Science, modern science that is, has engulfed nearly our entire gaze. It has become the transparent self-effacing tableau on which we experience the world, the glasses we wear to judge the truth, the standard we hold against our experience. Self-obvious to most, the material, quantitative vision of the Universe that has developed since the so-called Enlightenment has become both the largest bludgeon wielded against religion whilst simultaneously being raised as the final stand of “truth”, the last fragile barricade erected by some religious proponents against an unstoppable onslaught.
The scientific world machine is so pervasive, so iron cast that it retrofits itself to the entire history of human experience. We therefore encounter in most modern historical narratives the tales of “superstition”, of “if only they knew” culminating to that pernicious statement we have all heard: “people used to think this, but now we KNOW…”. Of course this is only natural. History, as they say, is written by the victor. But I would prefer to say that history is not so much written by the victor as it is FRAMED by the victor. For that which changed in the 17th century during that tumultuous age in Western Europe, that which had been cracking for 400 years already but finally broke into pieces was the frame of thinking of the Middle Ages.
I would like to show you this frame as much as I can but I must be honest to the near-impossibility of doing this. Somewhat akin to freeing oneself from the platonic cave, stepping back to see our own world view for what it is requires us to slide into a place that is often far too risky, far too disorienting for most people to tread. It can be like falling into a void, losing an entire universe, but for those who dare the jump it can also cause true “metanoïa”, true “transcendence of mind”.
Despite the pervasive nature of modern science, what is fascinating to behold is how the old world view, especially the traditional, ancient and universal cosmology is still there, lingering so close to us that is has found itself trapped between our actual human experience and our scientific theories about the world. The sun, the moon and planets still rise in the east, the earth does not move unless there is an earthquake, and the sky is still up there stretched like a dome over our heads. Of course we are told that this experience is but an illusion. But the clash is real, especially for those of us who are still attached to Tradition. We need to acknowledge the kind of schizophrenia we experience when we say things like “Our Father who is in Heaven”, when we look at icons of Christ underground in Hades, when the priest lifts up the Host during the Liturgy. What is going on there? When we say Christ ascended to Heaven, where did he go? Into orbit? To the Moon? This clash has lured liberal protestant theologians like Rudolf Bultmann into “de-mythologizing” Christianity, that is removing from religion all those pesky things which do not fit our modern, scientific, rational world view.
The problem with the de-mythological remodelling is that it fails to perceive modernity’s own “myth” squeezed through iron blinders, its own grand narrative of a Scientific Material world where human happiness is arrived at by material and technical progress. It fails to take into account the now oh-so-visible side-effect of modern cosmological perspective on the human psyche, how it plays its part in the alienated state of modern man. De-mythologizing ignores how modern science contributes to the extreme human abuse of Creation through weapons of mass destruction, the industrial carnage of total war and plain old greedy industrial materialism leading to ecological disaster. The scientific method is by its very form a revolt against qualitative evaluation, it is an attack upon any teleology in phenomena, any meaning in things or how they change. So how then, can de-mythologizing serve those whose religion is hung on the fulcrum that all meaning within Creation culminates into the incarnate Logos?
I would like to propose something that might seem provocative at first, but will hopefully help people see the world with different eyes. There is a growing image on the recent horizon of human experience, it is an image of a family or a group of friends all next to each other at a table or in some other intimate setting, yet all interacting with tablets, ipods and smartphones as if the people around them didn’t exist. I would like to propose that this image, this reality is the final result of Galileo’s cosmological model. Some of you might think I am exaggerating, so I will need to explain.
The Copernican/Galilean worldview, that is the heliocentric worldview and its further development into our modern cosmology of galaxies and nebulas and black holes has two important aspects. It is an artificial vision and it is an alienating vision. It is artificial in the strictest sense of “art” or “techne”. It is a technical vision because we cannot experience this vision without technology, without telescopes and other apparatuses. Because technology is a supplementary thing, a garment of skin, something which we add to our natures in order to physically bolster them toward the material world, it therefore also leads further into the material world itself. I have explained this paradox elsewhere, but it might be useful to go over the basic notion. A human technology, any technology exists in order to supplement human experience facing the dangers and challenges of physical existence. Clothing protects us from the climate, writing records things so we need not remember them all, weapons make us stronger than our enemies. But each technology leads us further into material existence because it gives us the sense of material strength. If I can build a house or create warm clothing I can live in places where without them I would surely die. If I now have matches to make fire I no longer need to learn to make fire without them. Since I have my mother’s phone number on my smartphone, there is no need to remember it. Each strength therefore is also at the same time a weakness because I inevitably become dependant on this artificial strength. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. In fact, there had always been technology as material supplement to existence, clothing, houses, tools developed by humanity to hold death at bay.
Truly though, it is only in the 17th century that humans engaged their eye into this process of supplement. It is only in the 17th century that men framed their vision with metal and glass, projecting their mind out into an artificially augmented space. Men always had artificial spaces, painting, sculpture, maps, but the telescope and microscope are self-effacing artifices, they attempt to replace the eye, to convince us that they are not artificial but are more real than the eye. It is not only the physical gesture of looking at the world through a machine that demonstrates the radical change, though this is symbolic enough, but it is the very fact that people would do that and come to the conclusion that what they saw through these machines was truer than how they experienced the world without them. Yet the great revolution is not simply a technical rectification as it is presented by some today, it is not only that technically speaking we used to believe the earth to be a flat disk at the centre of the cosmos, and now we know the earth to be a big ball of water and dirt swirling around a giant nuclear reactor at the centre of our planetary system. The change happens in the very core of what Truth is, it is a change in the priority of knowledge, a change in what is important to us as human beings. That is the change. In a traditional world, all of reality is understood and expressed in an integrated manner. We describe phenomena in the manner we experience it because what is important is not so much the making of big mechanically precise machines that will increase our physical power, but rather the forming of human beings that have wisdom and virtue. The resistance to the heliocentric model was a desire to “save the phenomena”, the desire to express the world as we experience it because this expression must remain connected to how human beings live their lives and interact with God and their fellow men. So by projecting ourselves out through our machines into an physically augmented world, we “fall” into that materiality, we inevitably live in a more material and materialist world. And this is modern history itself.
What proceeds from this is my second point, which is that modern cosmology is not only artificial, but it is alienating, it moves Man away from himself. Once Man accepted that what he saw through his telescopes and microscopes is more real than his natural experience, he made inevitable the artificial world, he made inevitable as its end the plastic, synthetic, genetically modified, photoshopped, pornographic, social-networked reality we live in. When at the very core of vision, the shape of your cosmos leads you to believe that technology provides a perception which is more true, more real than your experience, more real than walking out of your house and looking at the sky, then the telescope and the microscope will soon be side by side with the camera, the screen and the accelerated time and space of the car window. The metal and glass frame will swallow us and human beings will lose themselves for their incapacity to fully inhabit the world.
Most of us can name the planets in order of the Sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, etc.. but how many of us can walk out at night and identify the planets in the sky as they travel the zodiac? How many of us can identify constellations other than the big dipper, little dipper and one or two more. I recently went to the planetarium with my children. They had redone the show to great acclaim, they said it helped children “experience” astronomy. As we sat there looking at a projection on the ceiling, we were zipped through the solar system, flew through the sun, through galaxies and nebulas a black holes. It was mesmerizing. It is comforting to know that there is at least a building close by where I can pay money in order to actually live in the cosmos of modern science for a few minutes. Too bad that most of the time I only half live in that world. A large part of me still trudges along on an unmoving Earth, with the sun, moon an starts travelling across the dome of Heaven. I am told the true image is not that of the Earth down here and sky up there that I experience every day, rather it is this picture of a ball floating in the void, a vision I will never have myself, unless I look at a picture or a screen, unless I am fortunate enough to be taken up in a big metal and glass machine that will shield me from an environment in which I would instantly die without its protection. Is this Truth? Is this Wisdom? Is this Virtue?
Now if from this you have gained the impression that I am denying the technical accuracy of modern Cosmology, it means I have not been able to pull you away from your frame enough to see it. Modern cosmology is indeed useful for sending up satellites and flying space ships, for sending a few people to colonize Mars. And even during the Middle Ages scholars believed the Earth to be a sphere. Multiple cosmologies should be able to coexist and play different functions, some more philosophical and human and others more technical and mathematical. But in our lives most of the time, the Earth is flat. Most of the time, the Heaven is up and the Earth is down, most of the time means in those instances when I am interacting with my family, my society and my enemies. And most of all, if we wish to understand religion and its symbolism, if we wish to understand the Bible or icons or church architecture we must anchor ourselves to the world of human experience, for that is where we can love our neighbor. We must force ourselves to believe that the sun rises every morning, or that the moon waxes and wanes and honestly it should not be so difficult, because despite Galileo and Newton and Einstein I’m pretty sure I will find some Truth in tomorrow’s rosy fingered dawn.
The second part of this article: Where is Heaven?