People seem to expect rabbis—and I’m sure other clergypeople too, but I speak of what I know—people somehow expect rabbis to find the study of science unsettling, off-putting, and slightly threatening. Paleontologists have proven that dinosaurs existed, but they’re not mentioned in the Bible. Geologists have proven categorically that the world is something like 4.404 billion years old, but if you add up all those “begats” featured in Scripture you can barely get our planet’s age over 6000. Anthropologists have proven the existence of all sorts of classes of humanoid life that preceded our own, but the Bible describes Adam, the first man, as a fully recognizable example of Homo sapiens sapiens—our own subspecies—who is able from the get-go to speak, to till the soil, and to sew leaves into skirts. All of these are served up regularly as examples of reasons for people of faith to be wary about data that appears to contradict the simple meaning of the biblical narrative, but I’ve never been able to buy into that kind of skittishness. Indeed, the simple thought that, logically speaking, no two true statements can ever contradict each other—all truths by definition being congruent with all other truths—that seems to me a far more solid foundation on which to stand when viewing the world in its fullness and attempting to commune meaningfully with its Creator. The challenge, of course, is to find a way to fit all the pieces of the puzzle into a coherent whole without turning away from inconvenient, irritating, or disturbing data, which effort requires above all else not super-human intelligence but rather a deep sense of humility. Arrogance, not science, is the enemy of faith.
I’ve been thinking about the relationship between science and religion a lot since I began reading about ‘Oumuamua, a cigar-shaped reddish rock about 800 meters (that is, about 2624 feet) long that just recently passed by the earth on its journey from somewhere to somewhere else. (Its very apt name is derived from the Hawaiian for “messenger arriving from afar.”) When it was first noticed by scientists from the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy peering through the Pan-STARRS1 telescope located at the Haleakala Observatory last month, it looked like “just” another asteroid. Then, for a while, they though it was “just” a comet. Then, noting that ‘Oumuamua lacked most of the basic characteristics of comets, they went back to labelling it an asteroid…but the story has turned out to be much more complex than that.
In fact, ‘Oumuamua is now believed to be the first interstellar object within our own solar system that scientists have managed unambiguously to identify as such. Where it came from, no one can say. How long it travelled through interstellar space to get here is also unknown, as is its chemical composition. The most logical explanation for its existence has to do with the theory that, when solar systems are formed—and there are countless solar systems out there, the 2,701 planetary systems already identified by scientists almost definitely being the tiniest sampling of what scientists think are probably tens of billions of them out there in the cosmos—when these planets-around-a-central-star systems are formed, some material is cast off towards the edge of the system and then travels off into interstellar space where it might possibly one day chance upon some other solar system. The scientists’ assumption is that ‘Oumuamua is such a piece of rejected rock that has flown along for countless eons before coming unawares to visit for a while in our house.
It is definitely not from here. For one thing, it’s moving much too fast to have originated in our solar system. (The so-called “asteroid belt” between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter contains about 750,000 asteroids or comets, some of them hundreds of miles wide, so their common properties are well known.) For another, ‘Oumuamua’s orbit pattern is unlike any “normal” meteor or asteroid as well, which makes it impossible for it to have started out anywhere around here. And it’s already sort of gone—at least from the purview of land-based telescopes like the one in Hawaii. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescopes, in orbit since 1990 and 2003 respectively, can see it still and will be able to watch it pass by Mars next month. But after that it will disappear from even the Hubble and the Spitzer as, traveling at a speed of 28 miles per second, ‘Oumuamua finally passes by Jupiter next May. These are very big distances we’re imagining here: it will need until 2022 to pass by Neptune and will only arrive near Pluto in 2024. And then ‘Oumuamua will be gone for good. Or at least gone from our view, from our gaze…if not entirely from our imaginations.
Other than with reference to their common cigar-like shape, ‘Oumuamua is not anything like the spaceship that brought baby Kal-El to Kansas after Krypton blew up. It has no passengers, is not packed with data intended to document a distant but now-long-lost civilization, was not “sent” to us by anyone at all. And yet it speaks to me…and profoundly and suggestively.
Like the prophets of old, ‘Oumuamua has slipped past the gates of our solar system to stand up briefly in our planetary town square and tell us something deeply unsettling…about ourselves, about our place in the world, about the unreasonableness of our wholly unearned arrogance with respect to the rest of the universe. I can imagine ‘Oumuamua taking a quick look at the earth as it whizzes by us, noting our greatest accomplishments—our most impressive buildings and bridges, our most exquisite artwork, our vast libraries containing at least most of the 130 million books published since the dawn of printing, our space-based telescopes that allow us to see farther into the cosmos than any human beings before us ever could have dreamt of seeing. And I imagine it chuckling to itself as it prepares to deliver its brief message before disappearing forever:
You have invented an incredibly complex system of culture and society, whereas I am a piece of reddish rock flying aimlessly through space. I am bound to no planet, to no solar system, to no master at all. I don’t even have the burden of a specific name: my name (in this, rather like your prophet Moses) is just something one of your people made up the better to speak of me to others. But I have been places you not only haven’t seen but can’t even begin reasonably to imagine. And, unlike yourselves, my journey will end so far in the future that even I cannot imagine what it would mean for that many years to pass, just as you surely also can’t. So we are nothing alike!
Or are we? After all, you too cannot say from whence you come, from what source your soul arrived in you and granted you personality, identity, and a sense of self real enough to distinguish you from every other living creature. Nor can you say where you are going when your time comes to abandon life to the living and move on to the next stage of existence. So you don’t know where I have come from and you don’t really know where you came from either. You don’t know where I’m going and you don’t know where you’re going either. Maybe we’re more alike than we both thought at first!
We’re both here for the twinkling of an eye, for a moment, for the amount of interstellar time that matches the time it takes one an earthling to take a single breath. Yes, I am traveling at 28 miles per second, which speed none of you could ever attain. But you are traveling at breakneck speed through the days and years of your lives nonetheless…and, just as I cannot, so also are you unable to slow down or, even if it were possible theoretically, to speed up. You can only move forward, just like me, day by day, month by month, year by year…as destiny brings us both to the edge of what we know of the world and then propels us into the part of which we know nothing at all. So look upon me therefore and see, not a piece of space garbage, but a sermon in stone, a lesson, a thought worth pondering. We’re both here for a moment and then gone to whatever awaits us past the boundaries of knowledge and experience. I’ve gotten used to my journey and I’m making the best of what time I have here. (I have been on the move for hundreds of millions of your earth years, after all.) I suggest you do the same!
And that is why I neither fear nor feel threatened by science. If God is the truth of the world, then how can any true statement be other than divine praise? If God exists in reality, then how can anything else that exists threaten faith? If ‘Oumuamua is part of God’s universe, then who is to say that it didn’t come our way to teach us a lesson or to deliver a sermon…possibly even the one I wrote for it and presented above.