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My place in the "Cosmos"

Since I was only a year old when Carl Sagan's original "Cosmos" aired in 1980, I did not bring any preconceived notions about the show to my viewing of the Neil deGrasse Tyson-reboot.  I did, however, bring my preconceived notions about the universe that it explores, having been raised as a Lutheran who now belongs to the Orthodox Christian Church.  I brought my upbringing, with its resistance to theories like evolution and the Big Bang for their perceived contradiction of Scripture.  I brought my sensitivity to a culture in which belief in the Bible is often ridiculed as an intellectual disability.  And I brought my personal belief that no faith that is unable to withstand the discoveries of scientific exploration could be true and worth believing in.

I was gratified to discover that there is a place for me in this new "Cosmos."  If the first episode is any indication, the writers and producers have committed to making a show that respects the concept of faith and acknowledges the mystical nature of our biggest question: not just How does the universe work, but Why?  This commitment, somewhat surprisingly, was most evident in their extended animated sequence about the life and death of Giordano Bruno, a 15th-century monk who proclaimed a vision of the universe that challenged the convictions of the Christian establishment.  Inspired by the work of Lucretius and Copernicus, Bruno imagined an infinite universe full of other worlds like our own.  But he saw this possibility as an expansion of the understanding of God, not a negation of it.  Unable or unwilling to accept this challenge, the churches of the West — Lutheran, Anglican, and Roman Catholic, each in turn — excommunicated Bruno, subjected him the Inquisition, and eventually condemned him to be burned at the stake.  His sentence was carried out a mere 10 years before Galileo first looked through a telescope and began to confirm the theories that Bruno foresaw.

The choice to focus on Bruno might seem like a predictable diatribe by the scientific community against organized religion, Christianity in particular.  But this "Cosmos" seems intent on uniting rather than dividing.  As Dr. Tyson narrates Bruno's story, he identifies the erstwhile monk as a martyr, a man who was persecuted not for the sake of science but for faith—his faith that a God who is infinite could not be threatened by ideas or discoveries that broaden our knowledge of His dominion.  Tyson reminds the viewer that Bruno was not a scientist and had no evidence to support his claims.  He had only the conviction that Galileo would later express so eloquently: "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use."

Tragically for Bruno, his seeds of his ideas were sown on the rocky ground of western Christianity, where the Roman Catholic church sought to establish and expand its power, and the Lutheran and Anglican churches had taken the Scripture out of the context of the Church tradition, setting themselves on the path of personal interpretation and arbitrary reformation.  As a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I can't help but wonder if Bruno's notion of the universe would have been received differently if his wanderings had led him toward the east from Italy rather than the west.  Perhaps not, as the animated sequence in "Cosmos" makes reference to him having rejected the divinity of Christ, which was considered heresy by both the East and West.  In an article for Discover magazine, blogger Corey Powell has also observed that Bruno's troubles were exacerbated by a contentious personality and a tendency to infuse his cosmology with notions of magic and arcane philosophy.  Still, I linger on imagining an inquirer like Bruno engaging in a spirited celestial discussion with Augustine and Gregory the Theologian—two other among many great Christian thinkers who respected the study of the natural world and embraced the wonders it reveals.

But the kindred spirit of this new "Cosmos" was stirred in me by more than the story of Bruno.  As the first episode draws to a close, Dr. Tyson describes the history of science as a tradition of thought, handed down from teacher to student to teacher, "a community of minds stretching back to antiquity."  Again, as an Orthodox Christian, I couldn't help but think about Apostolic succession: the handing down of doctrine and worship from Christ to His Apostles, from those Apostles (the first Christian bishops) to their successors, and so on through the ages in an unbroken, unaltered continuity.  In the same way that scientists like Dr. Tyson feel a kinship with those who carried the flame of their belief in scientific exploration, so the Orthodox feel that same sense of connectedness to the past, and a certainty that what we believe is built on the experience of those who came before us.  Their knowledge and insight has been handed down to us, and we continue to live out the principles they followed.  Just as Dr. Tyson holds up Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and so many others as sterling examples of commitment to the principles of his belief, so we remember and honor the saints of the Church, who lived the experience of God's revelation to humankind.  And just as we should all feel united by the truths that science reveals to us, so also we should understand that faith in tradition is a universal human experience.

And furthermore, faith is required, even in scientific exploration—especially as we push to the limits of what we can observe and perceive with our senses.  So many astronomical principles are based on observations of effects rather than causes.   We believe in the existence of something because we see its effect on the environment around it.  As a Christian, I believe in God because I see the effect He has had throughout history, most powerfully through the life of Christ and the experience of His Church.  As I think about how I came to this belief, I'm reminded of the lyrics of a song I listened to as a teenager, just beginning to struggle with these questions:

Can you see the wind?  Touch the breeze?  Its presence is revealed by the leaves on the trees—an image of my faith in the unseen.


As scientific progress continues to reveal that certain aspects of the Bible must be understood as symbolic, many whose faith is based on their own literal or selective interpretation of Scripture continue to regard science as the enemy of faith.  "Cosmos," I believe, is trying portray that conflict as an ultimately false dichotomy, more about the struggle for power than the search for truth.  And as for me, I'm still contemplating the Big Bang, and wondering why a theory that suggests that everything in the known universe originated from a single source has ever been considered contradictory of Christianity.

And I'm not the only one.  As I sat with my wife and children watching the premiere of "Cosmos," all of us marveling at the explanation of our origin, my 7-year-old lit up with a thought that he couldn't wait until the commercials to share.  "I bet the Big Bang was when God said, 'Let there be light.'"

Whether or not he's right, I hope that made his other Father smile, too.

Greg Morrison1 Comment