Martin E. Marty
Dennis Overbye, in last Thursday’s New York Times, led off with “A team of scientists announced on Thursday that they had heard and recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light years away, a fleeting chirp that fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.”
The gravitational waves which conveyed the chirps held “power 50 times greater than the output of all the stars in the universe combined,” in the event that seems “destined to take its place among the great sound bites of science.”
Immediately some in the press and on the internet posed this news against the background of polarities: “science versus religion” or “evolution versus creation.” They revisited battles of the 1920s, which have continued ever since.
Those conflicts seem to belong to the “long ago,” but the span of 1920s to the 2010s is rather brief in contrast to that of “a billion light years.” It provides perspective—or does it rob all sentient beings of perspectives which they habitually had brought to such events?
I stopped short of both the 1920s and “a billion light years” to think of a lecture delivered by the late Dominican Fr. Raymond Nogar, a Chicago-area neighbor who did much to advance Catholic and other Christian thought about evolution. During his lecture Nogar said something about the universe as we know it, or at least about our cozy corner in the solar system. Would it freeze? Or overheat?
I forget whether the sun would die or we would get too close to it. This would happen in—was it?—two billion years. In the question period an audience member asked Nogar whether he had said “two million” or “two billion.” He answered “two billion.” The relieved questioner: “Whew! For a minute I thought you’d said two million years.”
I tell such stories as a way of helping frame thought about these themes in a time when they can too easily be reduced to old culture-war side-tracks recalling old Fundamentalist theology versus old Fundamentalist science.
Many Dominican Catholic and Protestant and Jewish theologians have long addressed these troubling and creative issues to positive advantage. They remind us that faith and reason, theology and science, etc. come in many forms and should be re-posed now, 100 years after Einstein, from many fresh angles.
In a review of a reprint of Nogar’s Lord of the Absurd, Patrick Marrin quoted Nogar, whose mode of faith was not that of optimistic Teilhard de Chardin, who was in vogue in Nogar’s prime. Nogar’s mode of faith was, Marrin notes, more like that of Thomas Merton or Flannery O’Connor.
Nogar: “The God of the strange world of Fr. Teilhard is not the one I have come to believe in. His is the Lord of the neat; mine is the God of the messy. His God governs with unerring efficiency; mine provides with inexcusable waste. His God is impeccably regular; mine is irresponsible. His God is the Lord of order; my God is the Lord of the absurd.”
Winston, Kimberly. “Darwin Day notwithstanding, evolution debate keeps, well, evolving.” Religion News Service, February 11, 2016.
Overbye, Dennis. “Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory.” New York Times, February 11, 2016, Science.
Masci, David. “On Darwin Day, 5 facts about the evolution debate.” Pew Research Center, February 12, 2016, Fact-tank News in the Numbers.
Marrin, Patrick. “A spirituality rooted in absurdity.” Review of The Lord of the Absurd, by Raymond J. Nogar. National Catholic Reporter online, December 4, 1998.
Nogar, Raymond J. The Lord of the Absurd. Reprint edition. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.
Image: Three skulls showing human evolution. Credit: JuliusKielaitis / Shutterstock creative commons.
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
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Nancy K. Frankenberry:
Very provocative! When we drill down to the level of concrete symbols and images people use for their faith in “God,” Martin Marty is right that there are probably two million—or is it billion? But as we ascend up the ladder of philosophical generality, only three conceptual models can be found in the Western discussion: classical theism, pantheism, and panentheism. I would argue that these three models exhaust the logical possibilities of relating “God” and “World” by locating the ontological target either “outside,” “inside,” or coincidental with, the whole of reality. I find that many of the fresh new angles Martin refers to, 100 years after Einstein, are variations on one or another of these models.