Thursday, 28 February 2013

Towards a Christian Cosmology

As people who know me will be aware, I am a ‘dabbler’ in astronomy. One area that fascinates me in particular is cosmology — a few years ago I even managed to stagger my way through Brian Green’s The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality. (And for a bit of fun, click here to see Brian Green being ribbed by Sheldon and Amy on an episode of The Big Bang Theory — a show which is another of my favourite things.)
The subject matter of cosmology comes down to how the universe got to be here and why it is the way it is. Phenomena such as cosmic background radiation, or the red shift of most objects in the universe challenge cosmologists to put forward theories and models that fit what we observe about the physical world.
It is all great fun. The problem, however, is that in many cosmologies, and certainly in the prevailing ‘pop-cosmology’ written for folks like me, human beings wind up as an accidental by-product. Indeed in the worst cases, we almost seem to fit the apostle Paul’s description of himself and his companions as “the offscouring of all things” (1 Cor 4:13).
And this is somewhat ironic, when you consider that it is these same ‘persons’ who have the ability and inclination to seek an understanding of the universe that they then interpret as denying them any ‘universal’ significance.
There are, of course, some exceptions. Paul Davies, for one, appeals to the ‘anthropic principle’ as a possible basis for cosmology — in his case the view that the emergence of minds like ours retrospectively determined the physical constants that made their emergence inevitable. For the most part, however, modern cosmology uses its astonishing insights and suggestions to relegate us to the margins of the very reality it sets out to study.
This is one reason why I think it is important for Christians to develop their own cosmology, drawing not on physical data but on the data of revelation, particularly that found in Scripture. And whilst what we might call ‘natural cosmology’ addresses the existence universe at the level of its physical components, a ‘spiritual cosmology’ would address the ‘big picture’ which includes ourselves as persons and all that ‘personhood’ represents.
Indeed a Christian cosmology begins with a person — the person of Christ. Perhaps the most significant statement regarding whom in this regard is found in Colossians 1:16, where it says that “all things were created by him and for him” (NIV).
Speaking from this passage, I have often said that if you want to make a cup of tea for me, you need to start with my tastes in tea, not yours. Two sugars and plenty of milk is not going to evoke my happy face (such as it is).
Thus we need to look to the character of Jesus if we are to understand what sort of world would be made ‘for him’. And in this regard, I believe Scripture says something profoundly important (which I have explored in my booklet The Eternal Cross) to the effect that Christ’s character in relation to the world is always and essentially that of the ‘slain lamb’. Thus Peter writes,
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. (1 Pe 1:18-20, NIV, cf Eph 1:4; Rev 5:6)
That being the case, however, we ought not to be surprised that the world — our ‘cosmos’ — is one appropriate to a dying Saviour. In other words, sin, death, illness, disease, decay, etc are exactly what we ought to expect (just as they are, of course, exactly what we find).
Similarly, we ought to expect that we ourselves are of necessity creatures who need saving by a dying Saviour. As has often been said, it is not that God had a ‘plan A’ which then had to be turned into a ‘plan B’ when sin came along. However, this observation follows not just from the sovereignty of God but from the character of Christ.
I have often mused on the fact that according to Genesis 3:22, it would seem that the post-Fall human couple were more like God than they were pre-Fall. What the serpent promised (“you will be like God”, 3:5) has come true (“the man has now become like one of us”). Of course this is why we also need the one who will strike the serpent’s head at the cost of the serpent striking his heel (3:15). But given that Christ had already been ordained for this “before the creation of the world”, it raises in my mind the question as to whether the achievement of becoming “like one of us” could have been brought about any other way.
Implicit in this, therefore, is what I would term a ‘benign necessitarianism’. This, if I have understood him correctly, is essentially the view put forward by the Christian philosopher Norman Kretzmann. In answer to the question ‘Why would God create anything at all?, his answer, essentially, is ‘Because he is like that.’
The term ‘necessitarianism’ refers, therefore, to the way in which creation is, to some extent, a ‘necessary’ action on God’s part. But it is ‘benign’ because, rather than being constrained by some external factors, God is impelled by his own nature.
And this brings us to a further feature of a Christian cosmology, which is to suggest that the nature of Christ entails the existence of the Church. Indeed arguably it is the Church of which it can most truly be said, ‘This was made for him.’ One of the reasons for taking this view is found in Kretzmann’s own arguments (drawing, amongst others, on Thomas Aquinas) that it is God’s love that drives the act of creation. The Church is thus supremely the object of the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus.
I have argued elsewhere (though I drew some flak for doing so) that the account of the creation of the woman in Genesis 2 is itself an example of biblical ‘typology’ in this regard. Adam is ‘self-sufficient’ as regards his physical existing and his imaging of God in his personhood. There is no deficiency in him, yet it is ‘not good’ that there should be ‘only him’ (Gen 2:18, the proper sense of the Hebrew word translated ‘alone’ in most English versions). And the woman — taken from him and participating in his life rather than being a further derivation from the dust of the ground — is both the remedy to this ‘not good’ and a forerunner of the bridal Church in relation to her husband in Christ, an image in which the one imaged finds a separate self to love as his own self.
Furthermore we need to be aware that this ‘spousal relationship’ between the Creator-Redeemer God and his created-redeemed people goes to the very heart of the nature of our salvation (consider 1 Cor 6:16-17, for example) and again points back to factors relating to our ‘cosmology’.
All this is by way of very preliminary thoughts, but I sometimes worry that I won’t ever get round to developing these ideas more fully. I therefore offer them for your consideration and, perhaps, for your own further development.
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  1. Hi John,

    Good on you for having a crack at the subject. As an engineer, my mind sometimes turns to these kind of questions, but often the problem is which question to tackle first:
    - Origins
    - Expanding universe / Nature of infinity
    - Potential for other lifeforms
    - Order and chaos

    As you suggest, we need to start with Scripture, but the Biblical authors were more interested in praising and adoring the Creator and marvelling at His Creation than reflecting on these more modern questions.

    Something I mull on occasionally is the fall, redemption and restoration of the Creation. What "parts" of the cosmos reflect a pre-fall and post-fall state? How is the wider cosmos outside our planet "groaning" and "waiting in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed"? How will the wider cosmos be made new at the coming of Christ? Too many questions and each probably needs a PhD to answer them!

    By the way, the link to your book has been updated:

  2. I applaud anybody who tackles this are of life. A fine approach to a big big subject.

    For what it's worth... I am going to be throwing my hat into the ring on this topic, via something called Relationality - a way of understanding not just how things come into existence, but how they relate to one another. Essentially, in order for there to be a "something", there must first be a "not something". We cannot, then, fully come to know "somethingness" without knowing "not somethingness". In witnessing the continuing revelation of our own creation, we are witness to the continuing revelation of our creator.

  3. I think that a more fundamental question to address here is the nature of consciousness and its relation to time.

    After all its due to the fact that we *are* conscious that we can ask these kind of questions in the first place isn't it?

    See for example

    What should a christian perspective of consciousness look like?

    As for the necessity of creation then I have always understood this to be a means by which God expresses his glory.

    Chris Bishop

    1. "consciousness and its relation to time".

      There could be no such thing as "the speed of light", if it were not for the existence of "speed" and "light". Speed exists in relation to the relationship between time and action. Action exists in relation to time. Light cannot exist without relation to time. The creation of light therefore simultaneously created a relationship between light and time (speed of light).

      The question, then, is, "if there was a time before light, was there a time before time?" And the answer is "no". Before time, there was no time, because "before" exists in relation to time :) Before time, there was no "before".

      Our consciousness is our awareness of time. That awareness is only possible because of the existence of time. This appears to be the way that everything in the universe works: because of the existence of A, comes the possibility of B. B cannot exist independent of A, but A exists independent of B. Time exists even in the absence of our awareness of it. If you want proof, try general anaesthetic haha

  4. "...the emergence of minds like ours..." - ???

    ETs = fairies for atheists. "There's ETs at the bottom of our galaxy!"

    There's more evidence for any number of odd non-Christian ideas atheists love to mock, than for what seems like an article of faith with virtually all of them, viz. the idea that sentient, conscious ETs have ever existed or ever could.