Gospel & Universe

Competing Explanations

 

At 23.5 Degrees

 

To the mystic the world vibrates like the universe itself.

 To the high priest it doesn't move at all.

Or at least it shouldn't.

In any case, it will dissolve at the End of Time,

after which the gardens of Heaven will become fixed

hanging in the Ether in the New Jerusalem;

no longer harrowed by the eyeless rockets of Gaza

but forever calm, Palestinian-less

because in the eyes of the high priest

it doesn't move at all, and never has.

To those who walk on the ground it whirls around.

 

Ptolemy

For thousands of years people believed that the earth didn’t move, and that the stars whirled around the earth. In the third century BC, Aristarchus suggested that the earth moved around the sun, and he used the triangulation of parallax to calculate astronomical distances. Yet his otherwise accurate plan was inaccurate in the particulars of his observations. It also couldn't compete with 1) practical observation — or the still table at 4 AM — 2) the status of geocentric philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and 3) the desire to square astronomy with the Bible's unmoving Earth:

the world also is stabilized [...] it cannot be moved (Psalm 93:1); the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved (Psalm 96:10); [the Lord] laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever (Psalm 104:5); the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved (1 Chronicles 16:30); The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose (Ecclesiastes 1:5).

In his Almagest (2nd C. AD), the Greco-Egyptian mathematician and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy presented a formal system in which the earth stood still in the middle of a cosmos that circled it. In its geometrical arguments Ptolemy's Almagest is extremely valuable. Yet unfortunately the Church took Ptolemy’s model as gospel, as if this were the only way to see the universe.

Above is a 1568 drawing of the Ptolemaic universe by Bartolomeu Velho. Note the Primo Mobile (the First Moved part of the universe) and the Empireum (Heaven) in the widest circumference, as well as the figures of Christ and God (the Unmoved Mover) on the top corners.

Ptolemy’s geocentric view of the universe fused with religious cosmology and mythology, including places such as Heaven and Hell, and figures such as God and the Devil. Borrowing from Jewish and other traditions, Christians constructed a geocentric view of the universe that included

1) the Jewish certainty that their God was the only true God, that is, the only true ruler of the universe,

2) the Christian certainty that only through Jesus could one find the highest truth, and

3) the Christian certainty that the Hebrews were unable to see the higher truth of Jesus, and that the Christians were (in fact, if not in name) God's new Chosen People. 

 

Gospel and Universe

In the entirety of space

(91 billion light-years and counting)

and in the entirety of time

(13.8 billion years or so)

God decided to have only one Son,

2 thousand years ago

in a town called Bethlehem.

And the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them

until it stopped over the place where the child was (Matthew 2:9).

23.7 million light years away

in the Canes Venatici galaxy

they failed to get the Good Word.

 

The New Almagest

In the Modern Age — starting around 1500 AD — the geocentric view of the universe became increasingly difficult to maintain. Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo could see the cosmos more clearly as a result of their better telescopes. The illustration below, from the frontispiece of Giovanni Riccioli's New Almagest (1651), dramatizes the debate between what Galileo referred to in 1632 as the two chief world systems. In the illustration we see Astraea (companion to the Greek goddess of justice), weighing the merits of the geocentric versus the heliocentric system. Above her — and above the debate — is the almighty finger of God. 

God's position in the drawing suggests that whether or not we're at the centre of the universe, God still started and controls the cosmos. The problem, however, is that Astraea, with God watching, finds the geocentric model to have more weight. Either God is all-knowing and He got it wrong, or those who are speaking on behalf of the Deity should only speak for themselves.

In recent centuries we've expanded our awareness of how small we are, here in our little solar system. One of the best examples of this is the 2013 discovery of the sheet of galaxies referred to as the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall. This Great Wall is 10 billion light-years away — and an almost incomprehensible ten billion light years wide.

For many people these discoveries expand our notion of the infinity of God: the larger the universe is, the more staggering is the Power that holds it together and gives it all meaning. Yet with this notion comes a corollary: the more distant and diverse are the realms in which God operates, the more any particular, human, historically-grounded, definition of God become reductive, paradoxical, and even difficult to maintain. 

 

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