This post was originally published some years ago. You will note the dated references . . .
Many across the political spectrum seem to feel that things in the U.S. have gone crazy, or upside-down. Those on the left marshall Triump’s presidency, Charlottesville, and the Kavannaugh hearings, to prove their point, while those on the right do so with transgenderism, campus snowflakes, and . . . their own perspective on the Kavanaugh hearings.*
It appears that we can look at the same thing and not see the same thing.
Different theories exist to explain our predicament. Some trace the beginnings of it all to Bush’s controversial foreign wars, others to the rise of the internet, or the Clinton presidency, or to the end of the Cold War. Peter Thiel postulated that our cycles of cultural leaders skipped Generation X and went from the boomers–who artifically held on too long to power–straight to the millennials.** Thus, lacking “Generation X” to mediate the generation gap, we jerk awkwardly to and fro like a record skipping across a turntable.
We can give all these theories their due. But I wonder if we may be witnessing something more fundamental. Without knowing it, akin to frogs in the pot, we are experiencing the final stages of the life in a vertical world, which existed in every ancient civilization up until the 17th century, and seem ready to fully embrace the victory of the sideways world, which has been gaining ground steadily since that time.
One can say anything in blogs . . . but, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”
Mattheiu Pageau’s (brother of the more famous Jonathan Pageau) The Language of Creation has all the appearance of quackery. The book has no reviews or endorsements on the back cover. The book has no footnotes, or even a bibliography, despite the obvious fact that he draws heavily on early Christian and Jewish sources. This sends shivers down my spine and I can think of no defense for it. While some parts of the book desperately needed footnotes to have a shot at convincing me, the opening several chapters made complete sense, and the book in a general way hits its target by helping one to reimagine the world. Once embarked with The Language of Creation, it is probably best to turn to St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Maximos the Confessor for surer guides.
The key to Pageau’s thoughts, and indeed to much of the ancient and medieval world, lies in how we conceive of our experience of space.
Everyone who has read Ender’s Game realizes that space has no up or down, at least in a scientific or absolute sense. But we must order our sense of space to exist in it, and that involves choices on our part, choices that upon closer examination are not arbitrary. And since we must choose, we should be struck by the fact that everyone (in the west at least) up until the present day concieved of the cosmos as heirarchical, as up and down.^
And it may be no coincidence that our current depiction of the solar system conceives it as existing horizontally, and not heirarchically.
This choice of how we depict the cosmos was certainly intentional in older civilizations, and we can fairly assume that it remains intentional today.
There is a difference. The order and shape we give to the space around creates a framework for meaning.
The up/down nature of reality helps us understand creation and our experience of the world in many different ways:
- We first note in Genesis 1 that God resides “above the waters,” above that is, undifferentiated, unformed chaos. The immensity of God cannot be contained, thus He must mediate our experience of Himself for us to know Him at all.
- Creation happens through speech, and not coincidentally. Speech gives form to thoughts and ideas, it gives them a public reality.
- Creation happens via continual separation and differentiation. God ‘draws out’ reality from above.
- The purpose of creation is for God to unite Heaven and Earth.
- Plants grow from seeds. The seed falls from above, containing the “idea” of the plant, the entirety of the plant’s particulars.
- Seeds bury themselves in the earth, which produces the manifestation, the “incarnation” of the idea in more variety.
- The upright nature of man is also no coincidence. It separates us from other creatures (while at the same time, giving us no evolutionary advantage per se. Many robotics designers have pointed out how inefficient the design of the human body is). But it also corresponds to heirarchy–the intellect is above and governs the body below. Our thoughts move as the thoughts of angels, thus the “heavenly” nature of our intellect. Our “earthy” parts are lower and more chaotic. Our appetites need structure. Our “heart,” which lies between our heads and our bellies, serves as the mediator and point of unity between the two, between “heaven” and “earth.” The structure of our bodies, then, gives us a clue as to the meaning of space.
- Man himself serves as the mediator of creation, a priesthood meant to image God to all of creation. As a hybrid creature of Earth and Heaven, we stand between both worlds.
- Language itself serves as a kind of union of heaven and earth. We have “”heavenly” thoughts in our intellect. We take bits of “earth” in the form of random marks, and arrange them into a pattern to make letters. We then further organize them into words, and so on.
- Language, then, takes earthly random particulars and gives them structure and distinction from above–according to ideas, principles, etc. We make ideas manifest through language.
One could go on and on seeing the extent of this pattern, but all of these patterns cohere most fully in Christ Himself. He “came down from Heaven,” (John 6:38, the Nicene Creed) as the Word of God, but then took on human nature through the Virgin Mary. After His death He went even “lower” down and, “descended into hell” (as in the Apostles Creed). His ressurection and ascencion^^ complete the redemptive process of descending and ascending, a link back to Jacob’s ladder.
Such was the view of the world, more or less, from at least the time of Nero down to the 16th century.
The Copernican Revolution certainly transformed how we view the cosmos, but the hierarchical nature of reality could have been maintained. I cannot trace the exact time we started to depict the solar system horizontally, but perhaps we have an inkling now that this change involved more than mere astronomy. Perhaps a trend towards this leveling can be seen, starting from this depiction in the 18th century
which still seems to preserve a sense of heirarchy, and then 100 years later we see
which seems to advance the leveling process a bit further. Of course the present day, (as seen above) completes the progression towards a flat world.
The leveling of the cosmos presaged a levelling of society, and the ushering in of chaos and confusion. Geographically speaking, both oceans and deserts represented chaos for the ancient and medieval world–i.e., both areas have no visibile differentiation in their form, and we cannot live there. With chaos comes death. For to understand anything and understand its meaning, we need differentiation and distinction. Again, this is one of the main teachings of Genesis 1. The same holds true of society in general. The early phases of dismantling existing heirarchies and norms come with great excitement. Maybe the old forms had run their course, maybe change was overdue. But the dismantling of all distinctions between up and down, creation and creature, men and women, etc. will usher in a blindness that will hinder our ability to understand the world God made and to understand God Himself. Without this foundation, we will hardly be able to understand each other.
Since we cannot live in chaos, we will soon find that heirarchy will have to return. Given our seeming embrace chaos (i.e. a world with no heirarchy and no distinctions), it may end up returning with a vengeance. We already can see what distorted forms it might take. Those on the far left would make the most marginalized “victim” king^^^, and those on the far right would repeat Charlottesville en masse. New gods would rule over us.
I believe most people want to avoid both of these extremes, but have no idea what to do about it. Perhaps we can start with the very simple move of thinking about the world as up and down instead of side-to-side.
*I continue to hope that the world of twitter and political commentating is merely a distorted reflection of the real world we all inhabit. Indeed, I have come across very few in my neighborhood or at church who got terribly bent out of shape one way or the other about Kavannaugh’s nomination.
**Peter Thiel believes that the dearth of viable presidential candidates in their 40’s-50’s in the last election proves this point.
^Like most medieval maps, this does not represent an accurate spatial depiction of the cosmos, but the cosmos as it appears “spiritually” to them in their hearts and minds. Ptolemy’s Almagest was the standard work of astronomy of the Middle Ages and speaks of the Earth as a mathematical point in the universe. But, they represented the Earth as larger than other planets because this is where the drama of the redemption of the cosmos plays itself out.
^^Most churches hardly focus on Christ’s Ascencion and stop at Easter. But the structure and scope of redemption shows us how crucial the Ascencion is, for Heaven and Earth cannot be fully reconciled until Christ presents Himself spotless before the Father. Only after this does the Spirit of God descend that God may dwell within us.
^^^I have no settled thoughts on the trigger warning and micro-aggression phenomena, aside from an obvious distaste for it. But I do wonder at its logic. If victimhood gives one power and the right to speak, would it not serve their interests to increase their victim status by having themselves “assaulted?” Perhaps then, the enthroned victims wish to keep their power by preventing anyone else from gaining status? That would make them like everyone else. Those in power tend to guard it jealously.