Sunday, 15 December 2013

‘The Work of Your Hands’ — Building a Christian Cosmology

Cosmology is the science of the origin and development of the Universe. It sets out to discover why the world is the way it is.
In recent decades there has been the suggestion of a conflict between Christianity and cosmology — and of course to some extent this is inevitable, if a particular cosmology insists on the non-existence of God and that therefore the universe exists entirely because of self-contained material causes.
However, whether there is conflict or not, Christianity still has to have a ‘cosmo-logy’ within its overall ‘theo-logy’. In fact ‘cosmology’ — an account of how and why the universe originated and where it is heading — has always been a fundamental part of Christian thought. The Hebrew Bible begins with the words ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ And nothing in the revelation of God in the person of Christ Jesus changes that essential picture. On the contrary, it enriches it and fleshes it out, giving us an even clearer account of ‘why we are here’.
So what might we say are the fundamental elements of a Christian cosmology and why does it matter?

The Universe Had a Beginning
To this extent modern materialist cosmologies and Christian thought are in some agreement. They both accept that our current universe — the world around us, of which we are ourselves a part, had a beginning. It did not always exist.
The ‘beginning’ of the universe is not a self-evident concept. In fact not only some ancient cosmologies but some relatively modern scientists have insisted that the world as we know it has always existed. Thus for many decades, there was conflict in the astronomical community between the ‘steady state’ theory of an ‘eternally existing’ universe and the ‘Big Bang’ theory. Indeed the term ‘big bang’ was invented by the English astronomer Fred Hoyle as an expression of derision for what he thought was a ridiculous idea.
Furthermore there are those who want to argue that though the Big Bang theory is true, the universe per se has no ‘beginning’ as such. Nevertheless, there is fairly widespread agreement that the universal chain of events that result in our existence today does have a point of beginning, and with this idea, Christians have no problem (indeed one of Hoyle’s reasons for preferring the ‘Steady State’ theory was that it reduced the option for a creator).

The Universe will End
Again, Christian theology agress with much modern science that the Universe will have an end. Where they differ, of course, is on the nature and causes of that end.
For the materialist scientist, it is a result of that mysterious thing called ‘entropy’ — the tendency of energy to spread itself evenly throughout a system. It is the principal of entropy that causes your cup of tea to cool to room temperature and it is doing the same to the whole Universe, though the final temperature will be well below 20o Celsius. Indeed, it will be something like what is called ‘Absolute Zero’: -273o, at which temperature nothing can happen. The final fate of the materialist universe is a truly depressing eternity of cold and dark.
By contrast the Christian view is that the end of the Universe as we know it is by no means the ‘end’ in absolute terms. But it’s complicated and we’ll have to return to that subject later.

The Universe is a ‘Story’
Meanwhile, if you have a beginning and an end, it seems obvious that there must be a ‘Middle’. And so there is. Both Christians and materialists agree we are between these two great events, but they disagree fundamentally on the significance of this.
The existence of a Beginning, Middle and End suggests a story — especially if they occur in that order! But here again Christians and atheists disagree. For the atheist, the beginning may just be one beginning amongst many. Furthermore, it is of no significance for what happens next, or for what sentient beings like ourselves might think about what happens in the ‘middle bit’.
Of course, lots of things have happened since the ‘Big Bang’, and lots of other things will probably continue to happen. But according to this view, there is no ‘story’. To quote the title of the book by Jacob Bronowski, for example, there is no ‘ascent of man’.
Of course, the human race has come into existence in that time and has developed in its capacities to understand and control the world. But these developments are not, for the atheist, part of a developing plotline. It is pure chance that the human race happens to exist and to possess the capabilities it does. And human history will probably have no effect on the ‘End’ to which the Universe is inevitably heading — nor is that ‘End’ going to give meaning to the human story. Like the Universe itself, we came into existence and we will one day disappear, but it makes no difference to anything, except our own individual experiences on the way.
By contrast, Christianity emphatically does think in terms of a ‘story’. The universe exists for a reason. It is changing and developing for a reason. And when it comes to an end, this will also be for a reason — because that part of the ‘story’ is finished. The overall story may not be clear to us now, but it is there, and the reason is because of the Universe’s own basic cause.

The Origin of the Universe is Personal
One of the great questions of cosmology is quite simply, ‘Why is there anything at all? Why is there something rather than nothing?’
Some would argue that ‘nothing’ is simply not an option. Eventually they hope to show that the existence of something is inevitable. And to a certain extent, if you take a totally ‘materialist’ outlook, that must be true. Whatever caused the universe (and we are talking about the universe here) it presumably didn’t have a choice in the matter.
But here again is where Christians must differ, because in Christian theology, the existence of the universe is a result of choice, because its fundamental cause is a being possessed of ‘personhood’.
This is basically what is meant by the term ‘creation’. In modern discussions, the concept of ‘creationism’ carries a particular emphasis on the way the Bible is interpreted, meaning that the world was created in six periods of twenty-four of our modern hours — six days. But not all Christians are ‘creationists’. Since at least the time of St Augustine of Hippo, in the early 5th century, some Christians have taken a ‘non-literalist’ view of the six days of creation outlined in Genesis 1.
Yet although not all Christians are ‘creationists’, they do (or should) all believe in a Creator God. The two principle Creeds of the Christian Church both assert that God is the Creator of ‘heaven and earth’, of all things ‘visible and invisible’.
And this focus on God as the ‘Creator’ (rather than on the precise process by which he created) means we should similarly focus on what it means to say that everything is created. And essentially what it means is this: that everything which exists does because of another’s personal desires and intentions. There is a personal origin to everything.
This realization has two particular consequences: it changes the way we look at ourselves: we are not our own invention in charge of our own destiny — we are someone else’s idea. And secondly it changes the way we look for knowledge. If the universe springs out of personal ideas, then understanding the universe, and living effectively within it, means understanding that personality. This is why the Bible says more than once, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ True wisdom begins with personal relationship with this personal God.
By contrast, if we reject the idea of God, the origins of the universe are usually assumed to be fundamentally impersonal. In fact, the material cause is regarded as very different from ourselves — beings with self-knowledge, with intentions and so on. According to such accounts, the immediate cause of the universe is not regarded as very different from the thing caused. The blind, impersonal physical universe is the result of blind impersonal physical forces. The universe is not designed, it just fell out that way, and for no different reasons fundamentally than those which might cause a dice player to throw six six times in a row.
You reading this may have many reasons to be greatly interested in the narrative of your life, and indeed of the wider world. You may have ambitions, goals and intentions for yourself and those human beings who mean most to you. But our assessment of these concerns must differ fundamentally, given our basic cosmology.
According to a Christian cosmology, you are not wrong to think of yourself and others as fundamentally important — and not just to you but in the great scheme of things, not least because there is such a thing as a ‘great scheme, for the world you and they inhabit is a created thing, whose purposes lie in the mind of a Creator.
A materialist cosmology, however, must throw a bucket of cold water over your consideration of yourself and those you might love, for both you and they are the outcome of forces which are presumed to have no interest in such beings as yourself and which are fundamentally unmoved by the fate of you and yours. Insofar as there is any ‘meaning’ to your personal narrative, it is one that you impose, not one that is in any way related to a wider ‘plotline’. You are an accident of accidents, here for no reason and destined to be forgotten in a universe where there will one day be forever no one to remember.
Of course, the unpleasantness of the second picture (and it is unpleasant) does not show that it is wrong. But it does raise the question of what, if we are serious about life, we should do in response to it. The South African philosopher, David Benatar, came to the conclusion which formed the title of his book Better Never to Have Been in which he plausibly argues just this point. If suffering is the inevitable accompaniment of life (and it is) and if life (as he believes) has no other outcome than death and non-existence, then why not skip the ‘middle bit’. It is better never to have been than to come into existence without being asked.
But the Christian says ‘No’ — for the outcome is not the endless non-being of death. And to this point we must now turn.
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  1. I seem to remember from my physics degree that what you've written would technically be termed a cosmogony rather than a cosmology. Would you agree with this?


    1. Not quite, because its not just about 'origins' - I've not really made that clear yet, I admit.


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  2. Dominic Stockford16 December 2013 at 16:16

    "...not all Christians are ‘creationists’..."

    Maybe not - but there are many millions around the world who are, and who hold that when the Bible says something clear about a matter, such as Creation, then it means it. Much of this post relies on 'the Big Bang', but those millions of Christians rely on God.

  3. "Building a Christian Cosmology"
    John. Would it not be true to say that this is already in place as testified again and again in Scripture, that God is the Creator and sustainer of the whole universe?
    Typical statements would be the definitive opening words of Psalm 19, and of course those of John 1, but it is assumed throughout Scripture, as you would acknowledge.
    Also, the only "building" now going on is that of Christ's building of His church.

    It is interesting that much of the evangelistic message of the apostles in the Acts already assumes such a Christian cosmology and the necessity of repentance and faith is based upon it.

  4. John,
    A fascinating and informative view of creation and life as it is now and is foretold in the scripture. I know people that solidly believe in the Genesis creative narrative and no other. I also believe that God was capable of creating the world and all things in it in six days but he equally could have done it in six periods. Whichever, the fundamental issue is that GOD did it. There are those that believe that God created a false history of time (Dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures and other space anomalies) just to create debate as to how the world came about so that faith in his word becomes paramount for his believers. All very interesting stuff but since we do not have proof of anything, I choose to just have faith in what God did and to believe that my life has a purpose.

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