What Do the Heavens Declare?

A Sermon on Isaiah 40.26

 ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?’

Time and again this is the question the Old Testament poses about creation. It is insistent and unrelenting; it is the final enquiry, a philosophical interrogation of the human mind by the transcendent: Answer me this: are they, these created realities, everything you see, everything, including yourself, the result of intelligent purpose or of chance, accident, or cosmic misadventure? As far as humans are concerned, are they hospitable or are they hostile? Psalm 19 in lapidary fashion gives the best known biblical answer: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God.’

But do they? The poetic power of the biblical writers as they respond should never occlude for us the metaphysical urgency with which they press the question. Isaiah presses his cross-examination aggressively: ‘Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?’  (40.21). And answers as certainly: ‘The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.’ (40.28). There is a grandeur in his sarcasm, if sarcasm is what it is: ‘Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?’ (40.12).

There is a comparable metaphysical anxiety, if much less beauty, in those moderns who arrive at a contrary conclusion. The physicist, Stephen Weinberg, writes:

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. It is very hard to realize that [the entire earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

 

Whether or not Wienberg recognises how much his science shows signs of  metaphysical contamination, his statement at least witnesses to the urgency of the question. Even if less mordant than John Stuart Mill’s observation that ‘Nature’ is a sociopathic murderer that cruelly destroys its members, an ‘overwhelmingly hostile universe’ is not an assessment easily ignored.

And Isaiah does not ignore it. As certain as Professor Weinberg that there is, God’s intervention apart, absolutely no future for the universe – it shall vanish and ‘not be remembered, nor come into mind’ (65.17) – he posits another possibility: the universe knew that we were coming, it was and is hospitable to man. For, he argues, ‘they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.’ (40.31).

Two visions, two alternative stances to take up with respect to the final meaning of things: There is no god, no meaning, no enduring home for humanity or there is. Two answers, one question, a question no more urgently pressed than by the great thinkers and writers of ancient Israel.

Suppose the biblical writers were to make their case in contemporary terms. How would their argument go? Isaiah might have rephrased his question thus: What do the heavens declare if you are standing on the surface of the moon? Hans Blumenberg, the German philosopher and intellectual historian, explains how Copernicus and Galileo both came to the conclusion that the earth is a star. However, while born out of real Christian piety, or in some cases even a Neo-platonic ecstasy in mathematical harmonies, the Copernican trauma, the ‘annihiliation of the [earth’s] importance by the enormity of the universe’ and the certainty that it was but one star among billions, a mere point in a seeming infinity, had somehow to find its existential home in the Jewish and Christain consciousness. Cardinal Barberini might have complained that Copernicus had degraded the earth by making it a star, but once made, the assertion – being true, so far as it went – could not be unmade. And so the matter stood – the theistic mind, finding it had no metaphysical complaint with the evidence, had in the end made its existential peace with the fact – until August of 1966.

Then came the moment of ‘unexpected and heart-stopping peripety’, the great reversal, that singular moment in which, Blumenberg argues, ‘something that we do not yet fully understand [had] run its course’. Moving pictures transmitted by Lunar Orbiter II showed that in the sky high above the surface of the moon shines a magnificent star, the blue planet, earth. Above the lifeless desert of the lunar landscape, that once seeming star, in imagination formerly so exotic, shines our island home, the one, the only, living, life giving star, so far as we can tell, in an otherwise, as the atheists insist, ever expanding, cold, and dying universe. We discovered the earth, again for the first time, to borrow a phrase rather too well known in our churches. Amid the pockmarked, cold, and cratered planets of the universe, amid the blazing furnaces of its hellish suns, no home for man had been found other than the one we now beheld in all its green and blue bejellewed life-giving plenitude. ‘The earth,’ Blumenberg asserts, ‘has turned out to be a cosmic exception…. this miracle of an exception, our own blue planet in the midst of the disappointing celestial desert.’ In this sense then perhaps Barberini has been proven right. Our home is not also a star; it is ‘the only one that seems to deserve this name.’ ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?’ ‘These?’ No, rather ask, who created that, the great exception.

So what has run its course? Perhaps the candor of cosmic Christian despair has run its course. The silence of these infinite spaces had terrified Pascal. For John Donne all was now in pieces and all coherence lost. But we must remember that Galileo, for all his scientific brilliance and theological, or at any rate exegetical, traditionalism was not immune to his own kind of anthropomorphism, for if he thought the earth a star, he thought the moon a duplicate of the earth, replete with forests, seas, continents, and islands. But if it is, indeed, nothing of the kind, then perhaps there are no anxiety evoking infinite spaces of any metaphysical relevance. Does a cosmic wasteland, no matter how vast, diminish man? Does it decenter the earth? Or has earthly exceptionalism made the earth once again the centre of the universe so far as intellectual speculation is concerned?

This could of course precipitate its own kind of cosmic anxiety and exactly what Blumenberg makes of it I am not sure. But, he argues, the slowness of the speed of light disallows for the kind of sychronicity of communication across the infinite spaces of the cosmos that would make any speculation about what may exist in those billions of solar systems philosophically interesting. Reason simply has no metaphysical purchase on something on this order of magnitude because the speed of light is now known to be an impenetrable wall between us and interstellar space. If this denies man ‘an existence that has cosmic importance’ that can surely only be because science in its religious meaning had become science fiction and cosmic importance had come to replace the divine importance that ancient thinkers had made the centre of their concern. Perhaps the life we thought was out there but for which we had no evidence was a surrogate for the divine we had come to hope was not out there despite the evidence. What after all is the relevance of size to significance, especially if the thing that is big is too big to contemplate, mostly empty, doomed, and perhaps nothing more than the wasteland you get when you create a planet upon which an answering mind may one day emerge? And if there is life out there, it is, on any scientific view as certain of eventual extinction as we are – no part of the cosmos will survive; makes the universe no more meaningful nor less wasteful than we do; may already have died out if it ever existed; and cannot reach us with any interesting communication. The only communication possible across these infinite spaces, so a preacher might argue – if Blumenberg is right – is revelation.

Doubtless, however, this is speculation a preacher ought to leave alone. Owen Gingerich, Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Senior Astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, several years ago delivered a sermon at the Chapel at Cornell University, in which he offered a more common, but no less compelling, argument in defence of the thesis that indeed the heavens do declare. Such a finely tuned universe as the one we inhabit, he argued, must surely be evidence of the designing hand of a super intellligence. And he notes that he is not alone in this view by any means. ‘There are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature’, wrote Sir Fred Hoyle, the contrarian astronomer who found, by his own admission and notoriously, this theistic sounding conclusion to comport uneasily with his otherwise robust atheism. Gingerich argues that these evidences of design in the universe are not proof for the existence of God and will never convince someone who does not want to be convinced. Proof and demonstration are not usually available to us in any area of life or thought. The best we can do, the best in fact that Galileo, Kepler, and Newton were able to do, is to create a picture that accomodates most of the pieces of the puzzle we have to hand even if some refuse to fit. It is in the end a personal decision as to what best fits, what best explains the little we do know, what larger conclusions make sense of most of the evidence. Galileo knew that he was right about the motion of the earth although the movement of the tides he thought would prove his conjectures turned out to be bogus. But he could see where the evidence was leading, even if he could not prove it to be true.

Owen Gingerich, then, is one professional star gazer who thinks that the inference to theism on the basis of the evidence, while not certain and not without problems, is warranted, somewhat perhaps as Einstein thought that the mathematical regularities of nature warranted his reference to the grandeur of Reason Incarnate. More recently, Anthony Flew, the atheist whose writings dominated the philosophical debate about the existence of God for the latter half of the 20th century, has said that,

Those scientists who point to the Mind of God do not merely advance a series of arguments …. Rather, they propound a vision of reality that emerges from the conceptual heart of modern science and imposes itself upon the rational mind. It is a vision that I … find compelling and irrefutable.

 

To put it another way, according to Flew, the universe knew that we were coming. This is what the heaven declare. ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?’

So Isaiah might argue were he alive today. But before we leave this subject let us remind ourselves just how ubiquitous this and related themes are in the scriptures. Genesis One, John One, Romans One, Colossians One, Hebrews One, Psalm 8, Psalm 19, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Job all famously, in one way or another, raise the question about the meaning of the created order and its relationship to a creator, as do a great many more passages. The New Testament examples make trenchant claims about the centrality of Christ in any understanding of the origin and destiny of the cosmos. Some of the greatest poetry, metaphysical speculation, and theological analysis of the wonders of creation are to be found in the Bible, none of it more astonishing than the way the concluding chapters of Job take up the same interrogation as we have seen in Isaiah 40.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.

Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?

Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;

When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?

Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?

Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?

Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all.

Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof,

That thou shouldest take it to the bound thereof, and that thou shouldest know the paths to the house thereof?

Knowest thou it, because thou wast then born? or because the number of thy days is great?

 

In a kind of spiritual rapture, the biblical writers sing the metaphyiscal wonders of creation, refusing to let us off the hook: we must ask at least, even if we cannot altogether answer or offer proof, the question posed to us by the gift of being. They witness to a rapturous embrace of the elemental and the profound, the mysterious, the majestic, and the inexplicable. Answer we must for the gift of life, ponder we must its pain, groaning, and seeming futility. Whatever else we may say about the biblical witness, it is urgent. ‘Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?’ The scriptures force us out upon a dark infested sea of wild surmise and once there, there is no turning back: Man must decide, what do the heavens declare?, for they cannot be ignored.

In 1619 the renowed German mathematician Johannes Kepler completed his greatest work, The Harmony of the World. A key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution, he was

best known for his laws of planetary motion. Many consider Kepler’s Third Law to be one of the most elegant results in all of astronomy. Near the end of his book he wrote this prayer, a fitting conclusion to this homily:

I thank You, my Creator, that You have given me joys in Your creation and ecstasy over the work of Your hands. I have known the glory of Your works as far as my finite spirit was able to comprehend Your infinity.If have said anything wholly unworthy of You, or have aspired after my own glory, graciously forgive me.If I have been enticed into brashness by the wonderful beauty of your works, or if I have loved my own glory among men, while advancing in work destined for your glory, gently and mercifully pardon me: and finally, deign graciously to cause that these demonstrations may lead to your glory and to the salvation of souls, and nowhere be an obstacle to that. Amen