Cosmotheology is one of those words few people have heard of, but when they do come across it for the first time, there's at least some vague familiarity about it: cosmo from the Greek kosmos, meaning the orderly universe, and theology, meaning the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, and especially the study of God and of God's relationship to us.
Immanuel Kant (1724 -1804), the most influential philosopher of the late Enlightenment, coined the term in his best-known work, The Critique of Pure Reason, considered one of the greatest contributions to Western philosophical thought. But Kant's definition of cosmotheology was narrow, referring to a specific form of what he called "transcendental theology," a method human beings must use to discern theological concepts because, according to Kant, reason alone cannot prove God's existence.
Today cosmotheology means something quite different from what Kant proposed. Its origin is still very much Earth-bound -- a product of human intellect -- but the term is now more closely aligned with cosmology and astrobiology. The people who talk and write about it these days are more likely to be astronomers, physicists, and historians of science by training, not philosophers.
And not theologians, either.
I'll have more to say on this observation another time but, meanwhile, if you guessed that cosmotheology has something to do with religion and life-containing worlds not our own, or in addition to our own, that would be a solid inference. I first came across the word through an article by Steven J. Dick, a name already familiar to CB readers. In 1998, Dick and theoretical physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies, who is also a bestselling author, organized a symposium sponsored by the The John Templeton Foundation. The program's title, "Many Worlds: The New Universe and Its Theological Implications," brought together fourteen distinguished scholars from a variety of disciplines to discuss theological subjects in light of the comparatively recent and now dominant world view accepted by scientists (and the public at large). In Dick's own words:
"While the abundance of extraterrestrial life is by no means proven, it is the view accepted by many working on the origins of life, has seemed likely to most astronomers for thirty years, and is the working hypothesis of those in the growing hybrid fields of bioastronomy and astrobiology . . . This new world view of a universe full of life, produced by cosmic evolution, I call 'the biological universe.' The central assumptions of the biological universe are that planetary systems are common, that life originates wherever conditions are favorable, and that evolution culminates with intelligence."
This description is from Dick's article, "Cosmotheology: Theological Implications of the New Universe," which appears in the book that resulted from the 1998 symposium. Dick also edited the volume, which was published by the Templeton Foundation Press. If you've been on the bus a while, you might remember that Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life, and the Theological Implications (2000) was mentioned in an earlier post.
Dick defines cosmotheology broadly, more as a verb than a noun. For him it means "using our ever-growing knowledge of the univese to modify, expand, or change entirely our current theologies, whatever they may be." He further develops the concept through five principles:
"Cosmotheology must take into account that humanity is in no way physically central in the universe; we are located on a small planet around a star on the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy . . .
Cosmotheology must take into account that humanity is probably not central biologically . . .
Cosmotheology must take into account that Humanity is most likely somewhere near the bottom, or at best midway, in the great chain of intelligent beings in the universe . . .
Cosmotheology must be open to radically new conceptions of God, not necessarily the God of human imagination, but a God grounded in cosmic evolution, the biological universe, and the first three principles stated above . . .
Cosmotheology must have a moral dimension, extended to include all species in the universe -- a reverence and respect for life we find difficult to foster on Earth."
Each of these principles carries its own set of challenges for people of faith, the administrative bodies of the recognized world religions, practitioners of sprituality outside mainstream religion, and agnostics. For Dick, the challenges for organized faiths are especially large; religions will either adjust to these cosmotheological principles or face "extinction." In general, he says, monothestc religions that teach man is made in the image of God will have the most difficulty adapting. Eastern religions that present "salvation" through pesonal enlightenment will do so more easily.
The article also contains interesting discussions of changing world views, the meaning of a "natural" God, human destiny, and the need for creative concerted efforts to find our way ahead.
These are bold and provocative ideas from the (now) chief historian at NASA and author of two detailed histories of the extraterrestrial life debate, including The Biological Universe: The Twentieth-Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science (1996). Through his unique approach to the subject of cosmotheology, this astronomer and historian of science, more than any other individual writing on the topic today, places an inviting spotlight on the intersection of worlds religions and life beyond Earth.
In his introduction to Many Worlds, Dick also acknowledges an important limitation of the volume and, by extension, of the symposium that inspired it: the discussions are clearly Western in focus. As he correctly points out,
"A majority of Earth's population is non-Western, non-Christian, and not necessarily imbued with the values we take for granted, and we must not ignore the multiplicity of our world in the new millennium. The new universe has implications for all areas of human thought and for all the world's cultures."
This cautionary note nicely complements the spirit of the The Templeton Foundation's Humble Approach Initiative, sponsor of the 1998 symposium.
Humility found anywhere in the exchange of ideas deserves recognition.
Next stop: When Stars Came Down to Earth
"Many Worlds" photograph by Eric Delmar, June 24, 2007. Copyrighted and used with permission.
Banner bus photo created by Dorothy Delina Porter