Review of Jeffery Sobosan’s “Romancing the Universe”

Review of Jeffery Sobosan’s “Romancing the Universe”

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Review of Jeffery G. Sobosan, Romancing the Universe: Theology, Science, and Cosmology (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999).

Sobosan is a theologian and I a physicist, so I began with trepidation concerning the depth and accuracy of his scientific writing. Thankfully, my prejudice was baseless—Sobosan references current mainstream theories of quantum physics, cosmology, and astrophysics with clarity and precision. I found no misinterpretations or misrepresentations of science in the 195 pages constituting five chapters and substantial endnotes. Therefore, I was free to focus on his agenda rather than the particulars of his presentation. And I would first characterize his book as a pitch for its readers to adopt an intellectual spirit in constructing their worldviews.

In chapter 1, “The Dahlia and the Spiral Galaxy,” he begins as any accomplished salesperson by trying to convince us of a need for, and overview of, his product. In this case, the need is for intellectual expansion in salvaging purpose, person, and posterity. Of what value is life without telos? What worth telos that doesn’t involve self? Why bother with self, if there is no legacy? And there can be no posterity without an inhabitable Earth on which they may stage their acts.

So, he begins with a call to establish worldviews with integrity. We are to expand our perspectives, concerns, and interests in an effort to find purpose in existence, improve self, and provide for our descendants. If we improve ourselves by extending aesthetic value and intellectual interest to cosmological proportions, then we may expect to find significant purpose with longevity.

Now an accomplished salesperson beguiles and reproaches, and Sobosan is no exception. In chapter 2, “A Therapy for Narcissus,” he begins by enticing us to appreciate an indeterministic universe. Supernovas, comets, lunar rainbows, and meteor showers can supply us with “kairotic moments,” experiences which break the monotony of deterministic existence. Of course, such events have a history of creating anxiety among those with but rudimentary scientific literacy. Today, such events may escape *prediction* by the priests of science, but they’re easily explained *a posteriori* by same. We needn’t worry about unpredictability as long as we’ve comprehension. Rather, we should revel in the occasional stochastic event in our otherwise scripted lives.

Cosmologically, Sobosan notes that the universe originated with a kairotic event—the initial singularity. He zealously introduces the oscillating cosmology model whereby the universe cyclically expands from the initial singularity called the “big bang” and recollapses into its counterpart called the “big crunch.” Accordingly, we’re treated to endless epochal kairotic events. Theologically, Sobosan notes analogous features between the big bang and God advancing cautiously, “God and the singularity are epistemologically synonymous terms.” (Ironically, Fred Hoyle coined the term “big bang” pejoratively for much the same reason Sobosan now heralds it.)

But, one should understand that not all kairos is of this nature. While we’re not able to change appreciably the evolution of the universe, we do control our reactions to personal kairotic experience.  In this sense, kairos is a nexus between religion and science.

This nexus is to be found in his liberal leitmotif—that we accept our God-given responsibility as curators for the planet. He introduces us to this responsibility with, “But we have no control whatsoever over a universe born in an exploding moment eons ago, save for our tiny bit of it, the Earth and its immediate environs.” And he admonishes us with, “In the last half century especially, we have increasingly comprehensive control over the Earth, developing more and more techniques and devices to oversee it. … Most frightening of all, of course, are our nuclear weapons, those monstrosities of an evil which is Satanic in its proportions.”

I don’t happen to agree that nuclear weapons are the “most frightening” of humankind’s  threat to the environment. Without proper credentials, I presage as more threatening the insidious ‘environ-morphological’ ramifications of deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. And what he advances as a positive act of environmental engineering—irrigation—I understand often results in biologically hazardous levels of soil salinity. I certainly won’t argue that a large scale detonation of nuclear warheads is environmentally benign. I simply point out that mere existence can and does negatively affect a specie’s environment, e.g., methane released in bovine flatulence.

But Sobosan is not engaged in polemic on this point. His message is born from a larger theological perspective. He beseeches us to regard all life with fundamental teleological import. Further, and perhaps more profoundly, he asks us to see as theologically fundamental both the relationships between trans-temporal objects and their histories in the big bang. Prima facia, the idea suggests ‘bosonic pantheism,’ but this nomenclature is perhaps fatuous while without derisive intent. To exist is to interact directly or indirectly with all else which exists or existed.

Consider for example, my friend, Harvey. (Yes, he happens to be a rabbit)] The fermions which comprise you or any measurement device you care to invent cannot interact with the fermions which comprise Harvey via the exchange of any known bosons, i.e., by any of the four fundamental forces of nature. Without such interaction, how can we determine Harvey’s spatio-temporal location? And without spatio-temporal location, in what sense does Harvey exist? (Einstein’s equations of general relativity arguably evidence this relationship between trans-temporal objects and spatio-temporal localization.) So regarding existence, there is fundamental importance to the relationships between all trans-temporal objects extant or extinct. (Notwithstanding presentism, relativity also affords equal ontic status to those trans-temporal objects which will exist.)

Thus, the pitch is made—teleological and theological significance may be sought in a scientific understanding of creation and existence. If one responds with curiosity, veneration, and humility to kairotic personal experiences, one has a nexus between science and religion, an integral worldview. It is a theme sure to find support among intellectuals and liberals, those likely to comprise the majority of this book’s audience.

So, who requires reproach? The bane of his utopian vision is the narcissist, the introverted, or anyone lacking broad social concern. He writes for example, “We would not consider healthy an obsession that plots the murder of an irascible neighbor, or one that concentrates on the trivialities of life. But we would consider healthy an obsession with excellence in refining one’s contributions to the world.” His call is summed up nicely in the following paragraph.

“The third type of blindness is moral or intellectual. It can owe to simple ignorance, gradually, if never fully, redeemed through education and advancing experiences in life. But it can also result from willful refusal, an obstinacy born of intellectual or moral comfort with the ways things are that deliberately turns its back on novelty. This blindness creates a mind that feels itself continually threatened by alternate ways of thinking or behaving, so that to perpetuate its comfort it must ignore them. While the first two types of blindness, when handled well, can draw our admiration, this third, willful type brings us back to the character of Narcissus, and as such merits an aggressive yet patient therapy. We must strive to open the blind ones’ eyes and set them moving.”

Of course, the devil is in the details and this is perhaps why he provides none.

Seriously though, in accord with Sobosan’s suggestion to “look intimately at the world around (me), away from (myself) toward(s) all else that is” I note Lou and Mike. I had the opportunity to converse with these men in a local pub on Christmas eve. Lou professed to “hate niggers” and was indifferent to the plight of an African-American severely beaten by a white man stating, “He was just a fuckin’ nigger.” Mike is a devote Christian and was always prepared to quote and interpret Biblical passages. Some years ago, Mike’s faith was put to the test when God asked him to sever his lower right arm. He passed this test using a dull ax, and proudly displays the prosthetic testimony of his accomplishment. I engaged these men in more than passing discourse and while not a psychologist, I suspect Sobosan would not proselyte them with any degree of aggression or patience.

How then, are we to respond to the recalcitrant bigot, fanatic, or those of equivalent mental pathology? As such people constitute some of the most prevalent and influential elements of our environment, I expect theology to address this question. Sobosan avers, “wonder is most properly engaged when it seeks beauty within the context of cherishing life.” In chapter 3 he writes, “We need to exercise sensitivity toward the universe, both in how we engage its facts analytically and its possibilities imaginatively.” And in chapter 4 he tells us that “we must first be willing to learn, and this willingness must know no bounds.” One may infer any number of morally and ethically incongruent responses to my query from such statements. The embedding text is equally ambiguous on this point. This was the sole shortcoming of an otherwise excellent book.

Romancing the Universe is insightful, scientifically accurate and robust, intellectually fecund, and very well-written. Its message will likely be resonant with many on the META list serve. In fact, I plan to use it as the primary reading in my Freshman Seminar next fall. The book’s weakness lies in its failure to explicate a means of communication between its readers and their complement in society. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect such work transcend the pedantic and address the pragmatic. But, whence integrity otherwise?