Models, Madness, and Topsy-Turvy Land

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“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” ― G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

Thanks to studying the Medieval Model of the cosmos (via C.S. Lewis, a professional medieval scholar at both Oxford and Cambridge), I think I finally understand what G.K. Chesterton meant when he said that our modern world is topsy-turvy, that we are all born upside down when it comes to our cosmic perspective. It really has to do with the self-conscious way we look at the universe, from the smallest of things to the greatest.

That self-consciousness started with Adam and Eve, by the way.  SELF-consciousness.

Scientifically limited as their Model was, the Medievals started with Christ Jesus and the Gospel and worked downward from there. We are always looking out in their universe – out into a brightly-lit festival of celestial beauty and harmony. It’s a cosmic dance that welcomes and comforts. Our world of sin and fallenness is on the outside looking in like a cold beggar peering into a warm, fire-lit parlor. Compare this to the cold and inhospitable vacuity of our modern model. It’s completely inverted!

Cosmos versus space – think of the difference between those words. The former humbles us in the gentlest, most welcoming of ways. The latter (our view), humbles through fear with its eternal silence and infinite spaces. This is the difference between starting with God and starting with man when it comes to cosmic model (and worldview) building.

God humbles more gently than man humbles.

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Medieval Synthesis and Modern Fragmentation

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As in their moral lives, medieval scholars operated under the assumption that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (2 Cor. 3). Anglo-Saxons Christians loved unity and order. Perhaps the upheaval of the times, the rapidly rising, falling, and fragmenting of kingdoms and countries, stimulated a passion for order that might have otherwise been absent. Perhaps it was the presence of “huge masses of heterogeneous material,” fragments of a more civilized and advanced time that they inherited after the fall of Rome.[1] Regardless, they operated upon these principles of finding unity and order and this led them to become extraordinary synthesizers. In his book The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis writes that “At his most characteristic, medieval man was … an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems.”[2] He wanted “place for everything and everything in the right place.” From the “chance collection” of translations that had reached down through the centuries from Athens, they had “a corpus that frequently contradicted itself.”[3]  Yet instead of taking the modern route of accepting one authority at the expense of another, the medieval mind delighted in harmonizing the apparent contradictions – even between Christians and pagans.  All truth was God’s truth to them, even that which came from pagan cultures. Though the forces of fragmentation may be different in modern times, we can still learn from their ability to create harmony across disciplines. Indeed, the fragmentation of our moral lives extends into all areas of culture, including our academics, arts, and sciences. We set reason high “on the soul’s acropolis,” as C.S. Lewis writes in his poem “Reason,” consigning the imagination with her “dim exploring touch” to seemingly impassable depths.[4] As we enter a post-Christian era, we can learn from the medieval church’s ability to bring together all of the disciplines into “a complex unity that encompassed all of time and space,” leaving out nothing, thus revealing the grandeur of God.[5]

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The Lost Light of the “Dark Ages”

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Candlemas (BL Additional 49598, f. 34v) from A Clerk of Oxford BlogA Candlemas Miracle: ‘a light to lighten the English’ 

 

“We are delighted to know about the ignorance of medievalism,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in The Illustrated London News in 1906, but “we are contented to be ignorant about its knowledge.” Our ignorance is perhaps best betrayed by the continuance of the term “the dark ages” in our imaginations when we consider the time period spanning from the fall of the Rome (about 410 A.D.) to the start of the Renaissance (1485 A.D.). The image of darkness persists despite the fact that “this derogatory opinion … has now been almost totally abandoned by professional historians in favor of the neutral view that takes ‘Middle Ages’ simply as the name of a period in Western history, during which distinctive and important contributions to Western culture were made,” writes historian David C. Lindberg in his book The Beginnings of Western Science. Every age has its myths, even our modern one, and none is more entrenched than the belief that this period, which saw a flourishing of Christianity in the West, was one of oppression and ignorance, in which blind faith supplanted reason in all areas of life. It is as if the Renaissance arose out of the medieval vacuum, creating itself from nothing, a cosmic singularity, unleashing Reason from the vise-grip of autocratic bishops and malicious monks. A more accurate picture is what is sought here. Who were these medieval believers and what lessons might modern Christians living in a post-Christian culture learn from them with regards to preserving and perpetuating the faith in a rapidly changing society? Looking specifically at England, I contend that we have much to learn, from the stabilizing force of the monastery, with its community structured around the Divine commission to love God and neighbor, to the ways in which medieval Christians respected, protected, and preserved the past. In the end, a more accurate picture should emerge out of the darkness that shrouds the time. Perhaps then we will be recalled to the reality that we are indebted to the medievals for many of our modern institutions: “that Parliaments are medieval, that all our Universities are medieval, that city corporations are medieval, that gunpowder and printing are medieval, that half the things by which we now live, and to which we look for progress, are medieval.”

Wisdom from the early Medieval Christians of England:

Ethics: The Rule of St Benedict and Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option for Modern Christians in a Post-Christian Culture

Scholarship: Medieval Synthesis and  Modern Fragmentation

Conclusion: Unity and Humility

Malick’s Modern Job: “The Tree of Life”

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 The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ. He assumed flesh, died, rose again, ascended into heaven. It was His will to plant Himself, in a manner, beside the river of the things of time. Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ. For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal; because He also in such sort became temporal, that He remained still eternal.[1]

~ Saint Augustine, Homily 2 on the First Epistle of John

More than any previous era, modern Man feels small. As astronomy presses further the boundaries of the known universe, one could say that we shrink in proportion. As our cities grow larger and our buildings seem to defy gravity, this conquest of nature leaves us estranged from it. “What is Man that you are mindful of him?” asked the ancient Psalmist under the star-studded sky that greeted him each night. “What is Man?” the modern asks, as astonishing images from Hubble reveal millions of luminaries that lie forever beyond his vision’s capacity. Only silence seems to answer us from this infinite beyond. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” wrote the 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal.[2] Ours is an age when mankind has been put in his place, one could say. What we are learning screams “Where were you when the universe began?” Our existence appears so unnecessary, so insignificant in comparison to the vastness of time and space. Pain and suffering accentuate the sense of isolation all the more.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life addresses this alienation. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” The Tree of Life begins, quoting the Book of Job as its epigraph.[3] Director Terrence Malick’s experimental film is not unlike the Book of Job in that it sets this cosmic question within the context of an individual family’s loss. God answers Job with a riddle, but he was comforted, nonetheless.  As an artistic exploration of the problem of evil and unjust suffering, Malick’s The Tree of Life is as complex and puzzling as Job’s mysteries, with meaning that encompasses and transcends every camera movement. This film provides a modern retelling of Job with stunning cinematic lyricism, one in which the wonder of existence “shines through everything.”[4]

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A Small Star in Some Strange Constellation

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Red Johanna Beach, Great Ocean Rd, Victoria, Australia.

~ from Chapter One, “The Man in the Cave”, The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton

“Far away in some strange constellation in skies infinitely remote, there is a small star, which astronomers may some day discover. At least I could never observe in the faces or demeanor of most astronomers or men of science any evidence that they had discovered it; though as a matter of fact they were walking about on it all the time. It is a star that brings forth out of itself very strange plants and very strange animals; and none stranger than the men of science. That at least is the way in which I should begin a history of the world if I had to follow the scientific custom of beginning with an account of the astronomical universe. I should try to see even this earth from the outside, not by the hackneyed insistence of its relative position to the sun, but by some imaginative effort to conceive its remote position for the dehumanized spectator. Only I do not believe in being dehumanized in order to study humanity. I do not believe in dwelling upon the distances that are supposed to dwarf the world; I think there is even something a trifle vulgar about this idea of trying to rebuke spirit by size. And as the first idea is not feasible, that of making the earth a strange planet so as to make it significant, I will not stoop to the other trick of making it a small planet in order to make it insignificant. I would rather insist that we do not even know that it is a planet at all, in the sense in which we know that it is a place; and a very extraordinary place too. That is the note which I wish to strike from the first, if not in the astronomical, then in some more familiar fashion.

The Daughter of Saturn Arrives at Jupiter

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“What we need for the moment is not so much a body of belief as a body of people familiarized with certain ideas.  If we could even effect in one per cent of our readers a change-over from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven, we should have made a beginning.”  Dr. Ransom of C.S. Lewis’s “Out of the Silent Planet”

On July 4, 2016, NASA’s space probe JUNO successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit.  It  was the second spacecraft ever to do so after the Galileo probe which orbited from 1995–2003.

For me, it is beyond ironic that NASA chose to name the probe JUNO and I think C.S. Lewis would have been delighted that they a chose pagan myth to tell the story of their scientific endeavor.  Here is the thinking from NASA:  “In Greek and Roman mythology, Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief. It was Jupiter’s wife, the goddess Juno, who was able to peer through the clouds and reveal Jupiter’s true nature. The JUNO spacecraft will also look beneath the clouds to see what the planet is up to, not seeking signs of misbehavior, but helping us to understand the planet’s structure and history.”

The stated mission?  They hope to improve the understanding of our origin.  JUNO will spend twenty months orbiting the gas giant, peering into its clouds with the hope of penetrating the myriad of mysteries that mask its making.  JUNO hopes to pull back the colorful veil of gases behind which the king of planets hides his truth from us.

This is exciting, indeed, but even if JUNO is able to expose all her beloved’s secrets, will we truly be closer to knowing all there is to know about our origin?  Perhaps.

What about the “why” of our existence?  Can science alone answer such a question?

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