Beauty in Creation
In the beginning… the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep… Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light… God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters”… [and] God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas… God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures… Let the earth bring forth living creatures”… and God saw that it was good… Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image… [and] He created him; male and female… God blessed them; and God said to them “Be fruitful and multiply”… God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.
It’s not hard to imagine this story being told around a camp fire, on a cold night some few thousand years ago, as the shepherds looking up marveled at a clear star-patterned sky. Our species’ true reading of the creation story, however, began about 500 years ago with Galileo’s attempts to codify Nature’s laws of bodily motion, and William Gilbert’s recognition that electricity and magnetism obeyed logical rules. According to the scientific story of genesis, creation occurred roughly 13 billion years ago in a “fireball explosion” that created matter, space, and time.
Imagine looking up at a clear night’s sky today, having eyes with the sensitivity of a large modern telescope. You would see all the galaxies in the universe moving away from one another, as if in the past they had been pieces of a whole that exploded. Now imagine that your eyes don’t just see light, but that they see microwaves and radiowaves. Looking to the east or west, looking north or south, you would see the remnants of the flash of light that accompanied creation, bathing you in its glow from all directions: the Cosmic Microwave Background. These bits of “microwave-light” striking your eyes are immensely old. They last touched matter a few hundred thousand years after the creation, and have been traveling unimpeded through the universe from then till now.
Looking very closely, you might notice an ever so slight patchiness to the cosmic microwave glow. This patchiness is a telltale sign of the birth of galaxies, and with the birth of galaxies came the first stars. The first stars only contained hydrogen and helium; there was no carbon in the universe, no oxygen, no nitrogen. Those more complex elements, essential for life, were created in the cores of the first stars; and when those stars exploded in death, they seeded the galaxy with life’s building blocks.
Four-and-a-half billion years ago, a cloud of cosmic gas containing those elements began to collapse, eventually creating the sun and earth and moon and planets… and eventually you. The calcium in your bones, the carbon in your muscle fibers, and the oxygen carried by your blood was fabricated in a star; and that star was made from the hydrogen and helium formed a few minutes after the creation. In a very real sense, you are as old as the universe.
There is a beauty to the biblical prose of Genesis, and there is a beauty to the message underlying that prose: a graceful god seeing good in the oceans teeming with life, good in the mountains with their wildlife and fauna, and good in man, with his mind and all its capabilities for understanding, made in the image of the divine. It does not, however, do justice to the subtle truth of creation that we are only now beginning to understand. Given the Biblical story’s original audience, sitting on that cold ancient hillside, is it so surprising that the literal text simplifies what is in fact a much more profound tale?
In its own way, the scientific story of genesis is a tale of great beauty. That beauty derives in part from the unity of creation as seen through science: a unity where the laws of Nature that compel hydrogen and helium to forge carbon and oxygen in the cores of stars are the same laws that impel a blade of grass to push through the soil on a spring day, a unity where star-formed carbon and oxygen organize themselves by the laws of chemistry into a growing blade of grass. There is also beauty in the profound simplicity of Nature’s laws, not always a mathematical simplicity (but then who are we to judge what simple and complex mathematics are for the Creator), rather a conceptual simplicity.
In Einstein’s theory of relativity the earth warps the geometry of space in its vicinity; warps it in such a way that the “shortest path into the future” for a dropped pencil is one that carries the pencil towards the earth. (Do not dwell here on how space might be “warped,” or what “shortest path into the future” might mean; free your mind for just a moment, and let those topics be for another essay.) Einstein is telling us that creation does not contain a “force of gravity,” at least not in the usual sense that we understand that term. Instead, there is only geometry, with all objects traveling forward in time following their shortest possible paths. That geometry, however, is not what you learned in high school; it’s quite a bit more involved. Nevertheless, near massive bodies like the earth the shortest paths for dropped pencils are ones that carry those pencils towards the earth… How imaginative, how clever of the Creator: don’t complicate things with a mysterious “gravity-force” reaching out from one object to another; simply change the geometry of space near the earth so a shepherd’s feet stay planted on the ground as he gazes skyward in wonder.
There is something about man’s intellect that resonates with the creation, something that allows man to see the creation in its subtle and profound beauty, if he is willing to put his mind to the task. Taking the story of Genesis literally, to my mind, is an insult. It trivializes the great subtlety, unity, yet beautiful simplicity of creation. It is akin to scotch taping DaVinci’s Mona Lisa to the refrigerator door, just next to your 6-year old’s latest crayon drawing of a cow. It also insults the Creator by disparaging man’s intellect, an intellect made in the image of the divine. If creation is only a few thousand years old; if dinosaurs walked with man in the Garden of Eden, if Noah was able to fit legions of creatures into the ark because he took babies… if the scientific story of creation is so much in error, then why did God give us such an inquisitive and capable mind?
Some, I suppose, would blame science’s relentless drive for understanding on disobedience, disobedience enticed by a snake, an apple, and a woman. I won’t.
Instead, I choose to appreciate the Creator’s gifts, and therefore I choose to accept the scientific story of creation. In so doing, I acknowledge the profound beauty and subtlety of creation, knowing that I may never grasp its full glory. I will not insult God by trivializing his work.
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