Some of the cosmologies of the past …
Stephen Friberg, Aug 21, 2016 …
On the first day of my talk talk on cosmology and the Baha’i Faith at the San Jose Baha’i Center (“Beyond Materialism: How Cosmology Makes Us Confused and What To Do About It“), I will review some of the fascinating cosmologies of the past.
No era or culture, of course, can be characterized as having a fixed single cosmology and usually there are multiple competing worldviews. But a historical period or a cultural era can be characterized as having a cosmology with long-lived and commonly agreed-on features. Consider, for example, concepts like dao, qi, and yin and yang developed in China some 2300 years ago (Cheng “Dao (Tao): The Way”; Cheng “Qi (Ch´i): Vital Force”; Ames). All things, according to these concepts, are
interconnected and constantly changing. They arise spontaneously from an ultimate source (most often called dao 道, the way) that resists objectification but is immanent in the world and accessible to cultivated people. Vitality and growth is the very nature of existence, and nature exhibits consistent patterns that can be observed and followed, in particular patterns of cycles and interaction between polar forces (such as yin 陰 and yang 陽) (Perkins).
These concepts, and the closely associated “five phases” (wuxing) perspectives that emerged around the same time, evoked a continuity and overlap between the natural world, the social worlds, personal cultivation, and the heavenly worlds that has provided common themes for Chinese philosophy and religion – the three teachings of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism – to this day. They are decidedly pragmatic, providing guidelines for harmonizing relationships in family, social, economic, and government spheres as well as promoting individual self-cultivation.
Or consider the Islamic world sprawled across three continents and the Malay Archipelago. Incorporating ancient civilizations, including the oldest in our history books, and drawing on a rich and varied set of religious and cultural heritages, it might be expected to have multiple worldviews. Nevertheless, ruling classes, elite intellectuals, merchants, government leaders, military officers, and religious authorities from Spain to China similarly read and studied the Koran in Arabic, sharing a unifying text and a unifying language that made possible the widespread dissemination of ideas about law, scholarship, theology, education, and government. Islam´s common faith and language provided both the means and the impetus for translation of and the sharing of religious, mystical, philosophical, and scientific texts from preceding and neighboring cultures.
The Islamic world inherited the Hellenistic, Sassanian, and Indian astronomies and their associated cosmologies. Motivated by religious requirements for accurate calendars and daily timekeeping, by curiosity, and by practical needs of navigation and trade, Islamic thinkers built the foundations of modern observational astronomy, mathematics, optics, and modern engineering sciences and technologies. These developments were integrated into a cosmology that saw the universe as created by God and shining forth with His guidance and sustaining power. The stars, the planets, the moon, the sun, the human intellect with its ability to see and understand, the outpouring of divine guidance from Moses, Christ, Muhammad: all were components of a worldview that saw the Hand of God in all things.
Western Christendom, separated by language, politics, and religious differences from the Islamic world and the Greek-speaking peoples of orthodox Christianity, built its own cosmology from biblical sources, Latin culture and philosophy, and the tribal narratives of its diverse peoples. After coming under the spell of Islamic learning in the 11th century, it developed a cosmology that later evolved into modern science and then to secular modernity. Anjam Khursheed, in The Universe Within, describes some its salient points:
The medieval universe, so poetically described by Dante, was a universe where humanity’s moral salvation was objectively overlaid onto the physical cosmos. This pre-Copernican universe had the earth at its centre surrounded by the concentric orbits of the moon, the sun and the stars. Heaven was located beyond the ninth celestial orbit, and inner concentric rings within the earth converged on hell. Humanity’s spiritual salvation was mapped onto this cosmology: if a person chose to be a believer, he would rise heavenwards, ascending through the outer celestial rings to abide in blissful peace forever. If he chose to sin, he would take the route down into the earth’s core and be tormented eternally in hell. Medieval cosmology reflected man’s dual nature as half-angel, half-animal, in the intermediate position he occupied in the physical universe. Humanity stood at the boundary between two universes: The angelic universe above him and the animal universe below him.
It was this universe, one that was a ‟rich, multilayered, integrated reality open to divine interaction,” that would be replaced by a modern worldview which, until very recently, held the universe to be a ‟lifeless, autonomous clock-like mechanism closed to any `external´ influence.”
Next time, an overview of some cosmological themes in the Baha’i Faith.