Have you seen the latest images from the James Webb Space Telescope? Simply beautiful. This telescope is an amazing feat in science and engineering. “Nova” on PBS has a very good documentary on the challenges of placing a telescope one-million miles away from earth that one can watch on their website.
The telescope has to be a million miles away to free itself from the background radiation of earth. The goal of this endeavor is to give “humanity its deepest look ever into the farthest reaches of the universe.” It is hoped that the design will reach the edge of the expanding universe with 200-million years of the Big Bang. The fact that “200-million years” is minuscule on the timeline of the universe is mind boggling to me. Yet, such is the wonder of science. Perhaps there is a lesson for me in getting “a million miles away” from the background noise in my life too!
The telescope is so powerful that darkened areas seen in images with the Hubble telescope which were previously thought to be “empty” regions of space are not dark at all in the vision field of the Webb telescope. Focusing on a field the size of a grain of sand, the Webb telescope is producing images in these “previously dark regions” that are magnificent in the workings of the universe. Our previous imagination at the size of the universe is dwarfed in the new visualizations that the Webb telescope provides. Yet, in all this, we must recall that the “size” of the universe has not changed, only our perspectives have.
Sharing our joint fascination at the Webb telescope with a buddy of mine, we both spoke amazingly of these images. This buddy is a source of great fodder for me as he sees himself as both a scientist and an atheist. Most days, this places him 180⁰ away from this scientist and deacon. I am not always sure whether he believes his arguments, or just they exist as a rouse he uses to start debate. Anyway, in our discussion of the vastness of the images being produced by the Web telescope, we both acknowledged at how limited our grasp of the universe’s size really is. Of course, at this point, he challenged me that with this new vision, “how could I still believe that God exists?” “How do these new images change things?,” I asked. “Well,” he said, “obviously we have underestimated the size, scope and opportunity for other life forms to exist in the universe. How can you believe in a God now?” I laughed as I noted his usual attempt to trip me up, this time simply with new images. I told him that even with a bigger window, what exists outside is still the same. “If anything,” I replied, “I once again learned that my view of God is not big enough.”
Per usual, neither of us convinced the other of anything. Yet, the conversation did have me thinking. I wondered how many Christians are challenged by such pictures and, why would they be? The Church isn’t challenged by the potential of new life forms. Dr. Andrew Swafford in a 14 Jun 2017 blog from Ascension Press titled “A Catholic Response to the Extraterrestrial Question” reminds us that in Colossians 1:16-17, St. Paul taught cosmically:
“For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible … all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” Notice, Jesus is the one in whom and for whom all things are created, and in whom they continue to exist—and this pertains to the entire cosmos.”
God is not limited in His creation, we are. The Church has no official teaching on extraterrestrials. However, if they exist, God created them too. I am guessing the Church would propose that Christ died for them also. Would people be challenged in their faith if life was found somewhere else in the universe? Of course, we’d all be knocked from our comfort zone. We are used to being the center of attention. Yet, such a discovery would not be inconsistent with anything found in scripture or Tradition. When science provides us new insights, we don’t reject our faith but, look to see how this truth broadens our understanding. A classical example is found with suicide. The Church teaches that to take one’s life is a sin. Today, many suicides can be seen as a loss in one’s rational senses. Sin requires one to knowingly understand the action. Thus, when one who has lost their faculties to reason takes their life, it is not seen performing a sinful act. The teaching didn’t change: our understanding has. Knowledgeable taking of one’s life remains a sin.
Unfortunately, many sinful acts and disorders are defended by people proclaiming that the Church has a wrongful understating. Faith doesn’t work this way. We re-examine Tradition in light of new truth. We do not reform teaching based on willful desire.
So, what should we note in the new images from the Webb telescope? For now, we celebrate new views of the glory of God’s creation. Something mysteriously happened 13.8 billion years ago and from this event our universe was created and ultimately, statistically improbable conditions came to develop life on earth. In essence, we are star dust. Let us also celebrate our place within this universe where we live. Life is sacred, look at all the places it is not found!
Just because we discovered an attic in the house does not mean the house has gotten any bigger. We just understand the floor plan a little better. In our celebration of the vastness of our universe, our God has to get a little bigger as well. He was the one who created it. The miracle is not in how big God is, but that such a God knows, loves and covets relationship with us. In the vastness of our universe, God notices us in the dust.
The James Webb Space Telescope cost $10 billion and is expected to have an effective life of ~10 years. It will take much longer than that to digest its data. Fortunately, we do not need a billion-dollar camera with a zoom lens to capture our view of God in the cosmos. He came to us in the Incarnation; perhaps our view of Christmas needs to get a little bigger. He saved us in the Resurrection; perhaps its significance to us needs to play a bigger role in our lives.
We can see God all around us. We can look up, but Jesus taught us that it is more important to look “left and right.” Seeing God does not require a billion dollar investment. We just have to take time to look, with the same curiosity and drive that gave us the Webb telescope.