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“The heavens declare the glory of God…”

NASA has come in for a lot of (justified) criticism in recent years. By contrast, Astronomy Picture of the Day is a service for which I’m delighted to pay federal taxes.

(Image: Štefan Štefančík | Unsplash.com)

In his Life of St. Augustine, the 5th-century bishop Possidius tells us that the greatest of the Latin Doctors of the Church, knowing that his earthly end was near, had four penitential psalms copied and hung on the walls of his room.  “From his sickbed,” Possidius writes, Augustine “could see these sheets of paper…and would read them, crying constantly and deeply.” It was an act of deep piety that we all might ponder ways to emulate.

Were I to do something similar, however, I might add Psalm 42 (“Like the deer that years for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God/My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God?”) – and a few color prints from Astronomy Picture of the Day, an extraordinary project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, available for free at apod.nasa.gov. NASA has come in for a lot of (justified) criticism in recent years. By contrast, Astronomy Picture of the Day is a service for which I’m delighted to pay federal taxes. Every day, it provides me a preview of what I hope to see post-mortem: the glory of God declared in a display of astronomical wonders that vividly illustrate the extravagance of the divine creativity.

Astronomy Picture of the Day lifts my spirits, which is why I try to accompany morning prayer with a visit to the site. For a brief glimpse of the visual feast that awaits anyone similarly inclined, let me suggest four recent gems, available at the “archive” tab at apod.nasa.gov.

On April 25, APOD and the Hubble Space Telescope offered a brilliantly-hued panorama of the “Cosmic Reef” within the Large Magellanic Cloud, 160,000 light years away. On May 15, APOD featured two dancing galaxies 12 million light years away, which, as the brief explanation following the striking image notes, “have been locked in gravitational combat for a billion years” – a dance that “in the next few billions years” will lead to a cosmic merger. On June 1, APOD introduced me to the “whirlwind of spectacular star formation” happening within the Lagoon Nebula, captured in resplendent magenta by Hubble at a distance of 5,000 light years.

And then there was the most extraordinary of this lot: Hubble’s dazzling color portrait of the “Porpoise Galaxy,” which APOD posted on May 10. The description of how this fantastic phenomenon came about is worth quoting: “Just a few hundred million years ago, NGC 2936, the upper of the two galaxies shown, was likely a normal spiral galaxy – spinning, creating stars – and minding its own business. But then it got too close to the massive elliptical galaxy NGC 2937…and took a dive. Dubbed the porpoise galaxy for its…shape, NGC 2936 is not only being deflected but also being distorted by the close gravitational interaction. A burst of young blue stars forms the nose of the porpoise….while the center of the spiral appears as an eye. Alternatively, the galaxy pair…look to some look to some like a penguin protecting an egg.”

Whatever. Porpoise or penguin, it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

The marvels archived at APOD suggest more than the possibility of a post-mortem galactic Grand Tour, however. They suggest that the burden of proof ought to be on those who insist that all this grandeur is mere randomness: the accidental by-products of a Big Bang from which what we now know as “the universe” was born. Really? Just an accident, if a happy accident? But while we’re on the subject, how did the Big Bang, so to speak, bang? And if what we know as “the universe” evolved from that primordial eruption, what accounts for the high-density, high-temperature primal material that burst into an expanding universe? To suggest that it, too, was an accident, something that just happened, begs a host of questions: beginning with, how can something come from nothing?

The notion that we live in an accidental universe, one that need not be, has had ugly effects in modern history. It suggests that we’re accidents, too, mere embodied stardust. That dumbed-down notion of the human has underwritten a lot of the awfulness of the last two centuries. Astronomy Picture of the Day hints at a different story: none of this is accidental and thus ultimately meaningless. And that includes you, me, and all those who study the heavens and give us the gift of their work.


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About George Weigel 288 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His new book, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, will be published by Ignatius Press on July 7.

7 Comments

  1. Big and Little (Big Bang and Quantum Mechanics) aren’t much different when compared to IS and IS NOT. Tentative grounds (so to speak) for a more collegial dialogue between some scientists and some theologians. Three possible openings:

    First, Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, perhaps understood better than lab science alone what we are really dealing with: “I believe that scientific knowledge has fractal properties; that no matter how much we learn, whatever is left, however SMALL it may seem, is just as infinitely complex as the WHOLE was to start with. That, I think, is the secret of the Universe” (Attributed to Isaac Asimov in book reviews by Stratford Caldicott, ed., Second Spring, XIII, 2011, caps added).

    Second, a particle physicist concludes his work with this quotation from a colleague: “[I think] that as we learn many additional facts, we will also come to comprehend more clearly how much we DON’T know—and, let us hope, learn an appropriate HUMILITY (Robert Oerter, The Theory of Almost Everything, 2006, caps added).”

    Oerter then adds: “There is a possibility, then that the origin of the universe could be explained as a transition from a state with no spacetime to a state with a spacetime like ours: a real CREATION ex nihilo [Weigel: “something from nothing”]” (citing Frank Wilczek from the European Organization for Nuclear Research, October 11, 2000, caps added).

    Third, the “string” theorist (hypothetically, the more basic and nearly-infinitely minuscule constituents of less-elementary subatomic “particles”), Brian Greene, suspects that even galactic cosmology might not be a closed or self-explaining system: “Maybe we will have to accept that certain features of the universe are the way they are because of happenstance, accident, OR DIVINE CHOICE” (Brian Green, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, 1999, caps added).

  2. Thank you ..how those in The Church have responded often to the call of The Father , to behold His works , thus the theory of Big Bang through a Catholic priest ..
    Feast of Corpus Christi , on 6 /11 and would that truth of the origin of the universe have been revealed through the miracle of The Eucharist ..
    the mercy of such revelations , such as in studies of the miracle of Guadalupe , through a Mother that brings the heavens closer to us – https://www.thedivinemercy.org/articles/he-keeps-one-eye-heavens

    Many might have also seen images of the ‘tango ‘ of the planets earth and Venus – as though our good Father , with a sense of humor is telling us that He has nothing against those who have liked tango , like our Holy Father 🙂

    That would be unlike the reported prayer by pious Jewish man thanking God that he is not a woman – ? with the echoes of the mind of the Pharisee !
    How ironic too , that the Jewish nation , said to have been ‘chosen ‘ to bring forth The Woman , conceived immaculate , in the Prefall plan for Adam and Eve to thus help bring us closer to each other too , in the trusting goodness of His mercy and holiness for all , vast as the heavens – while imploring same , for ‘us and the whole world ‘..
    The New Adam , The High Priest, sharing the priestly role helping us all to be true and holy in God given dignity and roles , to thank God for each other too, free of any envy or contempt .
    Glory be !

  3. I love this though it reminds me of how Michigan state u used to defuse or refocus national attention from its latest student party scandal when it looked bleak on campus. Oh!
    Our students just sited an in in known galaxy far, far away.

  4. Yes. It’s helpful to consider theories and they’re myriad. Our human intellect, what makes us closest to God’s image assesses and concludes. Either we assume as Teilhard de Chardin there is an intelligent Intus within the universe that moves and evolves in somewhat parallel purpose toward Charles Darwin’s evolutionary accommodation of ends of nature – or we more reasonably [I should say] settle on a transcendent Intelligence. Teilhard and Sir Charles made epic journeys to establish theories the latter on HMS Beagle to the Galapagos and animal gazing the former to China and bone gazing and discovery of the hoax Peking Man skull. Both have some valid inference to reality although Weigel’s Star Gazing is much more gladdening.

  5. The immensity of the universe, with its hypothetical beginnings in a big bang, the complexity of the atom, with ever smaller particles being discovered, and the newly discovered purposeful regulation of life through DNA all point to an omnipotent and omniscient creator, the extent of whose works is incomprehensible. I am reminded of the extent of Angels, as Bishop Athanasius Schneider has recently pointed out (Christus Vincit), The original creation of Angels included as many as would be sufficient for each new soul to have its own guardian Angel forever

  6. Psalm 19A does say it: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth forth the work of His hands.” I’ve blogged on this many times (won’t give the links–no shameless self promotion). It’s a shame that Catholics and scientists don’t get this message: science is testimony to God’s great enterprise. St. Augustine got the message, “O Beauty ever ancient.”

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