Theology in a Dynamic Universe


Arnold Benz



The world-view of science has changed several times in the course of the twentieth century. In the first half, the hypothesis prevailed that the universe existed since infinite time, without beginning and end. Observations suggested later a view in which the cosmos formed a few billion years ago. Towards the end of the century it was becoming more and more evident that both views are wrong. No object in the present universe formed in the Big Bang. For example, the Sun’s age is only one third of that of the current universe, and human consciousness has existed only for a few hundred thousand years. The conditions for the formation of structures such as atoms, galaxies, living beings etc. emerged only in the course of time. The cosmos appeared not like in a theater when the curtain raises, the stage is set, and the play begins. In the modern view the universe materialized much more dramatically, as if in the beginning there was only a glowing magma that solidified to stone from which a building was made. Therein a workshop for stage constructions and an actors’ school formed, a stage and the auditorium were built, everything collapsed, was rebuilt etc. and finally our play started.



New Stars Form Today


In our Milky Way, a regular galaxy of a few hundred billion stars, some hundred million stars are forming today. The formation of stars takes roughly ten million years. Thus about ten new stars are born every year in our astronomical neighborhood. The cosmos overflows with fertility.


Stars evolve from interstellar molecular clouds, well known for their beautiful, fluffy, dark structures. In places where the gas is denser, gravity attracts more gas. The fluctuation gets even denser and attracts more, so the process reinforces itself. Interstellar matter gradually concentrates in this way into cloud cores until they collapse under their own gravity. The gas then falls freely towards the center of the core where the remaining angular momentum forms it to a rotating disk.


After ten million years the temperature and density in the center become large enough to start the fusion of hydrogen to helium. Nuclear energy of stupendous proportions is unleashed and the additional gas pressure stops further contraction. In the innermost part of the vortice, an equilibrium is formed between gravity and pressure: the star is born.


Star formation is an example of how heavenly bodies are created even today. However, the capacity of formation has a reverse side: decay and death. When the energy is exhausted, stars shrink to white dwarf stars or explode as supernovae and heave a part of their matter and ashes into interplanetary space. There, new stars form again. It is not an eternal cycle, but an evolutionary step. Completely new structures such as planets, asteroids and comets may emerge from the cinders from previous star generations.


When we look up at the starry sky on a clear night and believe that at least the stars are the same as always, this impression arises from the fact that our time-scale is too small. In reality, the universe displays amazing dynamics; the origin of stars and formation of planets only represents a segment of processes that build upon earlier cosmic developments such as the formation of matter out of elementary particles in the early universe or the origin of galaxies. Qualitative development is a fundamental characteristic of the cosmos, and time plays a crucial role.



The Basis of Formation


Is a creator involved in this dynamic creativity? For more than two hundred years scientists pointed out again and again that this hypotheses is not needed (such as P.S. Laplace in the 18th century). Obviously, much remains unexplained scientifically, yet there are already models of how even the universe may have formed from a vacuum according to physical laws. In this sense there are no gaps in the development of the universe from the Big Bang to the evolution of humans that could be interpreted only by the action of a supernatural being. Existing gaps are the working fields of scientists, who have the great goal to diminish and close them.


Yet at least one essential question remains: Why did something form and not nothing? The question addresses the fundamental issue concerning the basis for the laws of nature. That all things have formed is indisputable, and considerations similar to Greek philosophers in the fifth century BC on the basis of the being are appropriate. Its modern analogue in a dynamic universe would be the “Basis of Formation”. Appealing here to God’s creative will, however, may introduce a mere metaphysical entity without direct relation neither to science nor to the questioner.



Participating Perceptions


The biblical notion of God originates not from philosophical nor scientific reflections. It is based on experiences and perceptions that differ fundamentally from those of science: the mystical vision of a burning bush, the safeguarding during the escape from Egypt, appearances on a mountain top and after the death of Jesus, and the everyday experience of his disciples.


Scientific measurements and observations must be reproducible and objective. The researcher is exchangeable and the result independent. In religious perceptions, on the contrary, a human being is always strongly involved. I would not say that such participating perceptions are purely subjective, as they usually refer to an object. More important, they change the life of many people in a visible and often very positive way. If “reality” denotes what has a lasting effect in real life, these perceptions testify to the experienced reality. The human being directly takes part in the process of perception. In fact, it is the proper observing instrument. Thus the observer is not interchangeable, a situation similar to art where experiences equally require participation and are universally human. Participating perceptions may be metaphorically described as a resonance phenomenon between object and observer.


It follows that the seminal perceptions, the very starting points of science and religion, are fundamentally different. The two fields of experience consequently span two different planes of methodology and language. It leads to misunderstanding and false expectations in the present discourse between science and theology, when the two planes of perception are not clearly separated. It is not just the difference of language games that separates the two. Their different origin is the reason why science will never find God, nor be able to deny his existence. It is as hopeless to find a compelling trace of God in scientific results as to find a palm tree in a Canadian forest. It is the wrong place to search. There is no direct path from scientific measurements to religious experience.


The path can only be indirect and through the human consciousness. For example, the apparent fine-tuning of the universe to the benefit of evolution is certainly amazing. If a person believes in God based on other experiences, he or she can apprehend in the cosmic evolution the work of God. Only then the Basis of Formation becomes what is meant by the biblical concept of God. Without participating perceptions it remains an abstract principle.



Nexus of Future


The continuous unfolding of the universe may be interpreted in religious terms as a continuous creation. This may sound rather inconspicuous, but it changes significantly the world-view concerning the present and the future. The dialogue of science and faith should therefore not be fixed to the past, but include the reflection on the future which, aspired or feared, inevitably penetrates into the present and into human existence.


On the side of science, predictions concerning the exhaustion of an energy supply are very reliable. The remaining lifetime of the Sun, some 6 billion years, is well known. Its decay is certain. For systems with many interacting parts, like the planetary system or the terrestrial weather, this is different. Their development is unpredictable after a certain time, and thus their future is open. Such systems develop non-linearly and are called chaotic. There is an intriguing asymmetry between the decay of all objects in the universe, which we can predict quite accurately, and chaotic systems that cannot be predicted and that even may form new structures. In the long range, astrophysics can only predict decay. The new cannot be foreseen, although it can never be excluded. There is no scientifically provable hope.


On the religious side, hope is a central element. It is hope despite decay, even despite reason, and ultimately hope in the face of death. The basis of hope is not a part of this world. Science and religion have different perspectives, and here some tension becomes apparent.





Faced with the two counter-streaming developments of decay and unpredictable formation, the human consciousness seeks to recognize a pattern. Regarding the future, we search for and select the “signs of the times”. Pattern recognition is a basic means of human apprehension distinct from pure measurement, but common to both science and religion. Pattern recognition means that we interpret facts and construct their meaning. Construction is necessary if a phenomenon cannot be partitioned into elements having mathematical relations. Two steps are required:


First, out of countless perceptions and experiences human reason selects facts that are considered relevant. This selection may occur unconsciously, without reflection or even by a computer. The second step in construction is the association with a fitting pattern. Patterns are derived from previous perceptions and experiences constituting mental prototypes. A pattern is recognized by its similarity with the new situation, if the probe and the example agree within a certain margin. Errors can occur when a pattern is not recognized or a pattern is erroneously found to fit. The two-step interpretation by selection and pattern recognition constitutes a successful method for certain problems and has important applications in technology, such as robotics.


The way we anticipate the future depends on how we interpret the present. There is a choice of various patterns: It is getting better; it remains as it has ever been; it gets worse and worse; or something new will appear. The forth pattern is central for the Christian hope, where the events of Good Friday and Easter are the archetypal pattern. The four patterns are exclusive. Independent interpretations of the same present may thus contradict each other. Only later experiences will confirm or refute an interpretation.


Interpreting the present is important as the coming future may require preparation, initiative or defense. Human beings are masters of interpretation, very likely because reliable pattern recognition was a selective advantage in the evolution of the Hominidae. Those who interpreted well had more chances to survive and to have descendents. The future punishes those who interpret wrongly.


The tension between science and religion concerning the anticipation of the future cannot be fully harmonized and must remain. It is the tension between practical knowledge and visionary hope. This tension is within ourselves, not between fields of inquiry. It is an important part of reality and of our life.





The two planes come into constructive contact when a pattern of one plane serves as an image in the other. This comes about when a religious experience is expressed by a metaphor (Greek for transfer) from science. A metaphor transfers a well-known pattern (e.g. the formation of new structure) into the other plane of perception and concepts. The notion of “hope” could thus be communicated by the following metaphor:


“Despite decay and death something new will arise out of this existence, just as our planet formed from cosmic dust, the ashes of former stars.”


Note that the hope expressed here cannot be deduced from the physics of planet formation, but must originate in the plane of religious perceptions where this boundless confidence is experienced.


Hope for the “wholly other new” is one of several patterns for the interpretation of the signs of the times. If we live with this pattern, the past development of the universe may become a metaphor for the future of our existence. And more: By interpreting scientific results with this pattern, we evaluate them based on other, additional experiences. The scientific facts then appear in another perspective and in a different light: The universe is revealed as a continuous creation, and there is hope for new creation also in the future.



Arnold Benz received his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1972. He has authored more than 200 research papers in the fields of solar and stellar physics, star formation, supernovae and cataclysmic binaries and is Professor of Astrophysics at the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Arnold Benz is the current president of the Division “Sun and Heliosphere” of the International Astronomical Union. He has published two textbooks of astrophysics, and his other books include The Future of the Universe: Chance, Chaos, God? (Continuum, New York, 2000).