EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Wallace holds a Ph.D. in experimental nuclear physics from Duke University with post-doctoral work in gamma-ray astronomy. Also, he received a Master of Divinity in historical theology from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.
**Currently, he teaches physics and astronomy at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., writes at psnt.net, and is a member of First Baptist Church of Decatur where he was ordained to ministry. He occasionally teaches seminary classes and twice has served on the faculty of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative in India*.
**The following article is excerpted and adapted from his new book, Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos (Fortress Press*).
Beginning with the next issue of Nurturing Faith Journal, Wallace will write a column titled “Questions That Christians Ask Scientists.” You may submit a question for consideration by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s a surprising but true fact: The medieval cosmos, widely considered to have taken its last breath sometime in the late 17th century, lives again in the hearts and minds of a 21st-century Catholic splinter group.
The group’s ringleader is Robert Sungenis, who insists the earth does not move. For him, our fair planet sits motionless in the middle of all things. The other planets, the sun, and, one supposes, every star and every galaxy (not to mention something very major called “dark matter”) all move around us.
In 2014 Sungenis and his collaborators produced a documentary film called The Principle. The name refers to the key idea they reject: the Copernican Principle — actually, an assumption — which states that the earth is not in a central, specially favored position in the cosmos.
Is the Copernican Principle true? Strictly speaking, we don’t know. What we do know, however, is how fruitful it is. If you make an assumption and subsequently get tangled in a thicket of problems and inconsistencies, you will eventually work your way around to questioning the assumption.
But if the assumption leads to solutions and powerful, self-consistent theories, the scientific community tends to think it’s true. And so far the Copernican Principle has been fruitful.
One of the reasons Sungenis and his group dislike the Copernican Principle is that they understand it to mean that because the earth is not in a special place, then human beings are not a special species.
“The world has been shaped by two great assertions: One places us in the center of it all and the other one relegates us to utter insignificance,” writes Rick DeLano, the writer and producer of The Principle, on the film’s website.
But the Copernican Principle says nothing of the kind. It’s not a principle about the relative significance or specialness of creatures, human or otherwise.
We could, however, propose such a principle. And, in keeping with the convention of naming ideas after those that first popularized them, we could call it the “Whirlwind Principle.” This principle may be stated: The human species is not a central, specially favored species in the cosmos.
It’s tempting to reject this principle outright, for it suggests unsettling lines of thought. It slings mud in the face of virtually all Western religion and philosophy. It goes too far.
But then, so does the biblical book of Job.
Job’s journey, you will recall, began on a sunny day atop the human social pyramid. His significance not only surpassed all others in Uz, but also as a human being he was above every creature on earth. He was righteous, generous, fair-minded, wise, respected by all. He was the very reflection of God who sat enthroned high above heaven and earth.
Or so he thought.
His losses took him from the pinnacle of human society to its cellar: “But now they make sport of me, those who are younger than I, whose fathers I would have disdained to set with the dogs of my flock,” he laments in 30:1.
From the bottom everything looked different, and it was from this location that, over the course of 36 chapters, he argued with his friends over the meaning of wisdom, the elusiveness of justice, and the character of God. He thought he could go no lower: “My spirit is broken, my days are extinct, the grave is ready for me” (17:1).
But the whirlwind showed up and drove poor Job even further from the good things of life, further from decent society, further from justice, further from security. The direction was outward, away from human civilization and into the howling waste, the desolation of sand and rock, the empty and unmapped lands, and into the presence of chaos itself.
What he found out there, surprisingly, was life. True, it was not life as he normally thought about it. It was alien and strange, even freakish. It was wild and free. It mocked human civilization and refused human control. Some of it was modest, nearly invisible. Some of it was unthinking and violent. Some was primordial and fearless. It was not “pretty.” But it was life, thriving in places and conditions Job could never hope to survive, far beyond the comforts of human cities.
And God was delighted by all of it.
Like scientists with their Copernican Principle, before his descent Job carried with him a working, if unnamed, assumption about the centrality of human beings, a kind of inverted Whirlwind Principle. This faulty assumption was challenged by traveling to extremes and going beyond them, by being shown what could not normally be seen.
The whirlwind took Job on a tour that was, in its day, cosmic in the full sense of the word. One can never be sure, but I like to think that if the book of Job were written for us today, it’s not to the desert that the whirlwind would take us, but into a wilderness far greater in scale and strangeness.
My night walks had become habitual. They were not solitary as a rule, but they usually turned out that way. A sophomore at Young Harris College, I was walking alone up an unlit mountain road in North Georgia.
It was a little foolish, actually, for muscle cars were a source of considerable fascination for some local young men who relished furious nighttime flights up and down the sinuous mountain asphalt.
No place had been provided for a fool to walk. Almost without exception there was a wall of rock on one side and a steep drop-off on the other.
In the silence of the night I could hear the cars coming a full minute before they roared past me, so I had time to press myself against a rock or crouch at the lip of earth’s descent. As they passed, I had to shut my eyes against the loss of night vision.
It is unlikely that my presence ever registered with the drivers at all. If it did, it must have been as a ghostly apparition at the instant of passing.
Foolish it was, but peril is a vague thing in the mind of a young person, and I was drawn by a prospect seen only after sunset and in outposts of sweet remoteness: the night sky.
I walked in complete darkness. Other than the asphalt under my feet, the only way to tell I was on track was by looking up: stars shining between the trees created a kind of overhead reflection of the road, making it easy to follow.
Finally the road leveled and the sky opened to the north. I left the asphalt and walked freely across a field, miraculously flat and more than 100 yards on a side.
When I reached my destination I stopped and lay on my back upon the face of the planet with my feet pointed south. Then I looked up.
By that time I had taken several astronomy classes, so I had some idea of what I was looking at. Jupiter and Mars stood near the western horizon. Jupiter was bright white, and Mars was ruddy and darker.
These occupied the extreme foreground. Light years beyond them, stars were scattered from horizon to horizon and outward beyond the edge of visibility, like the lights of ships spread across an infinite sea.
Familiar constellations popped out one by one. The Milky Way was a glowing band arcing high above, farther out than the stars.
I was also aware of a much vaster emptiness beyond the Milky Way, stretching beyond the limits of imagination and thinly populated in all directions by galaxies far too faint to see.
The face of our wilderness is heartbreakingly beautiful. NFJ
By Paul Wallace