Cosmic piety

There’s a lot going on in Douglas Ottati’s Theology for Liberal Protestants–much more than I’m going to be able to cover in a blog post (or several). But as I’m nearing the end of the book, I think what will stick with me most is Ottati’s insistence on a cosmic theocentric piety.*

What does this mean? Mainly it’s about adjusting our theology and piety to the size and scope of the universe as modern science has revealed it. Christians often pay lip service to this, have we really adjusted our worldview accordingly? Many of us still think of humanity as the crowning achievement of creation, if not indeed the very reason for the creation of the entire cosmos. And we think of God’s activity as centered on the human race.

But this just isn’t realistic given what we know about the universe and our place in it. The universe is billions of years old and contains probably hundreds of billions of galaxies, themselves containing countless trillions of stars (the Milky Way alone contains something on the order of 400 billion stars) and, potentially, life-bearing planets. Add to this the fact that in all likelihood the human race will go extinct (quite possibly as the result of a self-inflicted wound) long before the universe itself winds down into a heat death or some other unimaginable final state. Taking these facts into account, it’s very heard to see humanity as particularly important to the cosmic drama. As Ottati puts it:

If all the cosmos is a stage, then it is far too vast and complex for us to plausibly consider it the stage for human history alone. Indeed, given the vast expanse of the cosmos, the staggering cosmic time frames, the astounding number of stars, planets, and meteors, the gases, chemicals, ice, and dust scattered through space, and so forth, perhaps the appropriate analogy is not a single stage but a world with many different venues, theaters, stages, and shows in many regions, cities, hamlets, and towns. (p. 227)

For Ottati, God is both the ground of the universe’s existence and the source of the processes that give it structure and coherence. And within this cosmos, humanity may be one of many “players,” and not a particularly central one. What we should hope for, he says, is a “good run”–we have our “place and time” to live out as participants in a vast, complex, cosmic ecology.

This prompts the shift from an anthropocentric to a theocentric perspective. If humans are displaced from the center of the cosmic drama, the cosmic ecology as a whole can nonetheless be seen as having value for God and as being a product of the divine creativity. This doesn’t mean that human beings don’t have a special value, but it’s as “good creatures with distinctive capacities,” not the “fulcrum . . .  of all creation.” The proper religious response to this is to understand ourselves as participants in the cosmic ecology and ultimately as dependent on God as its mysterious ground and source. As Ottati summarizes it, the “chief end and vocation of human life” is “to participate in true communion with God in community with others” (p. 306).

The second, yet-to-be-published volume of Ottati’s theology will cover the traditional topics of sin, redemption, and eschatology. I’m intrigued to see how he reconciles these more down-to-earth (so to speak) topics with the wider, cosmic perspective he develops here.
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*By “piety” Ottati means a pattern of sensibility or a general orientation toward God, self, and world.

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2 thoughts on “Cosmic piety

  1. Putting my astrobiologist hat on, I’m not sure the current state of knowledge establishes that the cosmic stage is as crowded with sentient life or with ecologies of Earth-like diversity as Ottati assumes. Rocky planets like ours are for more probable or even may require a certain level of metallicity in the parent star. Metallicities of stars evolve with “stellar generation,” so it appears that planets with solid surfaces only may have been possible about the time of the birth of the Sun. The Sun is unusually quiet for a G-type star, which has allowed the Earth to maintain an atmosphere at its current magnetic field strength. Under one hypothesis, early microbial life began in space among the asteroids. However, life only arose because of favorable conditions due to hydrothermal activity within asteroids. The source of heat for the hydrothermal activity was due to a short-lived radiogenic isotope (Al-26) delivered to the Solar System by a close encounter with a supernova. And that’s just thinking of the first 50 million years of the Earth’s history. The history of life and the portions of the Earth system that sustain life relies on circumstances that may be very unusual, no matter how many billions are the stars. And evolutionary theory currently cannot demonstrate that evolution progresses toward the attributes we have that make us think we are distinct from other creatures.

    In a century, I suspect we might have a better sense of how uncommon we are, but I would hypothesize that “a vast complex, cosmic ecology” is not what we will find: more an encyclopedia of false starts and wondrous gardens with new creatures to name. But we will not find many companions on the journey.

    If there is any correction to anthropocentrism, it is in the Scriptures. We were the telos of Creation. Indeed, I’d interpret Genesis 1 and 2 to suggest that God’s purpose in Creation was intended to be completed and perfected in us. Instead, we failed to meet the requirements of participation. Creation therefore groans in futility, waiting for Christ to complete it instead (somehow through the Church).

  2. Sorry for not responding sooner (I was offline for most of the past few days), but thanks for the comment!

    In fairness to Ottati, he doesn’t say that it’s *likely* that there are many other life-forms in the universe, but he does think that it’s a live possibility and this should affect how we think about our place. Moreover, even if there isn’t other life (or other intelligent life), the rest of the universe can still have value for God that isn’t reducible to its relation to us.

    I think it’s fair to say that Scripture doesn’t answer this question one way or the other since its writers had a drastically different world-picture. At the very least, it’s a worthwhile thought-experiment to consider how our theology would/should be affected by the displacement of humanity from center stage.

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