Capturing Time and Space
We continue the Story of how we human beings have progressively separated ourselves from the Cosmos and the Environment by looking this month at the next two chapters of Jo Marchant’s book The Human Cosmos, entitled Time and Ocean.
We have noted that by the beginning of the Middle Ages there were three broad ways in which we human beings related to the Heavens and the Cosmos, at least within the Roman Empire as it began to fall apart.
Institutional Christianity had taken over from the pagan religious traditions and presented a sense of personal relationship with the Creator characterised by covenant and relationship. Unlike the pagan traditions this did not include a sense of personal relationship with ‘the world around us’ which had been created ‘out of nothing’. It has long been recognized that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo adopted by the Church had a significant role in our developing conception of our Selfhood. Our existence as creatures with ‘souls’, that can say ‘I am’, implies a separation from creation that reflects the Creator’s complete separation from the world He had made ‘out of nothing’.
A sense of more personal connection with the Cosmos continued in astrology that flourished one way or another right up until the modern period, when it was trumped by modern science. However it still mediates a particular sense of relationship with the Cosmos for many people to this day. Our fate is written in the stars; people looked to the Cosmos not for its sake but for theirs.
The third way was in the mathematising of science that had begun with the Babylonians in looking at the heavens, and had been adopted in turn by the Greeks. Here human mind was beginning to be projected onto the Cosmos in a language (mathematics) that allowed the rational manipulation of its elements that in turn allowed prediction which could then be validated or not by further observation or experimentation. It is this gradual bringing of the Cosmos and the environment, and our lived experience generally, under the impulses and machinations of the human mind that is the main thread of our Story, with its denouement in our own times in the stand off between Einstein’s Relativity theory and the Quantum mechanics.
Jo Marchant’s chapter ‘Time’
tells the story of why and how the monks of Medieval Europe chased down time, and how in doing so they transformed humanity. Until this point in history, time was a sign of the divine cosmic order, as shown to us through the cycling motions of the sun, moon and stars. The invention of mechanical clocks unleashed a very different kind of time, powerful enough to weaken our bond with both God and the universe, and set the foundations for a new way of life. 83
...what governed the monks’ daily existence, perhaps more than anything else, was an obsession with time. Day and night were divided into strict time slots, filled with rounds of study and manual work punctuated by regular, communal prayers. This ‘temporal discipline’, as Harvard historian David Landes describes it, distinguished western Christianity from the other monotheistic religions. In Judaism and Islam, as well as the eastern Christian churches, daily prayers were conducted according to natural cues such as sunrise, noon and sunset. But in western Christianity, especially monastic Christianity, there was a growing focus on regularity and punctuality. 85
The new interest in time and how to measure it brought forth many inventions, such as water clocks, and clocks run by weights, but
The crucial breakthrough was to add an oscillating device – called an escapement – that alternately blocked and released the moving train of wheels, so that the weight fell in controlled, regular drops. It was, says Landes, ‘among the most ingenious inventions in history’. Instead of trying to measure time as a continuous flow, an escapement divides it into regular beats – the ‘ticks’ of a clock – which can then be counted. (87)
Time was beginning to be digitalised, a process enhanced by Galileo’s pendulum clock on land, and the chronometer at sea.
By the fourteenth century this mechanisation of time linked forces with another projection of mind onto the Cosmos, the building of mechanical models of the Universe as it was then understood. The earliest extant attempt to do this dates to before Christ, found by chance in a ship wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, which gave its name to this extraordinary device.
Originally held in a wooden case roughly 30 centimetres high, the Antikythera mechanism had a large bronze dial on the front which showed the varying movements of the sun, moon and planets in the sky…… In other words, it was a portable cosmos; a universe encapsulated in mechanical form. 88-89
The desire to mechanically represent the Universe did not die with the Antikythera, but particularly surfaced in Western Europe in the 12th Century.
They wanted to make a miniature cosmos that would turn itself. Such a model, said Bacon, would be more valuable than the treasure of a king, for it would hold the secret of the workings of the universe. So when the inventor of the escapement first sliced up time just a few years later, the implications reached far beyond improving the accuracy of prayers. Two great mechanical traditions – timekeepers and astronomical models – were about to collide. 89-90
So began the European tradition of great clocks that also mechanically mimicked the Universe. It began in the institutional Church but soon also appeared in town squares as the whole population began to be think of time mechanically.
The introduction of equal hours reinforced the process of secularisation by cutting ties with the monastic schedule, as well as starting to detach timekeeping from the seasonal patterns of the sun. Hour-striking meant that everyone within earshot became aware of time not just as a series of intermittent bells, but as a regular, cumulative process throughout the day. And as time became more accurate, it was also less negotiable. Life was increasingly ruled not by events or natural cues, but the inexorable march of the clock. 94
With the malleable flow of lived experience now chopped into regular, measurable pieces, people also started thinking in a more mathematical way…. The switch from seasonal to equal hours encouraged the concept of abstract measures – a standardised unit that exists in itself – something that was vital for growing bureaucracy and trade…..Quantity was no longer simply one indication of value but its very definition. From the striking of the hours emerged the economic seeds of our modern way of life….First, from building astronomical clocks that modelled the cosmos, it was a short step to suggesting that the universe was itself like a clock…..The idea of the universe as a kind of machine, governed by predictable rules, dates back to antiquity, but in medieval times the endlessly beating escapement of astronomical clocks made the concept irresistible. 96
But by the seventeenth century, philosophers such as René Descartes had pushed the metaphor to its logical conclusion, arguing that not just stars and planets but animals too are simply automata: mechanisms driven by predetermined rules, like the Strasbourg cock... Only humans were different, because of an added ‘soul’. 97
The driving force of the universe was no longer God’s love but cause and effect; to understand something, it had to be explained by a physical mechanism. According to the philosopher and science historian Stephen Toulmin: ‘Any seventeenth-century scientist who was satisfied with less was reproached by his colleagues, as invoking “miracles” and “occult qualities”.’ This ‘mechanisation’ of the universe was what finally made astrology unacceptable, and laid the foundation for all future scientific thought. Meanwhile, following the general shifts in attitudes to time among wider society, clocks also transformed scientists’ ideas about the nature of time itself. 97
Crucial to Newton’s thinking about motion was the idea of absolute space and time: together forming a mathematical grid, essentially, upon which the actual objects and movements of the cosmos are superimposed. He separated time from the sun’s motions, for example, introducing the notion of ‘true and mathematical time’, which ‘flows equably without relation to anything external’. 98
...the idea of regular, absolute time, existing independently of the sun, became common sense…. The idea of time as an independent, abstract flow is so self-evident, we find it hard to imagine it any other way. 99
In 1967, scientists formally severed the link between time and the heavens when they redefined the fundamental unit of the second. Traditionally determined by the Earth’s rotation as 1/86,400 of a day, the second is now described in terms of a specific number (over 9 billion) of oscillations of the caesium atom. 99-100
The social and philosophical changes inspired by mechanical clocks helped to create the scientific worldview that defines modern western society, as well as driving the breathtaking economic and technological advances that propelled Europe out of the doldrums of the Middle Ages and allowed it to dominate the planet. Meanwhile these self-turning machines caused one more fundamental split with the universe that we inhabit. Time is now embodied not in the cycles of the cosmos, but in our ever-more accurate clocks. 101.
In the next chapter ‘Ocean’, Jo Marchant recounts how Space has also been gradually captured by human mind. She does this by comparing the work of James Cook in his visits to the Pacific, and in particular to Tahiti, to track the passage of the planet Venus across the sun, and the ways and means of the Polynesians that he found there. Cook exemplifies western scientific humanity and our gradual implementing of measuring devices that first imposed latitudes upon our picture of the planet, and subsequently the much harder to determine longitudes, which eventually led to our GPS devices of today, devices that are no longer dependent on the stars and the planets to navigate ourselves but on the satellites which we have ourselves placed in the heavens. The Polynesians on the other hand, whose capacity to navigate the Pacific is legendary, relied only on their sense of real relationship with the world around them and the Cosmos; ‘songlines’ on the Ocean.
We have always relied on the sun and stars to pin down not just time but place; for most of human history, knowing where we are on the planet has been inseparable from knowing where we are in the cosmos. 105
Unlike western navigators, Polynesian sailors had no instruments or charts: no telescopes, sextants or lunar tables. How could they possibly have reached the islands over such great stretches of open sea? 114
Cook was open to the idea that the Polynesians really had voyaged across the Pacific, travelling from island to island, ‘with the Sun serving them for a compass by day and the Moon and Stars by night’. 115
Navigators created complex memory maps using chants, stories and dances, mixed with visual metaphors – such as the diamond-shaped Southern Cross as a ‘great triggerfish’ – as well as religious beliefs. 117
Whereas Cook used accurate astronomical observations to calculate his position from tables and charts, his Polynesian counterpart would have relied instead on assimilating a complex web of sensory cues, memories, stories and beliefs. As French archaeologist Anne Di Piazza puts it, this is navigation not as a sum of knowledge, but as ‘a way of being and of conceiving the world’. 117-118
The first people we know of to impose mathematical features onto maps were, not surprisingly, the Babylonians, who introduced both scale and orientation into sketches of local areas of land. The Greeks, though, were first to chart the entire globe. 118
Although many aspects of Polynesian navigation are still poorly understood, a key concept is that of etak, or ‘moving island’ navigation, in which a sailor thinks of his canoe as being stationary throughout a journey, while the surrounding water and islands flow past. 119
But a voyaging Polynesian remains absolutely at the centre of his cosmos, following the stars as the ocean changes around him. He works out his position not by imagining distance travelled on a map, but by calculating the bearings to relevant islands relative to his current position, even when he can’t see them. 119
Unlike a western map, on which islands ‘hold positions which are defined absolutely’, they argue that the centre of Tupaia’s map is a ‘subjective coordinate’, which depends on the position of the person reading it. 120 (Tupaia was an elderly Polynesian that Cook befriended and took with him when he left Tahiti. He was a master navigator the Polynesian way)
By drawing lines of longitude and latitude around our planet, we changed our relationship with the space that we inhabit. The medieval mappae mundi were crammed with not only places but people, creatures and events, both real and mythical. Time and space were blended; the prominence given to each location depended on its perceived importance; scenes were painted as they would appear to the human eye. With the switch to Ptolemaic maps, this moral and historical framework was replaced by a mathematical one. 120
The new charts – compiled according to astronomical observations – were constructed to represent not a human viewpoint but a geometric projection, and were proportioned not according to myth or whim but a regular scale. In other words, they treated each location equally, as a simple pair of coordinates, regardless of its cultural significance. It’s a change that seems natural and obvious today, but it had fundamental implications. Our subjective experience of the world was no longer the ‘truth’. Reinforced by the discovery that Earth is not at the centre of the cosmos, what these maps ultimately implied was the existence of a deeper, objective reality, a terrain that could only be accurately revealed once personal beliefs and impressions were stripped away. 120-121
In the seventeenth century, Descartes carried this concept to its conclusion when he described how to use numerical coordinates (now known as ‘Cartesian coordinates’) to describe not just locations on a map but geometric shapes and lines – essentially leaving the physical universe behind and creating new realms of purely mathematical space. No longer defined by the physical places and events that fill it, space now stretches out regardless, according to a uniform, mathematical grid. 121
In other words, just as we have abstracted time, and God, we have also abstracted place. This Cartesian view, in which we move between fixed, objective points, underlies modern science and has led to breathtaking technological advances. The charts and instruments used by European explorers allowed their ships to conquer the Earth. We’ve since taken that approach to exquisite heights. We use ever-more sophisticated technology to navigate not just over the ocean but across the solar system, while fleets of artificial satellites (fitted with atomic clocks) have replaced the stars, allowing us to track positions on Earth to within a few feet. With GPS information now routinely beamed to cars and phones, we can find our location without even looking out of the window, let alone up at the sky. 121
The more we rely on computers instead of our physical experience, the more we erode our own awareness and skills. 122
the invention of abstract space was one more step in our journey from a subjective view of the universe to an objective one, from being inextricably entwined with – even creators of – the cosmos, to becoming recorders and observers of an independently existing reality. 122
Yet instead of discarding their experience of the cosmos, Polynesian navigators maximised its potential in order to explore millions of square miles of ocean. A mix of stories and songs, senses and instinct, enabled them to achieve – without technology – feats of navigation that as westerners we can barely imagine. 122
I am writing this on the day the IPCC released its latest report on the climate situation Planet Earth is facing. It has been written by a large body of scientists from around the world and is hoped to help set the stage for the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow later this year. It is likely to be met by every imaginable response, from outright denial to genuine concern.
Some of our best people will say again, ‘if we would all only listen to the science’. Indeed, but one of the things to be gained by studying Jo Marchant’s book, and others like it, is to warn us against thinking science is the answer. We need to ‘know the story’ of the rise of modern science, and how for every triumph of the scientific mind and every great invention that has come from it, we have separated ourselves further from a sense of felt relationship with the Cosmos and the immediate world around us. We have gained much but much more importantly we have lost much also. What we have lost is real relationship with the world around us. We no longer know how to listen to it and allow it to reveal itself to us. We have imposed ourselves upon the planet and are not even very aware of the hubris this entails. We are now seriously out of kilter with the very biosphere that formed us. If we cannot address this issue, all the science in the world will not help us. The crisis we face is a spiritual one, and for this science is no help other than providing the technical means to contain and control us, as is happening now in places like China, something none of us wants.
So the cameo between James Cook and the Polynesians is a good one to reflect on. It parallels our relationship now as modern Australians with Indigenous Australians. Can we find the humility to learn from them, genuine humility that comes from the heart?
Naidoc Week 2021
We are not gathering at Open Sanctuary this Saturday 10th July for the next instalment of Preparing for Parousia. That will be on the second Saturday in August. But we are acknowledging NAIDOC Week in Tilba, and encouraging people to attend the Exhibition in the small hall on the 8th, 9th, and 10th from 10am to 3pm. This will be an opportunity for a cuppa and a chat as well. The exhibition will end with a performance by the Four Winds choir Djanama Yilaga at 2.30pm on Saturday 10th. Bookings for this are essential at email@example.com The official flyer is on the Open Sanctuary website.
The theme for NAIDOC this year is ‘Heal Country’. It is a theme very much in line with Preparing for Parousia and Jo Marchant’s book The Human Cosmos. As a scientist Jo is documenting how we human beings have progressively separated ourselves from the cosmos, the world around us, and become subjects over and against objects, manipulating the world to our will with science and technology. The situation has become critical. Our planet is under real threat at a number of levels. We are increasingly living in a digital world of our own making while pleas to respond to the crises we face within our natural world struggle to be heard. Not even catastrophic bushfires and a global pandemic seem to have made much difference. There seems to be a blindness at work that does not make sense. In some cases lies are preferred to truth, and corruption is being normalised. And where there is good response by individuals, businesses, and corporations, there is still the sense of self interest at work, rather than real concern for our planet and natural systems as they are in themselves.
As I see it, at the centre of this dilemma are scientists and science, and the technology that comes from them. They are both the good guys and the bad guys. They are the good guys in that they are the ones warning us of what is to come unless we do something soon. Many are alarmed and frustrated at the lack of response. Other good people say, ‘If only we would listen to the science’. Some governments even think that the way out of our crisis is more and better science and the technology that flows from it. They have put their faith in science and technology and want us to do the same. The pressure to see science as the ‘good guy’ is resisted by some but accepted by most. But this is not the whole story.
What is not acknowledged much is that it is science that has got us into this pickle in the first place; or rather we have been seduced into thinking science is the only real knowledge that counts, and we are now paying the price. Scientists themselves have not on the whole helped; they have not upheld the boundaries of science. Even some very intelligent people seem to not understand that science has boundaries. Many have embraced what others call scientism and have been unconscious of the implications of this. And given that our whole culture is now so entrapped in technologies, ‘sons’ of science as it were, not even our best philosophers get much of a hearing when they warn us science is only one way to know the world, and not even the most important at that. More than that, science has now projected a digitalised world ‘out there’ that we all think is the real world regardless of our everyday experiences. So successful has this become that most think the world is only matter, and anything mental, let alone spiritual, is only complex matter, not real in itself. Our capacity to experience the mental and spiritual and know it is greatly diminished as a result. We are increasingly dead to the mystery. We have stopped listening. We have to take drugs and stimulants and psychotropics to compensate. Science seems to believe its own hype, and we have all as a culture got caught up in the hubris of this. This is ‘bad guy’. What do we do to counteract our blindness?
Scientific knowledge is justified by being useful. It is knowledge about the means of doing things; it is instrumental. As such of course it is good, if balanced by other forms of knowledge about ends. The problem comes when it also determines not just means but ends. Then the technological fallacy kicks in: if you can do something, you should do it. The cultures of the world, under the influence of what has developed in the West, is now in the grips of the technological fallacy. And this in turn is driven by self interest that sees technology as the means to power and wealth. It is within this world that perhaps the blindness is greatest, admitting that there is some self-interested realization that perhaps there is more at stake, like the future of the planet. We can only hope that this form of self interest will become greater. But it does not address the real issue.
The real issue is that we cannot go on relating to our world as something primarily for our use, as something that is a means to our self-determined ends. The paradox is that we are seeing the world as object over and against our active scientific subject; it has become the means, as physical matter, to our ends that are just about entirely ego-centric and self interested. We are treating nature and the world as if it has no being in its own right, but is there for our use regardless. We are not allowing ourselves to see the world objectively, as it actually is, as something that is really there regardless of us. We are seeing it as objects for our use, not objectively as it is itself. That is the paradox. That is the crisis. Science cannot help us. This is about the feeling and acting sides of our human being, not our intellectual. This is about domains that science cannot touch, except to provide technology to control us, as is beginning to happen. This is about the knowledge traditionally called wisdom, knowledge forged through relationship and reflection.
My own belief is that there is no way out other than waiting for disaster and then acting, or eating ‘humble pie’. I am for eating ‘humble pie’. I mean really serious ‘humble pie’. It is not just about white Australia owning up to what we have done to our First Nation peoples. It is about that of course. But it is also about recognizing that First Nation peoples, here and around the world, have something absolutely fundamental to teach us about how to relate to the world, to the environment, to ‘Land’. We cannot survive unless we stop just using the Land; we have to relate to the environment and everything in it as of value in itself, not inert value or monetary value but living value. We need to really see and really value our world as it is in itself. We need again to believe nature can teach us. We have to again learn to listen. We need to regain what we have progressively lost, wisdom borne of personal relationship. We have to admit from our hearts we are in trouble and we don’t have the answers. In traditional religious language we have to really repent and mean it; there is no other antidote to our increasing blindness.
Of all the things written to promote NAIDOC 2021, the following sentence captures what I mean: Country that we speak about like a person, sustaining our lives in every aspect - spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially, and culturally. And as we speak to any person, so also we listen to them. It is not enough to think passing laws can bring this to pass. Even if laws are passed that designate an endangered river or mountain as a ‘person’ so that ‘rights’ can be applied, as has happened in several parts of the world; it is not enough. Law is not enough; it needs heart, real, felt, considered actions motivated by goodwill and well thought out intentions. It requires us to stop worrying about our rights and start worrying about our responsibilities. It requires us to learn to listen to the Land, and to be willingly taught by our First Nation peoples. We need to regain something of the Paleolithic without losing what our science and separation have given us; we need to know and exercise our own spontaneity and creativity and not let it be stifled by our technology.
Probably the best known invitation to learn to listen to Land is the work of Miriam Rose Ungunmerr Bauman, the 2021 Senior Citizen of the year. Her work in inner deep listening and quiet still awareness that she calls Dadirri has been often talked about at Open Sanctuary. I have friends who have studied with her, and would love to do so myself. What I am wanting to do in Preparing for Parousia is the same thing, more or less, but approaching it from within our western tradition. Because despite the fact that ‘the hour is late’ and the crisis is upon us, there are remnants in our souls of living in personal relationship with the world that can be re-activated and developed. I believe we can again listen and hear the wisdom of the universe, the voice of God. I am hoping next year to offer some pilot workshops in Practising Parousia, learning to discern the Presence in and of all life forms, even supposed inert matter, awakening our imagination and capacity for spontaneity. I believe we can discern not only mind in nature and the universe, but also spirit; and I am not alone. There are many white Australians doing it in their own way, and we have our First Nations fellow Australians to guide us on the Way. But only if we get stuck into the ‘pie’ and enjoy it!
Jo Marchant’s fourth chapter in her book The Human Cosmos is entitled Faith. Into her story about our human relationship with the Cosmos, in particular with the skies and the heavens, she introduces in this chapter the experience of the Hebrews and the extension of this into the early Christian Church. This marks a big shift away from a sense of oneness with the Cosmos, as in the Paleolithic, to beginning to stand over and against the environment and the Cosmos. The key event is the ‘conversion’ of Constantine to Christianity in 312 CE.
What happened to Constantine that day, described by ancient authors such as Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, has acquired legendary status as one of history’s great turning points. 63
We left our story at the end of the last presentation with the thought that by the time of Christ there were three broad ways we humans looked at the heavens and hence the Cosmos, at least within the ancient near east. In the first way, we saw the heavens as the home of the gods who also inhabited our world in the form of idols and images. They were the primary focus of human community. The gods, often associated with stars or constellations, held sway by portents in the heavens and signs in the entrails, and the demand of such things as sacrifice, initially human and later animal. The gods and the heavens could be both benevolent and malevolent; all a matter of holding the community together, carrot and stick. Later this sort of relationship became individualised and personalised in various forms of astrology.
The heavens and the Cosmos held sway and were to be submitted to.
Most early societies worshipped the sky in some form, or associated their gods with celestial bodies. There are earthly gods too, of course, representing everything from animals and ancestors to rivers and crops. But the vast majority of religions – from all periods of history, anywhere in the world – have a prominent role for celestial beings. The very word ‘deity’ derives from a root that means ‘shining in the sky’.65
The second way emerged late in the peace when Babylonian mathematics joined Greek theoretical contemplation and astronomy was born. This way began seeing the heavens and the Cosmos through human understanding, and using that understanding to our advantage. The heavens and the Cosmos were beginning to be stripped of their gods and made subject to human thought, the start of the great journey leading eventually to modern science.
The third way is characterised by Abraham who in looking at the countless stars of the heavens heard a voice within promising to give him more descendants than all those stars. He believed the voice and so was born the invisible god of the Hebrews, known initially as the god of Abraham and later as YHWH or Yahweh which means ‘I Am’. Here there is a sense not of submitting to or of controlling through understanding but of relationship, symbolised in the idea of ‘covenant’.
All nations claimed that their own chief god was supreme, but this new deity was different. Unlike the Greek Zeus, say, who despite being the most powerful god in the universe still faced limits to his actions and could be thwarted by other gods, Yahweh was transcendent: not within the cosmos but above it, and no longer bound by its rules. According to Eliade, this ‘notion of God’s “power” as the only absolute reality’ was ‘the jumping-off point for all later mystical thought and speculation on the freedom of man’. 66
In general terms this mix has come down to our own time. And it was a mix. The power of the heavens continued strongly into the early Christian period. A favourite question for theological students has been, ‘Was Constantine really Christian? Was it a real conversion before the Battle of Milvian Bridge?’ Jo Marchant believes, with good evidence, that Constantine was a clever politician and played Christ off against the sun god Sol right up to his eventual baptism on his death bed. It ‘was a political master-stroke’ that ‘provided the bridge he needed to link sky worship with Christianity, allowing both pagans and Christians in his empire to unite behind one ruler and one supreme solar god’. 71.
Christ’s life became intimately identified with the annual cycle of the sun; his birth is still celebrated just after the winter solstice, when the sun begins to rise towards the spring, and his return from the dead just after the spring equinox, when the sun finally triumphs over darkness and the days last longer than the nights. Other Christian imagery reinforced the metaphor. As early as the first century, the twelve Apostles were widely regarded as representing the twelve signs of the zodiac, through which the sun passes in the sky. 71
It seems clear that Constantine wanted himself to be identified with Christ, at least in the minds of his subjects, according to Marchant. The reverse would also have applied, namely that Christ would be identified as an Emperor. This is a long way from a village carpenter turned itinerant teacher and preacher. But the movement Jesus had begun had already left the village carpenter behind. Even within the New Testament period, the focus is shifting from Jesus the man full of the Holy Spirit, to Christ the God who descended from Heaven. By the time of Constantine how he fitted in with God the Father was the burning question, and one Constantine was determined to have settled. He needed the unity of the Church to enable the unity of his Empire. Hence he called the Council of Nicaea in 325.
But as far as our theme is concerned, there is a much more pressing idea influencing the way people were thinking. The Church was continuing the Hebrew and Jewish idea that God, be he called Yahweh or Father, completely transcended the Cosmos. He stood over and against it. He had in fact created it out of Nothing, the doctrine known as creatio ex nihilo. Here was a whole new idea of Being that required no necessary connection with the Cosmos. The statement ‘I am’ had taken on a radical new interpretation of what existence is; God, the ‘I Am’ could be entirely separate from the Cosmos. But we can say ‘I am’. Does that mean we are able to think of ourselves as entirely separate from the Cosmos in our essence as well? In terms of our sense of existence, this shift did eventually occur culturally in the famous dictum of the philosopher Rene Descartes, “ I think, therefore I am”; our existence as a thinking substance is certain apart from the world and the Cosmos. The final twist in this very important story is that when scientific cosmologists decided the Universe or Multiverse began with a Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, the institutional Church saw this as an affirmation of creatio ex nihilo. But for modern science it was creation without God.
As it happens this separation of the self from the Cosmos had already been mooted by the leading theologian of this early period, Augustine of Hippo, about a thousand years before Descartes. There are similarities between St. Augustine’s “Si fallor, sum” (If I am mistaken, I am) – and Rene’s “Cogito, ergo sum”, and when this was pointed out to Descartes he fully acknowledged it. And it was Augustine who strongly pushed the idea of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing.
The fifth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo cemented the mainstream Christian view. He had huge respect for Plato: ‘None come nearer to us [Christians] than the Platonists,’ he writes. But he dismissed the idea of a cosmos infused with God’s soul. ‘Who cannot see what impious and irreligious consequences follow, such as that whatever one may trample, he must trample a part of God, and in slaying any living creature, a part of God must be slaughtered?’ In effect, says Campion, Augustine ‘rejected the notion of the universe as a living creature . . . Instead, some parts of the world were no longer alive and were distinguished from those that were.’ 80
The idea that the Cosmos had been created by the One God emerged in Hebrew thought clearly for the first time in the writings of Second Isaiah, the unknown prophet of the Babylonian exile, 500 years before Christ. The final redaction of the Book of Genesis took place around the same time, and it is not clear whether creation was out of nothing or fabricated out of existing material; ‘Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters’ (verse 2).
Within the Greek world Plato was the first to definitely enunciate the idea of a creator, but Plato’s creator existed within the universe, fashioning the celestial spheres from the material he had available. ‘Out of disorder he brought order,’ Plato wrote in Timaeus, shaping a world that was ‘as far as possible a perfect whole and of perfect parts’. But within early Christian thought, as made clear in Augustine, that God had created everything entirely from nothing became official doctrine.
It’s a belief that allows for an all-powerful God, unlimited by the universe’s existing rules or resources. But that’s not all. It also has profound consequences for the cosmos itself. Plato’s cosmos was a living, intelligent creature, divine in its own right, with its own soul that spread through all of reality. Consequently everything within the universe shared in that soul: from animals and people, with our mortal bodies, to the stars, which Plato described as ‘divine and eternal animals’. 80
The effect of this idea on the human sense of relationship with the Cosmos is profound, something we will continue to explore. Marchant put it this way:
[Constantine’s] conversion marks the moment, for western civilisation at least, when humanity rejected the cosmos as a divine, living being, as all that there was. Instead, it became merely the product of a separate creator. Where once humanity’s fate was determined by the movements of the celestial bodies, and the stars gave home to the gods, now we were no longer at the centre of a universe that encompassed everything. It was possible to imagine stepping outside it and looking down. Our religious beliefs remain steeped with the influences of the sun, moon and stars. But one more tie with the cosmos was cut. 81
At the popular level it was not until James Lovelock’s idea of ‘Gaia’ gained attention in our own time that western human thought again entertained the Cosmos as something more than formed inert matter. At least some of us now can imagine to some extent being immersed in a creation, a Nature, that is as much mind as matter, if not essentially mind. Philosophically the triumph of matter had been challenged from the beginning of the modern period. It is inherent in Descartes philosophy; but technology, science and positivist philosophy has as yet trumped it, and the Christian creatio ex nihilo is seen as an important factor in that triumph.
The effect on Christian theology has also been important. Making the link between the entirely separate God and his creation is the incarnation of the second person of the Holy Trinity. God connected with the material universe by sending his Son to dwell in it. This may be a lot more link with creation than the monotheism of either Judaism or Islam. But it does put the primary focus on the second person of the Holy Trinity and that Jesus existed eternally before he was born. This idea is now so embedded in traditional Christianity that its strangeness is not even seen let alone questioned.
The one serious philosophical attempt from within Christianity to question the radical separation of God from Creation, from the Cosmos, was the philosophy of Hegel, who for the first time in the history of Christian thought took the Spirit as something central and far more than a ‘value add’ to believing in Jesus. The institutional church has struggled with the Spirit; enthusiasm is threatening and dangerous. Hegel however made the unfolding of Spirit into creation the central idea of his thought. He may have not got it all right, but the attempt is fundamentally important for the theme of Preparing for Parousia. Hegel has been largely ignored by the church and popular Christianity; others of us think there is something there that needs to be fully explored, including scientists such as David Bohm. The future of our little planet and our self understanding as its inhabitants may depend on re-finding a sense of real Presence in our world and Cosmos.
Preparing for Parousia 3
The Invention of Writing:
Relating Differently to the Heavens and the Cosmos
This month we continue the story of how we human beings gradually separated ourselves from the World in which we had been an integral and benign part for as much as 300 thousand years. In the bulk of the Paleolithic we had lived within nature and the cosmos, not over and against it. This tradition did in fact continue down to more or less our own day in hunter/gatherer groups, but, initially in the middle east some 12,000 years ago, and then throughout the world, we settled in larger groups and began domesticating animals and growing crops. Our spirituality and religion changed from ancient shamanic forms to hierarchical forms centred in a multitude of gods who inhabited both the heavens and the earth, in the heavens often associated with constellations of stars, and on the earth as great idols that focussed sacrificial worship, initially fellow human beings and later animals.
The next important stage in this process came with the invention of writing. The earliest writing is dated to around 3,400 BC, in Sumeria. It was a cuneiform script that developed widely. In Egypt a hieroglyphic script developed and later, around 1500 BC an alphabetic script. But the final word in the development of writing came with the development of mathematics, and it was mathematics that allowed the systematic exploration of the cosmos to really begin.
The period we are considering follows Jo Marchant’s third chapter of her book The Human Cosmos. It begins with the first writing and goes down to the writings of Ptolemy in the first century after Christ. It was his mathematical analysis of the cosmos, the relationships of the planets and stars to each other and to planet Earth at the Centre, that became the accepted understanding in western civilisation down to the renaissance and the work of Copernicus and Kepler. She entitled her chapter ‘Fate’ because during this period one of the dominant understandings of our relationship with the heavens and the cosmos was that our lives are written in the stars, and what happens on earth is dictated by heavenly powers outside our control. However, signs are given in the stars and it was for an elite, priestly cast to read these signs, and suggest ways to avoid negative connotations and disasters. These omens were written on clay tablets which became major resources in navigating life, especially for kings and those in authority. Perhaps the most famous compendium of such omens is called Enuma Anu Enlil, and was found on clay tablets in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. It dated back to possibly the second millennium BC but with material much older than this.
What this archive reveals more than anything, though, is a society built around a fascination, if not an obsession, with the heavens. The tablets describe the movements of the sun, moon and planets as a divine script, carrying messages from the gods which shaped behaviour and decisions in every area of human life. (45)
Submitting to the fates as revealed in the heavens was one of the major ways we humans related to the heavens and the cosmos in this period. But with the development of mathematics, both by the Greeks and the Babylonians, we began to make measurement an essential part of our observations of the heavens. And with measurement, a new precision emerged that allowed predictions to be made about the movement of the planets and the stars that were confirmed by observation. Our human mental powers began to take grasp of the mystery and understand it in a new way. This was the second major way we humans began to relate to the heavens and the cosmos in this period. One became established as astrology and the other astronomy.
Both astrology and astronomy flourished in the centuries before Christ, and then through to the modern period. Astrology became increasingly focussed on the individual. Horoscopes became commonplace. People believed that their lives were subject to the stars, and could only be circumvented with great difficulty. Even astronomers could also be astrologers, and this remained so until the modern period.
For these founding fathers of astronomy, the idea that the stars influence our fate was still embedded in their motivation and world view. Galileo regularly made astrological predictions for rich clients, and drew up horoscopes for his illegitimate daughters. Kepler hoped to strengthen and reform the discipline… (62)
But around 1800 BC a third way of relating to the heavens and the cosmos had emerged that eventually changed the world. Marchant does not deal with this third way, but for me it is essential. A pastoralist travelling with his flocks and family looked up into the heavens one night and heard a voice within him inviting him to try and count the stars. The voice then promised that his descendants would outnumber the stars. He believed what he heard. Tradition has it that this pastoralist to this point had worshiped the Canaanite god El but had already disowned any idols associated with El or any other god. He began to worship this god now who had revealed himself, this invisible god, and he became known as the God of Abraham, and eventually the God of the Habiru or Hebrews. He was eventually named Yahweh, which meant ‘I Am’ or ‘Being’, not to be represented by anything but to be called upon and related to personally. For Abraham and the tradition he founded the heavens and the cosmos in all their splendour were invitations into personal relationship with the cosmos and with the Ever Present Origin that made it possible. Not Fate, not Control but Relationship, two way relationship.
Much else happened in this 3000 year period of course. All holy and sacred scriptures and texts, bar the Quran, came into existence. Law became a part of religion alongside ritual sacrifice. The gods were present both in the heavens, often as constellations of stars, and as idols set up in ritual places. Philosophy emerged and money was invented. To name a few! But in terms of our sense of relationship with the heavens and the cosmos, Fate, Control and Relationship perhaps describe the three fundamental ways we can understand ourselves and the cosmos. In one we surrender our sense of self, in another we assert our sense of self, and in the third we enhance our sense of self. It was the second of these that has prevailed in materialist science. We are now confronted with how we address this and balance our knowledge with wisdom.
Preparing for Parousia 2
The Birth of the Gods
The period in human story we call the Paleolithic lasted for possibly as long as 300,000 years. Our place in the cosmos was stable and integrated with life. We were part of nature and not over and against it. We lived within nature. We experienced ourselves, our inner worlds, and the world around us as one reality. Altered states of consciousness were entered into readily, worked out between the over-arching transcendence of the night sky and the total darkness of the great caves. Consciousness was spirituality. Everything was in some sense alive.
This state of homeostasis began to slowly change in the period we call the Upper Paleolithic, from about 45,000 years ago. There is evidence of a period of creativity that eventually led to the great cave art that marks this period. Toward the end of this time, the small hunter/gatherer groups began to settle in growing communities. They remained hunter/gatherers but settled in one place.
It has long been believed that agriculture eventually grew out of this settling in larger groups, and this in turn allowed religion centred in local gods to become established. But an extraordinary archeological find in the 1990’s has completely reversed this. It is now believed agriculture, the planting of crops and the domestication of animals, happened as an outcome of people gathering for religious and spiritual ritual. This great find is known as Gobekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill). It was built some 6000 years before the start of Stonehenge which began in 3000 BC. It marks an extraordinary shift in human consciousness. We human beings are beginning to separate ourselves from the cosmos and look at it differently. We are now seeing ourselves as above and over animals and nature, very aware of ancestors and death, the male and the female.
But why did this happen? What brought about this shift in consciousness and spirituality that led to agriculture? The answer is, we don’t really know. But one famous archeologist has linked the beginning of agriculture with the birth of the gods, and one famous cultural critic has linked the birth of the gods with murder, scapegoating murder. Earlier than this, Sigmund Freud had suggested that murder was the foundation of civilisation. But much earlier than that the writer of the 4th chapter of the Book of Genesis had made the same claim. Was murderous violence the reason for the agricultural revolution, out of which many, many local gods were born that helped to order and sustain larger groups of Neolithic people?
The serious possibility is that religion and spiritual life in the Neolithic was centred in ritual sacrifice and the structures necessary to support ritual activities. We know human sacrifice was widely practised. It had the powerful effect of holding communities together. The ritual associated with it had both a transcendent function and a containing, controlling function. It was not until animal sacrifice largely replaced human sacrifice that its effect and potency began to wane. But we do know it lasted a long time, and was practised in some cultures virtually into the beginning of the modern period. Archaic religion after the Paleolithic is centred in ritual sacrifice, ancestors, death, and the tension between the male and the female. And there were many, many gods. Life and security depended on them.
The Garden of the Paleolithic had been well and truly left behind for at least some human beings. They went on to build civilizations. Separating from the cosmos had truly begun.
Preparing for Parousia: Spirituality and Consciousness in the 21st Century
Blog Post 1 - March 2021
The Palaeolithic - Bedrock of Human Spirituality
Welcome to this series of monthly discussion and spiritual practice groups over the coming year in which we gently explore our spirituality and consciousness in the light of the human story. Both concepts are now very important. Consciousness is a leading edge and frontier in science. And spirituality has emerged as the idea that is supplanting institutional religion for many people.
There has been an assumption that our modern consciousness, influenced as it is by rational thought and science, is obviously a much more evolved and progressive state than the conscious life of the ancients. The way we see the world is the truth; the way they did was mythical. But others are seeing that there is a huge price to pay in modern consciousness that needs to be addressed urgently. The ancients had a sense of personally participating in a universe alive with life and meaning. We have largely lost this. Moderns inhabit a mechanical world made only of matter which we manipulate with our technology. We have prized our objectivity and failed to honour our subjectivity. As Jo Marchant puts it:
Personal experience has been swept from our understanding of reality, replaced by the abstract, mathematical grid of space-time. Earth has been knocked from the centre of existence to the suburbs; life reframed as a random accident; and God dismissed altogether, now everything can be explained by physical laws. Far from having a meaningful role in the cosmic order, we’re just ‘chemical scum’, as physicist Stephen Hawking put it, on the surface of a medium-sized planet orbiting an unremarkable star. Critics have fought this mechanistic view of humanity for centuries, often rejecting science wholesale in the process. But now even high-profile scientists are voicing concerns that until very recently were taboo. They are suggesting that perhaps physical matter isn’t all that the universe is; all that we are. Perhaps science is only seeing half of the picture. We can explain stars and galaxies, but what about minds? What about consciousness itself? It’s shaping up to be an epic fight that just might transform the entire western worldview. (10)
How do we recover a subjective, participatory sense of the Universe, without rejecting what we have gained objectively. Can we understand science better, and appreciate what the ancients had that we need? If Marchant and others are right this is a matter of the highest importance. It involves us being prepared to re-think ourselves within the human story and our relationship with the world and the cosmos, and to take our subjectivity very seriously. It means understanding how our relationship with the world has changed and just what a critical state we are now in, when our planet and all life on it are so deeply threatened. The ancients could listen to the cosmos, and take wisdom from its Presence, as some indigenous peoples still do. Can we recover this capacity ourselves. Can we relearn how to live with and within the world, not over and against it. Can we Prepare for Parousia?
As I have explained elsewhere, I am using Jo Marchant’s recent book The Human Cosmos as the framework for these groups. She focusses principally on the role of the sky and the heavens in the shaping of human consciousness, and all that goes with that, such as,
the eclipse-obsessed Babylonians; the Egyptian pharaohs who built pyramids to guide their souls to the stars; the Roman emperors who fought under the banner of the sun. Ideas about the cosmos have shaped the modern world, too. These influences are still deeply ingrained in our society – even if we’ve forgotten their origins – in our parliaments, churches, galleries, clocks and maps. Beliefs about the sun, moon and stars played a central role in the birth of Christianity, and in Europe’s exploration and domination of the planet. They guided the rebellious lawmakers who founded the principles of democracy and human rights, the economists who developed the frameworks on which capitalism depends, and even the painters who produced the first abstract art. (9)
Now, lest you think this is all bit much, let me assure you that Marchant’s book is very readable; a ‘good yarn’ one friend said. And our group will dance lightly over it all, with the primary focus on what we can learn from past human experience to build our spirituality and consciousness for the future. Perhaps for some of you, the even better news is that you won’t need to have read the book to participate in the presentation. Reading the blog will be enough.
We begin our journey with our fellow sapiens of the Upper Paleolithic (from around 50,000 to 12,000 years ago), those who bequeathed to us truly wonderful cave paintings and artefacts around the world, but particularly in southern France and northern Spain. They had a way of life that grounds important aspects of human spirituality. This is a bed-rock for us, I am suggesting. Although the upper paleolithics are many thousands of years further on from when humanity first emerged from the womb of unconsciousness, they have not strayed far from that womb. Life under the starry skies and the bright light of the sun is balanced by life in the warm embrace of the dark caves to which they always returned. And there is evidence that the two, the sky and the cave, were strongly linked in their consciousness.
Hunter/gatherer groups in the Palaeolithic were small groups, rarely more than 30 adults and children. It has been argued that they were largely egalitarian, with shared leadership between men and women. The gods had not yet been born. But the world was full of energies and life that were discerned and related to as personal being. Division between their inner worlds and the external world barely existed. Their religion as such was shamanic, with altered states of consciousness easily entered into, a process that the darkness of the caves probably enhanced. Possibly the most striking aspect of their spirituality is that their awareness is focussed principally on animals and geometric designs. With one known exception, humans are not depicted in the multitude of cave paintings we know about. They were absolutely part of all they surveyed and perceived, personally engaged. We (the human race) were not yet over and against the world at that stage. We were only dimily aware we have something different going on in our consciousness.
What can we take for our spirituality and consciousness from the palaeolithics? How can we incorporate the starry heavens and the warm embrace of complete darkness into our spiritual practices, activities and insights. How can we re-awaken the deeper life and wisdom within each one of us, as we face our uncertain future, and so feel more at home personally within the cosmos? Come and join the discussion and spiritual practices.