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“Ask a Priest: In a Big Universe, What Makes Us So Special?”
Q: My faith in Christianity began to waver after my first year of college — I took an astronomy class which changed my way of thinking and made me insatiably curious as to the nature of the universe we live in. I was enthralled with the immense scope of the universe. The Milky Way Galaxy, on which our solar system revolves, contains over 200 billion to 400 billion stars (our sun being one of them). The Kepler space program has already proven the existence of 962 alien worlds orbiting our neighbor stars in the Milky Way. On another note, there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. The universe has existed for over 13 billion years, and life has existed on Earth for over 4.5 billion years. Now, why would God create all of creation for a single species “in his own form” (which has only inhabited Earth in our current form for 100,000 years)? What makes humanity so much more special than the rest of life that has inhabited Earth for 4.5 billion years and the life which likely inhabits the rest of the universe? I can’t help think that religion was created in prehistory to explain life (and death) on Earth, but with all of this evidence of our world and the universe at our fingertips, it almost seems arrogant think we are the “chosen ones.” I understand that a large part of Christianity relies on faith, and I guess my faith has wavered due to my scientific mind. I want to believe, but I have difficulty overcoming these issues. I’m not sure if the person reading this would be the best person to talk to, but if you could help me get in contact with a scientifically minded priest, I would greatly appreciate it. -J.B.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Yours is a big question which could easily take a book to answer. If you are looking for scientifically minded priests, I suggest checking out the website of Jesuit Father Robert J. Spitzer or the works of the late Benedictine Father Stanley Jaki.
For now, permit me a few observations that might help in the short term.
First, I agree, the immensity of the universe is mind-boggling. Yet it all seems to fit together remarkably well – a sign that there is an Intelligence behind it.
Why would God create such an immense universe for us? For the first part of this question, two things come to mind.
One, the sheer size and complexity of the universe reflect something of the infinite power and beauty of God himself.
Second, and this is related to the first point, this display of power and beauty is meant for our benefit, precisely so that we have some idea of who God is and how wonderful he is. “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made” (Romans 1:20).
This dovetails with your point about our thinking of ourselves as “the chosen ones.” Here, we could recall that God’s creating us in his image and likeness (see Genesis 1:26) was his idea, not ours. God in his infinite goodness wanted to share his love with beings created in his image. That isn’t a reason for arrogance on our part but rather a cause for gratitude and awe.
On further reflection, we can detect a paradox in all this, one dealing with the difference between matter and spirit. Yes, the immensity of the material universe is awe-inspiring, and yet, it had a beginning and will have an end. A human person, on the other hand, has a soul that will exist forever. And we have intellects that can comprehend the physical universe. We can think about distant galaxies, but they can’t think about us. So God has given us something that he didn’t give to the rest of the physical realm.
Moreover, a sign that we are special in the universe — a greater sign than even the size of the universe itself — is the fact that God took on human nature and became one of us.
“[B]y His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man,” says the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes. “He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.”
While Christianity indeed rests a lot on faith, it also esteems reason. This is why the Church over the centuries has supported education and scientific research. One example of this is the Vatican Observatory. I hope this helps.