Probing a Very Large Universe

by Elder M. Lindahl

What is the universe? Do other earths exist, and are they inhabited? Are there countless solar systems? What is space? Does it make sense to talk about up or down; inner or outer space? Is space finite and limited, infinite and endless, or what? What is time? How are space and time related? Is the universe aging, and will it finally run down? What is the relation between God and the universe?

Do you ever wonder about such things? Do you think it’s important for humans to ponder and discuss general questions like these?

The year 2000 marks the 400th anniversary of the tragic, untimely death of Giordano Bruno, an Italian religious thinker who thought deeply about such cosmological questions. Born in Nola, near Naples in 1548 and baptized Flippo, Bruno had an expansive view of the vastness of space and time which brought him into serious conflict with the church-approved astronomy of his day. A Dominican monk at 17 and a priest at 24, Bruno became very impatient with the clerical authority which supported a narrow, closed view of the world. He was soon charged with heresy and threatened with excommunication. He challenged the idea, devised by Aristotle and accepted in the Church, that the sun, moon, stars, and planets revolved in 55 concentric circles around a stationary earth. I find it amazing that in a time when most people inside and outside the church believed that the universe was a finite, closed system, such a man as Bruno puzzled about these difficult questions.

Bruno endured great suffering in his search for answers. He left the Dominican Order and wandered through Northern Italy, Switzerland, France, England, Germany, and other countries as an itinerant scholar and teacher. In general agreement with Copernicus, he taught a heliocentric universe, infinite space, and the existence of many worlds. His views were developed in six Italian Dialogues or books, three of which present his cosmology (in a rambling, unsystematic way) and three his ethics. The Bible, he argues, gives us moral teaching, not astronomy truths. "Your God is too small," or perhaps, "your universe is too small" could well summarize his viewpoint. The majesty of God, for Bruno, demands an infinite universe. In one of his 20 books, De la Causa, principio et uno (On Cause, Principle, and unity), he writes:

This entire globe, this star, not being subject to death, and dissolution and annihilation being impossible anywhere in Nature, from time to time renews itself by changing and altering all its parts. There is no absolute up or down, as Aristotle taught; no absolute position in space; but the position of a body is relative to that of other bodies. Everywhere there is incessant relative change in position throughout the universe, and the observer is always at the center of things.

This is an example of his writing style—unsystematic, rambling, poetic. In this passage, Bruno says that our earth is an eternal star which continually renews itself. Change is a constant feature in life and in the universe. He knew that the position of the perceiver or observer is crucial in any description. In general, Bruno, rejects a mechanical, passive view of the universe. He foresaw many modern cosmological ideas. Before the Jewish Philosopher, Spinoza, Bruno held that God and Nature are one; before the German Thinker, Leibnitz, Bruno held that the physical world is made up of irreducible monads in constant motion; before Albert Einstein, he envisioned the concept of relativity.

Karl Jaspers writes of Bruno:

Bruno’s writings are voluble, repetitive, full of contradiction. They do not form a coherent system, and lack an aura of clear intelligibility. No clear logical method, no principle, no systematic form prevails. They are rhetorical. He was the typical singing fighter and not an accomplisher. His writings reveal an awareness of his shortcomings, alongside the exuberance of the knower. They exhibit...an overflowing of words and phrases, a joy in metaphors.... He does not cognize; he unburdens himself.

The flamboyant manner of this "Singing Fighter" caused problems. Wherever he went—Toulouse, Paris, Oxford, the Universities of Germany, Prague, and so on—he stirred up controversy among Roman Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans. He mixed magic and astrology in with his teaching, and he had a grandiloquent, speculative, satirical style.

After many years of struggle with the authorities, Bruno was finally given a chance to settle down and to teach in peace. Giovanni Mocenigo, a young Venetian, who wanted to study mnemonics (the science and training of the memory) with Bruno, gave him protection. The lessons went well until 1592 when young Giovanni, too, decided Bruno was a heretic and turned him in to the Venetian Inquisition. Bruno was arrested, tried, and given various chances to correct his philosophical, theological, astronomical, and astrological views during a seven-year imprisonment. Though he tried to show that his and the Christian view of creation were compatible, Pope Clement VIII sentenced him to death as a heretic. Bruno was brought to the public stake, gagged, and burned alive on February 8, 1600. By 1603, his works were placed on the Index, a list of books judged heretical by the Church.

This 400th anniversary of his death provides a moment to remember his quest for truth and his revolutionary vision of the cosmos. Bruno, a man without a country and without a church, is a neglected thinker. He reminds us that ideas have consequences, sometime tragic ones. My hope is that as church members, as well as citizens of a free country, we might muse, with him, over how our general view of the origin and nature of the cosmos and the Christian Faith fit together. The answer we give, hardly a matter of life and death as it was for him and possibly one he would find restrictive, is, nonetheless, an important linkage between science and faith.

Cosmology and Christian Faith belong together. In classical Christianity, the God who creates the universe is the very God who redeems it. "This is my Father’s world." Some modern Christians, like those to whom Bruno addressed his criticism, still hold a Faith that is attached to pre-scientific or non-scientific views of the cosmos. When creation and redemption are disassociated, Faith easily becomes an escape from the real cosmos in which we live.

The key difference in imagining what our universe is like in Bruno’s time and in ours is, of course, the emergence of empirical science in the 17th and 18th centuries. When cosmologists today present a vision of this immense universe as emerging some 15 billion years ago following a "big bang" their speculations are grounded in observation, rigorous mathematical theory, and the scientific method. Bruno employed intuition, poetic imagination and metaphor. Bruno and modern science, nonetheless, both share a passionate concern for the question of the nature of the universe in which we live and move and have our being.

As Christians we can think together with these modern cosmologists to fill in, expand, and enrich the general picture of creation in the book of Genesis. Thankfully, we can follow Bruno’s lead without becoming "dead right!" Bruno challenges Christian people to move beyond thinking of the universe as a limited, closed system that puts this little blue planet we inhabit at the center of things, a view that confuses piety with ideas inherited from obsolete science. Such limited horizons reflect the poverty of human imagination rather than the glory of God.

May remembering this 52-year-old martyr on this sad anniversary provide occasions for all of us to work at integrating science and personal Faith. The project of integrating is endless because of the nature of the subject with which we are working and the limitation of our human reasoning powers. Even so, in the midst of the project, in media res, praise God for the majestic, infinite universe He made and sustains, and for the gift of redemption He lovingly provides within it.