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James Webb Telescope and seeing with the eyes of faith

Launched on Christmas, the telescope last month slipped successfully into orbit around the sun, nearly 900,000 miles from earth.

Illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope: NASA/Wikipedia; image of night sky: Andy Holmes/Unsplash.com.

The question had been rattling around at the back of my mind for some time, and now I thought I had a chance of getting it answered.

I was chatting with a man who had a doctorate in astronomy and now held a top science post in the government, so I asked, “Am I right in thinking that the universe includes the whole of material reality?”

“Yes, that’s correct,” he replied.

“And is it true the universe is expanding?”

“Correct.”

“So what is the universe, which itself already contains all the material reality there is, expanding into?”

The scientist merely shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Who knows?”

Like me, I suspect, a lot of people lately have become amateur cosmologists thanks to a marvelous product of scientific and technological genius called the James Webb Telescope. Launched on Christmas, the telescope last month slipped successfully into orbit around the sun, nearly 900,000 miles from earth.

If all goes well (and its creators and managers keep reminding us that a lot could still go wrong), the Webb Telescope next summer will start beaming back to earth images from deep space of events occurring more than 13 billion years ago–things relatively close to when the universe began to be formed.

And then? For now, the answer is best put in the form of a question, as one scientist did: “What are we going to discover that we had no idea was there?”

For some of us, however, the answer is already clear: We will discover new evidence of God’s creative activity at work.

Personally, I don’t doubt we will. But a cautionary note is necessary. The evidence from Webb will be evidence of creation to those viewing it with the eyes of faith. Seen with the eyes of science, it will be evidence of remarkable phenomena–things we had no idea were there–but no more.

That isn’t the conclusion of a wet blanket but of a scientist who saw the universe according to both ways of seeing. I mean Father Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest and scientist, who was one of the originators of the “Big Bang” theory of how the universe began.

His contribution is recalled in a helpful article in the February First Things by William E. Carroll.

Pope Pius XII, he writes, was greatly impressed by the Big Bang–so much that he once cited it as evidence for creation and a creator. But Father Lemaitre cautioned against that, and the Pope dropped the idea.

Professor Carroll quotes no less than St. Thomas Aquinas to explain why it is important that believers respect the difference between seeing with eyes of faith and seeing with eyes of science:

That the world had a beginning…is an object of faith, but not a demonstration of science. And we do well to keep this in mind; otherwise, if we presumptuously undertake to demonstrate what is of faith, we may introduce arguments that are not strictly conclusive; and this would furnish infidels with an occasion for scoffing, as they would think we assent to truths of faith on such grounds.

Barring some mishap, we can expect wonders ahead from the Webb Telescope. And as we gaze into the far reaches of the universe, we will indeed be looking at God’s handiwork in operation. That will be seeing with the eyes of faith. Seeing with the eyes of science, we will see things hardly less wonderful. But let’s not confuse these two different ways of seeing.


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About Russell Shaw 267 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).

10 Comments

  1. However, we should also allow for the possibility that the earth is not that old and that instead of a Big Bang, we just had the universe coming into existence in six days. What was the state of carbon and its isotopes at the very active time of creation, and what effect did Noah’s flood have on them need to be considered when using on carbon dating.

  2. That the world had a beginning…is an object of faith, but not a demonstration of science. And we do well to keep this in mind; otherwise, if we presumptuously undertake to demonstrate what is of faith, we may introduce arguments that are not strictly conclusive; and this would furnish infidels with an occasion for scoffing, as they would think we assent to truths of faith on such grounds.

    Consider these excerpts from Fr. Robert Spitzer’s, Evidence of God from Contemporary Science & Philosophy:

    The discussion in the two foregoing sections shows that the preponderance of cosmological evidence favors a beginning of the universe (prior to which there was no physical reality). This beginning of physical reality marks the point at which our universe (and even a hypothetical multiverse or a universe in the higher dimensional space of string theory) came into existence. …

    There are currently no truly satisfactory alternatives to this evidence for a beginning. Is this evidence sufficient to show a beginning of physical reality itself? If a beginning of physical reality is a point at which everything physical (including mass, energy, space and time, and physical laws and constants) came into existence, then prior to this beginning, all aspects of physical reality would have been nothing. It seems likely that this is the case, because quantum gravity, the General Theory of Relativity, and field theory all suggest that everything physical is interrelated. This means that prior to the beginning, physical reality was most likely nothing – physical space and time, physical mass and energy, and the laws and constants – every aspect of physical reality. This encounter with “nothing” brings us into the domain of metaphysics …

    Is it time to start scoffing at atheism? More from Spitzer’s Evidence of God from contemporary Science and Philosophy::

    A low-entropy universe is necessary for the emergence, evolution, and complexification of life forms (because a high entropy universe would be too run down to allow for such development). Roger Penrose has calculated the exceedingly small probability of a pure chance occurrence of our low–entropy universe as 10^10^123 to one against. … This is about the same odds as a monkey typing Shakespeare’s Macbeth by random tapping of the keys in a single attempt (virtually impossible). Currently, there is no natural explanation for the occurrence of this number, and if none is found, then we are left with the words of Roger Penrose himself:

    “In order to produce a universe resembling the one in which we live, the Creator would have to aim for an absurdly tiny volume of the phase space of possible universes — about 1/10^10^123 of the entire volume, for the situation under consideration.”

    What Penrose is saying here is that this occurrence cannot be explained by a random (pure chance) occurrence.

    Furthermore, explaining how life on planet Earth might have emerged mindlessly and accidentally has become more difficult than explaining how a digital information-driven automated factory filled with programmed robotic equipment might have come about that way. We now know that the probabilistic resources of the entire Universe are insufficient to have accidentally arrived at even a couple of functional proteins of average length, much less the hundreds of such proteins that would be required for a single cell that was the simplest self-replicating, metabolizing lifeform imaginable. And we only had an infinitesimally tiny fraction of those probabilistic resources to work with here on planet Earth.

    Atheism now requires the absolutely groundless belief that the digital information-driven nanotechnology (which is far beyond our own) found in the simplest metabolizing, self-replicating lifeforms can come about mindlessly and accidentally, even though there isn’t even one example of such a thing ever happening. In every instance of such technology known to us there was a mind that arrived at the required digital information. Who placed the massive quantities of digital assembly instructions for proteins in DNA? Do you suppose it was the same necessarily supernatural reality that launched the natural Universe?

    Atheism now requires a huge, irrational, blind faith, yet they don’t worry about being scoffed at, they just keep indoctrinating young people with irrational hogwash, and pretend it’s “scientific.”

    We should be doing the mocking and scoffing — for the sake of our children.

  3. Well stated and a blessing to us all Harry!

    I am in awe of all of the magnificent signs and wonders of God’s creation that are revealed by modern science. And I am saddened that seemingly so many people are oblivious to those signs of His infinite intelligence and creative power.

    Let’s keep praying that somehow more people are called to see and learn from the beauty God is showing us all. Lord, please give us all eyes to see your love!

    • I also completely agree with Harry. I tried to make essentially the same point as Harry in a letter I sent to First Things commenting on the William Carroll article cited by Mr. Shaw. I believe Lemaitre, were he alive today, would agree with his fellow priest Robert Spitzer that “contemporary physics points to God.”

  4. I would recommend The Return of the God Hypothesis by Stephen Meyer. Heavy but fascination points arhuing that the scientific evidence, honestly examined, points to an intelligence behind the material world.

  5. OK. I have to also “second” Harry’s comments as being right on! My physics and astronomy credentials (graduate degrees and careers in both) are not unique or exceptional but they provide me with enough knowledge and reason to be astounded at the balderdash that passes for scientific wisdom nowadays. Examples are many, one being Neil Tyson. I find it very sad. Among other things, it’s a mistake to invoke St Thomas in this regard.

  6. The Webb telescope has returned some images that are being used to help focus and calibrate the telescope. The results so far are said to be encouraging.
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    There is a YouTube channel by Dr. Becky, who is an astrophysicist. She did a recent video about some new telescopes on the horizon titled “Move over JWST! 5 new telescopes to get excited for”:
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    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQ69-SXrDIA
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    Sounds like these telescopes promise to greatly increase our ability to probe the universe. One field that will benefit from the new generation of telescopes is information about the physical properties of exoplanets orbiting other stars. This helps us in answering the question about the existence of other life in the universe. These capabilities are so new that I’m waiting to see what the observations show.

  7. “That will be seeing with the eyes of faith. Seeing with the eyes of science, we will see things hardly less wonderful.”

    I can’t help but see this as a contradictory statement. How “hardly” are we talking about here? Like a smidgen less wonderful, but nevertheless awesome?! Is this gap too fine/small to bother with the observer’s own faith? Does it matter?

    Fascinating insight into the fine line between religion and science… or is it more a grey area. I think

  8. What is the universe expanding into? It’s a bit misleading to suggest that the universe is, or must be, expanding into anything. If the universe is flat, which appears to be the case, it’s also likely infinite and, therefore, boundless. Yes, we see space between galaxies expanding. Hence the bubble we call our visible universe is expanding. As far as we know, if the laws of physics hold, so is our neighboring bubble. And the one beyond that. And the one beyond that. And so on infinitely. To ask what an infinite universe is expanding into is entirely meaningless.

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