The known, observable universe is filled with cosmic designs and filled with astronomical troves. The universe is filled with the beauty of quasars and pulsars, black holes and neutron stars, supernovas and galaxies, and many more beauties that science has shown us. One of the more recent conversations is the engagement from scientists, specifically cosmologists, with the Bible. The Bible is filled with creation hymns and stories, and while most biblical commentators who dabble within the scientific study of cosmology center their studies on Genesis 1 and 2, Job 38-411Paul Wallace. Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press. 2015. and John 1. While these are major creation stories in the Bible others are important, this paper will reflect on Psalm 8.2Some biblical scholars argue that Psalm 8 is not an origin story; however, Psalm 8 draws upon the relationship between God, the cosmos, and humanity. While Psalm 8 is not categorized as a creation tale, there is between God’s work with the beauty of the cosmos and God creating humanity.
This paper will examine recent cosmology through the lens of Psalm 8 with a focus on the relationship God is pictured as having with humanity and the cosmos. I will begin with an exegesis of Psalm 8 drawing heavily from the text itself as well as from scholars engaging in conversation with each other, and then drawing connections between cosmology and the handiwork of God. This conversation draws on the continuing dialogue between science and religion, and my goal is to provide more avenues where modern science and the Bible engage in more fruitful dialogue.
Psalm 8 opens with an ascription to David; however, scholars disagree as to whether David composed this psalm. James Limburg and Gerald Wilson attribute this Psalm to David, but Wilson does not go as far as Limburg does since Wilson acknowledges there are no Davidic elements present within the text itself.3James Limburg. Psalms. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster Bible Companion. 24; Gerald H. Wilson. Psalms Volume I. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 199. The Davidic authorship is not entirely pertinent to this discussion of the overall content, but the superscription merely reflects potential authorship the Psalm was composed for David or like the style of David.4Superscriptions are the first verse in the Psalms in the Hebrew. These superscriptions do not suggest who wrote the Psalm, and they are part of a wider collection in the Psalms. When considering authorship, one element that was pointed out to me was the relationship between Genesis 1:26-28 and Psalm 8.
There are some scholars who have drawn a connection between Psalm 8 and Genesis 1, and there are others that disagree. For example, Goldingay, Wilson, and Schafer argue that Psalm 8 has connections with Genesis 1; however, Hoffman explicitly states that “Psalm 8 does not allude to the FCS (First Creation Story: Genesis 1), and [it] should be dismissed from the conversation.”5Goldingay. Psalms 1-41: Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Wisdom and Psalms. 158-160; Wilson, The NIV Application Commentary, 206-208; Konrad Schaefer, O.S.B. Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry: Psalms. Edited by David W. Cotter, O.S.B. Collegeville, Minnesota. Liturgical Press. 2001. 23-24; Yair Hoffman. “The First Creation Story: Canonical and Diachronic Aspects.” Creation in Jewish and Christian Traditions: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplemental Series 319. Edited by Henning Graf Reventlow and Yair Hoffman. New York, New York. Sheffield Academic Press. 2002. 41. I would side more with Hoffman as there is no direct allusions between Psalm 8 and Genesis 1, but I would argue that Psalm 8 and Genesis 1 draw from the similar concepts of God, but they were likely compiled at different times. Another likely guess, which Wilson, Goldingay, and Schaefer are arguing, is that the community that compiled Psalm 8 knew of the creation story which is found in Genesis 1.
The Psalm continues with the opening line of praise “O, Lord, how majestic is your name in all the Earth,” and the psalmist is declaring how majestic or noble is God’s name in all the Earth, which Wilson argues that this sets the parameters of the poem, describing how God’s wonders are manifested in God’s creation.6Wilson. The NIV Application Commentary. Psalms Volume 1.201. What is also worth noting here is that God is the sovereign over all creation, and that God’s glory is above the heavens.7Psalm 8:1. NRSV. God’s name, and as Wilson argues, “is an extension of God,” and the theological underpinnings with that as well is that humanity bears the name of God.8Wilson. Psalms Volume 1. 201. John Goldingay expands upon this connection between God and the relevancy of God’s glory as the foundation for the rest of creation, especially as how God and God’s glory contribute to the ongoing creation of God in the universe.9John Goldingay. Psalms 1-41: Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Baker Academic. 158. God’s glory emanates from all of creation itself, and most notably by the lowest in society, babes and infants, as they proclaim the name of God and marvel at the wonders of the universe. The babes and infants also call upon God “as a bulwark” against foes, and they also call upon God to “silence the avenger and the foe” (Psalm 8:2). While there is no description of a cosmic battle between God and the foes within the psalm itself, Goldingay argues that a cosmic battle is present because of God ordering the chaos, which if one draws a connection between Psalm 8 and Genesis 1, then this ordering of the chaos stems from God’s active and continuing creation.
The Psalmist shifts from the macrocosm of the universe to the more select microcosm of creation which is humanity. The Psalmist first asks why God should consider humans among the vastness of creation, and then the psalmist then goes on to describe how mere mortals were “created a little lower than angels,” and that “glory and honor were bestowed to them” (Psalm 8:4-5). God’s glory and honor extended to humanity, and humanity then participates or cooperates with God’s creative agency. The psalmist then transitions to the role or responsibility of humanity, and the role of responsibility that is given to humanity is stewarding God’s very good creation. Now, the modern understanding of these verses is that humanity rules over the rest of creation, yet this is not supported by the biblical text. The Brown-Drivers-Briggs defines mashal as “cause to rule,” while the Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament classifies mashalas “ruling in the general sense, especially when the psalm describes the likely confusion between humanity and God exercising dominion.”10“Mashal,” Brown-Drivers Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson), 1086; J.A. Soggin, “Mashal,” Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, Vol. II, edited and translated by Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann (Peabody: Hendrickson), 690. The psalmist is articulating the role that God plays through humanity in stewarding creation, and humanity’s primary responsibility is caring and caretaking for the well-being and flourishing of God’s creation. Goldingay notes that humanity “was commissioned by God to rule over the work of God’s hands and thus to receive the obeisance of beings under that authority.”11Goldingay. Psalms 1-41: Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Wisdom and Psalms.158. While Goldingay acknowledges that humanity occupies this middle space between God and God’s creation, he pushes further and says that humanity’s work was not finished once creation happened, but all creation is awaiting the consummation and restoration from God.11Goldingay. 159-160. As the Psalmist ends with praising God’s name throughout the earth, we now shift to the wider cosmic conversation.
Carl Sagan, the late astronomer who took to the TV airwaves with Cosmos which premiered on PBS back in the 1980’s, laid the foundation for further scientific work and inspired a generation of people to look to the stars. Sagan also wrote a book with the same name as his TV show, and in Cosmos, he begins his journey through the universe with Earth, which he calls “the cosmic shore.”12Carl Sagan. Cosmos. New York, New York. Random House Publishing. 1980, 2013. 6. Sagan refers to this cosmic shore as the foundation for understanding our wider celestial neighborhood.
At the time of Sagan’s work, the working scientific consensus is that the universe was 14.6 billion years old. However, with recent astronomical changes, the age of the universe is 13.8 billion years old.13David Crooks. “Methuselah: The Oldest Star in the Universe.” Space.com. March 07, 2022. https://www.space.com/how-can-a-star-be-older-than-the-universe.html. 8 billion years later, the formation of Earth began along with the rest of our solar system. As astronomy and astrophysics continues to develop, humanity’s curiosity with the stars expands, and the awe and majesty of the universe in which God created becomes more cemented.
Sagan continues to walk through the cosmic neighborhood and moves beyond our solar system and the Milky Way, which contains roughly 100 billion stars.14Sagan. Cosmos. 3. Sagan then walks into the Local Group of Galaxies, and within this Local Group is M31 (Messier 31), and its dimensions as a spiral galaxy are like that of the Milky Way, and both galaxies have smaller galaxies orbiting them.15Sagan. Cosmos. 4. When humanity gazes into the vastness of the universe, there is this deep sense of how must we feel in light of a wider and more cosmic reality.
The discussion on galaxies is relevant to Psalm 8 because both conversations ground humanity into the wider cosmos and in the wider work of God. In fact, Psalm 8 and Carl Sagan’s conversation of the “pale, blue dot” complement and reinforce one another. Psalm 8 and Carl Sagan, in fact, present a similar argument but from different vantage points. Psalm 8 first begins with the majesty of God above the heavens, then moves to the heavens (universe), angels, humanity, and then the rest of creation. Sagan presents a slightly different rationale by first starting with the Earth, then the Sun, then the Solar System, then the Milky Way, then the Local Group of Galaxies, then a cluster of galaxies, and lastly, the wider universe. Both the psalmist and Sagan acknowledge the frailty of humanity, but they also acknowledge the vastness of the universe.
The other main difference between Sagan and the Psalmist is their orientation towards the Divine. Sagan spent the latter part of his life searching for God; in fact, his latter works, The Variety of the Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God and Billions and Billions: Life and Death and the Brink of the Millennium, and in some cases, Cosmos are Sagan’s attempts of finding God outside of Christianity, and organized religion in general. Sagan’s natural theology provides the church with an opportunity to engage with the wider scientific community, but this engagement also provides a different opportunity for the church: cultivating a scientific fluency.16Eric Covington. “The Varieties of the Scientific Experience: A Personal View for the Search of God.” The Gifford Lectures: Over 100 years of Lectures on Natural Theology. https://www.giffordlectures.org/books/varieties-scientific-experience-personal-view-search-god. This scientific fluency is not relegated to the scientific academy, but this fluency allows for the church to engage in community engagement during a time of public health crises, and it allows for the church to think through issues scientifically and theologically and not leave either discipline on the sidelines.
Scientific and theological fluency within the church allows for the church to become bi-lingual when engaging with the language of God. When we engage the Bible and science, then the conversation becomes more intimate, especially when the different disciplines acknowledge their similarities and their disagreements. Carl Sagan and the Psalmist agree with the finitude of humanity, yet they differ in terms of the worship and reverence of God. Sagan takes a more agnostic approach towards God, while the Psalmist praises God; however, the Psalmist and Sagan both acknowledge the wonders of the heavens.
Theology and science
“We are made of star stuff,” said Carl Sagan is PBS show, Cosmos, and what Sagan explicates and perfectly defines is that we are connected to the wider cosmos.17Carl Sagan. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Public Broadcasting Station. 1980. God made the universe and all that is in it, and God also made humanity, but what Sagan amplifies is that the humanity is intricately tied to the fabric of the cosmos, and that human beings are making their journey home back to Earth.17Sagan. Cosmos. 7. While Sagan makes the argument that the best way for humanity to understand itself is through an examination of the wider universe, the Psalmist says the best way to understand humanity is through God. As stated before, Sagan and the Psalmist are singing different pitches to the same tune.
Astro-theology, or previously called exo-theology, examines the universe through a theological perspective, and Ted Peters is one of the proponents of this expanding theology. While Peters’ systematic theology is too broad to engage fully with in this paper, his first task as an astro-theologian is relevant to the conversation of Carl Sagan and Psalm 8. Peters’ first task is defining the scope of creation, which he defines as the all-encompassing universe and all that is in it. 18Ted Peters. God–The World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a New Era, 3rd edition. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2015. 716.
This understanding of creation, especially considering Psalm 8, fits within Peters’ schema and Sagan’s too. Peters acknowledges the work done by astronomers and cautions against disregarding Christian doctrine considering new science; however, engaging the developing science with Christian doctrine. Sagan’s likely critique is that Christianity does not fully embrace the developing science.
One of the most often asked questions within most Christian churches, “where are the young people, and how do we bring them to church?” David Kinnamon, President and CEO of Barna Group, a Christian research organization, commissioned a 10-year study which followed a group of young adults who were active in the church at a young age, but as they moved onto college and their adult years, fell away from the faith. The study also included phone interviews with young adults across the country. The study exegeted six distinct reasons why young adults are leaving the church, and in other words, becoming religious “nones,” or religiously non-affiliated.
One of the reasons found from the study is that young adults perceive the church as anti-science. 19David Kinnaman and Aly Hawkins. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church….and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books. 2011. 131-149. See also David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why it Matters. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books. 2007. While that is not the only reason young people are leaving the church, that remains a crucial topic, especially during a global pandemic. Scholars like Sagan and Peters, and while they are operating from different starting points, both readily acknowledge that science continues to remain an integral part of human society and flourishing. As I stated earlier in the paper, the church must become bi-lingual in science and faith, not only as a means of staying relevant in the world but becoming fluent in the language of God. This fluency may provide the key to creating space for those, especially young adults, but the wider community, too, for asking those questions. Christian theology, in my view at least, must always be in constant conversation with the different disciplines and cultural cues around us and providing strong moral, ethical, and theological responses while acknowledging that others may have not begun that journey yet.
Conclusion: Where do we go from here?
When I was first developing this project, I wanted to look at the cosmology of Psalm 8, with the goal of bringing the psalm in line with modern cosmology. This paper really transitioned into a conversation between the Bible and Science and realizing that these two are not mutually exclusive, despite the rhetoric of some Christian groups. Lastly, this project brought into the wider conversation astro-theology, but more importantly, how theology and science contribute to the wider conversation as the church. This paper also brought forth how some young Christians are leaving the church because of the perceived stance of the church as anti-science. Moving forward, the church must not isolate itself from the scientific community, but the church must engage with the scientific community. As future leaders within the church, one area of growth is becoming more fluent in science, not for personal edification but examining science for pastoral concerns. As our world becomes more globalized, there is a probability of a heightened chance more disease will spread across the globe.
As our world is gradually becoming more scientific, there is also this deep yearning for an understanding beyond our comprehension. Part of this project is bringing together the spheres of science and the spheres of theology and religion to provide this deeper understanding for the world around us. In fact, this integration of science, religion, and theology exemplifies Saint Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding,”20Anselm of Canterbury. “Monologion: in Selected Works of Anselm of Canterbury. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998. 11. The phrase “faith seeking understanding” is approached differently from philosophers and theologians. There are some philosophers who argue that this phrase “faith seeking understanding” implies that faith will replace understanding or reason, while other philosophers argue that faith is tantamount to understanding. What is also argued is that Anselm is using “theistic proofs” to those who are not in the faith, so setting up an argument to prove the existence of God to bring people to faith, so that they may further understand God. “Saint Anselm of Canterbury.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published May 18,2000. Revised and Updated, December 8, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/anselm/#FaiSeeUndChaPurAnsThePro. I tend to lean into the latter approach of starting with faith as a means of understanding God since that harmonizes faith and reason, which John Paul II called the wings of the same bird. into the wider view of the universe and our wider understanding of God, who works in and through us.
This same God who bestowed onto humanity the rational mind to not only understand the world around us, but also bestowed onto us the capacity, albeit limited, to understand who God is. This same God invites us to investigate the world, and the universe, around us, reminding that all of creation is inter-connected with the wider cosmos. God, the source and ground of all being, invites us onto this cosmic journey, starting from our shoreline.
Thomas Johnston is a rising third-year Master of Divinity student at Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University. Thomas is preparing to depart on internship in the fall in Fort Worth, Texas at Calvary Lutheran Church. He enjoys reading about the integration of science and the Bible, and he also enjoys learning about the history of science and faith in the United States. Thomas is discerning parish ministry and hopes to find avenues of integration of the two disciplines while on internship.