Friday, March 14, 2014

The Startling Christianity of Fox's Cosmos

The Church as imagined by "Cosmos"

About halfway through last Sunday’s premiere of Fox’s reimagined Cosmos, host Neil deGrasse Tyson told the story of Giordano Bruno, a sixteenth century Dominican monk who, inspired by an apparent divine revelation, embraced and expanded on the Copernican model of heliocentrism, which posits that the earth revolves around the sun.  Bruno went even further than Copernicus in arguing that the sun itself was but another star and that the other stars had planets themselves.  In fact, he argued, “the universe is then one, infinite, immobile.... It is not capable of comprehension and therefore is endless and limitless, and to that extent infinite and indeterminable, and consequently immobile.”  The sequence culminates in Bruno yelling to his Inquisitors, “Your God is too small,” before they condemn him to death for heresy and burn him at the stake.

It’s a beautifully animated, well-told sequence that effectively demonstrates the problems that religious groups have had in embracing new ideas over the last several centuries.  This, obviously, has led to a great outcry claiming that Cosmos is anti-Christian or even anti-religious.  Surprisingly enough, not all of the anti-Church interpretation has been coming from the religious right.  Television critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote atVulture that Cosmos “[paints] organized religion as an irrelevant and intellectually discredited means of understanding factual reality.”  For Seitz, the show was an incredible rebuke of Christianity, “a striking departure” from Sagan’s original which, while more spiritual and New Age-y than religious, at least “carved out space” for believers.  In this interpretation, Sagan allowed Christians to find a place for themselves in the cosmos, while Tyson seems to be excluding them intentionally.

The bulk of the criticism, however, came from Christian viewers.  Unfortunately, it all gets bogged down in the details of Bruno’s story (as told by Cosmos), rather than dealing with the larger allegory that Tyson is trying to make.  Some, like Tony Rossi at Patheos, chose to focus on the fact that Bruno was not a scientist, but more or less lucked into his mostly correct interpretation of the heavens – a fact that Tyson, himself, admits in the episode.  Jay W. Richards of Evolution News & Views decided to criticize the Cosmos argument that Bruno was executed because of his views on astronomy rather than his views on the Trinity, Virgin Birth, and Transubstantiation.  And Thomas L. McDonald brought a cultural relativism argument into play by arguing that we can’t apply modern concepts such as Freedom of Expression onto a sixteenth century Church that had no ability to even comprehend such ideas.

To be fair, these criticisms aren’t necessarily wrong.  A ten minute vignette is probably not the best venue for fully discussing such a complex issue.  After all, Bruno was not a scientist, as Tyson says.  He had a vision, a dream, and believed that to be The Truth.  He then turned that Truth into a version of Christianity that was at odds with the Catholic Church.  It’s probably accurate to say that Bruno was burned at the stake not for his views on the Heavens but for how his heavenly vision shaped his religious interpretation. 

These are valid criticisms.  But it is here where the critics, McDonald especially, get it most wrong.  The story of Giorodano Bruno, as told by Cosmos, is not just a historical retelling.  It is also an allegory for our modern times.  What the religious critics – especially McDonald and his historical relativism – don’t recognize is that there are still people who think this way today.  Certainly there aren’t any people advocating for burning heretics at the stake, but there are still people who think the Earth is six thousand years old because they counted up all of the “begats” in the Bible.  There are people who believe that the Biblical story of the Creation should not only be taken literally, but that this interpretation should be taught in school science classes.  Believe me, I’m from Kansas.  I know of what I speak.

Let me be clear.  I am a Christian.  I believe that God created the heavens and the Earth.  But I also believe that science is our best tool for exploring and understanding God’s creation.  Cosmos is not opposed to Christianity, nor is it opposed to religion.  It is opposed to the kind of anti-science rhetoric that would have United States Senators and Presidential candidates trying to “teach the controversy” in school classrooms.  It is opposed to those people who would exert such a strong force in politics that they would make the Governor of Texas afraid to even speculate on the age of our planet.  It is opposed to those who would say that evolution is “just a theory” but who don’t understand what exactly a scientific theory is. 

There is nothing inherently anti-Christian about Cosmos.  Rather, it is trying to say to those who would deny scientific accomplishments, “Your God is too small!”  To those who would believe that they can restrict the immensity and awesomeness of our Creator to a 1200-page book (or even to a 50-page section of that book), “Your God is too small!”  Cosmos insists that, if there is a God, He is far beyond our definitions.  He is a God so omnipotent that He can merely press a button (The Big Bang) and set the world He wants in motion.

Carl Sagan once said “science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”  There is nothing in Fox’s Cosmos that denies this view.  The story of Giordano Bruno as not meant to be taken as a literal attack on the Catholic Church.  Rather it, like the Cosmic Calendar, is an allegory designed to inform us of the peril of ignoring progressive minds in favor of staid traditionalism.  Even if Bruno was a kook (which he basically was), his ideas deserved consideration.  And the religious minds of the time were unwilling to give consideration to ideas that did not fit their preconceived notions of God.  We live now in a time that is much more forgiving of different ideas, but we are still surrounded by people who are unwilling to give consideration to ideas that do not fit their preconceived notions of God.  Cosmos does not set out to ridicule these people, but rather that to make them realize that their God is just too small.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me that my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

1 comment:

  1. Robert Barron on science vs scientism --

    Here's his critique on the COSMOS reboot