Thursday, June 16, 2005


"The Privileged Planet" Climbing a Stairway to heaven

The thing that hath been, is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done.

In the 22 odd centuries (see note below) since Ecclesiastes wrote those lines, we humans have often convinced ourselves of the absolute novelty of this or that hip new idea. But, the truth is, for each truly original thought, there are a thousand tiresome re-workings of the old.

The intelligent design film, “The Privileged Planet” is a case in point. The film comes clothed in the lab coat of modern physics and cosmology. Sporting the latest in computer-generated graphics, it is designed to subliminally assure viewers they are being let in on the very latest, state of the art science. And yet, its hypothesis – that we humans occupy the center of a god-created universe – is one of the very oldest known to man.

Despite its trendy surface shine, the film forcefully reminds us of the wisdom of Ecclesiastes’ words: There is nothing new under the sun.

Guillermo Gonzalez, co-author of the book "The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery" says the premise of the Discovery Institute film is that the conditions that make Earth habitable show it was designed for humans. He said the book also goes a step further by arguing the universe was meant for discovery and that Earth is the optimal place from which to study the universe.

In Ecclesiastes' day, each tribe or nation thought of itself as God's chosen people. Each had its own sacred places that were thought to be close to god. Often these sites were marked by a memorial stone, a sacred pillar, or temple. Later, the great cathedrals of Europe would be built on such spots.

Isaac's son, Jacob, Chapter 28 of Genesis tells us, was on his way to Padanaram to pick out a cousin to be his wife when he stopped after sunset to rest at a place then called Luz.

The weary traveler used the stones of this ancient and already sacred place (said to be the spot where Abraham came to sacrifice Isaac) as a headrest, and dreamt of a stairway that rested on the good earth but reached up into the heavens. Messenger angels traveled up and down the stairway as the Lord stood above.

When he awakened Jacob cried out in awe, "This is nothing else but an abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven."

Jacob set his stone pillow up on a pillar and re-named the spot Bethel, or the house of God. Later, it would be called Mount Moriah. In 825 BCE Solomon built the first temple there.

The Kabbalah claims that the foundation stone of the Temple Mount, where Jacob laid his head, is the place from which the earth was born at the time of creation. Those who believe the Kabbalah's teachings think of it as the place where the physical and spiritual worlds touch.

While touring York Minster, in the north of England, in the mid-90s, Red State Rabble's eyes were drawn to the famous astronomical clock located in the North Transept of that old cathedral built amidst the Roman ruins.

In the center of the ornate clock is an outline of York Minster. Around it swirl the sun, the moon and the planets.

York Minster is more than 1,000 years old, but the astronomical clock is of more recent origin, having been donated by the Royal Greenwich Observatory to commemorate the 18,000 Allied airmen who lost their lives in World War II.

The outline of York Minster at the center of the solar system on the astronomical clock can be interpreted prosaically as a simple guide to orient the observer to the night sky above, or more spiritually, as a metaphor for the centrality of the cathedral's place in the heavens -- something the builders of York Minster took for granted.

Seen in this light, "The Privileged Planet" offers nothing new, just the self-conscious repackaging of ancient myth for a world downsized by cheap air travel, cell phones, the Hubble telescope, and the Internet.

If Ecclesiastes had seen the Discovery Institute's film, he might have advised of them futility of their effort. "Vanity," he might have said, "all is vanity."

Reader note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly read "220 centuries" an alert reader spotted my innumerate lapse. Thanks Dan.


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