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ITEST Webinar

Everywhen: God, Symmetry, and Time

Faith and Science: Are they Really Opposed? or Not?

Presented on Saturday, December 11, 2021


Eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York’s Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become history’s most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.


Yes Virginia …

ITEST Director Emeritus and veteran physicist Dr. Tom Sheahen responds in a similar way to a similar concern:

The Bible says “God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son …”  But my astronomer friends say that with the universe as old and as vast as it is, there is no way God could care about our dinky little planet going around a minor star in an ordinary galaxy.  Can God possible care about people like me?

— Virginia

Virginia, your learned friends are wrong.

They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.  They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.  All minds, Virginia, are little.  In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Some readers may recognize the above words as written by Francis Church in 1897 for an editorial in the New York Sun.  But after a century of astonishing advances in science, of tremendous theories beyond anyone’s imagination back then, these words are equally true today.

We have indeed come a long way over a century, and physicists, chemists and biologists know a lot more than in the past.  But the most important thing a physicist learns is about the limits of our knowledge.  There are things that scientists do not know and we can be sure that we are not going to know these things via science – human knowledge comes with limitations.  One major advance of 20th century science was Quantum Mechanics, which includes the Uncertainty Principle, which sets a limit on how well you can possibly know extremely simple things, like where something is or how fast it’s moving.

A century ago, most scientists believed the entire universe was deterministic, and that if you could only specify all the details at one instant of time, you could calculate what was going to happen, forever.  As for God, many scientists believed that he just wound up the clock of the universe and set it in motion, and didn’t do anything after that.  Ever since the days of Isaac Newton, time was considered an absolute quantity that nothing could affect.  Everything was subordinate to time … even God.

And then along came Albert Einstein, who said that space and time are not absolute quantities, but are related to each other, forming a space-time continuum.  Instead of a 3-dimensional world that goes forward along the arrow of time, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity stated that the universe is actually 4-dimensional, composed of both space and time.  The symmetry of Einstein’s set of equations was so beautiful that it completely convinced all physicists of the validity of his model.  The absolute-ness of time was abandoned, determinism was discarded, and scientists realized they hadn’t dug very deep after all.  

With that, our understanding of the universe changed dramatically.  The mathematics underlying the universe said to even the most arrogant of scientists:  “Hey, fella, somebody a whole lot smarter than you thought all this up!”  We gradually realized that our viewpoint is terribly limited – that we can only grasp a small fraction of reality.  It was a big dose of humility for scientists, but it was necessary.  We understand now that there is a big difference between the very little human mind and “the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.” 

Fast-forward over a century of progress:  In physics, relativity, quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, quantum chromodynamics.  In engineering, airplanes, TV, computers.  In biology, antibiotics, recombinant DNA, non-invasive ways to see inside the human body.  The list goes on.  Our belief in mathematics and symmetry and the scientific method has served us well.  The latest hot topic in physics is superstring theory, which asserts that there are not 3 spatial dimensions but 10, and 6 of them are “rolled up” so you can’t find them or make measurements upon them.  All you can have is indirect knowledge, based on trusting theory to carry you many steps forward as strings form quarks which form nucleons which form atoms …. 

Francis Church’s editorial of 1897 makes another good point: “You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.”  Surprisingly, modern physics has bought us up to that veil, and the greatest atom-smashers in the world can’t get us beyond it.  Quantum theory assures us that we can’t know it all.

Through it all, scientists stand open-jawed and in awesome wonder, consider all that lies before us, both known and unknown.  On the one hand, we are very impressed with the vastness of the universe; but on the other, we are even more impressed that it all makes sense, that the entire story hangs together.  There is a unity that pervades all of science, and that unity points very clearly to the realization that Someone is in charge.

About 1600 years ago, long before anybody heard of the theory of relativity, a learned man (St. Augustine) said that God created space and time together, and sees the entire universe as a unit.  God is not  subject to the limitations that encumber human beings; God does not  have to sit around and watch time go by; God is simply present to every point in space and time.  St. Augustine could have written the children’s song “He’s got the whole world in His hands.”  Since Einstein, we might revise that to “He’s got the space-time continuum in His hands.”  God is not confined to live within time and space; He created time and space.  (Perhaps we should say “creates” instead of using the past tense.)

Somewhere in high school or college we start using graph paper, and learn to read logarithmic graph paper, in which every factor of 10 takes up the same amount of space.  Two-cycle logarithmic graph paper covers from 1 to 10 to 100; three cycle from 1 to 1000; and 20-cycle paper would cover 20 orders of magnitude.  If time is the variable, we can fit all the times about which we know anything at all onto a single sheet of 60-cycle graph paper — the age of the universe condensed onto one page.

Well, if mere mortals can comprehend this, surely we’ll agree that God can understand advanced algebra too – probably got an A+ in the course.  Is your location at some pinpoint X on a planet 3×10^(11) (or 3 E11) meters from the center of a galaxy somewhere?  Is your time coordinate 4×10^(17) (or 4 E17) seconds?  No problem.  It’s all right there in front of God, who is simply present to all different ages and different places.  The word is omnipresent.  Paying attention to one point in space-time (where you are, Virginia) is easy for God.

You will say “that’s mind-boggling” and you’re correct:  the very limited, very small human mind boggles at really big numbers.  What we really need to appreciate is not how big the numbers are, but how limited the human mind is.

As Francis Church wrote, “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”  That point has gradually sunk in with scientists.  By accepting with humility that we don’t know it all, and that our scientific instruments only investigate a small slice of reality, we realize that reality extends far beyond the boundaries of science.  Love and generosity and devotion exist, and we know that they give to life its highest beauty and joy.

Dr. Tom Sheahen’s book Everywhen was featured in this webinar, and with gracious charm, convincing eloquence, and absolute fidelity to the content, Tom enthusiastically promoted the book. HOWEVER, the even more important part of this webinar is the second talk given by Fr. Lawrence Brennan, the “Respondent.” Whereas Dr. Sheahen comes at the topic from the scientific side, Fr. Brennan considers the theological side, examining how time really bears upon our lives, and what the Church has always taught about time.

Can these two different approaches be blended?
That’s what ITEST is all about.

In Everywhen: God, Symmetry, and Time, Dr. Tom Sheahen draws attention to the way humans have tried to impose their limited understanding of time upon God. To overcome that mistake, Sheahen suggests a new pathway that steps upward toward seeking “both/and” answers instead of “either/or” answers. This enhances our understanding of time, creation and evolution.

“I think EVERYWHEN: God, Symmetry, and Time will be very valuable for helping people see how science points to faith and to recognize the false dichotomies between faith and science imposed on many minds within the popular culture by those who dislike religion or champion scientism. I also think that this book, particularly the multi-dimensional parts of the last chapter, will help people recognize the possibility of God free from the constraints of time, and a Heaven that may transcend some of the constraints of time. There are many other wonderful insights that will bring people closer to God and the unity between faith and reason.”

– Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, SJ, Host, “Fr. Spitzer’s Universe”


Our Presenters

Dr. Thomas P. Sheahen

Everywhen: God, Symmetry, and Time

Dr. Thomas P. Sheahen earned BS and PhD degrees in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During his 45-year career as a research physicist, predominantly in energy sciences, he worked for various industrial and national laboratories, such as Argonne National Lab, where he wrote the textbook Introduction to High-Temperature Superconductivity. He was chosen as a Congressional Research Fellow by the American Physical Society, dealing with energy-related national legislation.

Dr. Sheahen, a lifelong Catholic, is director emeritus of the Institute for the Theological Encounter with Science and Technology, which focuses on demonstrating the compatibility of faith and science as paths toward knowledge.

Rev. Lawrence C. Brennan, S.Th.D.

A Response to Dr. Sheahen

Rev. Lawrence C. Brennan, S.Th.D., is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri on assignment in the Diocese of Colorado Springs, where he serves as Director of Permanent Diaconate Formation. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1976 and earned his doctorate in 1982 from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He taught for 30+ years in 4 different American seminaries, most recently at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, where he served as Academic Dean for 18 years. Fr. Brennan is currently a priest in residence at Divine Redeemer Parish in Colorado Springs.

Watch Dr. Sheahen’s interview on Dr. Cynthia Toolin-Wilson’s WCAT Radio program “Author to Author.”

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