Friday, October 21, 2016

Great Conversations, part 1

My poor literature students! Some high-school world-lit classes read a couple of novels, a couple of short stories, and a play by Shakespeare, and call it a year. In my class at a local homeschool co-op, we’re dipping our noses into The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities, stories by Tolstoy, Hesse, and Doyle, plays by Shakespeare and Ibsen, poetry by Donne, Gray, Wordsworth, and Keats, and much more. So, yeah: “poor” students now, but they’ll be loaded with riches when I’m through with them!

This Tuesday we started Don Quixote, and I told the students truthfully that that very morning during my walk I had read in C. S. Lewis's Miracles that certain theologians had been “quixotic.” (Lewis meant that these particular thinkers pursued a noble end but had gone too far; the details don’t concern my topic today.)  Cross-references like this happen all the time in my reading. Mortimer Adler says that the Great Books take the form of a Great Conversation because they constantly refer to the same Great Ideas and treat them in counterpoint. Concerning the same fact, Lewis says, “Only keep your ears open and your mouth shut and everything will lead you to everything else.”

This week I've experienced several conversations in print. One example involves the history of the understanding of the universe. In a chapter called “Science in the Age of Copernicus,” Will Durant says the Copernican Revolution posed the greatest challenge to religion in all of history. “When men stopped to ponder the implications of the new system they must have wondered at the assumption that the Creator of this immense and orderly cosmos had sent His Son to die on this middling planet. All the lovely poetry of Christianity seemed to ‘go up in smoke’ (as Goethe was to put it) at the touch of the Polish clergyman.”

But, again in Lewis, I read a response to this idea just a couple of days later. He may have been (at the end of his career) a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, but his Discarded Image finds its way onto required-reading lists in History of Science classes. So I believe him when he tells me who believed what when about the shape of the heavens. Lewis says that the ancients knew the Earth was tiny. Some even knew that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, that Ptolemy placed it there. So, contrary to Durant’s observation, the science of the modern era didn’t discover the astronomical unimportance of the Earth; Christians in the Middle Ages believed both in God and the tininess of Earth. Says Lewis, “The real question is why the spatial insignificance of Earth, after being asserted by Christian philosophers, sung by Christian poets, and commented on by Christian moralists for some fifteen centuries, without the slightest suspicion that it conflicted with their theology, should suddenly in quite modern times have been set up as a stock argument against Christianity and enjoyed, in that capacity, a brilliant career.”

A friend has asked me to read and discuss with him a book called Chance or Dance by Union University professors Jimmy Davis and Harry Poe. Reading in that book this week, I came across yet a third reference to the argument: a further contribution to the conversation about the theological views of the unfathomable size of space. Here the authors address statements by Carl Sagan and others to the effect that if humanity had some central significance in God’s eye, we’d have to admit that He wasted a lot of space and stellar material. Lewis also addresses this outlook (it sometimes seems difficult to find something he didn’t think about) when he points out that Nature has a predilection for overkill. Think of the extravagance in the number of spermatozoa that venture forth in search of an ovum when it only takes one to do the job. I doubt that that answer would give many nonbelievers a moment’s hesitation, but Lewis offers another a much more significant response to the thought that a minuscule race in a cosmological backwater doesn’t merit God’s attention, and I’m left wondering why Christians don’t generally have this central understanding at the ready: we never claimed to merit the attention we receive from Him. In fact, the better we understand how contemptible our position is, the more we love Him.

Update, Nov. 11: I just read in Augustine a couple of days ago an indication that he understood quite well, way back in the fifth century, the vastness of the heavens in comparison with the tiny earth. The conversation continues.

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