Thursday, March 19, 2015

Is the Universe Just?

"Just" is: "acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good."  This definition includes the idea of justice, which is an impartial administration of rewards and punishments—that is to say, if the universe is just, what you receive in common space and time should be balanced.  By universe I mean: "the whole body of things and phenomena; the totality of material entities," and the cosmos is "the universe conceived as an orderly and harmonious system."
            How we humans have conceived the universe has changed through time.  In antiquity it was a primitive three-tiered construct: earth in the center, the primordial waters beneath the earth, and the fixed luminaries in a domed structure that protected the earth from the waters above.  In Biblical faith God used weather, the elements, and historical events to reward and punish, although not always in a just way (for example, his treatment of the Amalekites, 1 Samuel 15).
            Until the twentieth century our view of the universe was limited.  In the second century CE Ptolemy proposed a geocentric system for the movements of the heavenly bodies in what we now know as our solar system: the sun, moon, five planets circulated around the earth below the (so-called) fixed stars, which were so distant they seemed never to move.  The view of the universe in the middle ages is reflected in the theological system by Dante Alighieri (1300s), which included both the various levels of Hell and dwelling places of saints, angels, and the deity, with earth at its center.
            In the 1600s, Copernicus proposed a heliocentric system: the sun was the center of our solar system.  The earth rotated on its axis and circulated along with the planets around the sun.  This explanation was resisted by the church until the nineteenth century, because an earth-centered universe was best harmonized with the Bible and Christian doctrine.
            Today we live on an insignificant planet on the outskirts of a galaxy of perhaps a hundred billion planetary systems in a universe of perhaps one hundred billion galaxies (Carl Sagan).  Our universe has no edge but is unbounded and expanding outwards toward some unknown destination.
            The question with which I began (Is the Universe Just?) assumes too much.  Since the universe is not sentient, it could not be "just."  The universe does not think or see, so there is no way that it could perceive an imbalance in justice—much less consider correcting it.  The aggregate of existing stuff and entities that fill the void of space act more or less in accord with what physicists and astronomers (i.e., scientists: people who study the universe) call the laws of physics.
            In short, the universe is inflexible.  It blindly follows its own rules, some of which we know; most of which we do not.  Do not expect the universe to balance out your allotment of good and bad in life.  We only have to recall a few of our recent tragic encounters with the physical world on this blue and white planet to know that there is not an ounce of compassion in the universe over the loss of human life, unjustified suffering, and property damage caused by the physical elements: the San Francisco earthquake (1989), the Indonesian tsunami (2004), hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (2005), the Joplin tornado (2011), hurricane Sandy (2012).
            What happens in the world is not the result of evil.  Rattlesnakes and disease, for example, are not caused by the devil or by God.  Rattlesnakes are true to their nature; disease is a natural phenomenon that human beings can cure, and control once we discover the causations—like we have done with chickenpox, diphtheria and polio, for example.
            For these reasons I cannot seriously entertain the idea that God is a universal Spirit pervading all things in the universe with a divine presence—a leaf, the sunrise, a drop of water, a gurgling brook, etc.  The universe is simply too hostile toward human beings to think it reflects the character of a benevolent Spirit.  Nor can I seriously consider that God actively runs the universe in a benevolent hands-on way (Colossians 1:16-17), correcting, like Don Quixote, its excesses and imbalance.
            We seem instinctively to know that the universe is not just, and recognize that benevolent Deity is not controlling the universe in our interest.  That is why a common feature of religions in general is to hope/believe/expect that Deity will balance our books in the afterlife, if such there be—that is, to compensate us for any imbalance of good and bad we experienced in life.
Is that true do you suppose?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Wings Books, 1980).

Friday, March 6, 2015

How Relevant is the Christian Worldview Today?

This essay was published in The Fourth R 28.3 (2015): 17-18.

What is called nascent Christianity emerged in the early first century CE as a tiny Judean religious sect.  Its religious heritage was shaped by the Holy Scriptures of the ancient Israelites, and the temple at Jerusalem.  What little we know about the group derives from the writings of their later descendants, who represented at least a third generation of followers of the faith.
            When Christianity emerged, the city of Rome controlled the Mediterranean basin, and had divided its territories into a number of provinces.  Judea was an imperial province, governed by the emperor of Rome rather than the Roman Senate.  The religion of Rome in general was comprised of the worship of the traditional Greek Gods in Roman garb, plus new religions that the Romans had allowed into the city.
            As a Graeco-Roman religion of salvation, and with the patronage of the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire (Constantine, 325 CE), the new faith rapidly replaced the old religious traditions, which survived only in the countryside (paganus; hence called "pagan").  After 440 CE no pagan names are listed among the elite of the city of Rome.
            Since the fourth century CE, Christianity has been a formidable force in the Western world, but only recently with the rise of modern science and a growing reliance on reason rather than faith has it begun to show signs of irrelevance.  There had been warnings about the demise of the "pagan" worldview before the Christian hegemony.  For example, in the first century CE about the time nascent Christianity emerged, the priest of Apollo, Plutarch, recounted a strange story; he had heard reports of an anonymous voice announcing the death of the Great God Pan, some 300 years before the ancient pagan worldview was replaced by the Christian.
            Similar warnings have been sounded about the Christian worldview, which has now survived some 1700 years.  Toward the end of the 19th century a German philosopher (Friedrich Nietzsche) in The Joyous Science described a madman who ran into a market place seeking God.  "Where is God?" he cried.  "I will tell you," he says.  We have killed him.  He delivered a short speech about the loss of moorings in a world in which God is dead.  He looked around at his small audience, and throwing his lantern to the ground, he lamented, "I come too early; my time is not come yet. This tremendous event is still the way…it has not yet reached the ears of man."  On the same day he entered numerous churches and sang an "eternal requiem to God" saying, "What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God" (96).
            In the 1960s there briefly emerged a group of scholars who wrote about the "death of God" as an event in our time.  One of these scholars (Thomas J. J. Altizer) took the incarnation quite seriously:  "God has negated and transcended himself in the Incarnation, and thereby he has fully and finally ceased to exist in his original or primordial form.  To know that God is Jesus, is to know that God himself has become flesh: no longer does God exist as transcendent Spirit or sovereign Lord, now God is love" (p. 67).  "Once God has ceased to exist in human experience as the omnipotent and numinous Lord, there perishes with him every moral imperative addressed to man from a beyond, and humanity ceases to be imprisoned by an obedience to an external will or authority" (127).
            Altizer's view clearly suggests there are more than a few cracks in the Christian Conglomerate; nevertheless it is evident that fissures, spearheaded by reason and science, have begun to appear in the seemingly impregnable Christian worldview.  The Christian Conglomerate holds that God controls the natural world, but Mr. Darwin's scientific view (evolution) on the origin of our species makes a more convincing case than does the theological answer.  The weather more often than not appears to work against the common good.  In the early 19th century the church was forced to admit in the face of compelling science that the earth was not the center of our solar system, which had been an item of faith for nearly 1700 years.
            The Christian Conglomerate holds that the Bible is a special religious text that puts human beings in touch with the divine will, but over 300 years of scientific study has shown it to be a human collection, and God has been reduced at best to the peripheral role of inspiring some of its ideas.  The idea that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19) is an item of faith that is not demonstrable except to those of like faith.  The Church is not as Paul believed a divinely gathered community of saints of the end-time, but has become a seriously flawed secular human institution.
            Could the church, like ancient paganism, simply fade into oblivion for lack of relevance?  Put differently: how is Christianity relevant in the 21st century?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966).
Walter Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche. Selected and Translated, with an Introduction. Prefaces, and Notes (New York: the Viking Press, 1954).