On Easter Sunday as I listen to the familiar hymns I’m contemplating one of the biggest reasons that it is difficult to believe in God. The Christian representation of God (and for that matter the common representations in other religions) simply isn’t up to being God of the universe as we know it today.
In the popular imagination, formed by decades of science fiction and science fact, the universe is a place of countless rational creatures other than humans, and thus countless civilizations and all of their attendant problems relating to the origin and end of the universe. It is 13 billion years old, and its ultimate extent is still expanding. Its history is marked by a birth with the Big Bang, a period of acceleration, the formation of the first matter, then stars, then galaxies and clusters of galaxies. Its end remains a matter of contention.
And yet again this year we’ll claim that the death and resurrection of God incarnate in Jesus Christ was the turning point in the history of the universe and that “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God;”
We know that this is nonsense. In the ordinary meaning of the words we read, preach, and sing about the death and resurrection of Jesus or the ultimate revealing of the sons of God all creation is in fact vastly unaware and indifferent.
It isn’t merely that our language is based in an out of date understanding of the universe at which we are the center. Modern theologians have explored that problem for a century. The problem is our religious binding of God, who is God of the entire universe, exclusively to the problems (social, psychological, political, economic, etc) on our planet and of our species.
Now I know that in one sense binding God to planet earth and its creatures is theologically justified. After all the central assertion of Christianity is that God has revealed God’s self in Christ as a God who takes intense interest in the most local and indeed intimate affairs of God’s creatures. God is love.
It is the exclusivity of that claim, implicitly and sometimes explicitly. We don’t typically allow our theological minds to voyage beyond our world. (My colleague Theo Walker is a notable exception.) The vastness of the universe rarely if ever appears in popular Christian discourse. Christians, and for that matter all religious people, are about as anthropocentric and terra-centric as you can get. And this even after we’ve walked on the moon, contemplate sending humans to Mars, and have sent our satellites beyond the solar system.
This is in sharp contrast with a television show that probably gets more viewers each week in the United States than Jesus: Cosmos with Neil Degrasse Tyson. His “ship of the imagination” ranges over both time and space to their furthest limits. He is joined by legions of scientists and science writers bent on sending their minds, really and metaphorically, to the farthest reaches of the universe and the deepest depths of matter. And he is constantly jabbing religion and religious people for their refusal to do so.
If his attacks seem unfair they nonetheless both expose the failure of the Christian “ship of the imagination” and offer a quite different mode of spirituality – one of what his mentor Carl Sagan called “wonder.”
This wonder is not the “How Great Thou Art” wonder of Christian psalms and hymns, informed as they are by belief in God as creator of the universe. It is the wonder inspired by the remarkable capacity of the rational human mind to connect to and conceptualize the vastly greater universe within which it has emerged.
This is the wonder which religion only grudging accepts or more frequently rejects outright as a prideful threat to God’s demand that humans submit to the limits of a space and time-bound revelation and the even more limiting interpretations of it’s ecclesial interpreters. It is the wonder that I felt as a child and still feel today, but which finds little affirmation among religious people , most of whom are oblivious to science and it’s ship of imagination (except as it generates helpful technologies) and are instead absorbed in the meso-cosmic prison that religion tends to create.
On Easter too many Christians sing “made like him, like him we rise, ours the cross, the grave, the skies” and think only of an anthropomorphic zone (of justice, peace, or pleasure as you like) called Heaven. That is as far as our religiously shaped imagination can soar. Which may explain why Cosmos gets more viewers that the risen Christ.
So this Easter I am thinking of the resurrection of Christ not as his ascent into Heaven, but his ascent into the heavens, his return to the vastness of the cosmos in all its wondrous diversity, fantastically long history, and depth of complexity. In short to a God who isn’t too small.
And what will follow is not my human soul, although it may come along for the ride, but my imagination. And if Neil Degrasse Tyson happens to be going in the same direction I’ll be happy to join him. I think we’re headed in the same direction.