(Having seen the many furious comments made by scientist types to my last article, I thought it might be necessary to slow things down a bit in order to make myself clearer, and so I will speak of sacred art more directly in the next instalment of this series.)
In 1922 fr. Pavel Florensky wrote an article in his “Imaginary Values in Geometry” in which he attempted to use the general theory of relativity to show that considering the relativity of motion, one could develop a perfectly coherent mathematical model in which the Earth is the reference of motion. This model would in fact correspond to Ptolemy’s cosmological descriptions. This article was one of the reasons the Communist State gave for his trial and execution, a dark irony considering the usual “violent religion” vs. “enlightening science” rhetoric we are taught in primary school regarding Galileo’s censorship. What is interesting about Florensky’s article is mostly his reason for writing it. He said that although the Copernican model is fine,
“Ptolemy’s system, however, has priority due to compliance with common sense and loyalty to earthly, truly credible experience, compliance with philosophical reason and finally, compliance with the rules of geometry.”1
His impulse would find other followers in the 20th century. Understanding the alienating effect of modern cosmology, several thinkers would reclaim the ancient cosmological vision to different degrees and in different ways in a desire to return knowledge to human experience and to pull human action back into the sphere of “wisdom”, that is giving a priority to what man SHOULD do rather than what man CAN do. These thinkers include CS.Lewis2 but also less obvious candidates such as the founders of the “phenomenology” school of philosophy Edmund Husserl3 and Martin Heidegger. For example in Heidegger’s “Origin of the work of Art” he reclaims the Earth as a Metaphysical category and so warns us:
“What this word (Earth) means here is far removed from the idea of a mass of matter and from the merely astronomical idea of a planet. Earth is that in which the arising of everything that arises is brought back – as, indeed, the very thing that it is- and sheltered. In the things that arise the earth presences as the protecting one.” 4
This is a very beautiful vision of Earth, one which I would dare say fits very well the Orthodox vision, it is the Matrix of the world, that from which all phenomena rises and returns “as indeed the very thing that it is” – “from dust you came and to dust you shall return”. But we also find Earth as protecting, sheltering, hiding the “seed” of the resurrection within it.
Heidegger’s formulation in this case is merely a restating of the ancient vision of Heaven and Earth as the two first “poles” of Creation, the two original metaphysical categories which were created “in the beginning” , in the Principle, in the ἀρχῇ, בְּרֵאשִׁית of creation. If we wish to understand the space of icons or of churches we need to face up to Heaven and Earth, we need to see them as being the same two categories which appear universally in all cultures, whether it is the Greek Uranos and Gaïa, the Chinese Yang and Yin or the Native American Father Heaven and Mother Earth.
In Florensky’s article on geocentrism he uses Dante’s Divine Comedy as the basis for his thought and even the basis for his calculations. I think that despite all we could criticize as to the Orthodoxy of Dante, Florensky’s intuition was very profound. For Dante stood at the brink of Western spiritual decline, facing maybe unknowingly the gradual evacuation of all Symbolic Realism from the Western experience5. In this position, Dante creates in his Comedy a beautiful synthesis of a traditional cosmos while making many pronouncements which act almost prophetically as both clarification and warning to the modern reader6.
Dante in the Divine Comedy moves through a spiritual Journey down to the bottom, the centre of the Earth, and then moves up the mountain of Purgatory and finally climbs the Heavenly spheres as if the entire cosmos was a ladder where:
…“All things whate’er they be
Have order among themselves, and this is form,
That makes the universe resemble God.
Here do the higher creatures see the footprints
Of the Eternal Power….7
This type of Hierarchy is of course profoundly based on St-Dyonisus the Aeropagite’s Celestial Hierarchy which reinterprets Neo-Platonic thinking in a Christian frame. In a way Dante joins the Ontological hierarchy of the Aeropagite with the Ladder of Virtues as we find in St-John of Climacus. In Canto 29 of Paradisio, Dante has reached the highest sphere of Creation proper, the Prime Mobile. And here, Beatrice his guide, beautifully unites the Ptolemeic vision with Aristotle’s ideas when she states:
Order was con-created and constructed
In substances, and summit of the world
Were those wherein the pure act was produced.
Pure potentiality held the lowest part;
Midway bound potentiality with act
Such bond that it shall never be unbound.8
This joining of Aristotle’s Metaphysical categories into a cosmological model that places Heaven and Earth as the two poles of Creation repeats with much clarity for us “what” Heaven and Earth are. This duality of “act” and “potential”, “energia” and “dynamis” mirror perfectly the Biblical vision of Creation where the Logos from our Father in Heaven commands Earth to “bring forth” creation, we could say to “presence ” the world if we wanted to use Heideggerian language.
In each level of Dante’s Cosmic ladder, all human activity is seen hierarchically as being closer or further from the Divine Light, participating in God “to the level of its capability” to paraphrase St-Maximos.
…all make beautiful the primal circle,
And have sweet life in different degrees,
By feeling more or less the eternal breath.9
So as Dante climbs the planetary spheres he encounters different levels of souls on the Moon, on Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. But as if to warn the modern Science Fiction reader of a kind of materialist interpretation, Beatrice explains to Dante at the lowest level of Heaven that the souls:
…showed themselves here, not because allotted
This sphere has been to them, but to give sign
Of the celestial which is least exalted.
To speak thus is adapted to your mind,
Since only through the sense it apprehendeth
What then it worthy makes of intellect.
On this account the Scripture condescends
Unto your faculties, and feet and hands
To God attributes, and means something else;
And Holy Church under an aspect human
Gabriel and Michael represent to you,
And him who made Tobias whole again.10
And so here is the crux. Here is the point where the modern reader might go astray and where it is important to pull in the reins of our mind. Beatrice is telling Dante that the souls do not inhabit the visible heavenly spheres of the planets but that his encounter is a “condescension”, it is a descent of higher truth into a language that can be grasped. She then tells him that this goes for Scripture as well. Depending on if the reader is a “conservative” type or a “liberal” type he or she might be either utterly offended or feel wonderfully liberated by such a proposition, thinking: “Aha!, he is saying that his own descriptions as well as Scripture are MERELY symbolic, metaphors!” implying a kind of free for all where any other image could have been used in order to render the same message.
Of course what Dante says through Beatrice would have been obvious to the Ancients. This is why the Bible speaks of the Heaven of Heaven (sometimes translated as the Highest Heaven). And so despite that we can say without flinching “Our Father who is in Heaven” , we know clearly that even “The Heaven of Heaven cannot contain you.” (1 Kings 8:27). But to say that God is in Heaven is the most proper image for God, it is not arbitrary or simplistic or materialist, but is rather anchored analogically on the way we encounter what is above us, the very manner in which “The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and deity.” (Romans 1:20) This is not only a matter of interpretation of stories and texts but is the very mode by which the Heavens present themselves to us, the very mode through which, by their “logos”, all phenomena points to the Divine life. The visible heavens ARE an image of the Heaven of Heaven, and they are the best image for the spiritual hierarchy.
But what is it about this visible heaven, what is it about “up” that helps us understand God? The language of height is so woven into our language that we speak constantly of the hierarchy of things as being higher, being on top, being at the head, ascending or falling. Even the most atheist of scientific materialists could not avoid such expressions of heavenly hierarchy.
In the novel “Foucault’s Pendulum” by Umberto Ecco, there is a surprising scene where the main female character, like an inverted Beatrice attempts to topple all religious symbolism. She brings everything down to the human body and bodily experience starting by stating that “archetypes don’t exist; the body exists.”11 She says many things meant to be shocking of course, but when she gets to the idea of heaven she says
high is better than low, because if you have your head down, the blood goes to your brain, because feet stink and hair doesn’t stink as much, because it’s better to climb a tree and pick fruit than end up underground, food for worms, and because you rarely hurt yourself hitting something above-you really have to be in an attic-while you often hurt yourself falling. That’s why up is angelic and down devilish12.
Then relating to verticality:
vertical position is life, pointing sunward, and obelisks stand as trees stand, while the horizontal position and night are sleep, death. All cultures worship menhirs, monoliths, pyramids, columns, but nobody bows down to balconies and railings. Did you ever hear of an archaic cult of the sacred banister? You see? And another point: if you worship a vertical stone, even if there are a lot of you, you can all see it; but if you worship, instead, a horizontal stone,only those in the front row can see it, and the others start pushing, me too, me too, which is not a fitting sight for a magical ceremony…”13
If only most Christians had this insight so many problems would be avoided! Although it looks irreverent at first, and of course it is meant to be, it also hides something more profound despite itself. Dante’s guide Beatrice, as if anticipating such arguments tells us that “to speak thus is adapted to your mind, Since only through the sense it apprehendeth what then it worthy makes of intellect.” Symbolism is fully intuitive, it is fully in tune with how we experience the world. All the things Ecco’s protagonist says are true. It is only that she can but perceive the downward analogy and cannot perceive the very same analogy going up! Anyone who has watched rotting things become earth, but then has planted a seed in this very earth to watch it grow can understand what Earth is. If you can see that someone in a group of people placed higher than the others immediately becomes a centre, becomes the focus, for the very reason that this person can see everyone and everyone can see him whereas the other people in the group cannot see all the others but only those immediately next to them, then you might immediately get a glimpse of Heaven. If you put your face on the ground, you will see a very limited “particular” vision, a few blades of grass and some dirt maybe, but if you begin to ascend a mountain, then you can understand what Heaven is, for as you go up, you see more and more, your gaze encompasses more of Creation until the moment you reach the very summit and suddenly the entire horizon appears completely around you and you are as if at the summit of the world. There one could seize the relationship between the Heavens, the vertical and the centre. There one could hear God.
But to understand this symbolism one must first strip away that exterior vision, that alienated, amplified technical vision of modern science and technology for at least a moment and try to see the world with more immediacy. The icon and other sacred spaces can help us, for being also “artificial” in the sense of manmade spaces, they can act as a kind of memory in our confused state, they can show us what the arts can do in distilling and pointing clearly to how the world should be experienced in the light of its Creator.
1. Pavel Florensky. Imaginary Number in Geometry, 1922 (My translation)
2. See for example, CS. Lewis.The Discarded Image.
3. See for example, Edmund Husserl. “The Original Ark, Earth, Does Not Move”.
4. Martin Heidegger. Origin of the Work of Art, in “Off The Beaten Track”, translated by Julian Young and Kenneth Hayes, Cambridge Press, 2002.
5. In fact Dante saw in his own lifetime the transition between the very iconic painter Cimabue and Giotto who acts as a hinge to the Renaissance.
6. Dante in fact uses the spherical Earth in his cosmological model and does is it in a way that is very powerful and convincing to join the more ancient hierarchical vision of heaven and earth with how we experience a sphere in time as a cyclical movement. This goes to show that even the modern cosmological models could potentially be a support for spiritual truths though I have not yet seen anyone who can do this convincingly today.
7. Dante. Divine Comedy, Paradisio, Canto 1. Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
8. Ibid. Canto 29.
9. Ibid. Canto 4.
10. Ibid. Canto 29.
11. Umberto Ecco, Foucault’s Pendulum, translated by William Weaver, p. 250 see link: http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/acharya/Inputs/Books/Foucault’s%20Pendulum.pdf
12. Ibid. 251
Beautiful post. Those who have their eyes squeezed shut with a hand in front of them only see the sameness and uniformity of the dark, perhaps a glimpse of shadows of the Platonic cave. But how to describe a distant shore on which takes place a breathtaking sunrise? It can scarcely be imagined, let alone described in words uttered by another. Only the compass rose of the heart can measure luminosity.
For those of us moved by mystery – either those who go looking for it or those who are found by it (at its mercy) one challenge is keeping the pieces of life here together, integrated, functioning amidst the denial and fear-based certitude of what is peddled objective reality. Measurable, material objectivity pretends to entertain debate, but in the inexorable movement toward “progress” – that improvement is measured only by looking backwards in time, as relative to some hypothesized worse-off history. This begs the question of our existence and prevents us from fully experiencing the now of our beingness.
Mystery demand us to be present and paying attention – reading signs, interpreting symbols and listening with one’s whole being – ears and heart. This present attention often occupies us in ways not readily understood. I think of Heraclitus’ injunction to “inquire within.” Constant change demands our attention – even if it commonly understood as “subjective reality.” Who is it that seeks to be recognized in this world? It is whoever we are. I am reminded of the Anais Nin quote: we see the world not as it is but as we are. If all that is in my mind, my imagination, is the desiccated Cartesian rationality, then I might curse the darkness and question another’s ability to see any light.
The path of mystery is a path of receiving what comes from an unknowable future, unfolding to the present, not some place where an agreed upon set of measurements can be put in place so that “reality” can be objectively experienced and adequately described for all. This is a form of scientism. This is where one can part ways and say – no! My human experience is otherwise and because I am a human and it is what I experienced, I am not dependent on another’s recognized measuring device to tell me whether my experience was real.
In some important ways, all the world can be seen as an icon (yes, I’m thinking of Henry Corbin) – as a symbol of the invitation. I think this is what Bulgakov called the Sophiological antinomy, representing the relationship of creator to created.
Like a flower’s scent –
When I hold my truth lightly,
It will be released.
I can say from my experience that icon space is like no other – but it is we who accept this invitation that has been extended to all. Creation is ongoing, and we are part of the living world.
The place before me?
Here, all is transformation –
Symbol to image.
Thank you for this thought-provoking post about post-modern and pre-modern congruities.
Thank you for your poetic comment. Indeed I agree that “all the world can be seen as an icon”, hopefully the icon itself can help us in that.
Might want to look at this.
Very disturbing if you ask me. He thinks that by collapsing the opposition of mind and matter into one of the terms, that is matter, he is opening up more possibility for an incarnational theology. It is like a Marxist who thinks that if all economic classes are swallowed by the proletariat then world peace will ensue. Spirit, Logos, Energia, Act, Heaven, whatever you wanna call it, cannot be measured in quantitative terms, it is not biological or material in the scientific sense. If you look into a brain and measure firing neurons you will not find Love, Hope or Faith. You find these in how we tell stories, how we gather facts into language. Faith is neither a thought nor a feeling, it cannot be proven, it cannot be seen and it certainly cannot be outwardly measured. The fact that science is looking exclusively at the quantitative material world with exclusively quantitative methods means that they will find that the Human Being is just that (Surprise!) and if it means that the pathetic remainder of the ancient world, the flaccid notion of the Cartesian “mind” will collapse, then maybe that was inevitable! Science will only find a way out when it realizes that it is bound by language and cannot escape language, that language is Man’s tool in his demiurgic activity and it is what makes him in the image of God.
Thank you, for an interesting pair of articles. I find it fascinating to get a glimpse into another mind so different from my own. I am a firm believer in the Munchhausen trilemma which, to me, clearly demonstrates that all world views, including both my own and yours, are baseless. This leads me to live in two frames of reference, my own and another that attempts to approach the objective in which I see my own frame of reference as no better or worse than anyone else’s. Therefore, if I seem to criticize your world-view in this comment, please remember that at one level, I don’t see my world-view as any better than yours.
Still, from the perspective of my own world view, I think your world view is more egocentric than anthropocentric. That is, you say, “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. ” You believe that by living in the world of human experience (i.e. in an anthropocentric world view) that you will live a better life. But your aim is not to truly live in more harmony with all your human neighbors, but instead to live facing more directly toward your God.
But your God is yours not mine. Therefore, from my perspective, your desire is your own and your world view is your individual world view and your desire to sink back into that world view is centered on yourself (i.e. egocentric) and not anthropocentric at all.
On the other hand, as an atheist, I am not interested in either an egocentric or anthropocentric world view. The ancient culture I want to approach is the oldest one, the nomadic band hunter-gatherers, who lived in a truly natural world with thousands of other species living around them and with no clear hierarchy of species. To me, that is from my perspective, your hierarchic world view, which places humans above non-human life forms and then invents still higher forms to populate a mythical hierarchy above themselves, seems likely to be a recent invention from the last ten thousand years. It certainly is not a natural world view for me. I was raised an atheist in a Western High-Tech Democracy. The natural reaction to un-elected hierarchical authority for me is rebellion. If I suddenly found that your God really did exist, my natural reaction would be to form a protest movement and demand free elections. Rule by Divine Right isn’t part of my mythology.
When I walk down the street, I don’t see a flat world under a dome. I look carefully at the way sunlight plays through clouds and I see that the world is spherical. I see the phases of the Moon and I see sunlight reflected off a sphere. I watch the relationship between the phases of the Moon and the position of the Sun and I see the geometry that science describes. I have walked up and down sedimentary strata of rock and seen fossils with my own eyes. I have examined sedimentary rock and recent unlithified sediments and seen the same structures with my unaided eyes. I know the Earth is older that the Bible says, not because of intensive work with microscopes but by counting out paces as I cross thick slabs of sedimentary rock and then finding identical patterns of sediment at the bottom of one slab and the top of another. The fact that scientists have helped me to know to look for these things doesn’t change the fact that I experience them with my own eyes, unaided by a frame of metal or glass.
On the other hand, I would argue, that to see the world as naturally hierarchical and as described in the Bible requires that you embed yourself in a frame of reference bordered by the edge of pages of theological text. I would argue that you must actually believe what these pages say is truer than what you see with your bare eyes. This is what Christians told Pagans. Christians said, “Don’t believe in the world the way, you always experienced it. There is just one God. We have a book what says so.” Christians told Pagans to stop believing their own experience and accept that what was presented in a frame a paper and ink was truer. How can you expect to convince me that this frame of paper and ink is any different from a frame of metal and glass?
Actually, it is quite easy for me to see a difference. The frame of metal and glass predicts the behaviour of the material world while your frame of paper and ink does not. You want me to believe that your frame is superior because it did not bring about nuclear weapons or iPods. But the frame of paper and ink did bring about the Crusades and the Inquisition. Those who used Crusades and the Inquisition might just as easily have used nuclear weapons if they had been available. You might claim, rightly, that it was a poor interpretation of the frame that brought about those atrocities. I can just as easily claim that it was a poor interpretation of the frame of metal and glass that brought about nuclear weapons.
Even without DNA analysis, Darwin and his followers saw, largely just by going out and looking, hardly ever using a microscope or telescope, that all Life was one big related family. They saw that an Earth worm was just as fit for its lifestyle as humanity was for its. They saw that the whole body of Life on Earth was one allied force fighting to create more Life, more diversity of Life, more complexity of Life, in a largely inanimate universe. This insight helps me to love my neighbour, but not just my neighbour, but all living creatures. It helps me to see coral and trees as creators of living environments, three dimensional folded surfaces on which Life can diversify and flower. In that sense, they are hierarchically above humans, in my frame of reference.
Your second article asks, “Where is Heaven?”. In my frame of reference, heaven is here on Earth, for now. It is humanity’s task to make it in the heavens as it is on Earth by creating Life forms which can survive on other worlds. This is the service we have the power to perform. Our purpose is not to make it on Earth as it is in Heaven as I have heard Christian’s pray. In my frame of reference, the heavens are mostly baren vacuum filled with hard radiation. To make it on Earth as it is in Heaven would require nuclear weapons. Neither, is it our greedy purpose to prepare ourselves for an afterlife which is heavenly perfect. I am happy to face my own finite nature and work toward a near infinite future for Life.
If you find your medieval frame of paper and ink more meaningful than carefully examining the world around you, then far be it from me to tell you to stop reading your paper and ink. The Munchhausen trilemma applies and I can not prove that paper and ink is inferior to careful examination of reality. But please don’t hope to convince me to abandon my enhanced vision of metal and glass in which I can extend the world I experience day-to-day without contradiction or unnecessary self-delusion.
(This comment is also published at http://wiki.solseed.org/A_Frame_of_Paper_And_Ink )
There is a kind of fascinating confused madness in your comment, from declaring that all world views are baseless to somehow declaring that you magically know the worldview of ancient “nomadic band hunter-gatherers”, to a strange logical jump between anthropocentric and egocentric because, what was it again? Oh yes, my god is not your god and my goal is not to live in harmony with my neighbors but to live more facing my god (because of course those two things are incompatible) and so my world view is my own and to want to live through that world view is more egocentric than you because you want to live in harmony and non-hierarchically with all living things like worms and coral which are actually hierarchically higher than you. Did I get that right?
You see the biggest problem with “new atheists” is that you have no idea what intelligent, aware Christians actually believe and so your arguments fall flat. In your comments there are dozens of assumptions which you brandish and then smirkly think you defeat with your quasi-logical games. I cannot address them all so I will only deal with one, the most important one. God. God, the Uncreated, the Origin, the Infinite in the absolute sense, in the classical theist sense, in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, in Hinduism in Zoroastrianism and others, is not a thing, is not a phenomena, not a concept, not a person, not a father, not a son, not a spirit, not actually a being. Most Theologians are aware that the language we use for God, though useful and necessary can never circumscribe the Divine. God in the ultimate sense, does not “exist”. The origin of a set of things never lies within that set. The origin of All is not a “part” of that totality. Yet because God is the origin of All, simultaneously all there is “points” to that origin as well, so all that is is ultimately in God. It is an aporia, but not simply the kind of random “ok, you believe in God, I believe in a giant purple cat in the sky”. The language we we use to talk about God is carefully crafted to take into account the impossibility of circumscribing the origin of all within language. So when you muse about God and democracy and demonstrations against Divine right, you are embarrassing yourself in showing that you have no idea what you are talking about, like a 14 year old who wants to solve the world’s economic problems by printing more money. I would say at least get the basic thing, at least know what God does and does not mean before you engage in such discussion.
One last thing. If “heavens are mostly baren vacuum filled with hard radiation.” and “To make it on Earth as it is in Heaven would require nuclear weapons. ” we are pretty lucky because we have some! All the physicists in the 1940s collaborated to invent them, here on Earth. So maybe we can send a few of them out there as we attempt to make it in the Heavens as it is on Earth.
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