Religious Cosmology – Making Sense of the Universe

“He who does not know what the world is does not know where he is, and he who does not know for what purpose the world exists, does not know who he is, nor what the world is.” ~ Marcus Aurelius

Pythagorean's Hearth of the Universe

The diagram is not to scale, and the planets are aligned for convenience in illustration; generally they were distributed around the spheres.

In 1994, the Czech poet-president Vaclav Havel stated during a speech about the state of the world that “We may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us….”

“The Universe” is a word that we invented to describe everything we can imagine. Cosmology is the study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of that universe.  Physical cosmology is exploring these questions from a scientific viewpoint, while esoteric or spiritual cosmology concerns itself with the philosophical questions of our place in the universe, the nature of reality beyond its physicality, and understanding and explaining why everything came to be.  The primary source of esoteric/religious cosmology is from our historical, mythological, religious, and esoteric literature, as well as our traditions.

Ancient Cosmology

Anthropologists tell us that in almost all traditional cultures, its religious/esoteric cosmology that gives its members their fundamental sense of where they come from, who they are, and what their purpose is in life’s larger picture.  The stories that they create and share explain their sacred relationship with that universe.

Ancient cosmology started with stories and myths, but soon expanded to include elements of philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. For example, the earliest Greek cosmology myths identified the planets with the Ancient Roman gods Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and found that they were divine enough to influence people’s lives.  The Pythagoreans created a cosmology that included mathematics, music and astronomy.  They described a universe consisting of all the visible heavenly bodies, including the sun, revolving around a central fire invisible to human eyes. However, the Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed that the heavens were literally composed of 55 concentric, crystalline spheres to which the celestial objects were attached and which rotated at different velocities (but the angular velocity was constant for a given sphere), with the Earth at the center.  They also believed that as they moved, they gave forth musical sounds, “the harmony of the spheres.”  The earth being the center of our universe became the predominant cosmological view until the Middle Ages, and ancient religious and societal structures were created based on this view.

As we gained a greater scientific understanding of space, Galileo, Kepler and the other proponents of a heliocentric system introduced a universe that was empty space, vast distances, no center, no purpose, no place for God, and no obvious implications for human behavior.  This resulted in disrupting these ancient religious and societal structures and beliefs, and sometimes in very profound ways.  Blaise Pascal wrote, “engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I am terrified…. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me.”

Modern Cosmology

Today religion and science seems to be at odds because they present apparently conflicting and opposing views of cosmology in western civilization today:

  • The cosmos is created and ruled by a Distant Patriarch. (View held by most Abrahamic Religions)
  • The cosmos is a Grand Machine. (View held by Science)
  • The cosmos is a manifestation of a spiritual intelligence. (Pantheism, Panentheism)

Contemporary Pagans have generally adopted the third view and see the Divine and the universe as identical (pantheism) or see the Divine as greater than the universe but contained within her (panentheism).  While Pantheism sees everything as sacred and divine, panentheism maintains a distinction between the divine and non-divine and the significance of both.  In either case, Contemporary Pagans view the universe as an expression of the Divine and have created a spirituality based on a sacred journey of discovery and connecting.

Cosmology Myths

Science has made us more knowledgeable of the physical universe and perhaps it has made it harder for us to find value it the cosmology myths of ancients.  Their stories may even appear a bit silly to modern eyes.  But there is still great value in them.  Our cosmology myths are rooted in our culture and provide us a constant reminder of who we are and where we come from.  They help us identify our cultural heritage and allows us to keep that heritage alive.  They illustrate basic paradigms that are intrinsic to that culture; and intrinsic to their aspirations and dreams.  They foster a shared set of perspectives, values, history and creates a connection to one another, to our ancestors, to the natural world surrounding us, and to society.

Because Contemporary Pagans feel that human beings have become tragically disconnected from the natural world and have desacralized nature, we have found great value and truths in these ancient stories and myths.  We often create spiritual practices  based on the ideas expressed in these stories.  We seek to reconnect to Divine’s creations, and thereby connecting to the Divine. By reconnecting to the universe, we learn to interact with it.  We see the cosmology myths allow us to transcend our common lives into a vast universe that fascinates us, inspires us, and enables us to look outside ourselves.  They provide explanations where philosophical or scientific discourse would be incomprehensible.  They give purpose and guidelines for living.  They stimulate our imagination and feelings, where the effect can be more profound and life-changing than that from intellectual comprehension.

For example, some lessons that the Norse cosmogony story in which Odin and his brothers slew Ymir and set about constructing the world from his corpse, might include:

  1. Life comes from Death. Creation never occurs in a vacuum. Destruction of what exists before creation is often necessary.
  2. Flesh and Matter. That the visible world is the organic manifestation of spirit, as opposed to a transcendent Divine.
  3. Creation as ongoing and participatory. All of the inhabitants of the Nine Worlds have some role, some agency, in the creation process, however great or small.

Conclusion

Physical and religious/esoteric cosmology should not be at odds, but have two different but similar roles.  Together they answer the biggest ‘Why’, and hence, they are valuable.   But while physical cosmology provides scientific answers to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, religious/esoteric cosmology enables us to confront our most basic human truths and gives us the opportunity to better understand them, learn from them, and possibly even apply them to our own everyday life.

Contemporary Pagans understand the difference between science and religion, and does not find them in contention.  Where religious/esoteric cosmology does not accurate reflect our physical cosmology, they find that it can still provides us a valid way to look at the world and attain spiritual growth.

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From Chapter 3, Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, by Charles G. Leland, [1899]:

Important Note:  Do not stereotype Lucifer or Diana from a Abrahamic religious viewpoint.

Diana was the first created before all creation; in her were all things; out of herself, the first darkness, she divided herself; into darkness and light she was divided. Lucifer, her brother and son, herself and her other half, was the light.

And when Diana saw that the light was so beautiful, the light which was her other half, her brother Lucifer, she yearned for it with exceeding great desire. Wishing to receive the light again into her darkness, to swallow it up in rapture, in delight, she trembled with desire. This desire was the Dawn.

But Lucifer, the light, fled from her, and would not yield to her wishes; he was the light which files into the most distant parts of heaven, the mouse which flies before the cat.

Then Diana went to the fathers of the Beginning, to the mothers, the spirits who were before the first spirit, and lamented unto them that she could not prevail with Lucifer. And they praised her for her courage, they told her that to rise she must fall; to become the chief of goddesses she must become a mortal.

And in the ages, in the course of time, when the world was made, Diana went on earth, as did Lucifer, who had fallen, and Diana taught magic and sorcery, whence came witches and fairies and goblins–all that is like man, yet not mortal.

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About Sam Shryock

I am a resident of Kansas City metro area and have practiced Pagan Spirituality since 2007. I am a third-degree Wiccan with the Correllian-Nativist tradition, the local coordinator for Kansas City Pagan Pride Day, and the host of the monthly Kansas Coffee Coven. I currently work full-time in the Computer Industry. I am a retired Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel and have a Masters Degree in Computer Resource and Information Management. Most importantly I am a proud husband, father, and grandfather.
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