Shuck and Jive

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Human Beings at the Center of the Universe

Last week our Adult Forum guru introduced us to the thought of Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams, authors of The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos.

Here is the thesis of the book in three steps:

  1. Premodern societies saw themselves as central to the universe and made myths and religions that embraced this centrality. While their cosmology was wrong, their mythology was correct in that they saw themselves as a meaningful part of the whole. The universe as they saw it "fit" them and they "fit" in it.
  2. Modernity put humankind on the edge of the universe. Not central. Not important. Small in a vast meaningless cosmos. We no longer "fit." We are accidental. We are therefore filled with existential angst. We have our cosmology right, but our mythology is lacking. We cannot go back and embrace any one religion's mythology wholesale as it fits an ancient, outdated cosmology.
  3. However, we can use those symbols and myths from our premodern ancestors that work to help us reclaim the center of the universe again while embracing modern cosmology. Modern science is showing that we do "fit" the universe. We are central in many ways but we lack a mythology that affirms that reality.
Now, I have to read the book to see if what they come up with works. But, in essence, it is part of the project I personally am engaging. I receive a bit of understandable heat (as well as much welcome encouragement) as I experiment theologically/mythically with concepts that not just make sense to modern people, but are able to transform us to a higher level of consciousness.

That's a mouthful. One aphorism I read in the book is this:
Think cosmically, act globally. I am on vacation this week and I hope to spend some time with this book. I will be back!


  1. I put this quote on Christianity two views but it really fits here. This is C.S. Lewis on ancient cosmology and the cosmological revelution.
    C.S. Lewis by the way was an expert on ancient and classical writing and works:

    "It comes naturally to a modern to suppose that the new astronomy made a profound impression on men's minds; but when we look into the literary texts we find it rarely mentioned. The idea that it produced a shock comparable to that which Darwin gave to the Victorians or Freud to our own age is certainly mistaken. ... [after offering some reasons why this was he wrote], "Even where the new theory was accepted, the change which it produced was not of such emotional or imaginative importance as is sometimes supposed. For ages men had believed the earth to be a sphere. For ages, as we see in Vincent of Beauvais or Dante or 'John Mandeville', men had realized that movement towards the centre of the earth from whatever direction was downward movement. For ages men had known, and poets had emphasized, the truth that earth, in relation to the universe, is infinitesimally small: to be treated, said Ptolemy, as a mathematical point (Almagest I. v.) Nor was it generally felt that earth, or Man, would lose dignity by being shifted from the cosmic centre. The central position had not implied pre-eminence. On the contrary, it had implied, as Montaigne says (Essais, ii. xii), 'the worst and deadest part of the universe', 'the lowest story of the house', the point at which all the light, heat, and movement descending from the nobler spheres finally died out into darkness, coldness, and passivity. The position which was locally central was dynamically marginal: the rim of being, farthest from the hub. Hence, when any excitement was shown at the new theory, it might be exhilaration. The divine Cusanus (1401-64), who was an early believer (for his own, metaphysical, reasons)in earth's movement, rejoiced in 1440 to find she also is 'a noble star' with her own light, heat, and influnce (De Docta Ignorantia, 11. xii)."

    (C.S. Lewis, "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century" Oxford 1954)

  2. Think cosmically, act globally

    I like that. On the flip side, another way of thinking is:

    Think globally, act locally.

    Or really we could marry these two concepts as something like:

    Think cosmically, focus globally, act locally.

  3. I think that many Christians have good reason for being in denial about how important the paradigm changes in cosmology (and science in general) really were in altering our way of thinking. Given that the old paradigms informed so much of the dogmas that many now stubbornly cling to, it is better to simply wish away the import of the radical changes in cosmology than to reconsider the dogmas that derived from them. The Vatican understood very well how important the old paradigms were to their dogmas, which was why they attack Galileo so vigorously.

    The fact that so many people even today, centuries after the fact, refuse to really consider how much the newer paradigms have undermined the old dogmas, says much about the human capacity for rationalizing things away.