Aaron Ricker, one of the editors, in his general introduction to the book points out, that the story of religion and astronomy is a complex one. “For many modern observers, the human endeavours of religion, astronomy, astrology, mythology, etc. are clearly distinct territories with strict borders that need to be defined and defended. Such categories of human endeavour have not always been perceived as distinct in the past, however, and the fact that such borders are disputed at all points to their evolving and perspectival nature. For some people they all add up to the same thing, and for most people they remain deeply related topics.” (p. 1)
And this book indeed brings together the expertise of scholars from various fields, to examine ways in which cultural ideas about “the heavens” can shape religious cosmologies in the widest sense of the term, and in return be shaped by the latter.
A great variety of topics and perspectives is offered in 4 parts, each of which can be taken for itself and a summary of a certain period. Taken as a whole however the reader gets a historical and interdisciplinary as well as intercultural overview of many intersections of religion and astronomy.
Part 1 - Intersections of astronomy and religion. Ancient and post-ancient worlds – as Aaron Ricker shows in his introduction, takes seriously the fact, that for most of human history astrological thinking and observations have been deeply interconnected to the work and will of divine beings: “Questions about the nature of the heavens have therefore long been deeply, dependably connected to ‘religious’ questions like life after death, or the proper way to send off the dead.”(p.5)
In the following chapters John T. Fitzgerald argues that the transcendental and revealed authority of religious traditions was historically related to the authority of local beliefs about the heavens. Eldon Yellowhorn looks back millennia for the evolving constellation of sky-watching, and other mythologies and ritual practices in living Blackfoot tradition. Rebecca Robinson takes a comparative approach to constructing authority based on cosmological knowledge. For doing so she exemplarily compares ancient Chinese and Roman calendar-making. Jeffrey Kotyk describes ancient developments in astronomy and astrology and their influence on classical Buddhist cosmology. Danielle Adams provides an insight into the struggle over the power and meaning of Arabian “rain star” traditions in early Islam. Shulamit Laderman analyzes strategic uses of cosmological speculation in Jewish and Byzantine Christian art. Finally, Andrea D. Lobel draws attention to the question of which sources are often ignored in cultural and religious histories of astronomy, and what are the (political) assumptions and reasons for that.
It becomes quite clear, that cosmic questions have long played an important role in arenas of grandeur, power, beauty, order, and wonder. And the reader is asked by these case studies to compare and reflect how and why such cultural projects are “religious” projects.
Part 2 - Intersections of astronomy and religion. Enlightenment and scientific revolution – sums up more familiar and historically closer subjects in the history of the dialogue between science and religion.
Christopher J. Corbally, another editor of the book, has written the general introduction to this part. He summarizes what becomes exemplarily clear when reading the following four chapters:
Reason is a very human characteristic. We might see some traces of it in animals, but neither the latter nor artificial intelligence so far can compare to the reason we experience and find in others.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we find a special flowering of reason in multiple disciplines. Science, religion, and art lie at the core of it. And they have been integrated by philosophy, while politics helped to translate them into social practice. This period in Europe is called the Enlightenment.
The four authors of part II stretch the period of the Enlightenment into modern times. Christopher M. Graney offers interesting insights into the cosmos of German astronomer Johannes Kepler at the early seventeenth century who became famous for discovering the elliptical nature of orbital motion. And in doing so he set the stage for Isaac Newton’s physics. Kepler’s cosmos – arguing against the infinite, centerless cosmos of Giordano Bruno - was the sun-centered cosmos required by observations and basic geometry. It turns out to be wrong however as determined by current science.
Stephen D. Snobelen then uses the cosmology of Isaac Newton to focus on his and the Bible’s understanding of “the arrow of time”. For Newton, the cosmos is unstable and needs the continual guidance of God’s “design”.
Simon Mitton and Rodney D. Holder sketch for us Georges Lemaître’s life and the development of his theory of the expanding universe. In contrast to Copernicus et al. and Newton and more along the principles set by Aquinas, he sees religion and science as different roads to truth. The Bible is not a scientific text, but the very reason for our capacity to do science is that we are made in the image of God.
Finally, Nicholas Campion refers to the conflict of science with religion through an exposition of Einstein’s “cosmic religious feeling” being so much more than a mere “pantheistic reverence” as Richard Dawkins would call it.
Part 3 - Intersections of astronomy and religion. The modern world – again is very exciting and innovative.
Darry Dinell, the third of the editors, starts his introduction with the following quote:
“With the Scientific Revolution and the modern world that developed out of it, many intellectuals predicted that religion would recede to irrelevance, to be replaced by science and secularism. This process, known as ‘secularization’ had, among its chief proponents the German sociologist Max Weber, who foresaw modern Western society becoming progressively ‘disenchanted’ as rationality superseded religion. The secularization thesis put forward by Weber and others has not borne out definitively. While religion is no longer as institutionally dominant as it was in previous eras, it has not fallen into oblivion. World religions, personalized spiritualities, and culturally bound knowledge systems persist in the 21st century, even as bodies of scientific knowledge, including astronomy, expand. Knowledge of the immensity of the universe has not necessarily stifled religious feeling; for many, the wonder engendered by the cosmos has stimulated numinous sentiments as much as it has inspired scientific curiosity.” (p. 127)
And this part indeed explores how religion continues to intersect with astronomy throughout the modern world. Worldviews adapt with modernity, world-building is still ongoing in cultural (and counter-cultural) contexts across the globe. And new cosmologies continue to be negotiated.
India for example is a growing leader in STEM research (science, technology, engineering, and medicine), including accomplishments in space science. But still the astrology of the Vedas and the sacred texts of Hinduism are science matter at several Indian universities and important for many people’s life. Parna Sengupta examines some representative manifestations in Bengal. Elements of Hinduism are at this point, besides others, interwoven with modern science and its findings.
“Japan, too, has seen the emergence of similar syntheses between religion and science. As Japan rapidly modernized through mastery of Western scientific disciplines, its Buddhist thinkers also sought to reconcile their traditions with science. Scientific methods, they held, confirmed the truth of Buddhist cosmology.”(p. 127) Kenji Miyazawa’s 1927 Night on the Milky Way Railroad is a famous example of this.
An example for modern-day Europe and North America is James F. McGrath’s contribution showing that esteemed scientists are willing to take into consideration the religious potentialities of the stars and the cosmos and that often objective astronomical inquiries emerge from a subjective wonderment.
From this point of view, science and religion do not have to be taken as opposites. A more curious example being the counter-culture cosmology of Flat-Eartherism.
Part 4 - Intersections of astronomy and religion. Future directions – is once more introduced by Aaron Ricker:
“If the past is a challengingly strange country, what can we say about the future?... All we ever see with our own eyes is the recent past, dancing across our retinas while we march backwards, as it were, into the future.”(p. 195)
In the final collection of essays public astronomy educator Grace Wolf-Chase points out to the emergence of the new brand of “astrotheology” which deals with the possibility of life elsewhere in our universe. Theologian John Hart describes one such astrotheological vision. The closing examination of a blockbuster cosmos television series shows an example of a certain kind of spiritual ethic arising out of cosmic wonder in pop culture.
In his conclusion at the end of part 4 Darryl Dinell summarizes as follows: “Why it is that religion and speculation about the stars - and more recently, religion and the science of astronomy - have so often intersected? Perhaps it is the ‘big-picture’ questions of origin and destiny that both religion and astronomy inevitably prompt, the answers to which have weighty existential consequences. Whether viewed from a scientific or mystical perspective, concerns around the extent and nature of the universe evoke profound considerations about the totality of being. Reflections on the scope of the cosmos lend themselves to explorations of power and poetics, aesthetics and authority. Perhaps most consistently, they arouse wonder. From that dynamic inkblot of stars, planets, asteroids, and constellations above us have come innumerable systems of meaning and, with them, manifold expressions of profundity, both spiritual and material.”(p. 226)
As he then points out, the editors and the chapter authors have sought to give various examples of the many inspired possibilities of an intercultural and interdisciplinary and in this sense plural cosmology in an intelligent way, so that the readers may follow and then find examples and solutions for their own cosmological options. “We have also aspired to elucidate the ways in which individuals and groups engage astronomy and scientific cosmology in building cosmologies that encompass not only space and time but also notions of value and purpose… Whether we speak of the heavens or the cosmos, both connote grandeur, power, beauty, order, and - yet again - wonder in multiple cultural contexts. It is our hope that readers of this volume have been inspired to enrich their own understandings of why this is…Our goal here is not to be prescriptive. We have avoided in particular the kind of scientism in which questions of purpose are simply dismissed as ridiculous, and the kind of anti-intellectual relativism in which ‘anything goes’.”(p.227)
To conclude: this is an important and innovative anthology and a brilliant example of a fruitful dialogue between natural science/astrology and religion/religious studies. It can be taken as a whole or in chapters which exemplarily show such a functioning dialogue in several parts of the world, in different cultures and religious and also scientific milieus and throughout human history. I wholeheartedly recommend it for scholars, research and discussion groups and also higher – hopefully interdisciplinary - school education as well.
Pn. Dr. Sybille C. Fritsch-Oppermann
Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 31:3 (September 2021), pp. 20-24.