This will be in the September 2022 newsletter for Fishkill United Methodist Church. Services are at 10:15 am on Sundays and you are welcome to come in person or watch on YouTube.
In 1922 Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen. As he peered through an opening into the tomb, his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, asked, “What do you see?” And Carter responded, “wonderful things.”
That there was anything at all in Tutankhamen’s tomb was a testimony to those who built the tomb and buried the boy king in it. Each Pharoah was always buried with enormous quantities of treasures but were certainly looted shortly after the burial. Tutankhamen’s tomb remained undiscovered until Carter figured out where it was in 1922.
I do not know about you but the images that came from the Hubble Space telescope after it was repaired, and the images of the James Webb Space Telescope fall into that category of “wonderful things”.
And those images have been waiting to be seen for over 13 billion years. In these images, we are seeing some of the oldest objects in space. These objects (stars, nebulae, and galaxies were created at the beginning of creation). But how and why did this happen?
It is perhaps because of our own human frailties that we have a challenging time understanding this. While we may intuitively know that there is a beginning, we want to know how things began and when they began.
I can imagine a scene many (many) years ago, at the end of the day, and everyone in the clan was seated by the fire. The youngest ones in the group would ask the elders, “Where did we come from?” and the elders would begin their answer with, “In the beginning”.
For some, these words are sufficient. But we are a curious people (or we should be) and we like to know how things happened. And did not Jesus tell those who wondered if He was the Messiah to go and see what had been done?
The answer to any question will always (or should) generate more questions and out of this never-ending curiosity lie the roots of science.
The authors of Genesis gave no hints as to how it was done or when it occurred.
In 1650, Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh (the Church of Ireland) sought to answer the question of when the universe was created. He calculated the date of the Creation to be at sunset on the evening of October 22, 4004 BC which would make October 23rd the First Day. This calculation was just one of a series of calculations by others, including Isaac Newton (whose calculation gave a date of 3998 BC) and Johannes Kepler (who calculated that the universe was created on April 27, 4977 B.C.). Others, including James Lightfoot and Joseph Justus Scaliger, also published research on the date of creation.
Lightfoot, a rabbinical scholar and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, determined that the date of Creation was 3929 BC. Scaliger was a contemporary of Ussher and his studies of the Biblical chronology and other ancient literature showed that the Egyptian dynasties and Babylonian kingdoms existed before the accepted date of the Flood, approximately 2300 BC. This led chronologists to realize that there were other sources of information that must be considered.
Even today, many individuals, known as Young Earth Creationists (YEC), use these early dates as the beginning of the universe. But to achieve that date, these individuals, must either ignore the evidence that has accumulated or somehow find a way to make the data fit the theory.
As Sherlock Holmes once told Dr. Watson, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has the data.” And the Fourth Doctor Who reminds us,
The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. Instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views. . . which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.“The Face of Evil”, Dr. Who, Episode 4, Season 14 (1976)
Before we dismiss these efforts, we must understand that these calculations were products of serious and concerted research, based upon the available information, including ancient records from various cultures as well as the Bible’s genealogies. As more information became available, so too did the date of creation change.
Stephen Jay Gould, while disagreeing with Ussher’s chronology noted,
I shall be defending Ussher’s chronology as an honorable effort for its time and arguing that our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past.
Ussher represented the best of scholarship in his time. He was part of a substantial research tradition, a large community of intellectuals working toward a common goal under an accepted methodology.Stephen J. Gould, “Fall in the House of Ussher, Natural History, page 100, November 1991
In 1924 Edwin Hubble (for whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named) made a series of astronomical observations that allowed him to conclude in a paper published a few years later that the universe was expanding. His observations confirmed the theoretical work of Georges Lemaitre.
Georges Lemaitre, a mathematician, physicist, and Catholic priest used Albert Einstein’s equations for general relativity to predict that the universe was expanding.
At the time of Hubble’s work, most physicists, including Albert Einstein, felt that the universe was static. Einstein told Lemaitre that “your calculations are correct, but your physics is atrocious”.
Einstein would add what he called a “cosmological factor” to his relativity equations to keep the universe static. He, Einstein, would later say this was his biggest mistake.
In April 1948, Robert Alpher and George Gamow (along with Hans Bethe) would present a series of calculations that confirmed Hubble’s observations and Lemaitre’s calculations. Observations by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1965 also confirmed that the beginning of creation was approximately 13 billion years ago. This moment in time was named, somewhat derisively, the “Big Bang” by British mathematician and physicist Fred Hoyle.
Hoyle was a committed atheist and he felt that such a moment was a bit too much like the words of Genesis. Despite the evidence given by Hubble and later observations, Hoyle and others attempted to prove that the universe was static and without a beginning.
Interesting enough, some of Hoyle’s work required the very beginning that he didn’t believe in.
While it may seem that a discussion of the creation of the universe is a relatively modern construct, it was an item of discussion in the early church (The Early Church and Genesis | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left (wordpress.com) – https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/the-early-church-and-genesis/).
Origen, the 3rd century philosopher/theologian, opposed the idea that the opening verses of Genesis were a historical and literal account of how God created this world and universe. Later scholars, such as Thomas Aquinas, and religious figures, such as John Wesley, made similar arguments.
Wesley would say that the Scriptures were not written to satisfy our curiosity but to lead us to God (adapted from “How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin?” – http://biologos.org/questions/early-interpretations-of-genesis )
While God may not have told us when He created the universe, He did give us a mind and the capability to think and ask questions. And he gave us the evidence to look at. So, we ask questions, and when we find the answer to those questions, we get two new questions to be answered.
And while we may get closer to understanding when the universe was created and how it was done, what we discover will never tell us why it was done. To answer why it was done and all the other questions that come from the answer to that question are done on our faith journey.
So, as we view the images provided by the James Webb Space Telescope and we think of the opening verses of Genesis, we need to see it as the beginning of a journey, a journey of exploration and understanding of both the world we live in and our relationship with God.