Let There Be Dark

Unifying the Story of Who We Are

We humans are storytellers, and our most important stories are the ones that tell us who we are. “Once upon a time” and “In the beginning” are phrases that pique our interest. Evoking a wide-eyed receptivity (a response most easily seen in children), such expressions tell us that something important is coming. Although this openness to stories tends to fade with the skepticism and hardships of adulthood, to be compelled by stories, and especially stories of origins, is a core component of what it means to be human.

Origin stories give us purpose, and from them we synthesize identity. Whether in our families, nations or religions, from generation to generation our sense of place and being is grounded in the stories we pass on and hold as truth. Accordingly, as psychologists tell us, we will go to great lengths to preserve them, because in doing so we preserve and confirm ourselves.

This common ground can serve to unite us, but it may also separate us into tribal factions with opposing stories, identities and sense of purpose. Conflicting storylines, whether attributed to religious texts or political doctrines, have always been disruptive and disquieting. This is all the more so in the 21st century because technological advances have given radical factions the potential to destroy, in ever more extreme ways, those with the “wrong” truth. The world is a scary place, with many terrors driven by the unrest that comes from irreconcilable stories.

The Double Dark Theory

While science has in great part enabled the mass perpetration of terror, it is also true that science plays a role in clarifying our human story. Might it also reconcile the irreconcilables?

Psychologist Nancy Abrams and her physicist husband Joel Primack believe science has in fact solved the greatest riddle of all: the story behind the universe’s origin. We humans, they say, are “divided on the most fundamental question of any society: what universe are we living in? With no consensus on this question and no way even to think constructively about how we humans might fit into the big picture, we have no big picture. Without a big picture we are very small people.”

The new cosmology is the only possible foundation for a globally unifying story of ourselves.” 

Nancy Abrams, “Cosmic Society,” Yale University's 2009 Terry Lectures 

The big picture, they argue, is explained by “the Double Dark Theory” (DDT), a synthesis of the main features of modern cosmology. These include the big bang (the beginning of the universe), inflation (the event that distributed the primordial material of the universe), dark matter (the invisible substance that caused the visible matter to collapse and form stars) and dark energy (which prevents the universe itself from collapsing and is even now accelerating its expansion).

The authors believe we now know enough to claim the DDT as telling humanity’s common story. There are details, of course, still to be determined; a theory that relies on mysterious and exotic forms of matter and energy making up more than 90 percent of the universe is bound to have some loose ends. Wendy Freedman, astronomer and head of the Carnegie Observatories, identified one of them, and it seems rather significant. She told Vision: “The effects of dark matter and dark energy cry out in large-scale observations; that’s why astronomers have found them. At present, however, we do not understand what the dark energy is.”  

A Universal Universe

What is emerging from modern cosmology is humanity’s first scientifically accurate story of the nature and origin of the universe. Building on the great scientific achievements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—particularly evolution, relativity, and quantum mechanics—the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first have been a golden age of astronomy. In a very real sense, we have discovered the universe.

The new scientific picture differs from all earlier creation stories not only because it’s based on evidence but also because it’s the first ever created by collaboration among people from different religions, races, and cultures all around the world, each of whose contributions is subject to the same standards of verifiability. The new universe picture excludes no one and sees all humans as equal. It belongs to all of us, not only because we’re all part of it but also because around the world the work to discover it has been largely funded by the public. The fruit of this transnational collaboration could become a unifying, believable picture of the larger reality in which Earth, our lives, and the ideas of all our religions are embedded. . . .

This revolution is presenting us with an opportunity so rare that it has arisen only twice before—the opportunity to reenvision reality itself at the dawn of a new picture of the universe. Now the big question is, what will our culture do with this knowledge?”

But even without a grasp of such details, Abrams and Primack argue that we know enough now to unify the story of who we are and where we come from in a holistic, scientifically validated way. “Reality is communal,” they declare; it “has to be a social consensus.” Their perspective is that the DDT is just that because of its universal nature: it presumes to bring the entire cosmos into clear understanding through international scientific collaboration.  

In the high places of human consciousness where cosmic mythologies took our ancestors, a narrative darkness enshrouds our bright lives,” Abrams and Primack write. We need to bring our mental world “into harmony with a double dark universe” while we’re “retraining our intuitions.”

Such a realignment, they believe, could be the basis for global harmony. It could spark a cosmic society built on a scientifically sanctioned story: “To feel your roots stretching back through cosmic time is to know who you are, and see from a cosmic perspective. . . . We create a cosmic society by expanding our thinking to encompass what we now know exists, by expanding our sense of identity to take our true place in it, and by looking from this new perspective at our behavior on all size scales.”

Genesis in a New Light

As humans we gaze out into the universe, and from its darkness and light unfurl our stories of origins. But preconceived notions constrict our sight—notions about not only what we are seeing but what we will find.

The question we should ask is how nature came packaged in this fashion,” wrote the late British philosopher Antony Flew. Why does the universe look the way it does? For him, the mere fact of human existence proved that the universe is just too right to have happened by chance. It was this revelation that convicted him and caused him to release his nearly life-long grip on atheism in 2004.

While his question pointed in the right direction, Flew nonetheless suggested science as the only viable source to light the path, the only lens through which reality can be seen.

The image this lens affords is the hope of a cosmic society of the sort that Abrams and Primack propose. But if we can imagine for a moment that scientific interpretation has instead dimmed the light and fogged the lens, we may find the story the cosmos is telling to be much different than is commonly accepted. A change in one’s point of view can open new perspectives, opportunities and hopes. The tools of science have given us great observational insights, but the theoretical basis for why things are as we see them is not limited to science; there are other sources of revelation outside human imagination and calculation.

When one weighs the Bible’s relevance in answering the question of origins, the most common credibility gap seems to point to Genesis. Abrams and Primack are correct when they argue that “the story from Genesis of a very short-lived universe that we humans have lived in for all but the first five days is completely wrong.” But once we agree that this common interpretation of Genesis is indeed incorrect, what then? What do these passages actually reveal?

There is a time discontinuity found within the first two verses of the Bible. This suggests that what astronomers are seeing in the universe today is evidence or echo of a destructive event that happened at some point long after “the beginning” spoken of in Genesis 1:1. Rather than thinking of the cosmic background radiation, invisible matter, mysterious fields and dark energy as artifacts of the beginning of the universe (that then must be interpreted in some way to evolve into stars, planets, and finally people), these strange phenomena may be better viewed as evidence of a disruption of the original condition of the cosmos. The earth became dark and empty; this was not its original form (Genesis 1:1–2; Isaiah 45:18).

This is not a “God of the gaps” Creator revealing his handiwork through survival of the fittest, nor is it turning the creation week into geologic ages. The universe is packaged in this fashion not because it produced us of its own accord or from a physical system somehow endowed to create human consciousness. Trying to discover how this universe, as it is now, gave rise to us is the wrong perspective.

Out of the Dark

It is not scientifically tenable to view those invisible forces that pull and push the universe as spiritual in nature. Among those who argue this generally accepted scientific perspective is astronomer Lisa Randall. She remarks that while the answers cosmology supplies might be complicated, “that doesn’t justify abdicating faith in reason.” Randall refers to “religious or spiritual belief that involves an invisible undetectable force that nonetheless influences human actions and behavior or that of the world itself” as “God magic,” a silly stretch of credibility. Yet paradoxically, her statement comes close to undermining the tenets of inflation, dark energy and string theory, all of which rely on tenuous evidence and a strong degree of hand waving that amount to, in her own words, “faith in reason.”

For those who can accept that there is much more to the story of the universe than science alone can deduce, Scripture shows that the Creator remains involved in His creation, taking action to hold all things together. This is where true hope is found (Colossians 1:16–17). While our neighboring planets remain in a futile state, the Genesis account of the six days of creation describes not the origin of the universe but a miraculous restoration of Earth to habitability. “Let there be light” is not a prescientific way of describing the big bang. It is descriptive of God’s intervention to execute His original plan.

Like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, we have been using the Bible and our observations of science at cross purposes. Both sets of eyes, the revelation of Scripture as well as the tools of observation, are concerned with the same universe.

However, once the distraction of the age-of-the-earth red herring is removed and a more coherent scenario identified, one comes upon even greater challenges. Flew’s question remains spot on: Why are we here, cradled miraculously, provisioned with such bounty and beauty, and endowed with a consciousness to enjoy, build and create on this little world surrounded by darkness and waste? What are we to do when we recognize that the Earth really has been prepared for us? (See “Landlord or Tenant?”.)  

Restoring Right Identity 

Human beings are informed and molded by stories and mythologies; that’s how we work. We do not come into the world with an innate sense of identity. But “Who am I?” is a question that leads to flexible answers, and this is especially true when we misunderstand many of the facts that lie before us. Each of us is a work in progress, an interesting amalgam of experience, learning, happenstance and even revelation.

You are a chosen people, . . . a people to be his very own and to proclaim the wonderful deeds of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

1 Peter 2:9, International Standard Version 

Does that mean our lives are the result of chance events? While chance may play a role, the more important factors are the choices we make and the way in which we confront the challenges and opportunities that open before us. Through all of this interplay we manufacture our place both in the human realm and, through the development of a wider worldview, in the greater cosmos. Freeman Dyson once noted that it seemed the universe knew we were coming. Bringing it down to the personal level, the interesting question is whether the universe knew you were coming.

The idea of being created “in the image of God”—a phrase that may once have held powerful sway in informing our common identity—has been forgotten or retired. That creation story has become an antique. Even those who believe in a Creator as the literal cause of what makes us human have unwittingly been separated into tribes and opposing groups by the development of personal, cultural and national identities. This reality has superseded our understanding of a common beginning and fed the fires of division, opposition and conquest that have ravaged humanity throughout history.

But a science of the cosmos, as wonderful as that cosmological tale could be—stories of gravity and matter, the antigravity forces of dark energy and the massive emptiness of dark matter—will not have great enough sway to draw human relationships together into harmonious balance. We can imagine a mathematic symmetry embedded in the fabric of the universe, and our most brilliant physicists can fill their whiteboards with elegant equations and tables spilling over with wee particles, but this alone will not bring us out of the darkness and into the light.