A Review and Comment on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey With Reference to Lutheranism by Albert B. Collver, Ph.D.

In the early 1980s, around the time the Voyager space craft were making discoveries, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos premiered. Growing up in the 1980s, I remember watching Cosmos and traveling on the “Ship of the Imagination,” soaring through the solar system out through the galaxy and beyond. Cosmos taught about how vast is the universe, about the Voyager program, atoms, the Big Bang, evolution and natural selection, and the future of mankind in the universe. Even as a child, I recognized that much of what Cosmos taught was not in accord with the faith I had been taught. The show had value in showing the wonders of creation, how vast creation is, and to make one familiar contemporary scientific theory on the origins of the world. From the perspective of contemporary cosmology, contemporary theory on multiverses, and contemporary physics many of the ideas in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is outdated, passé, or even incorrect. For instance, Carl Sagan did not have a conception of “dark matter” or “multi-verse.” This is why a new, updated and improved series was needed. Although creators of the new show acknowledge that there is new science, the stated purpose is not to teach but “The goal is to show why this new understanding of the world continues to affect us deeply as an individual, as a nations, as a species.”

The new show is called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, and created by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy” and other comedies. President Barack Obama even introduced Cosmos calling for us to open our eyes and imaginations to what could be the next new discoveries. Perhaps, President Obama’s endorsement of the show is part of what he meant when he he vowed in his first Inaugural Address to “restore science to its rightful place.” Neil Tyson believes that religious dogma hinders science, and in an interview said, “If you don’t know science in the 21st century, just move back to the cave, because that’s where we’re going to leave you as we move forward.” The new Cosmos is updated with the latest in computer generated special effects and with the latest cosmological theories, many of which were not conceived of or were incipient when Carl Sagan hosted the show in the early 1980s. Rather than hosting the show on PBS, the show was hosted on the Fox Network with the intention of reaching millions more viewers than might otherwise be possible. In many ways, the new Cosmos is a significant effort utilizing the President of the Unites States, a famous astrophysicist,  the creator and executive producer of a major sit-com, and a large television network to proselytize many people into a secular-humanist view of the origins of the universe that seeks to demonstrate that there is really no benevolent force organizing the universe and that human beings are insignificant specs among the vast cosmos.

The first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is “Standing Up in the Milky Way.” Tyson on the “Ship of the Imagination,” takes us on a tour of the Solar System, across the Milky Way identifying the location of the sun in the galaxy, and beyond into the local cluster of galaxies. A tenet of astronomy is that the further away from the earth one goes, the further back in time one goes, all the way to the very beginning of the universe. Eventually, Tyson reaches the beginning of the universe at the moment of the Big Bang. He also discusses how our universe might be one universe among many, a bubble among many other bubbles. The conclusion of all of this is that the earth is one planet among an almost uncountable number of other planets within the Milky Way galaxy, orbiting a nearly uncountable number of stars among a nearly uncountable number of galaxies that make up the universe, and as suggested by the episode, our universe might be only one among an unknowable number of other universes. Such thoughts might recall the words of the Psalmist, “What is man that you are mindful of him.” (Psalm 8:4) Indeed, the vastness of creation can make human beings feel rather insignificant. Yet the Christian faith holds that human beings are not insignificant, but the very special creation of God. Such believe lives in the realm of faith. However, much of what is presented as science, particularly regarding the origin of the universe, is not science as science is usually defined as a “testable explanations and predictions.” Much of what is presented in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is not testable, reproducible, or predictive, especially in regards to the origins of the universe. What is presented as science really enters the realm of metaphysics, which is the same realm occupied by faith and religion.

Bronze statue of Giordano Bruno by Ettore Ferrari from Wikipedia

The first episode delved deeply into religion when it featured Giordano Bruno (1548 – February 17, 1600), who was one of the last people executed by the Roman Inquisition. Giordano Bruno is presented as a 16th century visionary who wanted to help people understand the infinite creation made by the infinite God he believed in (Watch the short clip by visiting this link). The message of Cosmos is that religious dogma hurts science, and leads to the persecution and execution of people like Giordano Bruno. However, according to this episode of Cosmos, the Roman Catholic church was not alone in persecuting 16th century “astronomers” and “scientists” but also guilty were the Calvinists and Lutherans. In fact, Tyson explicitly mentions Martin Luther as rejecting the views of Copernicus. As for poor Giordano Bruno, Tyson states that both the Calvinists and the Lutherans excommunicated him. Apparently, historical facts are not of great concern to scientists, in particular regarding Giordano Bruno, about what he taught, or how the Lutherans regarded him.

Giordano Bruno was a Dominican Friar and a philosopher, who traveled from Italy, to Geneva, to France, to Germany, and back to Italy where he died at the hands of the Inquisition in 1600. He went from place to place seeking patrons to support him and to find universities where he might teach. In 1584, Giordano Bruno wrote a work (cited by Cosmos) called, “On the Infinite Universe and Worlds.”  In this work, Bruno argues that there is no source of certainty and that truth may be inferred from many sources (one might argue that he is proposing a relativism that would be attractive to Western people in the 21st century). He also argues that the universe is infinite. Following Lucretius and his work On the Nature of Things (a book well known in the 16th century contrary to what Cosmos reported), Bruno reasoned just as matter was made up up an infinite number of “atoms” (Lucretius), so the universe is made up of an infinite number of stars, of which the sun was one of them. Bruno also held, “Innumerable suns exist; innumerable earths revolve around these suns in a manner similar

to the way the seven planets revolve around our sun. Living beings inhabit these worlds.” Contrary to common thought, the notion of “atomism” (that all we see is made up of tiny composite parts) is not a modern theory but dates back before the ancient Greeks, and was represented by Epicurean philosophy. Lucretius argued that everything that happens is caused by chance and not by divine intervention (another idea favored by many in the contemporary world). Both Lucretius and Bruno’s works are more philosophical and theological than “scientific” or “astronomical.” In fact, Bruno is considered by many to have a rather poor understanding of astronomy even by 16th century standards; for instance, Tycho Brahe (14 December 1546 – 24 October 1601), a Danish Lutheran astronomy, born the year of Martin Luther’s death and died a year after Bruno, rejected Giordano Bruno’s theories.

In 1585, Giordano Bruno matriculated to German lands. First he went to Mainz where he remained for twelve days, but was unable to find any means of sustenance. Then he went on to Wittenberg, Germany, where he taught at Wittenberg University. (Boulting, William. GIORDANO BRUNO HIS LIFE, THOUGHT, AND MARTYRDOM. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd, 1914, 195.) Bruno called the University of Wittenberg, the “German Athens.” Contrary to how Tyson portrayed the Lutherans, Bruno found life at the University of Wittenberg to be rather free. Boulting writes, “Bruno never before breathed so free an atmosphere as Wittenberg had generally enjoyed since Luther s days up to those when he first came there: there was no small measure of such religious toleration and philosophic liberty as the sixteenth century understood.” (198) While in Wittenberg, Bruno published three books. The books were neo-platonic in nature and corrected certain errors in the philosophy of the medievel scholastic theologians. In Wittenberg, anything that attacked the “schoolman” would be received with some favor.

One of the books published in Wittenberg, The Lamp Of Thirty Statues, provides a glimpse into some of the thoughts that would later play a role in his heresy trial. In this work, he cloaked his philosophical ideas, a theory of the atomic constitution of the material world, with the “vestments of orthodox Christianity.” (203) Everything material in the world is an accident of one substance. This view could be understood in an atheist materialistic way (such as some of the Greek Epicureans might desire) or in a panentheistic way (one of the heresies the Roman Inquisition charged him). His anti-Trinitarian views, another heresy the Roman Inquisition charged him, also took shape. “The Trinity becomes a philosophic concept; the Father is Substance; the Son, Universal Intellect; the Spirit, the Soul of the World; or the Father may be said to be Immediate Universal Intuition; the Son, Intellect; the Spirit, Love with Power; but these are merely distinguishable aspects of the One Absolute, to whom past is not past, nor is the future to come, but to whom eternity is entirely present, all things together and complete.” (203) He also writes that the individual is a spark of the Universal Spirit. He believes that the Son of God came “to raise us up from brutality and barbarism to the practice of love.” (204) For Bruno, the essence of Christianity is found in love, not dogmas.

Giordano Bruno departed Wittenberg in the spring of 1588 over a dispute between the gnesio-Lutherans (the genuine or authentic Lutherans who signed the Formula of Concord — those who founded the Missouri Synod would be in agreement with the gnesio-Lutherans) and the Philippist Lutherans (Crypto-Calvinists). Ironically, it was the gnesio-Lutherans who generally favored Bruno, while the Philippists (Crypto-Calvinists) did not. At his trial before the Inquisition, Bruno told his Roman Catholic judges, “At Wittenberg, in Saxony, I found two factions the philosophic faculty were Calvinists and the theologic were Lutherans. The old Duke was a Lutheran, but the son, who succeeded him at that time, was a Calvinist and favoured the opposite party to the one which favoured me ; wherefore I left.” (207) Bruno delivered his final lecture and farewell address at the University of Wittenberg on 8 March 1588. In his address he praised wisdom and wise Germans in particularly such as Albert Magnus, Landegrave William of Hesse, the patron of Copernicus, and of course, Martin Luther. Of Luther, Bruno said, “From Germany, from the banks of the Elbe. . . .

Out of the darkness of Orcus your Hercules dragged forth the monster with the triple crown, bursting open the steely gates of Hell, triumphing over the city guarded by triple walls and the nine-fold stream of Styx. Thou hast seen the light, O Luther ; thou hast regarded it ; thou hast heard the awakening spirit of the Lord and hast obeyed it; thou hast confronted and overcome the adversary girt about with power, and thou hast despoiled him.” (208) Despite this praise of Luther and his praise for opposing ecclesiastical tyranny, Bruno was no fan of Luther or Lutheranism. Bruno considered the Lutheran Reformers to be more ignorant than himself. (209)

Despite some of Giordano Bruno’s teaching which departed from orthodox Christianity, Bruno found Wittenberg to a place of academic and intellectual freedom. His stay at Wittenberg might have been the freest of his academic career. From Wittenberg, Bruno traveled to Prague and Helmstedt (1588-1590).  In Helmstedt, Bruno encountered Lutherans once again. Like in the past, Bruno found favor with princes while encountering problems with the theologians. The Lutheran superintendent of Helmstedt excommunicated Giordano Bruno. In a letter to the rector of the university, Bruno complains of his excommunication and states that he was given no ability to publicly respond to the charges. With no other means of support, Bruno left Helmstedt and in the middle of 1590. It should be noted that the Luther pastor did not excommunicate Bruno due to his views on cosmology, or for holding to Copernican views as Tyson suggested in Cosmos, but for doctrinal reasons.

Giorando Bruno Trial Before the Inquisition

In 1591, Bruno returned to Venice, eventually this led to his arrest and trial by the Roman Inquisition.  His trial lasted for 8 years. He was charged with holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith, holding opinions against the Trinity, the divinity of Christ and the incarnation, the virginity of Mary, and the existence of a plurality of worlds and holding to their eternity (in other words Panentheism). He was not tried and executed for holding to the Copernican view of the solar system, but primarily for being anti-Trinitian and rejecting the divinity of Christ. On 17 February 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as one of the last people tried by the Inquisition.

Although we should not condone the execution of a person by the Roman Inquisition, we must recognize that Giordano Bruno was not “persecuted” for holding advanced scientific theories only finally accepted in the 20th century, but Bruno fell out of favor with Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic theologians for holding views against Orthodox Christianity. Bruno was not a martyr for science. Also despite being excommunicated in Helmstedt by the Lutheran superintendent, he found academic freedom at the University of Wittenberg among the Lutherans until he attempted to ingratiate himself to a crypto-Calvinist prince. The Lutherans themselves held a variety of views regarding cosmology. Tycho Brahe and Kelper studied the solar system and developed mathematical solutions to calculating the orbits of planets. The Lutheran faith was not challenged by such theories, even if some or most theologians did not agree with them.

While an astrophysicist like Neil deGrasse Tyson may not be able to distinguish between the teachings of orthodox Christianity and that the teachings of those who deny the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ, he (or the researchers) should be able to check the historic record. The goal of Cosmos was not to accurately reflect how Calvinists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics regarded Giordano Bruno, but to show that the Christian religion is against science, not just Roman Catholics, but also Lutherans and other Protestants. Whatever education and entertainment value of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey must be tempered against its desire to discredit religion and to promote secular humanism. Indeed in the end, both those who accept the Christian’s confession of the Creation of the world in 6 days and those who accept the Big Bang and perhaps a multiverses live by faith not science. The question is where is that faith placed, in the Word of God, or in various scientific theories. One also would hope that scientists dedicated to “knowledge” and “testable theories” might get history right, particularly when it comes to Lutherans.