I had the chance of a life-changing experience one February night in 2002 at an astronomical observatory deep in French Provence. I was part of a small group gathered in the darkness at one of the telescopes scattered throughout the isolated wilderness, while the astronomers trained it on the Horsehead Nebula. We stood around with contained excitement – we were physicists after all – waiting to have a peak. And ‘having a peak’ meant allowing photons from that famous stellar nursery, 1500 light years from earth, to enter the eye, create an electrical signal on our retina and do something physical in our brain. These photons would have travelled some 8,817,938,059,775,412 (almost 9 quadrillion) miles across space, beginning their journey to our eye around the same time as Britain was sorting itself out after the fall of the Roman Empire.
In science, such timescales and distances are part of the common language and it’s something that we can all tap into simply by observing the night sky and thinking about what we are seeing. But dealing with such huge sweeps of space and time can be disturbing and raise questions that stray into the metaphysical.
I recently met someone who had a nine-year-old daughter who was terrified of infinity. She couldn’t bear to think about heaven, not so much because she was scared of God or of death, but rather the seat of her terror was with the idea of eternity. It turns out that this is a real phobia with a medical name: Apeirophobia – the fear of infinity that can invoke a feeling of helplessness, causing doom and terror, making people feel rootless as they contemplate how tiny we all are in the face of the vastness of time or space. What, the women wanted to ask me as scientist and priest, should she say to her?
As a scientist, I would commend her. She is obviously a girl that thinks. Space is unimaginably large, and time so vast here in this universe that, even without thinking about what might come next, we are so obviously and infinitesimally small in comparison. Indeed one of the first major controversies in the history of science and religion was when Copernicus and then Galileo published the idea that the earth was not at the centre of the universe, as the Bible suggests.
But as a scientist I would want to comfort her with two of very recent ideas that makes the universe a little… cosier.
The first is the apparent importance of human consciousness. Evolutionary studies have shown that we are not simply randomly evolving creatures subject to the environment, but rather it appears that evolution might be heading down certain routes and that the emergence of consciousness is ubiquitous. We are perhaps not as insignificant as space and time and far-flung galaxies might suggest.
The second scientific idea of late to encourage her is the theory of quantum entanglement – bear with me. This feature of the world of the sub atomic particle shows that two particles, however far apart, are connected. So a photon on one side of the horsehead nebula somehow knows what another photon several million light years away is doing. Quantum entanglement might make the scales of time and space in our universe seem less frightening.
As a priest, I would also commend her. She is clearly a girl who is sensitive and spiritual. Proverbs 9 teaches us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Perhaps what she is tapping into is the way of wisdom – she is beginning to understand her place in the universe and her need of God. This need is something that many have raged at. When Job demanded to know why God let him suffer, the ‘answer’ came to remind Job of his place in the universe:
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
This is the transcendent God in heaven, the creator and ruler of the universe. And if that is all a bit shouty, we must balance it with the gentle immanence of God revealed in Jesus, who promised his disciples that he would be with them, always.
Many people suffer anxiety, and we all have different triggers. But this reaction to the infinite can be soothed by the science that shows we are not so insignificant, nor so very alone, as space and time might suggest. But these feelings might also be viewed as a place to experience God, a bridge even between the finite and the infinite, where an observation or experience of the world opens up some knowledge of the divine.
The Christian faith doesn’t pacify us with answers. We react to it individually. Some with fear. Some inspired by its beauty. Some angry with the responsibility. Some looking forward to heavenly realm. Some struggling for justice in this meager one. By virtue of bringing together the ‘shouty’ God of Job and the earthy Jesus, we are individually called to use our human experiences to tap into the heavenly ones. Perhaps this nine-year-old’s fear of infinity is the beginning of her journey in the way, towards knowledge of the transcendent God who knitted her together in her mother’s womb?
Can these scientific ideas offer us such consolation or is natural theology to be left firmly in the metaphysical? Can the feeling aroused by the natural world – whether it be fear or awe – be trusted in science or in religion?
It turns out that I didn’t get my life-changing moment when a photon of light from the Horsehead Nebula entered my eye. It was cloudy that night, which rather messed the whole thing up.