Text: Proverbs 8:1-4, 21-32 (Wisdom’s role in Creation)
Today is “Cosmos Sunday,” a title given to the last Sunday of a short Season of Creation. When I first heard the title, I immediately thought of the TV series Cosmos. I didn’t watch Cosmos when it aired in 1980 because back then I was a poor student and didn’t own a TV. A few years later, though, I bought the book version. Like the TV series, the book was written by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan; and I was enthralled by the vistas of knowledge that it opened.
In 2014, I watched the sequel to Sagan’s series. It is also called “Cosmos” and is narrated by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In 13 episodes, Cosmos covers a wide range of subjects: the immense age of the universe; geological history; the evolution of life on earth; the emergence of the scientific method in Europe in the 1600’s; the strange complexity of atomic and sub-atomic worlds; and how the deaths of stars forge the heavier elements that make up our bodies.
I think Cosmos does a brilliant job of bringing current scientific learnings to a general audience in an entertaining and educational format.
In contrast to the learnings of astronomers, geologists, and biologists disseminated by “Cosmos,” today’s Bible reading gives us an ancient account of the creation of the universe. From the eighth chapter of Proverbs, it is the third story of creation in the Hebrew Bible.
The first story is found in chapter one of Genesis. As I mentioned last week, it says that a group of gods called Elohim created the heavens and earth in a stately fashion over seven days. The second account is from the next chapter of Genesis. Set in the Garden of Eden, it says that a god named YHWH first creates Adam — which means man of dust. YHWH then creates animals in a somewhat haphazard fashion. Finally, YHWH creates the first woman out of one of Adam’s ribs
Today’s reading from Proverbs introduces the divine figure Wisdom as a feminine Spirit. Some theologians think that Wisdom is the Holy Spirit. Others say Wisdom is Jesus as portrayed in the first chapter of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.”
I appreciate all three accounts of creation found in the Hebrew Bible. Like other sacred texts, they can be endlessly mined for inspiration and revelation. For instance, today’s reading about “Lady Wisdom” provides a contrast to masculine images of the Divine; and it helps elevate the status given to knowledge and wisdom within the biblical tradition.
But today my focus is on the scientific account of the origins of the heavens and earth as exemplified in the Cosmos TV series. By looking at science, I think we can shed light on the place of faith in our lives.
Virtually all of our beliefs depend on faith. At the level of common sense, I believe that the floor of the sanctuary won’t give way beneath us today because I have faith in the people who designed and built this building. At the level of current events, I believe that Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President — as bizarre and horrifying as that fact seems to me — because I have faith that the news media are diverse and reliable enough to not concoct such facts.
At the level of science, I believe that the earth orbits the sun instead of the opposite because I have faith in the science of astronomy. If I devoted long hours to study, I assume that I could convince myself of this fact. But I have neither the time nor the inclination to undertake such a study. Despite the fact that the sun seems to circle the earth, I accept that the opposite is true on faith. I trust the community of astronomers who have worked for centuries to understand how the solar system works using the methods of science.
The scientific method consists of systematic observation, experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. The fruits of this method are evident in the technology that supports our lives.
Even the most talented scientists hold most of their beliefs on faith. A professor in molecular biology may have beliefs about the inner workings of cells based on personal study and debate. But that same scientist has to take the facts of astronomy on faith, just like the rest of us.
Much of what science reveals about the cosmos is hard for us to fathom: the immense depths of time, the vast expanses of the universe, or the wild intricacy of each atom. Nevertheless, I see good reasons to accept the facts in science textbooks given what we know about the scientific method, given the commitment of the scientists who share and debate their findings out of a love for truth, and given the practical results of their research. Like many of us, I have faith in science and the international academy.
In the pre-modern world, each tribe developed its own account of the origins of the heavens and the earth. In the modern world, science has created an origin story that is shared by all of humanity. It is a story that is constantly being challenged and updated by further investigations.
The Big History of the cosmos sketches how an infinitely small, simple and super-hot cosmos blew up almost 14 billion years ago. Since then, the universe has been continuously expanding, cooling off, and becoming more complex. Big History outlines how the stars and galaxies began, how the earth formed billions of years ago, how life has evolved over eons, how humans emerged as a primate species in Africa several million years ago, how humanity spread to all corners of the globe during the last 50,000 years, and how we continue to build better understandings of ourselves and of our place in the cosmos.
Does knowing the scientific account of Big History affect our attitudes towards ancient accounts of creation like the three found in the books of the Hebrew Bible? For me, science does not detract from the spiritual insights that can be gleaned from ancient stories. But the scientific story often fills me with me more wonder. I am more enthralled by watching the TV series Cosmos than I am by reading Genesis or Proverbs.
Soon after I came to Mill Woods United in January 2014, I had a study week at Epiphany Explorations, which is a conference organized each year by the United Church in Victoria. I heard a talk there on science by Rev. Michael Dowd, the author of “Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform the World.” I loved both his talk and his book.
Dowd recommends that we treat natural and social reality as if they were scripture and to use science to interpret it. If God’s Grace, Truth and Love are real, they can only be found in reality, he argues; and science has been shown to be the most reliable method to understand reality.
If natural reality is one of our sacred texts, then a TV series like Cosmos becomes one of the most effective ways of spreading theology to a wide audience!
Dowd’s ideas came to my mind last Sunday when I listened to an episode of Tapestry, CBC radio’s weekly program about spirituality. It featured a Boston-based minister, Casper ter Kuile, who treats the Harry Potter novels as sacred texts. He reads them in community to explore spirituality and to shed light on daily life.
When something is sacred to us — whether a novel, a piece of music, or a relationship — using a set of spiritual practices in community to appreciate it can remind us of our values and help us to live in alignment with them.
Ter Kuile said, “what makes a text sacred is not that it was given to us ‘by God’ or that it has some extra layer of authority … it’s the fact that people have come around it in community over centuries, have mined it for meaning, and have invented beautiful, imaginative practices to help dig into its richness.”
Approaching the Harry Potter novels or the Big History of the cosmos as sacred does not mean that we need to discard the books of the Bible — or the Koran, or the Bhagavad Gita, or any other. It means that we have gained new spiritual paths on which to search for the Spirit of Love we call God.
Big History as revealed in a TV series like Cosmos fills me with awe and helps me stay humble in the face of the depths of time and the immensity of space . . .
The title of my reflection today — “Earth to earth; ashes to ashes; and stardust to stardust” is a play on a phrase said at gravesides when a body is interred, but with the word stardust replacing the word dust.
The graveside phrase is inspired by Adam, the man of dust, and by the curse that YHWH lays on Adam when he disobeys the commandment to not eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. When YHWH banishes Adam from the Garden, he says “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
I changed the words “dust” to “stardust” in the sermon title because of Carl Sagan, the creator of Cosmos. In the 1980 series, he popularized the fact that all the chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium come from the deaths of stars billions of years ago. In supernovae explosions, heavier and more complex elements are forged. These heavier atoms then get blown throughout the universe and end up in places like our solar system and the earth.
After explaining this process in the 1980 TV show, Sagan said “The nitrogen in our DNA, the iron in our blood, and the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.”
I love this image. But the phrase stardust as opposed to star stuff was not popularized by Sagan in 1980, but by Joni Mitchell eleven years earlier in her 1969 song “Woodstock.” To end, I now offer the closing lyrics to her song.
We are stardust, we are golden,
We are billion-year old carbon,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.