And then I wrote… So, this is an odd article; not in that it’s unusual, itself — it is typical of the stuff I have written about faith and astronomy. In fact, it’s a nice summary of my ideas.
What is odd is that, though I find three or four different versions of this in my files for “stuff I wrote in 2011” and I can see that it was edited (by someone named “Mike”) I have no record of where it was actually published. If anyone reading this can find it in print anywhere, that would be great! I don’t always remember to update my CV with non-science publications. Anyway, what I do see it that it originally was written in the fall of 2011… and the version I am publishing here is actually more or less my original draft, which I think is the freshest if not the most polished version.
As with earlier articles that I have published here, this whole article is about 5000 words long so I have split it into three parts.
How do we come to know God? It is a question at the heart of all religious experience; and ultimately, of all human experience. And it is – and must be – the question behind our scientific experience of the universe.
The role of the human senses: This insight was directly stated by St. Paul in the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans: “since the beginning of time, God has revealed himself in the things he has made,” namely in this physical universe. This is illustrated throughout the Bible, our record of the times and ways that God has made himself manifest: from the breath of activity over the chaos described in the opening of Genesis, to the burning bush seen by Moses, to the still soft voice heard by the prophet Elijah as described in the first Book of Kings.
If God expresses himself in creation, then our experience of God is mediated through our created human senses. The way our senses experience God’s creation is at least one way that we come to know God. This is why we do science; if our ultimate longing is for Truth, then the search for truth is the search for God. Indeed, “how do we come to know God?” is ultimately the question that shapes the choices we make of what science we do, and the standard against which we judge the success of our work.
But science is more than merely experiencing the universe. Science is understanding what we have experienced. Our reflections about this experience, the way we come to know its meaning, is also mediated through our own mind’s processing of what it senses.
In spite of these innate human limitations, we do nonetheless grow in our knowledge of God by experiencing what God reveals in the universe. That this is possible, is a tribute to the power of God and the nature of the gifts of understanding that God has given us.
Insight and Image: One of those gifts is reason. But even in science, reason does not operate alone, in a vacuum. Science itself also is dependent upon the tools of insight and image. Insight is what guides us; it directs our hunches of where to look, and it suggests how to apply our reason to understand what we see when we look there. Image allows us to shape our newly won understanding so that we can communicate that it, both to others and to ourselves, and remember what we have understood, after the flash of insight has passed.
No image is perfect. Any attempt to treat an image as perfect turns it into an idol. But so long as we recognize an image for what it is, it can allow us to become emotionally familiar with the way we understand God, and thus incorporate our insights into the way we live and interact with God in this physical universe.
What are cosmologies? When a common image underlies all of our understanding of the universe and how it works, we call that image a cosmology. It is impossible to think of the universe without resorting to some sort of cosmology. Our choice of cosmology not only allows us to understand what we see, it also suggests new places to look and the necessity for a new understanding of those things we learn that do not easily fit into our given cosmology. And, like any image, our cosmologies are always imperfect and incomplete, and if taken too seriously can turn themselves into idols that get in our way of understanding the reality of God.
To take one example, recall that one of the most powerful of images we have to help us come to know God is that of “Father.” In recent times, as we struggle to understand the role of the sexes in the contemporary setting (where our expectation of traditional gender roles has changed significantly in the past 50 years) we have come to appreciate some of the limitations of this image. In addition, our personal history – for example, the nature of our relationship with our own father – can strongly color this image in each one of us, in ways that are as different as every family is for every individual. (As Tolstoy famously put it, “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”) Thus, those who had a bad relationship with their own father can often have a hard time relating to God as Father.
Now consider the prime attribute given to God the Father in our Creed: “Creator of heaven and earth.” In the days when that phrase was devised, just as the word “father” carried a different connotation than it might today, so too the terms “heaven” and “earth” envisioned a cosmology very different from what we currently believe. (And, of course, future developments in understanding our cosmologies will probably move them beyond anything we could imagine today.) Thus, inevitably, just as there is a personal effect in attributing to God characteristics that are particular to our experiences of our own father, there will likewise arise a tension between the ancient cosmology assumed by the authors of the Creed, and what can survive of that image as our picture of the universe changes…
[In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!]
Cosmologies in Context: Consider the following selections from the letters of St. Paul. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy (2:5-6) we read: “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all – this was attested at the right time.” In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (1:20–2:1)we read: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. . . . You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.”
And again, we hear from St. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians (1:15-16): “He is the image of the unseen God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.”
Notice the terms used there: Christ as “mediator” opposed to “the ruler of the power of the air” or “thrones or dominions or rulers or powers.” What do these strange phrases mean?
Paul was talking about his culture’s cosmology. He assumed that his readers were very familiar with these terms, because they reflect the cosmology of his times; a cosmology very different from ours.
Most of us are familiar with the classical geocentric view of the universe, with the earth at the centre and the sun and planets going around it. But even when we say that, we are bringing to that picture our own modern sense of what “earth” and “sun” and “planets” means. In our mind the images of Earth are the ones seen from space, our bright blue dot, and we imagine that the old cosmology somehow envisioned the moon and its craters, or Saturn and its rings, turning about us as if we were the centre of the universe. But, in fact, that is not at all what the classical picture is talking about. Cosmology is more than just how the pieces are arranged; it’s about the very nature of the pieces themselves.
Cosmology and Religion: Ancient cosmologies started with the observation that the sky appeared to form a dome over a flat disk on which humans lived. Mirroring this view, the first chapter of Genesis describes God creating a “dome” in the midst of the “waters” separating the “waters” above and below the land on which plants, animals, and people are eventually placed.
Many ancient cultures advanced and developed this picture by postulating a number of different heavens, or layers of heaven, based on the observation of certain objects in the sky that moved among the other stars – the seven “planets” (including the Sun and Moon), whose names were given in many languages to the seven days of the week. They placed every one of those dots of light that we see wandering among the stars – the Greek word “planet” means “wanderer” –into its own sphere, its own sky.
I recall once, a few years ago, giving a talk about meteorites to a group of native Americans in northern Wisconsin. I was trying to explain what a meteorite was by describing it as a rock that has fallen out of the sky, when an older woman in the group stopped me, and asked, “which sky?” The cosmology she was operating out of was different from mine, but not all that different from the classical view. In one sense, her asking me “which sky” is comparable to a scientist asking “which planet.” But really it is a very different question, because it has packed within it very different ideas of what those worlds or skies really mean. And these different layers also fed into these cultures’ spiritual beliefs.
This ancient cosmology was adapted by Greek and Roman times as the spherical nature of the Earth became understood. (That the Earth is a sphere can be seen most dramatically in the circular shadow of the Earth on the Moon during a lunar eclipse.) The Greek philosopher Eudoxos proposed that the stars were in a sphere encircling the Earth, and the planets were embedded in crystalline spheres between the Earth and this starry orb.
By the time of Ptolemy, a cosmology involving epicycles of circles around points themselves travelling in circles around the Earth was able to reproduce with remarkable accuracy the observed motions of the sun, moon, and planets.
Such a cosmology was quite different from the one described in Genesis. This did not lead to a crisis comparable to the Galileo affair, however; because most theologians at that time (see, for example, St. Augustine’s book On Genesis) still saw in this physical cosmology a reflection of the non-physical universe. Even after the adoption of a cosmology based on a spherical Earth, a common feature of most cosmologies was the belief that the physical universe mirrored the spiritual realm.