The Stars, the Cosmos, the Christ
I posted this last year on my blog on the Angelico Press website. I thought I should move it here.
“Where were you when I founded the earth...while the morning stars sounded in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” ~ Job 38: 4, 7
When I defended my dissertation (later published as Literature and the Encounter with God in post-Reformation England) a number of years ago, one of my examiners asked an important question: “Why did you choose to write about so many ‘weird’ figures from literary history?” She had a point, but it was a question I had anticipated. The subjects of my study included the polymath and magician John Dee; the Catholic apologist, alchemist and swashbuckler Sir Kenelm Digby; the Anglican visionary and religious leader Jane Lead; the Metaphysical poet and Paracelsian physician Henry Vaughan and his identical twin, the Anglican clergyman and alchemist Thomas Vaughan; as well as a more traditional figure, the Anglican priest and poet (and former recusant) John Donne. I told her the truth: thinking of these figures as weird is a modernist bias; in their own time, nobody thought their interest in alchemy and astrology was weird. And while some questioned (prudently, as it turns out) Dee’s “conversations” with what he thought were angelic beings, nobody questioned his credentials: he was one of the most learned men in Europe and counsel to Elizabeth I. It is only with the rise of modernity that we have felt secure in condemning figures such as those in my study in what E.P. Thompson has called “the enormous condescension of posterity.”
And I didn’t cut it out with that book. Through much of my subsequent work, I’ve examined other individuals at whom posterity (academic, philosophical, theological) likewise scoffs: Jacob Boehme, John Pordage, Robert Fludd, Rudolf Steiner, Valentin Tomberg, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (the heat I’ve taken over this guy!), even Vladimir Solovyov and Sergius Bulgakov. I’m drawn to these figures because they point to areas of theological, philosophical, and mystical experience ignored, neglected, and, sadly, ridiculed, by a culture inured to the dogmas of the Enlightenment. And this obligation extends to religious subcultures which, sadly, often dance to the Enlightenment tune though they swear they don’t know all the words. But these figures remind us of what we have lost. And that, at the very least, is an important vocation.
One piece of evidence of religion’s, and particularly Catholicism’s, inculcation of this Enlightenment ethos becomes obvious every year at this time as various apologists and commentators twist themselves into knots trying to distance the Visit of the Magi from astrology. It’s a holiday tradition.
Even orthodox biblical commentary exhibits a kind of neurosis in this regard. The note for Matthew 2 in The New American Bible, for example, reads: “Matthew’s magi are astrologers,” while The Jerusalem Bible dismisses such a possibility out-of-hand, asserting “Obviously the evangelist is thinking of a miraculous star: it is futile to look a natural explanation.” The CoE New Oxford Annotated Bible (yo, ecumenism!) says the magi were “a learned class in ancient Persia,” but omits saying what exactly they were learned in (any guesses?). The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990 edition) forthrightly explains that the magi “were a caste of wise men, variously associated with interpretation of dreams, Zoroastrianism, astrology, and magic” who later in Church tradition were viewed as royalty. Going back to the days of the Reformation, the 1560 Geneva Bible, the sword of the Puritans!, tells us “The Wisemen, or Magi, in the Persians and Chaldeans tongue signiffie Philosophers, Priests, or astronomers” whereas the 1582 Douai New Testament—the hammer of the Protestants!—more committed to defending the Feast of Epiphany from Protestant neglect than scholarly explanation, simply states that they were “sages” while simultaneously emphasizing their royal pedigree in hopes of showing the English monarchy (Elizabeth I, at the time), the proper disposition of a ruler.
But we need to get a grip. Prior to the Reformation and the Enlightenment it eventually spawned, everyone knew the stars could influence human life, just as the moon influences the tides and as in our own times we blame our crummy spirits during the winter on Seasonal Affective Disorder because of a dearth of sunshine. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, Robert Fludd, Thomas Vaughan, Sir Kenelm Digby, and much of the cohort I have devoted my scholarly attention to were not kooks or outliers. Indeed, if anything, they were traditionalists standing against an intellectualized and corrupted Neo-Scholasticism and the innovations that were the burgeoning Scientific Revolution and what Thomas Vaughan called “the Whymzies of des Chartes” (that is, Descartes). In short, they were upholding what they saw as Christian tradition.
In that tradition, Nature reveals its Maker and His Wisdom, or, as Psalm 19 has it “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork.” This was especially evident in the philosophical given of the Renaissance assuming the relationship of the macrocosm to the microcosm. But, with the Reformation and all that contributed to it and arose from it, Nature was exiled from human flourishing, unless as a thing to be appropriated and exploited. As the late Ioan Couliano argued,
“To read in the ‘book of Nature’ had been the fundamental experience in the Renaissance. The Reformation was tireless in seeking ways to close that book. Why? Because the Reformation thought of Nature not as a factor for rapprochement but as the main thing responsible for the alienation of God from mankind.
“By dint of searching, the Reformation at last found the great culprit guilty of all evils of individual and social existence: sinning Nature.”
In time, God would follow Nature into exile.
The irony (or one of them) is that this exile from/of God, mirrored in our exile from/of Nature, infiltrated the Catholic Church following the Reformation and the rise of the Enlightenment. And the Church, despite documents such as Laudato 'Si becomes further alienated from Nature. This is most obvious in the reforms of the Church calendar following Vatican II (not that I’m a V2 hater) and have become even more painful in the removal of The Feast of the Ascension from its rightful station forty days after Easter to the Sunday following. Add to this the (I recoil in absolute horror) proposal to fix the date of Easter and it’s easy to see our disassociation from the beautiful symmetry between the Church year and the cycle of the cosmic year. This is perhaps a great source of the psychic disorder we see throughout our society. God, practically anyway, has become absolutely transcendent (with the exception of the Eucharist) and not at all immanent in the Things of This World. As Couliano stated—in 1983—“for its part, Protestantism, without giving up the reforms for which it had done victorious battle on the local front, becomes consolidated in big institutions which more and more resemble the Catholic Church. The Catholic faith and the Protestant denominations have drawn as close together as possible without being aware of it.”
The stars, of course, are part of Nature, as was the star that appeared over Bethlehem (sorry, Jerusalem Bible commentator guy). Unfortunately, it seems we prefer as a culture the exile from Nature, substituting for it the virtual anti-nature of cyberspace. If you’re looking for superstition, cyberspace is the place to start.
Importantly, as we at least try to remind ourselves every year at this time, Christ himself took on Nature; he entered it. Not only human nature, but Nature itself. Christ was not, is not, apart from Nature just as we are not apart from Nature (despite the claims of Cartesian dualism). Indeed, as the late quantum physicist David Bohm argued, there is an implicate order between ourselves and the world of Nature (and of every world within Nature). Christ came to redeem it.
I am not suggesting that anyone run out to the local astrologer or start consulting horoscopes. All I’m saying is that there is a divinity that shapes our relationship to Nature, rough hew it how we will. And, speaking as a biodynamic farmer, there is far more to nature than substances we can measure.
“We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” ~ Matt 2:1
 E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963; reprt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), 12.
 Thomas Vaughan, Anima Magia Abscondita in The Works of Thomas Vaughan, ed. Alan Rudrum (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 137.
 Ioan Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, trans. Margaret Cook (Chicago: university of Chicago Press, 1987), 208. Couliano's emphasis.
 Ibid., 196.