Cosmos: Sagan, Tyson, and the Bruno Affair

I was a senior in high school when Carl Sagan entered my world on a PBS NOVA special, associated later with the memorable catchphrase, “Billions and billions“.

Carl Sagan had an incredible love for science, and he was a genuine humanitarian. It was Sagan’s imaginative vision that partly inspired me to pursue a science-related career. However, it was not until I had grown further along in my walk with Jesus when I finally realized how much Carl Sagan had bought into the tragic line that pitted a love for science and the world we live in against a belief in the God of the Bible.

Thirty-four years later, one of Sagan’s students, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is attempting to remake the famous Cosmos series for a contemporary, 21st century audience, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Tyson has all of charm and imaginative vision of a Carl Sagan, but he sadly also has the same misguided view that Christian faith and science are irreconcilable. If you do not believe me, you need to view this Bill Moyers interview with Tyson, and then read my initial review of the first episode of the new Cosmos series….


What is the Deal with This “Bruno” Guy?

Warmly introduced by President Barack Obama, the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey aired on FOX and National Geographic networks in March, 2014 ( FOX Sun 9/8c and National Geographic Mon 10/9c). Neil deGrasse Tyson has loaded the film with lots of special effects, meant to inspire the viewer, revealing the intense breadth of the size and antiquity of the universe.

But when I was watching an otherwise fascinating and engaging first episode, I got distracted by this rather long cartoon sequence featuring the 16th century renegade priest and philosopher Giordano Bruno. Even though many of the details that Tyson presents are technically correct, the overall narrative suggests a story that is a complete manipulation of the facts. The real Giordano Bruno was a wandering ex-Dominican friar who eventually got into trouble, not because of his beliefs in science, but rather in his heretical theological opinions. Mainly, he had denied the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. His sarcastic and pompous wit gained him few friends, and contemporaries like Galileo and Kepler basically thought Bruno was a jerk. His controversial demeanor finally led to his arrest and execution instigated by church authorities. Granted, his treatment as a heretic remains a blot on the history of the church. But it would be incredibly misleading to suggest,  as Tyson has done, that it was Bruno’s speculation about the plurality of other inhabited worlds, inspired by his fascination with the ancient Greek philosopher, Lucretius, that makes him a “martyr” for science.

A martyr for religious freedom?  I would clearly say “yes”. But as for science, the closest thing would be his claim that matter was eternal, which denied the God of the Bible as  Creator. This was a theological opinion, not a scientific one. If anything, Bruno’s view of God was more in alignment with the ancient Gnostic heresy as opposed to anything resembling orthodox Christianity.

The Bruno script plays well with the story that Tyson wants to tell, but it does NOT fit fairly with the historical record. The American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) is group of Christians interested in promoted dialogue between evangelical faith and the sciences. The ASA is running an ongoing blog that will follow and comment on the new Cosmos series. For this first episode, there is a great piece by Owen Gingerich, who is perhaps the world’s leading scientific historian specializing in events like the whole Giordano Bruno affair, and his comments, along with his reflections on his personal relationships with both Sagan and Tyson are particularly illuminating.

Another resource that helps to fill out some more of the accurate history regarding Giordano Bruno are from Corey Powell, editor of DISCOVER magazine.

It is possible that Tyson is trying to follow on the tails of Stephen Greenblatt’s best seller, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which unfortunately takes the similar theme that the rediscovering of Lucretius was what awakened medieval Europe from its intellectual slumber. Jim Hinch’s important review challenges this popular yet mistaken narrative.

I can only hope that the rest of the new Cosmos series will do better than this first episode did in its treatment of Christian faith. It would be best for the sciences (as well as the church) to lay the Science vs. Religion “warfare” thesis to rest.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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