'Cosmos' and Christian Faith

April 2nd, 2014
Image courtesy FOX/National Geographic

The Purpose of Cosmos

On Sunday, March 9, 2014, the show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premiered on the FOX network. The program is a reboot of Carl Sagan’s project Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which aired about 35 years ago. The host of the current show is astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

A review of the show in Entertainment Weekly described the goal of Cosmos very simply: “to make science cool again.” In the opening of the show, Tyson says that Sagan invited the viewers to a “great adventure—the exploration of the universe revealed by science.” Tyson then prompts the current voyage by saying, “It’s time to get going again.”

And “get going again” we do, blasting off with Tyson in the “ship of the imagination,” out of Earth’s atmosphere, past the sun and the rest of the planets of the solar system. The viewer is taken all the way to the edge of the “observable universe,” where we are given the image that our universe is simply one bubble in a vast waterfall of other universes.

The show is worth seeing if only for the visual effects alone. I was able to see the premiere episode prior to writing this article, and the journey through the universe was indeed breathtaking, provoking awe and wonder at the vastness of space. After returning to Earth, the show condenses the entire history of the universe into one calendar year, called the “cosmic calendar.” Starting with the Big Bang, Tyson reviews the story of the cosmos, ending with the appearance of human beings and pointing out that all of recorded history only covers the last seconds of that calendar year, starting at around 11:59:46 on December 31.

Questions for People of Faith

The visual effects and the mind-blowing realization that Earth and humanity are like a speck of dust in the vast sweep of the cosmos make the show both thrilling and humbling. It is clear that, should the right audience tune in, Cosmos could go a long way in making science cool again. But what questions does the show raise for people of faith?

Front and center in the premiere episode was the uneasy relationship the Christian church has had with science throughout the centuries. Through comic-book style animation, Cosmos told the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century monk who was imprisoned and eventually burned at the stake for advancing heretical views, including one that the planet Earth was not the center of the universe and that, in fact, our universe is only one of an infinite number of universes.

Even though Bruno attempted to use the infinite nature of God as evidence of his viewpoints, he was still tried and condemned. In the dramatic scene just prior to the pyres being lighted under Bruno’s feet, a priest puts a cross in front of Bruno’s face, an opportunity, perhaps, for one last shot at repentance. Bruno gruffly turns his head, rejecting the offer and, one might assume, the religious underpinnings of the system that had condemned him.

So, the question might arise: Was this an accurate portrayal of the church’s relationship with science? Or, the bigger one: Is there room for both science and faith? Do we have to pick a side, throwing out either the Bible or the science textbook?

Cosmos is not the only recent event to raise these questions. On February 4, Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” traveled to Petersburg, Kentucky, to debate Ken Ham, founder of the Answers in Genesis ministry and head of the Creation Museum. The topic was whether or not creationism, the hypothesis that a creator is responsible for the universe, is scientific. Bill Nye was arguing that it was not, because in his view, scientific evidence points to an evolving universe that is the product of the Big Bang, with no evidence or need for a creator. This debate, widely covered in the media, and the portrayal of the church in Cosmos could easily lead one to believe that faith and science are at odds and that one must choose a side.

A Third Way

In his response to the premiere of Cosmos for Discover magazine, Corey S. Powell noted some oversimplification in the show’s portrayal of the saga of Giordano Bruno. For instance, “the Roman Inquisition listed eight charges against Bruno. His belief in the plurality of worlds was just one.” Powell then goes on to list the theological positions that Bruno advocated that obviously went against what was considered orthodox Christianity at the time. He quickly points out that “none of this means that Bruno in any way deserved his fate. But neither does he deserve to be reduced to a cartoon about intellectual freedom.” There were, in fact, other thinkers who held similar views to Bruno at the time, and they were not tried as heretics as they were able to reconcile their thinking with orthodox Catholic theology.

Just as Cosmos may have oversimplified the story of Giordano Bruno, so current media focus has tended to oversimplify the Christian church’s connection to science. The universal church cannot be easily pigeonholed into an anti-science box. The Roman Catholic Church, though involved in some unfortunate cases like with Bruno and, more famously, Galileo, nonetheless has had an official scientific research organization, now known as the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, under its umbrella since 1603.

In an entry on “Religion and Science” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Alvin Plantinga points out that “the early pioneers and heroes of modern Western science—Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle, and so on—were all serious Christians.” Plantinga then goes on to describe how some of the most influential theologians in the history of the church, including Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, considered the use of reason and science to explore how the world works to be indicative of people who were created in the image of an intelligent God. “Indeed, the pursuit of science is a clear example of the development and enhancement of the image of God in human beings, both individually and collectively,” Plantinga states. In short, while there certainly are those in the church who may seem to be “anti-science,” the truth is that the church has often taken a third approach, able to blend the discoveries of scientists with the truth of the Bible in order to get a more complete picture of God’s work in the world.

Awe and Wonder: A Good Place to Start

One’s approach to the discoveries of science might determine what other questions emerge as one considers the show Cosmos. If we accept the claims of science as valid on such questions as the age of the universe and how it was formed, how do we reconcile those accounts with the Bible’s stories of Creation? If we feel that the claims of scientists overstep the authority of the Bible, how do we faithfully and respectfully engage our brothers and sisters in the church who hold a different view in a way that leaves room for God’s Spirit to operate and maintains the unity of the church? The answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this article. There is, however, one point upon which Christians and scientists definitely can agree: The universe is a beautiful and mysterious place that provokes a sense of wonder and awe.

In the Book of Job, Job’s friends can’t come up with a good explanation of why he is suffering. Job repeatedly directs his questions to the only one who really can answer them: God. Finally, in Chapter 38, God answers out of a whirlwind. God’s response to Job evokes the profound humility that ought to come in the face of the sheer vastness of the universe: “Who is this darkening counsel with words lacking knowledge?” (verse 2). For all our amazing advances in science and technology, the universe still presents more questions than we can answer. “Where were you when I laid earth’s foundations?” God challenges Job. “On what were its footings sunk; who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in unison and all the divine beings shouted?” (verses 4, 6-7). Wonder and awe in the presence of the God who can do all this and so much more is the appropriate first step for people of faith who contemplate the cosmos.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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