Carl Sagan’s The Cosmos was one of my favourite television shows of all time. It wasn’t just that it was intellectually stimulating, there was also an emotional or even spiritual dimension that drew me in. I was in awe of the beauty and complexity of the cosmos and caught the thrill of being a part of it.
The show has been rebooted, this time hosted by Sagan admirer, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. After watching the first few episodes, I can see already it’s got the same intellectual and emotional appeal as did its predecessor. But this time I’m finding myself trying to understand what story it’s trying to tell.
Perhaps the title, The Cosmos, offers some clue.
The ancients saw the divine where ever they looked. The divine was in everything. The Greeks called this everything the cosmos (κόσμος). To the ancients, the cosmos was animate, aware and intelligent. This animating principle was the divine–the logos (λόγος).
This idea of the cosmos was transformed by Christianity where the divine is no longer located within the cosmos, but outside of it. This is obviously a huge change from the ancient understanding , but not as great as the shift to the modern conception of the universe.
The modern view is quite different than both the ancient and the Christian ideas of all that is. Philosopher Charles Taylor uses the terms “universe” and “cosmos” to distinguish the post-Christian outlook from that of the pre-Christian/Christian view in which the order of the cosmos “was a humanly meaningful one” (60). In the ordered whole of the cosmos, all things found meaning because all things were grounded in a higher reality: human beings are “embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporates the divine” (152).
Unlike the cosmos, the universe is an infinite, cold and anonymous space governed by “exceptionless natural laws” (60). In the universe, humans “are no longer charter members of the cosmos, but occupy merely a narrow band of recent time” (327).
But the makers of the TV show The Cosmos are not despairing. They seem to be rejecting the idea that humanity is adrift in the “dark abyss of time” in the cold, vast universe. As if in response to the inadequacy of modern materialism to explain our encounters with the cosmos Sagan said,
Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.
Episode 1 pretty clearly shows us how small and insignificant we really are in context of the universe. If there is any meaning, it’s up to us to generate it. Clearly, one of the ways we might do this is to make a television show that celebrates the human ability to comprehend of the vastness of the universe and be inspired by its beauty.
Not only is the cold deterministic universe rejected by the show, so too is the rejection of the Christian view of the cosmos. Sagan’s famous quote remains central and doesn’t leave any room for a transcendent God.
The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.
I think The Cosmos attempts to dismantle both the pessimistic Modern and the fantastical Christian conceptions of the universe by resurrecting, with the power of our imagination and scientific knowledge, the ancient idea of the divine within the cosmos–transcendence within immanence. Carl Sagan said,
The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.
This is a more optimistic picture of the universe than that which is offered by the materialists because it sees it as, once again, more humanly meaningful. Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “Our molecules are traceable to stars that exploded and spread these elements across the galaxy.” Human meaning comes from our participation in the “great unfolding of a cosmic story.”
More optimistic still is the idea that the wholly transcendent God created the cosmos for human beings and then became physically present in it in the person of Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection make possible a deification where, when we die, we are not just incorporated into the eternal cosmos, but where we continues on as a person in (or out of) relationship with the person of God.
Of course, the degree of optimism is not the criteria by which we decide which of these conceptions of the universe is true. For Christians, truth comes to us, not only through imagination and scientific knowledge, but also though a personal encounter with the logos become flesh–Jesus Christ.