In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was a formless wasteland, there was darkness over the deep,
and God’s spirit hovered over the water. Then God said,
“Let there be light,” and there was light.”
– Gen. 1:1-3
It’s called the Orion Nebula, and astronomers know it as a place
some 1,500 light-years from Earth where stars are being mass-produced by the dozen.
On the right-hand side of [the Hubble telescope] image of Orion’s stellar nursery,
a shock way of gas ejected from one young star plows into surrounding gases
at nearly 150,000 m.p.h. – with cataclysmic effect. A similarly momentous
and violent event probably accompanied the creation of our own sun
and its solar system some 5 billion years ago.
– Time Magazine, Nov. 20, 1995
A story of our human origins appears to be a part of all Earth cultures. A study of ancient human societies reveals that these origin stories, known as cosmologies, help us to find our place in the community of life, and to learn how we are to behave.
Throughout the long eons of human evolution, origin stories took shape based on what humans could know about the world they inhabited. The stories correlated with their experiences of things like night and day, sightings of the sun, moon and planets moving across the sky, the falling of rain, and the birthing of new life. Since humans inhabited very different areas of our planet, with their different climate, geographies, plants, and animals, the stories that emerged reflect those differences.
Our different cultures are deeply embedded with these origin stories. We transmit them to new generations in the form of myths and art. However, often we live quite unconscious of all the ways these stories impact our values, attitudes, and behaviors.
As I came to understand the role that cosmology plays in response to our human need for meaning and purpose, I sought out some of the ancient depictions of these human stories of reality. I found it helpful to realize that these depictions emerged out of the human imagination, as people individually and collectively reflected on their experiences, and gained knowledge through whatever technology was available to them at the time. I also found it useful to see how the stories had to change or adapt over time, as new technologies, such as the telescope, began to help humans to see more of the world around them.
Among the stories I studied is one that dates back to the early Hebrew culture. It describes humans living on land surrounded by an uncharted “abyss of waters.” Above them was the “firmament,” imagined as a dome which held the moon, stars and planets. Still farther above was a region of upper waters. Doorways cut into the dome occasionally opened, and that was what caused rain to fall. Finally, beyond the upper waters, was “heaven.” Beneath the land was a dark lower realm known as “Sheol,” and within it the “pillars of the Earth” held up the entire land mass. Some of the concepts in this story may be familiar to you, even if you are not from a Jewish or Christian background. It illustrates how pervasive within the culture these stories are without our being conscious of it.
Other images from early cosmologies that I have seen date to the early Greeks, who envisioned our Universe existing within a closed circle, the most perfect of geometric symbols. Pythagoras, who lived approximately 500 years before Jesus of Nazareth, placed a fiery orb at the center of his Universe. He proposed that the known moving celestial objects, including the Sun, Moon, and Earth, all orbited in perfect spheres around this central fire. Several hundred years later, one of the greatest Greek astronomers, Ptolemy, also imagined his Universe as constructed of perfect spheres, but with the Earth at its center. This image held captive human imagination in the West for many centuries.
It was Copernicus in the mid-16th century, followed by Galileo some decades later, who argued that the Sun, and not Earth, is at the center of our solar system, based on their observations with newly improved telescopes. As we know, Galileo’s support of Copernicus’s theory prompted a very dramatic struggle between the old and the new cosmology, a struggle in which he personally suffered.
In the final decades of the 20th Century, the late Thomas Berry began to suggest that our human community is in crisis because our old stories do not work any more in light of “The New Universe Story” we are learning from science about the origins and complexity of our home in space. None of the old stories, though they contain much wisdom, holds the power to deal with the new questions raised by our emerging evolutionary, global awareness.
I would like to think that The New Story of our Universe is another phase in our movement as a species from adolescence toward greater maturity. Today, we no longer rely on human imagination to tell us what our Universe looks like. As a result, particularly in the West, we are being invited to learn how to live our lives in very new, and perhaps more interdependent and mature, ways.