Contextualizing the Cosmos

A couple of weeks ago, the network that brought us “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire” and the guy who created “Family Guy” premiered a series aimed to teach us about astronomy and quantum mechanics. What, what? Yes, Fox and Seth McFarlane are behind the series Cosmos.

Hosted by science superstar Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is the spiritual successor to the original Cosmos series that was hosted by Carl Sagan in 1980. The touchstone science series featured heady and cutting edge scientific concepts made user-friendly by the charming delivery that Sagan had. At the time, Sagan had his fingers in almost every cosmic pie there was. He was intimately involved in NASA exploration programs, he was teaching college classes to the next generation of astronomers, he was writing books and he even curated the famous Golden Record that was stowed in the Voyager I probe and launched out of our solar system. Now, the rebooted version of the show takes cues from its mother show in trying to spark the imaginations of its audience into getting excited about science and, specifically, cosmology.

The first episode had three main segments. The first was devoted to understanding our “Cosmic Address”. Beginning with our own planet, we zoom out a “line at a time” to experience how small we really are in the grand scheme. Our solar system, our galaxy (the Milky Way), our supercluster (The Virgo Supercluster) and finally our universe and the theories about the level up from that. It was stunning and engaging and spiritual in a sense. The same awe was inspired by Sagan with his rumination on the Pale Blue Dot photograph.

The next segment did a similar walkthrough of our place, not in space, but in time. Laying out the history of the universe on a calendar to better understand the passage of time, Tyson illustrated how our human history is contained in only a few days at the end of the “year”. Again, the vastness of time was illustrated well. Many Christians can be very militant about the Young Earth view, but that’s not what’s in focus here. Literal six days or not, the vastness of time and the idea that humans are a vapor is very biblical. Even the theory behind the Big Bang leaves plenty of room for divine involvement. I mean, scientists now say that the universe was small than an atom before the Big Bang happened – it was essentially nothing at all and then burst out into an ever-expanding cosmos. Sounds a lot like Genesis 1 to me. And when Tyson described the early days of our planet as being a rock without much form and a very dark and hostile place, it smacked of the Biblical account as well. Just sayin’.

Now, the other segment involved the story of a “martyr to science” named Giordano Bruno. Tyson described Bruno as a monk who sympathized with the theories of Copernicus about a heliocentric (sun-centered) solar system. Bruno was a theologian, not a scientist, and he theorized that the universe should be infinite because God himself is infinite. He preached this logic in his day and got the attention of the Church, who preached that the earth was the center of the universe – because that’s how they read their Bibles. Tyson tells us that Bruno was imprisoned for his beliefs about the universe and finally burned at the stake over them. While Bruno was put to death by the Church, his views on cosmology were only one piece of whole. Bruno held and preached a number of other beliefs that got him in trouble. He also believed that the Earth had a spirit (the Holy Spirit). He believed that Jesus was not the Son of God, but a skilled magician that misled many people and that the Devil will be saved in the end. It was on the basis of these heretical teachings that he was executed, not strictly his views on infinite space with infinite worlds.

If Bruno is classified as a martyr, it should be to the cause of religious freedom of speech and not science vs.
religion. Besides, Bruno was not a scientist at all and his views on cosmology were formulated apart from any evidence. Indeed, Tyson states that Bruno’s theory was a “lucky guess” that got him killed. Hardly the kind of hero that he is set up to be in the show. Galileo was the first to observe the movement of heavenly bodies that proved some things did not orbit the earth. His work in documenting the movement of Jupiter’s moons is what really set the world on fire and began the sea change of thought on the science of cosmology. The explosion of data began soon after his observances with the availability of telescopes and brought us to where we are today with the Hubble Space Telescope.

So one episode in and Cosmos has been a bit of a beautiful mixed bag. I completely appreciate the science and the presentation. It’s amazing that a well-produced show about hard science is airing on Sunday night on Fox. I hope many people watch it. I’m excited that the producers seem content to leave room for God in their picture, even if it’s just a hole for people to decide on their own how to fill. They are not (yet) putting atheism on display and condemning faith. What more can you ask of a secular science show? However, I’m slightly worried about the depiction of history and how it looks at the issue of organized religion suppressing science. Yes, this has occurred in centuries past and occurs today, but it’s a much more complicated issue than what they seemed to depict here. Most Christian scientists I know don’t reject new data out of hand, but instead look at the data, see God involved in what they observe and marvel at the creativity and vastness of the Creator God. That’s what I did when I watched Cosmos. I gave thanks to the God who orchestrated our existence out of the violence of space, built a beautiful world for us to live in amid the vastness of the universe, provided for us, loved us, died for us and gave us a hunger to look for something beyond ourselves.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey airs Sunday at 9/8c on Fox. Full episodes are available to stream here for a limited time. 

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