"Cosmos" Episode 3: Your God is too Small
Last week Neil deGrasse Tyson fought wolves to start the episode. This week he held a baby and made it a metaphor for science. Did you feel a great disturbance in the force? As if a million geek ovaries suddenly cried out and then burst?
But the opening reminded me of a story I read online once, one that I’ve searched for on occasion and have never been able to dig up again. It was the story of a sermon given by a pastor who had come back from the wars and gave the pulpit one last try before wandering off onto the back roads when his parish couldn’t bear to hear his words.
We do not know what hell this is we are born into, he said, we are born naked and screaming into this world with no rules and no names. A vacant world with no apparent purpose but the strong annihilating the weak. This world so cruel that it killed God himself, nailed to a tree. There’s such horror to look into that abyss for the first time, to realize that whatever humanity has in this world, it has because it scratched it out of the rock and the dust. That before we first named things, there were no names. That before we first made rules, there were none at all. What a tenuous balance we have on the edge of this cliff we perch upon above the unthinking hordes.
That mystery is what Tyson gets at in the very beginning of this episode, that revelation that tiny and helpless as we are, we dared to look up at the stars and to demand answers. And there’s something beautiful about the poetry of this point: that what first made us scientists were the stars, twinkling down from the very beginning and telling us that the world was bigger than we imagined.
One of Tyson’s repeated refrains, in this and other works, is that with every step of science, we have discovered that the universe is older and bigger than we had dared previously imagine. He touches on it here again with the argument that good answers don’t close doors, they open them. They generate a new generation of questions.
The stories this time focus most on how man discovered such things, how our needs guided our science in the earliest years. How flawed and wonderfully human theses heroes of science really were in their quest for understanding how the world worked around them.
Something clicked this time for me. Tyson has geared this show very precisely towards a shadowing of religious rather than scientific documentaries. With repeated spiritual imagery: the flawed men who become martyrs, the abandoned child, the answers in the stars, the promise of prophecy. I’ve heard friends joke about how watching Cosmos is like going to Science Church, and they’ve hit the nail on the head.
What Tyson has created here is not an attempt to make a documentary, but an attempt to fight ignorance on its terms, taking the fight to its doors. Kicking in those doors at the notion that science cannot be spiritual, that knowledge cannot be as filled with wonder as small-minded ignorance.
As Tyson is fond of saying: your God is too small.
*image by Daniel Bosltad
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.