Looking on from Heaven, what is Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) making of the reported wondrous feats of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)?
Ussher will be pricking up his angel ears because his famously influential calculation of the age of the universe is very much at odds with what NASA says the JWST is showing unto us.
Ussher's calculation that God made the universe in just six busy days just 6000 years ago, rolling His big sleeves up and getting to work on October 23, 4004 BC, is still popular with Christian creationists.
Meanwhile, science-believing believers are rhapsodising that the very first image received last week from the JWST shows us, as US President Joe Biden gasped while unveiling it, "the oldest documented light in the history of the universe - from over 13 billion - let me say it again - over 13 billion years ago".
I am a mild-mannered atheist and lapsed Anglican (and may give God and Christianity a second chance one day) and find myself interested in what earnest Christians are making of the JWST and of what scientists say it is showing us.
Touring Christian websites, I find a range of theologically nimble refutations of the telescope's notions of time.
For example, at Answers In Genesis we find the writer still adamant that the universe is only 6000 years old. He is dismissing the media and NASA's JWST-based calculations of billions as plainly wrong since, he says, those calculations "are clearly secular and unbiblical, which inevitably means they're also fallacious, as is the case with every unbiblical worldview".
When Christians play a bat as straight as that it's hard for a secular bowler to hit their fundamentalist stumps.
In spite of the strong supposition among atheists (who remain this columnist's mob, for now) that the JWST's findings mean belief in God is set to dwindle, I can imagine a very different outcome in which He, God, is given a superboost.
To the extent that religions are inventions to enable us to cope with Life's fears and mysteries, perhaps the JWST's findings will provide even more fertile occasions for religion's artful and balmy therapies to rise to.
Is it just wee, cowering, timorous me, readers, or isn't there a terrifying, nightmarish side to the wonders being displayed and discovered by the JWST?
Yes, the telescope gives us much to marvel at and be awed by. The popular image it has just sent home, the one introduced to the ogling world by President Biden, is gorgeously star-spangled and suggestive of celestial blizzards of cosmological jelly beans.
That image, taken over 12 hours, is of a candy-coloured cluster of galaxies known unpoetically as SMACS 0723.
But those of us with a talent for timorousness note of the image that it is showing us that cluster as it appeared (gasp!) 4.6 billion years ago.
These sorts of statistics of time and distance now appearing in reports of what the telescope is foraging for have the mighty power to make humans feel utterly insignificant.
A sense of insignificance can take many forms but one immediate one in this James Webb context is the way in which the human lifespan (the most durable Australians now live for 83.79 years) becomes so blink-of-the-eye ephemeral in the context of the JWST-dated universe.
Shakespeare has a despairing Macbeth sigh that a human life is such a "brief candle" and now the JWST findings reinforce Shakespeare's mournful insight.
By increasing our rational awareness of life's meaninglessness, the JWST horrors may turn more and more of us to irrational (but psychotherapeutically essential and not to be scoffed at) religious ways of scrambling to find meaning, of massaging away our spiritual aches, pains and sprains.
For example you'd think, rationally, that the JWST's reminder of the sheer uninhabitable immensity of the universe and of our apparent aloneness in it is a thing to be woebegone about. But au contraire. In the online Christian places where one fossicks for JWST reactions, one finds nimble Christians arguing afresh.
They are saying that our planet's habitable uniqueness (in what the JWST shows is the unfathomable blizzard of the universe) is another irrefutable proof of the special trouble God has gone to with His chosen planet and with His chosen species, extra-special us. He has made us exceptional.
Thus the JWST's atheism-thwarting works have the power to give us spiritual tickets on ourselves. Amen.
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
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