Sunday, 19 July 2015
The Biblical Cosmos, by Robin Parry
Robin A. Parry, The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim's Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible, 2014 Cascade Books
Many years ago, before Robin Parry got his PhD, he taught me A-Level Religion and Philosophy. He also used to preach regularly at the Charismatic Evangelical church my family attended. His preaching had a theological depth that set it apart from most preaching that you are likely to hear.
This book, beautifully illustrated by his daughter, Hannah, takes the reader on a tour through the universe as the writers of the Old Testament understood it.
While many Evangelicals, whether Old or Young Earth assume a concordist view of the Bible and science, Parry argues persuasively that the ancient Hebrews had a fundamentally pre-scientific cosmology that cannot be harmonised with our scientific cosmology in a literal way. They held to a department store view of the universe with Sheol in the basement, the surface of the Earth surrounded by water on the ground floor, the air on the next floor, a solid sky dome with attached stars holding up the water on the next level and on the top floor, God's throne room, where He holds court with his heavenly council. There are Christians who will challenge this thesis on the Ancient Near East cosmology, though I think it is grounded in what we know of Ancient Near Eastern thought. I think it raises difficult questions for those like me who maintain the Inerrancy of Scripture, but these are questions that must be addressed. Back in my fundamentalist days, I was aware of some of them, such as the waters above being situated above the 'sky dome.' My solution then was that there is some kind of watery barrier separating our universe from God's heaven. Who knows, maybe there is.
Rejecting Biblical literalism, Parry argues that we can go beyond divine accommodationism and find metaphorical truth in the differences between the ancient cosmology and our own. He takes us through the idea of the cosmos as God's temple, an idea that will be familiar to those who have read John Walton or GK Beale. His thoughts on the the Biblical idea of the stars as minor deities in Yahweh's court are interesting. He argues that we would do well to look beyond material reality to spiritual dimensions behind it. The proposition that the stars are living beings was condemned under Pope Vigilius in the Canons against Origen. Perhaps the stars, while not themselves living, are fundamentally connected to the angels. I imagine the stars are to angels like the tubes of a polycrates worm or the barnacles created by a tiny a crustacean. Parry seems keen to revive a some form of Christian Plantonism as a more fruitful understanding of the cosmos than our materialism that prevails. He suggests some very helpful reading material on this subject.
I think Parry agonizes unnecessarily about the ascension of Our Lord into heaven. He toys with the idea of Christ's ascension as his translation into the eschatological future. It is something of a modern orthodoxy across all denominations to insist that heaven is not a place, but a state. Call me a fundamentalist, but I have never undestood what the problem is with the idea of heaven as physical place that one could hypothetically reach in a spaceship actually is. I still own my Dake's Reference Bible that tells me that heaven is a 'planet on the north side of the universe.'