Dr. Philip Hefner is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He directed the Zygon Center for Religion and Science from 1988 to 2003 and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. He has authored numerous books and articles, and is best known for his book, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion.

What I have to say is provoked by an image, informed by science, and interpreted theologically and philosophically.

Let’s begin with the image — which is where I began.

The basic image is that of a human being, existing — I like the image of perching, like the boy in the moon — within an unimaginably large universe, on a planet, which is itself insignificant, on the edge of its galaxy. This universe is billions and billions of light years large, and constantly expanding.

The one image projects an aloneness, the boy perching on the moon. The other image, the “Cosmic Mestiza” by artist Lynn Randolph (see above), is one I have spoken of in other contexts. Here the mestiza is standing on planet Earth, her feet astride the Rio Grande river, the border between Mexico and the United States. The mestiza conveys the complexity of human life on this planet. 

With the Hubble telescope in one hand and a serpent with DNA markings in the other, we see the perch I am speaking of — “Between giga and nano.” These terms symbolize the very large and the very small. Giga carries measurement outwards to the billions. Nano carries it to the billionths downwards. If you look at Wikipedia, you’ll see measurements outwards to the yotta (Y) and downwards to the yocto (y), to the septillions.

Giga reality — the world outwards and Mystery

I will not dwell on the larger cosmology. It is well known. Originating in a cosmic singularity — the Big Bang — some 13-plus billion years ago, an evolutionary process was unleashed. This process produced the particles and elements that over time formed the stars, galaxies, planets and other bodies in the universe. Billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars. Presently, the size of the universe is beyond imagining. 

We get an idea when we note travel from Earth to Mars, as NASA now projects it, will take six to eight months. Communications from the Mars lander, Perseverance, take 5-20 minutes to reach Earth. During the critical landing of the recent Perseverance module on Mars, communication took several minutes, resulting in the “seven minutes of terror,” referring to the silence at the moment of landing.

The diameter of the present universe is estimated to be 93 billion light years. We can visualize seven minutes of terror, but 93 billion is beyond our capacity.

The giga reality is exciting, our knowledge is growing exponentially, and in its immensity and complexity, it is mystery. Some people say the term “mystery” is a cop out, a retreat from science. The opposite is in fact true, science itself points us to mystery. People pondered the universe in ancient times, in biblical times, and they were awed. Today, scientific cosmology has intensified the awesomeness.

Nano reality — the world inwards

The Cosmic Mestiza depicts the giga reality in the cosmic background and the Hubble telescope in her left hand. I focus this evening on her right hand, dangling a serpent with markings that sometimes image the DNA molecule. This points to what I call the nano reality. 

Let’s note a few facts about the nano level, the very small: 

A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

A strand of human DNA is 2.5 nanometers in diameter.

There are 25,400,000 nanometers in one inch.

A human hair is approximately 80,000-100,000 nanometer in diameter. 

There are 3 billion nucleotides in our bodies. They comprise our DNA — the A, C, G, and Ts.

The domain of the very small is a growth industry, in terms of research and technology. And a realm of human intervention. We make attempts to intervene in the giga domain, mainly now in the work of NASA and its private contractors, like Space-X, but it is constrained by the very nature of the cosmos and expensive. Our efforts are Herculean for us and very important, but tiny in the universe as a whole. 

Our interventions into the nano world are also fantastic. They form an ever-increasing role in our contemporary practice of medicine. There are relatively few places in the country where the work of giga exploration is carried on. But every metropolitan area has institutions that drive exploration and technological uses in the nano world. 

Chicago, for example, has at least five major medical centers and universities where this work is carried on. The Texas Medical Center in Houston alone is comprised of 160 institutions. The northeast corridor of the U.S., along with areas of Florida and California likewise have massive institutions for the medical research and practice that involve nano scale activities.

Anyone who enters a medical center today enter the nano world as soon as they walk in the front door.

We cannot go into all the details of the nano world, but we must try to achieve a summary sense of what is going on. I will offer a series of vignettes that illustrate the scope of our involvement in the nano world. I do not, by any measure, possess expert knowledge in this area. I represent a large and important demographic, an ordinary person trying to find my way in an area that is critically important for me and for all of us.

In all of this, I emphasize that we not only gain knowledge, but we also act on that knowledge. We not only want to know what that nano world is, we also want to change — even dominate — that world to our benefit.

Genetics 

Particularly since the achievements of the Human Genome Project of the 1990s, specifically the mapping of the human genome, genetics has become a standard feature of medical practice. Two members of my nuclear family have been diagnosed with breast cancer. In addition to surgery, the course of treatment is guided significantly by genetic testing of the tumors. This testing has enabled many women to survive.

Genetics and genetic engineering figure in other areas of medicine. Consider transplants — a friend of mine recently underwent a double lung transplant: genetic testing helps to determine organ compatibility. Scientists have developed genetically engineered pigs with the aim of reducing rejection of pig organs by human patients. Bone marrow transplants require genetic testing.

Biotechnology

A Wikipedia article on biotechnology describes it as: “The concept of biotechnology encompasses a wide range of procedures for modifying living organisms according to human purposes. Modern usage also includes genetic engineering as well as cell and tissue culture technologies.”

The American Chemical Society defines biotechnology as the application of biological organisms, systems, or processes by various industries to learning about the science of life and the improvement of the value of materials and organisms such as pharmaceuticals, crops, and livestock. 

Biotechnology is the integration of natural science and organisms, cells, parts thereof, and molecular analogues for products and services. Biotechnology is based on the basic biological sciences (e.g. molecular biology, biochemistry, cell biology, embryology, genetics, microbiology) and conversely provides methods to support and perform basic research in biology.”

The University of Chicago has only recently established a Ph.D. Program in biotechnology. Northwestern and UIC have older established programs.

Nanobots

I recommend a YouTube video that recounts nano research at Rice University. Rice, in Houston, works with the Texas Medical Center.  

Remember that we are talking about the nano realm, where a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. In the video, the researcher described nano motorized molecules “driven by light that have been used to drill holes in the membranes of individual cells and show promise for either bringing therapeutic agents into the cells or directly inducing the cells to die.”

Taking it all in

As I have said, this is not a reasoned scientific account. It borders on “Gee Whiz,” because the worldview I have hinted at is breathtaking. Let me summarize where I stand: I cannot conceive of a cosmos:

  • whose diameter is 93 billion light years in extent, and a light year is 6 trillion miles.
  • in which the closest star outside our solar system is Proxima Centauri, which is 4.25 light years away from Earth.
  • Of a piece with this cosmic view, when I hear of a project to get to Mars, I am reminded that on the average takes a beam of light or a radio signal 12.5 minutes to travel from Mars to Earth, and it takes 6 to 8 months to travel between Earth and Mars.

Similarly, it is beyond my comprehension that submicroscopic love.

I have called these realms, symbolically, “giga” and “nano.” Both are real, both are beyond my comprehension. Furthermore, both realms beggar the imagination. Permit me one more image. In cosmic perspective, human beings are smaller than ants, crawling over an insignificant planet. Yet these ants have developed knowledge and technology that enables them to picture the universe and build vehicles that can travel millions of miles into space. They have also gained knowledge of their bodies down to the subatomic level and build vehicles that can improve their lives.

Humans are not content to possess awesome knowledge, they want to change things. The space around our planet is actual quite crowded with man-made stuff: not only space junk or garbage that we have littered, but also many communications satellites that have significant impact on our lives.

And these tiny “ants” on planet Earth want to impact the nano sphere in order to achieve a more satisfactory “ant-hood.”

Theological probing: Mystery, Intelligence, Purpose

This long meandering that I have subjected you to is a foundation for explaining what I believe theologically.

I conclude from these reflections that mystery and intelligence are fundamental and intertwined. Mystery is a difficult term for some thinkers in the area of religion and science. The critique is that invoking “mystery” is too easy, a cop out, a retreat from science. In my understanding, however, science itself leads us to mystery. Mystery is much more awesomely depicted in scientific cosmology today than the depiction in the Bible or ancient legend. It is only relatively recently that people knew there were billions of anything—whether stars outside us or nucleotides within us. I say these scientific descriptions are wrapped in Mystery, with a capital “M,” because those descriptions lead inevitably to such questions as, “Why are things this way?” and “What does it all mean?” “Does it have purpose?” And even though these questions never go away — people have been asking them for millennia — they are beyond our ability to comprehend.

This Mystery, however, is intelligible. Not only is there intelligibility in the giga and the nano worlds, it is also an intelligibility that is accessible to our minds, to our intelligence.

 We may not understand the cosmos or the nano world, but we can know those worlds in detail, they are intelligible to our intelligence.

The intelligibility of the universe is evidenced in the fact that we can perform engineering feats both in the giga and the nano world, and engineering attempts are amazingly successful! The factors of intelligibility and engineering dare not be underemphasized. For example, Mars and Earth travel different orbits, and their respective locations and distances are always changing. Yet we are able to gain knowledge of those locations and distances and engineer machines that can travel successfully between the two. We can also calculate the necessary variables, including gravity, atmospheric density, and temperature. Furthermore, since the number and complexity of the calculations are so huge, we can invent computers that make the calculations feasible.

The nano world is different from the cosmos, it presents its own knowledge and complexities. Yet we are also developing the machines that work in this realm — for example, to image cells, deliver materials to them, and otherwise treat them.

These elements of complexity, mystery, and intelligibility form the basis for my belief that God exists. Since human minds can neither prove nor disprove that God is real, it makes no sense to argue whether there is God. But we can and should explain where we stand on the question. Of course, there are personal and experiential motivations for believing in God. I am not referring to them. I am talking about intellectual reasons for my belief in God.

A major secular argument against belief in God relies on chance and indeterminacy. The universe and life in it “just happened” without purpose and meaning. That argument is not credible to me. The giga and nano world are so complex and beautiful that happenstance as their cause does not make sense. The number of evolutionary parts and connections and the time it takes for them to evolve — in my thinking, all this could not have happened without an intelligence, God, behind it. 

Questions of purpose arise immediately, also wrapped in mystery. What is the purpose underlying our space exploration? Why are we motivated to leave our planet for outer space? The urge for adventure? Simple curiosity? These factors are certainly valid, but they don’t carry us very far. Why are we willing to spend billions on space exploration, while at the same time we consider it too expensive to eliminate poverty, to provide universal health care, or to provide free higher education for all? 

Similar thoughts arise in the nano world. Why should there be a nano world at all? Within an evolutionary framework, we believe that all of reality is related. The evolution of reality can be conceived as a drama in four acts: cosmic evolution, biological evolution on Earth, the ontogenetic development of every individual, and the evolution of culture. Biological and ontogenetic evolution follow Darwinian principles of selection. Cosmic and cultural evolution follow along other principles.

Even within this evolutionary framework, we do not fully understand how giga and nano are related. We share a great deal with other higher primates, for example, chimpanzees. But these other primates do not perform surgery on their own bodies, nor do they seek other worlds.

What purpose governs the nano world. We intervene in this world for health reasons, to cure disease and extend longevity. Should we pursue health and longevity boundlessly? We have been so successful that we are inundated by elderly and infirm people — I am in this group myself. We enable people to live longer lives, but to what end? And how can we support this group? Health care and health maintenance occupations are among the fastest growing.

Mystery — intelligibility — purpose: these are the realities that face the images with which I began: the boy perched in the moon, the Mestiza who faces the cosmos with the Hubble telescope and the genetic map. These are basic theological issues.

Where do our religious traditions fit in? They focus mainly on how we should live in this amazing world. That is material for another time. I hope I have drawn a large picture, for all of us to fill in the details. 

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team!

You have Successfully Subscribed!