Thursday, October 23, 2008

Think Cosmically. Act Globally

There is an urgency to the book,
The View from the Center of the Universe by Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams.

It is not one of those many books that try to reconcile science and religion or evolution and creation and so forth. This book moves beyond those controversies to the heart of the universe itself, our place in it, and what are we going to do about the challenges we face. Human beings could be around for 100s of millions of years,
if we make it through the next few decades. That is the urgency.

Human beings really don't think we matter much. We don't think we are that interesting or unusual or special. When in fact, science shows us that we are incredibly unique. We need to wake up to the fact that it took 13 point seven billion years for us to get here and we have some work to do. We are the consciousness of the universe itself.

Primack and Abrams are a husband and wife team. Primack is a leading astrophysicist and Abrams is a cultural philosopher and writer. They are on a mission to educate the public on what science is showing us about the Universe and our central place in it. The book is divided into three sections,

Part 1: "Cosmological Revolutions" is a history of how our cosmology has changed and has moved us from the "center" to the periphery.

Part 2: "The New Scientific Picture of the Universe" is just that. This is an amazing tour of what science is showing us about our 13.7 billion year old universe.

Part 3: "The Meaningful Universe" encourages us to learn and get excited about cosmology and to grow spiritually by doing so.

Here is the thesis of the book in three steps:

1. Premodern societies saw themselves as central to the universe and made myths and religions that embraced this centrality. While their cosmology was wrong, their mythology was correct in that they saw themselves as a meaningful part of the whole. The universe as they saw it "fit" them and they "fit" in it.

2. Modernity put humankind on the edge of the universe. Not central. Not important. Small in a vast meaningless cosmos. We no longer "fit." We are accidental. We are therefore filled with existential angst. We have our cosmology right, but our mythology is lacking. We cannot go back and embrace any one religion's mythology wholesale as it fits an ancient, outdated cosmology.

3. However, modern science is showing that we do "fit" the universe. We are central in many ways such as size and in time. We can develop a mythology that affirms that reality. We can draw from those symbols and myths from our premodern ancestors that work to help us reclaim the center of the universe again while embracing modern cosmology.

Check this two minute film to get a better picture of what they are talking about!

Here is a helpful review of the book by James McGrath.

I had a chance to meet them in person and chatted about that on this post, I Want to Be an Ancestor.

The ideas in this book are too large to do justice by writing a review. I have had to read this book more than once to really get the passion behind the project. A commenter on my blog wrote that it is hard to find this new universe
spiritual. It isn't automatic or easy. I could see that the authors had a spiritual connection to this new universe they were discovering, or perhaps God was revealing to them. They had spent enough time with it to get it.

Now, what I am about to say is not about cosmology. However, it is related. I caught a little bit of this spiritual excitement regarding our natural world when Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow were in our area a few weeks ago. Connie did a two hour program called the River of Life. It was for children (but also for adults). It was an ancestral tour. We learned all of the common ancestors we share with every species of life living today. There are only 40 of these
concestors. We went through our evolutionary family tree and stopped and honored each concestor with a song and a dance that Connie created.
  • I don't know if it was the two hour program that had children in rapt attention.
  • I don't know if it was because I had never had our evolutionary history presented in this way.
  • I don't know if it was because we were celebrating evolution in church.
  • I don't know if it was because I could now begin to follow our family tree.
  • Whatever it was, it was moving.
I did feel connected in ways that I hadn't felt before with all my relations from the bonobo to fungus. It was more than intellectual knowledge. It was spiritual feeling. That is what church is about, right? I realized, really realized, that the mass extinction of species at a rate unequalled in 65 million years, aren't just species. They are family. We are all family, human and non-human.

I recommend this book for a study group. I also recommend finding creative ways to sing and celebrate the good news of our cosmic story and of our place in it. Maybe if we can do that, we can understand our mission as preserving and saving this beautiful fragile planet for our descendants? I have a few questions for discussion:

  1. How often do you hear or preach sermons on science, specifically evolution and cosmology?
  2. Is preaching on the Book of Nature as important as preaching on the Book of Scripture?
  3. Do you think we should devote more time and energy to scientific literacy in church?
  4. Has the church been more of a roadblock or a roadway to scientific discovery and education?
  5. What might be some theological biases against modern cosmology and evolution that need to be overcome? How can that be done?
  6. Evaluate this sentence: “Thus our descendants could have many billions of years to live together—if we can just get through the next few decades without disaster.”
  7. And this: "The major threats to human survival today---world environmental degradation, extinction of species, climate destabilization, nuclear war, terrorists with weapons of mass destruction—result from unrestrained use of such new technologies without a cosmology that makes sense in the nature and scale of their power."
  8. How is being in the center important for our sense of value?
  9. Do you agree that if we are able (through myth, symbol, awareness, etc.) discover our place in the universe, that we will be motivated to greater action on behalf of the planet and ourselves?

Check out this video of the Hubble Deep Field. The most important image ever taken:


John Shuck said...

To get discussion rolling, let me ask another question:

How does becoming aware of our cosmological and evolutionary history expand our image of God?

John Shuck said...

How about another:

Was Ron Howard more believable as Opie or Richie Cunningham?