One of the distinguishing features of our Christian faith – at least among mainstream Christians – is its firm belief that the world we see is not a finished product and that God has a Dream for the gradual unfolding of this Universe. To start understanding this wonderful vision of God’s universe, let’s spend some time reflecting on time – the eons of time it has taken the Universe to unfold to this point. Some scientists and theologians call this “Deep Time” – time on a vast scale, almost beyond our ability to imagine.
There is almost universal acceptance among scientists that the age of the Universe is about 13.7 billion years. The story of the evolution of the Universe, from an initial super-hot mass the size of a pin-prick to its current size is the story of a gradual process of attraction, connection, complexification and ultimately the development of consciousness. (If you’re curious about this process, there’s a great little book by a cosmologist Brian Swimme called The Universe is a Green Dragon. It’s a fun, easy read and will give you a real sense of this story.)
It’s hard for us to imagine “Deep Time.” 13.7 billion years is a long time. It helps to use examples to try to understand this kind of time-span. In this meditation, we will consider the evolution of the Universe as if it happened in one year. As you read this timeline, note how things get more connected, more complex, and eventually, more conscious, and finally self-conscious. Let’s see how this feels!
First, centre and still yourself. Then read the following with your imagination. Imagine you are sitting somewhere ‘outside’ the Universe (yes, I know this is impossible, and, in fact, a dangerous assumption! Do it anyway, just for the sake of this Exercise!) and you’re watching the Universe unfold in time-lapse fashion, and ultra high speed. You might imagine what you are doing as “watching with God.” What took 13.7 billion years to occur will unfold before you in a year. (It still means you would have to sit there for a whole year to watch the Universe evolve at this speed…) A lot happens everywhere in the universe. We will, of course, concentrate on our small corner, once it gets going.
January 1 Big Bang – the start of space, time, and the universe
May 1 Origin of Milky Way Galaxy
September 9 Origin of the solar system
September 14 Formation of the Earth
~September 25 Formation of the oldest rocks known on Earth
October 2 Origin of life on Earth
October 9 Date of oldest fossils
November 12 Oldest fossil photosynthetic plants
November 15 Eukaryotes (first cells with nuclei) flourish
December 1 Oxygen atmosphere begins to develop on Earth.
December 17 Invertebrates flourish.
December 18 First oceanic plankton.
December 19 First fish, first animals with backbones.
December 20 Plants begin colonization of land.
December 21 First insects.
December 22 First amphibians. First winged insects.
December 23 First reptiles.
December 24 First dinosaurs
December 26 First mammals
December 28 First flowers. Dinosaurs become extinct
December 29 First primates.
December 30 First hominids. Giant mammals flourish.
December 31 10:30PM First humans
December 31 11:00PM Widespread use of stone tools
December 31 11:59PM Extensive cave painting in Europe
December 31 11:59:50 First dynasties in Sumer, Ebla and Egypt; development of astronomy
December 31 11:59:55 Asokan India; Ch’in Dynasty China; Periclean Athens; birth of Buddha
December 31 11:59:56 Roman Empire; birth of Christ
December 31 11:59:59 Renaissance in Europe; voyages of discovery from Europe and from Ming Dynasty China; emergence of the experimental method in science.
Note how long you have to wait to see our Milky Way appear: it takes all of four months… We have to wait nine months before we see a rather molten, raw Earth appear out of the debris around a small star… Life seems to appear quite quickly after that – a mere ten days… But it takes another month and half before we see oxygen appear in Earth’s atmosphere, setting the scene for life as we know it to start evolving. All of life – in the part of the universe we know, at least – evolves in the last month of this symbolic year. Note that we humans appear on the scene at 10:30PM on the last ‘day.’ And the long history we know of from the first major civilizations takes place in the last ‘minute.’ Our “glorious” European civilizations emerge in the last second of the last hour of the last day of this year!
Listen to the great cosmologist Carl Sagan put this all into perspective.
Imagine, if you can, the Divine Creator ‘waiting’ 13.7 billion years to see humanity, the first (at least, as far as we know) creature to appear who is able to reflect on the universe and on itself. What might God be expecting of this creature? What has God been ‘waiting’ for all these billions of years?
What does that say to you about your own personal spiritual journey? Why are you here? What might be the purpose of humanity in the Universe’s evolution? The great contemporary Franciscan monk Richard Rohr says our life is not about us, but about something far greater, and we are insignificant, but important. Like the grain of sand in a brick in a vast cathedral, we have a part to play – perhaps insignificant, but important.
How do you respond to these reflections? What has been most helpful? Least helpful?