There have been a few scattered discussions on BioLogos recently about the question of the “obsolete” cosmology in the Bible, and especially in Genesis 1, and I’ve done a recent blog on that subject. One of the things that becomes quickly obvious is how very hard it is for moderns to see the theological content of ANE texts as other than add-on stories to mistaken science, rather than as the expression of a worldview that had very little interest in the purely material qualities of the Universe. Or rather, that saw the material aspects of the Universe from a theological point of view.
A parallel, though equally hard for moderns to understand, is the Greek Platonic or Aristotelian ideas of “forms” being the most important aspect of material objects. Since you weren’t going to find these non-material forms by taking things apart, lack of empirical accuracy implies not so much ignorance as relative indifference to subsidiary details.
I heard an interesting insight into how different, and maybe impoverished, our recent modern worldview is from an item on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme. This will be available on i-Player for awhile here , and if it’s gone when you read this it was about a forthcoming book, Sacred Land.
This is by theologian Martin Palmer, who on a trip to Moscow was surprised to be told that the layout of the city, and of others in Russia, was based on the Book of Revelation. As Palmer says, “In building a city you were making a microcosm of the Universe”. In this case, presumably in the early modern period, that “Universe” was the theological conception of the Christian scriptures in Revelation. This ties in directly with the work of G K Beale in The Temple and the Church’s Mission, for his thesis is that cosmic temple imagery is prevalent throughout the Bible, and he agrees with John H Walton that Genesis 1 in part reflects, and in part inspires the Jerusalem Temple. The idea is that the Temple represents the cosmic temple which God has created in the Universe, understood (of course) in theological rather than material terms.
Palmer now shows that such a process of identification persisted right up to a few centuries ago in the Orthodox East. But that’s not all. On his return to England, he was amazed to see a similar principle at work in his own city of Bristol, and indeed in pretty well any human site planned before 1800. To be sure the cosmic imagery varies: in mediaeval and early modern times the imagery is Biblical, and thus a more or less accurate reflection of the same thinking to be found in Genesis. Georgian building was informed more by the idea of God as the celestial architect, the mathematician par excellence. Very early settlements reflect the very different and still poorly understood cosmos of pre-Christian British paganism.
But in the nineteenth century – as the project that led to Darwin and secular materialism took hold, we not only forgot how to design cities in that way, but we forgot we ever had done so. We not only forgot how to read Genesis – we couldn’t even read our recent citiscapes any more. Looking at a mediaeval city now, we think in terms of chaotic street plans, poor sewage, untidy sight lines – and yet probably nostalgically of a more human, less machine-like urban environment. without understanding why. Correspondingly we think of modern cities in terms of speed of communication, facilities, green space and other utilitarian concerns. City planners no longer get trained in cosmology, because our cosmology actually has little to do with the meaning of our existence.
But then, since the cosmos itself isn’t supposed to “mean” anything, why should the places in which we choose to live?