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Holistic Knowing

Cosmology: Part One

Holistic Knowing
Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The sciences will just separate the human off and focus on the physical aspects of the universe and the religious traditions will shy away from the universe because that’s reserved for science. So cosmology is an attempt to deal with the whole and the nature of the human in that. —Brian Swimme [1]

Dr. Barbara Holmes is a teacher in our Living School, a former lawyer, professor, and author of several books. In her book Race and the Cosmos, she connects physics, culture, ethics, and spirituality. Here she explores how the synthesis of many ways of knowing was valued by primal and contemporary indigenous communities:

In the earliest of days it was believed that a flat earth and a very present creator capped the creation with a dome that divided waters in a layered firmament. There were no static scientific truths that could be deduced from a firmament that was dependent on the will of God. The flood was proof of that presumption. Human perceptions of the natural order confirmed God’s constant involvement. Waters parted, plagues fell, the sun stood still. The idea of a flat earth offered a stage for the activities of a hands-on God and a cast of lesser divinities. In most instances, the personalities of the gods mimicked human foibles and triumphs.

Other cosmologies were developing at the same time in cultures around the world. Some ancient people envisioned the cosmos “as a ‘cosmic egg,’ sometimes as a bowl carried on the back of a turtle.” [2] In Egypt the cosmological surround was formed by the arched body of the goddess Nut, who leaned over the earth god Geb. Aristotle and Ptolemy honed an earth-centered understanding of the universe that became the dominant perspective of the three monotheistic religions, yet the planets retained the names of the ancient gods. The ability to hold incongruous concepts about reality was a prototype of the uneasy harmony of myth, folly, informed supposition, and observation that engendered shared ideas about the universe.

Indigenous societies include science and theology and all other aspects of their culture as a part of their ordinary discourse, for the sciences have never been alienated from daily life. Ancient cosmologies assure us that reality is relational and will not be discovered through a microscope or an intricate mathematical formula; instead, it may be encoded in each event of creation.

The attempt to separate culture and scientific knowledge began during the Enlightenment. Thousands of years earlier, ancient people considered the earth and the cosmos as a living continuum that sustained and permeated them. They did not separate a belief in the spirits and gods from the change of seasons or the struggle to survive. However, the story was primarily religious. To talk about the scientific methodologies of ethnic people is to talk about origins. From the beginning, the ancestors know intuitively that knowledge can be life-giving, for without it the people perish. By contrast, one of the legacies of the Enlightenment is that knowledge comes in particular forms and from particular cultures; all else is myth and mystery.

[1] Brian Swimme, “The Universe Story as Sacred Story,” in Fugitive Faith: Conversations on Spiritual, Environmental, and Community Renewal, Benjamin Webb, interviewer (Orbis Books: 1998), 133.

[2] R. Hanbury Brown, The Wisdom of Science: Its Relevance to Culture and Religion (Cambridge University Press: 1986), 42.

Adapted from Barbara A. Holmes, Race and the Cosmos: An Invitation to View the World Differently (Trinity Press International: 2002), 79-80.

Image credit: Starry Night Over the Rhône (detail), Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. —Psalm 19:1-4
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