Mormonism has a cosmic component far more visible and detailed than other Christian denominations. Not only is the Mormon God the Father embodied, but he lives somewhere in the Kolob system (see Abraham 3). Canonized Mormon scripture even provides an illustration of God’s dwelling place in the Book of Abraham’s Facsimile No. 2, as Figure 1, right in the center of the hypocephalus. The explanation provided with the image states that Figure 1 is “Kolob, signifying the first creation, nearest to the celestial, or the residence of God.” No handwaving accompanied by vague Christian statements like “He lives in heaven … wherever that is” or puzzling claims like “God is everywhere and nowhere.” To Mormons, God lives right here in the Alpha Quadrant, on Kolob (or more likely on an M-class planet in the Kolob system). The sheer audacity of the claim is impressive. With his theological ideas, Joseph Smith boldly goes where no one went before.
More cosmic reflection is found in the first chapter of Moses (another canonized Mormon scripture). God states “worlds without number have I created” (Moses 1:33) and He then explains, in fittingly elevated language:
The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.Moses 1:37-39.
And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.
For behold, this is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.
These verses are really quite moving, with a spatial and temporal sweep that suggests many, many stars and planets, and perhaps billions of years, certainly well beyond the range of human history and our rather pedestrian solar system. At least that’s how one reads that passage in the 21st century. In the 19th century, the term “the Universe” referred to a much smaller entity. A lot has changed in 200 years of cosmology. Still, one must admire the scope and vision presented in the first chapter of Moses.
I could add other passages from LDS scripture and a variety of speculative statements by LDS leaders. I’m going to leave it to readers to note their favorite famous or infamous statements in the comments. (Check out the Wikipedia entry Mormon Cosmology if you need some ideas.) In the balance of the post, I’m going to give a few quotations from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (W. W. Norton & Co., 2017), a short but informative booklet that brings the reader up to speed on current facts and theories in real-world cosmology. The question lurking in the background, of course, is how and whether Mormon cosmology fits or doesn’t with real-world cosmology. At least Mormonism deserves some credit for actually proposing a cosmology. Even if the details don’t fit, at least the vision is there.
Star Stuff, Dark Matter, and All That
First, remember that until the first decades of the 20th century, it was thought that “the Universe” was just the millions of stars hanging together in our Milky Way galaxy. When those cloudy smudges visible through large telescopes turned out to be distant and independent galaxies, the size of the Universe quickly jumped by seven or eight orders of magnitude. The true size of the Universe is simply mind-boggling.
For the first billion years, the universe continued to expand and cool as matter gravitated into the massive concentrations we call galaxies. Nearly a hundred billion of them formed, each containing hundreds of billions of stars that undergo thermonuclear fusion in their cores. Those stars with more than about ten times the mass of the Sun achieve sufficient pressure and temperature in their cores to manufacture dozens of elements heavier than hydrogen, including those that compose planets and whatever life may thrive upon them.Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, p. 28.
A hundred billion galaxies each with a hundred billion stars … that makes ten thousand billion billion stars, with a good portion of those likely harboring planets of all shapes, sizes, and environments. It’s almost a certainty that someone else is out there somewhere.
Chapter 5, “Dark Matter,” tells us that “dark matter is our frenemy. We have no clue what it is. It’s kind of annoying. But we desperately need it in our calculations to arrive at an accurate description of the universe” (p. 87). It helps explain, for example, why galactic clusters stay clustered rather than flying apart, by providing the additional mass and gravity to keep the clusters together. And it provides a good chunk of the mass needed to keep the Universe from simply expanding forever and ever (but see chapter 6, “Dark Energy,” for the bad news about eternal expansion).
It turns out CSN&Y were on to something when they sang, “We are star dust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon.”
Only three of the naturally occurring elements were manufactured in the big bang. The rest were forged in the high temperature hearts and explosive remains of dying stars, enabling subsequent generations of star systems to incorporate this enrichment, forming planets and, in our case, people.Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, p. 115-16.
Finally, chapter 10, “Between the Planets,” highlights not just the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but the more recently recognized Kuiper belt (millions chunks of rock and ice beyond Neptune’s orbit) and Oort cloud (more millions of chunks, well beyond even the Kuiper belt). When comets come screaming through the inner solar system, then whip around the Sun and slingshot back out, this is where they came from. Once in a very long while one of them will catastrophically collide with planet Earth. That would happen a lot more often if Jupiter didn’t act like a big shield to eventually deflect or devour most of those incoming comets before a terrestrial collision event arises. Thank you, Jove.
It turns out that Earth is not the center of the Universe or even of our galaxy. Earth is sort of an average planet orbiting an average star well out in a spiral arm of the the Milky Way. As Tyson relates:
But high-mass stars fortuitously explode, scattering their chemically enriched guts throughout the galaxy. After nine billion years of such enrichment, in an undistinguished part of the universe (the outskirts of the Virgo Supercluster) in an undistinguished galaxy (the Milky Way) in an undistinguished region (the Orion Arm), an undistinguished star (the Sun) was born.Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, p. 29.
Undistinguished, perhaps. But it’s home. If you ever get flung across the galaxy to the Delta Quadrant, you and your shipmates will no doubt work very hard to get back to Earth.
What Does It All Mean?
The things I find striking in that cosmology summary are that we are made of elements that could only be formed in the cores of first-generation starts, then spewed across the galaxy in supernova events; that there are a hundred billion galaxies out there!; and that sooner or later one of those comets that comes careening into the inner solar system is going to hit planet Earth again. It means we are much more tied to this gigantic Universe and much more dependent for our very existence on certain features of it than we normally recognize.
What features of real-world cosmology do you find odd or impressive? What features of Mormon cosmology or statements about it in scripture or by LDS leaders do you like or dislike? Do you feel any need to integrate Mormon cosmology into real-world cosmology, or are they, for you, two independent lines of thought?