Cosmology: Scientific Implications for Christian Spiritual Discernment and Rites of Passage

By Nancy Wiens St. John
Graduate Theological Union

“Ironically, the worldview that Newton did so much to establish (with the best of theological motives) has turned out to be extremely inhospitable to theology.  It is a worldview of rigidly determined natural processes, wherein it is difficult to make sense of God’s continuing involvement.  I believe that much of modern theology has been shaped by a control belief based on this deterministic worldview:  theological theories cannot postulate supernatural interference in the natural order.  Rudolf Bultmann is probably the clearest example here, but we find the same control functioning in Langdon Gilkey’s critique of biblical theology, in Maurice Wiles’s discussion of God’s action in the world and countless other theologians. . . . the modern control belief regarding God’s action must be revised in light of more recent developments in science. . . . No longer will theological theorizing be restricted by the worldview that limits God’s action to creation in the beginning or irrational sorts of interventions in natural processes.”[1]


Worldview and philosophical Cosmology variously name the lenses through which people see the world.  They are the stories we tell ourselves about it.  So too is physical cosmology.  It is a story about the universe, but it is not quite the same as the others.  Philosophical cosmology speaks to what we humans encounter beyond our daily lives, beyond what can be experienced with only eyes and ears and hands.  Physical cosmology pushes to the minute and to the gargantuan in its accounts but still addresses what can be observed in material reality.

At once we enter the realm of epistemology.  How do we know the matters that we include in our stories?  What do we include and what do we exclude?  How do we express the stories themselves?  Qualitatively divergent, mathematical equations and linguistic narratives communicate differently about what is known.  Not all stories are created equally.

To be clear, the ‘story’ of physical cosmology is the not the same as that of myth.  A cosmogonic myth describes the creation of particular objects by particular gods in imaginative, religious space and time, and prior to the order of the universe as it is known now, whereas physical cosmology deems personalities irrelevant and excludes them from its accounts.[2]  Cosmogonies are specific to the cultures in which they are found and account for the beginnings of reality as a way to communicate the meaning of human existence,[3] whereas physical cosmologies speak in mathematical terms of matter and causal laws. A further distinction between the two entails the intention of their creators.

What marks out philosophical cosmology from mythology is first that the former proposes definite and comprehensive accounts of the world as an ordered whole, where the order does not depend on the arbitrary will of gods or divine beings, and second that the former is, in a sense that does not apply to the latter, critical.  It is no part of the mythologist’s purpose to produce a better, in the sense of a truer account than that of other myths.  If he is in competition with his contemporaries and predecessors as all, it is not, generally speaking, on the nature of who produces the most rational, or best argued, or most consistent account.  The cosmologists, on the other hand, were in competition with one another in that way.  The demand is for the best explanation, the most adequate theory.[4]

While some contemporary scholars debate whether scientific paradigms do indeed replace others, á la Thomas Kuhn, contradictory scientific accounts vie for superior supporting evidence in ways that are unfamiliar to cosmogonic myths.[5]

So, what are helpful definitions?  For precision here, physical cosmology reflects knowledge shaped by the natural sciences.  Employing focused theories, it studies the physical structure of the cosmos as a whole.  Cosmology indicates a worldview or metaphysics, often shaped in part by religion, folklore, and philosophy, including human experience, purpose, and meaning.

For some it is acceptable to keep the two C/cosmologies at arm’s distance from each other.  However, when consistency between the two becomes a priority, taking seriously the cognitive claims of the natural sciences confines the story Cosmology can tell.  In reverse direction, Cosmology can guide the natural sciences in where to look for their next treasure and, equally, what territory is taboo.  One infamous ‘taboo moment’ is Einstein’s introduction of the cosmological constant when his philosophical worldview obscured the equations that universe could be expanding.  Further, in an extreme toward rigidity, Cosmology can become more like concrete footings, forming all encounters in its own image.  We saw this caution in Exam 2 where we noted that the Cosmology into which males are initiated can, far from alleviating misogyny, reify hierarchical, male structures.  So too, some scholars’ use of physical cosmology has its own rigid strands in the form of epistemological and ontological reductionism.

Rules for constructive engagement provide ways to avoid such rigidity and provide a core assumption in this exam.  The science and religion dialogue has born a highly insightful understanding of how various disciplines interact.  British biochemist and theologian Arthur Peacocke enumerated what is known as the epistemic hierarchy.  See Figure 1.  Russell explains,

The idea of an epistemic hierarchy is that the disciplines can be placed in a series of levels that reflect the increasing complexity of the phenomena they study.  Lower levels place epistemic constraints on upper levels, but upper levels cannot be reduced entirely to lower levels.  Thus, physics as the bottom level, places constraints on biology:  no biological theory should contradict physics, and so on up through the other sciences and humanities.  On the other hand, the processes, properties, and laws of biology cannot be reduced without remainder to those of physics, and again on up through the other sciences and humanities.  Though scholars differ on the precise ordering of the disciplines, and the role that cross-disciplinary fields like genetics play in the scheme, the idea of an epistemic order like this one is crucial both to warding off the philosophical claims of reductionism and a ‘dualistic’ (or even more foliated) ontology of ‘levels.’[6]

Figure 1:  Arthur Peacocke’s Epistemic Hierarchy[7]

In the penultimate section of this paper, we will see another shape of the hierarchy from Murphy and Ellis, but the relationship between constraints and irreducibility remains intact.  Key here, the claims about the divine that shape Christian spirituality and aspects of ritual studies are maximally constrained and entail emergent properties of complexity that cannot be reduced to physics.

With such guidelines for engagement, we ponder how the two C/cosmologies offer needed reformulations of Christian spirituality and ritual studies.  From within these two larger disciplines, specific questions from Christian spiritual discernment and rites of initiation orient the journey into the two C/cosmologies.  Christian spiritual discernment–as a practice of noticing where, in all that is, God’s presence and action lead human beings–implicitly operates from a particular notion of philosophical Cosmology.  What worldview is held about freedom and determinism, contingency, the laws of nature, providence, prayer, and miracles all shape what one can say happens in the lived experience of discerning God’s presence and action.  Christian spiritual discernment dramatically differs for those whose sense of God and God’s will are exclusively external and transcendent, contrasted with those whose sense of God is shaped by Trinitarian panentheism, for example.  The philosophical dualism and determinism of the former blocks the theological conclusions of the latter with its philosophical commitments to some form of differentiated monism and to indeterminacy.

With Christian spirituality linked to philosophy, a further link to physics can then be made.  Exam 1 laid out those details.  In a rarely made connection, The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed brings physical cosmology into conversation with discernment.  “Theology and spirituality are deeply affected by a new scientific paradigm.  A new understanding of cosmology radically shifts meanings of sin, salvation and scarcity from an individualistic soteriology to one of interrelationship, not just with God and others, but also with the planetary systems.  Incarnation is no longer seen as an isolated event.  The embodiment of God takes place in all of creation as it moves toward greater complexity and communion.”[8]  I would add that the new context is not just one of interrelationship but also one that confronts the challenges that pain, death, and decay throughout the universe pose for discernment.

So too, rites of initiation grow out of a particular philosophical understanding of the universe.  The rituals of a passage embody what is, making visible what is not seen but what is, for the participants, undeniably real in our existence as human beings.  The shape of a particular Cosmology defines the rituals that a community or person enacts and the attendant meanings of those rituals.  Multiple scholars attest to this link between Cosmology and rites.  See Appendix 1.

Again making the further link between philosophy and physics in ritual studies, my scholarship in rites of initiation explores the interplay of C/cosmologies as the lynch pin for rites of initiation, focusing on the question, ‘initiation into what?’  Division of a life-span into particular passages, notions of personal identity and communal roles, and understandings of origin and destiny all reflect a specific worldview and have a profound effect on the content and method of initiation.  The constraints of science upon such a worldview, without reducing the initiation process to nothing but physics, offers a robustness to ritual studies and specifically to rites of initiation that I proffer is currently lacking.

Exam 3, then, explores the common space between the two disciplines of Christian spirituality and ritual studies, in the model of a Venn diagram or an ocean bottom between two islands.  Another way to state the inspiration for Exam 3 comes in the answer to an orienting question in my interdisciplinary scholarship.  What do Christian spiritual discernment and rites of initiation have in common?  Answer:  The central influence that physical cosmology and philosophical Cosmology play in them.  Methodologically, then, the questions and needs begin in Christian spirituality and ritual studies, move to science for its cognitive claims about the universe, and return through philosophy with new fruit to the fields of origin.


The thesis, then, for this exam is simply that the claims of physical cosmology matter to the epistemically more complex disciplines of Christian spirituality and ritual studies.  While most scientists need no convincing of this view, those in Christian spirituality who are still willing to accept some form of separation between science and religion–for example the huge incompatibility between Big Bang cosmology and Christian eschatology–still need some convincing.  Also, current practitioners of rites of passage do not seem to address the issue to any significant depth.[9]  While some scholars in the academic field of ritual studies acknowledge the relationship between worldview and rites, the further link to physical cosmology is not evident in the literature.  Purposeful consideration of the relationship among cosmology, Cosmology, and rites of initiation would offer contemporary ritual practitioners viable alternatives to what some critics say is bald appropriation of other cultures’ traditions.[10]

Therefore, this exam sets out to make the importance of the connections between physical cosmology and philosophical Cosmology clear.  It does not purport to examine all the variations on physical cosmology from either the scientific community or the science-religion community.  Nor does it seek to construct a particular view of cosmology that will best inform Christian spiritual discernment and rites of initiation–that is, nothing more specific than the commitments outlined in Appendix 6 of Exam 1.  Rather, the method for Exam 3 begins with the methodology necessary for making the links and then traces the history of cosmology over a broad timeline.  Next, we consider how the interplay of physical cosmology and philosophical Cosmology has influenced both Christian spirituality and rites of initiation in history.  Turning to contemporary cosmology, we review the points of general scientific agreement, as far as science can take us, and then consider some insights of select scholars in science and religion who purposefully engage contemporary cosmology, illustrating the thesis that the claims of physical cosmology matter in these two disciplines.

As Exams 1 and 2 lay out, the large disciplines of my scholarship are Christian spirituality and ritual studies.  Within them, I focus on the topics of spiritual discernment and rites of passage, looking at initiation even more specifically.  In this exam, some examples of how cosmology has been employed historically focus more on the topics than the disciplines.  I go back and forth between the larger disciplines and smaller topics.  Such movement is not a categorical mistake, but is a purposeful effort at drawing examples from different domains of the scholarship.


Exams 1 and 2 draw upon the methodology of critical realism and its parallel structures between religion and science articulated by Ian Barbour.[11]  They explore avenues where science can interact with Christian spirituality and with ritual studies.  Exam 3 continues to use these relationships to make its assertions about the central role of physical cosmology in these two disciplines. 

The Structure of Religion

Imagination Beliefs influence experience and interpretation
Control Beliefs[12]
Religious Experience
Story and Ritual

The Structure of Science

Imagination Theories influence observation
Control Beliefs


Further, by employing Robert Russell’s enrichment of the parallel structures, this exam explores path #3 of his interaction model of theology and science where, “Theories in physics, after philosophical analysis, can act indirectly as data in theology.  For example, the philosophical contingency of the Big Bang universe can serve as evidence for the existence of God.”[13]  Here cosmological theories in physics revise philosophical worldviews and thus offer indirect data for Christian spirituality and for ritual studies.

Nancey Murphy contributes a valuable epistemological nuance to Barbour’s and Russell’s structural interplay.  Her holist epistemology expresses a move away from modern, foundationalist approaches that allow for the collapse of theories when their foundations crack under new scholarly findings.  Historical challenges to theology too closely wed to scientific theories, based on a ‘God of the Gaps’ approach, attest to the value of such a nuance.  Instead, she proposes a web of interactions where the outermost edges are closest to experience or data (D) and the innermost philosophical assumptions are deeply interwoven with others of the web’s accepted assumptions, theories, and data in a hard core (HC).  Auxiliary hypotheses (AH) act as buffers or go-betweens.

Figure 2  Imre Lakatos’s Progressive Scientific Research Program[14]

This approach places coherence at the peak of the criteria for discovering truthful theories.  Its responsiveness to the other critical realist criteria for theory selection, therefore, requires the web be held in a larger context of discovery and validation.[15]

Supporting Murphy’s movement away from foundational rationality, a postmodern critique of science and theology comes from Russell’s summary of J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen.  Van Huyssteen “provides a ‘first step’ [to addressing the critique posed by postmodernism] by understanding postmodern thought as ‘part of the modern, and not only modern thought coming to its end.’  The crucial role played by postmodernism is in challenging foundationalism.  But what is really needed is a non-foundationalist epistemology that would yield true interdisciplinary knowledge.  According to Van Huyssteen, the sciences of cosmology and evolutionary biology can provide just the resources for such knowledge without themselves necessarily becoming new ideological metanarratives.  ‘Evolutionary epistemology . . . reveals the biological roots of all human rationality’ and offers us the basis of a postfoundationalist form of rationality.“[16]

Two of Murphy’s specific web configurations depict a relationship between science and theology via philosophical interpretation that relate to this exam.  The first draws on Nicholas Wolterstorff’s insights about control beliefs, beginning with theology (T) as interpreted by a control belief or philosophical presupposition (P) which then shapes what scientific programs (S) are best followed.[17]

Murphy’s articulation of this relationship resembles Russell’s path #6.  Historically, “theology provided some key historical assumptions which underlay scientific methodology, such as the contingency and rationality of nature.”[18]  As they relate here, control beliefs or assumptions guide the directions that scientists and scientist-theologians take in pursuing their research, such as eschatology, moral agency, and time–issues that are addressed in the penultimate section of this paper.

The second of Murphy’s arrangements begins with science, moves through philosophy, and then to theology[19].  Recognize Russell’s path #3 here.

In my application of this relationship, the cognitive claims of science inform the core assumptions that are applied to Christian spiritual discernment and to rites of initiation.  The web metaphor aids in acknowledging that the philosophy that interprets the claims of science is more than a handmaiden of that science.  Its central location infers that multiple factors shape it in addition to the cognitive claims of science.  The web representation generates an image of mutual partnership, rather than a chain of command from science to philosophy to theology.  Such mutuality underscores the two-way relationship that constraints and irreducibility require.

With this composite methodology, we can now move to a chronicling of physical cosmology.


Undertaking the challenge of summarizing the history of the universe within the section of a single paper calls for selectivity.  The intention of this section is to point out how former understandings of the physical nature of the universe, worldviews, and theology of the time shaped one another.  Thus, I have included a lengthy section on Israel because of the central role of the Jewish and Christian scriptures and traditions in Christian spirituality and their potential role in rites of initiation.  While in most parts of this section I present the history in columns of three categories–life period, person involved, and highlights of the cosmology–for some portions, where individual contributors are not preeminent, prose accounts communicate better.

David Wands’ brief summary of cosmology begins, “Four thousand years ago the Babylonians were skilled astronomers who were able to predict the apparent motions of the moon and the stars and the planets and the Sun upon the sky, and could even predict eclipses.”[20]  Amid this ancient milieu, the early Israelites chronicled their faith experiences.

Israel–A Plurality of Cosmogonic Conceptions That Form Their Hebraic Identity

Douglas Knight writes about the mosaic nature of Israelite cosmology.  Most of the evident Hebrew cosmology comes in the form of cosmogonic accounts.  Six distinct types of cosmogonies contribute to the Hebrew identity:  priestly, agrarian, sapiential, prophetic, cultic, and apocalyptic.  Viewed separately, each has counterparts in Ancient Near Eastern traditions, but viewed together, they uniquely communicate the core value of Israelite cosmology.[21]  “At all points in the cosmogonic traditions, even in places where Israel’s election of deliverance from enemies is involved, there is a more fundamental level of meaning:  the nature of reality itself.  The people experience–or want to experience–a world which is orderly, intentional, and good, and they believe that their God makes it so.”[22]  Knight continues, depicting the weighty and wide-ranging role of the cosmologies.

Each myth emerged as its group’s symbolic and fundamental articulation of the nature of the world, the qualitative relation of the world to human life, and the general mode of behavior expected of humankind.  As such, each envisions a comprehensive activity of God, who variously displays benevolence and power.  There is a frank depiction of humanity’s tendency to disrupt this order, yet also an unswerving charge to humans to avoid doing this.  Furthermore, the tradition is given full rein in pressing the hard questions of theodicy.  Throughout, the myths affirm that the good world is the proper arena for human life.  The ethical order of created reality thereby receives its most basic affirmation.[23]

Now we turn to specific biblical texts.  Familiar to biblical scholars,[24] a thumbnail sketch shows the Genesis 2, Yahwist nomadic account from the 10th or 9th century BCE speaking primarily of earth with the potential for life.  Springs of water and humans to till it transform the earth into fertile ground.  By contrast, the Genesis 1, priestly post-exilic account from the 6th or 5th century BCE speaks of a highly structured ordering of creation.  It was written to beckon the Israelites to keep faith in Yahweh amid other dominant cultures and practices.  “Challenged by the nature gods of surrounding cultures, the people of Israel asserted that Yahweh was both redeemer and creator.”[25]  This account draws upon a pre-scientific cosmology, with a three-storied universe that was created or perhaps ordered in 7 days.  It presents the world emerging from and surrounded by an abyss with a dome to separate the waters above and below, with gates in the dome of the sky for rainfall and the dome below for rivers and fountains.  Waters below the earth gathered into a great basin of the sea, creating dry land.  The sun and moon and stars were attached to the dome of the sky as lights.[26]  See Figure 3.

In summary of Genesis’ cosmologies and echoing Lloyd’s earlier points about cosmogonies, Denis Edwards says, “The stories of origin in the first eleven chapters of Genesis have a very different character [than the patriarchal narratives in chapters 12-50].  They point to a primeval time before human history, long before the time of Israel.  They are not set in any specific place or related to historical events.”[27]

Figure 3  Heaven, and Earth and the Abyss; Biblical Conception of the World[28]

Psalm 8 reflects the lofty place established for human beings in both Genesis accounts of creation.  However many scholars assert that it along with Psalms 19 and 104 are not primarily about the creation, but about the Creator who in majesty creates.[29]  According to Louis Jacobs, these literary strands convey interest in the God of the cosmos, not the cosmos itself.  Hebrew interest in natural phenomena was “as a pointer to God who initiated them and whose glory was revealed through them.”[30]  In the end, because of this ultimate theocentricity, Jacobs claims there are not Jewish cosmologies proper; rather there is a composite mosaic of cosmologies entertained by Jews.[31]

Next, we move to the highly influential Greek cosmologies and the metaphysical system that emanated from them.

Greece–Geo-centric Cosmologies

Life Period Persons Highlights[32]
570-500 BCE Pythagoras Planets move according to mathematical/musical principles. Heavens were divine = perfect = circle or sphere.
428-348 BCE Plato of Athens 5 planets and all stars on fixed sphere with wandering planets, sun, and moon. Philosophy promoted divided tradition:  otherworldliness and this-worldliness and attendant theology God as Good and God as Goodness.
384-322 BCE Aristotle

56 concentric planet spheres.
Able to visualize philosophical structure and give an ontological description.
Philosophy:  celestial motions are perfect and caused by Prime Mover acting from outside sphere of stars.  Matter is eternal.
Heavens are unchanging and incorruptible.
Model of universe:  explanatory.  See Figure 4.
Figure 4  Aristotle’s Geo-centric Universe[33]

3rd C. BCE Aristarchus of Samos First to say the world was heliocentric. Proposed fixed stars and sun.[34]
~100-170CE Claudius Ptolemy

Geo-centric, but not spherical
Small addition to Aristotle:  epicycles=large circles with small circles on them to account for apparent retreat of planets.  Structure of cosmos is mathematical, thus not possible to do ontology.  Model of universe:  calculation and prediction.
Dominated philosophical thought for 13 centuries until Copernicus.  See Figure 5.
Figure 5  Claudius Ptolemy’s Refinement of Aristotle’s Universe with Epicycles

Great Chain of Being–Greek Metaphysics with Predominance from Plato through the 18th Century

Arthur Lovejoy thoroughly chronicles the tenacity of the worldview known as the Great Chain of Being.  See Figure 6.

That this [otherworldly philosophy] is a persistent type, and that it has, in one form or another, been the dominant official philosophy of the larger part of civilized [hu]mankind through most of its history, I need not remind you.  The greater number of the subtler speculative minds and of the great religious teachers have, in their several fashions and with differing degrees of rigor and thoroughness, been engaged in weaning man’s (sic) thought or his affections, or both, for his mother Nature–many of them, indeed, in seeking to persuade him that he must in very truth be born again, into a world whose goods are not Nature’s goods and whose realities he cannot know through those processes of the mind by which he became acquainted with his natural environment and with the laws to which its ever-changing states conform.[35]

One of the great religions to cope with the Great Chain of Being is Christianity.  It attempted to tell the Christian story on top of its hierarchical structure for the universe.  As we will see later, sometimes the Christian narrative remained mostly intact, as with Irenaeus, whereas the balance fell to the metaphysical chain in others like Origen and early Augustinian theology.

Figure 6  The Great Chain of Being, Rhetorica Christiana (1579)

Early Christian Church

In reference to the early church’s cosmology, Robert Russell notes the alignment of the Greek physical and philosophical contexts.

In its contest with Greek culture, the church sought to reject both metaphysical dualism, in which the world was an eternal divine substance equal to and over against God; moral dualism, in which the world was an evil power resisting a good God; emanationism, in which the world emerged from and was the body or substance of God; and monism (or pantheism), in which the world was God.
Hence the ex nihilo argument first of all affirms that God alone is the source of all that is, and God’s creative activity is free and unconditioned.[36]

In this way and for these reasons, the church emphasized the creatio ex nihilo strand more than the creatio continua strand of the tradition as it rejected the Platonic and Neoplatonic cosmology that the Great Chain of Being espoused.  With a muted notion of continuing creation, the pre-scientific New Testament cosmology struggled to articulate divine activity in nature as anything other than interference–biblically known as miracle.[37]

European and American Cosmology–Middle Ages to the Mid-20th Century

Philip Grierson traces the enduring Greek strands in medieval Europe.  “Early medieval cosmology looked back to that of antiquity, and even if it was mainly received on the basis of faith and tradition it was ultimately based on the reasoning of Aristotle and an accumulation of astronomical observations finally embodied in the great synthesis of Ptolemy.  The writings of neither of these could be consulted at first hand, but enough was known to permit scholars to measure time, to compute planetary and stellar positions and eclipses, and to carry out the other duties expected of the astronomers and astrologers of the time.”[38]  Grierson names two characteristics of this period’s cosmology that each prove to be a weakness and facilitate its eventual fall:[39]

characteristic of cosmology reason for fall
1. geocentric character heliocentric universe accepted as more satisfactory
2. anthropocentric character abandoned biblical creation story for evolution that integrates humans with other living creatures

Grierson cites the discoveries and theories of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton listed below as the cutting evidence for the geocentric character.[40]  Regarding the anthropocentric character, the advances in paleontology and biology dealt it final blows in the 1700-1800s.[41]

Life Period Persons Highlights[42]
1134-1205 Maimonides Prioritized creation ex nihilo in order to reject Aristotelian (Jewish) notion that matter is eternal.
1473-1543 Nicolaus Copernicus

1543 rejected Ptolemy’s earth-centered, planetary motion.
(Polish astronomer) 6,000 stars visible + 5 anomalies, which became his focus.
Described spherical, sun-centered universe.
Addressed retrograde motion.
Lived during outbreak of Reformation, though not his focus.
See Figure 7.
Figure 7  Nicolaus Copernicus’s Sun-centered Universe

1546-1601 Tycho Brahe
(Danish astronomer)
1572 made most accurate, naked-eye observation instrument.
Concluded that planets orbit the sun and that the sun and moon orbit earth.
1564-1642 Galileo Galilei
(Italian, Catholic)

1609 built telescope to view moon–sees mountains, craters, and sunspots.
1610 viewed satellites orbiting Jupiter, shattered notion of geocentric universe; later views Venus and Milky Way.
Brought together strands of medieval thought on space, time, and motion.
Saw science as a field that offers explanations, not fundamental causes.
1632 condemned for heresy by Pope Urban VIII because the Pope perceived Galileo’s book as ridiculing him.

1571-1630 Johannes Kepler

1609 developed laws of planetary motion from Brahe's (German, Protestant) data on Mars.
Deduced planetary orbits are elliptical with the sun at one focus of each ellipse.

1642-1727 Isaac Newton

Gravity:  not earth- or sun-centered, no center, no edge.
Infinite space with stars scattered forever everywhere1687 Principia established mathematics as the language of science and as the means of knowing (explanations, not causes).
Introduced an important challenge to theology:  after Newton’s assertion of an infinite universe, there is no ‘place’ for God; hard to take physical cosmology on board and give it a Christian narrative.

1646-1716 Gottfried Leibniz
Developed differential calculus.
Differed with Newton over constancy of energy in universe.
1888-1925 Alexander Friedmann

1922 derived nonstatic models of the universe that predicted (German)  cosmological redshifts (distortion of galaxy’s light due to the Doppler effect, indicating it is receding) and a closed universe.

1858-1947 Max Planck
1900 develops quantum theory of physics.
1879-1955 Albert Einstein
1905 Theory of Special Relativity
1916 Theory of General Relativity:  Matter influences the curvature of spacetime, and curvature of spacetime influences the motion of matter.
His equations indicate an expanding universe, but he amended them with the cosmological constant to represent it as static.
Consequences of an expanding universe:  all motion is relative, no absolute standard of rest in universe; nothing travels faster than speed of light; mass is another manifestation of energy; spacetime is determined locally and globally by the universe.
1889-1953 Edwin Hubble 1923 discovered that Andromeda is in a galaxy far outside of (U. S.) the Milky Way galaxy that had been thought to make up the entire universe.
1929 proposed velocity-distance law:  the farther away a galaxy is from our galaxy, the faster that galaxy is receding from us; i.e., recessional velocity equals a constant times distance–mathematically, v = Hr, where constant of proportionality H is called Hubble's constant.
Observed cosmological redshifts give evidence for the expansion of the universe.  See Figure 8.
1896-1950 E. A. Milne 1933 Cosmological Principle:  Since we observe the universe to be isotropic here, all observers anywhere in space should see the universe in its essential features in the same way in all directions.  That is, the universe is isotropic (Cosmic Background Radiation [CBR] appears to be coming from all directions in space), and hence must be homogeneous (CBR has same intensity in all directions) so that all places are alike at any instant of cosmic time.
1901-1961 Werner Heisenberg
Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle:  the more accurately we determine the position of an electron, the less accurately we can determined its momentum, and vice versa.
Is the uncertainty an indication of limited knowledge or real indeterminacy and chance (alternative potentialities) in the atomic world?[43]
1919- Herman Bondi
(U. S.)
1948 Steady State cosmology; not based on Einstein’s general relativity.
1920- Thomas Gold
(U. S.)
1915- Fred Hoyle
(U. S.)
Nonstatic model with no beginning and no end of universe, requires continuous creation of matter to produce new galaxies as the universe expands.  Hoyle mocks the notion of a single, explosive beginning as a “Big Bang.”  CBR would only appear with Big Bang, not with Steady State, since universe was never in superdense condition under latter.  Provides a scientifically acceptable option to Big Bang cosmology.
Figure 8  Edwin Hubble in Mount Wilson Telescope[44]


Given all this history, we now consider how the claims of past cosmologies have influenced Christian spirituality and those studying and practicing in the overlapping areas of myth and ritual.  First, we look at two figures in Christian history that illumine the relationship between philosophical Cosmology and physical cosmology as the two combine to shape a theology of nature.  Paul Santmire offers an insightful perspective on Origen (ca. 185-254) and Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130-200), whose theologies of nature varied widely and drew upon starkly different notions of the world.

Irenaeus and Origen

Santmire suggests that to understand Origen, a philosophical theologian, we must ask about his philosophy and his context.  By contemporary standards, we would not call the Great Chain of Being a physical cosmology.  But in the first century, speculation about the universe as a literal hierarchy of spirit and matter influenced much thought about the world and the divine’s relationship to it.  Gnosticism elaborated upon this metaphysical view of reality, claiming earthly matter as the mere receptacle for the divine spark that emanated forth from the one, good God.  Such was the understanding of the cosmos and the philosophical interpretation of it that Origen accepted.  So, his theology reflects these antimatter, hierarchical, Neoplatonic views.  “The Neoplatonic logic, therefore, was clear: ‘God and the soul, being intelligibles and not sensibles, were species of the same genus, and if the latter is found to be entangled in the sensible world to which the body belongs, it has fallen from its proper place and must attempt to free itself from the one so as to return to the other, that is to say, it must abandon the body.’”[45]

Santmire continues to draw a picture of Origen’s understanding of the relationship between God and the material world.

Origen depicts God as creating the material-vital world as a kind of gracious act, to stop all of the rational spirits [who had turned from God, becoming ‘sated’] toward ultimate nonbeing.  They then become encased, as it were, in matter.  God created the world, from its highest reaches to the lowest, from its spiritual heights to it material depths, as an ordered hierarchy of being. . . . The material world thus comes into being as a result of divine benevolence in a sense, but its more fundamental raison d’être is the fall. . . .  Matter is created, according to Origen, only for the purpose of educating humanity, through trials and tribulations, to return to a higher incorporeal, spiritual destiny.[46]

So Origen’s Neoplatonic philosophy in the context of the Great Chain of Being led him to a utilitarian theology of nature where matter is ontologically irrelevant and in the end is abandoned when all the sparks return to the one, good Spirit.

Contradictorily, Irenaeus opposed Gnosticism and all speculative approaches that entertain emanationism such as the Great Chain of Being.  Instead of being evil, nature for Irenaeus is “humanity’s God-given home:  blessed, embraced, cared for by the very God who took on flesh in order to redeem a fallen humanity and thereby also to initiate a final renewal of the whole creation.”[47]  The image of God’s hands being closely involved with the created world filled Irenaeus’ confessional theology.  He rejected any physical or philosophical notions that depicted God as distant from the created world.  Therefore, his theology of nature reflected his embrace of the nonhuman, created world.  “ . . . both God and humans are viewed by Irenaeus as being at home in the world of the flesh and in the material-vital creation generally. . . . The accent is not on teleological activity, but on communion–eating in the midst of the overflowing blessings that God gives in nature.  For Irenaeus, this is true in this life; but it will be all the more true of the times of the coming new heavens and new earth, when the righteous will gather for the glorious messianic banquet, when the lamb will lie down with the lion, when God will be all in all.”[48]  Irenaeus emphasized God’s works in all creation.

Santmire draws clear lines between the two theologians’ views of the world and their theologies of nature, especially as the latter relates to eschatology.  “The contrast between Origin and Irenaeus [regarding eschatology] could not be starker.  The latter envisions salvation in terms of a messianic banquet in the renewed heaven and earth, depicted in the most sensual and corporeal of terms.  Origen can only see God far above and removed, utterly transcending the biophysical world of ordinary human experience.  That realm above for him is the locus of human fulfillment.”[49]  Therefore, while they shared the same time period, they drew divergent theological conclusions based upon their understandings of cosmology.

We could continue to look through the history of Christian spirituality for examples of physical and philosophical influences on particular theology and spirituality.  Recall Roberta Bondi’s article, considered peripherally in Exam 1, and its highlights of Julian of Norwich’s spirituality and assumptions about the world.  But these will have to suffice here to make the point that Christian spirituality has historically been influenced by the then-current understandings of the physical cosmos as well as the philosophical interpretations of it.  In a broader context, we could explore the same illustrations by focusing on biblical worldviews and attendant biblical spiritualities and theologies.

Mircea Eliade

Within the parameters of this exam, we turn now to three examples of the ways that past physical cosmologies and philosophical interpretations of them shape ritual studies and rites of initiation.  First, we look at ritual studies, conceived of broadly, and a man whose influence is irrefutable.  Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was born two years after Einstein proposed Special Relativity.  Eliade, along with Arnold van Gennep and other contemporaries, drew upon W. Robertson Smith’s notion of the sacred and its pivoting around ‘magic circles.’  These images reflected genuine structures for these scholars.  Eliade made that explicit.  The myth of the eternal return was the literal repetition of history in illo tempore to renew the cosmos.  “The myth relates a sacred history, that is, a primordial event that took place at the beginning of time, ab inititio. . . . The myth, then, is the history of what took place in illo tempore, the recital of what the gods or the semidivine beings did at the beginning of time.”[50]

Eliade elaborates upon the primordial event in his famous book, The Sacred and the Profane.  Thinking in terms of physical cosmology, a sacred and profane dichotomy assumes a closed, determined universe that is not permeable to God’s presence and action, and is thus profane.  In that case, revelation of the holy communicates radical discontinuity with the world.  In his introduction he says, “[Humans] becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane. . . . In each case [of varying degrees of manifestations] we are confronted by the same mysterious act–the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world.”[51]

Examining at his philosophy, Eliade’s categories confuse ontologically contingent and ontologically necessary (truly of a wholly different order) with forms of revelation, specifically God’s ways of revelation in what can be interpreted now as a universe shaped by quantum indeterminacies.  God’s non-contingent power of revelation has complete creative capacity to be expressed 1) as totally continuous within what is contingent, such as through the laws of nature, and conversely 2) as radically discontinuous from what is contingent, such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus the Christ and the promise of an eschatologically hopeful future.  That the Necessary One can be revealed through the regular laws of contingent nature in the sense of general providence lies outside the realm of Eliade’s categories of sacred and profane.  Thus, his categories obscure even the discontinuous revelations that they seek to describe, for example, of God’s action in miracle healing.

In The Sacred and the Profane, his physical concepts skew the philosophical ones.  Such a critique of him underscores how interwoven his understandings were of the physical universe, of his philosophical interpretations of it, and of his notion of myth.

Australian Aboriginal Male Initiation

As with the pre-scientific history we chronicled above, the specific rites of initiations we look at here do not discriminate between cosmogonic myths and physical cosmologies.  In many small-scale cultures that ritually initiate, the elders of a community teach the initiates the way the universe originated and functions and the attendant relationships in it as a centerpiece of the initiation.  The specific ordeals of the initiation embody the way that the cosmology narrates relationships.

Ashley Montagu describes an Australian Aboriginal rite of intensification for young men that includes six years of learning the hidden water and nutrition sources in the vast landscape of the surrounding desert.  When these young men become the tribal leaders, they will be able to lead the tribe's inevitable, long journeys in the deserts without risking death by thirst or hunger.  They also will be able to avoid over-taxing the land by moving from one source to another, keeping both human and non-human needs in balance­–a necessity for sustainability.  The ritual details that make up the rite of initiation reflect what each candidate needs to know for personal and communal survival.[52]  Thus, the Aboriginal rite of initiation is grounded in the community's understanding of cosmology.

Festa das Moças Novas–Tukuna of the Northwest Amazon Initiation at Menarche

Another rite of initiation suggests the same intimate connection between ritual activity and understanding of the universe.  The Tukuna of the Northwest Amazon elaborately mark each young woman’s menarche.  Importantly, the Tukuna nutritional subsistence is fishing.  The relationship with fertility in fishing cultures versus in agricultural ones plays a major role in the women’s initiation.

Among agriculturalists, fertility in humans is seen as parallel to that in the botanical world.  The people desire a growth in both, producing more workers and more farming, enabling the feeding of more workers.  But in fishing and hunting cultures, there is usually a sense of conflict or competition between their two categories of fertility–human and animal.  More killing leads to fewer animals to reproduce and a resulting shortage in the food supply.  Here a balance between the human and animal fertility is primary.  “This socioeconomic difference implies a profound difference in religious worldview, particularly with regard to the issue of fertility, which is usually a major focus of women’s initiatory rites.”[53]  Bruce Lincoln, historian of religions, continues, “Thus, whereas agriculturalists tend to desire an increase in all realms of nature, hunters and fishers favor the preservation of a delicate balance, a stable ecosystem without the possibility of dramatic growth.  Human fertility is regarded ambivalently:  although necessary and desirable in moderation, it becomes destructive when carried to the extreme.  This attitude colors the religion of hunters and fishers deeply, and explains important aspects of Tukuna initiation.”[54]

When the girl becomes a woman biologically, the initiation marks her maturity ritually.  The society teaches her and reminds itself of this calibrated relationship with her feminine fertility.  The young woman’s initiation enacts three orienting myths of the Tukuna.  Through lengthy and elaborate detail, the myths reenact the heroine’s power to travel throughout the cosmos to obtain valued food for her people, to combine in moderation her power of fertility and her respect for the life of all species, and finally to live in balance with her earned power to catch fish.

Lincoln comments, “Rather than being regarded with pure joy, the emergence of reproductive power in a girl evokes mixed emotions.  Certainly her new fertility is valued, because it is requisite for the continuation of human life and culture, but if unrestrained it poses a serious danger to the broader totality of life:  too many humans will wipe out the world of nature (fish or game) and will themselves die of sorrow and starvation soon thereafter.”[55]  The rituals then seek to instill and restore a deep knowing of balance within each young woman.  Lincoln concludes, “The meaning of these gestures and peregrinations appears to depend upon a homology drawn between the local Tukuna environment and their map of the universe.”[56]  The understanding of the universe determines the very blueprint for daily life.

Having made the connections explicit among cosmology, Christian spirituality, and specific rites, we now turn to the contemporary understanding of the universe, anticipating its cognitive claims to shift our focus dramatically.


There are a great number of details about the history of the cosmos on which scientists across the disciplines agree.  These general agreements appear below and carry us back to the most minute of moments, t=10-35 to -43 second, or Planck time.  See Table 1 and Figure 9.  Volumes of research are dedicated to this fractional second where the laws of science become distorted.  Some of the divergent opinions from the science-religion dialogue on that time and its significance to theology appear in the next section.  The pieces selected for it pick up certain issues from systematic theology, philosophy, and ethics to evaluate in light of what cosmology tells us of the universe.  First, though, we focus on what is generally accepted.

Figure 9  Summary of Our Present Knowledge of the Universe[57]

Table 1[58]






Infinite Singularity



10-43 seconds
(Grand Unified Theory)


Gravitational force separates

Planck Time

10-35 seconds


Strong nuclear force separates


10-10 seconds


Weak nuclear and electromagnetic forces separate


10-4 seconds


Quarks separate into protons and neutrons

Protons and neutrons

3 minutes


Nuclei formed (hydrogen, helium)


500,000 years


Atoms formed


200 million years[59]


Galaxies formed
(also heavier elements)


10 billion years


Planets formed


12 billion years


Microscopic life


13.7 billion years[60]




General Agreement

Life Period




Arno Penzias

1965 Cosmic Background Radiation (CBR ) discovered


Robert Wilson

accidentally at the Bell Telephone Laboratory. CBR had been predicted by George Gamow, R. Alpher and H. Bethe in 1948. Following the Big Bang the universe was filled with high-energy photons permeating all space and subsequent expansion cooled this radiation so that today most of its energy lies in microwave region and in a background sea of neutrinos; thus, Steady State is disproved when CBR found in 1965.


Alan Guth

1979 hypothesized an early Inflationary Epoch (lasted the first 10 -35 to 10 -24 seconds). “An extremely small portion of universe ballooned outward in all directions at speeds much greater than speed of light. That portion became many billions of times its original size to become the visible universe of today. The inflated portion pushed much of the material that was originally near the central location far beyond its boundaries. Because the inflated portion is so small, its properties, such as temperature, were extremely homogeneous accounting for the homogeneity of the observable universe. Because the observable universe is a tiny fraction of the entire universe, it appears very flat, just as a baseball field can appear quite flat while actually being part of curved surface of earth.”[62]
: inflation accounts for 1) the stark uniformity in the universe when it is looked at on very large scales, and 2) structure formation–the original seeds of quantum fluctuation in the very early universe magnified to massive sizes through inflation and led to structure formation.[63]
: the ‘flatness problem’ expresses the existence of conditions for both continued expansion (open universe, eventually leading to a freeze scenario) or for contraction (closed universe, eventually leading to a fry scenario). Both scenarios pose a problem for Christian eschatology. Inflation does not account for gravity; thus, physics needs a quantum model.

NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer satellite


detected the first anisotropies in CBR. These slight fluctuations in the temperature of the radiation, about one part in a hundred thousand, may reveal the seeds from which galaxies formed.

Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe


looked back in time to when the universe was only 380,000 light years old, enabling a precise calculation that the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years. A view this close to the beginning of the universe shows it before the formation of stars and galaxies, and anything except minute differences in temperature.[64]

Amid these numerous points of agreement, divergence occurs in a number of places.  Competing research programs address the aspects of cosmology that scientists acknowledge as uncertain.  Teams of scientists pursue varied trajectories such as particle theory, Bell’s theorem and string theory, and various other extensions of ideas in relativity and quantum theory in order to include gravity, and perhaps produce a unified theory or theory of everything.[65]

Five Theological Engagements with Physical Cosmology

Some scientist-theologians explore the implications of the commonly accepted aspects of cosmology.  Others foray into some of the divergent theories above, given the horizon of their particular concerns.  In this section, we focus on how physical cosmology plays a significant role in contemporary theology, as it has historically.  By reviewing five ways to engage physical cosmology, we witness how the constraints of physics’ cognitive claims influence contemporary theology and even ethics.

Ian Barbour, “Creation and Cosmology”

In this essay, Ian Barbour begins with the question, what are the theological implications of recent cosmological theories?  He reviews the astrophysics behind Big Bang cosmology and then considers how theology might relate to it.  Looking at the theology of creation for Jews and Christians, he emphasizes in various ways that creation ex nihilo is an ontological assertion, not an historical one.[66]  Its purpose is to express belief, not history.  Specifically, the ex nihilo tradition was formed to counter claims of preexisting matter, Gnosticism’s disdain for creation, monist accounts of pantheism, and emanationist accounts.[67]  Reference to a beginning is not necessary for Christian theology, he says, because religious ideas of creation need not be dependent on particular physical cosmology, ancient or modern.

Barbour continues by looking at recent astrophysics and considering the implications it carries in three areas:  1) design–the anthropic principle, 2) chance–the many-worlds theories, and 3) necessity of the existing universe–the pursuit of a theory that would account for all four forces in the universe (a theory of everything).

Then he turns to theological implications of new physics in four areas.  First, regarding intelligibility and contingency he describes creation as God’s voluntary choice, resisting ideas that the universe itself is necessary.  “God alone is necessary, and both the existence and the structure of the world are contingent in the sense that they might not have been.  The world might have been differently ordered.  We can discover its order only by observation.”[68]  This perspective supports science’s ‘methodological secularism’ because the only way to understand the universe is to observe it, since it does not have necessary forms.

Second, he considers the implications of cosmology on the creation traditions, ex nihilo and continuing creation.  Underscoring the earlier ontological affirmation in ex nihilo, he then focuses on the place for the continuing creation tradition.

We can no longer assume the static universe of the Middle Ages, in which the basic forms of all being were thought to be unchanging.  Coming-to-be is a continuing process throughout time and it continues today.  Nature in all its forms must be viewed historically.  Here astrophysics adds its testimony to that of evolutionary biology and other fields of science.  Time is irreversible and genuine novelty appears in cosmic history.  It is a dynamic world with a long story of change and development.
On the theological side, continuing creation expresses the theme of God’s immanence and participation in the ongoing world.  God builds on what is already there, and each successive level of reality requires the structures of lower levels.[69]

Third, he briefly discusses models of creation.  First he draws from one of Arthur Peacocke’s models where “chance is like God’s radar beam sweeping through the diverse potentialities that are invisibly present in each configuration in the world.  Chance is a way of exploring the range of potential forms of matter.  God has endowed the stuff of the world with creative potentialities that are successively disclosed.  The actualization of these potentialities can only occur when suitable conditions are present.  Events occur not according to a predetermined plan but with unpredictable novelty:  God is experimenting and improvising in an open-ended process of continuing creation.”  Further, Barbour suggests the helpfulness of the social model of process philosophy that allows for God’s action and the action of beings in the world.

Fourth, he reflects on the significance of humanity in the cosmos.  Creation stories locate human beings within a larger context.  Physical cosmology does the same, recognizing the immensity of space and time and the thorough interdependence within the cosmos.  Barbour first speaks of the immensity of time and space.  “The greatest complexity has apparently been achieved in the middle range of size, not at atomic or galactic dimensions.  There are a thousand billion synapses in a human brain; the number of possible ways of connecting them is greater than the number of atoms in the universe.  There is a high level of organization and a greater richness of experience in a human being than in a thousand lifeless galaxies.  It is human beings, after all, that reach out to understand that cosmic immensity.”[70]  Then in regards to interdependence, Barbour summarizes humanity’s place, “Cosmology joins evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and ecology in showing the interdependence of all things.  We are part of an ongoing community of being; we are kin to all creatures , past and present. . . . The cosmos is all of a piece.  It is multi-leveled; each new higher level was built on lower levels from the past.“[71]

In the end, Barbour concludes with the need to consider eschatology.  In another publication of this same essay under the title, “Astronomy and Creation” in Religion and Science:  Historical and Contemporary Issues, he continues the essay looking at some of the implications of cosmology for the future of the cosmos.  In “Creation and Cosmology” he concludes, “Theistic belief makes sense of this [cosmological] datum and a variety of other kinds of human experience, even if it offers no conclusive proof.”[72]  Ultimately, he says, it leaves humans with wonder, awe, and praise.

Robert Russell, “Finite Creation without a Beginning:  the Doctrine of Creation in Relation to Big Bang and Quantum Cosmologies”

In this essay, Russell begins by acknowledging that Big Bang cosmology has a limited life span in light of inchoate quantum cosmologies.  “Meanwhile, attempts are being made to obtain a quantum mechanical treatment of gravity which will replace general relativity and from which to develop quantum cosmology as a successor to Big Bang cosmology.”[73]  While quantum gravity research is highly tentative, it raises important questions for theology, as theology:  1) deals with the significance of singularity expressed in Big Bang cosmology by t=0; and 2) deals with the change in meaning and status of temporality that quantum cosmology brings and of God as the creator of temporality.  Thus, as Russell sets out to explore the relationship between Big Bang cosmology and Christian theology, he specifically questions theology’s attachment to the singularity of the universe expressed by t=0.

Russell argues “that t=0 is relevant to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo if one interprets arguments about historical origination as offering confirming, but neither conclusive nor essential, evidence for the central thesis of ontological origination.”[74]  This thesis gives science a vigorous role without giving it an essential or foundational one.  To support it he proposes a theological research program in the vein of Imre Lakatos.  Through a core hypothesis–creation ex nihilo means ontological origination of the universe–and three auxiliary hypotheses addressing past temporal finitude and another one addressing the option of a bounded or an unbounded past, he offers a constructive position that the creation is finite but without a beginning.  Finitude plays a central role in his hypothesis because the temporal status of the universe varies under general relativity, which Big Bang employs, compared with quantum gravity in approaches such as those that Hartle/Hawking use.[75]

Russell examines the Hartle/Hawking proposal carefully:  the past of the universe is finite (as in Big Bang) but is unbounded (no t=0).[76]  Russell then applies the mathematical and logical creativity within Hartle/Hawking’s tentative, quantum gravity theory to free Christian theology from its adherence to the notion of the universe’s beginning at t=0.[77]  Specifically, the finitude of the universe can remain central while allowing the notion of boundedness to become optional.  “We can think of the past universe as a set of events which have no past boundary, rather than a set of events with a boundary (t=0).  The universe is in this sense a finite creation with no beginning.”[78]  Russell appreciates this scientific nuance that liberates theology, even as he counters Hawking’s attendant conclusions with possibilities for interpreting nature as indeterministic and for non-interventionist, objective, special, divine actions.  He says, “Thus the laws of nature may not imply a deterministic view of nature and even if it does God may be viewed as acting in specific events.  Hence, Hawking’s fundamental conclusion is undercut:  even if the universe has no beginning, God is free to act throughout nature and history as creator and as redeemer.”[79]

Russell concludes with a call for science-religion efforts to address issues of temporality, divine agency, and time and eternity as the intersection points between physics and cosmology, philosophy of religion, and systematic theology.

Arthur Peacocke, "God’s Interaction with the World:  The Implications of Deterministic ‘Chaos’ and of Interconnected and Interdependent Complexity"

In this essay, Arthur Peacocke finds science’s insights into whole-part constraint in complex systems and into the unity of the human-brain-in-the-human-body to be helpful in providing a new context for discussing divine interaction with the world.  He lays out a top-down notion of divine constraints on the universe that does not contradict the regularities of the observed universe.[80]  “What is being further suggested here is that we have to envisage God as at any time (and in this sense only, ‘all the time’) being able to exert constraints upon the world-as-a-whole, so that particular events and patterns of events can occur, which otherwise would not have done so.  This is usually regarded as God’s ‘providential’ action, unhelpful as the distinction between creation and providence often proves to be.”[81]

Then he builds on the whole-part constraint approach with a notion of human agents as psychosomatic-unities to provide a model for God’s action.  “My suggestion is that a combination of the recognition of the way whole-part constraints operate in complexly interconnected and interdependent systems with the recognition of the unity of the human mind/brain/body event, together provide a fruitful model for illuminating how we might think of God’s interaction with the world.”[82]  The model might be represented thus: human thinking/intention : human action :: God’s action : world.  He underscores the metaphorical nature of such a model, acknowledging the limits of it–namely, human intention does not transcend the human that acts, whereas God transcends world.[83]  In the end, he sees the flow of information as a parallel to the communication of divine purposes and intentions since a personal agent notion of God is often used.

In contrast to the fruitfulness of whole-part constraint, he determines that new insights into the unpredictability, open-endedness, and flexibility inherent in many natural processes and systems does not further theories about God’s interaction in the world.  Such ‘chaotic’ determinism offers insight into the highly sensitive characteristics of nature to initial conditions and fluctuations but not into models of God-world interaction.

Returning to whole-part constraint, Peacocke contends in the end that God alone has an overall, comprehensive constraining influence via a whole-part manner upon any lower-level event in order to implement divine intentions.  To consider God interacting without changing the nature of the universe (i.e., via intervention) requires accepting an ontological gap between nature of God’s being and that of created world.  “Hence the present exercise could be regarded essentially as an attempt, as it were, to ascertain where this ontological gap, across which God transmits ‘information’ (i.e., communicates) is most coherently ‘located,’ consistently with God’s interaction with everything else having particular effects and without abrogating those regular relationships to which God’s own self continues to give an existence which the sciences increasingly discover.”[84]

He concludes that his model allows for bottom-up causality from within nature, including human free will, even as it postulates a model of God’s whole-part constraint on all that is.

Nancey Murphy and George F. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics

In their book,[85] Nancey Murphy and George Ellis engage the science-religion dialogue with an additional partner, ethics.  Both authors come from a theological background that is committed to the centrality of ethics in religious life and to nonviolence, the Anabaptist tradition.  They espouse an understanding of divine action that entails God’s steadfast self-sacrifice, no matter the price, and an attendant human moral response.  “God appears to work in concert with nature, never overriding or violating the very processes that God has created.  This account of the character of divine action as refusal to do violence to creation, whatever the cost to God, has direct implications for human morality; it implies a ‘kenotic’ or self-renunciatory ethic, according to which one must renounce self-interest for the sake of the other, no matter what the cost to oneself.”[86]

In the book, such an understanding of God and of human moral response takes the shape of a research program influenced by Imre Lakatos’s philosophy of science.  Through it, they propose a synthetic relationship between the concept of the natural order and a concept of ‘the good life.’  Murphy and Ellis see the need for an ethical theory of human life as created for nonviolence and for a theological or metaphysical theory of ultimate reality about the purpose for which God created the universe.  Their kenotic ethic correlates with their notion of God’s moral character.[87]

They begin with a critique of some assumptions born out in Arthur Peacocke’s hierarchy of sciences.  The sciences that appear higher on the list conflate the categories of greater complexity and of more encompassing wholes, they argue.  Instead of a linear list, then, they propose a branching hierarchy with “the natural sciences of ecology, astrophysics, and cosmology forming one branch [of more encompassing wholes], and the human sciences (psychology and the social sciences) forming the other [of increasing complexity].”[88]  Then their commitment to ethics manifests by its inclusion as a science at the top of the social sciences branch.  See Figure 10.  In the end, they close the two branches by adding a metaphysical/theological boundary to convey each branch’s “call for some account of purpose for its completion.  A single theory of divine purpose answers the ultimate questions arising from each branch of the hierarchy.”[89]

Figure 10  Murphy’s and Ellis’s Branching Hierarchy of the Sciences[90]

They discuss scientific cosmology as the discipline that examines the large-scale structure of the universe.  Within cosmology, the existence of life in the solar system orients their focus.  They pursue the paired anthropic questions:  1) about humanity’s existence at this time and place in the universe, and 2) about the universe permitting the evolution and existence of intelligent beings at any time or place.[91]  In doing so, they conclude that cosmology alone is insufficient to answer these questions, returning to the need for theology or metaphysics.  Then through a detailed look at the social sciences and by asserting the necessary role of ethics, they propose an ethico-theological account of fine-tuning in response to the anthropic questions.

In the end, the completion of the hierarchy with ethics atop the social sciences and theology or metaphysics closing the branches illustrates their notion of the centrality of an ethic of self-renunciation that follows upon a kenotic theology revealing God’s vulnerability and enduring commitment to nonviolence.  The moral character of God inspires a human parallel response that provides the true purpose of human life.  This emphasis on ethics distinguishes their project among those in the science-religion dialogue who are engaging the claims of physical cosmology.

Robert Russell, “Bodily Resurrection, Eschatology, and Scientific Cosmology:  The Mutual Creative Interaction of Christian Theology and Natural Science”

Here Russell takes up the challenge that contemporary physical cosmology poses to a Christian notion of eschatology.  He begins by posing the ‘hardest test case’ for the theology and science dialogue, namely the bodily resurrection of Jesus articulated in the ‘empty tomb traditions’ as it relates eschatologically to the final transformation of the universe into the ‘new heaven and new earth.’  “ . . . it is a return of the risen Christ to this world in order that this would be transformed into an eternal world without death, decay, sorrow and the irrevocable passage of time.”[92]  Predictions from Big Bang cosmology empty such convictions of viability with only the ‘freeze’ or ‘fry’ alternatives.  After thorough theological and scientific exploration of the dilemma, Russell employs his enriched notion of methodology for the science-religion effort (recall Appendix 4 from Exam 1), to propose two main ways that theology can guide science.  First he speaks of a

theological reconceptualization of nature leading to philosophical and scientific revisions.  Here we move along path 6 in discovering whether a richer theological conception of nature both as creation and as new creation can generate important revisions in the philosophy of nature that currently underlies the natural sciences.  We also move along path 7 as we make more specific connections between theological conceptions of nature and particular scientific theories.  Might these projects be helpful in leading to theoretical revisions in physics and cosmology?  For example, if this universe is to be / is being transformed eschatologically into the new creation, does this [transformation] suggest a new philosophy of space, time, matter, and causality, and in turn, new ways for science to look at the universe as creation?  If the universe is the ongoing creation of the Trinitarian God who will so transform it, does this [notion] lead to a richer concept of the relation between God and creation than currently plays out in its scientific entailments?[93]

His second concept of how that theology might inform science involves path 8, where theology can play a role in suggesting criteria for theory choice between existing theories.  “The theological views of research scientists might play a significant role in selecting which theoretical programs to pursue among those already ‘on the table’ (for example, the variety of approaches to quantum gravity).”[94]

In his review of many scholars’ work across biblical studies and the theology and science dialogue, Russell emphasizes the importance of John Polkinghorne’s notion of creation ex vetere.  Creation ex nihilo at the beginning differs from Polkinghorne’s notion of eschatology where God transforms what already is, creation ex vetere.  Russell appreciates Polkinghorne’s engagement of the ‘hardest test case’ scenario and his ex vetere approach that facilitates the task of looking for hints of continuity within the discontinuity that life in the ‘new creation’ will exhibit.  “It seems clear that if one assumes the bodily resurrection of Jesus and connects this [assumption] with an eschatology of cosmological transformation particularly as suggested by Polkinghorne’s concept of creation ex vetere, then one runs into a direct contradiction with the predictions of contemporary scientific cosmology.  In short, an open Big Bang universe which will never end contradicts belief in a universe which will be transformed into the new creation by an act of God.”[95]

He concludes his detailed ideas for this ‘science and theology research program’ with a clear sense of its significance.  “. . . the requirements of a robust eschatology and thus the encounter with science . . . is like a tidal wave looming on the horizon and soon to be the dominant issue overwhelming us. . . . My conviction is that the best (and only?) way forward will be to challenge the assumptions and concepts on which existing scientific cosmology is based in hopes of at least eventually constructing a new scientific cosmology which will be fully compatible with all that we know about the past of the universe, but whose understanding of the future will be open to theological interpretation in ways that Big Bang cosmology excludes.”[96]

Each of these five pieces confirms the importance of making the cognitive constraints of physical cosmology explicit.  The integrity of the theology and ethics that emerge from addressing the scientific issues head-on cannot be overemphasized.  By refusing to accept reductionism and taking on the physical constraints, these scholars contribute robustly to a contemporary milieu from which Christian spirituality and ritual studies can draw.  The progress made in methodological, epistemic, and substantive issues by those constructively engaging physical cosmology banks enormous intellectual resources for disciplines who want to speak about discerning experiences of divine action in daily life or about the nature of the universe into which humans are initiated with particular and moral identities and roles.


What Physical Cosmology Can and Cannot Do for Christian Spirituality and Ritual Studies

The so-called “new physics” is not a panacea for either of these disciplines.  Too often it is invoked to make a direct link between science and a particular concept, inviting the repeated widowing of a social science theory once wed to an outmoded scientific theory.  Also too frequently, in search of the authority attributed to the natural sciences, features of science are employed to prove a theological point objectively, seeking after a natural theology.  Finally, contemporary cosmology can never account for the complexity of emergence that disciplines higher up the epistemological hierarchy embody.  That task remains with Christian spirituality and ritual studies, among other disciplines.

Instead, quantum physics, with its possible interpretation of indeterminacy, lends itself to a philosophical interpretation and theological application that gives a robust accounting of divine action in the daily life of Nature.  The dilemma that Newtonian physical cosmology created of forcing a choice between subjective, non-interventionist divine action or objective, interventionist divine action can now be avoided while still giving a vivid account of God’s ongoing participation in the universe.

Simply put, Christian spirituality and contemporary rites of passage cannot violate the cognitive claims of physical cosmology and hope to be respected interdisciplinary partners.  Physics puts constraints on what the two disciplines can say is true.  By derivation, it puts constraints on how Christian spirituality is lived in the practice of discernment and how rituals are enacted in rites of initiation.  To avoid cognitive dissonance and eventual charges of irrelevancy, Christian spiritual discernment and rites of initiation cannot discard the physical claims of cosmology.

My Self-Critique

This exam necessarily called for a narrow thesis.  As the ‘ocean floor’ between the primary sub-disciplines of Christian spirituality and ritual studies, doctoral-level competency felt difficult to reach.  The depth of knowledge needed to accurately employ the science-religion dialogue stretched the tool of this exam.  That is, to engage the dialogue fully requires a much larger project, one beyond the scope where this third exam was intended to be focused.

In terms of content, the examples of Origen and Irenaeus might have been better replaced with those more articulate about their lived Christian experience, which the academic discipline of Christian spirituality studies.  Perhaps Origen and Irenaeus better illustrated C/cosmology’s affect on theologies of nature than on Christian spiritualities.  Christine Paintner’s scholarship on Hildegard of Bingen, which we employed in the course for Exam 1, might have been more appropriate.

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Nancy Wiens St. John

[1]Nancey Murphy, “Postmodern Apologetics, or Why Theologians must Pay Attention to Science," in Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue, eds. W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman, 105-120, (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996), 116-17.

[2]G. E. R. Lloyd, “Greek Cosmologies,” in Ancient Cosmologies, Carmen Blacker and Michael Loewe ed., 198-224, (London:  George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1975), 203-04.

[3]Charles, H. Long, “Cosmogony” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, (1987), 99.

[4]Lloyd, 209-10.

[5]The efforts of Bondi, Gold, and Hoyle in proposing the Steady State model to replace Lemaître’s Big Bang are a good example.

[6]Robert John Russell, “Bodily Resurrection, Eschatology, and Scientific Cosmology:  The Mutual Creative Interaction of Christian Theology and Natural Science,” (photocopy, Unpublished paper, August 2001, Heidelberg ): 24.

[7]Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming - Natural, Divine, and Human (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 214-218, especially Figure 3 on 217.

[8]Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin, and Elizabeth Liebert, “Grounding in Truth:  Principle and Foundation,” in The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed:  Uncovering Liberating Possibilities for Women ( New York , NY :  Paulist Press, 2001), 108.

[9]This broad comment stems from interface with two large groups of practitioners:  the two to three hundred-member Wilderness Guides Council, an international wilderness rites of passage organization, and the two to three hundred participants in the Wilderness Therapy Symposium at Naropa Institute, including the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative at the University of New Hampshire Wilderness Research Center.

[10] See Exam 2 for a detailed bibliography.

[11]Ian Barbour, Religion and Science:  Historical and Contemporary Issues (San Francisco, CA:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 107 and 111.

[12]Nicholas Wolterstorff, in Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1984), 67-68, uses this term to reflect an influential factor between data and theory, in the context of discovery.  Control beliefs also can play a role in influencing philosophical assumptions and the weighing of information to devise and reject theories.

[13]Robert John Russell, Theology and Science:  Current Issues and Future Directions, The Center for Theology and Natural Sciences, 2000, <>.

[14]Nancey Murphy and George F. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 12, Figure 1.2.

[15]Mark Richardson questions whether Murphy’s holist epistemology acknowledges the need for and pursues that larger context.  Class notes, PTST 4125, fall 1996.

[16]Robert John Russell, “Post-Modern Challenges to Science and to Theology and Science,” Theology and Science; quoting J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen, Duet or Duel? Theology and Science in a Postmodern World ( Harrisburg : Trinity Press International), 1998 and J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen, Essays in Postfoundationalist Theology ( Grand Rapids , Mich. : W. B. Eerdmans), 1997, see especially Part 3.

[17]Murphy, “Postmodern Apologetics,” 116.

[18]Russell, Theology and Science.

[19]Murphy, “Postmodern Apologetics,” 117.

[20]David Wands, “A Brief History of Cosmology,” <>.

[21]Douglas A. Knight, “Cosmogony and Order in the Hebrew Tradition,” in Cosmogony and Ethical Order:  New Studies in Comparative Ethics, Robin W. Lovin and Frank E. Reynolds, 133-157 (Chicago, IL:  University of Chicago Press, 1985), 137.

[22]Ibid., 134.

[23]Ibid., 152.

[24]For an insightful overview of nature in Hebrew thought, see Ronald A. Simkins, Creator and Creation:  Nature in the Worldview of Ancient Israel (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 174-202.

[25]Ian G. Barbour, “Creation and Cosmology,” in Cosmos as Creation : Theology and Science in Consonance, ed. Ted Peters, 115-151, ( Nashville . TN : Abingdon Press, 1989), 123.

[26]Denis Edwards, The God of Evolution:  A Trinitarian Theology (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1999), 11.

[27]Edwards, 8.

[28]Ancient Cosmologies, 68-69.

[29]See for example, Simkins, 9, 90, and 221.

[30]Louis Jacobs, “Jewish Cosmology,” in Ancient Cosmologies, 66.

[31]Ibid., 67.

[32]Compiled from multiple resources including:  Robert John Russell, “Class notes, SPST 4586,” spring 2002; J. C. Evans, “Cosmological Thought ,” Physics & Astronomy Department, George Mason University, 1995, <>.  Other specific facts cited individually.


[34]Lloyd, 213.

[35]Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being:  A Study of the History of an Idea (Boston, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1933), 26.

[36]Robert John Russell, “Cosmology, Creation, and Contingency,” in Cosmos as Creation : Theology and Science in Consonance, ed. Ted Peters, 177-209, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 179.

[37]J. W. Rogerson, “Slippery Words:  Myth,” in Sacred Narrative:  Readings in the Theory of Myth, ed. Alan Dundes, 62-71 (Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press, 1984), 70.

[38]Philip Grierson, “The European Heritage,” in Ancient Cosmologies, eds. Carmen Blacker and Michael Loewe, 225-258, (London:  George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1975), 243.

[39]Ibid., 249.

[40]Ibid., 249-50.

[41]Ibid., 250.

[42]Compiled from multiple resources including:  Jay Belloli, ed., The Universe:  A Convergence of Art, Music, and Science  ( Pasadena , CA :  The Armory Center for the Arts), 2001; Evans, “Cosmological Thought;” Russell, “Class notes, SPST 4586.”  Other specific facts cited individually.

[43]Barbour, Religion and Science, 171.

[44]Belloli, ed., The Universe:  A Convergence of Art, Music, and Science, 152.

[45]H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature:  The Ambiguous Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 1985), 47; citing A. H. Armstrong and R. A. Markus, Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy (New York, NY:  Sheed and Ward, 1960), 35.

[46]Ibid., 49-50.

[47]Ibid., 35.

[48]Ibid., 44; emphasis in the original.

[49]Ibid., 51.

[50]Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and Profane:  The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (San Diego, CA:  Harcourt, Inc., 1959), 95.

[51]Ibid,. 11.

[52]See Ashley Montagu, Coming into Being Among the Australian Aborigine ( London :  G. Routledge and Sons), 1937.

[53]Bruce Lincoln, Emerging from the Chrysalis:  Studies in Rituals of Women’s Initiations (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1981), 50.

[54]Ibid., 51; citing Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, Amazonian Cosmos:  The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukuna Indians (Chicago, IL:  University of Chicago Press, 1968), 50, 144f, 218f.

[55]Ibid., 69.

[56]Ibid., 63.

[57]Gloria Walters, The Moment of Creation:  Big Bang Physics from Before the First Millisecond to the Present Universe (New York, NY:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983), 157.

[58]Overall outline taken from Ian G. Barbour, “Creation and Cosmology,” in Cosmos as Creation : Theology and Science in Consonance, ed. Ted Peters, 115-151 ( Nashville . TN : Abingdon Press, 1989), 118.  Additions noted within data.

[59]Reuters’ article 02/11/03 , 19:48 ET , <>


[61]Compiled from multiple resources including:  Evans, “Cosmological Thought;” Wands, “A Brief History of Cosmology;” Russell, “Class notes, SPST 4586.”  Other specific facts cited individually.

[62]Evans, “Cosmological Thought.”

[63]Murphy and Ellis, 47-48; citing Heinz R. Pagels, Perfect Symmetry ( London :  Penguin Press), 1985.

[64]Reuters’ article 02/11/03 19:48 ET, <>

[65]Evans, “Cosmological Thought.”

[66]Barbour, “Creation and Cosmology,” 142.

[67]Ibid., 125.

[68]Ibid., 138.

[69]Ibid., 143.

[70]Ibid., 147.

[71]Ibid., 147.

[72]Ibid., 149.

[73]Robert John Russell, “Finite Creation without a Beginning:  the Doctrine of Creation in Relation to Big Bang and Quantum Cosmologies,” in Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature:  Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, eds. Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, and C. J. Isham, 291-325 (Vatican City State:  Vatican Observatory Publications and Berkeley, CA:  The Center for Theology and Natural Sciences, 1993). 291.

[74]Ibid., 293.

[75]Ibid., 300; he notes here that finitude, not contingency, subjects ex nihilo to the empirical test offered by cosmology.

[76]Ibid., 308.

[77]Note the distinct parts that many scientifically informed theologies conflate in their idea of creation ex nihilo.  Russell distinguishes them (321): “ i) the universe, as God’s creation, must have a finite past (i.e., that it has not existed forever); and ii) in order to have a finite past, the universe must have had a beginning.”  Hartle/Hawking show that point ii is not necessary mathematically or logically for point i.  Thus point i is the real theologically significant claim of creation ex nihilo.

[78]Ibid., 322; emphasis in the original.

[79]Ibid., 321.

[80]Arthur Peacocke, "God’s Interaction with the World:  The Implications of Deterministic ‘Chaos’ and of Interconnected and Interdependent Complexity," in Chaos and Complexity:  Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, eds. Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, and Arthur R. Peacocke, 263-288 (Vatican City State:  Vatican Observatory Publications and Berkeley, CA:  The Center for Theology and Natural Sciences, 1995), 286.

[81]Ibid., 283.

[82]Ibid., 284.

[83]Ibid., 285.

[84]Ibid., 287.

[85]The CTNS Bulletin 18 no. 4 (fall 1998) edition was dedicated to four critiques of this book.  Important and constructive questions for Murphy and Ellis are fleshed out there by their colleagues.

[86]Murphy and Ellis, xv.

[87]Ibid., 17.

[88]Ibid., 16.

[89]Ibid., 204.


[91]Ibid., 49.

[92]Robert John Russell, “Bodily Resurrection, Eschatology, and Scientific Cosmology,” 12-13; emphasis in the original.

[93]Ibid., 51; emphasis in the original.

[94]Ibid., 51.

[95]Ibid., 40-41.

[96]Ibid., 55-56.


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