Re-enchanting the world after Copernicus

Italian armillary sphere, by Joannes Paolo Ferreri, Rome, 1624. AST0634.

I have a friend who sometimes claims that “a lot of philosophers” call the Copernican Revolution “the second fall of man.” I’ve tried finding this identification and failed. I even used Yahoo! on my wife’s computer so the algorithms wouldn’t just keep giving me information about Númenor. It seems Google knows what I like.

Now, I started looking for this idea because the same fellow had shown me part of this super-long video by a flat-earther arguing that every arch built by our ancestors is actually a massive horseshoe electro-magnet. Likewise the domes. How else could our “primitive” ancestors have built these things? And why did our “primitive” ancestors put carved flowers in coffered ceilings when they seem to be purely decorative? Answer: Microwave emitters. And the baptistery beside the Duomo in Florence? Battery.

Yup.

Well.

I was a bit mentally exhausted after watching some of this video. The entire, insane journey is 5 hours long.

So I tried finding what on earth sources I could about any of this. Nothing credible. The closest to credible was a documentary called Principle — at least, if you watch the trailer. Turns out all the quotes from physicists are cherry-picked, and the quotes that are most important for the thesis presented by the film are by the filmmaker, not the famous names. All the scientists involved, as well as Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager who read narration for the film reject the central thesis of the film, which is that Copernicus was wrong, and the cosmos is geocentric.

So, back to Copernicus and the “second fall of man.”

Until this event, I thought that flat-earthers were benign lunatics (round-earthers who are geocentric not being on my radar until now), and I was thankful for them for forcing us to rethink the evidence for the roundness of the earth and making us question our certainties. A little instability is good for us.

But now I see that not only is their science bad, not only is their logic flawed, but their theology is bad, too. I have a friend (not, to my knowledge, a believer) who likes to point out to me that belief in aliens and ghosts tends to lead to or stem from bad theology. So here.

We’ll stick to the geocentric problem.

What’s the bad theology? Simply put: If humans are God’s special creation made in His image and likeness, and if earth is the special staging ground for God’s particular interactions with the created order, this theological significance must have a parallel physical significance.

Now, I get it a little. The geocentric universe of Dante is beautiful and magnificent and glorious. It can easily point us to God and his own beauty, magnificence, and glory. The world since Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Descartes — it is disenchanted.

But to re-enchant the world does not require bad science.

Indeed, the vast conspiracies required for the world to be flat or the earth to be the centre of the universe and for all of modern science to be wrong on this point are untenable. It is much easier to believe that the geocentric universe is a view that made sense before modern instrumentation but has been discarded since then.

And as far as flat-earthers go, the flat earth has never been accepted by the majority of the educated, evidence for which is abundant (although it seems Tacitus might have thought it was — but Ovid seems not to…?). And as far as geocentrism, Ptolemy is not the only game out there; there were heliocentric views as well, even if a minority.

What the task of theologians, poets, novelists, preachers, and others involved in articulating the grand Christian vision of the universe is, is to show how this tiny, weak speck that orbits a sun orbiting the centre of a galaxy floating about in space is still deeply beloved by God.

Rather than undermining an enchanted universe, I would posit that modern science glorifies the God Who woos its inhabitants. If God were like a human, what are humans that He is mindful of us? (To paraphrase Psalm 8.) Consider the vast reaches of interstellar space! Think upon the images taken by the Hubble Telescope. God has some really cool stuff to occupy His time.

But good theology teaches us two things: a. God doesn’t exist in time. b. God made all that stuff. And of all the stuff He made, it seems that God likes humans best (although, if there are other rational beings out there, maybe He loves them just as much and has played out His own drama of love on their planet(s) as well).

Moreover, the theories of language and poetry and symbol and life articulated by the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Owen Barfield, or the somewhat different tack of CS Lewis, or different yet again, JRR Tolkien — and, among the living, Malcolm Guite, these theories do not require a pre-modern cosmology for symbol to operate, for the universe to be sacramental, for God to be lurking behind every corner.

It is not Copernicus’ fault that we have lost our grasp of the enchantment of the universe.

It is our own.

Four Words to Describe Pre-Moderns

Jedburgh Abbey – gutted, like the pre-modern world today

I had the pleasure of enjoying lunch and Trappist beers with one of the lovely people of the Urban Abbey the other day. Among the many interesting topics of discussion (rates of growth/decline among the religions of BC’s Lower Mainland, the ultimate modernism of postmodernity, Charles Taylor, raising young children, Eastern Orthodoxy) was the idea of the pre-modern.

She said to me that many people say that she is pre-modern, then asked what four words I would use to characterise pre-moderns. They were:

  1. Homoousios (‘If that’s allowed?’ ‘Of course, that’s allowed!’)
  2. Celestially-minded (after asking, ‘Can I use hyphens?’)
  3. Rooted

And I didn’t come up with a fourth because the conversation moved in its own ways. Now I have too much time to think on it (how can I choose??), so I’ll just say numinous and then differentiate that from celestially-minded when the time comes. Allow me to quickly unpack why these 3/4.

Homoousios

This is the word of the Nicene Creed that we translate variously in English as ‘consubstantial’, ‘of one substance’, or ‘of one being’. As the theologians of the fourth century and beyond reflected on what homoousios meant (besides ‘How to exclude Arius’) in light of Scripture, tradition, and liturgy, they nuanced it not only in relation to the special, unique, unrepeatable oneness of the Triune Godhead but also in relation to created beings.

Humans are all united in this worldview. ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,’ to famously quote John Donne (who is a very pre-modern modern if you read his poetry). Like begets like. Human begets human. My sons are of the same essence/substance/being as myself — I would argue that genetics backs this up.

There are various ramifications of such a worldview — some of which are that in the wrong hands, bad things can be justified. Amongst them is a drive to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sick, not simply because of Bible commands but because they are part of you. Amongst them is a feeling that we are all connected deeply — the sin of the sinner is never disconnected from the righteousness of the righteous. All justice is social justice, all retribution is remediary.

This also means that we find ourselves in community, something that is also bound up in the honing of Trinitarian theology — I think largely on the title of Zizioulas’ study of the Trinity (largely through the lens of the Cappadocians), Being As Communion. I would also argue that ancient Greeks and Romans had similar ideas about the oneness of the social community, even if their language and point of reference differed.

Celestially-minded

Here I do not mean literally fixated on the starry heights, although there is some element of that, I would wager. Rather, pre-modern people had a viewpoint that kept the divine in focus. They also lived in what Fr Stephen Freeman calls a one-storey universe — God or even the gods were everywhere. Indeed, even the polytheists with their vision of the Olympians dwelling on mountaintops believed that divine beings were present and active in their daily lives. Hence sacrifice, prayer, incense, etc., etc.

Of the many ramifications, I would argue that every act of existence was infused with meaning. The divine could be around every corner. Moreover, a common morality as handed down from the heavens or the ancestors was part of the fabric of life.

But they were not so earthly-minded as we late moderns are. The gods stride across Homeric battlefields as more than mere ‘symbols’. Nonnos writes an epic about Dionysus precisely because the theme is so great. The Christians write hymns and epics about Christ because there is nothing better to focus on. Why navel-gaze at your own psychology and inner turmoil when you could cast your eyes up and out into a world with celestial vision?

Rooted

This one is sort of less theological. In the pre-industrial world, people didn’t really move much. Most people lived and died where their parents, grandparents, etc., did. As a result, they had a strong sense of place. The early monastics also saw rootedness as important, something I’ve blogged on before in relation to St Benedict. In a spiritual sense, rootedness is important because you cannot leave yourself behind. You cannot overcome anger at others by becoming a hermit. Boredom is truly cured by standing still and living through it.

For most pre-moderns, rootedness was not a choice. Even if your movements were not legally restricted because you were a slave or a colonus or a serf, most people simply never had the wherewithal to go anywhere else. Choice or not, being rooted to a place, a people, and a community means that you can savour the slow, lovely moments of life. You can appreciate more and more the homoousiai persons in your midst.

Imagine if today we made choices about where we lived based on community and holiness rather than career advancement or school districts. Our constant moving is a reflection of our own rootlessness, our our disconnectedness from each other, our own existence as isolated, atomised, modern individuals.

Numinous (Sacramental?)

By a pure denotation of numinous, much of what I placed under celestially-minded would qualify as the sort of person aware of the numinous. A numen in Latin is a spirit at its broadest and vaguest, from the animist idea of a rock’s spirit right up to the Demiurge of Platonism. The sense of the numinous is that there is another world at the edges of our existence.

Part of the Resistance Movement against Modernity were Wordsworth and Coleridge (and Keats!). Coleridge’s ideas about language and symbol are perhaps more what I’m getting at here. Life is infused with meaning. Nothing is simply only its dead self. There is no mere matter. A rock can be a window, a symbol, a passageway into the divine.

The false dichotomy between body and soul has yet to make its way into the pre-modern mind. There is no dead matter. Nothing is meaningless, even if we will never fathom its meaning. Indeed, we will never fathom even a small portion of anything’s meaning. Nevertheless, at the edges of our perception there is more to this life than just animal existence — we are more than ugly bags of mostly water. We are more than our physical appetites.

The numinous also energises all our activities, especially the creative arts. Poetry dances at the fringes of our understanding and tickles our sense of the numinous bigness of the world. Music written in harmonies that correspond to the Pythagorean theories of music resonate not only with our souls but with the order of the universe itself. (I am listening to Striggio’s ‘Mass in 40 Parts’ as performed by I Fagiolini right now — numinous, indeed!) A cathedral is not a pile of stones but a gateway to God.

These are four words to describe the pre-modern world. They are worth investing energy in.

Sacramental reality

Today, I was explaining Vestal Virgins to my first-years, and I noticed that my slide said that the fire of Vesta was ‘symbolic of Rome’s power’. I took a moment to explain that that description is really inadequate. Symbols, I explained, were much more closely associated with that which they symbolised to the ancient Roman mind. You could almost say that the fire of Vesta was Rome’s power.

I went on to say that the world of the ancient Romans was interpenetrated by a sense of the numinous, that the divine interacted with daily life.

What I wanted to launch into was a discussion of the sacramental and transcendence.

But that wouldn’t necessarily fit a lecture on Roman mythology.

But I find even this Roman pagan view of the world much more appealing than the dead, inanimate world proffered by the Enlightenment. A world where the divine lurks behind every corner, where your hearthfire is an access point to another reality, where gods walk among mortals.

And my mind is turning this direction because I am reading Boersma’s Scripture As Real Presence, where he discusses a sacramental worldview, a world where God Himself is readily available to us hidden beneath the sacramental veil, and especially available to us in the words of sacred Scripture.

At the same time, I’ve begun reading a dissertation about the loss of a sense of transcendence in Canadian culture, including the Canadian church, and how this has led to the haemorrhaging of young people from our churches.

Maybe my excitement about divine immanence in the Roman world excited some young minds about finding that here and now.

Because these are realities we need — the transcendent, ever-present God who makes Himself known through symbol and sacrament.