Evangelizing Environmentalists With Medieval Cosmology

I was slightly over-ambitious with how many books I hoped to read on our first family holiday with two small children. I finished one I was already reading, and started and (almost) finished another. Thankfully both were excellent reads, the latter being The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery by Seb Falk.

As the title suggests, Falk skewers the idea that the medieval era was a scientific “dark age”. Rather, it was an age of incredible scientific discovery and enquiry, driven largely by the interests and exploits of monks in their monasteries (none of whom, for the record, thought the earth was flat). For them, the physical universe was God’s “second book”, and enquiry into its minutest functions meant both worshiping their Creator as they marveled at each discovery, and loving their neighbour as they put those discoveries to use. Falk specifically focuses on astronomy and time-keeping, building the book around the exploits of John Westwyk (c.1350-1400), an obscure Benedictine Monk and accomplished astronomer.

I learned a lot from Falk – mainly that I am terrible at science, and most medieval monks were a damn side better at it than I am.

In the book’s epilogue, Falk reflects on why, despite all its scientific achievements, we still poo-poo the Middle Ages. Keeping the focus on astronomy, he puts his finger on an interesting paradox in the modern mindset:

Why, then, do we persist in belittling the Middle Ages? In part it is certainly to exalt ourselves. When prominent present-day scientists assert that Copernicus ‘dethroned’ the Earth from a proud pedestal at the centre of the universe, they are implicitly boasting of the modesty of the moderns. As it happens, medieval thinkers often pictured the earth at the bottom, rather than at the centre, of the vast universe; as far as possible from the perfection of the heavens was hardly a desirable place to be. That is why, in Galileo’s Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, the Florentine astronomer had his spokesman, Salviati, assert that ‘we are trying to make [the Earth] more noble and more perfect… and in a sense to place it in heaven, from which your philosophers have banished it.’ Nevertheless, the tale of the Earth’s demotion is often framed as a blow to medieval arrogance, and modernity, by contrast, is supposed to have succeeded through the enlightened modesty of scientists. Neil deGrass Tyson astrophysicist and self-proclaimed successor to Carl Sagan, has written that, when he sees the tiny Earth in a planetarium show, ‘I… feel large, knowing that the goings-on within the three pound human brain are what enabled us to figure out our place in the universe.’

(p.295)

The narrative we’ve inherited is that modernity corrected the arrogance of the pre-modern world. Man (well, White Western Christian man) arrogantly saw himself as the literal and metaphorical centre of the universe. But then, along came Copernicus in the mid-1500s and, despite the Church’s best efforts, humanity was forced to realise that it’s not so special after all and that everything, quite literally, doesn’t revolve around us. And so began a journey of enlightenment which culminated in the universal acceptance of Darwinian evolution, and the shared understanding that we are, in the end, an animal like any other, breeding and mutating on the third rock from the Sun.

By accepting this, we supposedly show humility by accepting our place in the great circle of life. Yet, most of the time, this is a false humility, because it’s based on a false narrative.

A False Narrative

Yes, the Medievals believed the Sun went round the earth – but so would you have done, if you’d been alive then. It sure looks that way from the ground, and we still talk about “sunrise”. Reading Falk’s book, medieval astronomy can be seen as a steady process of astronomers wondering why certain things just didn’t add up, no matter how finely they calculated them – like the the length of years and hours, or the zig-zag retrograde movement of the planets. Ultimately, the cumulative weight of evidence led to Copernicus (a faithful Roman Catholic) making the deeply counter-intuitive suggestion that perhaps the Earth revolved around the Sun. But this was the logical conclusion of medieval astronomy, not a decsivie rejection of it. The discipline was a never-ending, collegiate process between the monks of Europe and the scholars of the Islamic world.

And Copernicus was well received in the mid-1500s! Pope Clement VII heard lectures on his theory in 1536 and was highly interested; his masterwork, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, was dedicated to Pope Paul III, and it was printed by the Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander (who penned a supportive introduction for it!). This was after Martin Luther’s right-hand man, Philip Melancthon, sent a young astronomer, Rheticius, to study with Copernicus, who then pressured him into publishing his work. It wasn’t until decades later, with Galileo in the 1600s, that the church turned against heliocentrism for a while (a shift I’m still trying to get my head around).

So it’s not even historically true that medieval/early modern Christians were too arrogant to accept heliocentrism. And, even before the Copernican Revolution, it’s simply not true that geocentrism (placing the Earth at the centre) meant that man arrogantly exalted himself in the universe. Yes, they believed the Earth was at the centre, but for Medievals this meant that the Earth was at the bottom of the universe. The two were synonymous. This is in part because of the pre-modern view of the universe as a series of spheres, nestled together like Russian dolls with the Earth as the smallest, as well as the pre-modern view of the four elements, with earth being the basest and heaviest, and therefore at the bottom.

You can see this in Cardinal Nickolaus von Schonberg’s letter to Copernicus in 1536, urging him to publish his theories (the full text of which can be found here, along with with the full text of Copernicus’s Revolutions, as well as Osiander’s introduction):

Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of which everybody constantly spoke. At that time I began to have a very high regard for you… For I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology. In it you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe… Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this subject …

I’m still looking into why the church’s reaction to heliocentrism lurched so negatively between the 1540s and the 1630s, but part of the reason has to be how different Galileo’s disposition was from Copernicus’. Copernicus, by all accounts, was a humble and pious man, reticent to publish his theories because of their unprecedented nature. Galileo, as the above quote from Falk demonstrates, was not quite so shy and retiring, seeking to “make [the Earth] more noble and more perfect… and in a sense to place it in heaven, from which [the] philosophers have banished it” (by whom he meant Ptolemy and Aristotle, whose astronomical theories formed the basis for medieval astronomy). So modern comsology, in Galileo’s hands, was an exercise in human arrogance. Galileo structured his main work, Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, as primarily a dialogue between an astronomer called Salviati (a thinly veiled stand-in for Galileo himself) and a philosopher called Simplicius – hardly the most cutting and subtle satire of the 17th century. So after Galileo, man may not have been at the centre of the spheres, but he was now at the top of the universe.

A False Humility

Sneering at the Middle Ages for it’s man-centredness, then, is just hypocrisy. We tell ourselves we are humble by viewing ourselves just another creature, circulating in just another galaxy, and that above us there is only sky. But that simply puts us at the top of the chain of being. And we will always put other things under ourselves.

Whilst the Medievals were wrong about the physical ordering of the universe (or, better yet, were simply further behind in the process of discovering it), they were deeply right about the moral ordering of the universe. So it would serve us well to rediscover how our Medieval Christian forebears saw their place in the endless circling of the heavens, and to bear in mind the false humility with which modern people see theirs

This is basically what Michael Ward did, in his now famous book Planet Narnia (reworked in a more accessible format as The Narnia Code). Ward discerned that Lewis had based each of the seven Chronicles of Narnia on the characteristics associated with the seven heavens of pre-modern cosmology (the moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). Lewis obviously knew that the scientific theories underpinning the “seven heavens” had long since been improved, but the moral and spiritual truths underpinning (or flowing from?) them were true and natural. He described the planets as “spiritual symbols of permanent value”. This is flush with Lewis’ classic defence of natural law in The Abolition of Man, in which he wants to prove that material things can really participate in and convey moral and spiritual truth, not merely be arbitrarily thought of as doing so.

Evangelising the Environmentalists

To try and land these reflections then (and stick to the stated purpose of this blog), let’s ask: is all this any use in pastoral ministry?

I think it is. In general, I’m more and more convinced that we need to deep-dye our preaching in an attitude that discerns and refutes the modern view of the world (something I was getting at in my last post on Afghanistan, the pulpit, and the myth of progress). It will be good for the souls of everyone in your flock to see themselves at the bottom of the universe in the same way that the Medievals did.

More specifically, with an eye on evangelism, a firm grasp of the shift from medieval to modern cosmology could be of great help in preaching to an eco-conscious age.

Wherever you live – whether in a liberal urban context who eco concerns are commonplace, or in a cosy suburb, or a poor rural area where farmers are struggling – odds are people are becoming more eco-conscious. Things like wildfires across the USA (not just in California) seem to be making even traditionally anti-environmental types sit up and take notice.

Environmentalists are, traditionally, some of the staunchest critics of the kind of man-centredness associated with a pre-modern cosmology. Our human exceptionalism has, they argue, led to our current ecological catastrophe, because we’ve failed to understand that we are simply one part of nature, which needs to learn to live in harmony with all the rest. The White Christian West usually comes off as the worst culprit here (despite, y’know, China.)

But the contemporary environmentalists are the heirs of Galileo, and not in a good way. Their proposed solutions to the environmental ravages caused by man-centred industrial technology are simply a different manifestation of the same technologising impulse. I’m indebted to Paul Kingsnorth, the British writer and former environmental activist, for this insight, which he articulates in the titular essay of his book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist (the other book I read on holiday):

Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. In this country, most of us wouldn’t even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called ‘sustainability’. What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the non-human world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s richest people – us – feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.

p.68

The cults of “sustainability” and “zero-carbon”, Kingsnorth says, create an inevitable drive towards newer, bigger technologies designed to achieve those goals:

To do this will require the large-scale harvesting of the planet’s ambient energy: sunlight, wind, water power. This means that vast new conglomerations of human industry are going to appear in places where this energy is most abundant. Unfortunately, these places coincide with some of the world’s wildest, most beautiful and most untouched landscapes. The sort of places that environmentalism came into being to protect… What this adds up to should be clear enough, yet many people who should know better choose not to see it. This is business as usual: the expansive, colonising, progressive human narrative, shorn only of the carbon. It is the latest phase of our careless, self-absorbed, ambition-addled destruction of the wild, the unpolluted and the non-human. It is the mass destruction of the world’s remaining wild places in order to feed the human economy. And without any sense of irony, people are calling this ‘environemntalism’.

p.71

As an atheist, Kingsnorth began to see the inevitable consequences of a modern, secular cosmology. When man sees himself at the top of the universe, he will subjugate and exploit the earth beneath his feet, even as he thinks he’s trying to save it. We think we’re humble by acknowledging that we’ve screwed up the environment and abused our unique place in it. But our proposed solutions merely repackage the underlying problem, and ride on the arrogant assumption that we can use tehcnology to bend nature to our will.

Some of you will know that, in the past couple of years, Kingsnorth unexpectedly found his alternative to this mindset in a conversion fo Eastern Orthodox Christianity (something he wrote about brilliantly for First Things, and speaks about in more detail in this podcast). Christianity (and perhaps especially a more obviosuly “pre-modern” form of it, like Orthodoxy), provides a model of the universe which finally makes sense of threads you can find running through Kingsnorth’s writing for the past 20 years. It’s a model where man doesn’t sit at the naked top of the universe, free to do as he pleases. Rather, he sits humbly at the bottom of Creation’s revolving spheres, marvelling at the work of the Lord’s fingers and that God would be mindful of him. And yet, he is crowned with glory and honour, and all things are indeed beneath his feet, but are put there to be kept and served.

It’s my hope that, in the years of unavoidable ecological decay to come, we’ll see more people like Paul Kingsnorth find rest in the Christian view of the universe, realising that their love for Creation only makes sense when they meet the Creator. And we can be ready for them in our preaching and evangelism if we call out the man-centred arrogance of the modern mind, and hold out instead the joy found in humbly discerning our true place in the revolutions of the heavenly spheres.

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