Friday, April 22, 2011

A Festival not a Machine

In an article I wrote earlier in the year about Jonathan Edwards, I pointed out that when medieval man had looked up into the sky and contemplated the heavens, he was greeted not with a deep vacuity, but with a delightful dance; not a machine unwinding like clockwork, but a magnificent ceremony unfolding like a dance. Dorothy Sayers described the medieval universe as having “hierarchy, order, and purpose” as its “distinguishing marks” while C.S. Lewis described as “tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine.”

The writings of thirteenth-century poet Dante Alighieri were animated by this same vision. The universe of Dante was alive, pulsating with the energy of God and His angels, bathed in radiance and glory:

The glory of Him who moves all things soe’er
    Impenetrates the universe, and bright
    The splendor burns, more here, and lesser there.

In his book, English Literature in the 16th Century, C.S. Lewis observed that all Christendom shared this same vision until roughly the seventeenth century. Under the impetus of advances in science, man began to complete a process Lewis describes as “emptying” the universe. Man, with his new powers of observation and scientific analysis, “became rich like Midas but all that he touched had gone dead and cold.” (From Lewis’s essay, ‘The Empty Universe.’)

After the 17th century advances in science, man began to complete a process that Lewis described as “emptying” the universe. With his new powers of observation and scientific analysis, man “became rich like Midas but all that he touched had gone dead and cold.”  The universe that emerged under the telescope of modern science was “dead and cold” precisely because it was an autonomous mathematical machine, no longer radiating with aliveness. It was not that thinkers at the advent of the modern age had actually stopped believing that the world was created by God; rather, they began to view the mechanisms of the universe as separate from spiritual categories.

C.S. Lewis suggested that a key figure in this paradigm shift was the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630). A pioneer in the 17th century scientific revolution and precursor to Newton, Kepler began his career within the medieval tradition of explaining the motion of the planets by their anima motrices. By the end of his life, however, he was describing the stars mechanically. The net effect of the new mechanistic science was towards a disenchanted, de-spiritualized – one might even say dismembered - view of materiality.
As the 17th century progressed, this despiritualized view of matter was made even more explicit by a number of thinkers, not least Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes advocated a philosophical materialism which effectively collapsed all of reality into the physical realm. The universe of Hobbes consisted entirely of matter in motion, while matter exists entirely of extension. Thoughts are nothing other than images formed from the residue of sensations produced by external objects acting on our bodies.

There is no logical reason why a thoroughly scientific understanding of the universe should lead to a mechanistic and impersonal view of the cosmos. After all, to identify what a thing is made of or how it works, is to say nothing about what a thing is. That is why the best Christian thinkers have found beauty and personality in the very mathematical precision of the cosmos and its motions.

In his 2000 publication The Spirit of Liturgy, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) explains how St. Augustine built upon the cosmology of the Greek philosophy Pythagoras who “did not interpret the mathematics of the universe in an entirely abstract way” but followed the ancients in believing that “intelligent actions presupposed an intelligence that caused them.” Ratzinger continued:

The intelligent, mathematical movements of the heavenly bodies were not explained, therefore, in a purely mechanical way; they could only be understood on the assumption that the heavenly bodies were animated, were themselves ‘intelligent.’
For Christians, there was a spontaneous turn at this point from the stellar deities to the choirs of angels that surround God and illumine the universe. Perceiving the ‘music of the cosmos’ thus becomes listening to the song of angels, and the reference to Isaiah chapter 6 [Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory,” Isaiah 6:3] naturally suggests itself.

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