Skip to content

God, the universe and all that: Part 1

On the Sola Panel:

In the first instalment of a five-part series, I’m pondering what astronomy has to teach us.

I’m a fan of space. I don’t actually know much about the details of astronomy or cosmology or astrophysics; I just think that the space is really cool.

If there are any real scientists reading this, I want to say thanks. I know that most of your work involves boring and tedious searching, collating and number crunching. Thanks for doing all that stuff so that I can see those fantastic pictures of nebulas on the internet and wonder at it all.

For example, I’m a fan of millisecond pulsars. A gigantic star, millions of light years away, explodes in a huge supernova. It creates a fireball ten million billion billion times bigger than Hiroshima. In its ashes, it leaves behind a neutron star made of dense atomic nuclei, squashed together at a density 10 trillion times greater than steel. A teaspoon full of neutron star weighs about the same as Sydney Harbour. Sometimes this neutron star will steal stuff from a nearby star and start spinning. Some neutron stars spin hundreds of times a second—a whole star rotating as fast as an idling car engine. Many of these super-dense, revving stars send out pulses of electromagnetic radiation, milliseconds apart. And we might be able to use these millisecond pulsars as standard cosmological clocks to help us detect gravitational waves, explore space-time bending, and understand more about the tiniest particles in the universe.

But apart from the wow factor, what’s the point of learning about space?

Some people might say that, in the end, astronomy is a complete waste of time. Sherlock Holmes, that fictional epitome of scientific rationalism, cared nothing for astronomy. When his friend Dr Watson scolded him for being ignorant even of the basic facts of the solar system, he interrupted and said, “What the deuce is it to me? … you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”1

Is Mr Holmes correct? Is stargazing a completely useless exercise?

Well, you could point out that weather and tide and climate predictions need detailed solar, lunar and planetary modelling. You could also point out that car engines need modern mechanics, which is all based on the laws of motion formulated by Isaac Newton, who used the orbits of planets to calculate and build his theories. Or you could point to the humble GPS satellite navigator, which relies on Einstein’s theory of relativity and orbiting satellites. Of course, astronomy is useful; after all, it helps us to work out whether it’s raining, and how to drive quickly to the cricket and back without taking a wrong turn!

But I want to suggest that stargazing is far more important than all this. In fact, the Bible itself gives us a very good reason for considering the stars. There is a song in the Bible about the stars—a song composed thousands of years ago in ancient Israel. This is how the song begins:

O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.

(Ps 8:1-2)

You’ll notice that this poet believes in God (just like many of the astronomers down through the ages). In fact, this whole song is a prayer to the creator of the universe. We’ll come back to this shortly. But for the moment, let’s look at his exercise in stargazing. Do you see what he says in the third verse of the song?

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place …

When you think about it, stargazing is something that would have been easier and more natural for an ancient Israelite than for us. Yes, we can use our light, radio and gamma ray telescopes to penetrate vast distances, and we can use our complex mathematical and cosmological theories to make determinations and predictions. Of course, the ancients couldn’t do that. But on the other hand, they had a very big advantage over us: they had a clear, unpolluted sky in their backyards. We have so many lights on earth—especially in our cities—that the lights of the stars and the moons are drowned out. When I go into my backyard on a clear night, all I can see are a few pinpricks. But this biblical songwriter could step into his own backyard and see far more than you or I. He could see the glory of it all—the heavens, the Milky Way, the wandering planets.

We don’t tend to look up very much at all, do we. We don’t use the night time to look at the heavens; we use the night time to look down—to watch TV, to immerse ourselves in virtual worlds online. We know cyberspace very well, but this ancient poet sees real space with his naked eyes. We know the intimate details of the lives of rock stars and football stars, but this song is about the real stars. At this point, this biblical poet is far more in touch with the reality of the universe than we are. And knowing these stars—seeing them there before him—what does this do for the poet? How does it make him feel? Look at verse 4:

what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

What does astronomy do for this poet? What is the use of astronomy for all of us? Astronomy is very useful. It does something very negative for us, but it’s still very worthwhile: it reminds us how very very very small and insignificant we really are. In case you’re wondering, the words translated ‘man’ here mean ‘all humanity’. The question “What is man?” is an expression of amazement that human beings have any importance at all in the face of the evidence of the stars.

To be continued …

1 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘A Study in Scarlet’ in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Long Stories, John Murray, London, 1929, p. 17.

Comments on the Sola Panel
Published inCreationPsalmsThe Briefing

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Walking past a telephone booth in OxfordThis love (Ephesians 2:4–5)
    “God loves you”: if I say just those three words, you may not hear what I want you to hear. This is because of a communication problem that arises whenever Christians try to talk about biblical concept of God’s “love”. When we say “love” we mean one thing—something wonderful and life-changing. But the word means quite different things to many English speakers. For example, the word “love” often means “strong desire”. So if I say “God loves you” then it might sound like I’m saying “God has strong feelings for you”. Another, increasingly common, understanding of “love” is the idea of “unconditional approval”. In this view, the way to “love” somebody is to affirm and approve of everything they do. So if I don’t approve of your actions and actively affirm everything you do, then by definition I’m not “loving” you (in fact, by definition I’m “hating” you). On this common definition of “love”, if I say “God loves you” then it might sound like I’m saying “God affirms everything about you and your actions”. But that’s not what the Bible means by God’s “love” either. Given this communication problem, how can I best explain the idea of God’s “love”? Well, it’s not actually that hard. The best way is to see how the word works when the Bible uses it. In Ephesians 2:4–5, Paul uses the word “love”. But he doesn’t just say “God loves you”. He explains and spells out what that love means. And he helps us to see what God’s love really means, and how amazing it is.
  • Entering a tomb in PompeiiWe too: the offenders (Ephesians 2:3)
    Judgmentalism. It’s a bigger problem than we think. Judgmentalism is certainly a danger for God’s people. That’s because God’s people have God’s word. God’s word helps God’s people to see how wonderful God is, and how terrible humanity is in comparison. But Ephesians 2:3 contains two highly significant, emphatic words: “we too”. We too, says Paul, were the offenders. We, too, were the disobedient. These words aren’t talking about all those horrible people “out there”. They’re talking about God’s people. And it’s something we, too, need to hear. These words tell us something incredibly important—something that we ignore at our peril.
  • Photo by Daniel Lienert on UnsplashThe root of the problem (Ephesians 2:1–2)
    I hadn’t visited the dentist for years. Then I felt a tiny amount of pain in one of my teeth. But I ignored it. I didn’t want to bother with a dentist. Anyway, I had my own solution: I’d always brushed my teeth quite thoroughly, and was proud of it. So I just kept brushing. But after a while, the pain came back. This time, it was worse. So I finally visited the dentist. That was painful, too. The root had become so infected that I needed root canal surgery. That was a while ago. But last year, it flared up again, as these things apparently do. And yet I chose to visit the dentist again, even though I knew it might be painful. Why? Because I’d learnt something. I’ve learnt that if I have a problem that goes to the root, and if I know someone who has the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t ignore it or try to fix it myself. I should face up to the root problem, and get help. So I got help. Now, I don’t have a tooth in that spot at all. In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul seeks to go deep, to the root of the problem. The problem Paul talks about here is incredibly serious. It can be very painful to admit. But Paul can and does admit it—because he also knows the person with the solution. According to Paul, this isn’t a problem to ignore or try to fix ourselves. It’s not something we can educate ourselves out of. This is a problem to face up to, and get help.
  • Captivated by ScriptureCaptivated by Scripture: A personal reflection on D. W. B. Robinson’s legacy for biblical studies
    What made Donald W. B. Robinson such an inspiring and influential teacher for generations of students? His commitment to being captivated by Scripture. This is a paper given by Lionel Windsor at the legacy day and launch of Donald Robinson Selected Works Volume 3: Biblical and Liturgical Studies & Volume 4: Historical Studies and Series Index. Moore Theological College, Sydney, 16 March 2019.
  • The first thing to say about church (Ephesians 1:22–23)
    Here in Ephesians 1:22–23, for the first time in his letter, the apostle Paul uses the word “church”. He’s taken quite some time to get to this point. That might make you think that the church isn’t very important to Paul. But actually, the reverse is true. This is a climactic statement. So far in Ephesians, Paul has poured out his praise to God for his blessings and plans and purposes. He has told his readers how he is praying for knowledge and hope and strength in God. Now, finally, at the highest peak of this amazing prayer, Paul names “the church”. So what is the first thing Paul has to say about the church? What is the word he associates most closely with the church? What matters most to Paul when it comes to the church? The answer is, in fact, obvious. It’s so obvious that you might think it doesn’t need to be said. You might even wonder why Paul bothers saying it, when there are so many other more practical things he could say about the church. But while it might seem obvious, it needs to be said first. Why? Because it’s so easy to assume it. Yet without it, nothing else about the church makes sense.
  • Grave of John BunyanStrength to live (Ephesians 1:19–21)
    What do we do when we feel weak in the face of the powers that be? One response might be just to shut down, close ranks and find a bitter satisfaction in our identity as victims. Another response might be to try to fight as hard as we can to exert our power and dominance over others, seeking to turn the tables so that we become the conquerors instead of the oppressors. Both of these responses involve seeking strength and power in ourselves. They are often the way that oppressed individuals and groups in our world respond to the powers that are oppressing them. But is that the way God wants his people to respond to our weakness in the face of power? In Ephesians 1:19–21, the apostle Paul gives us a far better way to respond. Paul’s response involves looking for strength. But it’s not a strength that comes from within ourselves. It’s a strength that comes from God himself.
  • Christ, the Cross and Creation Care ConferenceConference: Christ, the Cross and Creation Care
    I'll be speaking at the "Christ, the Cross and Creation Care Conference", Sydney. 8.30am to 3.30pm, Saturday 22 June 2019. A conference run by A Rocha Australia
  • Palatine Hill from Roman Forum with contrails – Black and WhiteWhat’s the point of theology? (Ephesians 1:17–18)
    The full name of the college I teach at is “Moore Theological College”. That word “Theological” says something important about who we are. It reminds us about what we're on about. Yes, the Bible is at the centre of everything we do. Yes, we seek to train people for ministry. Yes, we're driven by the worldwide mission of Jesus Christ. Yes, we're committed to learning together, and having our characters formed in loving Christian community. But our careful study of the Bible, and our pastorally-motivated ministry and mission training, and our encouragement of one another in our community, all matter because of something more basic: theology. Unfortunately, the word "theology" can be misunderstood. It sometimes gets used to mean something like “technical details about spiritual things that experts argue about and isn’t much practical use to regular people”. But that's just a caricature. It's not what theology is. Theology is something far more profound, far more life-changing, and far more fundamental—not just for people at a college, but for everyone. In Ephesians 1:17–18, Paul prays for his readers—people who have come to believe in and live for Jesus Christ. It's a prayer for more theology.
  • Youth praying, Finchale PrioryPrayer: What are we actually doing? (Ephesians 1:15–16)
    “A Muslim, a Jew and an Anglican Minister walk into a classroom”. This was the advertising blurb for a local Community College seminar I participated in a few years ago. I joined a Muslim educator and a Jewish academic (who is also a friend of mine) to give a series of presentations on different aspects of our three religions to interested people from the community. When we came to the topic of ‘prayer’, I was fascinated to hear what my co-presenters had to say. Even though we were all using the same word, ‘prayer’, the word meant very different things in the different religions. As a believer in Jesus Christ, what did I have to say about what prayer is? What would you have said? Christians, too, can often be a bit confused or unclear about what prayer actually is. That’s where the Apostle Paul really helps us. In these verses in Ephesians, Paul starts telling his readers about his own prayers for them.
  • Photo by Danielle Macinnes on UnsplashThe Holy Spirit: Our security (Ephesians 1:14)
    The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments are a favourite illustration of motivational speakers. The lesson is this: If you can learn how to delay gratification early in life, you’ll do better in later life. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, like many popular conclusions drawn from famous psychological experiments, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The more up-to-date study demonstrates something far more mundane: if you grow up in a secure home where you know there will always be food on the table, you’re more likely to be able to put off eating a marshmallow. This isn’t a particularly useful lesson for motivational speakers. But it’s a great illustration of what it means to be a child of God.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor