Mike Morrell’s Note: I got to connect and hang out with Mike McHargue – aka Science Mike – this summer at the Wild Goose Festival, thanks to the introduction from our mutual dear friend (and total Renaissance woman) Sarah Heath. Mike’s an amazing man, who’s equally rapid-fire science-y and sincere in pretty much all situations: Whether addressing a sizable conference, his avid Ask Science Mike and The Liturgists Podcast podcast listeners, or over a pint with anyone who happens to be within earshot. I’m so glad he’s written this hybrid memoir/popular science guide/spiritual travelogue, Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science. It’s out now – you should read it. What follows are reflections from it. Go Mikes!!
When we look deep into the night sky with telescopes, we find that all galaxies are moving away from one another and that the rate of their outward movement is increasing. We measure this phenomenon by looking at the redshift of a given galaxy, sort of like figuring out how fast an ambulance is moving away from you by listening to the falling pitch of its siren. With galaxies, we use light waves instead of sound waves, but the outcome is similar. Our universe is expanding, driven by the expansion of space itself.
Now, if you build a mathematical model that accurately describes those galaxies’ expansion and run it backward for billions of years, everything begins to converge to a single point: something scientists call the Initial Singularity. The Initial Singularity (the predecessor to the Big Bang) is an unfathomably compressed state in which our entire universe—every galaxy, star, planet, molecule, atom, photon, and quark in every direction as far as we can see with any instrument—fit in a space smaller than a sugar cube.
Physics gets weird when matter, space, and time are compressed to that degree. In the Initial Singularity, the laws of physics didn’t exist as we know them now. In fact, back then, space-time was so compressed that matter and energy were the same thing, and the four fundamental forces of physics (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces) were just one unified field or force. There was no light and no dark, no separation of space, matter, or energy. There was probably no time, either. The clock wasn’t ticking, nor was it not ticking.
Everything was one, a single-field energy-space thing with the potential to create everything. We don’t have language or mathematics to describe this great mystery. We just call it the Singularity.
When I read about the Singularity, I think of God. We’re talking about a unified energy that caused everything to be, that is beyond our language and our math, beyond our very imagination. This thought drives me to a state of profound reverence and awe. I was there, billions of years ago, in that Singularity, as were all my ancestors and descendants. Every star that’s been born, every star that has died, was there, too. So was every particle that makes up every atom in the universe. All was there, together, in the beginning of everything.
God as the Singularity is plausible in physics and similar to the theological idea of God as the Prime Mover or Source of all. God as a Prime Mover was an idea first put forth by Aristotle, but medieval thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas adapted it to Christian theology, and Paul Tillich married it to naturalistic philosophy in the middle of the 20th century. Theologians argue that the universe couldn’t have come from nothing; therefore, something must have caused the universe to exist, and that something is God. Atheists reply that if it’s possible for God to exist without being created, the same could be true for a Singularity or a quantum vacuum or any other state necessary for the Big Bang to occur.
But when I studied cosmology and astrophysics looking for God, it seemed to me that there was, ultimately, no reason to decide between the two. I’ve heard theologians describe God as the “Great Mystery,” and scientists generally agree that whatever predated the Big Bang sits behind an impenetrable veil—the temporal edge of the universe. Either way, we’re talking about something that our existing methods of measurement can’t describe.
This distinction is mostly technical, though, because as compelling as the concept of God as a Singularity or the Source of all is, it isn’t effective for sustaining faith of any kind. That idea might provoke awe and wonder in us, but it doesn’t give us a God we can seek in worship or encounter in prayer. And it doesn’t explain how God could wash my feet on the shore of the Pacific 13.77 billion years later.
This is why theologians don’t just name God as a Source of all. They also claim that God is the “Ground of Being,” meaning that God doesn’t simply create the universe—He also sustains it to this day.
Of course, physics has its own account of the mechanisms by which we exist now.
Early in the 20th century, Albert Einstein demonstrated that matter and energy are made of the same basic stuff, and that not only is everything that is “solid” in the universe made up of mostly empty space, but that what little actual “mass” there is only exists because some particles interact with a universal, invisible field called the Higgs field. The reason you and I exist is that most of our bodies’ particles create some kind of quantum drag against an invisible Higgs field that makes them slow down (from light speed) and gain mass in the process. That’s at least as weird as anything in Genesis.
Cosmology describes a force that created us and then transformed itself into a system of forces and energy that continue to sustain the universe. This sounds at least a little like what Paul told the people of Athens: “In him we live and move and have our being.”
– Excerpted from Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science. Copyright © 2016 by Mike McHargue. Published by Convergent Books, this really rad imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Seriously, y’all, read this book. Especially if you’re wondering:
- What to do when God ‘dies‘
- How the latest in neuroscience research can change our understanding of what happens when we pray, and how it can rewire our brain
- How fundamentalism affects the brain
- Why people with higher activity in their frontal lobes are drawn to theology
- Meditation and prayer: their similarities and why people who pray regularly have thicker grey matter in their prefrontal cortex (the brain’s CEO) and their anterior cingulated cortex (compassion and empathy)
- How a renewed sense of God shows scripture, the night sky, in subatomic particles – and in us
If you live in the U.S., you might be able to catch Mike on tour supporting his book.
I’ll let (this) Mike have the last word – you can check out his other videos here.
MIKE MCHARGUE, aka “Science Mike,” is a Christian turned atheist turned follower of Jesus who tells his story to help people know God in an age of science. Mike is the host and co-host of two podcasts—Ask Science Mike and The Liturgists Podcast—that have attracted a curious following among Christians, the spiritually interested, and the religiously unaffiliated. He ‘s an in-demand speaker at conferences and churches around the country, and he writes for the Storyline Blog, Sojourners, and Relevant magazine.