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Published on: June 18, 2014
Questions of Cosmology

The great religious traditions of west Asia, on the one hand, and south and east Asia, on the other, approach the mysteries of the cosmos and human history from very different starting points.

Pope Francis has a way of making impromptu remarks, sometimes in informal conversations, sometimes in the midst of more formal occasions. Often they exhibit a somewhat quirky sense of humor. These remarks are picked up by the media and frequently blown up to imply a significant change in doctrine or practice, given a meaning that Francis did not intend. This happened recently with his saying in a conversation on an airplane trip that he will not be a judge of homosexuals. As was reported by Time magazine and other media, in a homily on May 12, 2014, Francis gave a whimsical example of the Church excluding no one: “If tomorrow an expedition of Martians—green men with a long nose and big ears, like children draw—came and wanted to be baptized—what would happen?” He said that he would baptize them. He then gave another example, closer to non-science-fiction reality: Baptizing children of unmarried cohabiting couples. Was he making an allusion and giving a signal of his intentions about a controversy raging especially in Germany: Whether divorced and remarried Catholics should receive another sacrament, that of communion? I don’t know, rather doubt whether that was his intention. I do agree with several commentators that more is involved here than the (not exactly urgent) possibility of a delegation of extraterrestrials clamoring to be baptized in St.Peter’s. There was a column about this in The Tablet on May 24, 2024, by Guy Consolmagno, SJ, Curator of Meteorites at the Vatican Observatory (What a great title! Did you know that there was such an agency?. What does it do?): He said that this was “a wonderful starting place to explore the meaning of baptism and redemption.” The column does not undertake such an exploration, but goes on about recent astronomical studies to determine possible chances for life in other parts of the galaxy.

Redemption, in Christianity as indeed in other religions, means deliverance from the evil and the suffering of the human condition. Who else in the universe shares this condition? Mars may be too close to earth to raise this question with full force. (Perhaps Adam and Eve bit into the fatal apple with such gusto that some pieces flew up and landed on the neighbor planet.) A planet circling another sun, light-years away from here, might be a better case. On that planet do advanced organisms (what Buddhists call “sentient beings”) do evil, suffer and die? If not, they may not be in need of redemption. Put in Christian terms, did Christ become incarnate only on planet earth, or is there a cosmic Christ at work on the repair of the whole universe? The point is often made that the earthly ministry of Jesus took place in a provincial backwater of the Roman Empire. How more insignificant is our planet in the inconceivable vastness of the galaxies!

The monotheistic religions that originated in western Asia have many things in common (for this reason, I have no problem with the term “Abrahamic traditions,” though the political use of the term can be distortive). One commonality is their focus on human historical reality on this earth. The Hebrew Bible is overwhelmingly focused on the story of the people of Israel. The New Testament has an even narrower focus on events in and around Palestine. And the Quran is solidly grounded in the circumstances of 7th-century Arabia. To be sure, despite the historicity of the central narrative in each tradition there are adumbrations of realities beyond history. The very first sentence of the Book of Genesis tells about God creating the heavens (Hebrew shamaim, a plural form) and the earth. The Apostle Paul (Romans 8:22, RSV) says that “the whole creation has been groaning in travail until now.” And in each tradition there developed an eschatology (a doctrine of the last things) in which history comes to an end in a cosmic upheaval—the coming of Messiah (originally understood in basically historical terms, then including the notion of this whole world ending), the day of judgment (dies irae), the Mahdi coming (in the company of Jesus, no less) to establish the universal kingdom of Islam. There are mystical undercurrents in all three traditions, notably in Judaism (the Kabbalah) and Islam (Sufism), in which the cosmic perspective is more central (the official guardians of the tradition have always looked on these developments with suspicion).

The religions coming out of India, then (mainly in the form of Buddhism) spreading into eastern Asia, present a very different picture. If there is one dominant motif in the worldviews of Hinduism and Buddhism, it is that of reincarnation (samsara)—the wheel of life (perhaps more properly called the wheel of death, because it is a notion full of horror: one dies over and over again)—not a redemptive reality, but one from which one seeks to be redeemed. That does not characterize the more popular forms of piety, where the goal is to better one’s prospects in future incarnations. In any case, if reincarnation is assumed to be a reality, there is necessarily a reduction of interest in history and the affairs of this world—this life is one of many short bus rides, and it makes little sense to become involved in re-arranging the seats in the particular bus one is riding at the moment. I have for some years argued that the great dialogue to come is one that one should welcome: the dialogue between the great religious traditions of south and east Asia on one side, and the west Asian monotheisms on the other. If you will, it is the dialogue between Benares (now called Varanasi) and Jerusalem: the most sacred Hindu pilgrimage site where one can immerse oneself in the wonder-working waters of Mother Ganges, near where Gautama the Buddha preached his first sermon; and the city where the Temple of Solomon stood, where Jesus died and was resurrected, and from where Muhammad began his nocturnal journey to heaven. Some years ago I was asked in an interview what I had learned from Hinduism and Buddhism in this kind of dialogue. I answered spontaneously: the vastness of time and space. The interviewer stopped abruptly at that point, leaving my answer hanging in the air.

The Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scriptures, already speak of many ages, of cosmic cycles each lasting 306 million years. They also speak of many simultaneous universes. These originally mythological ideas became enormously sophisticated in later Hindu and Buddhist thought. I am particularly intrigued by the Vimalakirti Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text dating from the first century CE, when there were great centers of Buddhist learning in India (they were destroyed in later centuries by Muslim conquerors). The original Sanskrit text was lost, but the text survived in Tibetan and Chinese translations; Robert Thurman has published an English translation from the Tibetan. The text opens with an account of Vimalakirti (not a monk but a “layman of undefiled reputation”) teaching his doctrine of “inconceivable liberation” to a gigantic assembly of 10,000 supernatural beings—Buddhas (who have attained liberation into the state of nirvana), Arhats (still getting there, but not quite there yet), Boddhisattvas (Buddhas who postpone their final liberation out of compassion for suffering beings to whom they want to preach the Buddhist message), and a large number of gods and goddesses and other supernatural beings. This spectacle is awesome enough. It becomes even more so upon understanding that each of the non-divine attendees (Buddhas and so on) is in charge of an entire universe (or Buddha-field).

If modern physics is to be believed, our universe has two possible trajectories in the wake of the Big Bang. It may continue to expand indefinitely, with the stars and galaxies being ever more isolated from each other in an immensity of empty space. Alternatively the universe may collapse again into the small ball, small enough to be held in the palm of one hand, from which it exploded in the beginning. The second scenario is curiously compatible with the Hindu view of the divine spirit, the Brahman, breathing out and creating the universe, then destroying it by breathing in—and so on and on to the end of time (if there is one). Neither trajectory is compatible with an “Abrahamic” view of reality. That was succinctly summed up by John Polkinghorne, a physicist and Anglican theologian, in his book The God of Hope and the End of the World: “If the universe is a creation, it must make sense everlastingly, and so ultimately it must be redeemed from transience and decay.” Two interesting alternatives…

show comments
  • Dan

    Great post — a fascinating contrast that serves to highlight the distinctives of the monotheistic vs Eastern religions. Also a solid rebuttal to the increasingly common claim that the worldview and practices of Eastern religions are compatible with Christianity or the other monotheistic religions.

  • Curious Mayhem

    As far as anyone knows now, and has known since the 1920s, the universe as we can see it now will continue expanding forever.

    However, not enough is understood about the large-scale physics of the universe to elucidate weirder possibilities, like an eternal “metaverse” perpetually giving birth to “big-bang-style” baby universes, or our own universe doing the same. That’s at the frontier of cosmological speculation.

    There are metaphysical and mystical ideas in Greek, medieval, and Jewish thought about other universes and realities. It’s not unique to Eastern religions, although the prominence of uniqueness is unique to Near Eastern/Western religions. Eastern religions are centered on liberation from self and the apparent illusion of uniqueness.

  • Loader2000

    “If the universe is a creation, it must make sense everlastingly, and so ultimately it must be redeemed from transience and decay.” Why not.

  • LarryD

    Specuation about other sentient beings is an academic exercise, a distraction from woring on our own character and redemption. Nonetheless Christian and Judaic theleogians engaged in such speculations centuries ago, if ETs landed today, the Jewish and Christian worldview wouldn’t even hiccup.

    Genesis tells us the universe is Gods creation, and had a beginning. That it has some king of end is implicit, the predjudice against this is just people kicking against the vision of our home not being eternal, which means our species cannot be eternal either.

    • InjunTrouble77

      The Christian worldview would not hiccup? I think it definitely will. According to Christianity, man is the center of Creation. If advanced ET’s landed this view would be devastated. Several serious questions will need answers: Is Jesus the Son of ET as well as the Son of Man? Do ETs have original sin? Does Jesus redeem them too? Or do they have their own savior? And was he crucified like Jesus?

      • stefanstackhouse

        We would see their robots long before they ever showed up themselves. Indeed, I very much doubt that any truly intelligent being would bother making the trip themselves. If they were truly intelligent, they would realize that there are far better things to do with their limited time alive than to be buzzing through the void of space inside a metal can.

        • InjunTrouble77

          Why do you think anthropologists keep visiting primitive tribes all the time? Because there are no better things to do? The ETs visit us for exactly the same reason – they are curious and want to study us, primitive humans.

      • LarryD

        A few centuries ago, the Natural Philosophers of Western Civilization thought the known planets and the moon both inhabitable and inhabited. In short, they believed ETs existed, and near by. All of the serious questions have already been considered. Since we have no revelation on ETs theological state, all questions are academic until contact. But we recognize that any ETs will be fellow creations of God, just as we are, whether they are fallen, redeemed, untested, or unfallen.

        While contact would finally offer the chance to answer several theologically interesting questions, the notion that man is the center of Creation has been naive since Copernicus. Discovering that We Are Not Alone will not shock our ego, the notion of other sentient life is now old and familiar, predating even the oldest science fiction.

        At this point, it would be more daunting if we knew we were the only sentient species in the universe. Or the first.

        • InjunTrouble77

          All of the serious questions have already been considered? So tell me, do the ET’s have their own Son-of-God or is Jesus the One for all aliens as well? If Jesus is the One and only, did he then have to go to each planet and get crucified?

  • MarcusRegulus

    Two interesting speculations.
    It should be terrifying to the Western Asiatics to think humans may be the only species in the entire Universe in need of redemption, and what that says about us.
    For the Eastern Asiatics, if reincarnation is not back into THIS Universe, but some other one (but very similar), would that not argue in favor of social/political action in the one we happen to be in?

  • fredx2

    “The latest research shows that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, so there is no reason to expect a collapse from cosmological observations,” Krog said. “Thus it will probably not be Big Crunch that causes the universe to collapse. “The Danish physicists said that while their new calculations predict the collapse of the universe is now more likely than ever, they also said it’s possible it won’t happen at all.”

    I think the most recent science is decidedly against the idea of things collapsing in on themselves.

    “Recent experimental evidence (namely the observation of distant supernovae as standard candles, and the well-resolved mapping of the cosmic microwave background) has led to speculation that the expansion of the universe is not being slowed down by gravity but rather accelerating. However, since the nature of the dark energy that is postulated to drive the acceleration is unknown, it is still possible (though not observationally supported as of today) that it might eventually reverse sign and cause a collapse.”

    • lukelea

      Right. But there is an interesting wrinkle. The expansion of space does not apply to our Galaxy or the one next door (Andromeda), which will continue to exist in their present form long after all the other galaxies have disappeared over the horizon. It has to do with the fact that they are gravitationally bound. Likewise atoms are electromagnetically bound, so they too will continue to exist. Thus there will still to be stars in the sky. And even though earth will be long gone there may be other planets like it even then.

      This is according to mainstream physicist Leonard Susskind. Here is a link (I hope it’s the right one): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5bvxj5_g20

      • Curious Mayhem

        Yep, that’s the accelerating expansion, in a later phase, when the causal horizon gets smaller than distances between galaxies that are not gravitationally mutually bound. (Technically, galaxies and anything smaller bound together locally are not separating from the “cosmic flow” on larger scales.) Our universe, the causally connected patch of spacetime we now observe, will fragment into mutually non-communicating, non-connected patches. (Sort of like American politics :)

        This might have already happened once in cosmic history, in the very early inflationary epoch. So there might be a larger “metaverse” of patches now beyond our causal horizon, but once inside that horizon. Evidence for inflation from the very early universe might include evidence for these once-connected regions, now inflated beyond sight.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Exactly. We don’t understand enough of large-scale cosmological physics to rule out weirder possibilities. But if you just take the gravitational theory (general relativity) and present observations, the universe will keep expanding forever, full stop. There’s no evidence it will do anything else.

      The weirder possibilities are speculative and maybe someday, someone will find that they’re realities, not just possibilities. But for now, they’re just speculations.

  • stefanstackhouse

    There might be life on other planets. I suspect that almost everywhere, if life does exist at all it will usually be something not much different than our own extremophile bacteria. Sin and redemption doesn’t seem to really enter into the picture with those. It is quite possible that such micro-organisms might be the only life that exists outside of our extremely rare earth. It may be that we alone had the perfect conditions not only for life in its minimal form, but also for the cambrian explosion into the hugely diverse array of multi-cellular creatures that we have had for over 500 million years.

  • nupuramail blog

    Very good article on a difficult and less understood subject.

    However, Is a debate really required ? Jerusalem is a controversial place. India is a mystery. I am not sure if Brahmins are illegal in India – sure they exist just as corruption, but they don’t lead many organized efforts on classical thoughts.Foreign invasions, Colonial rule, followed by socialism has been brutal.

    “held in the palm of one hand” – This is not correct- You have to think over it for years, It is far more revolutionary and unthinkable proposition.

    “reincarnation (samsara)” – samsara is not reincarnation. Samsara is world. Reincarnation is the path of Jiba.

    “perhaps more properly called the wheel of death,” – if it is called wheel of life, perhaps it is proper to call so. ” because it is a notion full of horror: one dies over and over again” – Death is considered involving pain, and there is futility in indulgent. But where did people discuss Karma ,meaning and Ananda ? So more understanding is required.

  • Gary Novak

    Berger notes the compatibility of Hindu cosmology with modern physics. The Vedas recognize cosmic cycles and simultaneous universes, while modern cosmology postulates “multiple universes.” The question is whether one can recognize “the vastness of time and space” without reducing humanity to insignificance. Berger’s interviewer of some years ago was seemingly nonplussed when Berger mentioned that vastness as a key contribution of the East in the East/West dialogue. Without knowing where the interviewer was “coming from” (theologian, scientist, big-hair news anchor?), it is difficult to know quite what to make of his surprise. But we do know that one of the places Berger is coming from is Alfred Schuetz’s phenomenology of “multiple realities.”

    People find themselves moving between various “relevance structures”– art, science, religion, for example– each with its own “cognitive style.” Science (including its seemingly unfalsifiable metaphysical speculations about multiple universes) inhabits ONE “finite province of meaning.” Each province claims jurisdiction over the whole of reality– every knee shall bow before the consensus of climate science– until one blinks and finds onself in another province, where “certainties” are reversed. The point is that one need not deny the possibility of other relevance structures in order to affirm one’s “go to” structure. When one exits the religious or artistic relevance structure after a religious or aesthetic experience, one cannot say whether one is returning “to” or “from” reality without exercising Berger’s “heretical imperative.” Hopefully, one’s choice of a “philosophy of life” will be thoughtful and not arbitrary, whimsical, or reactive. But it cannot be algorithmic. One of the worst features of modern education is the tacit assumption that “educated” minds will judge alike.

    Perhaps Berger’s interviewer felt that the vastness of Hindu time and space– incompatible with an Abrahamic view of reality– is too intimidating not to be denied instead of acknowledged. But are not multiple universes powerless against a smile that renews the world?

  • PaddyO’

    Interesting article, but I disagree with the authors last assertion that the Abrahamic view is incompatible with modern physics. The Big Bang is an event very compatible with the Genesis description of creation. The Hebrew word for created is “bara” which means bringing into existence something new, something that did not exist before. No fewer than 11 verses talk about the heavens being stretched out. (Job 9:8; Psalm 104:2; Isaiah 40:22; 42:5; 44:24; 45:12; 48:13; 51:13; Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15; and Zechariah 12:1. Job 37:18). Romans chapter 8 specifically talks about the entire creation being subjected to the law of decay. (2nd law of thermodynamics.) Regardless whether science tells us that we are in for a big collapse, or if we will expand forever, the Bible tells us that He who created the universe will remake, or renew His creation when His Son returns. (Rev 21.) The entire system is under bondage (or decay) because of sin, but it will be renewed in the end. That is the good news of the gospel! ( The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God – Romans 8)

  • jbugs68

    The key point in my view is that God made man in His own image. Therefore, are we particularly chosen of God above all other alien beings out there? It is this point which might cause many Christians to believe that aliens must therefore be demons, I mean, if one is to believe the many abduction experiences, they do not seem to be compassionate or loving (the Greys especially). In fact they seem more like extremely intelligent machines, and therefore lack the spirit of God (or image of). I don’t think that aliens are actually part of our particular universe dimension, but come from another dimension entirely able to pop in and out of our dimension at will, without having to travel millions of light years to get here. This personally leads me to think that they are indeed what we would call ‘demons’ – and therefore the current invasion of them into our dimension only spells trouble and deception for mankind. Just my thought (non-academic though it might be!)

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