LDS Cosmology and Modern Astronomy: A Beautiful Marriage

12-sagittarius star cloud.jpg

The great scientist Carl Sagan wrote,

…in some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said—grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed’? Instead, they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.

That religion has emerged.

Back in 2002, Neal A. Maxwell delivered exactly how and why that religion is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I understand concerns generated by such rhetoric. I get the skepticism a nonmember would feel in reacting to what could be seen as arrogance or naivety on my part. I may seem a little too desirous to please the scientific community, to claim our partnership without an actual foundation just to get people in my tent.

But this is not abstract dogma applied haphazardly to out-of-context scientific quotes and understanding. This is real. And it just excites me so much.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is among the only sects of Christianity to have a distinct cosmology. It is also perhaps the only one to fully embrace the grand discoveries of astronomers and astrophysicists about our universe. That is because we are a cosmic religion. We recognize just how much there really is to know, and we desire to know it. Rarely does a new fact about the cosmos threaten any of our teachings. In fact, our doctrine celebrates the science of astronomy and astrophysics. We exult in the findings of people like Carl Sagan and eagerly add them to our understanding of our own beliefs, which lay a groundwork for cosmological facts.

Because the discoveries all too often confirm what our scriptures have been teaching for nearly two centuries now.

Again, I get how this attitude of mine could be misconstrued as an over-eagerness to connect ancient abstract teachings to modern-day science. That the connection between the two is more tenuous and strained than I admit to, and perhaps is something I am merely imagining in my zeal. But it is not. I promise you, I do not have to stretch the science or the religion to get them to meet in the middle. They just do.

It is a remarkable thing, and I want to share it with everyone.

Now, Elder Maxwell cautions before diving in, “the Church does not align itself with the astrophysics of 2002 [when he gave the above address], nor does it endorse any particular scientific theory about the creation of the universe.” But I believe that is only because the science is not done. It won’t be done for a long time, and the theories will only keep adjusting, and, I believe, growing closer and closer to revealed truth and implied subtle truths within the wording of those revelations. We do not know the full breadth and scope of the universe because our brains cannot comprehend it. The science is not complete because our minds are not, and neither are our souls. But one day it will all be knowable—and known.

D&C 121:29-31—

“All thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, shall be revealed and set forth upon all who have endured valiantly for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“And also, if there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars—

“All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their glories, laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times” (D&C 121:29–31).

And they have surely begun to—in ways the early Church, to whom these things were revealed, never could have anticipated.

Let’s take a look at a few of the parallels Elder Maxwell brings up:

Furthermore, order is reflected in God’s creations…

“And I saw the stars, that they were very great, and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; and there were many great ones which were near unto it; . . .

“And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord’s time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:2, 9; emphasis added).

One scientist is reported as saying of cosmic configuration, “We may be living among huge honeycomb structures or cells.” [17] Some scientists say of certain nonrandom galaxies that they “appear to be arranged in a network of strings, or filaments, surrounding large, relatively empty regions of space known as voids.” [18] Other astronomers say they have discovered an “enormous . . . wall of galaxies, . . . the largest structure yet observed in the universe.” [19] Commendably, such able scientists continue to press forward.

For us, however, clearly the earth never was the center of the universe, as many once provincially believed! Nor has it been many decades since many likewise believed our Milky Way Galaxy was the only galaxy in the universe.

….

…contemplate what constitutes but one section within our vast Milky Way Galaxy:

Isn’t it breathtaking? Especially when we realize that the distances between those bright dots are so great!

Whatever the how of God’s creative process, spiritually reassuring things are set forth about the beginning—“back of the beyond,” so very long ago.

“And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there,and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; . . . And they went down at the beginning, and they . . .organized and formed the heavens and the earth” (Abraham 3:24; 4:1; emphasis added).

Strikingly, according to some scientists, “Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is located in one of the relatively empty spaces between the Great Walls.”

There is space there.

It’s often in the subtext of ancient scripture, in language that we might not have noticed and would not have meant anything to anyone at the time it was revealed—whether in Old Testament times or the 19th century—that we find those startling, striking parallels.

Some might cry “Coincidence!” And yet the science fits all too perfectly into the narrative of creation—and the narrative of creation came first. Long before science could guess at how it all worked. Indeed, it is because of many supposed coincidences that life exists at all. Could all this really be a great cosmic accident?

One scientist who does not believe in divine design nevertheless noted that “as we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents . . . that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the universe must in some sense have known that we were coming.” (Freeman J. Dyson, “Energy in the Universe,” Scientific American 224, no. 3 (September 1971): 59.)

We can see what chaos looks like in deep space. We can see what this Earth, this solar system, must have looked like before the accidents began to fall in line. We can see the before and after, the chaos and the order, and how it all fits into “one eternal round” of complex and cyclical creation as our scriptures describe.

This next view is of a star-forming region involving unorganized material.

“And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come” (Moses 1:38).

Next, we see a visual of what is “left over” after a star dies.

“For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power” (Moses 1:35).

In the words of the hymn “How Great Thou Art,” of the universe and the Atonement, we sing that we “scarce can take it in.” [10]

Whatever God’s initial process, there apparently was some divine overseeing: “And the Gods watched those things which they had ordereduntil they obeyed” (Abraham 4:18; emphasis added).

As my friend and LDS author Chris Heimerdinger likes to point out, ours is the only major Christian religion to have as part of its doctrinal canon the existence of life on other planets. Didn’t Stephen Hawking say that if there was no other life out there in the universe, it would be an incredible waste of space?

Very significantly, we here on this earth are not alone in the universe. In the Doctrine and Covenants, which will be the focus of your study this year, we read that “by [Christ], and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76:24; emphasis added; see also Moses 1:35).

We do not know where or how many other inhabited planets there are, even though we appear to be alone in our own solar system.

As to the Lord’s continuing role amid His vast creations, so little has been revealed. There are inklings, however, about kingdoms and inhabitants.

“Therefore, unto this parable I will liken all these kingdoms, and the inhabitants thereof—every kingdom in its hour, and in its time, and in its season, even according to the decree which God hath made” (D&C 88:61).

The Lord even invites us to “ponder in [our] hearts” that particular parable (v. 62). Such pondering does not mean idle speculation, but rather, patient and meek anticipation of further revelations. Besides, God gave only partial disclosure—“not all”—to Moses, with “only an account of this earth” (Moses 1:4, 35), but Moses still learned things he “never had supposed” (v. 10). Nevertheless, we do not worship a one-planet God!

Moses 7:30: “And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations.”

Now, cast your eyes on this view of what is called “deep space”:

Almost every dot you see in this frame, courtesy of the Hubble telescope, is a galaxy! Think of our own Milky Way Galaxy. I am told that each galaxy represented here has on the order of 100 billion stars. Just this little wedge of the universe has almost innumerable worlds.

Many kingdoms, each with its own time and season. Many planets, each with their own timeline and history, some perhaps as advanced as we are when our Earth was still only rocks and rivers, while others may be primitive still even as we approach our planet’s end times. “…by [Christ], and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created” (D&C 76:24, emphasis mine). “For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power…and as on earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof [read: stars and galaxies] even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words” (Moses 1:35, 38). Through great telescopes our scientists today witness exactly this happening to stars throughout the galaxy, a constant flux of celestial death and rebirth.

This was all revealed to men before trains were even invented. Just a coincidence, that all these spiritual revelations actually revealed cosmic truth? If so, yet another item to add to the list of things Joseph Smith accidentally got right. (That’s Chris Heimerdinger about the Book of Abraham and the theory of relativity. Look up Abraham chapter 3 if you’re skeptical; in it God explains to Abraham how time moves differently when you’re in different places in the universe. That was 1842.)

But Joseph Smith’s revelations were not merely about sketching the laws and awes of the universe. They were much more about the question that puzzles astronomers to this day.

Hawking said: “Although science may solve the problem of how the universe began, it cannot answer the question: Why does the universe bother to exist? I don’t know the answer to that.” [12]

Albert Einstein said of his desires: “I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.” [13]

Dr. Allen Sandage, a believer in divine design, was an assistant to Edwin Hubble. Sandage wrote: “Science . . . is concerned with the what, when, andhow. It does not, and indeed cannot, answer within its method (powerful as that method is), why.” [14]

 

The main difference between the Latter-day Saint view and that of the likes of Carl Sagan is that, in addition to being in awe of the beauty and scope of the universe, we also believe it has purpose. That it is designed not merely to tickle the fancy of those who look in their telescopes, but house the greatest possible forge: a smithy of the soul, crafting men into gods.

For God, like any parent, wants His children to grow up to become like Him.

It is a work built and driven by love. A love for each and every one of us, His children. “And there are many [worlds] that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them….For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:35, 39).

Brothers and sisters, the Lord is mindful of each of His vast creations. Look once more at the many “dots” in just one portion of our ordinary-sized Milky Way Galaxy:

He knows them all. Think of it. Just as the Lord knows each of these creations, so also He knows and loves each of those seen in this or any crowd—indeed, each and all of mankind! (see 1 Nephi 11:17).

It is a grand scope, yet perfectly intimate. God spins both galaxies and lilies, explodes stars and comforts us when we’re sad.

 

…as we enlarge our views both of the universe and of God’s stretching purposes, we, too, can reverently exclaim, “O how great the plan of our God!” (2 Nephi 9:13).

Therefore, as we probe, ponder, and learn, we certainly should be filled with awe, and we should also be intellectually meek. King Benjamin counseled us with these simple but profound words:

“Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend ” (Mosiah 4:9; emphasis added).

Alas, in our age, brothers and sisters, we have some who believe that if they cannot comprehend something, then God cannot comprehend it either. Ironically, some do actually prefer a “little god.” Better for all of us—scientists and nonscientists alike—instead of trying to downsize divinity, to upsize our personal humility!

As spectacular as what science has learned about the witnessing universe so far, it is still such a small sample. Of the 1995 Hubble picture of a “deep field,” it was said that “the sampled segment—the deepest image ever taken of the heavens—covered . . . ‘a speck of the sky only about the width of a dime located 75 feet away.’” [16]

The soul trembles, brothers and sisters!

Taken all together, such insight inspires deeper reading of other passages that contain similar terminology. How many times has the Lord been literal in the scriptures without our knowing it, because our minds and grasp of knowledge were not advanced enough to receive it? How much knowledge has God already communicated that we have simply ignored  or taken for granted or been blind to?

It is a glorious, intimidating thought. And it is tempting to simply ignore the vastness of what there is to know because it is “not essential to our salvation.” Well, my friends, if you think about it, very little is actually “essential to our salvation.”

God wants us to have more. He wants us to become like Him, to obtain the same level of knowledge He has. That is why He gave us curious minds—minds that have led to the jaw-dropping scientific discoveries we have before us. And it is why He calls this era the “dispensation of the fulness of times,” and tells us that “all…shall be revealed” in this time (D&C 121:31). We are meant to know as much as we truly desire to know. For it is knowledge, in combination with divine mercy and salvation, that turns men into gods—the purpose of God’s work, the purpose of the universe itself as He has revealed it from His own mouth.

So…search! Don’t let the mundanity of our everyday life numb your minds. Elder Maxwell warns us: “Humdrum routineness and repetition can cause us to look indifferently downward instead of reverently upward and outward.” But, even more than the scientists, we Latter-day Saints have the greatest reasons to look into the universe, into the Creator’s cosmos, with joy.

 

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4 thoughts on “LDS Cosmology and Modern Astronomy: A Beautiful Marriage

  1. Pingback: Immortality AND Eternal Life: the Difference | A Mirror, a Sword and Shield

  2. Pingback: Ruminations on Science and Religion | troublemakingeditor

  3. Love this! The scriptures to which you referred here are the ones upon which I’ve always based my interstellar science fiction. We have brothers and sisters out there, and Christ performed His atonement for all of them, too.

    Like

  4. Pingback: LDS Cosmology and Modern Astronomy: A Beautiful Marriage — A Mirror, a Sword and Shield | Home Business Ideas And Opportunities

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