My grandfather, Dr. Lloyd M. Bertholf, has given a great deal of thought to the origin of our universe, and the role that humans play in it. A biologist and lay minister, my granddad retired as president of Illinois Wesleyean University in 1967. I would like to share with you his reflections on the cosmological and divine beginning of the universe, which he wrote about fifteen years ago. He died in 2003, at the age of 103.
I wrote, "A Conversation Between a Scientist and God," which was partly influenced by my grandfather's meditation, below.
A Meditation on the Greatness of God
by Lloyd M. Bertholf
26 February 1984
I suppose every person -- every religious person at least -- sooner or later gets to wondering about the adequacy of his or her concept of God. Some people like to think of God as a very personal guardian angel, an extension and glorification, really, of one's own personality. A sort of grandfatherly, protecting, and approving spirit. Others prefer to take the other extreme and think of God as an aloof managing director, so taken up with the orbits of stars and galaxies that He has no time for the moment by moment decisions of an individual human life. Still others regard God as the scowling judge or police officer, looking critically over the shoulder of each of us, noting our broken resolutions and condemning us at every turn for our selfishness and secularism.
But I wonder if it is not possible to get a concept of God more accurate than any of these by recognizing His greatness in some new dimensions, coming to love and worship Him both for the extensiveness and intensiveness of His greatness, and from a more comprehensive viewpoint. In other words, I suggest we try, like the marsh grass in Sidney Lenier's great poem, to develop new roots by which to lay ahold of the greatness of God. You remember one stanza of the poem goes like this:
"As the marsh hen secretly builds on the watery sod, behold, I will build me a nest on the greatness of God. I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh hen flies, in the freedom that fills all the space twixt the marsh and the skies. By so many roots as the marsh grass sends in the sod, I will heartily lay me ahold of the greatness of God."
The first of these new roots I shall call the Majestic Creativity of God. I assume that we do not need to spend the time trying to prove the existence of God, or that He actually is the ultimate creator of the universe. Since no one really knows how it all came to be, let's frankly admit that we are stepping out on faith when we come the end of our knowledge. And, if anyone wishes to challenge the assumption that God is the "Great Original," let him remember that it is also an assumption that God is not the creator of all.
Let your mind then try, first of all, to comprehend something of the complexity of the universe. Think, for example, of its many macro components, among which are the following: planets, such as the earth, with their moons or satellites; comets, meteors, asteroids; stars, the one hundred billion or so in our own Milky Way alone, most of which are in the yellow, medium-size category; galaxies of stars, our Milky Way being only one of virtually an incomprehensible number of galaxies, some one million of which are visible through our largest telescopes, in the bowl of the Big Dipper alone; then there are nebulae, a hot, and spiral, and diffuse nebulae, and so forth; there are red giants and white dwarfs, black dwarfs, super-novae, neutron stars or pulsars, black holes, and quasars (that is, quasi-stellar radio sources), some apparently as large as one hundred ordinary galaxies.
There are two very important things to be noted about these heavenly bodies: one, they are all in motion; not chaotic, helter-skelter motion, but each swinging in a great orbit around some other visible or invisible focal star, which is also in orbit around some other star or group of stars, and so on. The second important fact is that all these orbiting heavenly bodies seem, on the average, to be getting farther apart. In other words, the universe is expanding like a giant rubber balloon which is constantly being blown larger. Astronomers estimate that this expansion has been going on for something like thirteen to fifteen billion years, and that space has now reached a radius of some ten billion light years.
If we now direct our attention in the other direction and ask as to the micro units that compose these stars, nebulae, novae, quasars, planets, and so forth, the answer seems to be atoms, atoms and the radiations that they give off as they split up and recombine and vibrate. Atoms can be detected by the kind of light they give off when heated to incandescence, and, no matter on which star we focus our spectroscopes, we find essentially the same atoms there -- about one hundred kinds -- as are present on this Earth. All nature seems to be one.
But what are atoms made of? Almost everyone today knows that they are made primarily of two kinds of particles, protons and electrons (and neutrons, if we include the combination of the two). Apparently, all God had to do to create atoms, hence all the matter of the universe, was to create protons and electrons, and a few sub-atomic particles, and provide the energy that sent them orbiting around each other in one hundred or so different numbers and different configurations. And what are protons and electrons? Essentially, they are simply enormously active charges of electricity, one positive and the other negative.
"Is that all?" you ask. Well, yes, except that electrons are made up of smaller particles which are really nothing more than charges of energy. Energy can become matter, and matter, energy. Any form of energy, whether electricity, or light, or sound, or heat, and so forth, can be transformed into any other form, and back again. To form the universe, therefore, it was only necessary to create and release energy of the highest possible potency, perhaps ultra-ultra-high frequency cosmic rays which, in these fifteen billion years since the "Big Bang," has been transforming and retransforming itself into light and heat and electrical energy and all the other kinds of radiation, and into atoms, molecules, particles, nebulae, quasars, galaxies, stars, planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and all the rest, which have distributed themselves in great orbits throughout a constantly expanding space.
When one thinks of the size and complexity of all this, and of the dynamics of it all, it literally makes one's head swim. To account merely for these heavenly bodies which we can see at night with the unaided eye seems complicated enough, but, when we realize that the number of stars visible to the naked eye is only about eight thousand, whereas the number actually there, as revealed by our largest telescopes, is in the vicinity of one hundred billion (and most of these are really galaxies of stars, each as large as our own Milky Way), then one begins to realize the numbers we are dealing with. And when we include along with the stars and galaxies all other heavenly bodies, then we get some idea, perhaps, of the truly Majestic Creativity of God.
No sooner, however, do we get our minds expanded to the point where they can begin to think in terms of these enormous numbers, enormous distances, and enormous expanses of time, then we learn that the universe is rather simple after all. Electrons and protons, hydrogen and helium, and the kind of energy found in the electromagnetic spectrum are about all God needed in order to produce, in turn, everything anybody has ever found in all the universe. And now that Einstein has come along and put it all together into one simple little equation, E = MC2 -- that is, the total energy of the universe is equal to its mass times the square of the speed of light -- it's all so orderly, so logical, so symmetrical, so beautifully interrelated, that one stands amazed and awestruck before the majesty of it all.
The creative activity of God did not stop, of course, with the formation of the physical universe. In Him was life, and His creative drive was not satisfied until He had created a place or places in the universe where life could evolve, and then had directed atoms and molecules into organic configurations of greater and greater complexity, until finally a point was reached where the mixture became self-perpetuating. Living protoplasm in a living cell. What a day that must have been! Joseph Addison caught the wonder of creation in his transcription of the Nineteenth Psalm:
"The spacious firmament on high, with all the blue, etherial sky, and spangled heavens, a shining frame, their great original proclaim. The unwearied sun, from day to day, does his creator's power display, and publishes in every land the work of an almighty hand. Soon as the evening shades prevail, the moon takes up the wondrous tale, and, nightly, to the listening Earth, repeats the story of her birth. Whilst all the stars that 'round her burn, and all the planets in their turn, confirm the tidings as they roll, and spread the truth from pole to pole. What, though in solemn silence all move round the dark terrestrial ball? What, though no real voice or sound amidst their radiant orbs be found? In reason's ear they all rejoice and utter forth a glorious voice, forever singing as they shine, "The Hand that made us is Divine."
So, the first route by which I propose to lay ahold of the Greatness of God is the Majestic Creativity of God. The second is the Unfathomable Patience of God. A subtitle for this section might well be God in History. To most people, history probably means that period which is recorded in history books; namely, the last ten thousand years or so. But, when I use the phrase "God in History," I am thinking of cosmic history; that is, a period that goes back at least fifteen billion years.
As indicated in the previous section, most cosmologists are convinced that we have an expanding universe. The individual galaxies are receding from each other, propelled by some exploding force that works opposite to the force of gravity, and each galaxy within itself is also constantly expanding. If this is true, then, if we go backward in time far enough, there must have been a time when all the matter and all the energy and all the space of the universe was concentrated in one unimaginably dense and unimaginably hot mass. The size of this mass has been calculated to have been about a hundred times the diameter of our sun, and its temperature something like one trillion degrees Kelvin (this is a centigrade scale where zero is set at "Absolute Zero," that is, at 273 degrees below the freezing point of water). The mass of such a body would have been so enormous that not even the radiations produced by the intense heat could have escaped its gravitational pull, and it would have been, therefore, an invisible black hole.
It was this mass of supremely concentrated energy, cosmologists believe, that exploded in what has been called the "Big Bang" some fifteen thousand million years ago, and started the expanding universe on its outward whirl in all directions into space that, by now, has reached some ten billion light years in radius. The expansion is apparently still going on, and where it will end, nobody knows. Perhaps, if space is curved, as Einstein insisted, the pieces of matter out there will someday curve back and come together again as a single mass of incredibly concentrated energy. But, whatever happens, I am convinced that the Creator of this energy has also directed the transformations and deployment of it all through the ages and is still in charge.
The question that comes to mind at once is "Why?" What possible reason could God have had in mind for releasing all this energy and causing it to explode out into all this space?
It is presumptuous, of course, for me or anyone else to attempt to think God's thoughts after Him. Nevertheless, I make bold to agree with James Welden Johnson in his poem, "The Creation," and his book called "God's Trombones." In one place, you remember, he said:
"And God stepped out on space, and he looked around and said, 'I'm lonely. I'll make me a world.'"
God was lonely, the poet says, and He thought that the creation of a world, that is, a universe, would perhaps satisfy that loneliness. But it was not enough. Not even after enduring the slow process of making the planet Earth and giving it time to cool and develop conditions favorable to life was God satisfied. And not even after He had patiently brought organic compounds into being and had joined carbon dioxide with water to form carbohydrates, and certain of these had united with nitrates to form amino acids, and these in turn with each other and with fats and certain minerals to form the primitive goo we call protoplasm. Not even after all this was God satisfied.
So there ensued the long, slow process of evolving the first green plants, or algae, so that the energy of sunlight could be utilized to form food, and the process of providing other cells with digestive enzymes so that they could utilize and decompose the bodies of dead organisms and return their elements to the water or the soil for other organisms to use, over and over again, in perpetual cycles.
Slowly, ever so slowly, plants began to come out of the water and occupy the land. First as mosses, followed by ferns, then horsetails, club mosses, and conifers, and finally by flowering plants, including grasses, to take root and adapt themselves to practically every sort of environment the Earth has to offer.
Along with the evolution of plants, God caused animals to be evolved. First, many kinds of aquatic animals, tiny single-celled creatures, then sponges, jellyfishes, worms, mollusks, crabs, etcetera, also starfishes and their relatives, and the many kinds of fishes. Then, after millions of years, some of these water animals began to live on land for at least a part of their life cycle. Spiders and centipedes and insects developed, representing one of the two main types of land animals, and frogs, reptiles, birds, and mammals representing the other main type. All this is briefly but beautifully and poetically described in the first chapter of Genesis, except that, instead of two or three days, the process actually took two or three billion years.
Was God's loneliness relieved by this additional creation? Listen to the words of James Welden Johnson as he continues his poem:
"Then God walked around, and God looked around on all that He had made, and He looked at His sun, He looked at His moon, He looked at His little stars, He looked on His world with all its living things, and God said, 'I'm lonely still.' Then God sat down on the side of a hill where He could think. By a deep, wide river He sat down, with His head in His hands, until He thought, 'I'll make Me a man.'"
God wanted, we can imagine, not only some creature to love, but some persons, made in His own image, who could love Him in return. Not people who would have to love Him, but who would of their own accord, their own volition, choose to love Him. So God created man and woman, male and female created He them. He chose the vertebrate type of body structure rather than the insect type, using many successful features already developed in the mammal class of vertebrates, but adding several new, previously undeveloped or little developed features, such as: the opposable thumb, making possible the use of tools; erect posture, freeing the hands for manipulating tools; vocal cords and a mouth cavity capable of modifying sounds into speech; large forebrain, capable of great memory; eyes directed forward, both focusing on the same object, giving binocular vision.
And God breathed into this creature His own spirit, His "breath of life," something of His own image. A mind capable of awe and wonder, hence of worship and remorse. An artistic sense. A desire to create. And a spirit of altruism, faithfulness, loyalty, responsibility, stewardship, and unselfish love. And, greatest of all, self-consciousness and free will. All this required an additional ten million years or so.
But now, God not only had human spirits whom He could love and who could love Him, but people who could begin to grasp something of the power, the majesty, the knowledge, the wisdom, the faithfulness, the mercy, and the care of God. Even something perhaps of God's great design. Not only can mankind intellectualize these insights but, by its God-given creative power, has begun to supplement God's creativity.
God made trees, for example, but mankind has made lumber and houses and furniture. God made iron, but mankind has made steel and has fashioned tools and machines. God gave us clay, but mankind has taken that and fashioned pottery and all sorts of useful and artistic ceramics. God gave us cellulose and latex and copper and crude oil, and out of these we have made a fantastic wonderland of things useful or artistic or recreational or sometimes harmful. But God has seldom interfered with our free decision to do whatever we wish to do.
Well, here we are, living on a tiny planet in this vast universe which God apparently started on its expanding pattern some fifteen billion years ago. The fraction of the total mass of the universe which we occupy is infinitesimal. Is it possible that God did this all for us? Is it possible that He has waited during this incredible time span just for our appearance as human beings?
It can very well be that planet Earth is not the only spot in the universe where conditions are just right for human life to have evolved. There could very well be thousands of other places, but, even if we assume that Earth people are not God's only people, the number of places where creatures such as ourselves could exist must be relatively small compared to the mass of the entire creation.
So again we ask, is it possible that God has produced all this energy and all this cosmic material just for the sake of having a few planets occupied by humanoids made in His own image? The concept, to me at least, is staggering, but I believe it requires an affirmative answer. Think of the brooding patience, the careful planning, as, step by step, the scroll unrolls through billions of years, as we measure time -- we do not know, of course, how God measures it -- but, however it is calculated, we can see that God has been able to enjoy the company of human beings for only the tiniest fraction of cosmic time, and that the patience required to wait for the present result, which I do not assume to be the final result by any means, is simply unfathomable. We are taught that God is love, and that love is patient and kind, but did you ever imagine it to be that patient?
Please recall again Sidney Lenier's lines:
"By so many roots as the marsh grass sends in the sod, I will heartily lay me ahold of the greatness of God."
The third new root I would have us develop in order to more completely appreciate the greatness of God is the root of His Amazing Grace. The word "grace," as I am using it, simply means "unmerited love"; not entirely unmerited, perhaps, but never merited in proportion to the amount of love and forgiveness God gives us.
When people say to me, "How are you?", I sometimes answer, "Better than I deserve to be." And I am serious about that, for what have I done to deserve the fine body God has given me, or the wife and family I have, or the freedoms I enjoy, or this planet Earth on which to live, or air, or sunshine, or friends?
But, before considering God's grace to individuals, let's recall again His patient guiding of the evolutionary process so as to produce, first, a planet of just the right size, the right distance from the sun, the right speed of rotation and revolution, the right proportion of land area versus water area, etcetera, all apparently designed so as to allow here the development of a human race.
Think how a human mother, during the nine month gestation period, builds up, day by day, her love and her hopes for the baby that is in process of formation within her body. Consider then how our Mother God must have built up Her hopes and expectations for the infant human race during those fifteen billion years of gestation. (It's permissible, isn't it, to use the concept of Mother God rather than Father God in this connection?)
When the race was born, it was, of course, immature. In its youth, it made mistakes of ignorance and lack of experience. There were adolescent quarrels between brothers, slight differences in color or in customs led to prejudice and intolerance. Adolescent possessiveness and greed led to wars between families and tribes. And, as nationalism grew, this adolescence has pervaded politics and international relations, making nations act like spoiled children.
Different tribes and families of people often mature at different rates. In looking over the different tribes of early mankind, God seems to have concluded that the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had the best potential for understanding His nature and His will. He therefore made a covenant with them that, if they would worship Jehovah, and Him only, and would follow His moral precepts, He would bless them with increased numbers, with prosperity, and with a place of great importance in the family of man. But they broke the covenant repeatedly, in spite of a patient and forgiving Father. Various individual prophets and seers among them saw how greatly they were straying from God's plan for them, but they were too immature to heed the warning, and, gradually, the fortunes of the Israelites went from bad to worse, until they were taken into slavery and, although some of them returned from Babylon, they ended up, after a few generations, as a vassal state of the Roman Empire.
I do not think we can assume that God regarded the Jews as the only hope for the carrying out of His plan. It seems incredible to me that God would have permitted His work of billions of years actually to have come to an ignominious end. But even as low as the flame came to be, in the year 4 B.C., God felt, apparently, that the most ignitable fuel for a rekindling of this flame was still to be found in the Jews of Palestine.
Here I am getting out of my field, I realize. Your interpretation of what happened may differ from mine and may be better, but, to me, it looks as if God was making a supreme effort to bring maturity to the human race, and He figured that the best way to do so was to give mankind a flesh and blood example of a really mature child of God, one who by his actions and words and attitudes would reveal as much of the image of God as mortal man could comprehend.
So He sent a piece of Himself, incarnate in a human baby, which baby grew up and lived among the Jews for about thirty-three years. For the first thirty of those years, he lived quietly as a rather ordinary carpenter. But what he did and said during the other three years, the way he responded to the Spirit of God and to both the needs and the hostilities of his fellow countrymen, and the way God responded to him, made those years a turning point in human history. The most significant three years, without a doubt, the world has ever known.
For nearly two thousand years, we have been trying to grow out of our spiritual adolescence and to become the mature sons and daughters of God that He seems so desperately to want. No longer can we offer the excuse that we do not have a model to go by. No longer can we say that we do not understand agape love; we have the story of the Prodigal Son and the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. No longer can we say we do not understand how to live a blessed life; we have the Beatitudes. No longer can we say we do not know how to die gloriously; we have the record of the cross. No longer can we say we do not have any evidence for eternal life; we have the fact of the resurrection. And so we could go on.
Since Jesus' time, we have understood that God not only loves mankind, He loves me as an individual, just as I am, undeserving as I am, and He will never leave me alone. He is interested in every detail of my life, even to the numbering of the hairs of my head. This, I think, is the other root by which we can lay ahold of the Greatness of God.
We have spoken of one root which we called God's Creativeness, the extent of which simply ravages human comprehension. We have looked at another root which we called His Patience, the brooding spirit which, it seems to me, has directed the course of cosmic and organic evolution through countless aeons of time, until it has produced the superb human body and mind of today. And now we are saying that there is a third root, a tap root, really, by which we can lay ahold of His Greatness, the root of His Amazing Grace, revealed primarily through Jesus Christ.
It is incorrect, of course, to call this a new root, for it is the familiar root, and often it seems the only facet of God's Greatness which we Christians are told about. I mean, we are given the impression that God's attempt to develop human creatures whom He could love and who could love Him extended only from Adam to Jesus, a period assumed to have covered only about four thousand years.
What I am trying to point out is that God's patient love and longing for human love and worship is not a matter of merely a few thousand years, but that it seems to have extended back tens of billions of years, at least, and that even his dealing with evolving human beings must cover a period of at least a million years.
I have no hesitance in granting this Amazing Grace aspect of God's Greatness a very important place, indeed the most important place among the roots. We can get along, I am sure, without realizing the full extent of God's Creativity. And, if we still believe that God did all his creating in six, twenty-four hour days instead of the fifteen billion years, we shall probably suffer no suffer no serious consequences. But, to go through life without accepting the Grace of God, that would be tragic beyond words.
So I am not putting all three of these aspects of the nature of God on the same scale. All I have been saying is that, as J. B. Phillips pointed out some thirty years ago, often our God is too small. A God of Grace is, to me, worthy of greater love and worship if He is also a God of Glory. And a God of both Grace and Glory deserves every ounce of love and allegiance I possess.
The old German hymn by Joachim Neander, "Lobe Den Herren," neatly combines these two aspects of the nature of God, calling us to give adoration and praise to One who is the Glorious King of Creation, and at the same time is the Gracious Source of our health and salvation; One who shields us under His wings, and also with His Love befriends us.
"Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation! O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy help and salvation! All ye who hear, now to his temple draw near; join me in glad adoration!
"Praise to the Lord, who o'er all things so wondrously reigneth! Shielding thee under his wings, yea so gently sustaineth! Hast thou not seen how thy desires here have been granted in what he ordaineth?
"Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy works and defend thee; surely his goodness and mercy here daily attend thee. Ponder anew what the Almighty can do if with his love he befriend thee.
"Praise to the Lord, O let all that is in me adore him! All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him! Let the amen sound from his people again; gladly forever adore him. Amen."