When I was a very small boy, I knew the center of the earth was the statue of William Penn which stood atop the Philadelphia City Hall. What else there might be simply pivoted around it. Just a bit above Penn’s hat was heaven, where a kindly father figure looked down on the world and kept bad things from happening to good people.
As I grew, so did the size of my world. On December 7, 1941 — in my eleventh year — my little universe exploded. I received a globe for Christmas that year, and until the war ended four years later I kept maps on my bedroom wall marking the battle lines with little flags. I had not thought about it before, but that globe and those maps introduced me to a much larger world.
Somewhere along the line I began to wonder how little boys who lived way back saw their world. For them and their parents it was flat, and if you got far enough from shore you would fall off. Until Copernicus came along in the 15th century, just as I knew the earth revolved around Penn’s stature, more up-to-date little boys knew that our round earth was the center of everything, and even the sun circled it.
All this came to my mind after reading a book this summer, The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking. The treatise was a short ”simple” version of his impenetrable (at least to me) A Brief History of Time. In these reduced pages Hawking and his colleague, Leonard Mlodinow, take us through scientific history from Newton to today, centered on how people tried to understand the laws by which the universe is governed. Quantum mechanics and advanced technology recently have dramatically changed the size of all we understand, and the extent of all that is. For some time we have known that the earth, its fellow planets and its star — the sun — have been just an infinitesimally tiny speck on a remote arm of a modest galaxy composed of a few million such stars. We call it the Milky Way. But in the universe there are millions of such galaxies with billions of stars with multi-trillions of planets circling them. The assumption that this rocky microscopic dot we call earth is the only one with life takes an incredible level of naïveté. Or does the whole universe exist strictly for our benefit, and most specifically for those or us who are Christians?
What we call the universe is constantly expanding in every direction at the speed of light or greater, and its extent can only be measured in billions of light years — not miles. Light can travel around the earth five times in one second! The simple human mind, which is all we have, has no way to grasp its size. We just know it is really big. But modern physics throws another one at us. As big as our universe is, it may not be the only universe. There may be thousands somewhere out there, and what if the laws of physics that we believe we increasingly understand, only apply to this universe? Other universes may have totally different rules, and operate with dimensions we have no way of even describing.
As a religious professional I am forced to wonder what to make of the kindly God of my childhood who existed somewhere above William Penn’s hat. Perhaps whatever reality there is we might call God, may be as different from what the best of modern theology assumes. Only religious arrogance can believe we’ve got God solved.
Nevertheless, for now this it the world we’ve got, and we had better learn to live in it justly and peaceably. I’ll leave whatever else there may be–even the nature and being of God — to those who may exist elsewhere, and hope they have done a better job in getting along and taking care of one another, and their planet, than we have ours.