Organization structure

Father Spitzer: James Webb Telescope Images Show Beauty and Organization of God’s Creation

The first color image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a groundbreaking device designed to peer across the cosmos into the dawn of the universe, shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. Known as Webb’s First Deep Field, the cluster is seen in a composite made from images at different wavelengths taken with a near-infrared camera and released July 11, 2022. (Photo CNS/NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team, Handout via Reuters)

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The James Webb Space Telescope has transmitted its first packet of infrared analysis data from a galactic cluster in the deepest regions of the universe. Some galaxies date back 13.1 billion years, only 700,000,000 years after the Big Bang. The most remarkable feature of this data is the variety, complexity and order of the universe at this very early stage.

The image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 shows thousands of galaxies in different stages of development, revealing different types of star formation and even a galaxy with a mirror image. There is so much information in this infrared image that it will take researchers years to unpack. When they do, it will say a lot about how galaxies form, grow and merge with each other, and why they stop forming stars. One can’t help but be impressed by what appears to be stunning order and elegance amidst a much higher likelihood of chaos.

Contrary to popular belief, the universe did not evolve randomly. In its first few minutes, it went through a series of highly ordered transitions that were so precisely, mathematically and physically, ordered that it makes propelling a multi-stage rocket seem like child’s play. The major transitions constituted whole new epochs with different types of physics – from a quantum gravity epoch to a spacetime epoch to an inflationary epoch to an electroweak epoch to a Higgs epoch to a quark-baryon epoch- hadron to a lepton epoch to an epoch of nucleosynthesis and finally to the epoch of large-scale structures. The first seven of these epochs (until the lepton epoch) took place in seconds; the eighth epoch occurred approximately two to 20 minutes after the Big Bang, and the last epoch occurred approximately 150,000,000 years after the Big Bang. Can you imagine the pre-programming that would have to be developed to produce a smooth transition through all those epochs of new physics leading up to the galactic formations spotted by the James Webb Telescope (700,000,000 years after the Big Bang)?

When we gaze at these early galaxies and stars in their immense variety, complexity and order – amidst trillions and trillions and trillions of messy alternative possibilities – it is hard to avoid what Nobel Prize-winning physicist David Smoot has called “maker’s fingerprints.” As a believer, I feel the wonder of the psalmist, who declared in pre-scientific times: “The heavens proclaim the glory of God; heaven proclaims the craft of its builder” (Ps 19:1).

For centuries, the Catholic Church has been the champion of the natural sciences. No less than 286 priests and clerics participated in the development of all branches of science: physics (in particular cosmology and geology), chemistry, biology and applied mathematics. A few of these notable priests and clerics are: Brother Roger Bacon, a Franciscan friar recognized as the father of contemporary scientific method; Nicholas Copernicus, a Catholic cleric who developed the first heliocentric mathematical model of the solar system; Father Gregor Mendel, Augustinian monk and abbot recognized as the founder of modern quantitative genetics; Mgr Nicolas Steno, Danish Catholic bishop recognized as one of the founders of modern stratigraphy and geology; and Msgr. Georges Lemaître, Belgian diocesan priest with a doctorate. in physics who is recognized as the founder of contemporary cosmology after discovering the Big Bang theory in 1927.

It should be noted that a Catholic priest discovered the Big Bang theory, now rigorously established as a framework for contemporary cosmology and universal origins. When he first told his colleague Albert Einstein about it, Einstein resisted because he didn’t want to believe in an expanding universe. However, when Edwin Hubble validated the expansion of galaxies according to the Lemaître-Hubble equation (in 1929), Einstein declared (during a conference where he co-presented with Lemaître): “It is the most beautiful and the most satisfying explanation of creation that I have ever listened to.

In his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII, in 1943, said that the purpose of the Bible (in which God speaks through inspired authors) is to present the sacred truths necessary for salvation. Contrary to this, the purpose of science is to give empirical-mathematical descriptions and explanations of the physical universe. So when the Bible speaks of creation, its purpose is not to give a correct explanation based on observation of the physical universe, but to convey truths that will be necessary for salvation – as there is a God , not several; that anything else in reality apart from the one God is God’s creation; that God is just and does good; and that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. If we allow Holy Scripture to reveal the sacred truths necessary for salvation and if we allow science to explain the physical universe through its method, there can be no real contradiction between science and the Bible.

Infrared image from the James Webb Telescope reveals an inspiring intersection between the disciplines of Scripture and science within our Catholic faith – that 13.1 billion years ago we find exactly what we might be expected in faith: order and elegance with incredible mathematical precision, opening to immense beauty unfolding in a most accommodating environment through which the Lord would give transphysical soul to creatures made to his image and likeness. The heavens truly proclaim the glory of God.

Father Robert J. Spitzer, SJ, Ph.D., is president of the Magis Center and the Spitzer Center for Visionary Leadership. He is the former president of Gonzaga University.