"When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?" Psalm 8:3-4
When the pslamist was waxing poetic, this is how she saw the universe. A firmament above (heaven or sky), the stars, moon, sun, all within that firmament, a flat earth, and sheol below. Outside the firmament was chaos, the waters that Elohim separated to form the dome and the earth.
When I was first confronted with this in the first few weeks of my Old Testament survey course in seminary, lights flashed. Finally, I understood what Genesis 1 was about. More than that, I understood how biblical authors could say things like "Jesus ascended into heaven" and what that meant. Heaven was the location of the gods, regardless of which god to whom you sacrificed. From their posts in heaven, they ruled the world. One could imagine this scenario quite literally.
For the early followers to speak of Jesus ascending to heaven, they meant that he was in charge. The scandal of the faith wasn't that Jesus was the son of god. The miracle, the scandal, the big deal is not that Jesus rose from the dead and flew off to heaven. Many figures did that. Caesar was called son of god. The scandal was that Jesus was son of god. This is the question. What is the character of your god? Does your god resemble Caesar or Jesus?
Thus, the scandal. I miss the scandal unless I understand the universe in which these formulations were made.
We do not see the universe as the ancients did, of course. Earth is a tiny spinning marble. Heaven is neither up nor down. Carl Sagan joked that if Jesus ascended at the speed of light he would still today only be a third of the way through the Milky Way.
Scientists tell us that the universe is between 12 and 20 billion years old. Life on Earth originated four billion years ago. Homo habilis (our ancestors) begin using tools 2.5 million years ago. Symbolic language emerges between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago. Classical religions emerge around 3,000 years ago. I emerged 44 years ago. Michael Dowd has a great website called The Great Story. Check out the timeline!
"What are human beings that you are mindful of them?" This phrase has even more significance in the way we understand the universe today. Our universe is a tad bigger than what the authors in biblical times observed it to be.
And yet, our creeds, our hymns, our theological language is still filled with imagery from the ancient universe.
How do we translate the meaning of Jesus, heaven, God, creation, hope from that ancient universe to this one? I find this one of our most difficult and important challenges.
P.S. In my ongoing concern for Paul Peterson's livelihood, Friday's strip finds our heroes entering into a most peculiar realm. They find themselves at Simple Miracles Pizza at 825 Bates, a block and a half from the Hard Rock Cafe in Detroit. If you are in the neighborhood ask Paul for a simple miracle. He can't do anything too complicated, but you know, little things like cursing an enemy, not a real serious enemy, just someone who annoys you a little, Paul can curse him or her with an upset stomach, hangnail, etc.