John B. Brinsmead
Since the 16th century three great paradigm shifts have seriously called into question the religious traditions of the Christian West.
Whilst the scientific disciplines have been able to adapt to these paradigm shifts, the religious establishments have been thrown into disarray and insecurity, and especially because they have been shackled by their own claims to either ecclesiastical or Biblical infallibility.
The first great paradigm shift was the Copernican Revolution.
The heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus freed humanity from the mythic heavens of supernatural beings, be they gods or demons, and gave us the secular heavens governed by the laws of physics. No longer was the earth to be seen as Dante’s centre of the universe with heaven above and hell beneath. In the new cosmology, the sun did not rotate around the earth as the Church and the Bible implied, but the earth actually moved (contrary to what the Church and the Bible emphatically stated) around the sun.
The religious authorities of the 16th century clearly perceived that the heliocentric theory of the universe was a dire threat to their grand narrative of the world. The integrity of the Christian message was tied to a worldview that was part and parcel of that narrative. As one great churchman had put it, “There are four principle winds, four pillars that hold up the sky, and four corners of the universe; therefore it is only right there be four Gospels.”
Of all of the great ideas in history, this notion, set forth by Nicholas Copernicus, in his book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium in 1543, was probably the most important, for its consequences were so far reaching. It set off a huge wave of controversy. At first it was just a ripple. But this ripple soon grew into a huge tidal wave of opposition to this heretical idea.
In order to appreciate why this idea was so vehemently opposed, one needs to understand the official cosmology of the church and its reasons for promoting this cosmology. This cosmology was largely derived from Dante’s Divine Comedy, which itself was, ironically, derived partly from Muslim teachings…
Dante paints a vivid picture of the universe, with the Earth at its center, hell being located in the very center of the Earth, and heaven, above… This view of the universe was so congruent with Christian doctrine that it would not easily yield to a new view of the universe no matter how much evidence there may be in support of a new view. Ever since its publication, the cosmology of Dante’s book had been an important part of the theology of the Church, both Catholic and Protestant. With mankind’s position, balanced precariously between heaven and hell, it painted a vivid picture and reinforced the basic belief system of the church. Morality, cosmology, and theology were completely intertwined.
At first the opposition came only from Protestant circles. One of the first to speak out against this new heresy was Martin Luther. He called Copernicus a fool, pointing out, that the biblical story of Joshua clearly states that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the Earth. Other Protestants soon joined in. Calvin cited the opening verse of psalm 93-“The Earth is stabilized that it cannot be moved.” Church officials began to search the bible with a fine tooth comb, looking for passages that “prove” Copernicus is wrong. Eventually the Catholic Church joined in the battle, banning Copernicus’s book in the year 1610.
Copernicus’s heliocentric theory was so violently opposed, not so much because it contradicted the bible, which it does, but because it made nonsense out of the official theology of Christianity…
Here are the main objections to the heliocentric theory, as pointed out by the pope himself. If Earth is just another planet, circling the sun with the other planets, how can the Earth be a place of iniquity and sin, with devils below and angels above? He said that Copernicus’s theory makes a mockery of the ascension of Christ, because if the Earth is orbiting the sun, how could Christ have ascended up to heaven? If the stars are not the lights of heaven, but actually other suns, as the theory suggests, then God, in His infinite goodness, would have created inhabitants on them too. How could Christ have died for the sins of all of the inhabitants of these other planets? Many Copernicans believed that the universe was infinite. This was one of the worst heresies of all. If the universe is infinite, then where can the throne of God be located? No wonder the pope said that the Copernican heresy is the greatest threat there has ever been to Christianity and should be wiped out at all costs.
The church’s position was totally wrong, back to front, upside down and contrary to reality.
It took the Church a very long time to sense that it had lost its battle with the Copernican worldview. Yet even whilst finally admitting that Copernicus was right, it still tried to carry on with its mythic narrative of the universe as if nothing had happened to render it so much meaningless mumbo jumbo.
The Copernican Revolution was only the beginning of a far greater over-turning of the Church’s grand narrative of the world.
The second great paradigm shift was Darwin’s 19th century biological revolution.
Wallace and Darwin clearly demonstrated that life forms such as plants, animals and humans did not suddenly appear on the earth in response to some creation fiat. Creation was not something that happened as recently as 4004 B.C. according to the grand narrative of the Christian religion. Creation was now to be seen as a process that has been going on for billions of years and as something that will continue into the future.
The Priestly author of Genesis 1 (P) dreamt that creation was finished by the seventh day. This writer, of course, was totally oblivious of the space/time realities of a modern scientific cosmology. We now know that if the expanding activity of our universe were to cease, the universe would collapse into the Big Crunch.
The Darwinian Revolution calls into question the age-old dogmas of the Fall of man from an original perfection, original sin, a literal Garden of Eden, the origin of death in the sin of Adam and the grand narrative of Fall and Redemption that Milton outlined so well in his Paradise Lost.
According to this very old religious narrative, death originated in the sin of man at the dawn of history. It is a monstrous dogma because it makes man ultimately responsible for death and everything else that goes wrong on the planet. The Biological Revolution presents an entirely different worldview wherein great carnivores like saber tooth tigers and dinosaurs roamed the earth long before humans were around. The complimentary science of geology found evidence of catastrophic upheavals and mass extinctions of life forms taking place long before humans had arrived on the scene.
The old narrative about the origin of death in the Fall of man has been exposed as a nonsense myth that is no better than the myth of the little three-story universe of the pre-Copernican age. Just think for a moment what the 16th century divines were alleging. The earth is more than a million times smaller than the sun, yet it was supposed to generate sufficient gravity to cause the sun to orbit the earth.
The old creation myth is up-side-down, back-to-front and nothing like reality.
“Perhaps the greatest gift Darwin gave to humanity was the opportunity to see in all of life an ongoing, intelligent, creative drama. Rather than thinking of a form of life as having been put on Earth in a fixed form at the beginning of time, we now see each form of life arising out of the Great Adventure.” Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, p. 138
The third great paradigm shift was the universe of the Big Bang.
Prior to Einstein and Hubble, our Milky Way Galaxy was thought to comprise the entire “steady state” universe. We now know that our Milky Way Galaxy is just one of billions of other galaxies all containing billions of stars like our own sun. So far from being an enormous entity at the centre of the universe, planet earth has receded into being an almost infinitely small speck of star dust in one tiny little solar system within the Milky Way Galaxy. Further, there is no longer a “steady state” universe as formerly supposed, but one that is still rapidly expanding as the galaxies are driven apart by dark energy by at least the speed of light. These time/space realities indicate that our universe began with the Big Bang around 15 billion years ago.
The implications of these three paradigm shifts for theology are breathtaking. What a mind-blowing view of creation is now revealed compared to that little three-storied universe of the divines who relied upon the worldview of the Bible! What do the time/space realities of a post-Hubble universe do to the old theology that is based on a primitive worldview?
Gone forever is this puny three-tiered universe of heaven above, hell below and humans in the middle, and wondering which way they will go.
Gone forever is the power of the old myths peddled by the Church and derived from a primitive worldview.
Copernicus and Galileo banished the mythical heavens of gods and demons and gave us secular heavens governed by the laws of physics. We now know that there are no laws operating out there/up there that are not operating down here, and there is no God up there that is not down here.
Gone forever are the ideas of a literal Fall of man, original sin and mankind being the originators of death. The Biological Revolution sweeps away the mythic nonsense of pre-Enlightenment humans. Called into question are such doctrines as a bodily resurrection and ascension to heaven, eschatology and ideas of a Second Advent. This is the time to let the fresh breeze of reality sweep away the mythic cobwebs from modern minds.
What is the wisdom of basing an entire theological edifice on an Adam who never existed and a literal Fall into original sin that didn’t happen? Trotting out these old theological premises now is like bringing out the old mumbo jumbo used to fob off the challenge of Copernicus.
As we stand astonished before these three paradigm shifts that have swept away the myths of centuries, what remains of value is the life and teachings of the real historical Jesus. None of his teachings, however, appear in any of the Creeds of the Church. Those Creeds are concerned only with a mythical world and the mythical dogma about a mythical Person.
Clearly, what can’t survive are the following mythical ideas:
- The mythical Second Adam. If the first Adam is mythic, so is the second one.
- The pre-existence of Jesus. Jesus was not a space man. He didn’t live eternally in a heavenly world, nor was he born supernaturally on this planet in a way that defies the laws of genetics and DNA. The virgin birth stories (whether from Greek mythology of Christian mythology) are as mythical as the old cosmological order of gods in the sky and demons below us.
- Jesus’ physical body did not rise from the grave and ascend into heaven. Physical objects don’t fly off into outer space. Even if his ascending physical body moved with the speed of light, he would not have moved far in two thousand years within a universe where some of nearest stars are millions of light years away.
- His death was not required to undo Adam’s Fall and to open some mythical Pearly Gates in the sky.
- Gone are all eschatological speculations about Millenniums, Raptures and a Second Coming. This latter is a doctrine of horrendous genocidal brutality. It teaches that at the Second Advent, all those living on the earth except for the elect believers will be delivered to destruction and everlasting punishment. No Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot inaugurated a mass extermination on this scale of all creatures living upon the earth. Billions of men, women and little children are all supposed to perish together at this glorious Second Advent. Such views rise out of incorrect ideas of the earth’s beginnings. If the notions of the beginnings are so obviously wrong, the notions about the conclusions to history will also be wrong.
- Claims that Jesus is God or the second person of the Divine Trinity are also mythic imaginations that have more to do with old pagan myths than the Church has been prepared to admit. In any case, these are myths that belong to an outmoded cosmology.
Surviving the three great paradigm shifts associated with the breakthroughs of Copernicus, Darwin and Hubble is the real Jesus of history. Here is a flesh and blood Jesus with human parents, 46 chromosomes, normal cellular DNA and real brothers and sisters. This real Jesus of Nazareth, like the great prophets of the Old Testament before him, dared to teach the scandalous idea that being truly human (concerned about compassion and justice for all) was all-important whilst being religious had no importance at all. He brought to his very religious and myth-dominated culture a new vision of unconditional love, forgiveness and justice that would embrace the whole human family without discrimination on account of creed, social standing or race. Unlike the Church that followed on after him, he freed rather than enslaved people to religious dogma and myths.