By Dr. Amanda Alexander
I didn’t grow up in the Catholic Church. In fact, I was raised in a Christian community that didn’t have a lot love for Catholics or things the Catholic Church believed in – like the Eucharist. In the church of my youth, we only received communion – a whole wheat cracker and grape juice – four times a year. It was a solemn occasion to be sure, but it was also very clear that it was an entirely symbolic occasion. So, imagine my surprise when, during one of these quarterly communion services, I heard the pastor read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and quote the words of Jesus, “This is my body.” In that moment, I knew. I knew that Jesus intended the bread of communion to be his body, not just a symbol. And I did not receive communion again until I was received into the Catholic Church, nearly a decade later.
What happened to me that day during the communion service was a paradigm shift. In life, we sometimes talk about having a paradigm shift – an experience that changes the way we see the world so fundamentally that we can’t go back to the way we used to think. Religious conversions are like this, so too is marriage and becoming a parent.
The scientific community has also had its fair share of paradigm shifts. One of the most famous is that which accompanied Nicolaus Copernicus’s conclusion in the early 1500s that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system. Another paradigm shift followed in the late 1600s when Isaac Newton discovered what we today call “physics” – the mathematical laws that describe the structure and interaction of objects we can observe. The very idea that there were laws of nature was a revolutionary insight! The most recent scientific paradigm shift came about in the early 20th century when scientists discovered that very small, sub-atomic particles do not follow the laws of physics as described by Newton. To describe their behavior, an entirely new field of mathematics had to be created. Thus, quantum physics was born.
Given the fact that our scientific knowledge is not immune from undergoing these paradigm shifts, I was not in the least surprised to see a recent headline: “The Cracks in Our Cosmology: Why the Universe Doesn’t Add Up.” The article, published in the January edition of BBC Science Focus Magazine explains that the standard model of the universe – the idea that the universe came into existence with a big bang 13.82 billion years ago and has been steadily expanding from an infinitesimally small point of concentrated energy ever since – may need revision in light of more recent observations and mathematical modeling.
How should Catholics respond to this news? Should we reject the idea of the Big Bang altogether? Not yet. However, I do think there is an important lesson to learn from the admission that our knowledge of the universe is incomplete. It’s a lesson we have faced as Christians before, when we navigated other revolutions in our understanding of how the natural world works. The lesson is simple, even though it may take a lifetime to sink in: we are creatures, not gods, and have a limited capacity to know. In other words, only God is all-knowing. We, as St. Paul said, “see in a mirror dimly.” Our knowledge in this life is, at best, partial and incomplete (I Corinthians 13:12).
While our knowledge may be limited, what we do have is faith. We have faith that God created the universe and continues to guide it as it unfolds, even if science is unable to tell us exactly how God does this.
Does that mean that we should abandon the quest for a scientific understanding of the origins of the universe? Not at all. Indeed, the more we discover about the deep structure of the universe, the more confident we should become in our faith. For example, there are fundamental constants in the universe – laws that determine how atoms bind together or push apart from each other. If these were even slightly different than they are, our universe would be completely different, or perhaps even non-existent. The universe, in its deepest structure and from its very beginning, seems to have been fine-tuned for life, for us.
Scientific reasoning is not meant to replace the certainty of our faith, but to strengthen it. Advances in our scientific understanding of the world should invite us to a more profound reflection on the mystery of God, whose creative power and love is beyond all imagining. Discovering that there are “cracks in our cosmology” should be a cause for celebration because it is an invitation to look more closely and think more deeply not only about the natural world, but also the God who created it.
As St. John Paul II wrote, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (Fides et Ratio). We should strive to strengthen each wing, our faith and our reason, as best we can so that we can contemplate God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul. Let us seek God in all things.
Amanda Alexander has a Ph.D. in systematic theology, has taught at numerous Catholic universities and for the Ministry Formation Institute, currently teaches English at Notre Dame High School in Riverside, and is a member of St. Adelaide parish in Highland.