|God & Nature Magazine||
The Cosmos in My Hand
By Lucas Mix
“When we lose our myths, we lose our place in the universe.” –Madeline L’Engle
I have a tiny cosmos in my back pocket. More to the point, I have a toy model of the cosmos, which I call a cosm. I say it’s a toy, because it’s small and every now and then I like to take it out and fiddle with the moving parts. In that sense it is quite marvelous, with tons of features. Most of the time I set them so that they agree with the real cosmos – like a map on my phone that constantly updates when I drive through town. I want the toy East to line up with the real East; I orient myself. The toy, then, is more than a toy. It shapes the way I interact with the world. It tells me what to expect around the next corner. It even shows me whether I’m bigger or smaller than the obstacles I may encounter. My cosm adjusts me, even as I adjust my cosm.
Religions excel at helping us play the cosm game, both alone and in teams. They give us tools for setting up and modifying our games, especially the ones we play together. It’s more fun and satisfying when we assemble the cosms of multiple players. They start to tell us about the world beyond our immediate experience and they enable us to work together to solve common problems. No one walks around using hand-made maps anymore. That would be silly. We prefer the maps that have been assembled and edited by thousands of people, maps that are updated daily with street names and businesses and traffic patterns, maps that interact with us. We can tweak them to fit our own needs and preferences; we can calibrate and customize; but we depend on the work of countless others; and those others must agree on certain standards to work together.
Of course, I could say this about any group of people that wants to assemble a toy cosmos, not just religions. The challenges and benefits are the same. You cannot forget the difference between the map and the world. When you do, you stop discovering new and wonderful places, you stop looking at the world God made. The map is never fully accurate. Nor can you get very far if you only play by yourself (though some level of personalization always helps). We all find balance somewhere between the extremes.
How do you orient yourself? What is your default cosm and how did you get it? Those can be hard questions, but I have found they make the cosms far more fun and useful.
Some of us have a Christian brand cosm, with Christian graphics and icons, representing the parts of the cosmos Christians find important. These cosms show the player relative to God and other players. They keep track of things like dignity, virtue, and grace. Some cosms have fixed ways to “win,” but others, like the map-app on your phone, only report on where you are. Some have cosms that track money, success, or knowledge. Some people carry around more than one.
Scientific cosms have really caught on in the last century. Astrophysics and astrobiology both provide large-scale tools for locating ourselves within the universe. Astrophysics looks at the pattern of matter, stars, galaxies, etc. throughout space and time; astrobiology looks at the pattern of life. Both place humans at a fixed time (~14 billion years in) and place (by a specific star in the Milky Way galaxy).
We can, and should, ask whether our cosms are true. Does my cosm match up with the cosmos? That question can mislead us, however. Cosms must also be useful. They help us navigate. Too much detail and we cannot find a way forward. Too little detail and we don’t really know where we are.
I love scientific cosmos. I keep a couple with me at all times – one based on physics and one based on astrobiology. (They are, of course, pocket-sized versions – toys. The whole big endeavor of astrobiology would not fit, so I have a simplified version.) They are beautiful and they remind me of just how big and intricate the universe is. I must admit, though, that I don’t find them useful on a daily basis. The world that I inhabit involves people and priorities, neither of which really shows up in the scientific models. The resolution is not good enough. I find my Christian cosm far more useful. It has its grand parts – Creation, Apocalypse, … – but mostly it deals with human scale interactions. What will be important to me today? How do I understand the social opportunities and challenges of family, work, and life?
That’s why it troubles me when people ask me to replace my Christian cosm with a scientific cosm. The Christian cosm has more features. And, more importantly, it has the features I use regularly. My Christian cosm lets me navigate among souls. It keeps track of my changing priorities and reminds me of appointments. I have to check in with God and neighbor – even with myself – on a regular basis. My Christian cosm is indispensable.
Don’t get me wrong. I like scientific cosms. What I really want is a single toy that has all the bells and whistles. I want a fully integrated personal model of the world that incorporates souls as well as stars and planets, friendships as well as cosmic forces. I tinker constantly, but I’m not there yet. I make do with several cosms, each of which does things slightly differently. Best of all, they talk to each other. Still, I admit that I have to switch from one to another on occasion.
Accuracy and scope are great. I want those. I want to have a map that stretches to the ends of time and space. They are not, however, the only concern. If I was going to the store and asked for directions, a map of cosmic superstructure wouldn’t do me much good. A rough map of the neighborhood would. If I was trying to reach an agreement with a colleague, a metabolic diagram probably wouldn’t help. A list of virtues (patience, fortitude, …) and vices (anger, greed, …) just might.
It helps to recognize that my model is just a model and not to take it too seriously. That’s another reason I call it a toy. It helps to know that my toy and someone else’s may not operate the same way. Most of all, it helps to recognize that, most of the time, we are arguing as much about our individual cosms as we are about our common cosmos. We are sharing what works for us. With that perspective, I can usually have a meaningful conversation about what we agree about and why, what we disagree about and why, and how we can bring both of our models closer to the thing itself.
Lucas Mix is an Episcopalian priest and academic working at the intersection of biology and theology. With a doctorate in evolutionary biology from Harvard and 20 years experience working with NASA on astrobiology, he brings a commitment to science and exploration. His current research looks into how we use the term “life” in various discussions. Find out more about this as well as contemporary evangelism on his website (dacalu.wordpress.com).