Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Envisioning the Big Bang

Artist conceptions in science popularizing magazines and science textbooks usually portray the Big Bang as an explosion as viewed from outside. Light radiating in all directions, with cutaways and time markers showing what was happening at one picosecond, or millionth of a picosecond or whatever. Colored billiard balls and whirling galaxies figure prominently. Wikipedia has a standard example. Searching for images brings up a band and a pretty girl from a recent movie, but there are cosmological Big Bang images as well. Sometimes the energy is pictured more like squiggles or a soup.

But optic nerves didn't come into being for billions of years. And what space is the artist picturing himself in to watch this display? The phrase "looks like" or "observer" have no meaning. Particles and forces exist pretty quickly, but they don't look like anything. They couldn't.

I am not being trivial here. Any science writer or science teach would say Well of course these are just representations to aid understanding. No one intends for the pictures to be taken as portraits or even sketches. The reality isn't something wone could actually see. True enough. The reality may be closer to a set of numbers, or equations, or imbalances. Even words don't quite capture this remarkable occurence especially well. If we were to try, perhaps the closest we could come would be "is." We accept the picture-thinking knowing that the pictures only reveal some aspects while obscuring others. Even at later points in the universe, when discussing particles and forces, we revert to pictures because we have no choice with the general audience. Unless one is prepared to do the mathematics and thought-experiments to grasp a more precise reality beneath, there is simply no reason to strip away the textbook picture however much it might mislead.

Exactly the same thing happens in Christian theology, yet there is great objection to, even ridicule of, the image of God as a old bearded man sitting in the clouds on an elaborate chair. Parts of that image are indeed quite ancient, but they were never thought to be the reality. From very early descriptions of human beings perceiving God directly in some way - Moses hiding in the rock, for example - there are no chairs, no beards. When the question is put clearly to believers long before the time of Christ, those pictures were known to be teaching tools, not portraits. The commandment about graven images pops up pretty quickly on the list, dunnit? The descriptors each highlight some aspect of God while obscuring others. We want to move away from some of the problems the pictures create, which is all to the good. But we can do no better than supply other pictures.

As CS Lewis notes in Miracles "The apparent profundity of Pantheism thinly veils a mass of spontaneous picture-thinking and owes its plausibility to that fact." I would say much the same of popular creation physics, which lends itself nicely to Pantheism anyway. Not to say that the theory isn't true. In fact, I believe it myself. But there is no getting away from picture-thinking that obscures as much as it reveals in all discussions of creation, the universe, and ultimate realities. To reject one set of pictures and accept another owes more to fashion than any of us cares to admit. I find old Sunday-School pictures of Jesus to be unattractive, even embarrassing. I think myself quite superior that I don't picture Jesus like that.

I spoke with a friend going to Lutheran seminary years ago who had said, in response to my great suspicion at integrating Native American Spirituality (as if that were a consistent thing) into our worship, "I think we should have as many names for God, pictures of God, words for God as we can." Very church camp, very Lutheran seminary, very 1980's. I countered that not all names or pictures are equally good. The ancient pictures are not a bad default setting, if for no other reason than that they worked over many centuries for people God seems to have encouraged. I am not reluctant to consider new pictures, but I am very suspicious of what might be hidden in pictures congenial to me. And even more suspicious of the ones congenial to you.

A very interesting essay on the topic from the Thomistic Center.

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