Cosmic Flow and the James Webb Telescope

Cosmic Flow and the James Webb Telescope July 20, 2022

{Cosmic Cliffs in the Carina Nebula. Wikimedia Commons; NASA}

I have this notion I call “cosmic flow” that is a large part of my worldview and faith structure. Indeed, I love to image God as a force or flow moving things in the direction of repair and redemption—especially the things we creatures break. In noticing how repair and serendipity are evident in a certain occurrence, I might refer to the occurrence or process as “part of the cosmic flow” (this elicits eyerolls from my husband. Next to the word “skeptic” in certain Websters editions, you’ll find his photo). Sometimes the flow of redemption takes a while, and sometimes things get caught or are resistant to the flow; the flow can be temporarily impeded. But flow on to redemption it does, bringing with it all things, making “all things new,” to use scriptural language.

With baited breath, I’ve been watching the progress of the James Webb Telescope—since hearing about its launch months ago, to the release of its first images last week. For those who have not been following, let me tell you, hundreds of things could have gone wrong with this launch that did not go wrong. More precisely, 344 small mechanical feats (potential “single points of failure,” in NASA speak) had to succeed flawlessly—one after another—for the James Webb to work. Astronomers were on pins and needles knowing the potential for something—even just one necessary step—to go wrong, botching an effort that has cost 10 billion dollars and consumed decades of work by experts. Yet, everything worked.

Everything worked. And we are now seeing stars whose light is 13 billion years old. Relatively speaking, that is nearly as old as the universe, with the Big Bang being dated to about 13.8 billion years ago. Stars were different then, composed of pure hydrogen and helium, which is one of countless interesting things astronomers can now observe.

Because so many things could have gone wrong that did not go wrong, I cannot watch the successful trajectory of James Webb Telescope without marveling at the unlikely feat it is and seeing “cosmic flow.” In my eyes, with my view of God as the force not only behind the Big Bang, but as a force at the center of, or immanent in, every created thing that issued from that inception point of creation, I see the James Webb as a stunning example of the cosmic flow making things right. I wonder at what the cosmic flow is revealing to us through the experience (I do see the cosmic flow as revelatory, as well as redemptive). Might it be revealing how very small we are? How relative and insignificant are our little problems. How much larger than we can even imagine, or characterize in our tightly bounded myths and texts, is this thing we call “Creator,” “Great Spirit,” “God.”

Of course, the problem with thinking about cosmic flow is how to integrate all of the things that go wrong. Does a child dying of cancer mean that child’s life was not in the cosmic flow? Does the failure of a freeway off-ramp that collapses on people, killing many, mean this was part of the cosmic flow? Clearly not. Many things impede the flow. Terrible things happen that are contrary to wholeness and not life-giving but life-destroying. Still, the flow keeps on its course of redemption and repair, bringing newness and life even in the wake of failure and destruction. Terrible things happen despite the cosmic flow in part because humans make terrible things happen. But the cosmic flow keeps working to set things right, in ways infinitesimal and grand.

Scientists might take offense at the inclusion of God in a course of action (the creation and deployment of the James Webb) that was the successful effort of hundreds of incredibly smart, skilled people. These people made the James Webb what it is. As I note their work, I also believe that the cosmic flow depends on human action (and the action of other creatures), and that their work is part of the flow.

I’ve seen the redemptive, reparative force of God, or cosmic flow, play out in my life and the lives of those close to me over and over. This is why it’s so integral to my view of life and the world. If the most reliable evidence is experience, this trend toward wholeness is the most reliable thing I know. I also believe we are imbued with God and are God’s hands and feet. So we play an integral role in the flow. We don’t sit back and pray and expect God to act supernaturally. We participate in redemption. Therefore, we pray less with our words and more with our limbs, our voices, our hearts.

Cosmic flow is where I find hope. Not in a naïve idea that things cannot and will not go wrong. But that even the things we break are, over time, becoming repaired. And sometimes things go right that needn’t have gone right at all. In these instances, as in the flawless deployment of the James Webb Telescope, I’m prone to see cosmic flow at work. And as a group of astronomers has said of the James Webb: “The telescope and instrument suite have demonstrated the sensitivity, stability, image quality, and spectral range that are necessary to transform our understanding of the cosmos through observations spanning from near-earth asteroids to the most distant galaxies.”

Wonder doesn’t even begin to cover it.

WREN, Winner of a 2022 Independent Publishers Award Bronze Medal.

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