Owen Gingerich is readily found on the internet. Harvard and Wikipedia are good starts for checking on him. Impressive.

I’m referencing this sermon, presented on the internet here: http://godandnature.asa3.org/essay-do-the-heavens-declare-the-glory-of-god.html


Note that his references to Cambridge, are to the home of Harvard, in Massachusetts.

He points out that he has a “shelf-full of astronomy books written by authors who knew Martin Luther personally,” which seems appropriate for a Christian astronomer. Kinda cool too.

Dr. Gingerich has inspired me, so I trust my quoting here will be accepted as fair use. I intend to honor him, and I give him credit. This is good stuff. (Go read it at the link, of course.)

Dr. Gingerich points out, “When those authors looked up at the nighttime sky, they were perceiving a far different universe than we know today. They saw the moon and the stars that God had ordained. They knew the moon was 30 earth diameters away, actually a pretty good reckoning, and they thought the sun was 20 times farther and therefore 20 times larger than the moon (since they both have the same apparent size during a total solar eclipse). Actually the sun is 400 times farther and therefore 64 million times larger in volume than the moon. […] So, altogether, it was a pretty cozy universe. When a Wittenberg astronomer looked up at the majestic Milky Way spanning the sky on a clear dark night, the sight was awesome, indeed glorious, and God was not so far away. His view and his appreciation was not all that different from the ancient Psalmist himself.

Think of that. At the time of the reformation, we were only beginning to understand the universe better than the ancients. They could not imagine nor suppose much of any of the things we know and can verify now.

After describing his viewing of the sky in Israel, Dr. Gingerich continues, “It was the same sky the Psalmist saw, or Martin Luther saw, but in my 20th-century understanding the heavens were far vaster than either of them could have imagined. In both space and time in my mind’s eye, my universe was overwhelmingly different from the heavens they saw and envisioned. It was a long time ago that I was on the West Bank, seeing that star-filled sky, and we then did not know whether the universe stretched to a distant horizon ten billion or 20 billion light years away. Today, we would put the horizon 13.7 billion light years away, and with the Hubble Space Telescope we can record galaxies in their infancy, nearly that old, born of the Big Bang cataclysm that started it all in an inconceivably immense split second blast of energy that Martin Luther’s astronomers could barely have imagined.

While he is probably correct that the astronomers of the 16th Century would have had to stretch their thinking to imagine the universe as we know it, I think it is safe to suppose they would not. It would be a notion too ludicrous to consider. Yet, here we are, with a universe very close to 13.75 billion years old and vast beyond comprehension. You really need to remind yourself that while billions of years seems comprehensible, it is not. Much less the immensity of the universe. We cannot fathom how big it all is. We just can’t. So, remind yourself of that when you think you are figuring it out.

Dr. G. continues, “And so, asking the question, “Do the heavens declare the glory of God?,” today, is not the same question “Enarrantne coeli gloriam Dei?” that Martin Luther could have considered back in the days of Columbus, Leonardo Da Vinci, or Copernicus.

We are no longer in ecstasy about the beauty of creation, but we are instead crushed down by our insignificance in the vastness of the universe. Rather than Psalm 19, we turn to Psalm 8: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained; What is man that thou art mindful of him?” Where do we fit in as little specks in such an immense and ancient universe?


1 O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.

3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beingsb
and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

9 O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The “b” footnote indicates the word in the Hebrew is a variant of one of the names of God. It is also wise to note that the Septuagint uses the word for angels (or messengers). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_cxEVB9VAk

As Dr. G. points out, the Psalmist, and Martin Luther for that matter, could not have had the same notion of “God’s glory set above the heavens” as we do now. It is all rather hard to grasp at, more so to take in and own. Besides, what are we to do with verse 6 now? All things are under our feet. All. Double check. It is right there. All. Like I said, we cannot even begin to imagine what that means in light of what we know of the universe now. It has taken light 13.75 billion years to reach us from the edge of the universe. It will take us orders of magnitude more time travel it all and figuratively tread it under our feet. No one, religious or otherwise, can propose such a thing is doable. It simply is not. So, are we to console ourselves that the psalmist seems to go on and restrict his context to the earth? Sure, if that works for you.

I’m leaving out enough that you really should go to the link, but I think this is very important. “As Genesis 1:27 says, “God created man in his own image, male and female created He them.” That’s undoubtedly the most important verse in the whole first chapter of the Bible. God as Creator has endowed us with creativity in his own image, the ability to research, to imagine, to discover many fascinating details about the nature and origin of the universe.

Dr. Gingerich goes on to describe some details of astrophysics and atomic physics and fine tuning as it applies to some of the constants and minutia of the universe, and he points out that Dr. Fred Hoyle admitted that such extreme precision and intricacy in the universe sometimes shook his faith in atheism. He then mentions Martin Rees’ Just Six Numbers book. He continues with how advances in astronomy were often seen as superstitious at first.

Dr. Gingerich states, “I must warn you that I’m psychologically incapable of believing that the universe is purposeless. […] Perhaps the universe is designed to be understandable, and we as human beings are at work trying to understand the universe and its laws. The human brain is the single most complex thing we know about in the entire universe. What better instrument to contemplate the universe? Ironically, our brains are complex enough even to contemplate the possibility that our brains might not be the most complex things in the universe!

I not only agree with him, I’ve made almost these exact statements many times. I simply cannot suppose that it is rational to claim there is no rationality. It is unreasonable to suppose there is no ultimate reason.

He then goes on to make the point CS Lewis made in Till We Have Faces.

This is too good to add to or subtract from:

If we regard God’s world as a site of purpose and intention and accept that we, as contemplative surveyors of the universe, are included in that intention, then the vision is incomplete without a role for divine communication, a place for God both as Creator-Sustainer and as Redeemer, a powerful transcendence that not only can be a something but can take on the mask of a someone; a which that can connect with us as a who. Such communication will be best expressed through personal relationships, through wise voices and prophets in many times and places. The divine communication will carry a moral dimension, only dimly perceived in the grandeur of creation, yet present through the self-limitation of the Creator who has given both natural laws and freedom within its structure. Here, implications for human morality are discernible, for this view implies a self-renunciatory ethic. As Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then my followers would fight.”

Within the framework of Christianity, Jesus is the supreme example of personal communication from God, an exemplary life of service, of forgiveness, of sacrifice. When the apostle Philip requested, “Show us the Father,” Jesus responded, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” When Jesus, hanging on the cross and slowly suffocating, cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?,” the nature of God’s self-limited world became excruciatingly clear. God acts within the world, but not always in the ways most obvious to our blinkered vision.

Dr. G. points out some childhood anecdotes and the fact that now is a particularly interesting time in the life-cycle of the earth-moon system. It will not long give us full solar eclipses. He supposes that even the most hardened skeptics find their pulse quickened viewing this spectacle, but will hardly be convinced of God. I agree. He goes on to retell Elijah’s story in 1 Kings 9: 11And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.

The still small voice.

Again, I cannot add or subtract:

The message is in a still, small voice, God’s inspiration, literally the bringing in of the spirit. The glory of the heavens doesn’t knock the skeptic from his perch. It’s in the eye of the beholder. For me the glory of the heavens inspires me to understand the handiwork of the Lord. However, it doesn’t work for everyone. But let me quote from a public skeptic, in a little known passage from Fred Hoyle, made near the end of his life: “The issue of whether the universe is purposive is an ultimate question that is at the back of everybody’s mind. . . . And Dr. [Ruth Nanda] Ashen has now just raised exactly the same question as to whether the universe is a product of thought. And I have to say that that is also my personal opinion, but I can’t back it up by too much of precise argument. There are very many aspects of the universe where you either have to say there have been monstrous coincidences, which there might have been, or, alternatively, there is a purposive scenario to which the universe conforms.”

As I said earlier, I’m psychologically incapable of believing the universe is purposeless. So unlike Fred Hoyle, I’m not sitting on the fence. Let me simply say that the sheer beauty of the heavens declare the glory of God!