Permit me to begin with a rather odd and admittedly speculative thought that I hope is illustrative of a larger problem: what does Einstein have to say about the Second Coming of Jesus?
I have recently been making a valiant attempt to read Einstein's The Meaning of Relativity. I had heard of relativity, and believed it as the second-hand passing on of some great scientific mind. But reading the work and digesting its contents has taxed my mathematical understanding far past its breaking point and has left me wondering why I did not take more math courses in college. That notwithstanding, I believe I have grasped, in my own layman's way, the major points of departure that Einstein's theory makes from previous physics. Furthermore, the impressive nature of this portentous break struck me as being of utmost importance to Christian theology, yet strangely and probably owing to my own ignorance I have not encountered a theologian discussing the implications.
Time is by no means a Christian invention, but I believe it is safe to say that the Christian narrative revolutionized the way the western world understood time. Christianity's concept of universal history book-ended the events of space and time with definite boundaries of beginning, middle, and end. While many philosophies and religions of various mythological origin posited an eternal universe, or at least an eternal underlying prime matter, Christianity proclaimed creation ex nihilo. The predominant creation myth of the old world was that of a god forming or imposing order on an eternal chaos of warring elements; even the Genesis account has God "hovering over the face of the waters," an image of God moving on seemingly already present matter or chaos. However, Christian philosophy and theology departs from the old myth and declares that God creates something from nothing. At God's command, the universe existed, not the remaking or reforming of prior stuff but rather a completely new and strictly superfluous collection of beings. Furthermore, God punctured time, entering into it as an agent not only through miracle but most poignantly through incarnation. Finally, according to the narrative, time will end in judgment, terminating the history of the cosmos as it is presently understood.
The universe, it would seem, has an expiration date, a moment at which it will cease to be as it is. The era of time stops at judgment and is "succeeded" only by eternal endurance, a separate epoch, and an entirely new order of creation, the new heavens and the new earth. Yet while this notion of the moment of judgment and an end of the universe makes sense within a universe or Cartesian space ruled by Newtonian physics, it is somewhat more problematic within a universe governed by relativity. In order to explain allow me, complete novice in relativity, to briefly explain the difference between pre-relativity and post-relativity understandings of time (I encourage those far more advanced in this field to correct any blunders on my part).
Basically, pre-relativity, distances in space are absolute and time is an omnipresent invariable. One could imagine space like a grid or cube of evenly marked "units" of any arbitrary size. Omnipresent within the cube, perhaps even floating above it, is a clock. Anywhere in the cube, it is the time indicated on the clock. Two individuals in the cube will both understand it to be the time on this clock, even if one is trillions of trillions of miles from the other. Within the three dimensions of height, width, and breadth, one can move about in any direction, and the distance one travels will always be simply the rate of travel (measured against some arbitrary frame of reference, like the earth's crust, or theoretically the cube itself it its dimensions were known) multiplied by the time one travels. This works out fine for almost all of our activities. When we set a meeting, we reasonably expect others to arrive at the set time, and the ubiquitous nature of the modern clock doubly reinforces the intuitive belief that everyone goes through life experiencing identical intervals of time proceeding at a uniform pace. Both the pace of the clock and the dimensions of the cube of space are absolute and unvarying, which given most of our experiences seems quite right.
However, things are not so clear cut when one takes into account an experimentally verified quality of light. Let us say that I throw a ball at you while you are standing still. I manage to get the ball up to 90 mph, and as it narrowly misses your head you manage to clock it with a radar gun at 90 mph. If you chose to flee in terror at 10 mph away from me as I threw the ball at you, your radar gun would clock the ball at only 80 mph, and likewise if you ran at the same speed towards me, hoping perhaps to knock me cold, you would clock the ball at 100 mph. We expect that if one thing's frame of reference is moving relative to another, the perceived speed of the objects involved will be modified by each others' motions. Light does not do this. Regardless of the motion of an observer or frame of reference, light in a vacuum will always be observed to travel at the same speed: C, around 3 x 10^8 m/s.
Skipping over the mathematics, which I am hardly in a position to explain, the discovery of this phenomenon means the Christian must rethink his claims about events in time and space. While pre-relativity physics envisioned time and space as separate, independent, and absolute concepts, relativity merges time and space into a single inseparable entity - spacetime - and renders discussions of time meaningless without references to space and velocity. Furthermore, time can only be meaningfully discussed in reference to specific frames of references at specific velocities, and then the time relations discovered are only valid for that frame of reference. It is impossible to absolutely determine the simultaneity of two events that are separated in space, only the relative simultaneity of events given a specific frame of reference.
Because of this, a spacetime event may only propagate at the speed of light. For example, if I shine a light at Omicron Persei, it will take somewhere around one thousand years for that event to propagate to that location. The effects of my action will not be simultaneous to an observer on that planet; it will take time, from my frame of reference, for my light to reach that place.
If the second coming is a literal spacetime event, it too would propagate in this fashion. Rather than a single universal and simultaneous moment, such an event could only be understood as a conglomeration of individual moments relative to individual observers. Furthermore, the "moment" of judgment would be completely subjective, by which I mean the velocity and position of each individual's own frame of reference would determine when the second coming had occurred, a moment which would not necessarily be identical across different individuals. This would be especially compounded if man's programs of space exploration has brought him to colonize other planets, as their experience of judgment would lag behind those on earth.
This brings into question the notion that the second coming and subsequent interruption of the universe can be understood in a literal spacetime fashion; we are already, in general, prepared to admit that the Scriptural account of the beginning of the universe is mythological in nature, a narrative whose truth is not related to a literal account of actual material events in spacetime but rather to its revelation of the relationship between creatures and Creator. Is it possible, then, that the notion of the "second coming," at least as it has been popularly imagined, is also an over-literal application of scriptural narratives?
Which brings me to the real point of this note. The faith has had a somewhat spotty track record regarding science. On the one hand, it is true that science has its origins in the bosom of two of the monotheistic religions, Islam and Christianity; in fact, its origins are somewhat more Muslim than Christian, as the origins of alchemy can be traced back to Muslim natural philosophers. Christianity, though, played its part in fomenting a culture of curiosity, especially in its scholastic days during the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. As intellectuals sought more and more systematic accounts of the relations of all things, God, man, and the universe, they gradually grew more and more scientific, in the modern sense of the word. Especially in these early days, there seemed to be a consensus that all could be synthesized, a consensus fueled by a belief in a fundamental wisdom which under-girded all things theological, philosophical, and physical.
But at some point, it was perhaps inevitable that the faith and reason should come into tension. This was because certain individuals had made claims, based apparently on the contents of the Christian faith, about the structure and interactions of the physical cosmos, interactions which were becoming increasingly scrutinized by means of the nascent modern sciences. Galileo is perhaps the most sensationalized conflict between faith and science, and much has been over-exaggerated or overstated by both sides of the conflict. Those who "take sides" with the Church are often quick to point out that the Church was not so interested in squelching the theory of heliocentrism as to stop Galileo from proclaiming its absolute truth, sometimes even going so far as to claim that relativity actually justifies the Church's condemnations (of course, the same individuals who condemned Galileo's assertion that it was an absolute truth that the earth orbited the sun had no qualms arguing from Scripture the absolute truth that the sun clearly orbited the earth). Those who "side with" Galileo are quick to note the Church officials' incorrigibility in the face of demonstrable evidence, going so far as to point to the incident as one of many that demonstrate the Church's growing irrelevancy in a period of increasingly detailed and accurate models of the universe provided by the scientific method.
In these matters, I have found myself increasingly without a "team," unable to "take sides" in what has become something of a partisan brawl. Intelligent design and atheistic evolutionists, Dembski and Dawkins, and all the other antithetical movements and personalities have created a culture of polarization in this and a host of other battlegrounds in the "culture wars."
What has happened? What has driven a wedge between the claims of religion and the claims of science, and is this division absolute?
I believe the origin of the division has actually been the tendency of both sides to deny the different but complementary roles of theology, philosophy, and natural science, as well as a corresponding rejection of traditional causal categories. For a certain type of educated Christian, especially one steeped in the ancient and medieval tradition, the formal division of the natural sciences from philosophy and theology has artificial, in the pejorative sense, written all over it. Theology is the "Queen of the sciences," and while they would admit the different methodologies of theology and science they have no qualms in giving theology an authoritative position over natural science. It may be an exaggeration to say that this sort of Christian looks down his nose at the entire project of modern science and can make only a derisive snort, but there is no doubt an attitude that science has brought about only confusion, a shattering of ancient and cherished truths, and even idolatry. This is most clearly illustrated by those moments in Christian history in which a religious figure has used arguments from theology to "disprove" a hypothesis about the formation, structure, or history of the natural world.
For example, Humani Generis. In this encyclical, Pope Pius XII writes:
"When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own."
Here we have the Pope arguing, ostensibly from the doctrines of the Church, that we cannot believe in polygenism. But it further claims that we must believe that there literally was one man from whom all living men descended, and further that this man was part of a unique and solitary first couple. Some of these claims are at least contested, if not outright contradicted, by genetic evidence, which although supporting the notion of common ancestors does not support the existence of a primal, solitary couple of humans. Like the Galileo incident, this is a case in which theology and religion has assumed for itself the peculiar authority and ability to make judgments about empirically verifiable matters without reference to empirical methodology. That the Pope worded his announcement in such definitive language only exacerbates the situation for a Christian, who is now put into the position of either ignoring all contradicting scientific evidence or dissenting from a Papal Encyclical (of course, the authority of such encyclicals is itself a matter of debate, though Pius XII claims in the very same work that Catholics cannot dissent from a statement in an encyclical).
Likewise, we are familiar with the brand of atheistic scientism put forward by the likes of Hitchens and Dawkins, and the sorts of statements with Stephen Hawking has recently made. They amount to something like this: because we are rapidly approaching a point at which we may be able to explain and predict all physical events in the universe by means of a single, encompassing scientific knowledge, we may dispense entirely with the now outdated and unneeded concept of God. These sorts of philosophies make a habit of ignoring or reducing phenomena which do not fit easily within a purely materialistic framework. They are also guilty of a misuse of science, which is competent only in material-efficient causality and cannot conclude on other forms of causality. Of course, these same scientists will typically dismiss other forms of causality, either claiming them to be reducible to material-efficient causality of denying their status as causes altogether.
So it is that both sides have their own peculiar difficulties. Each has become very good at pointing out the flaws of the other; neither seems particularly aware of its own. For Christians, admission that science has demonstrated that certain things once held as a matter of faith (even if not matters of dogmatic faith) were really incorrect seems at the very least to be the beginning of a slippery slope, a form of rebellion, if not outright heresy and rejection of God. Likewise, admission that religion and faith still have access to relevant, eternal, and critically important truth unavailable to natural reason seems intellectually suspect to the agnostic or atheist, if not superstition.
What is necessary, then, is both meditation and mediation, governed by a spirit of synthesis analogous, if not necessary identical, to the spirit which permeated the best of medieval scholasticism. This requires a genuine interest in the truth of things unconcerned with saving face. Christians possess a narrative of salvation, a story whence comes all its doctrines and truths and which spans time, space, and eternity. It is thus the case that Christianity can never be unconcerned with the study of space and time by natural means, including the methodology of science. We must be willing to give way when science has adequately demonstrated that something or other is really the case when it comes to the physical structure and interactions of the universe. But, likewise, scientists must be aware of the grave limitations of their art. It is a powerful method, but its power lies in its being focused like a laser on one aspect of existence. In practice, we know that there is far more to human knowledge than what can be scientifically demonstrated. History is a field of human study which, though aided by science, is nevertheless ultimately a field of storytelling, the careful weaving together of documents, artifacts, and oral tradition into a compelling narrative that makes sense of our past. Mysteries of intelligibility and intelligence, judgments of moral and ethical issues, the rational unraveling of the invisible and incorporeal realities of mathematics and logic, and the question of why there is existence rather than non-existence all remain beyond the competence of science in itself.
So it is with the Second Coming. We know and must believe from the faith that Christ will come again "to judge the living and the dead." But we must also be careful with that belief. There are obviously absurd versions of this belief, in particular the man who this year predicted a literal space-time rapture and subsequent second coming; in fact, it was thinking about the absurdity of his predictions from a physical standpoint that sparked this entire meditation. I still do not know what is meant by the mystery that Christ will come to judge us. Will it be a literal spacetime judgment? If so, how will this be possible? Will there be a suspension of all law and order, with the sky rolling up and the foundations of the earth dissolved in fire? Or is this a mythological rendering of a more profoundly spiritual judgment? I do not claim to know such matters. I do know that I will not do what one recent interlocutor of mine did, a Monsignor at that, who recently told me that since the creed tells us that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead we can rightfully conclude that it is impossible for the human race to go extinct, since there would then be no living humans extant for a spacetime judgment. From all appearances, as far as we know from reason, the universe will exist for an immeasurable time after the human race is likely to go extinct - far after any form of life familiar to us is rendered impossible.
But the list of beliefs that must be synthesized with our scientific knowledge does not end there, although some are more speculative than others. It was once believed, for instance, that the earth was fully unique and special, being the setting for the drama of salvation that constituted the purpose for creation itself. Even after physical geocentrism was discarded, this theological geocentrism remains fully intact. Yet as the last hundred years has blown open the universe and revealed to us millions of galaxies each likely hosting millions of planets, this geocentrism becomes more and more strained. The existence of other forms of life in the universe is unproven but seems more and more likely, even if we might have little to no hope of ever contacting such beings. The possibility that other rational beings inhabits the universe is at the very least a hurdle for Christianity, leading to a tendency towards ignoring, if not downright deriding, those who ponder the possibilities and theological implications.
Perhaps the most controversial and complicated matter is the relationship between body and soul, and the nature of the human mind and will. As science slowly reveals the structure of the brain and the relationship between mental phenomena and physical realities, it becomes necessary to understand what the soul is. Is the soul a free independent spiritual form somehow separable from the body? Is it, rather, an inseparable part of the body, an incorporeal and intelligible entity that can only arise out of some physical arrangement of tissues, just as a piece of music is an incorporeal intelligible entity that can only arise out of some physical arrangement of vibrations?
While I stand no chance of answering such questions, which are far beyond my capacity, it will not stop me from attempting to understand what is at stake. We Christians claim that the Logos became flesh: we believe that Truth is a person as much as an idea. But we can sometimes miss the way the Logos is behind every reality and truth, not in the same way as the full incarnation, but nevertheless incarnate as the wisdom behind all truth, even those truths discoverable through science. It falls on such a believer, then, to accept the discoveries of natural science as revelations of Christ, and to understand that whatever science discovers must be compatible with the truth of the faith - not by denying, distorting, or ignoring the discovery to fit our preconceived notion of the truth, but to fully accept the discovery as part of a larger, still mysterious, and veiled wisdom.