Monday, December 19, 2011

Pantheist Broadcasting Service

So here I am in the living room, having made my squash and shrimp bisque (recipe to follow), and I've turned on WETA, the local PBS station. And they're showing Journey of the Universe, which at first seems to be some sort of Grand Science Survey a la Carl Sagan's old Cosmos series. However, the film's thesis, it appears, is founded in an expression of religion: Brian Swimme, the scientist you see on screen, is frequently identified as a pantheist, and the theologian you don't see, at least in the first episode, is Mary Evelyn Tucker, who is strongly connected to evolutionary and environmental theology.

Swimme's earlier book, The Universe Is a Green Dragon, expresses the view that there is a teleology to cosmic history. You can read this excerpt to get a flavor of the thing. What is striking isn't so much the religious spin he puts on the facts of cosmology, but that PBS is so willing to present this stuff in this way. It's hard to imagine John Polkinghorne stood up in front of the camera to present his very Anglican and very Christian view of the same topics, and not just because he isn't as handsome as Swimme, or for that matter as Deepak Chopra, whose Hindu-esque/new-age take on Christianity also saw PBS airtime. It's rather obvious that the public television people are uncomfortable with letting Christianity express itself on their airwaves, except as a historical relic (any number of "historical Jesus" programs) or as the source of aesthetic outpourings (Sister Wendy and various musical presentations). But they aren't uncomfortable with religion when it makes nothing more than impersonal demands which happen to already line up with their subculture's mores.

In the case of the program at hand, those demands are environmentalist, and never mind the irony that Tucker herself admits elsewhere that pantheist religion has a poor environmental record. Environmentalism traces rather plainly into Christianity: it is from thence that the obligation to manage Creation rightly springs, even though the expression comes at a certain distance. It's rather ironic that Swimme's theses can be taken in a decidedly anti-environmentalist direction, considering the emphasis he puts on the inexorability of evolutionary development. It is surely the case that we can screw up the earth enough so that we cannot live on it, but not enough so that nothing can live on it, in which case one assumes that Life will try again and replace us with something which it hopes will be less destructive. Personally I find Pokinghorne's anthropic analysis to make far more religious sense: if the universe "wants" sentient beings, there's no particular reason for it to want them. And there's no strong cosmological argument against the possibility that, absent the Apocalypse, humanity will live and die alone on this planet, with nothing to show the rest of the universe except a tiny handful of space probes which may well travel on into the void unnoticed, and an electronic whisper into the ether that goes unheard before it is silenced. Is that what the universe really wants?

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