Taking a walk in my yard and staring into the sky on a clear spring night, my thoughts turned first of all to the complex immensity of the universe. What a delight to look at moon and stars after far too many cloudy days and nights.
Almost all of the stars I could see, the astronomers say, are close to Earth in galactic terms. Most are within a hundred light-years or so. Some are visible from 1,000 light-years away. But even then, that’s only 1% of the distance across our galaxy which we call “The Milky Way,” a slowly rotating cluster of more than 200 billion stars!
Our Milky Way galaxy is one of many. And galaxies like the Milky Way probably have about 17 billion Earth size planets. Just a few years ago, researches estimated that there were between 100 and 200 billion galaxies in our observable universe. Today, however, research astronomers suggests that the total size of the universe is unknown and could very well be infinite, implying there could be an infinite number of galaxies. And, they stress, the universe is still expanding.
Coming back into the house, I thought about Psalm 19 “The heavens declare the glory of God.” I thought as well, with fascination and amazement, that with such an immense and expanding universe perhaps we need to expand our perspectives on Creator God.
Despite our contemporary scientific and technological progress, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped. Much of our official God imagery is rather dated and still influenced by the ancient Hebrew understanding of the universe.
The ancient Hebrews envisaged our universe as a flat Earth with Heaven above and the Underworld below. Humans inhabited Earth during their lifetimes and the Underworld after death.
The flat disk-shaped Earth was immovable and set on a foundation of pillars. Above the Earth was the “firmament” on which the stars, planets, sun and moon revolve. Heaven or the realm of God was understood as a set of chambers just above the firmament. A special passage, like a tunnel through the clouds, led from Earth up to Heaven. The firmament dome surrounded the Earth, with its edge meeting at the horizon. (See Genesis 1:7 “Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so.”) The firmament was supported by “pillars” or “foundations,” thought to be the tops of mountains, whose peaks appeared to touch the sky. The heavens had doors and windows through which God could send rain and let waters above flow down on Earth. And also control waters from below. (See Genesis 7:11 “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month, on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.”)
The Underworld, the realm of the dead was located under the Earth. The most frequent term for this place was Sheol. (See for example Proverbs 9:18 “But he does not know that the spirits of the dead are there, And that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.”) The graves dug by humans represented gateways to the Underworld. Below the Earth and the Underworld were the lower seas or “the Great Deep.”
The ancient Hebrew understanding of the universe had a long-lasting impact on the Christian understanding of the universe. After his death, the Apostles Creed says that Jesus “descended into the Underworld.” (Most people know only the very faulty translation of the Creed which says Jesus “descended into hell.” Very unfortunate. Good and correct translations are so important.)
The Ascension of Jesus, according to Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:1-9, was a journey in a cloud up to Heaven. In their Hebraic universe understanding, early Christians no doubt pictured the Resurrected Jesus passing through the tunnel in the clouds up to heaven to sit on a throne at the right hand of God the Father.
Much later, in the seventeenth century, elements of the ancient Hebrew universe perspective, maintained by the Catholic Church, led to the trial and condemnation of Galileo Galilei by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1633. The reason: Galileo supported heliocentrism in which the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun.
Some old images last a long time. I remember November 1, 1950, when Pope Pius XII solemnly proclaimed in his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, that in was: “…a dogma revealed by God that the immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.” Body and soul.
Well, today we need to move beyond ancient cosmology and ancient theology based on it. So much of our religious perspective has been anchored in outdated ideas about the universe and planet Earth’s place in the universe.
Clearly, a major paradigm shift is already underway: a major re-visioning of Christianity. The older conventional way of seeing Christianity was dominant for hundreds of years. And, in an important sense, it worked. Nevertheless, over the last thirty to forty years, it has become unpersuasive to millions of people in our culture. Certainly young people do not connect with it. But not just young people. Churches are becoming echo chambers.
In an ever expanding universe, we need an expanded image of Creator God and a broader theology about God. That theology should be like poetry, which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do and redirects our minds and hearts. All religious language must reach beyond itself into a sort of silent awe and amazement. It is like describing being in love. We realize of course that God is always greater than anything we can understand.
Sometimes people get so wrapped up in their religious words and rituals that they miss what those words and rituals are actually pointing toward.
I believe we all have moments of awe, wonder, and excitement that lift us beyond ourselves. We realize, if only for a short time, that something — someone— is touching us very deeply within. We need to spend more time reflecting on those kinds of experiences. Spiritual reflection. Meditation. And this has to be a major part of the so greatly needed re-visioning of Christianity going on in our time.
Well, this is my first reflection after Easter 2023. And it cuts across all religious traditions and addresses the non-religious as well.
10 thoughts on “Theology and the Universe Through Ancient Hebrew Eyes”
Welcome back!. I hope that you are refreshed and rejuvenated.
You have written another peaceful and poetic reflection that causes us to pause and ponder. A recent science program on television shared updated stunning images from the Webb telescope of deep space that visualize the awe inspiring world in which we live. It shares images almost beyond comprehension and expands our understanding of the universe and our tiny place in it. Likewise, I love that you gently urge us to self-confront our own image of God and our relationship with the Divine. Sometimes I wonder when I enter our local church and witness rituals and prayers that flash me back to my childhood church if it isn’t a way for many to feel comfort and safety in the simple and uncomplex. In this crazy world perhaps a manageable view of faith makes life feel less insecure. However, your historical background reminds us that we will never, ever comprehend God despite the definitions given to us from “experts” and that we must still be unafraid to grow. It isn’t sacrilege to think that we might not quite yet have God all figured out! Your words say it best: “Sometimes people get so wrapped up in their religious words and rituals that they miss what those words and rituals are actually pointing toward.”
Many thanks Frank!
“In an ever expanding universe, we need an expanded image of Creator God and a broader theology about God.” I agree it should “cut across all religious traditions” and that theologians should embrace the holy wisdom to be found in other religious traditions as well.
So very well said Betty!
Jack – with the photos of the most recent telescope so far beyond what we’ve seen in the past, I was going to write on the topic this week, but you beat me to it, and in a much different way! The problem, in crossing age/denomination, is of course the war between science and religious imagination. I’m afraid that there is a strong and persistent element that will countenance no religious imagination about conceptualization of the Holy Other. As I began to think about the topic I was stuck for language. Consequently, I’ll encourage you to pursue this thread for additional thinking/language, and I’ll devote some more attention to the challenge of building the Kingdom here. Best Easter Season!
Many thanks Joe. I am scratching my head😉
Jack, thanks for this. I certainly agree that our understanding of God should and must be filled with awe and we don’t and can’t understand God. One of the most profound statements I read about this was from an anonymous Carthusian monk who quite simply stated: “Whatever you think about God – is wrong.” But I am not sure what you mean by this:
“Clearly, a major paradigm shift is already underway: a major re-visioning of Christianity. The older conventional way of seeing Christianity was dominant for hundreds of years. And, in an important sense, it worked. Nevertheless, over the last thirty to forty years, it has become unpersuasive to millions of people in our culture. Certainly young people do not connect with it. But not just young people. Churches are becoming echo chambers.”
What is this “re-visioning” that you are referring to? How does it contrast with the “older conventional way?” Has there not always been a deep current of mysticism in the church?
I will explore this theme in coming reflections. Certainly it involves our understanding of Jesus Christ and older understandings like, for example, the “atonement” and about original sin. It involves a perspective on God…no longer the hard-nosed judge, no longer father up in heaven but our loving companion right here and now. Heaven too is not up there or out there but right now near us in another dimension.
Some quick ideas.
Amen, Jack, amen. The question is: is the Catholic Church able to do the re-envisioning and re-expressing that are necessary? Personally, I am skeptical.
A very good question. I hope it happens. Hope springs eternal.