Faith in a Crowded Space

Anyone who attended a middle school remembers the timeline exercise. The teacher dramatically draws one long line that spans the length of the chalkboard and informs the class that the line is a timeline, and it represents the entire time that modern man (that is, homo sapiens) has been present on earth. Per the activity the teacher then leaves the class to guess where on this line one might place man’s development of writing, that is, the start of “history” proper. One student might guess near the beginning of the line, then another might guess near the middle. A third might guess that it is somewhere nearer the start of the line than the end, but not exactly state where. All three guesses are incorrect, of course, and after the teacher allows some more guesses which all miss the mark, he dramatically marks a point inches away from the end of the timeline.

Gawking students express disbelief, even though this historical fact is not that hard to grasp. After all, modern man has existed for millions of years and has only even been cave painting for thousands. So why then do the students gawk? Because for many (and I speak from personal experience here), this is the first time they have been introduced to the idea that the human mind changes over time. In the not-so-deep past, man could only speak, not write. Although text might not seem like such a large part of your thinking, I promise you it is. Imagine never considering alphabetical order, spelling, or even the concept of letters. In the present, when so much of our education and interpersonal communication is text-based, this is inconceivable. The prehistoric world would have been just as different inside the mind as outside. This situation demonstrates well what we, borrowing and expanding a term from the history of science, might call a “paradigm shift.” A paradigm includes not only science and technology, but also philosophy, art, and literature. In other words, it involves not only how we perceive the universe, but how we think about what we perceive in the universe. Before man developed writing he did not miss it; after man developed writing he could not live (or think) without it. Especially when one is twelve, this discovery is something to gawk at.

Although this example does introduce the idea of paradigms and their shifting to many students, few things one learns in middle school stick. In the cases of most students, the concept of the paradigm goes the way of the functions of the organelles of a cell: that is, in one ear and straight out the other. I say this not to shame my fellow students (Lord knows I have no idea what a golgi apparatus does), nor to make myself look smart. I use the example of language to provide common ground, to show that the idea of the paradigm is at least a little familiar to all of us. Man’s perception of the world around him sometimes changes radically, and somewhere in the back of our minds we all know it. However, sometimes we simply forget to remember it, and assume that every homo sapien that has ever been has thought just like we think in the twenty-first century.

The completely human and understandable inability to remember what one learned in school sometimes has amusing consequences. Not long ago, I was reading a short story (which was published on Instagram, so the standards were low) in which a medieval monk gazes up towards the sky and deep into outer space, and it impresses him with its vast emptiness. Looking up at the stars he feels so confused, lonely, and alienated that he begins to have a crisis of faith. However, unless this monk had a time machine, such a crisis would not have been possible: This monk, and any other medieval person, could not have looked up into what we would consider “outer space” because space did not exist to him. It was not a part of his paradigm, like language was not a part of the paradigm of Australopithecus. A twelfth-century man looking up into emptiness would have been just as out of place as Lucy singing, well, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Mind, I say space did not exist to him, not that “space” as we now know it did not exist. Whatever the actual formation of the universe might be (and have been), the medieval model of the universe was one that disallowed empty space, and by extension, moody monks pondering empty space. Although we as modern people can never fully enter the mind of a believer in this old model, we can guess with the help of examples at the consequences this radically different world order would have had on the minds of its believers. [The medieval model was one that was regarded fundamentally orderly,] and therefore prevented feelings of confusion. It was one that was brimming with life, and therefore was without loneliness. Finally, it was one that tethered human beings closely to even the far reaches of creation, and therefore forbade alienation.

To begin with, C.S. Lewis observes that “of all our modern inventions I suspect that [medieval man] see that even things as seemingly divergent as philosophy and war became carefully numbered systems in the minds of the Middle Ages. The universe, of course, was no different. Although the concept of a geocentric universe seems stupidly simple to us, medieval scholars did notice obvious hitches in the prevailing model, and explained them in the most complicated way possible: Case in point, when astrologists noticed that some planets exhibited retrograde motion for some regular periods of time, they explained the inconstancy with the fine theory of deferents and epicycles, which while it may fail Occam’s razor, does pass the DMV test for being complicated, difficult to understand, and arbitrary in a nuanced way that medieval scholars would have called genius.

Medieval scholars further applied their organizational minds to the universe by formulating it into nine concentric spheres with Earth at the center, which included first each of the seven planets, then the fixed stars (Stellatum), and finally the movable stars (Primum Mobile). All of these spheres, from the first one below the moon to the Primum Mobile beyond the fixed stars, had inhabitants and organization proper to them. The only place at which medieval scholars threw up their busy hands was the area beyond the Primum Mobile, which they considered to be the home of God, or the Empyrean. This was an age before entropy: nothing in this universe (that is, nothing in the universe above the moon, see below) degraded or fell away. Rather, this organization was eternal and as one ascended through the spheres, everything became more perfect and full of both spiritual and literal light.

Medieval man had no concept of a space being empty as we think of it. There was no “vacuum” in the minds of the Middle Ages. Taking up an idea formulated by the ancient Greeks, scholars of this period thought that every inch of apparently dead empty space below the moon was actually alive with intelligent spirits. I emphasize that the area below the moon was alive with spirits because the presence of these spirits under the moon is one of the factors that made this sphere lively. Here in this sphere which we call home, there was constant change: the four classical elements divided and sped towards their natural places (earth and water downwards, fire and air upwards), plants and animals lived and died, and man carried on his business.

Further removed from humans but still very much a part of medieval man’s experience, the seven planets (recall that Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto are modern additions, and subtractions, from the list of planets and that the sun was considered a planet) exerted influences on the human mind and behavior. These influences aligned with some aspect of either the planet’s namesake or the planet itself; for instance people born under Mars were thought to be militant and people born under the moon were thought to be inconsistent and irregular.

This influence on personality was ongoing, lasting throughout the person’s life, and so powerful that the physicians of the day even supposed it to have health consequences, namely influenza. The influence of the planets was not a one-way street, however. Man influenced the stars as well. In fact, man could be a part of what made the entire universe “go ‘round.” God’s love, the love shared between the three persons of the Trinity as well as the love that He has for man, turned the universe somewhat like a crank. If a man should combine his love with God’s, that is love God and participate in God’s love, he would also be sharing (at least a tiny little bit) in the office of “Universe Mover.” Although I am acutely aware as a Christian that participating in God’s love is far easier written than done, the fact that it was thought to be achievable is the important thing: Man could be involved with the “engine” of the universe, and in that way he was connected to the stars, planets, and all of nature.

I have said before that this model is interesting from a Christian perspective because of the effect that it had on the thinking of the people who lived within it, and consequently their relationship with both Creation and Creator. All of my mathematical and astronomical examples may leave you wondering how this related to the spiritual life of the people, and while it would be difficult to tell you, it is easy to show you. Science and math provide one half of the paradigm, art and literature make up the other. Although not a common man by any means, Dante and in particular the Paradiso provide a snapshot of the influence that the supreme organization, fullness, and engagement of the universe had on educated minds at the tip-top of the Middle Ages.

For Dante, gazing up into the night sky had an opposite effect than it did on the faux-medieval Instagram monk for multiple reasons. This is chiefly evident in the fact that he chooses to culminate every installment of his supremely faithful trilogy with a hopeful and heartening look towards the stars. But more particularly, where the Instagram monk looks out on the universe and becomes confused by its disorganization, Dante gazes out onto the universe and it is evident to him that:

“Gazing upon His Son with that Love which
One and the Other breathe eternally,
the Power – first and inexpressible –
made everything that wheels through mind and space
so orderly that one who contemplates
that harmony cannot but taste of Him”. [1]

Not only does Dante look out on the universe and “taste” of God through its order – it is unimaginable to him that others do not see the same. As it concerns loneliness and the desolation of the “void” Dante experiences nothing approaching what the monk is lazily supposed to have imagined: He is constantly surrounded by spirits that, though they “are ranged from step to step / throughout this kingdom” are all united in God’s will. In addition, there is no darkness in the heavens, but there is a dawn in the east and Dante’s journey is towards the great “Living Light” outside of the spheres.

Yet most important to Dante, beyond the universe’s organization and population, is the fact that he was connected to it, and that the whole thing was powered by love. Although Dante does refer to God as “He who, motionless, moves all / the heavens with his love and love for Him,” it is not till the end of the thirty- third canto that we discover what great value Dante believes this has. Each part of the Divine Comedy culminates with a gaze upward, and the whole work culminates with a look straight into the Empyrean, in which he looks into the mystery of the Trinity and a focus on this love which connects man to the universe and the Divine:

“But then my mind was struck by light that flashed
and, with this light, received what it had asked.
Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already – like
a wheel revolving uniformly – by
the Love that moved the sun and the other stars.” [2]

Both the position of these lines at the zenith of the entire Comedy and their extraordinary content reveals that this last quality of the medieval model proves immensely valuable. Dante, searching for enlightenment in understanding the meaning of the mystery of the Trinity looks straight into it, and although “force” here fails “fantasy” and Dante is unable to understand the relationship, he has already achieved something ineffably great. Everything that Augustine and Paul and all the saints had wished for Dante now had achieved: a “desire and will” finally in harmony, nudged into smooth motion like the spheres by the love of God and love for God. This two-way street, this perfect communion, this perfect failure to grasp a perfect mystery was a peace beyond comprehension and for Dante and medieval man it came from staring into the heart of the universe and participating, by faith, in its motion. Check and mate, Instagram monk.

It is a Christian’s duty to seek the truth, both in spiritual and secular matters, and a Christian must acknowledge that the medieval model is deeply flawed in that it is not scientifically accurate. There is no tangible “Living Light” besides the sun, and planets do not dance in a glare, but scrunch over a twinkle. We must acknowledge the facts. The universe is cold. The universe is dark. The universe is vacuous. And less than four hundred years after Dante sang its praises; Copernicus, Galileo, and the telescope sealed the old model’s fate. In Milton we see the new model in verse as “[spaces] incomprehensible” replace the finite spheres of the heavens. In modern man, we see its effect on the soul, as another space incomprehensible replaces the desire for God. But I propose that although the old model of the universe may not be physically verifiable, we should not discard it. In fairy tales, in novels, and even in the Book of Genesis, there is truth in untruth. So with the medieval model. Though what it lacks in scientific accuracy makes it junk to some, what it possesses in spiritual truth should make it precious to Christians. This model lets us sing with the psalmist that “[t]he heavens tell out the glory of God (Ps. 19:1 RSV),” lets us rejoice with Piccarda that there is not an inch of the world left lonely by Him, and lets us partake like Dante in the love that unites our will and desire to the love of God and the movement of the universe.


1 Paradiso Canto X lines 1-6 (trans. Allen Mandelbaum)
2 Paradiso Canto XXXIII lines 140-145


Tess Fitzsimmons ’19 is a History and Literature and Religion concentrator in Lowell House and is a staff writer and the business manager for the Ichthus.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,