Journey to the Centre of the Cosmos

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? – Psalm 8:3-4 ESV

The eighth psalm posits the profound question of the place of human beings in the cosmos. In the modern world this question is also being asked in light of the advancements of modern science and technology. One thing we should note is that the Psalmist posed this question in a completely different worldview to the modern one. In other words, how these questions are asked are completely different. Particularly in the West, there has been a great shift away from the ancient biblical worldview.

In the West, particularly in America, science and Christian faith have been pit against one another in an epic cultural debate. A lot of Christian theology from the West is concerned with apologetics, defending things like the existence of God, the authenticity and authority of Bible etc. In my part of the world these things are not major issues at all. We only hear the distant, faint rumblings of the Western culture wars. We are pre-occupied with a different set of issues.

Much of European history had been dominated by a geocentric cosmology where earth was at the centre of creation. As scientific thinking slowly developed and the hypothesis was put to the test, people then began to adopt a heliocentric cosmology. Copernicus proposed that is rather the sun which is at the centre.

The whole controversy surrounding Galileo saw a subtle shift in power. The modern separation between Church and State had not yet happened and the official position of the Roman Catholic Church was the Ptolemaic model, which favoured geocentricity. As the reasons for the Ptolemaic model became more and more implausible, the Church was shown not to be authoritative on that issue. The political power the Church exercised had been called into question and was found wanting. With advancements in mathematics, astronomy and other sciences we have a completely different cosmology to what Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler or even Galileo envisioned.

The cosmos today is generally thought of today in terms of a material universe. The universe is said to have originated as singularity called the “Big Bang” about 13.8 billion years ago. It’s observable diameter is at least 91 billion light years across. The geocentric view suggested that somehow man was important. The vastness of the modern conception of space however tells us we are an unimaginably tiny part of an impersonal reality. Evolutionary biology views the human species as a novel anomaly doomed for cosmic extinction.

When the modern man posits the ancient question, “What is man?” he is asking whether he matters at all. When I think of the vastness of space it becomes hard to imagine why God would be interested in this infinitesimal speck called earth and much less me. When I was younger I had a real passion for astronomy and astrophysics. When I saw the images of the immense beauty of faraway galaxies, exploding supernovae or star forging nebulae, it made me wonder about the significance of the biblical narrative.

When science observes the brute reality of the universe it is remarkable (or simply fortuitous in some people’s view) that human beings exist at all and much more we are able to do reliable science. The anthropic principle emerges as one of the strange implications of the philosophy of science. According to it how we view the universe is thought of as a kind of observer bias.

Science is often popularly portrayed, as cold and clinically detached. Anyone who has a fair knowledge of the history of science will quickly recognize science is far from being clean at all. Science is done by scientists, human beings who come to the academic arena with philosophical presuppositions. Modern science is itself committed to the philosophy of methodological naturalism. This means science is limited  to only observable parts of nature, that is, material reality. (God’s Undertaker by Prof. John Lennox provides an excellent study on the limitations of science.) The scientific method on principle does not ask whether some deity did it or not. Once you begin to look at non-observable, non-material causes and effects, then you are no longer doing science. When you appreciate these things it is no surprise that by the time we get to Einstein the world has no absolute centre. We rather live in relative frames of reference to one another.

Science has so influenced our thinking it is hard not to perceive the world in those terms. The fact that science arose during the course of human history means it is not the only way people have understood the world. A pre-scientific worldview would not only have a different epistemology (theory of how we know things) but a different ontology (theory of the nature of existence.) This means we need a paradigm shift to comprehend the pre-scientific biblical worldview. The Copernican principle, which assumes human beings do not have a privileged position in the universe, is great for science. However, it is of very little use in answering the fundamental questions of life.

The Psalmist asked the question “Why man?” according to a pre-scientific framework. The Bible is by no means a scientific document neither does it claim to be scientifically accurate. When we come to the Bible we need to check our modern presuppositions and assumptions at the door. Prof John H. Walton in his excellent, ground breaking work on the interpretation of Genesis constantly advocates a non-scientific reading of the biblical text. He argues that since the Bible is not about science, there is no need to try and harmonize the Bible with the changing views of cutting edge science. God spoke to the original audience of the Scriptures in the terms they understood, dealing with issues relevant to them. Modern science was simply unknown to them.

Science views the world in a certain way but it does not mean any other description is less valid. One of my favourite poems is Tyger by the romantic poet William Blake. It would be ridiculous to try and reconcile the poem with knowledge about the evolutionary biology of tigers. Science and poetry simply offer different, non-competing, non-equivalent descriptions of the world. Science is incapable of capturing the awesome beauty and majesty of creation that the poet so masterfully portrays. Science may allow us to take high resolution images of a stunning waterfall but it cannot tell us why it is so beautiful.

Similarly, when we read Genesis we should not be looking for the scientific origins of the universe. The very idea of a singularly material universe, the sum of space-time and all it contains, is foreign to the ancient Hebrew.

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An artist’s impression of ancient Israelite cosmology by Jonathan Walton

When I saw an artist’s depiction of ancient biblical cosmology it looked so bizarre. The cosmos was made up of a flat circular earth covered by a solid spherical dome, known as the heavens, which was supported by the mountains. The dome of the heavens literally had a vault that stored waters above the earth. The earth itself emerged out of the watery depths below. In the submerged foundation of the earth was sheol, the shadowy realm of the dead, around which great monsters inhabited its dark depths. Instead of an incomprehensibly vast universe, they envisioned a cosmos whose activity was centred on earth. In the great cosmic drama of the Bible heaven is God’s created dimension of reality where all the behind the scenes activity necessary for the production of the play occurs. The centre of activity, the stage where the drama is played out, is earth.

In attempt to understand how at all they could come up with such a strange view of the world I did something pretty odd myself. One beautiful day with clear blue skies, I went outside, shut my eyes and imagined for a moment that I had forgotten all my academic learning. I tilted my head up towards the sky. I suddenly opened my eyes and gazed at the world around me. I tried to describe to myself how the world around me looked. I noticed the sky seemed to look like a solid, blue curved surface like a dome. I brought my gaze down to the earth and looked as far as my eyes could see. As I turned around observing the horizon, the earth seemed to be like a flat circular surface with a slight upwards bulge to the sky. How I described the world bore an uncanny resemblance to the biblical depiction. I soon began to realise that Genesis provided a practical comprehensive account of the observable world in which they inhabited.

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! – Psalm 8:5-9 ESV

David answers the question of “why man?” by alluding to Genesis 1. The question is framed in the context of a sovereign God and his creation. When you read Genesis it is evident that God made the creation for the sake of people. Instead of a mysterious anthropic principle we have a world specifically designed for man to inhabit. Since the Lord is obviously responsible for his creation, men being made in his image meant they too shared in this responsibility. This was achieved by giving humans authority over a particular dimension of creation, namely the earth. The last verse reveals the reason why God is so concerned about man. Man as God’s image is the means through which God has chosen to express his power, lover, wisdom, glory and all his wonderful attributes to the creation. Man’s purpose is to sum up the praise and majesty of God.

Science gives us a materialistic narrative of the world. This worldview has made many important and useful contributions to human life. When it comes to the weightier issues of life, the biblical worldview provides a superior account. This is the framework of Psalm 8 and the entire biblical perspective. It is not simply a better story but the truth about humanity found in God’s very own word.

In this piece we have journeyed from a universe without a centre to the earth being the grand stage of the cosmos. Irrespective of the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2, the Bible posits a geocentric worldview, but not for scientific reasons at all. We did not place ourselves at the centre of creation but it is rather God, according to his will and purpose, who did. This means how we live our lives on earth is actually of immense importance.

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