mysterious (and probably non-existent) object called “Nibiru” or “Planet X.” He had, he said, derived his prediction by “merging” astronomy and the Bible through “numerology.” (Doomsday has since been corrected to Oct. 21.)

Some religious skeptics used the occasion to mock Christianity as plainly incompatible with reason and science. One wonders, though, why they chose to focus on an eccentric preacher who received no significant support from any portion of world Christianity rather than, say, on Owen Gingerich.

Gingerich, now a professor emeritus of astronomy and of the history of science at Harvard and senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, is also a devout Christian — and the author of such books as “God’s Universe” (2006) and “God’s Planet” (2014). Arguably, he illustrates the relationship between Christianity and astronomy at least as well as a man who seems to have ignored Mark 13:32: “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”

A sermon that Gingerich delivered some time ago in Tennessee — titled “Do the Heavens Declare the Glory of God?” and online at — provides a good introduction to his religious reflections on astronomical science.

He leaves his audience in no suspense. He tells them upfront that the bookplate that he uses for his personal library includes the motto “Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei” (“The heavens are telling the glory of God”), as Psalm 19:1 is translated in Joseph Haydn’s great 1797-1798 oratorio “Creation.” But the substance of his sermon remains interesting nevertheless, and well worth reading.

He freely grants that the universe as we know it is vastly larger and older than that of the Psalmist, so that, in a sense, when we wonder “Do the heavens declare the glory of God?” we’re asking a very different question than biblical peoples would have.

“We are no longer in ecstasy about the beauty of creation,” says Gingerich, “but we are instead crushed down by our insignificance in the vastness of the universe.” Instead of Psalm 19:1, we turn to Psalm 8:4: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” “Where,” Gingerich asks, “do we fit in as little specks in such an immense and ancient universe?”

He immediately responds with his conviction that our ability to reason about such matters — of all the millions of species that have existed on Earth, ours is the only one, so far as we’re aware, that raises these questions — suggests our connection with a greater, cosmic reason. And, ultimately, he will speak of God’s Son entering our world.

In the meantime, though, he points to a famous discovery involving the great astronomer/astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle (died 2001). I won’t try here to explain Hoyle’s theory of stellar nucleosynthesis nor, more specifically, his discovery regarding the resonance of carbon. (Read the sermon!) But it was enough, apparently, to shake Hoyle’s very vocal and public atheism.

Later, Hoyle wrote about his discovery in the CalTech alumni magazine (and Gingerich quotes in “Do the Heavens Declare the Glory of God?”):

“Would you not say to yourself, ‘Some supercalculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule.’ Of course you would. … A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

Elsewhere, when someone suggested to him that the entire universe might be the product of thought, Hoyle responded thus: “I have to say that that is also my personal opinion, but I can’t back it up by too much of precise argument. There are very many aspects of the universe where you either have to say there have been monstrous coincidences, which there might have been, or, alternatively, there is a purposive scenario to which the universe conforms.”

Gingerich, by contrast, is entirely willing to declare that the universe does indeed seem to have been designed for life.


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