Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sacred Cosmology (7/26/15)

Sacred Cosmology
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
July 26, 2015
What poems, songs, works of art, novels, short stories, movies, cartoons, etc., from the last 50 to 100 years might/should be included in a bible that would be canonized 400 years from now? Why? Extra points for ones that actually do more than echo familiar portions of the current canon.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters.  
Genesis 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…..And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…  
John 1:1-4, 14a

…the Father’s Empire is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.  
Thomas 113b
Nancy Ellen Abrams, A God That Could Be Real 
The spiritual challenge for us is to accept the scientific picture of the universe and with the real help of a real God figure out how to act accordingly—in every way, not just technologically but sociologically, psychologically, spiritually, educationally, politically, and every other way.  It may not be obvious how to become this coherent, but for the first time it’s possible, and focusing on it as a goal could reenergize our civilization.

We have the opportunity to use our god-capacity for a high purpose—truly a cosmic purpose:  to find ourselves and save the million-year-old, still evolving cosmic clan in which each of us is a living organism….

….Like every star, every galaxy, the cosmos itself, each of us is an event unfolding predictably on some scales and unpredictably on others.  We are our history all the way back, through the evolution of mammals to strange creatures in the sea to the first cells, through the deaths of stars that made our stardust, through the swirling dark matter that made the galaxy in which our sun could ignite.  We humans have traveled a long road together since the Big Bang.

It’s time to acknowledge that….

….Every one of us shares the incredibly rich identity forged over the billions of years it took for us to evolve out of this planet in this universe.  We’re unique loving individuals; we’re on Earth-encircling force; we’re the living ancestors of descendants who may change the galaxy; we’re part of the self-consciousness of the universe; our aspirations are part of God and will be as long into the future as God exists.  This is the real us.  Identity is about daring to define ourselves.

What texts, songs, movies and so forth of our time would make it into a “Bible” of the future?  It is a fun exercise and I will give you a chance to share your list with your neighbors.   We all have favorites.  

In every field there are debates about the canon.   What texts should one read for a twelfth grade English class?   Do we stick with the DWMs the dead white males or include women’s voices and texts from people of color?   We can’t read it all.   

I heard, and I don’t know if it is true as I can’t seem to confirm it.  But I remember hearing that in Shakespeare’s time a well-read person, very well-read, could have read every book that had been written.   I am not sure if that meant every book in English or really every book.    Whatever the case, it certainly isn’t possible today.   

When I was doing some genealogy on my Shuck ancestors I discovered my great great grandfather John Shuck who settled in Indiana in 1837.   I read a history of that community.  One section listed books that would have been found in the homes of those pioneers.   Every home would have a Bible and a hymnbook.   Particular homes had various books.  One had John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and some other books by him.  Another had Jonathan Edwards’ theology, “Edwards on Redemption” and “Edwards on the Will.”  One home had a Bible dictionary and some commentaries.  Yet another a book on English grammar, a book on the life of Rev. William Tennet, and a book on world geography.   My great-great grandfather was called the “chimney-corner lawyer” and thus had a few legal books.   The author wrote that if one collected all the books from all the settlers in the community they would fit in a bushel basket.   

Imagine going to Powell’s downtown and starting on the top floor read every book in every stack.    That doesn’t include singing every song and watching every movie.    If you still have time, go on the internet and read every blog and web page.     

Of course, most of what is written and performed is not particularly noteworthy.   You have to find a way to narrow it all down.  But even then, the sheer volume is overwhelming.    We are flooded with books. 

I took this question as an invitation to think about the Bible and its function.    Why have a Bible at all?  What is it and what does it do?  We might also ask, will it last?  

In my great-great grandfather’s time and place the Bible was the central book.   You learned to read from it and it contained the grand narrative of history.   Not only salvation history but the history of the human race and of the creation of heavens and earth.   It also contained the story of the fate of all nations and the individual.    With a little help, of course, for Presbyterians from John Calvin, the Westminster Confession, and Jonathan Edwards who explained it all.  

The Bible was the grand metanarrative and the human had his or her place in it.   Meaning was made for us.    God created the world in six days.   In the garden Adam and Eve trespassed the forbidden barrier, were cast from the garden into a life of toil, childbirth and mortality.    God makes covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David and finally through Jesus saves humanity and promises a new Eden, a new heaven and earth for those who keep the faith.    What could be simpler?

Christopher Columbus was completely absorbed by this story.    He took it as would any learned person of his time at face value.   His Bible was a little bigger than what would be the Protestant Bible after his contemporary Luther whittled away at it.  For Columbus, a book called Second Esdras was considered authoritative.   It contained a verse that told him that Earth was six parts land and one part water.  Columbus thought it would be an easy journey by sea to China.    Columbus calculated the beginning of creation and the end and felt time was ticking.  He had a purpose to get gold from China to fund a crusade to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims so that Christ would return and consummate the kingdom.  

The only people who think along those lines now are Ken Ham types.   They are fundamentalists and their views are rightly disregarded.   Yet they have a huge influence in popular Christianity.  Christian radio and television promotes a view of the Bible as if we have learned nothing from science and as if there are no other books except the Bible.    

People in our own denomination, many of them, still speak of the authority of the Bible as if it is still the metanarrative for what the universe is and what it means to be a human being.  

Of course there is no single Bible.   There are Protestant and Catholic Bibles and Orthodox Bibles.   There is the TaNaK, the Jewish Bible with Torah, Nebiim, and Ketubim, the Law, Prophets, and Writings.  No need for Jesus but still a metanarrative with the hope of a renewed Jerusalem.   Let’s go up to Zion.  Next year in Jerusalem.

Of course, there is the Qur’an also a fully contained book on the meaning of life and hope with a final judgment.    The Book of Mormon should be added to the mix I suppose especially as that form of faith continues to spread.  

What all these Bibles have in common is that they are pre-modern.   The Book of Mormon is an odd exception.  But it is pre-modern in content.   These Bibles were created and compiled long before the Enlightenment and the advance of science.   This is of course true for the non-Western forms of religion and philosophy as well.   Hinduism and Buddhism and its variants do not have a Bible as the Western religions do.   But their philosophy was forged in a pre-scientific world.  

Modern science has changed the game.   

We haven’t figured out how to come to terms with that.    

When my great-great grandfather in 1837 read his Bible, I suspect he would have accepted that it told the story as it was with perhaps some exceptions.   It could be that he was more of a skeptic.  I really don’t know.   Still by 1837, the overall mood would have been acceptance of the Bible as a metanarrative for natural and human history and its end.   Yet cracks had been appearing from some time.    The Enlightenment had begun and the solid rock was starting to crumble.  

Within 50 years, Darwin’s Origin of Species changes everything.  Historical Criticism of the Bible and the emergence of the modern university open up a whole new world.     In order to defend scripture, the modern fundamentalist movement is born.   The Pope becomes infallible for Catholics as the Bible does for Protestants.  It is billed as a war between science and religion.    

Many thoughtful Christian people such as Karl Barth did a retreat.  They retreated into the world of theology.   For Barth and for Barthians, science and historical criticism is accepted but largely ignored.   The Bible is its own strange new world as Barth called it.    In Protestant seminary we were taught to use the lectionary to create a spiritual world.   Define the worship experience and your life from Advent to Christ the King.   We act as though nothing has changed.  

Yet we know differently.  The Bible does not define the world.  The Bible does not contain the story of the universe and the story of humankind.    Critical scholar after critical scholar show that the characters once thought to be historical persons (Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and yes, Jesus), are more likely to be composite characters in fictionalized accounts of old myths and legends reframed and retold.   

Now, in place of the Bible we have Powell’s books and more.   Everyone has his own canon.  Everyone has her own loose-leaf Bible.  

Yet we have lost something. 

We lost a cosmos.  For centuries the Christian West knew its place.  Earth was the center of the universe and humans were the apple of the Creator’s eye.  Advent to Christ the King was a real thing telling the story of a real hope.   The Bible gave us a place and a purpose.  Life is a vale of tears but heaven is at the end in a new world, in a new world beyond this world.  Soldier on.  Believe and do good works.   Your reward awaits.  It is not a bad philosophy.  My great-great grandparents forged a life on the frontier with it.  

Now if we dare, we know better.    We know more, perhaps not better.   We know more and we cannot turn back the clock to what we pretend was a simpler time. 

Now we can trace our natural history on Earth back to 4. 5 billion years and our cosmic history back 13.8 billion years.   It is an amazing story.  Give four forces 13.8 billion years and you get trees, oceans, elephants, bacteria, consciousness, sex, Hamlet, Bibles, and all the gods.   We human beings are made of the stuff of exploding stars.    

The Bible gave us a cosmology and a history.  For it I am grateful.  It provided inspiration for the search.   Now we have to create a new Bible.   It won’t be one book as such, but we are in the process of creating a unifying story of origins, identity, and future hope.   We need our artists, musicians, and storytellers, to help in this great work.    This new Bible, so to speak, will contain all of the other Bibles, all mythology, all religion, all philosophy, and psychology, in short, all human cultural evolution.   

This new Bible will look back and contain the stories of our ancestors, I am thinking of Richard Dawkins’ book, The Ancestors’ Tale.    These are our evolutionary ancestors all the way back to earliest forms of life that we know.    The new Bible will take us further back to tell the story of Earth’s origins, and the origin of the solar system, to the formation of our galaxy and the formation of the universe itself.   It is our creation story, so to speak.    

This is the story that unites all of us, beyond particular religious or cultural traditions.   This is our new Bible.   Human beings are not insignificant worms in this story.  We are the self-consciousness of this universe.   It is possible that there is intelligent life somewhere else.   But whether there is or not, we human beings are the self-consciousness of Earth and the Solar System for sure.   We are here and able to tell this incredible story.    Before human beings there were no stories of the universe.  There were no stories of gods, stories of love, stories of sacrifice, stories of sadness.   Self-consciousness emerged from evolution and all of our aspirations and hopes have emerged from our interactions, from our storytelling, from our small Bibles to a larger ever-emerging Bible that is our ongoing life story.    

The form that this great story takes we can’t know.  What technologies develop and what technologies fall away will determine that.    

It took 13.8 billion years to make you.  You are beautifully and wonderfully made.   Our great story inspires us never to take life for granted.   I think we do have a purpose.   That purpose is to do what we have done for millions of years, that is survive and to tell the story of the universe.   All of our previous stories such as the Christian story are not lost but are gathered up.  We will draw from the best of our wisdom traditions to encourage one another to be brave, to be curious, to care, to sacrifice, to hope, and to dream.      

The hope?  The hope is that we will live on in the lives of our descendants who could be here for another billion years.  In fact, they could be the consciousness of the galaxy.    There is no other species that we know of that has the capabilities we possess.   We have been given an incredible gift and responsibility.   We are a rarity in the universe.   It did take this long for us to arrive on the scene.   Let’s make a decision not to throw it away in short-term decisions.      Let’s think for the long-term.   How will our decisions impact seven generations after us?  How will our decisions impact 100 generations after us? 

There is a hope in this great story.  The hope is that we will become in the words of Nancy Ellen Abrams, esteemed ancestors.    What we do now in the next 20 years could determine what kind of future our descendants will inherit.    It is too important to be cynical or to give up.   In every sphere, political, religious, educational, we need to think big.  What would an esteemed ancestor do?  

We need to trust as well.  Trust that we have what is in us to survive and to be creative.   We are the descendants of survivors.    We won’t live to see what will happen.  We won’t see what our descendants will do.   We won’t know if we will be esteemed ancestors or despised ancestors.  We need to live as if we will be esteemed.   We need to trust in the hope we cannot see.  As it says in Hebrews 11:1 

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

I will leave the task of specific books, music, films, and so forth for you to decide what will go into a future Bible.   I want to suggest that whatever they are, they will be those things that provide for us a unifying great story and inspire us to be esteemed ancestors.  

I will close with a quote.  This is from Reinhold Niebuhr and I hope there will be space for it in the Bible of the future:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.  
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.  
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”    

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