The Vast Expanse of Interstellar Space: A Hidden Universe

 on August 18, 2022

Will the James Webb Space Telescope unlock the mysteries of the universe as never before? By peering into the heavenly darkness, are we discovering a little more about the divine Creation?

“To see the world in a grain of sand.” Lawrence M. Krauss, author and theoretical physicist, quotes William Blake from “Auguries of Innocence” (1803) in his extensive article on the images from the Webb telescope. The telescope reveals that a region of the sky smaller than a grain of sand held at arm’s length holds billions of worlds. “Each image represents a new window on an otherwise hidden universe—the very first time any human has been able to pierce the veiled darkness of the cosmos.”

In the Bible, darkness is associated with being lost or choosing the path to iniquity. Light conquers darkness to reveal the path to righteousness and a closer relationship with God. If light is the symbol of God’s presence, then is darkness, the absence of light, the symbol of God’s absence? These recent images demonstrate that God’s Creation is still evolving.

Astronomers can now see where hot gas, dust, radiation, and magnetic fields dance and give birth to stars. The images are so full of colour and detail that the director of the project in Canada, René Doyon, describes them as “the beautiful bridge between science and art.” Artists attempt to capture the wonders of the natural world, whether in great vistas of landscape or in delicate details of a single rose. These spectacular cosmic images are attempts to capture the unseen wonders of the heavens.

Astronomers who have been studying the heavens for years are marvelling at the clarity of the images, one calling them “a thousand words in a picture.” The power of the Webb telescope reveals millions of stars and galaxies in regions where previously scientists could see only total darkness. The magnitude of what was unknown inspires awe and amazement.

Two years ago, astronomers were ecstatic about the achievement of obtaining a picture of a black hole. For over a century, scientists believed that black holes existed in the universe, but they could not prove their existence visually. Black holes are not nothingness, not the absence of power and substance. They are the absence of light. They are so powerful that they draw everything near them into themselves. On seeing a black hole, one scientist commented, “this is the outer edge of our knowledge.”

The recent images from the Webb telescope further encourage the search for what lies beyond our understanding. The outer edge of our knowledge has come a little closer.

When scientists talk about these amazing discoveries, they sound a little like theologians. In 1941, Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Einstein was being prophetic, like the ancient prophets who warned the Hebrew people that there were limits to their understanding of Creation. The task of science is to discover what already exists; that is why they are called discoveries. Science without religious faith may not have the humility to recognize that there is always more to discover.

Religion without science may fail to recognize God’s continuing work of revelation. The images from the Webb telescope are the result of human ingen-uity and human endeavour, but perhaps also some divine revelation. Religious faith is the eternal search for what lies beyond our understanding, or what a scientist may describe as beyond the outer edge of our knowledge.

The title of this article does not come from a description of the images from the Webb telescope. It is a line in one of the eucharistic prayers (#4) in the Book of Alternative Services. All eucharistic prayers are prayers of thanksgiving to God for the blessings of Creation and for God’s steadfast love of humanity revealed in the life and death of God’s Son. Eucharistic prayers also remind us that God’s Spirit continues to work in our world teaching us more than we can ask or imagine.

  • Sharyn Hall

    The Reverend Canon Dr. Sharyn Hall is an honorary member of the clergy at Christ's Church Cathedral, Hamilton.

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