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The “I” and the Stars

Not only the “heavens” but everything speaks of the Creator. An astrophysicist whose job is to search for the origins of the universe, gave the following presentation at the Pontifical Council for the Laity on the theme: “The Question of God Today.”
Marco Bersanelli

The question “Who is God for you?” calls into question the whole of your life, your family, your friendships, your desires, your interests, your work. And, since I was asked, I will try to answer this question beginning precisely from the experience of my daily work.

My work is a rather special one–scientific research in the field of cosmology, the science that studies the structure and the evolution of the universe as a whole. For many years now, with many colleagues and friends spread all over the world, we have been studying “the first light of the universe.” We are dealing with the primordial light released in the first moments of the cosmic expansion, before the formation of the galaxies, the stars, the planets, and the very atoms that make up our bodies. For almost 20 years now, I have been involved in the most ambitious project in this field, the European Space Agency’s Planck Satellite, launched into space on May 14, 2009, and now in orbit at one and a half million kilometers from the Earth. Thanks to highly sensitive instruments, at a temperature of nearly absolute zero, Planck observes this weak glow coming from the boundary of space-time, which reaches us after a journey of 14 billion years, and enables us to reconstruct an image of the newborn universe with unprecedented detail.

The vastness of the universe that contemporary science sets before our eyes leaves us mesmerized. Billions of galaxies, each made up of hundreds of billions of stars, are spread over a space whose depth is measured in billions of light-years (and every light-year is about ten thousand billion kilometers!). But man lived a very intense relationship with the universe long before the advent of modern cosmology.

All ancient civilizations were deeply marked by a mysterious fascination for the heavens, and recognized in the starry firmament the summit, the immensity, and the beauty of creation. Our biblical tradition, too, is full of astronomic symbols and references. “The heavens” are very often referred to when speaking of God. So today, before the vast, boundless spaces of modern cosmology, the object of my daily work, I cannot but ask myself: Who is God in this immense universe? And who is man? How does our Judeo-Christian tradition pose this question and how does it throw light on it? The ancient Hebrew people, gazing at the vault of heaven with their bare eyes, were very much aware of the disproportion between human nature and the immensity of the cosmos. The words of Psalm 8 are, still today, I believe, unsurpassed when it comes to expressing this disproportion, even with all the sensitivity of our present vision of the universe:
“When I see the heavens, the work of Your hands, the moon and the stars which You arranged, what is man that You should keep him in mind, mortal man that You care for him?” (Ps 8:4-5)

Almost nothing. What is man, who are we, in this “enormous room” that is creation? Specks of dust. Man is “almost nothing” in the immensity of the cosmos. Modern science, far from reducing this disproportion, actually increases it immeasurably. But Psalm 8 then points out the other side of the paradox of the human condition:
“Yet You have made him little less than a god; with glory and honor You crowned him” (Ps 8:6).
Man is an infinitesimal particle in the universe, and yet every human being, the “I” of each one of us, is a vertiginous point in which the universe becomes aware of itself. It is striking to think of man’s smallness, and at the same time of the greatness of his nature, comparable only to the infinite. Man is the self-awareness of the cosmos.

I am struck by those Old Testament texts in which the vastness of the sky is used as an image of God’s greatness, as a sign of the disproportion between God and man, as the emblem of His infinite mercy:
“As the heavens are high above the earth, so My ways are above your ways, My thoughts above your thoughts” (Is 55:9).
The enormity of the cosmic dimensions that science has brought to light today deepen the force of this comparison even further. Marvelous though it is, the universe is always indicated in the Old Testament as a “sign,” an “image,” an “analogy” of its Creator; there is a fundamental distinction between the creation (the universe) and the Creator (God). Things do not make themselves.

I remember once, many years ago, being in a tough spot. I had just come back to Italy after some years in the United States, and had begun, along with others, the project that was to become the Planck Project. The work was frenetic and I had to travel a lot, staying away from home for long periods. We had a young son, born in America, and also a daughter, who was born soon after we got back to Italy. In the meantime, I had also begun lecturing in the university. I felt I was not able to respond to all that life was asking of me. One day, I had the fortune to meet Fr. Giussani, and I told him about the situation and asked his advice on how to find a balance, a good compromise, between my family responsibilities, the research project, the lecturing, and so on. After a few moment’s silence, he looked at me and said, “No, it’s not a question of balance. What you have to realize is that when you are dealing with your wife and children, and when you are dealing with your work and research, with your students, with your friends, you are dealing with Christ.” Then he took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped the table with it, and showed it to me saying, “See these specks of dust? Ultimately, even these specks of dust come from Him.”

The surprise of reality. That talk made a deep impression on me. It did not solve my problems as if by magic (and over the years the complexities of life have increased), but it offered me a new way of looking at things, and little by little this way of looking came to be more habitual. “Ultimately, everything comes from Him.” Reality does not make itself; everything is given, created, in this moment. It is being aware of this that makes the difference. There is a point in which the nature of reality as “given,” “created,” is more easily accessible to our reason, and becomes a tangible experience for each one of us–the fact that my “I” exists in this instant. To use again Fr. Giussani’s words, “At this moment, if I am attentive, that is, if I am mature, then I cannot deny that the greatest and most profound evidence is that I do not make myself, I am not making myself. I do not give myself being, or the reality which I am. I am ‘given.’ ... I am You-who-make-me” (The Religious Sense, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997, p. 105).
This is our condition, and it is the same condition for all the things around us–specks of dust, the stars in the sky, every galaxy and particle in the universe, time and space... Every creature, if it could speak, should say, “I am You-who-make-me.” Ultimately, everything has its roots in the mystery that calls it into being in every instant. This is where surprise for the presence of reality is born. Without this surprise, everything would be taken for granted, everything would stop at mere appearances, everything would be emptied of meaning:
“All men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing Him who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan. But neither fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods. Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original source of beauty fashioned them. Or if they were struck by their might and energy, let them from these things realize how much more powerful is He who made them. For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen” (Wis 13:1-5).

The womb of life. One of the most fascinating aspects that emerges from modern astrophysics is the evidence that life, our own existence, requires the confluence of the whole history of the universe in order to exist. The ancients already knew that human life depended on the sun and rain, and on the earth’s fertility, on day and night, on the alternating seasons. Today, we know that life also depends on stellar cycles, on the explosions of supernovae, on the rhythm of cosmic expansion, on the contrast of density in the primordial universe, on the structure of physical laws, on the value of the fundamental constants. Without all these things (and many others), without a cosmic history of 14 billion years, there would be no life. The more we know the universe, the more we recognize that every single aspect seems to concur in the possibility of hosting our existence.
In the Old Testament, we find sublime references to the universe (not only the earth) as the place that welcomes life, the environment created in order to make our existence possible.
“He stretches out the heavens like a veil, spreads them out like a tent to dwell in” (Is 40:22).
The whole universe is the womb of life, right down to the miracle that is the human creature. God calls each man, unique and unrepeatable, by name. He has given personal form to each one of us from the depths of the history of the cosmos, in the secret of its viscera, in the flesh of our mother’s womb. “My body held no secret from you when I was being fashioned in secret and molded in the depths of the earth” (Ps 138:15).
I have tried to say how, in my experience, my relationship with God gladdens the perception of the object of my daily work, which is the study of the universe. But to tell the truth, in my life, familiarity with God is not first of all the fruit of scientific research, though I am very intrigued by it. It is rather the fruit of a human encounter I have had, and that I go on experiencing in the present. The word “God” would be abstract if I had not encountered Him in Jesus, through the encounter with credible, trustworthy, fascinating witnesses, in the Church. Without the event of this changed humanity, which keeps on surprising me and correcting me, what would become of my gaze on the universe? It would perhaps be more cynical, more bewildered, more presumptuous... And what would become of the relationship with my colleagues, with my collaborators and my students? Because every job, even mine, is made up of relationships with the people you work with. And that’s not all; what would become of the affection I have for my wife and children, for my friends? And what would become of me?

It is moving to think that the eternal Mystery that brings the universe out of nothing in every instant has taken interest in us to the point of becoming a companion for our life. In this cosmic perspective, how striking it is to hear Jesus, the King of the Universe, saying to us: “Even the hairs of your head have all been counted” (Lk 12:7). What infinite tenderness, enough to make your head spin. This is God’s character, the real abyss–the care He has for each one of us. “For us God is not some abstract hypothesis,” wrote Benedict XVI to seminarians on October 18, 2010, “He is not some stranger who left the scene after the ‘Big Bang.’ God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. In the face of Jesus Christ, we see the face of God. In His words, we hear God Himself speaking to us.”
Intervention at 25th Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity on “The Question of God Today.” (Rome, November 24-26, 2011)