“In the beginning”: when poetic truth meets scientific conjecture

I have a lovely little sewn-binding book about space that starts like this:

“In the beginning, say most scientists, there was nothing. Then about 15 billion years ago, the universe – the Earth, Sun, Moon, and all the planets, stars and galaxies – came into existence in a cataclysmic fireball known as the Big Bang. The universe has been expanding from that moment, pushing against the inexorable pull of gravity which may one day lead to the Big Crunch.”

Since I wasn’t there 15 billion years ago when (say most scientists) the cataclysmic fireball resulted in the Earth, Sun, Moon, and all the planets, stars, and galaxies, I can’t speak to the factuality of these lines. It might be worth noting that pages 56 and 57 discuss Pluto, “a little planet we still know relatively little about” (wrote the authors in 2000) and which we now know is not a legitimate planet at all (based on a scientifically democratic, or maybe a democratically scientific, vote) but is instead a mere plutoid (according to scientists who can now definitively state that there are absolutely only 8 planets, no matter what anyone said before).

Aside from the fact that planetary “facts” have changed in the 12 years since the book was first published – which might call into question the very definition of “fact” – I have little to offer by way of scientific reader-response to the opening In the beginning lines. I’m not a scientist. I do know some scientists, and I could ask them whether my lovely little sewn-binding book about space starts out factually sound, but I’m not sure that’s really the point.

The point is that, poetically speaking, the opening lines of the book are atrocious.  Big Bangcataclysmic fireballthe inexorable pull of gravity – it’s enough to make any writing instructor curl up into a tightly wound fetal ball, reduced to meaningless simpering. And just in case she hasn’t quite toppled over the hypothetical edge of literary sanity, there is the equally hypothetical impending Big Crunch. You know. Like the Big Bang. But not alliterative. Please excuse the writing instructor while she chews on glass and pierces her eyes with a fork.

Maybe the authors of the space book wanted to draw on the emotional sensibilities of the reader – certainly the inexorable pull of gravity is not a strictly scientific phrase. Maybe they wanted to take a gentle (or not) swing at another poetic account of the Earth, Sun, Moon, and all the planets, stars, and galaxies, an account that begins with the same three words.  Sadly, they fail in poetry by their own hyperbolic clunkiness. Ironically, they fail in science (present Plutoidian science, at least) by, of all things, the advancement of science itself. What was a definitive fact just a few short years ago is, alas, no longer factual.

If someone is interested in the poetic beginning of all things – and since none of us was actually there, the poetic beginning is the only beginning we really have – might I suggest these lines instead, also taken from a lovely little sewn-binding book, and which are quite obviously the lines upon which the space book is patterned :

“In the beginning,
God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and empty,
and darkness covered the surface of the watery depths,
and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.
Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.
God saw that the light was good.
Then He separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light ‘day’ and He called the darkness ‘night.’
Evening came, and then morning: the first day.”

It seems to me that when poetry tries to be science or science tries to be poetry, we run into all kinds of problems. The theologians who insist that the first day definitively, factually, unequivocally, and absolutely equates to a passage of 24 hours are on no more solid ground than the scientists who poeticize the nothingness of eons ago into a non-deistic cataclysmic fireball. Similarly, the scientists who insist that a spontaneous and purposeless big bang is more likely and believable than God’s voice are treading in dangerous waters.

There are solidly scientific reasons to believe that the earth is very, very, very old. There are solidly sensible reasons to believe that God – powerful, creative, intentional, and knowable – was the intelligent and powerful source of all creation. These two things are not mutually exclusive. Science and truth can co-exist. Though science can reasonably theorize about the when of the beginning, it cannot speak at all about the who or why.

When science has faded away – perhaps in the Big Crunch it so boldly predicts, perhaps in some kind of Plutoidian consensus – truth will still be ever-present, just as powerful, creative, intentional, and knowable as always. At that point, facts and data will cease to exist, swallowed up in the expansively elegant truth known as Love. Can I prove it? Of course not. Can I know it? Absolutely. For though it may not be measurable, Truth is indeed knowable.

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