Many books have been written highlighting the great differences between a modern worldview and an ancient biblical worldview, if by “worldview” you mean that to refer somewhat metaphorically to a system of values, priorities, and commitments. However, concerning the gap between the ancient biblical worldview and the modern worldview, as it concerns the actual physical world we live in, there have not been many works solely devoted to exploring this great divide. Most often, this issue comes up only tangentially in works related to the intersection of religion and science.
Robin Parry’s recent book, The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful Worldof the Bible, steps into this void in a very helpful way. Parry shows us how the biblical authors saw the world very differently from us in just about every aspect of creation. By drawing on biblical texts and literature from surrounding nations in the ancient Near East, we are shown that the ancient biblical world was one where the earth was seen as a flat-disc, surrounded by water on all sides, held up by an ocean below the ground, with a solid dome over it holding back the ocean of water believed to reside just above it. God and the angels resided above the earth, while the dead resided deep in the earth’s core. While much of this is widely known, Parry also offers a compelling look into less noticed ways ancient people understood the significance of natural features such as mountains, deserts, storms, and seas.
Parry does a fine job showing how fresh and new meanings can be derived from biblical stories when we interpret them with a fuller knowledge of the way biblical authors understood the physical world and the way God relates to it. For example, the sea was seen by ancient Israelites as a source of chaos and destruction, full of monstrous threats (sometimes actual monsters, like the Leviathan). Only God, the Israelites believed, could control the waters and conquer chaos. Knowing this can bring deeper levels of meaning to several biblical stories involving water (Flood, Exodus), perhaps especially to the gospel stories of Jesus walking on the sea and calming the raging waters. A claim to the divinity of Jesus is, then, implicit in these stories. It also helps us understand why in John’s vision of the heavenly city (Rev 21), “the sea is no more.” Ultimately, all the chaotic and monstrous forces that threaten will be swallowed up in God’s final victory.
One of the more intriguing suggestions that Parry makes is that the ancient biblical writers saw the whole created order as in some sense alive, and that we might do well to consider the wisdom and truth of this approach. In the Newtonian worldview that has carried forward into recent time, we tend to see the world “mechanically,” as a lifeless, inanimate, inert machine, filled with some animate creatures such as ourselves and other animals. Parry draws on many of the Psalms, and other texts, that speak of creation as in some way responding to God (trees clapping, waters praising, etc) to suggest that perhaps the ancient biblical authors did not make the sharp divide between animate and inanimate creation that we tend to do. In their view, Parry argues, all of creation is somehow “animated.”
While he never uses this term, this view is known as “panpsychism,” and has been receiving more attention lately in some philosophical circles. While there have been several recent works that trace the development of panpsychism in Western philosophy and defend it in the context of modern mind-body debates, how this view might have been held and developed by biblical authors is a largely unexplored topic, as far as I know. I think Parry is to be commended for raising this issue, and I hope others will explore it in more detail.
In the final section of the book, Parry moves from describing the ancient biblical view of the cosmos, to offering suggestions for how modern Christians can still receive the Bible as God’s Word while not being bound to its mistaken views about creation. For example, how are we to think about the ascension? If heaven isn’t literally above us, then where did Jesus ascend? Where is Jesus’s resurrected body now? If he isn’t going to descend on clouds, what are we to think of the second coming of Christ? This are difficult topics, and while Parry can’t be faulted for not dispelling all the mystery, I do wish this section of the book would have been longer and offered us more. But I suppose that criticism speaks to the strength of the book as a whole. It is, on the whole, fun to read and full of unexpected insights, and as good books do, it leaves you wanting to know more.