Last week I introduced seven theological shifts we need to make in order to develop a ecologically-conscious discipleship. Over the next seven weeks we will explore these shifts in more depth. Today we look at our cosmology. In the scientific world, cosmology is a branch of astronomy concerned with the origin and evolution of the universe. In the more popular sense, which I am using here, cosmology is the definitions, patterns, and meanings we give to all that we experience and encounter. It is the way we define reality, understand our place in the universe, and act accordingly. Cosmology matters.
The Pale Blue Dot
All individuals and societies have a cosmology; often there are several cosmologies at work, complementing or competing with each other. When new discoveries are made, or new perspectives shared, cosmologies can shift dramatically. In 1991, as the Voyager 1 spacecraft hurtled away from our solar system, it turned its camera back towards earth and snapped a picture from four billion miles away.
Earth appeared as a tiny point of light in the center of scattered light rays from the Sun. In his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot, Sagan wrote the following:
“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.... Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
Sagan’s cosmology, along with the famous image that goes along with it, has had a profound influence on how humans interpret the universe and live their lives within it. But is our planet really "lonely"? Is there truly "no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves?" What about alternatives? What do Christians have to say about life on our "pale blue dot"?
The Poor State of Christian Cosmology
When people of faith share their cosmology, they typically begin with stories of a divine being or beings creating all that is. Christians point to Genesis 1 and 2 as the particular stories that ground our belief in one god who has created “the heavens and the earth.” Most followers of Jesus, however, stop there, content to acknowledge God as creator and then move on to God as redeemer in the stories of Israel, Jesus, and the Church. This not only divorces creation and redemption in a decidedly unbiblical way, it also reduces creation to a one-time act of God in the past that produces a material universe designed to temporarily meet our needs and to provide us a stage on which to pursue higher, “spiritual” goals. It is a cosmology with little interest in the world as it is or as it may be. How sad and uninspiring. Fortunately, there is so much more to it that that!
I have been instructed and inspired in this area by Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim, particularly his book God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Among countless gems of scholarship and wisdom, Fretheim helps us see at least three aspects of God’s creative work that can help us make the shift towards a more robust, biblical, and inspiring cosmology.
1: Originating Creation
This is what most of us think about when we hear the word ‘creation.’ We recognize God as the origin of everything, and we imagine stars and planets whirling into being, the earth taking shape, and life emerging in increasing diversity and complexity. What we often overlook is how many elements of creation are given a task: the sun and moon are to govern the day and night; the land is to produce vegetation, the creatures of the sea and the birds are to “be fruitful and multiply” (it’s not just humans!). God did not create a world that was complete or perfect. It was meant to go somewhere, to change and grow, and every feature and every creature has a part to play. That is the world into which the human creature comes into being and is given the particular vocation to represent and partner with God as servant-rulers of the earth (more on that in later posts). There is so much to the originating act of creation, and yet so much more...
2: Continuing Creation
Creation is not just a noun that calls to mind an event in the past, it is also a verb that describes God’s ongoing activity and presence in a world that moves forward through a mysterious combination of divine will and creaturely freedom. New forms of life continue to appear – creation is ongoing! The world continues to be shaped by choices made by creatures – especially humans. Sometimes God lets things play out and sometimes God intervenes dramatically. The Bible shows us that God is committed to enhancing the life of the world, even when humans (the very creatures he created to partner in the process) rebel and work against God’s desire. You and I are in the midst of this great drama; as we will see, there is an ending in mind, but the role that you and I play right now is up to us.
3: Completing Creation
God’s work of creation is pointed towards bringing a new heaven and earth into being. The Bible pictures this as neither a return to an original, pristine state, nor a complete undoing of what we currently experience. It is a picture that contains both continuity with the past and something genuinely new which does not yet exist. This is why texts such as Isaiah 65-66 and Revelation 21-22 speak in figural, visionary language. It is clear that the new creation will be bodily and earthly, but in ways that exclude the forces of sin and death that haunt our current existence.
This is why it is important to see that Jesus is the originator of the new creation. In his life, death, and resurrection, we are given glimpses of where the whole creation is headed. The Greek text of John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the cosmos, that he sent his only begotten Son.” Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come!” Now that’s a cosmology to get excited about!
More Than A Pale Blue Dot
Are we living on a pale blue dot floating through an unfathomable expanse? Yes. Does this mean we are essentially insignificant, on our own to figure out what it means to float alone through the darkness? No. Followers of Jesus have a fuller story to tell about the extraordinary cosmos we live in. We can humbly acknowledge the unfathomable mysteries of existence while also embracing the reality that we are we known and loved by the Creator who formed this pale blue dot and the expanse it rests in.
If we believe that every corner of the cosmos, from black holes to beating hearts, is part of a pulsating, interconnected, dynamic creation held together and inhabited by divine love, we cannot help but live lives of awe, wonder, and intentional care. If it is all headed somewhere, we cannot help but find our part to play in the cosmic drama, and invite others to find theirs.
With you on the Way,
Reflection Questions: Of the three aspects of creation, which one are you most familiar/comfortable with? Which one has not fully been part of your cosmology? I would love to hear your answers in the comments.