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Giant Leap for Mankind: Science and Religion

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Moon behind Tom Tower

If you were standing on the edge of the Andromeda Galaxy today, you might watch the beginnings of human life. Andromeda is approximately 2.5 million light years away from Earth and, because it takes so long for the light to travel that immense distance, your view would be that of the Earth 2.5 million years ago. 

To me, that number is particularly amazing because it is further back in our world’s history than we believe human beings to have existed. Most scientists agree that recognisable humans have only existed for the last 2 million years (at most). So the Andromeda Galaxy looks out over a pre-human earth, a world before the era of humanity. And if you could stand there for long enough you could watch that era dawn.

When I was a little girl I wanted to be an astrophysicist; now I want to be a priest. Both things for me hinge on the beauty of the night sky, the awe of a shooting star, the wonder at the soft light of the moon.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first successful mission to land on the moon in July 1969, and Neil’s Armstrong’s ‘giant leap for mankind’ has been watched over and over in the time since. There doesn’t seem to be anything comparable to that first step onto a new world, no single scientific event that has been so celebrated by people throughout society.

Without the pressure of that first race to the moon, space travel has retreated into the back of our public consciousness, but we seem to be no less fascinated by the worlds beyond our own. Brian Cox’s recent series on the Planets has been viewed by over 3 million people, and this is largely because our discoveries about the universe beyond our world are so mind-boggling and horizon-expanding. They change the way we view our place in creation.

So if you were to ask me why I think that we, as Christians, should celebrate scientific achievements like the moon landings, I would tell you that it is because we have so much more to learn about our world and the God who created it.

Understanding who we are, especially in relation to the rest of creation is informed by scientific advances. Our expanding view of the universe is a testament to the glory of God’s creation: a feat so much more enormous than we can imagine, so much more complex and beautiful, praise be to God! And the more we learn about the intricate beauty of our universe the more we are challenged to loosen our grip on small ideas of God that we have.

Because our God is so much greater than we can ever imagine and if we think we understand everything then we haven’t really understood anything. The challenges of science expand our view of the world but they can expand our view of God too. They force us to examine what it means to say that God created the world, that God acts in the world, that God exists outside of the world. 

In the Cathedral this summer, we are hosting a series of lectures entitled Science and Religion Revisited, asking questions like ‘Should we send missionaries into outer space?’ and exploring topics such as ‘God and the Big Bang’. The Revd John Witheridge, Honorary Canon of Christ Church and curator of this series, said: ‘Scientific discoveries have challenged faith-related explanations of our world since Copernicus in the sixteenth century.  This summer lectures series on 'Science and Religion Revisited' has assembled six experts to examine some of today's challenges, and to ask whether science and faith really are in conflict.’

Buzz Aldrin, one of those first astronauts to step foot on the moon was an elder of Webster Presbyterian church near Houston. With permission from his church, he took with him some bread and wine and celebrated communion in the lunar module. It seems entirely apt, that a gesture of such scientific advancement should be marked by a gesture of such faith.

Why not dare to wonder how God created the Universe? Why not ask the question of where our place in it might be? Why not see if working together can bring us just a little closer to the God ‘who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night…’ (Amos 5:8)