A Medieval Picture of the Universe: humanity at the fringes looking in.

People in the Middle Ages* assumed that the sun went round the earth. Given what they saw every day, that was a perfectly reasonable assumption. Because we no longer share that assumption, we believe that our view of things is not nearly so limited as theirs was. Their universe, we say, was small and anthropocentric, whereas we now know how vast and complex things really are.

Actually, the medieval view of the universe was by no means anthropocentric. Quite the contrary! It was theocentric, and our planet earth was on the rim. When our forebears looked at the stars, the thoughtful among them did not regard themselves as looking toward “outer space,” but rather as looking inward toward the divine glory, of which they and their world were merely on the margins, the outside edge. [1]

Nor was their universe small. It was indeed as vast as it could be: which is to say, the thoughtful were perfectly well aware that they were surrounded by a creation that in its complexity and size transcended anything they could comprehend. If we do not believe that, we need only to read Dante, especially the Paradiso. It is true that the dimensions they envisaged for this universe turn out to be tiny in comparison with what we have learned about the reality in succeeding generations, but still those dimensions were vast—inestimably vast—by the standards of everything that they knew.

To say all this is not to say that we don’t know more about the universe’s vastness and complexity than did Dante and his contemporaries, it is merely a matter of setting the record straight. And indeed our greater knowledge is a truly an exciting difference between them and us. Such knowledge can lead us to new and renewed awareness of God’s grandeur and glory—as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin[2] and, among our contemporaries, Arnold Benz,[3] continue to show us.

That is the good news. The bad news is that for some, this new knowledge leads not to fresh appreciation of the creator’s greatness and glory, but rather to a view of the world around us that does not even rise to the dignity of being anthropocentric. For so long as we are content to exploit our planet and everything on it for our immediate comfort—or rather the immediate comfort of a privileged few—and in the process to jeopardize the wellbeing of every future generation, it can hardly be said with any accuracy that we are being anthropocentric. We are merely being selfish.

Interestingly enough, at this point, the debate becomes not a “science versus religion” argument, but rather a process in which those bent only on immediate profit resist not only religion’s command that God’s creation be respected but also the findings of science, claiming that the conclusions of the international scientific community and such groups as the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris are “as yet unproven,” and at times even attempting to account for those conclusions by invoking conspiracy theories of breathtaking unlikelihood and absurdity.[4]

Is it to comfort and sustain ourselves in this nonsense that we pretend that the idea of a divine creator is itself no longer sustainable? One contemporary writer dismisses belief in God simply by declaring that “the idea of a divine super-Self outside of or beyond the universe… boggles the mind”[5]—a declaration that he appears to think constitutes an argument. (Sir Thomas Browne was, alas, and remains, only too correct in his observation: for most people, “a piece of Rhetorick is a sufficient argument of Logick”!) Of course the declaration itself is correct, as the psalmist noted millennia ago: “such knowledge is too wonderful and excellent for me: I cannot attain unto it” (Ps. 139.5). The psalmist, however, was not so foolish or so arrogant as to think that because he could not conceive of something, therefore it could not exist. Looked at from another angle, what we have here is a classic example – even a caricature – of what Walter Ong has identified as “the tendency of the past few centuries to overspatialize the universe so that everything is reduced to models picturable in space, and what is unpicturable (‘unimagineable’ is often the term invoked) is discarded as impossible or unreal.”[6] Exactly.

In reflecting on the phenomenon of contemporary atheism I am frequently struck not only by a repeated failure of logic even in clever people (I think, for example, of the dismal muddle – by virtually any standards – that constitutes Richard Dawkins’ key fourth chapter in The God Delusion) but by something deeper – a disastrous failure of imagination, a destructive (destructive because inimical to thought) lack of any ability to deal in metaphor. I note, for example, that Dawkins’ overall approach to the Bible is virtually that of a fundamentalist – save, of course, that he holds the Bible to be wrong about matters of science.

To some extent, no doubt, Dawkins’ own upbringing and education must be held responsible for this. But we cannot hold religion itself – in which category I certainly include Christianity in its various forms – guiltless in the matter. Those who write about their experience of God invariably speak of that experience as enlightening, as freeing, and as a way to new truth. Those who write from an opposite viewpoint are, by definition, not writing of their experience of God (since they deny God’s existence) but of their experience of religion, which they have found oppressive, obfuscating, and untruthful. And alas, their critique always has some validity, since religion – and again, I must emphasize that I include Christianity, insofar as it manifests itself as a religion – religion, as a human phenomenon, frequently has been and is all these things. Hence the paradox: that religion is at once precious to God, for religion hands on the traditions, tells the stories, and says the prayers, yet it is also the enemy of God, for it also and often distorts all these things. If it is not our best that we do in God’s name, then quite often it is our worst. The synoptic narrative of Peter’s confession –

you are the Messiah…

blessed are you, Simon…

far be this from you Lord…

Get behind me, Satan! (Matt. 16.17, 23)

– is only too representative of both these aspects of religion as human phenomenon.

Here, certainly, is food for further thought.

In the mean time, at least we should say this: that it is not enough for us to encourage respect for creation and creatures simply on the grounds of good stewardship and the wise use of resources, although of course there is sense in that. It is not even enough to encourage such respect on the grounds of common decency: that we are surrounded by sentient creatures who are capable of suffering and we have no right to augment that suffering for our amusement, although that also is true.[7] But here we are faced with something deeper. And the Scriptures make that clear, if we will listen to them.

To be sure, the Scriptures were written by human beings and tell in particular a story of God’s relationship with humanity. To that extent therefore their narrative is centered on humanity. But again and again they remind us that this narrative is only part of a much greater narrative that involves all being. The Word, St. John tells us in his opening and definitive statement, “became flesh” (1:14). He does not say that the Word became Jewish, which would, according to his testimony, have been true. Nor does he say that the Word became human, which would also have been true. But he says, “the Word became flesh (sarx)”—and thereby indicates that it is not only Israel nor even humankind that is consecrated by the fullness of divine indwelling, but flesh—matter, dust, dirt, the stuff of earth and solar systems and galaxies and the universe.[8] “In him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17 cf. Heb. 1:3a): in the consecration of an atom, the universe is consecrated. So St. Paul, who sees God in Christ “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5.19), is also clear that he envisages that reconciliation for the entire created order: “for the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21, cf. Col. 1.20). Hence the church, according to the Letter to the Ephesians, while it is the new Temple, Christ’s body, is not to be understood as being those things apart from or in contra distinction to God’s good pleasure “to sum up all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (1:10).[9]

“As for me,” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says to God in his prayer The Hymn of the Universe, “if I could not believe that your real Presence animates and makes tractable and enkindles even the very least of the energies which invade me or brush past me, would I not die of cold?”[10] Someone says to me, “What a marvelous sensitivity to God’s presence in all things this man had!” Had he? Or is it not rather the case that we are marvelously insensitive?

Saint Francis treated animals and even rocks more or less as he treated people. “How odd!” we say. Or are we not odd, in that we so often treat people and animals more or less as we treat rocks?

People in the Middle Ages were mistaken in supposing that the sun went round the earth.

We, I think, are mistaken in supposing that God does not encounter us in every part of Creation, in our failure to realize that we may and should encounter the Divine in rocks and stones and trees, in our refusal to see that the heavens display God’s glory and the firmament shows His handiwork.

Which mistake is likely to have the more serious consequences?


* A version of this paper was originally published in the Sewanee Theological Review; it remains the © of the University of the South and the author.

[1] C. S. Lewis,  The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962) 118-19. The whole book is, of course, a masterly introduction to medieval understanding of the universe. It was, as Lewis points out, a religious view, but not therefore necessarily a Christian religious view.

[2] See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Le Milieu Divin (Paris: Editions du Seuill, 1957); ET Le Milieu Divin / The Divine Milieu (London: Collins / New York: Harper, 1960).

[3] See Arnold Benz, Die Zukunft des Universums: Zufall, Chaos, Gott? (Dusseldorf: Patmos Verlag, 1997); ET The Future of the Universe: Chance, Chaos, God? (London: Continuum International / New York: Continuum, 2000).

[4] I am reminded of the tobacco companies’ endlessly repeated “it isn’t proved” refusal in the 1960s and ‘70s to admit the deleterious effects of smoking, although those effects and the connection of smoking to lung cancer were already obvious not only to unbiased observers but even, it now emerges, to their own research, and had been for decades. In the matter of theories, moreover, much of the demand for “proof” is a demand for a level of demonstration that is hardly possible or feasible. That does not mean that that a particular theory should not be taken seriously, and even acted upon. “In spite of inadequate data, a majority of researchers can often consent to endorse one theory. They do so not because they have colluded in the making of some secret deal, but rather because they perceive an overwhelming force of evidence in the observed findings. One should not underestimate theories because of their provisional nature” (Arnold Benz, Astrophysics and Creation: Perceiving the Universe through Science and Participation [New York: Herder and Herder, 2016]) 29-30.

[5] Roy W. Hoover in Gerd Lüdemann, William Lane Graig, et al. Jesus’ Resurrection, Fact or Figment?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Gerd Lüdemann, Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 127.

[6] Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into Very many Received Tenents, and commonly Presumed Truths (1646) 1.3; Walter Ong S.J., The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1981 [1967]), 7.

[7] A friend of mine, a hunter, says, “There are only two justifiable reasons to kill an animal: one is that you are going to eat it, and the other is that you have good reason to suppose it is planning to eat you.” On all of which see further my post, “Firsts from a Couple of Small Islands,” published 24 June 2016.

[8] The “physical or natural order of things, as opposed to the spiritual or supernatural” (LS, σάρξ, cf. BDAG σάρξ, 2b, c, and 5).

[9] Let the reader note that while for the sake of convenience I indulge the present widespread prejudice against supposing Paul to be the author of Ephesians, I do not therefore endorse it. Ernest Best, at the end of a careful discussion of the question, admits (in a curiously tortured sentence) that “many of the objections to Pauline authorship are not individually capable of disproving it, but it is their cumulative effect which suggests another author.” In Best’s view, “the argument resembles… the successive blows of a forester felling a tree; the first few blows of his axe appear to make no impression but as he continues striking, the tree weakens and eventually falls” (Ephesians, [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998], 36). The forester analogy is striking as a description of Best’s feelings in the matter: but it is not an argument. The fact, as Best has himself just shown us (Ephesians, 6-36), is that none of the alleged objections to Pauline authorship of Ephesians is actually conclusive. Contrast the scholarly caution of G. H. P. Thompson, The Letters of Paul to the Ephesians to the Colossians and to Philemon (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1967) 4-15; see also more recently, N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (London: S.P.C.K. / Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 56-61, 556-62.

[10] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymne de l’Universe (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1961); ET Hymn of the Universe, Gerald Vann, O.P., transl. (London: Collins / New York: Harper and Row, 1965). I am struck by the fact that Lucretius, who did not believe in gods or divinity or divine care for humanity. who thought of reality as simply atoms moving meaninglessly in a meaningless universe, was nonetheless struck with what Stephen Greenblatt calls “a poet’s sense of wonder.” And this wonder, “welled up out of recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else. And this recognition was the basis for the way he thought we should live our lives” (The Swerve [New York and London: Norton, 2011] 8). Alas, our modern Philistines appear to lack all sense of wonder, as, indeed, they appear to lack all imagination.

Christopher Bryan

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