I just finished reading an amazing article on the history of cosmology in the west and how it affected the evolution of theology. Its implications are ground breaking for me.
Before I proceed, I highly recommend you read the aforementioned article The Structure of Heaven and Earth: How Ancient Cosmology Shaped Everyone’s Theology by Paul Davidson.
As a software developer I believe in code reuse so I’m not going to cover everything he said, but rather the personal ramifications of it for me.
The title of this post is as simple as I can put it — cosmology determines theology.
In the earliest times, when we viewed ourselves as part of nature, the idea of the divine was of an all pervading spirit-force. There was no concept of a creator God, or if there was, it played little part in day to day life.
Then we moved the idea of a three-tiered universe and at the top of the highest mountain or the top of the firmament, was the throne was the theos. Gods like Zeus, El, and Yahweh.
It is no surprise then that if God was conceived to be so close in a universe so centered around us, that in scriptures from this time God was depicted as walking among us and had a very human psyche.
And at least in the Bible, this version of God was in control of everything. Isaiah writes that God is the author of everything, good as well as evil.
But as the idea of cosmos evolved in the Greek world, thanks to Plato and Aristotle, more celestial beings joined the fray — demons.
And as the Jews were hellenized, this Greek view of the cosmos took hold and the Jews developed a rich angelology and demonology.
It is in this world which God retreats from the scene and communicates with the prophets, not directly, but through angels. It is in this cosmos that the archangel Michael has to fight Satan (who before worked for God).
And then taking it even further, the Greek and Roman mystery religions introduced the concept of salvation from the powers that be (demons, archons, etc) by a divine savior.
Finally, into this rich view of the cosmos, comes early Christianity which is the perfect love child of Hellenic Judaism and Mystery Religions, with Christ as the divine savior who can defeat the powers in the lower heaven and lead his followers to their place in heaven.
Now if this sounds strange to you, it’s because it is. Modern Christians don’t know this history. And thanks to science, this idea of the cosmos is laughable. But the ideas of competing powers in heaven and a savior needed to help us ascend to heaven, is still there.
All of this barely scratches the surface of how deeply enmeshed the Bible is into this Greek view of the cosmos, and it is one reason why I can’t believe it is infallible.
It’s telling that as the idea of the cosmos evolved into more and more complexity, the figure of God became more and more remote, acting only through proxies, and in Christianity finally through Christ.
But what does all of this mean? I’ll be honest, I find it hard to believe that the stories in the Bible are true because of the strong correlation between cosmology and theology.
But if we follow the trajectory of the ancients, this very human of tendencies to look to what we can see and imagine what we can’t see, what room does that leave for God with our modern understanding of the cosmos?
Interestingly enough, exactly the space that apologists, under fire by modernists, retreat to. Namely, first cause arguments.
But even if I accept that the universe had to have a cause, and it’s not clear that it had to have a cause, what does that say about the agent that caused it?
As many atheists rightly cite, a first cause doesn’t need to be personal or care who you sleep with or how. A first cause could be a chemical reaction or a collision between two universes. Hardly God like.
But if we imagine that a God must be a necessity, the only God that I can imagine based on our understanding of the cosmos, is a God so unspeakably remote and utterly mysterious that every possible idea of it falls far short.
We are talking about a hypothetical God that is hands off and lets life take off and evolve and die on its own. Far from a comfort, this idea of God is practically atheism.
Because, let’s be honest, the only God theists care about is a personal God. One who like Yahweh has made us in his image and chose a small semitic tribe to reveal his complete revelation for man for all time.
A god who is, as Tillich says, the ground of all being is boring. What’s the point of worshiping, or loving the ground of being?
I don’t want to admit this, but this is very shattering for me and I don’t know how I can go on believing in the God of the Bible after this.
If the very concept of God was predicated upon ancient cosmology, then why should I believe, as fundamentalists would suggest, that God was revealing himself in the way the people could understand back then?
It’s much more likely that existence preceded essence here.
Maybe the Hindus are right and the Brahman is the ground of all being and all is Maya, or illusion. But until someone can prove that to me, I’ve got to look at our understanding of the universe and of how live evolved on this planet and say, if a theistic version of God was responsible, he did a damn good job of covering his tracks.
Maybe there is a really good counter argument to all the points raised in Paul Davidson’s article. Maybe there are ways to imagine a theistic concept of God based on our modern cosmology. But at this place in our history, is that what we should be doing in the first place?
Surely, our epistemology has to be based on more than just cosmology?
In closing, I’ll just add that most Christians I know are totally ignorant of these facts. And now I understand why the most fanatical of the fundamentalists cannot accept an old universe or evolution.
It’s because their very picture of God is based on ancient cosmology and modern science has demolished it.
So instead of doing what liberal believers do and adapt their theology, they deny the science. That is dangerous for so many reasons.
I don’t know where my faith is going from here, but whatever happens, I want my eyes open to all the facts and face the ramifications of those facts with courage.