We can now watch a supernova seed a galaxy with all the compounds of new life, but can we envision a sacred relationship to our universe that tells us how to live?
This article appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Spirituality & Health.
Finding Meaning in Our Expanding Universe
On a clear night in medieval Europe, a person looking into the sky would have seen hard, transparent spheres nested inside one another, encircling the center of the universe, the Earth. Each sphere carried a planet, the moon, or the sun. Heaven itself was outside the most distant sphere, which carried the “fixed stars.” The hierarchies of Church, nobility, and family mirrored this cosmic hierarchy. Everything and every creature in the universe tended toward its proper place for love of God.
Every traditional culture known to anthropology had a cosmology — a story of how the world began and continues, how humans came to exist, and what the gods expect of us. Cosmology made sense of the ordinary world by defining a larger context and grounding people’s sense of reality, their identity, and their codes of behavior in that grand scheme. This is how they knew who they were. The absence of a cosmology was as inconceivable as the absence of language. Their pictures of the universe were not what anyone today would consider scientifically accurate, but they were true by the standards of their culture.
Today, “the universe” is irrelevant to most people in the West, except as a setting for science fiction. It plays no part in mainstream religions, except perhaps to demonstrate the glory of a creator. How many people recognize the possibility of a sacred relationship between the way the expanding universe operates and the way human beings ought to behave? What religion teaches that our scientific knowledge could be a source of harmony among humans?
Here is only one of many possible examples of how the emerging scientific cosmology could provide a basis for a living, functional cosmology for the 21st century that, like ancient cosmologies, can help guide humanity.
The theory of Cosmic Inflation proposed in the 1980's is the only explanation we have today for the initial conditions that led to the Big Bang. It says that for an extremely small fraction of a second at the beginning of the Big Bang, the proto-universe expanded exponentially, inflating countless random quantum events in the process, and leaving the newly created spacetime faintly wrinkled on all size scales. All large structures in the universe today grew from these quantum fluctuations, enormously inflated in scale.
Inflation is also the controlling metaphor of our culture in the present epoch. Not only is the human population inflating; so, too, are the average technological power and the resource use of each individual. The human race is addicted to exponential growth, but this obviously cannot continue at the present rate. In a finite environment, inflation must end, however cleverly we may postpone or disguise the inevitable.
The single most important question for the present generation may be how global civilization can make the transition gracefully from inflating consumption to a sustainable level. But the cosmic transition from inflation to the slow and steady expansion that followed the Big Bang shows that ending inflation does not mean that all growth must stop, even though many people trying to save the planet assume so. When inflation is transformed into expansion, it can go on for billions of years. Processing information, which occupies more and more of the world’s population, is an example of a process that does not need to be environmentally costly. Human life can continue to be enhanced as long as our creativity in restoring the Earth stays ahead of our material growth.