IN ONE OF those rare but spectacular moments, human beings got a glimpse of eternity. On July 4, NASA sent a probe headlong into a comet, and the explosion stirred up cosmic dust as old as the beginning of our galaxy. According to scientists, that was likely 4.5 billion years ago. The wonder of the thing strikes a chord of such deep resonance, it's hard to not feel a sense of reverence. Of faith. The science of space does it to me every time.
The questions that are now creating controversy -- the teaching of evolution, the right to life, stem cell research -- have put science on the defensive as well as revealed an almost dangerous literalism that has infected certain religious communities. Genesis is less of a science text than even ''The Descent of Man" is a religious book, but we have read them both looking for answers into the other. But the science of space is a science that begins, like authentic religious feeling, in wonder and trembling. Astrophysics is the last best hope for science to bridge the cultural gap between science and faith.
As both a theist and a skeptic, a believer and a rationalist, I can appreciate the cultural tension currently at play. I have at times wanted my science to be speckled with religious sentiment, and my faith to be reasonable. Nevertheless, this conflict is resolved for me when I read about galaxies forming.
All this leads me to wonder if the same senators who are pushing for the teaching of alternatives to evolution would want to limit NASA funding because these kinds of experiments don't also attempt to give some evidence for a creation of the world that occurred in seven days. Why aren't the members of school boards who want to introduce intelligent design into biology classes keeping their hands off astronomy? How do religious communities and churches draw the line between which kinds of science are acceptable and which are not? And where is gross politicking -- the real thing that is driving a wedge between faith and reason?
The politics of faith and science is rife with contradiction and misguided intentions. For example, in 2000, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas lent his support to the reelection bids of those conservative state Board of Education members who voted to remove evolutionary theory from the required state curriculum. He also sits on the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, which recently approved more than $16 billion for NASA,
So why is Brownback voting to spend money on science that in effect supports fundamental implications of evolutionary theory, that things evolve slowly, over long pressures and geologic changes, and that to even get to an Earth capable of a seven day miracle you need billions of years?
The answer, at least on one level, is that astronomy and astrophysics aren't a direct threat to certain religious beliefs. Astronomy does not jeopardize our sense of entitlement and dominion. The theory of evolution, work in genetics -- these things unravel the very uniqueness of human beings. But astronomy cares little for our bodies, over where so much political and religious debate waged.
But there is a more important reason: The aspects of astronomy that can make our own earthly struggles seem irrelevant is something we have all, theist and atheist alike, come to depend upon. We need the vertigo inducing notion of millions and millions of stars to retain our sense of wonder, our sense of reverence. No matter your beliefs about creation, who cannot look at the images beamed back by the Hubble and not be humbled? The NASA website is full of examples of the limitlessness of time and space; astronomy has no use for talk of mere days. Yet there are no religious conservatives fighting against the Cassini spacecraft's breathtaking sweep around Saturn and its mysterious moons.
Even astronomers, in the public consciousness, are the last of the dreamy-eyed scientists, the ones who are still looking for the answers to our ancient questions, who don't ask how life evolves, but how life itself began. Astronomers appear more like reverent monks as they gaze heavenward than Frankenstein geneticists who seek to create the very life whose origin remains a mystery.
Both science and faith begin in wonder, but instead of sharing this sense of mystery, battle lines have been drawn. There can be peace when religion and science stop trying to answer each other's questions. The first truce can be found in the science of space, in the work of NASA.
I can only imagine that for politicians, true religious feelings are not stirred by cantankerous debates over cloning and intelligent design.It's when NASA has produced fireworks in space that echo the ancient sounds of billions of years through as many miles of space that a greater sense of awe and reverence take hold.
Peter Bebergal lives in Cambridge. He is author of a forthcoming book of essays on religion and ethics.