Year of Astronomy: Big Bang or Black Hole?

What Christians Can Glean From the UN Celebration

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JAN. 29, 2009 (Zenit.org).-On Jan. 15, Paris, the City of Light, saw stars as the Year of Astronomy dawned.

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first recorded observations with the telescope, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has launched a year dedicated to this fascinating science with a series of initiatives and lectures titled, “The Universe: Yours to Discover.”

By emphasizing the contributions of the science of astronomy to culture and society, UNESCO hopes to draw the globalized world a little closer together. Many different civilizations, professing various faiths, living in diverse locations and using varying instruments, can claim extraordinary achievements in this field. Drawing on man’s instinctive interest in the cosmos as a source of clues to the answers to his greatest questions, the organizers present astronomy as an instrument of world peace.

Benedict XVI, a longtime member of the Pontifical Academy of Science (which traces its origins to an earlier academy to which Galileo belonged) lauded the Year of Astronomy during the Angelus of Dec. 21, 2008, a month before it began. Speaking on the day of the winter solstice, he welcomed the year of celebration of this important science and reminded the crowds of the Church’s longstanding interest in the field of astronomy.

"There have been practitioners of this science among my predecessors of venerable memory," Benedict said, “such as Sylvester II, who taught it, Gregory XIII, to whom we owe our calendar, and St. Pius X, who knew how to build solar clocks."

Indeed, throughout the centuries, the Catholic Church has been at the forefront of astronomy. As University of California History professor J.L. Heilbrun wrote in his “The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories”: “The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably all other, institutions.”

Even before the birth of the Church, it was three wise men studying the skies who found and recognized the Savior of the world by following a star. The alignment of the planets that heralded the arrival of Christ corresponded to an era of universal peace wrought by Emperor Augustus. This moment represented history’s most beautiful example of faith, science and secular forces all working in cosmic harmony.

Pope Benedict’s enthusiasm for man’s quest of knowledge and his warm reception of this Year of Astronomy provides a great example for Christians. As we celebrate our increasing understanding of the heavens and enjoy the marvels that centuries of diligent study have revealed, we can also reflect on the responsibility that comes with the privilege of knowledge.

Changing tides

For many, science has become antagonistic to faith. An increasing number of people believe Galileo to be the father, Darwin (whose Origin of the Species is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year) the son, and Albert Einstein the holy spirit of a new materialistic religion. This will be a banner year for proponents of the triune god of science.

In the eyes of its worshippers, this deification of science has freed it of moral responsibility or accountability, which necessarily results in tensions with the Church. The devotees of the god of science often view Christians as superstitious simpletons at best, and, at worst, virulent heretics to be stamped out.

Even President Obama, in his inaugural speech, seemed to take up this flag. He spoke of the many errors and wrongs of the previous years and in his platform of change he vowed that “We will restore science to its rightful place.” What is this rightful place? We found out soon enough.

The next day the new U.S. president lifted the Bush administration’s ban on embryonic stem cell testing. The inevitable conclusion is that for Obama, the “rightful place” of science is above ethics, morals and life itself. While once the domain of the laboratory, today some would raise it to the altar. With this carte blanche to scientific research at the expense of human life, the prospects for the future of ethics in science look grim indeed.
 
Oddly enough, a 13th-century “Golden Legend” contains a similar story. Emperor Constantine, afflicted with leprosy, had tried every known remedy without success. He was assured that the only sure cure would be to bathe in the blood of newborn infants, as their pure blood would restore his withered flesh.

As 3,000 infants were gathered for his cure, the emperor shrank before the prospect of such violence. He declared that “the honor of the Roman people is born of the font of piety. Piety gave us the law by which anyone who kills a child in war shall incur the sentence of death. What cruelty it would be, therefore if we did to our own children what we are forbidden to do to our enemies!”

That night, Sts. Peter and Paul told Constantine in a dream to go to Rome and find Pope Sylvester to be cured. Pope Sylvester told him that the best way to relieve his sufferings was baptism. In accepting the sacrament of baptism, Constantine was cured.

While this is pious legend, it is interesting to note that the worst cruelty imaginable in Constantine’s world was to sacrifice infants to save the life of a man, as well as the horror expressed at the lengths one would go for a “miracle cure.” What some call progress, others might call regress.

A star is born

In his Dec. 21 Angelus address, the Holy Father seemed to suggest that this is a good year for Christians to seek a deeper understanding of the limits of science, and the relationship between religion and science. Astronomy could be the perfect starting point, for Jesus’ arrival was announced by stars and the faithful have long kept an eye on the skies for a heads-up about his return.   

When Galileo brought his telescopes to Rome, popes, prelates and princes lined up to see moons and stars and objects never before visible to human eyes.

The empowering of human vision stimulated artists, writers and theologians. As the eyes of the body were enhanced, so could man look to enhance his eyes of faith. That which had been invisible was now visible, reinforcing the idea that the invisible world of angels and the Real Presence was there, simply out of reach to mortal eyes. Discovery didn’t bring fear of contradiction; it brought a promise of knowing more.

This is expressed beautifully in the art of the 17th century, from Caravaggio’s beams of supernatural light piercing through a hyper-realistic setting, to Bernini’s Cathedra Sancti Petri where the stern rules of architecture and physics give way and the walls dissolve, allowing the faithful to witness the Holy Spirit replete with golden light and mighty winds.

And who hasn’t admired the most classic of Baroque-style dome decoration, where one looks up into the seemingly endless reaches of the heavens?

The art of Galileo’s age expresses a joy in the gift of sight which, complemented by Benedict XVI's rational observations, forges a lens through which Christians can look at the Year of Science. It should be lived to the fullest, reveling in man’s discoveries but with the constant awareness of what we have been privileged to see through God’s self-revelation. Having seen, we now can testify and express our pride in the Church’s long and balanced promotion of both faith and reason.

The Pope's last comment in the Angelus address illuminated how, "If the heavens, according to the beautiful words of the psalmist, 'narrate the glory of God' (Psalm 19 [18], 2), even the laws of nature, which in the course of centuries many men and women of science have helped us to understand better, are a great stimulus to contemplating the works of the Lord with gratitude."

In this spirit, the constellation of events surrounding the Year of Astronomy offers a glimmer of hope for peace and unity between faith and science.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and at the University of St. Thomas Catholic Studies program in Rome. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.