Debunking myths behind the 'new cosmology'

Advances in cosmology — the science of the origin and development of the universe — over the last century have revolutionized our ideas about the beginning of the universe. Some of these advances are the work of Catholic cosmologists; for example, a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, was the principal architect of the Big Bang theory. Others, such as Stephen Barr, use new scientific discoveries to revitalize medieval proofs for the existence of God. Theologians like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin used the new cosmology to understand in contemporary terms the full cosmic significance of God’s revelation in Christ.

Unfortunately, other less responsible uses of the new cosmology have emerged at the popular level. In this context, the phrase “the new cosmology” refers to a loosely connected network of spiritualities that gratuitously use advances in scientific cosmology to undercut major doctrines of the Christian faith. I say “gratuitously” because there is no actual warrant from new cosmological theories to undercut these doctrines, and because all the critical moves against Christian doctrine were actually made long before the 20th century discoveries, which are invoked as the basis for the critique.

Removing God

The most fundamental move of the new cosmological spirituality is to depersonalize God and to reconceive the divine as a kind of “energy” penetrating the cosmos. There is no “creator” in this spirituality, no one with any will or intention to create, but a force that seems more a part of the cosmos rather than transcendent of it. This “Divine Presence,” as author Michael Morwood calls it in his book, “It’s Time: Challenges to the Doctrine of the Faith” (Kelmor Publishing, $18), is “everywhere, ‘charging’ and holding everything in existence,” a feature of the universe itself, “the capacity to self-organize,” a pervasive mystery in the universe which “reveals itself” in the “patterns of operation discernible in the unfolding of the universe and in the development of life on earth.”

As God is depersonalized, the universe itself seems personalized. As Diarmuid O’Murchu wrote in “God in the Midst of Change” (Orbis Books, $20), we are to trust “the evolving wisdom of creation itself,” and evolution seems like the new name for God, an agent that “push[es] us into a new way of seeing” or “lures” us into the future. It seems to make no difference whether one is speaking of God or the universe: “The universe (and God) knows what it’s about,” O’Murchu wrote. Protestations that this is not pantheism, according to Morwood, seem unconvincing because there is no way given to distinguish God from simply a feature of the universe, no matter how all-pervasive that feature is. Natural law cannot be broken. There is no one who “hears” prayers in order to intervene in response, miraculous or otherwise, according to Morwood.

The ‘myth’ of Jesus

The second major feature of this spirituality is this: There is no revelation apart from unfolding cosmic patterns. The God of the Bible, so obviously distinct from and transcendent to creation, is caricatured as an “elsewhere overseeing Lord of the universe,” according to Morwood, who adds that the biblical God, “too tied to images of the earth as the center of the universe and of heaven as God’s dwelling place above the earth,” must be rejected.

The world of the Bible is the world of myth, and cannot be accepted by enlightened 21st century man, the author says. This includes the Incarnation, an idea that arises from the “faulty worldview” of a mythic sky-God who descends to earth. The resurrection of Jesus is an equally “mythical story.” If these “myths” have any meaning at all, they are symbolic. For example, the death and resurrection of Jesus is symbolic of the evolutionary pattern that we “die to the small self in order to give way to a ... raised awareness — even in death,” according to O’Murchu — though how that can happen is not explained.

Apart from its symbolic meaning, Jesus’s death is “meaningless,” Morwood states. It is not redemptive, because there is no original sin requiring redemption. There is nothing unique about Jesus, Morwood writes, since “the human species has always lived and died into the Divine Presence.” Jesus embodies “Divine Presence” no more than everyone else does; he just happened to be more fully aware of it and so directs us to find it in ourselves. That is the kernel of truth at the heart of the “myth” of the Incarnation. This is reminiscent of nothing so much as ancient gnosticism.

Third, though the word “faith” is still used, there is no room for faith in the classical sense of the response to revelation. Faith is in effect replaced by reason, since there is nothing “revealed” apart from what is inferred from empirical observation of the patterns of the universe. “It is time,” Morwood writes, “to insist that faith be built on sound reasoning, on sound data,” but faith has no independent contribution beyond the reasoning.

Finding perspective

How to assess this spirituality? The appeal to the scientific cosmology of the 21st century only serves to disguise the fact that there is absolutely nothing new here but a simplification and popularization of earlier varieties of gnosticism, pantheism (such as we find in the works of 17th century Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza), materialism (Stoic teaching about “spirit”), and both second- and 19th-century critiques alike of Christianity as a naive “myth” (think Celsus in the second century and David Strauss in the 19th).

Dabbling in their own version of neopaganism, caricaturing fundamental Christian doctrines as they go, these authors leave in limbo some of the most precious commitments the doctrines represent. Rejecting the doctrine of an utterly transcendent God whose free act of creation is the source of all else, they strip all reality of freedom, including human beings. By leaving behind the doctrine of an utterly free and transcendent creator, they also leave behind the doctrine that such a creator could, in an equally free act, transcend his own transcendence, as it were, and empty himself to come among us as one of us.

Jesus, as the Word of creation incarnate, is not a myth but the mystery of divine love expressed in history. When Jesus is raised after giving his life out of love, it is this love that is vindicated and triumphant and that calls all creation to live and to grow in its freedom. Though the language of love may remain as a residue of Christian doctrine in the new cosmology, it no longer has any grounding, because there is no one left, in the new cosmology, who can make the free, loving sacrifice in which the world is both created and redeemed. The new cosmology gives up the very truths that are the only basis for proclaiming that, far from an impersonal force that uses creation for its own needs for self-awareness, God is love, and this love reigns as the ultimate mystery of love and freedom in the cosmos, now and forever.

John Cavadini is director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.