Imagine the World

Biblical CosmosRobin A. Parry’s, The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible is a fun trip through territory already familiar. Familiar, that is, to anyone who has studied the biblical world on its own terms. Fundamentalists, I think, would benefit from taking this guided tour seriously. The fact is, most people have no real sense of how mythology might inform a scientifically inclined world. Not that Parry will convince everyone, but the dangers of literalism are best disarmed by a believer. This little book endeavors to demonstrate just how odd a world produced the Bible we still use today.

Although the point of the book may not be what I took away from it, I would suggest that the most important aspect is that times change.  A biblical worldview, unless one is mentally able to hold two realities simultaneously in mind, is simply not possible today.  I told generations of students that the world described by the Bible does not exist.  It is a flat world, held up by pillars and with a solid bowl inverted over it for a sky.  At the same time, those who lived in the biblical world were not simpletons.  The basics of science were well understood and their engineering capacity easily bypassed that of the current writer.  It was a world based on different assumptions than ours.  The problem occurs when people who know better (i.e., anyone born since about the time of Copernicus) try to pretend that the Bible can be taken literally.  It is disingenuous to say so.  The Bible, regardless of divine status, is a document of its time.  No dinosaurs had been discovered.  The processes of geology were understood only in the most rudimentary of ways.  Stars were not millions of light years away.
So what are we supposed to do with this information?  Parry concludes his book by describing ways in which the biblical view of the cosmos might fit, conceptually, into a modern theology.  For many of those starting out in the academic study of the Bible such a demonstration can be quite valuable.  Those who’ve been at it a while will surely have come up with their own systems.  When books become sacred, in the minds of the believing community, the “truth” attributed to the book is the truth of that era.  As any scientist or historian will attest, truth is contingent.  We haven’t learned everything yet.  Given the limitations of the human mind, we likely never will.  We should accept our universe with a little mystery.  Humility can be a good thing, and it is more effective not having to make excuses for what will surely become outdated information sooner than we think.

Infinite and Expanding

Show me the birth certificate. Whoa! It seems the universe padded the figures by about 80 million years. To you and me that’s 80 million years. To old universe, it’s merely the blink of a cosmic eye. The news has been humming with the results of the European Space Agency’s Planck Space Telescope picture of the microwave background radiation of the universe. From what I can see, the universe forgot to say cheese. Unless, of course, it’s swiss cheese. Further and further science confirms our big bang of a beginning, and, quite literally, it has been downhill from there.


Cosmology is the most theological of the sciences. I’m sure many cosmologists would demand to differ on that point, but the inexorable draw to find out how it all began had its humble origins in religious thought. The mythologies of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Israelites, among many, many others, explored options for how the universe (as they knew it) might have begun. The curiosity is deeply embedded in the human psyche—we want to know our origins. Physicists, of course, play by the rules. Astrophysicists use incredibly complex formulas that all point to a big bang that nobody has ever heard. The inevitable question is, however, what happened before that? Could it be there was no before? A time before time? It seems to me a religious question.

The Planck telescope tells us that our middle-aged universe also has more girth than it admitted previously. No surprises there, after all the theory of the universe’s growth is called “inflation.” I sympathize. All of this information is wonderful news on an intergalactic scale, but it hasn’t solved many of our problems out here in this corner of the cosmos. Reading the rest of the news headlines, after I wipe away the tears, I see that our universe really is showing its age. We are older than we thought, but are we wiser? Scientists are examining fossilized light with glee, but we still can’t figure out that if a guy loves another guy (or girl another girl) that it’s just another instance of what happens after the big bang. We can’t accept that our industrial greed has messed up the weather—has anybody been outside lately? We know that one percent control almost all the wealth and yet we buy lottery tickets and hope for the best. And these are only a few in a long series of echoes that can’t seem to allow some people to think clearly in this girth-challenged, more-than-ancient universe. It must be a religious issue after all.

Stephen Hawking’s Heaven

CNN’s Belief Blog, apparently open to contributions only by “successful” (i.e., university employed) religion scholars, nevertheless occasionally comes up with a thoughtful story. One of yesterday’s posts focuses on the fact that Stephen Hawking says Heaven is a “fairy story.” First of all, I have admit being surprised to see that Hawking is still in Cambridge—I could have sworn he was working in the Princeton public parking garage because it is his voice that comes out of the ticket machine. (Times being what they are for academics, I figured he might have needed a second job.) Ah, but appearances can be deceiving! I have had great respect for Stephen Hawking for many years. My own scientific interests must be relegated to a decidedly lay position among the collegiums of scientists, but Hawking writes books that people like me can (mostly) comprehend. Echoing an idea I stressed earlier—we came to the same conclusion independently—Hawking noted in a recent interview that Heaven is an idea devised to cope with fear.

Cosmologists, such as Hawking, speak with authority on the literal heavens. Ironically, the word “heavens” continues to retain its usefulness, even among scientists, for describing everything that is out there. Humans are assuredly small and our place in the universe is miniscule. In our heads, however, we conceive lofty ideas that seem to place our own consciousness outside the unlimited bounds of this universe. Is it any wonder that we can concoct gods? As deeply as they peer into the cold, dark recesses of outer space, astronomers and cosmologists find no room for Heaven. This cosmic inn, no matter how many aliens there may be, is largely empty.

What I find interesting is that journalists of religion find skepticism among scientists newsworthy. While being a rational thinker, as science demands, does not necessarily forego divine entities, using gods as explanations and having trans-dimensional heavens tucked away behind some far asteroid does somehow devalue the power and majesty of our eternal home. We expect our scientists to be skeptical—we wouldn’t often visit a doctor who sacrificed a goat on every office visit to consult its entrails concerning our health. And yet it is newsworthy when a scientist says in a forthright statement that Heaven does not exist. It would be like an evangelical preacher saying evolution never happened. The biggest miracle of all may be that whether it is Dr. Hawking’s doing or not, I actually manage to find parking in Princeton.

Billions and billions, but no angels with harps...

God of the Gaps = Poof!

In Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, according to MSNBC, he declares that God is not necessary, physically speaking, to get the universe going. The only people who should be surprised here are those who took Hawking’s final lines from A Brief History of Time too literally: “However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.” I remember being a bit surprised when I read that the first time.

Whose eyes are watching you?

At some level, it seems, many people took comfort in knowing that one of the greatest scientific minds alive had left a door open for God. The great cosmologist looking through a theoretical telescope and seeing God on the other end looking back. There was a symmetry here, a sense of rightness. Some, to gauge by the reactions reported, feel that Dr. Hawking has betrayed us in stating the obvious. God was never to be found in the petri dish or under the electron microscope. According to the theorists of a theological stripe, God has no quantifiable qualities that might be measured. As the article states, the only God to disappear here was the God-of-the-gaps.

As a young, undergraduate religion major, when I first heard that God-of-the-gaps was bad philosophy/theology, I was a bit surprised. (I spend a lot of time being surprised.) If God has no explanatory value in the real world, whence deity at all? If religious folks behaved better, there might well be cause to suggest that the evidence for God comes in human kindness and charity. Unfortunately, religious folk quite often instigate the hatred and suffering that scars much of human society. No, Stephen Hawking has not killed God, just as Friedrich Nietzsche did not commit deicide in the nineteenth century. If the God-of-the-gaps is gone, nothing of value has been lost. The minds of theological thinkers will only have to be stretched just a bit farther.

How Flat is Your World?

I talk so much about lenses in class that some of my students must think I’m a closet optometrist. The lenses I refer to, however, are those that we all wear as part of our culture. We can’t help it – being born into a worldview is part of the human experience. From my youngest days I recall learning that the earth is twirling around at a dizzying rate and we are hurtling through space around the sun so fast that my thoughts can’t even keep up. These are lenses. Then we turn to the Bible (or other ancient texts for that matter) and read about the creation of their world. To understand their worldview we need to take our lenses off.

Last night I could see the understanding dawning on some faces in the classroom as I described ancient Israel’s worldview. They were flat-earthers, each and every one. The world that is described in Genesis 1 is flat with an invisible dome over it, a dome that holds back the cosmic waters and provides a living space for the sun, moon, and stars. The flat earth is upheld by pillars that erupt through the surface in the form of mountains, and there is water around all. Genesis 1 does not describe the creation of water; it is already there. You can tell there is water above the dome because it falls on us whenever it rains. Oh yes, and dead people are in Sheol, somewhere under our feet. This is the world that God creates in six days. It is not our world. It was their world.

One possible rendition of an extinct worldview

It is not that the physical world has changed, but perceptions of it have. When I stand outside (this was especially noticeable when I lived in central Illinois), I see the world is flat. I feel no motion – I get sick as a dog swinging my head around too fast, so I would know! The difference is that I understand apparent reality is not the same as physical reality. The writers of Genesis 1 did not anticipate our world, nor did they describe how it came to be. They described the world they knew, a world that does not actually exist. Fundamentalists today claim that the Bible is factual in its description of the creation, and that may be the case. But only if you take your lenses off and admit that the world God created is flat and is covered by a dome. And by the way, it looks like the windows of the sky were left open because it is beginning to snow again.

Old Father Hubble

“Space. The final frontier.” So I grew up hearing as Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock raced through the galaxy and plucky Will Robinson explored the cosmos with Robot despite the machinations of Dr. Zachary Smith. In Seattle a few years back I visited Paul Allen’s Science Fiction Museum and as I stood before the original Enterprise console and viewed Robot in person, it was almost a personal epiphany. This was my childhood all in one room.

Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum, courtesy Gnu

NASA has just announced the release of more deep space images snapped by the new and improved Hubble Space Telescope. These images show objects, galaxies, back to a mere 600 million years after the Big Bang. Look any further back and you’re liable to find yourself staring God right in the eye! These incredibly ancient images are humbling to a scholar of ancient times. In the cosmic calendar Sumer isn’t even on the map. And now we can see back almost to the Big Bang itself. It is another kind of epiphany.

Here's lookin' at you, kids - Hubble's new view

Cosmology is inherently religious. Even Stephen Hawking leaves room for the unknown, “religious” entity in his popular writing. As the infinitesimal biological apex of evolution on our own planet, we are somewhat less than cosmic dust on the grand scale. When we reach out to that cold blackness of outer space metaphors fail us until we fall back on God language. I look forward to the day when the Big Bang is captured on film (or digitally). I am almost certain that when that happens science will become far stranger than fiction.

Bible Lite

Over the holiday weekend I listened to an amusing recording my wife gave me as a holiday gift. A comedy troupe known as the Reduced Shakespeare Company produced a recording of their sketches entitled The Bible: The Complete Word of God, abridged. As might be expected from a comedic treatment of sacred writ, there were a few moments that were calculated to make those who take their religion very seriously tremble a bit, but overall the recording was quite funny. While listening to it, however, I became aware of just how much time the Company was spending on Genesis.

Not a sophisticated, exegetical approach to the Bible, a comedy album is not the place to assess the status of serious biblical study. Nevertheless, a deep truth emerges from this lighthearted treatment of the Bible — people today tend to focus too much on the beginning. Every semester I ask my students, “What is Genesis about?” and inevitably the answers begin with, “the creation of the world.” Genesis is not about the creation of the world, despite its unfortunate title. Genesis provides two of the many biblical creation accounts, but its primary purpose is to introduce the Israelites and the special relationship Yahweh has with them. Nearly four-fifths of Genesis deals with Abraham and the next two generations of proto-Israelites. Once Exodus is reached, we are fully within the realm of Israel’s story.

This misunderstanding of how to read the Bible has led to countless uninformed attempts to make the Bible into a narrative of the science of cosmology. Nobody was present for the creation of the cosmos, and the point of Genesis is not to state what actually happened. In borrowing mythic themes from Mesopotamia and Egypt, at the very least, the biblical writers start their account of Israel’s origins with a “a long ago in a land far away”-style introduction. Modern-day readers are trained to latch onto first sentences for vital clues as to what happens further along in the story. The Bible was never intended to be read this way. When we mix ancient ideas of setting the scene with modern attempts to understand our world, it might be better to listen to the Reduced Shakespeare Company than to pundits who claim that earth’s light was created before the sun.

In the beginning was a laugh