by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
Note: At the outset of this reflection, a word of apology for what will be inadequate comments on a subject beyond my competence. Apologies, too, for even attempting to address this subject given its complexity and incredible mind-stretch. However, all of us, uninformed as we might be, are driven to deal with what have become new and ever more challenging horizons for humanity. We cannot turn away from this new moment in the story of Creation and humanity’s place in it.
This week an amazing event took place. The James Webb Space Telescope reached its distant destination a month after its launching on Christmas Day. Curiously, both The New York Times and The Washington Post put the story on their inside pages (pages 6 and 4 respectively). This triumph of human science should have received banner headlines.
Nearly forty years after the project was conceived and fully thirty years in its development, the Webb successfully traveled nearly a million miles from earth to a position in space where, in layperson’s terms, it is best situated to view our solar system as never before. Even the most cursory understanding of this endeavor challenges the imagination. The Webb traveled at a cruising speed of some 720 miles per hour; as it journeyed it gradually unfolded perfectly a sunshield the size of a tennis court which will protect it from the intense heat of the sun allowing it to cool to minus 370 degrees below zero.
At the same time another similar marvel, the space probes of Voyager I and Voyager II, puts one in mind of the near incomprehensible vastness of our solar system. While the Webb traveled nearly one million miles, Voyager I and Voyager II, launched in August of 1977, went some 14.5 billion(!) miles and finally passed the limits of our solar system in 2021.
For people of faith these new realities spark long and deep reflections. We have a heretofore unimaginable consciousness regarding space and time. As inhabitants of Planet Earth, we have come to know ourselves as pilgrims on a beautiful but tiny place in the cosmos. If we are honest, our amazement at this example of human science teaches us how much we do not know.
Above all, our faith challenges us with questions about the Holy Mystery at the heart of this unfolding understanding of creation. Is God the Creator of all this? Does our Christian belief in God’s incarnation signify Divine Presence at the heart of these new discoveries? How is humanity to understand that we are an integral part of what is being discovered in these scientific achievements?
For several decades now, thinking and believing people have asked these questions and striven to make sense of them, if not provide answers to them. There is a “new cosmology” in human awareness based on advancements like the Webb enterprise. It is a continuation of what humanity has wrestled with from time immemorial: studying the origin, nature, structure and evolution of the universe. We are in a new moment of cosmological thinking thanks to an instrument (Webb) which may have the capacity to study the origins of it all, reaching as far back as the “Big Bang” hypothesis.
Ilia Delio, a Franciscan sister, is one of the foremost commentators on this “new cosmology”. Trained as a scientist, she worked for some years in areas of neuromuscular diseases before turning to theological studies. Thus, she brings a rare combination of hard science and speculative spirituality to questions like those posited here. Sister Ilia offers the fascinating proposition that “the universe is the new monastery.” Her writings are especially worthwhile, if often beyond the average person’s ability to fully grasp. She delves into the awesome challenges to people of faith faced with advances in our consciousness such as those presented by the James Webb Space Telescope.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.