Project Canterbury


What We Believe and Why

No. 11

Faith and The New Universe


Librarian, College of Preachers
Washington Cathedral


Published by
Trinity Parish

New York


Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

Faith and the New Universe

Among the early memories of childhood some of you may recall the first glimpse of the stars. It was in the country. You stepped out into the night, and looking up saw that wonder world above of brilliant sparkling gems. Something of its beauty, of its mystery, may have touched your soul.

In the childhood of the race that same impression was once made far back in the dim pre-historic past. Perhaps it came when man first assumed the dominant upright posture, when he first lifted his eyes to the sky above with the dawn of intelligence. In that new sense of wonder, that vague consciousness of powers other and higher than himself, was the beginning of religion. It was also the beginning of astronomy, not as a science but as the ally of religion. Priests were the first astronomers, in Babylonia, in Chaldea, in Egypt. The primitive man gazed with fresh, [1/2] unwearied attention at the marvels of nature, the exquisite shading of light and color at dawn and at sunset, the constant repetition of day and night, the varying phases of the moon, the silent, inevitable march of the seasons. These changes were all registered in the sky above. Sun, moon, and stars represented the powers, the deities, which overshadowed and controlled human life. With advancing intelligence, a crude calendar was formed; the month, the week, and the year, gradually came into use. Both the practical needs of the husbandman, and the proper observance of religious festivals which dramatized man's relation to the unseen, required exact calculations of time. Thus from the very dawn of history the majestic cycles of the heavenly bodies were watched and studied to regulate the social and the religious needs of men.

The story of astronomy has been called the story of receding horizons. To get a better idea of the cosmic horizon of today we must glance back at certain stopping places in the past as man has slowly climbed the mountain of research. [2/3] Take first the period of Hipparchus, the greatest of ancient astronomers, who lived about 150 B. C. From his station on the island of Rhodes he constructed the first tables to give the sun's position among the stars. He determined the orbit of the moon so that eclipses could be predicted. He described the apparent motions of the planets with accuracy, and made a corrected value for the length of the year. But following Aristotle he assumed the earth to be the fixed and stationary center about which daily revolved the celestial sphere. The changes in position during the year of the sun, moon, and planets across the apparently fixed background of the stars were represented as secondary motions around circles called epicycles. Having observed a new star, he set to work to catalogue all the principle stars so as to know if any others appeared or disappeared. This list comprised 1080. It was handed on practically unchanged until the time of Galileo. Hipparchus has justly been called the founder of observational astronomy.

About 300 years later in the great university [3/4] and library at Alexandria, Egypt, with its immense number of students there was a teacher or professor, as we would call him, named Ptolemy. He taught mathematics, geography, and astronomy. The last subject was naturally based upon the work of Hipparchus. Ptolemy added a little new material, possibly made some observations himself. Being primarily an author and teacher, he set out to write a compendium or cyclopaedia of all astronomical knowledge to date. It was called the Almagest in the Arabic translation through which it reached Europe in the middle ages. Because it was his authorship which made it known, the system or theory of Hipparchus came to bear the name of Ptolemy. As such it was later the accepted view of the greatest medieval scholars. Thomas Aquinas gave it doctrinal form in the Church. Dante illumined it with his literary genius. The spheres which carried the heavenly bodies in their apparent orbits were called crystal or crystalline because transparent to light. Seven were necessary for the sun, moon, and five known [4/5] planets. The so-called fixed stars were attached to the eighth sphere, while the ninth was called the primum mobile, or origin of motion for the whole system. Enclosing all was the tenth or Empyrean. This was immovable, the boundary between creation and the outer void. And here in light which no one could enter, the Triune God sat enthroned, the music of the spheres rising to Him as they were moved by the hands of the angels.

All this pictured scheme had been so interwoven with the Ptolemaic astronomy by the use of Biblical texts and theological treatises that the resultant system of the universe was considered impregnable and final. To attack it was blasphemy. The geocentric theory was an integral part of the beliefs and aspirations, the hopes and fears, of Christendom down to the middle of the 16th century; it was the cosmic background for a divine revelation.

Yet with fresh observations and more exact tables, it became increasingly difficult to fit the facts to the theory. It meant continual readjustment, and the frequent invention of new epicycles. [5/6] Finally in 1488, little more than half a century before the time of Copernicus, Alphonso, King of Castile, a royal patron of learning, in disgust at the complexity of the Ptolemaic system, expressed his regret that he had not been consulted at the creation of the universe.

But a new elevation on the mountain of research was about to be reached from which the narrow and restricted world-view of nearly 2000 years would give way to a celestial horizon of unimagined proportions. The work of four great men must be briefly touched upon, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo. No one of them alone could have effected the mighty change in human thought. It was their combined labors for more than a century which at length began to reveal the dimensions of a new universe.

It started with a young Slav, Nicolas Copernicus, born 1473, in Polish Prussia. With a decided bent for mathematics he sought a quiet and sheltered life. Having an uncle who was a Bishop he took Holy Orders, [6/7] and retired to his studies and calculations. He substituted for the apparent motion of the heavens the real motion of the earth. Mathematically it was a simpler way to account for the facts of observation than by the assumed rotation of a number of invisible spheres. He was however still bound by the ancient teaching of Plato that uniform circular orbits were the only perfect motions for heavenly bodies. He had therefore still to use centers outside the sun for the planetary orbits. In spite of the far-reaching and revolutionary conception of the rotation of the earth, his system was incomplete. It could hardly have won final acceptance but for the marvelous contributions of those who followed him, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. With a strange mixture of ecclesiastical loyalty and timidity Copernicus dedicated his great book De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium to the Pope but with the provision that it should not be published until after his death. A copy which he was too weak to open was placed in his hands just before he passed away.

[8] Tycho Brahe, a Danish nobleman, under royal patronage, established a great observatory, and spent a life-time of extraordinary industry in improving the methods of observation, and in preparing more accurate tables. But in theory he held to a strange blend of the Copernican and Ptolemaic systems. His marvelously gifted pupil, Kepler, to whom were entrusted his planetary tables, found after twenty years' labor that circular orbits simply would not do, they could not be made to fit the facts. Then by one of those strokes of inspired genius which have sometimes illumined the dark problems of history, he found the solution in elliptical orbits, and formulated his three great laws. Newton later proved them to be consequences of the law of gravitation. Kepler's life was one of poverty, of misfortune, of illness. Yet his enthusiasm and indomitable purpose shone through it all. After finishing his life-work he wrote: "The die is cast, the book is written, to be read either now or by posterity, I care not which; it may well wait a century for a reader as God has waited six thousand years for an observer."

[9] When Galileo first pointed his crudely-constructed telescope to the heavens in 1610 the vast extent and scale of the material universe was opened to human view. The naked eye alone up to that time had been the chief, almost only, instrument of astronomy. The wider horizon had been invisible. The telescope opened up a starry universe of inexpressible magnificence and splendor. During all the long ages reaching back to the emergence of intelligence, man had been unaware of that vast cosmic system of which he formed a part. It marked the beginning of a new and wondrous story in the history of human thought. The mind is even today dazed and overwhelmed by the magnitude of it. Yet it is real. Once having seen we cannot get away from the thought of it. As viewed from the top of our mountain of research the sun-lit horizon recedes almost to infinity. It is like a cosmic miracle, "a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."

How can distance be measured in the sky? [9/10] First, and primarily just as distances on the earth, by the principles of surveying or triangulation. It is not necessary to cross a river to measure its width. It can be done on one bank by determining the angles at the ends of a known base line when the transit is pointed to a selected object on the other side. So the distance to the moon can be measured without crossing the intervening space. Quite early in modern astronomy a unit, or yardstick, came to be used for measurements in the solar system, namely, the radius of the earth's orbit, or what is the same thing, the distance from the earth to the sun. But before the beginning of the present century that was found to be inconveniently small. It was like numbering long periods of history in days or hours instead of by years. A new unit was found in the velocity of light which by the latest correction of Professor Michelson is 186,285 miles a second. It would encircle the earth nearly eight times in one second, and reach the sun in a little over eight minutes. The distance traversed in a year at that speed is called a [10/11] light year. If the old yard-stick, the distance from the earth to the sun be represented by an inch, the new unit, the light year, on the same scale would be equal to a mile.

By the use of modern methods of precision, the distances of about two thousand of our nearest neighbors in the stellar system have been measured by taking the diameter of the earth's orbit as a base line, and the results given in light years. The distance of our nearest, or next-door neighbor, measured in that way is 4.3 light years. It is Alpha Centauri in the Southern hemisphere, not far from the Southern Cross. It is the third brightest star in the heavens. From that point our sun would appear just as an average second magnitude star. No conceivable telescope, or enlargement of vision, would reveal at the distance of Alpha Centauri the slightest trace of any of those relatively minute planetary bodies like our earth which make up the solar system. Non-luminous bodies like planets, shining by reflected light, would simply be lost in the vast invisibility of space.

[12] The highest speed yet devised in human locomotion is the airplane. Lindbergh's average was 110 miles an hour in his epoch-making flight from New York to Paris. Try to imagine a continuous non-stop flight with inexhaustible supplies of fuel and all necessary equipment, making an average of 100 miles an hour. One could cover the circumference of the earth at the equator which is about 24,000 miles in 10 days. In 100 days he could fly to the moon. But it would take him, or perhaps his grandson, 109 years to reach the sun, and over 3000 years to come to Neptune, the next outermost planet of our solar system. A distance equivalent to 10,000 journeys to Neptune would be required to reach Alpha Centauri, our sun's nearest neighbor in the universe.

It is known that there are about 5000 stars that can be seen with the naked eye. As only half can be seen at one time, and as many of these are hidden in haze about the horizon, 2000 is the number estimated as ordinarily seen on a bright night. Galileo's telescope at once brought an unsuspected multitude of [12/13] hitherto unseen stars into view. Suppose you looked out at night from a lonely point far up on a mountainside, and saw a few dim cottage lights of a little hamlet in the distance. Then suppose you closed your eyes for a brief space, and when you opened them again, you saw the blazing multitude and splendor of the lights of a great metropolitan area, like New York or London. We do not wonder at Galileo's enthusiasm. The naked eye had seen only a minute fraction of those units or constituents of light which make up the vast citizenship of the sky. The stellar universe as known and studied today is "almost entirely telescopic."

Our little group or family which we call the solar system belongs to the Galaxy or milky way which forms the frame-work of our universe. It is shaped like a disc or a watch. The sun is at such a position in the plane of the ring as to give the fleecy, cloudlike band of the milky way its over-arching appearance in the heavens on a clear night. The calculated width or longest diameter of this disc-shaped universe is 300,000 light years, [13/14] while its thickness is about 50,000 light-years, or one-sixth of its greatest width. It is estimated by Professor Abbott, Director of the Smithsonian Institution, to comprise 30 billions of stars. The spiral nebulae, apparently far outside the Galaxy, are not to be classed as distant groups of that system, but as separate independent groupings. They are called "island universes".

In the measurement of greater distances than four or five hundred light-years the shift in position is too slight to be detected by the method previously described. Comparison of candle power and spectra, and particularly the periodic variations of the stars called Cepheids have, however, furnished astronomers with new and highly technical methods for determining the distances involved in the study of the Galaxy and the spiral nebulae.

During the past year the outstanding event of astronomical interest has been the plan for the construction of a 200-inch reflector by the joint action of the General Education Board and the California Institute of Technology. [14/15] In an age accustomed to scientific marvels this project will surely mark a new epoch in man's knowledge of the universe. Some years ago the Hooker 100-inch reflector was completed and installed at Mt. Wilson near Pasadena. The next largest in the world is the 70-inch reflector at the Dominion Observatory in Victoria, Canada. Professor Shapley of Harvard has recently stated that astronomers have learned more about the sidereal universe in the last fifteen years than was known in all time before. The 100-inch Hooker reflector has largely made possible this extraordinary increase of knowledge. But the mirror of the new instrument now undertaken will have twice the diameter and four times the surface of the Hooker reflector. Its light-gathering power will be about a million times that of the human eye. It will show stars from five to ten times fainter and more distant than the 100-inch lens. The photographic limit will be extended from stars of the twenty-second to those of at least the twenty-fifth magnitude. Some hundreds of millions will be added to [15/16] the number which can be photographed and measured for brightness.

What this telescope may reveal in these inconceivably remote regions of space, what it will show of the development and motions of spiral nebulae or island universes, and of their relation to some super-galactic system, cannot fail to stir the imagination. It will have the profoundest significance for thought and for life. The light of over fifteen hundred millions of stars will strike the great massive eye of the new reflector. To the astronomer will be revealed the dim and shadowy outlines of a cosmic background seeming to rest upon infinity, a background so real and yet so mystical, so near and yet so far away.

"I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move."

It was a profound remark of Sir William Herschel that the telescope penetrates as far into time as into space. In other words, the farther you can see out into space thro' the light-gathering power of an immense lens, [16/17] the farther back you are really going into the past to account for what you find in that wider horizon. The speed of light is the basic principle in all study of the size and structure of the universe. It is involved in the new concept of space-time and its curvature as set forth in Einstein's law of relativity. The well-known constellation Pleiades is 326 light-years distant from the earth. That is, the light-rays which we see started from the Pleiades 326 years ago. Conversely, if our earth were illuminated so that its light could reach the Pleiades the events which were happening here 326 years ago would just be coming visible there. The England of Shakespeare and of Elizabeth would be unfolding like a drama on the stage. All the past of human history is somewhere at increasing distances in the remoter constellations, being revealed as a continuous present. Space and time are tied together like the two sides of a shield. The universe, or the sum-total of all things, is everywhere dynamic rather than static. It is an eternal becoming, time as a fourth dimension at any particular point measuring change, [17/18] movement, history. Space-time thus integrated constitutes in the most complete and perfect sense that finite yet boundless sphere of the divine activity or the divine self-expression, called the universe.

When referring to the divine activity or divine self-expression one is, of course, taking it for granted that there is outside of man in nature evidence of a creative energy which is somehow linked with intelligence, that this intelligence is all-pervasive or omnipresent, that it parallels at every point the widest extension of the material universe. Now the first religious implication of present-day astronomy is a larger field of action, a vaster workshop for that supreme creative intelligence whom we call God. This planet on which we live was once regarded not only as the fixed and stationary center of the universe, but the largest in size of all the heavenly bodies, and the most important because the abode of men. That earth-centered work-shop of the past seems now exceedingly small. The scale has been greatly altered. [18/19] We can never repeat or restore the narrow provincialism of primitive times. But is not the very idea of God enlarged and enriched by the dimensions of the new universe? We need not be afraid of what is called anthropomorphism, the imaging or conceiving of God in human terms. It all depends upon how it is done. Here we are trying to picture mind or intelligence as operating on a super-human scale. How shall we do it? Put a mechanical genius in a little machine shop with a few simple tools and a few great principles of mechanics. Transport him years later as the executive head of some great industrial plant covering acres of territory and employing thousands of men. Intelligence can still handle the situation. Mere material magnitude does not count for so much after all. The main thing is the power of thought to transcend physical limitations and co-ordinate widely-separated activities. If our minds can discover the approximate size and scale of the universe, the divine mind can not only conceive but create, administer, and [19/20] control; and that with pervasive psychic energy everywhere present, yet nowhere seen, except in its results. The point at present in relation to the new concepts of space and time, is that the vast extension of the domain or sphere of divine activity cannot weaken or lessen the creative control of the whole, but adds greatly to its richness and glory. Intelligence in man is always highest when creative. Intelligence in God can be no less so. The divine laboratory or workshop as seen today far exceeds in its majestic proportions and possibilities all the dreams or visions of the past.

But if an enlarged universe exalts the idea of God, may it not in like degree reduce man to hopeless littleness and insignificance? In the medieval theology with its Ptolemaic background man unquestionably occupied the center of the stage. World history was a mighty drama, and man was the central figure, the hero of the play. All things earthly and celestial were but the staging for the spectacle of human life. Were not the critics of the Copernican view right [20/21] when they protested that if this earth were no longer the central and all-important part of the universe, man was dethroned from his high estate? Where was his dignity or the prestige of being made in the likeness of God, if the planet on which he lived could scarcely be seen or noticed among the bright lights of the stellar highway?

Mere magnitude, or physical immensity, is not particularly impressive or significant in itself, without mind to perceive it. Vast volumes of incandescent gases far less dense or lighter, we might say, than the air we breathe, make up those blazing orbs whose countless numbers seem to fill the empty spaces of the sky. Some of them are attended by lesser or darker bodies revolving about a common center of gravity. But mere mass, volume, size, boundless space or apparently endless time, mean nothing without a perceiving intelligence. If there be no significant change or movement, which a mind can note or interpret, increasing the size of the universe is like adding to the number of grains of sand on the seashore. [21/22] What difference does it make? Infinite number, or infinite mass, without thought, is simply colossal, if not infinite, blankness. The existence or the non-existence of such a universe as that would be equally unimportant.

Whatever may be the conditions in the far distant realms revealed by the telescope, there is something here on this planet that is so unique as almost to cry out for meaning, for explanation. The perceiving mind, the glimpses, even momentary, of truth, of goodness, of beauty, how much of dramatic intensity and significance have they given to the brief span of our years! Even in failure, in tragedy, in loss, the soul still holds to its integrity, and dreams and visions to itself an ideal kingdom of worth and of love. Could the mind of man have found out the scale and dimensions of the universe if it were not kin to the creative intelligence which formed it? Can it be less true on the psychical side than on the physical that we are organically related to a larger whole, that there is no discontinuity in nature? [22/23] Could we have found a meaning in moral experience, a haunting illusive beauty in nature and in art, without some counterpart beyond, some response from the unseen, witnessing to a far-reaching and enduring realm of the spirit? No, by so much as man's physical being is reduced to insignificance by the new scale of the universe, by so much does his mental stature mount to the heavens. Because, looked at objectively, it is his mind, his intelligence, which has devised means of extending his vision until it reaches the bounds of creation. This is the supreme miracle, the surpassing wonder, in the history of this planet, that a being struggling upward from the dust has opened his eyes, and found a universe. Naught but kinship with the Eternal can explain him.

We are not then overwhelmed by physical vastness. There is something in intelligence which defies measurement, a quality as subtle, as all pervasive as the ether, through which we have learned to transmit our messages by the radio with the speed of light. The vaster universe revealed by modern astronomy not [23/24] only adds an indescribable extent and richness to the activities of the Infinite Spirit, but it relates us through intellectual and moral kinship with God more firmly and unmistakably than ever to a spiritual order of matchless worth and beauty, an order in which there comes to us

"A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man."

Project Canterbury