“It is the design in Nature that strikes us first …”
“Everyone must have noticed the same thing in the fixed and almost offensive color of all unfamiliar things, tropic birds and tropic blossoms. Tropic birds look like staring toys out of a toy-shop. Tropic flowers simply look like artificial flowers, like things cut out of wax. This is a deep matter, and, I think, not unconnected with divinity; but anyhow it is the truth that when we see things for the first time we feel instantly that they are fictive creations; we feel the finger of God. It is only when we are thoroughly used to them and our five wits are wearied, that we see them as wild and objectless; like the shapeless tree-tops or the shifting cloud. It is the design in Nature that strikes us first; the sense of the crosses and confusions in that design only comes afterwards through experience and an almost eerie monotony. If a man saw the stars abruptly by accident he would think them as festive and as artificial as a firework. We talk of the folly of painting the lily; but if we saw the lily without warning we should think that it was painted.”
~G.K. Chesterton from What’s Wrong with the World
“He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.”
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. Of course, this self-consciousness began in the Garden, but it is particularly pronounced today. Lewis writes that our “whole attitude of the universe is inverted.” “In modern, that is, in evolutionary, thought,” he writes, “Man stands at the top of a stair whose foot is lost in obscurity.”
Gustave Dore’s depiction of Dante’s Divine Comedy: The Celestial Rose – seeing the universe from a spiritual point of view
In his essay, “First and Second Things,” Lewis wrote that “you can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” In fact, he continues, if you put second things first, you will end up getting neither. The thing that strikes one most when studying the differences between the Medieval Model and our own is the inversion of first and second things between the two. The medieval mind took for granted that the world, though complex, was ordered. They looked to first things to help them discover its structure, two of which were God’s goodness and Mankind’s sinfulness. Taking these as starting points, along with a tremendous respect for the wisdom of the past, they constructed their cosmology. Modern man has debunked these first things and begins with himself: cogito ergo sum. The consequences of this inversion reverberate throughout our cosmology, creating a very different reaction to the universe as compared to the medieval stargazer. Lewis writes that it is precisely this inversion that has led to the emptying and “desiccation of the outer universe” that characterizes our model, not the scientific discoveries of our more technologically advanced age. He calls the inversion a result of a “great movement of internalization and that consequent aggrandizement of man,” something that is the subject of his book The Abolition of Man. In other words, we have dispensed with the hierarchy of the medieval model and have put mankind into a first-place in our world, crushing everything into a “flat equality.” Therefore, it is not so much its details but the Medieval Model’s ordering of first and second things that can speak wisdom into our current age and illuminate where we have gone wrong. The medieval observer’s respect for authority and recognition of Mankind’s place within an objective hierarchical order provide powerful correctives for our modern age. It reveals how our distrust of authority, our hunger for autonomy, and our worship of radical individualism have shaped our own model of the universe in such a way that it has shrunk to the point where “the parts seem greater than the whole.”
“For, whatever the medieval faults, they went with one merit. Medieval people never worried about being medieval; and modern people do worry horribly about being modern.” ~ G.K. Chesterton “On Turnpikes and Medievalism”
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. 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.” 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.” 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. 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.
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.
~ 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. 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. 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.”