Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #6

I started this series of notes to explain in what sense I called myself a medievalist. This is the note I wanted to write from the beginning.

In my last note, I wrote that "behind every common noun, there is a proper noun; behind every ideal, there is an identity; behind every category, a personality." I did not go further, simply because the next step in the argument would have sunk my last note in a sea of words. Here goes.

We know Christianity descended from messianic Judaism. The Hebraic Law emphasized the unity of God and nature, and man as the pinnacle (James 1:18 "first fruits") of Creation. Such monotheism runs parallel (and against) the prevailing attitudes of the Ancient Near East to treat nature as fundamentally chaotic, no more centered around man than it might be centered around a particular species of beetle (though, admittedly, the beetle did find its place in Egyptian polytheism).

A synthesis arose out of classical Greece in the writings of Plato. His teachings quickly rose to become the dominant paradigm of the Hellenized world, foundational to any proper education. Platonism was first transmuted to early Christianity by the apostle Paul, a well-educated Pharisee from Hellenic Judea, and was later systematized by St. Augustine. Early Christians took the Platonic emphasis on order, on unity of purpose over complexity of operation, to reconcile the opposing tendencies of Judaism and Paganism.

Judaism, Paganism, and Platonism are foundational for Christian theology. The first and the last of these are well recognized, at least among theologians. Yet I challenge anyone to find one mainstream theologian who will recognize the effects of Paganism.

Its influence is particularly evident in the medieval world, as Christianity spread through a formerly Pagan continent. The medieval philosophers freely integrated Paganism (particularly pagan astrology) wholesale into their vision of the universe. The medievals believed the planets had souls, called "Intelligences," and were the noblest servants of the One God within the material universe.

Here is one of the most sublime ideas I have ever had the Joy of contemplating.

Medieval astronomers operated within a geocentric cosmology--a universe with the earth at the center--and had developed incredibly intricate geometrical models to explain planetary motion. I won't go into details--it involves regressive motion, eccentrics, equants, epicycles, deferents, and much confusion--but they had calculated that if you were to spin 56 spheres around the same center point, an observer from that centerpoint would see a precise approximation of real planetary motion.

This was their model. 56 crystalline spheres carrying seven planetary bodies, all rotating majestically through a sea of ether, the most perfect element that flowed from the Presence of God Himself. If man could enter this space, if he could traverse the moon and enter the heavens, he would hear the vibrations of these spheres, each sphere at a different frequency, as willed by their governing Intelligences.

This doctrine, called the Music of the Spheres, is inherited straight from classical (Neoplatonic) philosophy, and is foundational to the medieval era. Consider it: the medievals believed that man would hear the heavens literally "declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of His hands" (Psalms 19)!

There is a harmony to the person of God--a unity of purpose, over an infinity of personalities.

In my first note, I wrote that "the truth of polytheism lies in the uncontainable, unexplainable, unendurable multiplicity and complexity of a unified God." But my argument goes beyond this. Fundamentally, I believe that polytheism recognized the truth that the qualities we associate with the divine are identified with a personality of God. The fundamental error of polytheism was irreverence: they could not fathom that all these personalities could reside in One God, any more than they could be fulfilled in one human. This error was expressed in the sin of idolatry: they invented many gods to fill the apparent void, and elevated these above the One God.

As a Christian, I do not need the security of polytheism. I accept (as mystery) the infinity of God, and can therefore contemplate (by reason) the magnitude of His being. Like the medievals, I utterly reject the idea that the planets were gods. But like them, I have no problem accepting that the gods were planets--that they directly reflect personalities of God.

Here is the crucial point. Infinity, like quantum mechanics, is so far removed from our experiences that we simply cannot understand or realize it by ordinary reason. Might we not find value, then, in paganism? C.S. Lewis once wrote that every myth consists of divine, human, and diabolical elements; if we purge the last two, would the remainder not give us a glimpse of the Divine?

If we purify pagan heresy in the fire of truth, if we treat polytheistic imagery as a prism for God's nature, would this not help us understand God better than abstract contemplation of His essence?

Is it easier to realize God's glory in the abstract, or to work by analogy, envisioning a king on his throne? How much more, then, might we learn when we witness the majesty of Jupiter? Likewise, in my family, we often spoke of "God's sense of humor." The reason why we are so easily able to understand the quality of mirth and playful mischief, is due to our cultural images of Pan and Mercury.

There is strange insight to the pronouncement in 1 John that "God is light", for there are many parallels. God is infinite, God is unvarying, God is the standard by which the universe moves. Like the speed of light, there is a constancy to His nature; like the wavelength, there is an infinite variety. And of the entire spectrum of light, only a portion is visible to the human eye--the wavelengths seen by us as colors.

The myths, the planets, the polytheistic gods: these are the colors of the One True God.

One final note before I close. The medieval philosophers rejected the determinism of the pagan astrologers. However, they could comfortably accept that the planets had 'influences' in earthly affairs. If we view the planets as prisms, we shall not be led astray: the personalities of God directly affect the way in which we live. And those personalities have names.

For the remainder of my notes, I will often use the names of the planets--Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn--to convey certain ideas. This is part of my medieval instincts. I think, I breathe, in these terms. They have given me greater insight into the attributes of God than I could have dreamed possible; these thoughts have revolutionized the life of my mind, and enlivened my faith in God. But my use of these terms is not an ultimatum; you need not think of them by these names to realize the ideas behind them (and please ask me to clarify if I am ever unclear). But I have found them so useful and so immediate that I express my thoughts in these terms.

Certainly there are dangers to this doctrine--that should be evident from even a cursory glance at the history of pagan religions. But if their sin was in idolatry, and we rebuke the sin, will we fall into a new error? If we cleanse the polytheistic gods and consider them not as objects of worship but simply as prisms of God, as perspectives into theological reflection, I believe we shall see God much more clearly, and learn of Him in new ways.

This does not comport easily with modern theology. But if it were original, I should trust it less. I can accept this, because I know that the great Christians of antiquity accepted this model without misgiving.

Go in joy, in love, in perseverance, in peace, and in all humility that is found in the Presence and Person of God. Glory be to Him!

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