The Big Bang and Christianity — part 2

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

This is the second article in response to one by Gerald R. Baron where he argued for the truth of Big Bang theory. In part 1 I focused on one reason (there are more) why this theory might not be true, despite there being a strong consensus for it among cosmologists.

The theory appeals to Christians, including Baron, because it suggests that the universe came into being at a precise moment, which is therefore a Creation event in line with their beliefs. He says: “It appears difficult to escape the conclusion of a beginning. Before there was nothing. Nothing in the universe and no universe. Then, there was something… Despite innovative attempts to evade that conclusion, it appears to stand more solid than ever”. Elsewhere he is more insistent, saying that there is “no avoiding a beginning”. All this, of course, assumes the truth of Big Bang theory. As I showed in part 1, this is not necessarily true; it all depends on how one interprets Hubble’s red shift.

Published authors who argue along the same lines as Baron are Gerald Schroeder in Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery of Harmony Between Modern Science and the Bible¹, and Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey in Developing a Christian Worldview of Science and Evolution. Since their argument is very similar to Baron’s, I’ll quote them:

“The new theory hit the scientific world like a thunderclap. It meant that the idea of an ultimate beginning was no longer merely religious dogma. Science itself now indicated that the universe burst into existence at a particular time in the remote past. Big bang theory delivers a near fatal blow to naturalistic philosophy, for the naturalistic credo regards reality as an unbroken sequence of cause and effect that can be traced back endlessly. But the big bang represents a sudden discontinuity in the chain of cause and effect. It means science can trace events back in time only to a certain point; at the moment of the big bang explosion, science reaches an abrupt break, an absolute barrier. In fact, when the theory was first proposed, a large number of scientists resisted it for that very reason”. As examples they mention Sir Arthur Eddington who said that “the idea of a beginning is philosophically ‘repugnant’, and Einstein who also tried to find ways to avoid this conclusion (as described by Baron in his article). They then conclude: “Naturalists simply have no way to avoid the challenge posed by the big bang without twisting themselves into impossible logical contortions. The facts clearly indicate that the universe is not eternal, and it cannot originate itself. The implication is that the universe began at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy. Science has begun to sound eerily like Genesis 1: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’ ”².

This final idea is echoed by Gerald Baron: “It is no great stretch for someone taking the biblical account of Genesis seriously to see this singularity and the resulting emergence of everything from it as the creation event”.

And let’s not forget the Roman Catholic Church. In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII declared that the Big Bang and the Catholic concept of creation were compatible. Perhaps this was not altogether surprising, since it was a Catholic priest Georges Lemaître who came up with the idea of a Big Bang in the first place. In 2014 Pope Francis reaffirmed this belief.

All these Christians have accepted the Big Bang as an undisputed fact, because it conveniently fits their theology; it is useful ammunition in the ongoing battle against atheism and secularism if you can claim that science is on your side. I can readily line up with them in their opposition to naturalism and atheism, but not so readily in their advocacy of Big Bang theory as evidence. If you are going to win this battle, you have to make sure your argument is watertight.

Here I’ll outline an alternative cosmological understanding, which is the viewpoint of many spiritual traditions — Eastern religions, and Western esoteric ones like Rosicrucianism or Theosophy. There are many complicated details³, but here I’ll be as brief and simple as possible.

These traditions say that there are several levels of existence; seven is the usual number given. This applies to the universe in general, and there are related levels in humans. The source of these levels is an ultimate ground of being, and they are said to emanate from it. It is a fullness, the totality of all that is, a primal Oneness which is a creative Cosmic Mind. This then manifests itself as these various levels, each one increasingly more dense, until it eventually becomes the material world, which emerges from the level immediately above it.

Thus Raynor Johnson, whom I consider to be something of an authority on spiritual matters, says: “These levels are relatively real, but the degree of reality each one possesses diminishes as we move downward. Each level may be regarded as created by, or precipitated from, the one higher above it”⁴. (In the original, he is describing the various levels of a human, therefore called ‘bodies’. I have adapted the text, using ‘level’ instead, since this is more appropriate when describing the universe.)

Jonathan Black says the same thing with different words in his important book The Secret History of the World, which describes the worldview of Western esoteric secret societies: “Emanations from the cosmic mind should be understood… as working downwards in a hierarchy from the higher and more powerful and pervasive principles to the narrower and more particular, each level creating and directing the one below it”. He also says: “this model has always been conceived of as a series of thoughts emanating from the cosmic mind. Pure mind to begin with, these thought-emanations later became a sort of proto-matter, energy that became increasingly dense, then became matter so ethereal that it was finer then gas, without particles of any kind. Eventually the emanations became gas, then liquid and finally solids”. “At the lowest level of the hierarchy… these emanations… interweave so tightly that they create the appearance of solid matter”⁵.

For the sake of the argument, let’s suppose that this is actually how the material universe is created; its ultimate nature is mental, despite appearances to the contrary, and it emerges from other non-material levels. There seems no reason to believe that such a process of unfoldment would be sudden; a gradual process actually seems more likely. The hypothesis of the ‘explosion’ of the Big Bang therefore becomes unnecessary. Jonathan Black, for example, says that this divine process took place “gradually and in stages… guided and prompted by (God) over very long periods” (p 32).

It’s worth mentioning that in a text of nearly 600 pages he does not mention the Big Bang once. His follow-up book is called The Sacred History, the subtitle of which is How Angels, Mystics and Higher Intelligence Made Our World⁶. Christians would obviously have no argument with the term ‘Higher Intelligence’, but this does not necessarily have to be ‘God’, which is what one might assume if relying solely upon Genesis 1. Without speculating on precisely how it should be interpreted, let’s not forget that Elohim, the Hebrew word used for God in Genesis 1, is plural, although never translated as such in Christian editions.

In this book Black mentions Big Bang theory three times, but not in favour of it. Two mentions are relevant to my argument here. Firstly he says: “There are only tiny scraps of evidence for the Big Bang and no evidence at all for what went before… Neither believers nor atheists have much to go on. Huge inverted pyramids of speculation are balanced on pinpricks of evidence”. (Many cosmologists of course will beg to differ.)

Secondly, he points out that whichever theory you adopt, Big Bang or the alternative cosmology, it makes no difference to the practical outcome: “Whether it happened steadily or in one quick splurge, that is to say whatever the speed of the process, if you had been there with two physical eyes and been able to look at these events through the most powerful microscope, you would have seen very fine, at first almost abstract subatomic particles evolve and take shape as atoms. The cosmos was becoming suffused with stuff in the form of a very fine mist” (p 7, his italics).

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Baron and the authors mentioned above suggest that Big Bang theory is confirmed by the text of Genesis 1. Is this really true? The first arguable mistake is to cite, as Colson/Pearcey did, “God said, ‘Let there be light’” as evidence of the Big Bang. It might be better, as some early Christian writers have done, to distinguish between two types of light:

  • lux, the primary stuff used by God to make the cosmos, something close to a cosmic creative force, a primal manifestation of God
  • lumen, the ordinary light that comes from the heavenly bodies, which enables us to see things.

In this interpretation the light of Genesis (lux) is the basic building block of a multi-leveled universe, not an aspect of the physical universe (lumen), nor its immediate origin. Thus Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, says: “In the ‘beginning’, that which is called in mystic phraseology ‘Cosmic Desire’ evolves into absolute Light” (her italics). Here she is clearly alluding to the opening of Genesis, and is paraphrasing “God said ‘let there be light’ ”⁷. Absolute light here is the equivalent of lux, the basic building block of the multi-leveled universe, long ‘before’ the physical universe is manifested according to this alternative cosmology.

One Christian advocate of this view of light was Robert Grosseteste, a 13th century English bishop, scientist and Oxford don. He wrote De Luce (On Light), which Wikipedia describes as “the most original work of cosmogony in the Latin West”. He believed that there is lots of empty space in matter — which was very prescient of him — but that this space is filled by light. Light must therefore be an agency that supports the cosmos as a whole; without light we don’t have matter. One property of light is that it coheres all matter, so that it must be present at the formation of the world, and gives rise to the cosmos⁸. (I should point out, given that I am arguing against the Big Bang, that some have seen Grosseteste’s ideas as similar to those of Big Bang cosmology⁹.)

These ideas seem to be in agreement with quantum physics. For example Fred Alan Wolf says: “ ‘Matter’ may be nothing but gravitationally trapped light (energy). The chair is not solid but a fantastic interplay of vibrating, spinning rings of light in the turbulent sea of space”. He then expresses this idea in terms reminiscent of Genesis 1: “The incomprehensible unaware oneness beyond space-time (God?) becomes aware of itself, creating light. Light chases itself in gravitational collapse!”¹⁰.

The second mistake that Christians might make is to assume that ‘waters’ and ‘Sky’ (as in the NRSV translation) refer to the physical universe; some interpret these words literally, when they should be interpreted symbolically. It is hard to make sense of Genesis 1 if we take the text literally. For example, where is there a firmament called ‘Heaven’ or ‘Sky’ which separates higher and lower waters? Where are these waters above the sky?

Given that the subject matter is so complex, Genesis 1 is cursory and surprisingly lacking in detail. The text as a whole can be confusing, but nevertheless has pointers to the above understanding of a multi-levelled universe, and describes up to a point that process of creation. For example, verses 6–8 say: “Then God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters’. 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. And God called the firmament Heaven”. (In the NRSV translation ‘firmament’ is rendered as ‘dome’, and ‘Heaven’ as ‘Sky’.)

The word ‘waters’ in this context cannot mean what we normally understand by it, so how should we interpret it? The dividing firmament between the higher and lower waters is called Heaven or Sky. However we interpret this, it is clear that the intention of the author was to indicate some kind of threshold, a distinct separation between higher and lower non-material planes. There are waters above it, arguably the higher realms of spirit, and waters under it, the lower (and denser according to Jonathan Black) levels of psyche.

Then at Genesis 1.9: “God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear’ ”. If we take the ‘dry land’ to mean the material, physical level of the universe, then we have a clear reference here to the emergence of the material out of a less dense, non-material level. The text suggests that the appearance of the dry land is a consequence of some process happening in the lower waters. (Water is a well-known and obvious symbol of the more fluid realm of the psyche, compared with the solidity of matter.)

This is very reminiscent of Jonathan Black’s description above of the divine emanations becoming gas (spiritual realms, the higher ‘waters’), then liquid (the lower waters) and finally solids (the dry land). This is also what the modern revolution in quantum physics claims — that matter, as we perceive it, is an illusion generated from another less dense level of reality, and is actually non-material.

Rather than provide evidence for the Big Bang, Genesis 1 seems therefore to be more in accord with the alternative cosmology proposed above, which does not require a Big Bang. I’m not sure exactly how conventional Judaism interprets Genesis 1, but it’s worth pointing out that Kabbalism, the Jewish esoteric mystical tradition, interprets it in line with the alternative cosmology. Thus Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi says: “God willed that the Line of Light should penetrate beyond the First Crown of Manifestation… a progression from the point of departure from the Absolute in the act of separation to reach the point of full manifestation”¹¹. This would seem to be in accord with the quotes from Raynor Johnson and Jonathan Black above, “working downwards in a hierarchy… each level creating and directing the one below it”.

My suggestion is therefore that all the major spiritual traditions, apart from Christianity, do not include anything like the Big Bang in their thinking. They see creation rather as a process of gradual manifestation. Everything required to form the universe emerged out of nothingness, but this nothingness was not the singularity as conceived by Big Bang theorists, rather the emptiness (pure unmanifested consciousness) of the ultimate cosmic source that the Hindus call Brahman.

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Why is all this important?

Big Bang theory suggests a supernatural cause of the universe, as Baron argues in his article. So, however, does the alternative cosmology. Religion in general does not therefore lose any ground in the battle against atheism by adopting this alternative cosmology.

However, Christianity believes itself to be the one true religion, and therefore presumably believes that it has in general a superior understanding when compared with that of others. It may therefore try to use Big Bang theory as evidence of this belief. Baron, for example, says that “Buddhism and other Indian religions suppose an eternal and infinite universe”. He must be including Hinduism, so I’m not sure what he means, for Hinduism certainly does not believe in an eternal physical universe. What is eternal and infinite in Hinduism is the ultimate cosmic source known as Brahman, in line with the alternative cosmology. The physical universe is merely a manifestation of this primal Oneness, and is not permanent, since over extremely long periods of time it comes into being and then disappears again: “God becomes the world which, in the end, becomes again God”¹². Even though Hinduism believes that the universe is eternal and infinite, by ‘universe’ it means the totality of everything that is at all levels. It describes a process of manifestation and non-manifestation of the physical universe, an evolution of cosmic energy into names and forms (an out-breathing), followed by its involution (an in-breathing)¹³.

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The alternative cosmology is that of the Perennial Philosophy, the idea that at their core all religions are saying the same thing, an Ancient Wisdom which goes back many thousands of years. Let’s compare some of the differences between this and Christianity.

Firstly, in adopting the Big Bang theory, Christianity is saying that the universe was created by God at one moment in the distant past. It presumably believes therefore the physical universe to be real.

Two objections can be made to this. Firstly, this suggests that God and the universe are of different natures. According to the Perennial Philosophy, however, the physical universe is God, or at least one level of the manifestation of God. (This is not advocating Pantheism, although there is nothing essentially wrong with that idea — it’s just that it doesn’t tell the whole story. Panentheism is the more appropriate term — God is both immanent and transcendent.)

The second objection is that the universe was not created in the past; according to the Perennial Philosophy, it is being thought into existence moment by moment, many times per second, and this is therefore a process of continuous creation. This viewpoint has been shared by various quantum physicists down the years.

A further difference between Christianity and the Perennial Philosophy is that the former emphasises a ‘personal’ Creator God, whereas the latter believes in a supreme Creative Principle, an impersonal Cosmic Mind. Again this seems to be in line with the thinking of quantum physics, which has been described as the most successful scientific theory of all time.

In the light of these differences, it’s worth mentioning Fritjof Capra’s famous book The Tao of Physics, in which he outlines the remarkable similarities between the latest revolutionary ideas in science, i.e. quantum physics, and the viewpoints of the Eastern religions. He has whole chapters on Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zen; Christianity, however, is noticeably absent from the main text, and does not have even a single mention in the index. The Big Bang is worthy of only one reference, and Capra neither denies it, nor shows any enthusiasm for it; it is merely something that “most cosmologists believe today”¹⁴.

The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides said: “You will certainly not doubt the necessity of studying astronomy and physics, if you are desirous of comprehending the relation between the world and Providence as it is in reality, and not according to imagination”¹⁵. This is good advice for those who wish to see a reunification of science and religion. However, you have to make sure that what you are studying is real physics, not imagination. Physics tries to understand the universe as we currently observe it. Therefore the Big Bang theory is not physics; it is rather one imagined cosmological hypothesis (among others) about what might have happened in the distant past, albeit based on deductions from current observations. Quantum mechanics, however, is physics, and the metaphysical beliefs of many quantum physicists are in agreement with the Perennial Philosophy with its alternative cosmology that I have described above.

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CONCLUSION

What are the implications of this debate for religion? When it claims to be the one true religion, Christianity sets itself up in opposition to the Eastern religions of the Perennial Philosophy, and by implication therefore to quantum physics, the most successful scientific theory of all time. Christianity should therefore give up this claim to superiority, as the one true religion in which we must all believe in order to be ‘saved’; it would be better for it to find a new role as merely one manifestation of the one true religion, the Perennial Philosophy. It might then discover that it has much to learn, and indeed much more to offer to a public which is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with it.

I’ll repeat my conclusion from part 1. Baron says that Einstein “accused Lemaitre of allowing his Christian beliefs to get in the way of science”. He must be careful that he does not fall into the same error.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Footnotes:

1. Bantam, 1992

2. Tyndale House Publishers, 1999, p 33–34

3. For anyone not familiar with this idea, the details can seem mind-boggling at first sight, but if interested see the Theosophical understanding here.

4. The Spiritual Path, Hodder and Stoughton, 1971, p12

5. Quercus, 2010, p 39, p 40

6. Quercus, 2013

7. The Secret Doctrine volume 1, 1888, my copy Theosophical University Press, 1999, p201

8. I haven’t read the book myself. My source for this information was a BBC Radio 4 programme, Science Stories, August 22nd 2017

9. https://dro.dur.ac.uk/15577/1/15577.pdf

10. Space-Time and Beyond, originally 1975, my copy Bantam 1983, p46, p47

11. A Kabbalistic Universe, Rider & Company, 1977, p 11

12. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, third edition, Flamingo, 1992, p 100

13. see, for example, https://ramakrishna.org/hinduism2.html

14. as 12, p 219

15. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/maimonides_326765

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com

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