How Copernicus Stole Christmas

The Bubble Nebula

For the last decade Alan Taylor at The Atlantic has created one of my favorite Christmas traditions. The Hubble Advent calendar counts down the twenty-five days preceding the holiday using spectacular photographs taken by the world’s most famous telescope. Above is the aptly named “Bubble Nebula”, which remains my favorite if for the only reason that I find it so beautiful. Yet the incongruity of these pictures of our truly awe inspiring universe with the traditional understanding of Advent itself is something never acknowledge. For it seems we can have either this beautiful universe presented to us by science or the equally awe inspiring birth of the savior of humanity which Advent counts its way to- not both.  Let me explain:

The “true meaning of Christmas” as Linus from Peanuts can tell you is that, God, the  most perfect being imaginable, becomes a mere creature through human birth.There is a whole celebratory scene around this nativity with shepherds, angels, and three wise men from the east, but that shouldn’t distract from the reality that the king of the universe spends his first moments in a stable filled with barnyard animals.  This is a version of God that is truly imminent-  in the world- and not like some form of super baby from Krypton, but as a weak and vulnerable one, of earthly flesh and bones, a god who, in child friendly language, “poops and pees” like ourselves.

Step back for a second to grasp the utter strangeness of this idea. This human baby, one of the most vulnerable creatures in nature is, according to the tale, the creator of the universe. A child who can not even speak in fact the omniscient intelligence that knows everything that is known, will be known, or knowable. This “royal birth” in a stable reeking of animal feces is the sovereign of the world, the founder of nations, destroyer of civilizations, the ultimate source of justice.

I came to the recognition of wonder at the strangeness of this tale long after I had ceased being a Christian the traditional sense of the word. I was brought to it by what was a certainly less than five minute segment on NPR by the playwright Peter Sagal who was reflecting on the Christmas holiday as a Jewish man married to a Christian. A clip which I unfortunately have been unable to find, but which has stuck with me ever since.

It is true that Christianity wasn’t the first religion to turn God into a baby, but the Christian version of the story is the one that made it down to our own day. Why would people imagine this strange and beautiful story? Why think of a God so like ourselves?

These questions start to open up once one realizes the types of gods a human god was meant to replace. We tend to see the Greek god Zeus as a somewhat cartoonish figure, with his seduction (and rape) of human women, and his hurtling of lightning bolts, but he was every bit as real a god for his worshipers in the ancient world as gods are for people today. Zeus actually has a lot in common with his contemporary, Yahweh. Both had a penchant for destroying the world by flood when they thought human beings got out of hand. Both based their sovereignty over the universe on appeals to their power rather than their justice. Zeus was the king of the Olympians because he was the only one strong enough to succeed in a divine coup against the Titans. Yahweh’s answer to the accusations of Job that God does not act with justice are answered not with an explanation, but with a terrifying display of divine power.

If Western religions tended to see in human suffering some sort of divine architect with a higher purpose, Hinduism, which is less a single religions than a constellation of religious and philosophical traditions, tended to embrace the creative and destructive aspects of existence at once without a necessary design or purpose behind them. The creation of the new was the product of the destruction of the old so that all of its major deities, oversimplified as the difference between two of the major Hindu gods- Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer, who were both merely manifestations of the one all-embracing god- Brahman. Hinduism too, found need of a personal god, a human god, that bridged the gap between the both traditional gods such as Shiva, or deep and all embracing ideas such as Brahman and found it in the figure of Krishna a manifestation of Vishnu who enters the world as a human being to set it, for a time, aright.

Christ and Krishna are distinct in that the birth, life, crucifixion, resurrection,  and promised return of the messiah in the Christian telling represents a kind of play in which the destructive elements of existence are to be overcome once and for all. Unlike in the Krishna tales God shows up in person only only twice- once to begin the climax to the end of history and a final time to close the book.

This brings me back to the picture of the universe that began with Copernicus and which is on such awesome display in the Hubble photographs.  The overthrow of the Ptolemaic version of the solar system by the heliocentric model of Copernicus had deep theological implications that would call into question the promise of Christianity that the nativity represented the beginning of a path that would bring to an end the endless cycle of creation and destruction- of birth and death- that seemed to be the existential features of the world in which human beings inhabited.

These theological implications were not at first grasped- at least not by most. Newton could sincerely believe that the model of the universe he was building atop the Copernican system was “proof” of the Christian version of God. The philosopher, Spinoza, seemed to grasp the theological implications of the new cosmology with a much clearer eye seeing that in place of the moral architect found in Judaism and Christianity, the new science seemed to point towards a divinity that was both wondrous and beyond good and evil in the sense that all of its aspects- bountiful or destructive from the human perspective- were but different aspects of its same underlying reality.

But, it was the iconoclast, Giordano Bruno, who tried more than any other to grapple with the theological implications of the Copernican revolution for Christianity. Bruno almost immediately grasped what Copernicus never addressed that the end of the Ptolemaic system meant a universe that had to be much bigger than previously conceived, indeed it was likely infinite in space and time. This meant many suns like our own and therefore many earths like our own, and many intelligent creatures like ourselves. And what did Bruno think this meant for the nativity?:

I can imagine an infinite number of worlds like the earth, with a Garden of Eden on each one. In all these Gardens of Eden, half the Adams and Eves will not eat the fruit of knowledge, but half will. But half of infinity is infinity, so an infinite number of worlds will fall from grace and there will be an infinite number of crucifixions. Therefore, either there is one unique Jesus who goes from one world to another, or there are an infinite number of Jesuses. Since a single Jesus visiting an infinite number of earths one at a time would take an infinite amount of time, there must be an infinite number of Jesuses. Therefore, God must create an infinite number of Christs.  *

It is the very scale of our modern vision of the Universe that makes the idea of a singular salvation impossible. With up to a trillion galaxies between 10 sextillion and 1 septillion stars a conservative estimate, giving one planet for each star, would give us an equal number of planets, and even if only a tiny, tiny, fraction of those planets support life, and yet a smaller fraction of those have advanced civilizations we would still have many, many fellow creatures in the universe other than ourselves whom it would be greatly unjust for God, should such a being exist, to have offered neither a soul nor a path to salvation. Should God not have put other intelligent species in the Universe or made it all for “us” it would represent the most colossal waste of real estate imaginable.

The trouble with trying to wed the inexpressibly prolific Universe science has shown us with a Christian narrative that holds to the position that Christ is the primary or sole path to salvation can be seen in the life and work of the Christian technologist- Kevin Kelly. Kelly had his modern “Road to Damascus” moment in  which he hit upon a “technological metaphor” for God  in 1986 while watching Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality enter the world he had created.

I had this vision of the unbounded God binding himself to his creation. When we make these virtual worlds in the future—worlds whose virtual beings will have autonomy to commit evil, murder, hurt, and destroy options—it’s not unthinkable that the game creator would go in to try to fix the world from the inside. That’s the story of Jesus’ redemption to me. We have an unbounded God who enters this world in the same way that you would go into virtual reality and bind yourself to a limited being and try to redeem the actions of the other beings since they are your creations. So I would begin there. For some technological people, that makes the faith a little more understandable.

Given his extensive travels in Asia, as shown in his beautiful website, Asia Grace, it somewhat amazes me that Kelly does not see in Krishna or the Buddha figures who attempt to “fix” the world in the same way as Kelly’s Christ. His conclusion, I think, was the wrong one to draw in being so narrow. Christianity represents not the way but one of many ways to an ethical life and deeper understanding of the paradox of the human condition and our place within the wide cosmos.

What the scientific version of the Universe has shown us is not, as someone like Lawrence Krauss, in his A Universe from Nothing would have it, that God doesn’t exist, or that spirituality is born of ignorance and exploitation as is the view of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, but that the scale of creation is so vast, its possibilities and diversity so beyond human intelligence, that any narrative we create to give it meaning can capture almost nothing of its fullness.  It supports not the clockwork demiurge God of Newton or the intelligent designer and miracle worker of literalists, but something more akin to the mystical tradition found in all the world’s religious faiths. It is the adoption of a perspective of deep humility regarding our own knowledge- both religious and scientific- and tolerance for those whose views are different than our own.

Copernicus may have stole Christmas, but he left it where we could find it.

This post has gone through several Christmas iterations.  “God vs the Big Brain: a Xmas story,” and the original “How Copernicus Stole Xmas”.

 

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