Wednesday, August 30, 2006

13 Billion Years, give or take …

Some years back, the American astronomer, scientific popularizer, and PBS skeptic-in-chief, Carl Sagan, took great delight in mocking religious thought. He espoused what he called exobiology, and promoted the search for extraterrestrial life, the discovery of which, he casually assumed, would be the death of terrestrial religions. Another young astronomer, Frank Drake, caught the bug, and calculated that in the Milky Way alone we could expect to find 10,000 civilizations capable of interstellar communication. As the New York Times reported in 2000:

Later, Dr. Sagan revised the calculation and raised the estimate to a million alien worlds. Since the cosmos holds hundreds of millions of galaxies, by that analysis the total number of alien societies could be astronomical, one estimate putting the number at roughly 10 trillion.

The eagerness that led to these wildly exaggerated expectations is a species of the naïve misunderstanding of, and contempt for, Christianity that is exemplified by those decals of the fish with legs. Even though the discovery of extraterrestrial life would no more disprove Christian faith than does scientific evidence of biological adaptation, today it is widely accepted that the search for life elsewhere is almost certain to fail. We very well may be alone in the cosmos. But there’s still our utter insignificance. That should be enough to silence those who think God became man on this tiny, unimpressive planet.

One of Sagan’s most famous demonstrations of the insignificance of earthly existence in general and human existence in particular was his “Universe in One Day,” which has since been used by many for the same purpose. Here are the principle calendar events:

January 1: Big Bang

May 1: Origin of our galaxy

September 9: Origin of our solar system

September 14: Formation of the Earth

September 25: Origin of Life on Earth

And so on and so forth.

Humans of course don’t appear until December 31, and only just in time. By Sagan’s calculations, the first humans appear on the cosmic calendar at 10:30 p.m. The first cities appear at 11:59 and 35 seconds; the Renaissance at 11:59 and 59 seconds.

So, you see, humans and their trumped up anxieties are infinitesimal and utterly insignificant in the larger picture. The human race’s attempt to make meaning of its trivial and accidental appearance is itself laughable. Those my age will remember Sagan’s gift for chuckling contemptuously at the thought of religion.


One of the most distinguishing features of Christian faith is the belief that the last will be first; that the least is the greatest; that compared to what was happening in a little cow-shed in the most out-back village of the most out-back province of the Roman Empire, what as happening the columned greatness of Augustus’ Rome was as nothing. Christianity, you might say, exists to transmit to the human race the inversion of values that Christ proclaimed and exemplified. How better to exemplify that message than to deposit it on a tiny planet occupying an utterly insignificant position in the cosmic order? So, we wake up one fine day to realize that we’re living in the most remote and insignificant place in the world, a place like Nazareth, about which Nathanael said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

As for the approach of midnight: If the European Renaissance that happened six hundred earth-years ago in real-time happened only one second ago on Sagan’s calendar, then what are we to make of the Christian understanding that history isn’t going to last forever? Now that scientists have found Sagan’s anti-religious speculations ridiculous, maybe Christians can rescue his reputation by recognizing something implicit in his work.

1 comment:

Simon said...

In Orthodoxy Chesterton makes a similar comment on a famous critic of religion of the 19th Century: Herbert Spencer:

The one thing [modern thought] loved to talk about was expansion and largeness. Herbert Spencer would have been greatly annoyed if any one had called him an imperialist, and therefore it is highly regrettable that nobody did. But he was an imperialist of the lowest type. He popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale?

And he adds: “It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.” A wonderful thing Chesterton, Girard and you (three Catholic laymen, by the way) have helped me to understand is that Christians should not be afraid from modern thought. Chesterton even boldly states that it was his encounter with the modern critiques of Christianity that started a process that eventually turned him into a Christian. Girard has spent a life-time investigating one of the (seemingly) most serious critiques of Christianity: its resemblance to myth. Yet, the more one explores the apparent similarities, the more one finds out that Christianity is completely unique.