Gravitational Waves

This week the Nobel prize in physics was awarded to three American physicists for the first observations of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime that were anticipated by Albert Einstein a century ago. The three played leading roles in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory experiment, which in 2015 made the first historic observation of gravitational waves triggered by the violent merger of two black holes a billion light years away, “a discovery that shook the world”. Einstein had predicted that during cataclysmic events the fabric of spacetime itself can be stretched and squeezed, sending gravitational tremors out across the universe like ripples on a pond.

The description of what these three scientists detected is way beyond my imagination or comprehension. “The phenomenon detected was the collision of two giant black holes, one 35 times the mass of the sun, the other slightly smaller, 1.3 billion light years away. At the start of the 20 millisecond “chirp” in the signal, the two objects were found to be circling each other 30 times a second. By the end, the rate had accelerated to 250 times a second before meeting in a violent collision.”

Apparently, the direct detection of gravitational waves opens a new vista on the “dark” side of the cosmos, to times and places from which no optical light escapes. This includes just fractions of a second after the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, when scientists believe gravitational waves left a permanent imprint on the cosmos that may still be perceptible today.

Our ‘picture’ of the universe, of creation, of matter, is being utterly transformed year by year. The dimensions and events are impossible to imagine. I don’t know what the “dark” side of the cosmos means and I don’t understand spacetime. These existential realities are truly mind-boggling, and they affect my human identity and experience. ‘Out there’ in the universe are distances and events and time scales way beyond any scale I imagined as a child. That’s not surprising, because we didn’t know about them then.

What scientific research is discovering are realties that are challenging and transforming our knowledge of the universe and matter. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m having great difficulty adjusting myself to, let alone comprehending, these massive conceptual, existential expansions and transformations.

Indirectly they impact on my ideas about ‘God’, the nature of being a human on this planet earth, and on my faith. New discoveries co-exist with a faith that is aware that I live in a faith environment that has barely dealt with the Copernican revolution and is still addicted, in many manifestations of Christianity, to the belief that the Bible is a more authentic guide to creation and spacetime and the reality of matter and the cosmos that scientific discoveries and proofs. A significant body of Christians believe that the Bible is an authentic, reliable to guide to creation, history, gender and human sexuality, global warming and internecine strife.

Scientific research is challenging the basic building blocks of faith one again. It’s happened before, when we discovered that the earth isn’t flat and the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth and we have evolved rather than being created fully-formed by God. It’s astonishing me that Christians are still engaged in disputes about the truth of these things. We are so caught up in cultural wars about the limitations ‘God’ places on our activities and identities as human beings that we fail to notice the further astonishing transformations that require a dramatically radical re-imagining of what it means to live with faith in ‘a creator God’.

We worry about the effect on our lives of more immediate, local existential transformations such as robots, global warming, terrorism, computerisation, social media, and fake news. All these can have an affect on our health, safety, security and future contentment, but on a cosmic scale, compared with challenge to our conception and imagination presented by black holes and gravitational waves, they are small beer.

Finding the ability and courage to explore our local, personal, intimate, interior realities is nothing compared with adjusting to the existence of two black holes 1.3 billion light years away circling each other at 250 times a second before meeting in a violent collision. We are challenged by the possibility of exploring ourselves as a holy people, a sacred people in a sacred universe, created unconditionally, like the universe, but in our case, created by unconditional love with an invitation to love unconditionally – an impossibility in my conceptual limitations equal to imagining gravitational waves.

Our theology, especially our theology of God, is utterly inadequate to the task both of imagining our place in a universe of such incomprehensible dimensions and to the task of comprehending unconditional love. Jesus teaches about a Father whose love is unconditional and infinite. The God of tradition and orthodoxy habitually reinforces our guilty anxieties and worries.

I believe, as a matter of experience and faith but not scientific evidence, that we are infused by divine energy and love all the time. We are immersed in it and it, like subatomic particles and radio waves, is passing through us and being generated within us all the time. We can’t see it and we can’t set up a scientifically verifiable experiment to prove its existence. But we could set up our own personal experiment, setting out to live as if we really are infused by God’s unconditional, infinite, intimate love all the time. That’s an act of faith, of course, but the outcome of choosing to place our faith in one kind of divine image rather than one of the alternatives, will, in my experience, result in a different set of outcomes.