The Music of the Spheres

Two posts back, I addressed the “Just-So-Stories” theory of religious development–that religion emerged as a prescientific means of explaining natural phenomena.  I gave what was, to me, the most obvious evidence against the theory: most religions don’t actually care about natural phenomena.  Those aspects of religious belief which do explain nature are mostly peripheral, and could be gutted without affecting much else in any given religion’s beliefs, rituals or practices.

I would further argue that, to the extent that religions do tie natural phenomena into their superstructure, the point is not to explain nature so much as to sanctify it.  When Hades drags Persephone to the Underworld for half the year, sending Demeter into grieving, that doesn’t really “explain” winter; any idiot, however ignorant, is bound to notice that the days are shorter, and the weather colder, in winter.  Demeter was not supposed to have power over the sun or the sky, only the fertile earth.  As an explanation, the Rape of Persephone doesn’t make sense.  As sanctification, however–as a way of tying the rhythms of everyday life to the eternal–it works.  But that whole way of thinking is alien to us, because we live in a largely de-sanctified world, what Fr. Stephen Freeman calls “a two-story universe.”  I’ll leave the details of that to Father Stephen and company; a pedantic nerd like me can hardly wrap his head around the concept.

But I have another objection.  Notice what I said in that first paragraph: “a prescientific means.”  I don’t believe any era can be meaningfully called “prescientific” in this context: that is, a time period when human beings did not believe in a largely fixed order of the natural world.  As C.S. Lewis explained at great length in Miracles, the whole notion of the miraculous depends on the idea of a recurring pattern in nature which can be interrupted.  When early Christians said that Christ was born of a virgin, they said it in the full knowledge that such things do not happen.  If they thought virgin birth a normal event, they would hardly have bothered to make such a fuss about it, any more than they would have bothered telling us about Jesus’s placenta.  And Joseph would not have had any ideas about “putting her away quietly.”

The Classical world, in particular, had an elaborate cosmology which functioned more or less mechanistically (I’m not clear about the astrological influence of the planets/gods, though I’ve always heard those described in a largely mechanistic fashion).  It was, by our standards, stunningly naive and ignorant, but it made sense based on the observations people were capable of at the time: the universe was layered like an onion in “spheres,” with the earth in the middle, the sun, moon and planets orbiting around it, and the stars in the outermost layers.  Furthermore, each element had its proper sphere which it naturally sought out; fire rises because its sphere is the highest, while stones sink in water because the sphere of earth is lowest.  The ancients bequeathed this model to the Medievals, who elaborated on it as best they could.

You may call this model grossly incorrect, but then so were many models put forth by the natural philosophers of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century.  See, for example, phlogiston, or aether, or Lamarckian evolution.  The fact that all these theories were daft has nothing to do with their internally consistent and mechanistic nature.  And they were always distinct from church teaching.  Even when Galileo was “persecuted” (for insulting, or appearing to insult, his most powerful patron in print–but that’s another matter), the issue was not Catholic doctrine, but ideas inherited from pagan philosophers like Ptolemy and Aristotle.  What changed was not the introduction of a natural order, but a loss of belief in the supernatural order beyond it.


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