Three years ago at this time, I was reading (for the second time) Dante's Divine Comedy. Although the Inferno is the most famous part, I much preferred the Purgatory the first time I read Dante's epic. The souls in Dante's Purgatory were glad to be there, ashamed of their sinful habits, and appreciative of the chance to work longer on driving these habits out in order to be fit for Heaven. As I recall, they don't mention any desires to have people pray for them to shorten their time. If God in his mercy has appointed a time for them, they gratefully serve that time.
This second time around, I was floored by the Paradise, the part of the Comedy that I remembered the least from my first reading. In this final part, Dante, led by Beatrice, who represents true Christian Doctrine, moves up through the heavenly spheres, advancing in virtue as he approaches God's Empyrean Realm and the Beatific Vision of his holy face.
Each sphere corresponds to one of the planets, but Dante seems not to go onto each planet as much as into the light of each. In the sphere of Mars, he is surrounded by red light, of course, and Jupiter bathes him in a golden glow. Each sphere also commands a Christian virtue and is inhabited by saints who can teach Dante about that virtue. The sphere of Venus bears those especially gifted in love -- not love as the Roman Venus would have thought about it, but Christian charity. The sphere of the Sun is the home of the wise: Thomas Aquinas and others. Mars does not represent war here, but courage, and provides eternal rest to those who have died for the faith.
As Dante climbs through these planetary spheres, his speech becomes more and more ecstatic and mysterious. Reading it all in one afternoon took me through a progression corresponding to Dante's that I can only call mystical: in the end, I felt the presence of God in a way that I could not put into words.
Now why didn't Dante go through the virtues and the roll call of famous saints without all the science fiction? First, I think, because grounding the abstract material in a concrete journey just makes for more effective storytelling. But also, the planetary travel wasn't science fiction to Dante; it was science. The medieval understanding of the cosmos placed the earth at the center of a universe of nine concentric crystalline spheres. (Ptolemy's Almagest gives a very good argument, based on the best observation possible at the time, for why the earth must be at the center.) The spheres all spun because they were moved by angels who loved God; the highest sphere spun the most quickly because it was the closest to God's Heaven. As Augustine explains, Christianity is perfectly compatible with "astrology" to the extent of believing that the planets have influence; the earth, sun, and moon clearly have influence on us (gravity, warmth, tides), so why not Mars and Saturn? The Christian only need balk at the idea that the planets determine our fate and can predict the future.
The medieval picture of the cosmos that Dante believed in found everything neatly in its place. All earthly material things were made of four elements, heavenly things of a fifth -- a quintessence. These elements combined to form things (ever changing in the realm below the moon, perfect and unchanging above it) that found themselves in proper places in one of the concentric spheres. Things were also arranged in a hierarchy of nobility: lifeless things (rocks and such) superseded by nonsentient living things (such as plants), which were in turn superseded by sentient living things (animals), which were superseded by rational living creations in bodies (humans), which were superseded by bodiless created minds (angels), which were superseded by the Creator. (C. S. Lewis details this view of the world in a very helpful way in his The Discarded Image, a great book that helps understand Dante and countless other medieval works.) The way Dante saw this tidy picture, the orderly "heavens declared the righteousness of God," and God's "power and deity were clearly perceived in the things that were made."
It may all sound too simplistic to us today, and it's easy to feel smug about our advanced scientific understanding. Where Dante identified only four elements, we now recognize over one hundred. The planets are not on crystalline spheres moved by angels; they are held in place by gravity and kept moving by the Law of Inertia. But don't we still look for a tidy picture, an understanding that we can grasp in one comprehensive glance? We may have found and named 118 elements, but it's not really all that complex. Each elemental atom is a combination of just three things: protons, neutrons, and electrons. OK, so those aren't the fundamental building blocks, either: the world is actually made up of sixteen particles called quarks and muons and such, which can be neatly arranged in a 4x4 grid. And maybe those are made of superstrings. (I'm way out of my depth on the details here; "made of" is probably not the right phrase.) Whatever is at the bottom of things, science searches for it with a zealous faith that it must be there, that there must be only a few varieties of it, and that the varieties must form some nice pattern that can be comprehended in one thought. Science also seeks a simple understanding of how these particles interact. Magnetism and electricity, at first thought to be separate forces, are now seen as part of one "electromagnetic" force. If mathematical equations can be found that can link electromagnetism also with the force that keeps atomic particles together and the force that causes radiation, science will have found it's GUT, the Grand Unified Theory.
Now, I'm all for scientific advances, and I would rejoice to see the GUT discovered, even though I wouldn't understand the first explanations. And I don't believe in crystalline spheres (although I'm not sure that angels don't oversee inertia). But I haven't seen yet anyone write an inspiring epic poem about a journey to God through the sixteen elemental particles, or the virtuous lessons that can be taught by the one, or two, or three, or four basic forces. It can be done, and I hope that someday in the next hundred years some brilliant Christian with both physics creds and poetry chops will do it. But whatever the basic structure of the material world is, that poet will be no different from Dante in seeing that the coherent picture makes sense because a wise Creator gave it sense. So until -- and even after -- this new poem appears, I'll keep going back to The Divine Comedy.