Cosmology through the ages #4 – Modern

When Nicholas Copernicus first proposed his heliocentric model of the universe in 1543, it appears to have been primarily for the reason of returning astronomy to the Aristotelian ideal of perfect circles abandoned by Ptolemy’s equants, thus simplifying (and idealizing) the model. Though sources about his thinking are scarce, he was wedded enough to Aristotle still to consider the earth to be the lowest place in the universe, even though that was a problem for his cosmology:

But the fact that Copernicus turned the earth into a planet did not cause him to reject Aristotelian physics, for he maintained that “land and water together press upon a single center of gravity; that the earth has no other center of magnitude; that, since earth is heavier, its gaps are filled with water…” (Revolutions, 10). As Aristotle had asserted, the earth was the center toward which the physical elements gravitate. (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy)

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But because Copernicus’s work is usually seen through the eyes of modern science rather than philosophy, one significant change from the older representations of the solar system is seldom remarked. And that is the absence of any theological reference – the fixed stellar sphere is shown without the throne of God. One can only speculate on the reasons for this. It was by no means due to a secular spirit, as he wrote:

To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.

It would be nice to think of it as a return to the Hebrew conception of God  invisibly permeating his whole creation, though that would be historically unlikely. Whatever the reason, though, it is emblematic of the course that western humanism took, particularly with regard to natural philosophy. The general dissatisfaction with Aristotle that led to his eventual (and excessive) eclipse led to a simplification of the complex hierarchical cosmologies built up by late mediaeval and early modern academics.

In general, though, the process appears not to have been the result of a rejection of the Great Chain of Being (though it was in fact an assumption with no empirical verification), but the progressive removal of links in the chain. The pattern of change is interesting. For example, the rejection of magic, as alchemy turned into physics and chemistry, removed those Pythagorean harmonic resonances we saw last time (though Kepler still had them strongly in mind in his astronomy), and gradually led as well to the sidelining of astrology from astronomy.

This encouraged the removal of astronomy from what one might call spiritual cosmology: the celestial spheres increasingly just were, rather than being stepping stones to God – after Galileo the extra-terrestrial realm was increasingly seen to have the same constituents as earth, rather than being the purer aetherial realm the Greeks had envisaged. In other words from this point on, cosmography seems to have little relationship to cosmology. This may well have been a good thing: why should they correspond? In the end the only connection of astronomy to meaning became the spurious “Copernican principle”, that earth must be unimportant because it isn’t the centre of the universe (though to Copernicus and his forbears, it had been unimportant because it was at the centre).

zgreatchainbeing2The overriding trend that had started in the Renaissance, that is, to emphasize the autonomy of man, was summed up in Protagoras’ aphorism, “Man in the measure of all things”. It was pursued consciously in the Enlightenment and, religiously, produced Deism and its European equivalents. As this diagram shows, stripping out spiritual entities like angels, whilst retaining a concept of the chain of being, resulted in a separation of God from his creation. Though he had made a heirarchical creation, he was distantly removed from it as a distant lawgiver or clockmaker, quite the opposite of the immanent God of the biblical cosmic temple , and therefore became largely irrelevant to the world.

For example Carl Linnaeus was deeply religious, even mystically so at times, but was typical of that eighteenth century religious flavour by being mainly a natural theologian interested in God’s omnipotence and transcendant reason, rather than the whole biblical revelation. His classification of animals, plants and minerals was, in essence, a detailed description of the Great Chain of Being with a long dotted line up to God.

zgreatchainbeing3This was the time, though, when anti-clericalism and practical atheism were taking root, and the eventual removal of God altogether from intellectual consideration left the Chain of Being intact, but very much shorter, in the twentieth century. The other fascinating aspect is that through evolutionary thought, and particularly Darwinism and its successors, the “polarity” of the chain was reversed so that, rather than being a chain down from God, through man, to chaos and non-being, it became a chain up from chaos culminating in man as the highest entity. One might also pencil in the hope of some people for transhumanist or evolutionary progress above what mankind is currently. Astute readers will remember that this is the selfsame worldview critiqued by Dionysius of Alexandria in the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus, during the third century.

I must add, for completeness, what we might call the “Postmodern” stage anticipated by C S Lewis and prevalent today. And that is the final disruption of what remains of the Chain of Being by the denial that mankind is higher than the chaos from which he arose. If we are still “really” just atoms, then the heirarchy of the chain is mere illusion – nothing is ultimately going anywhere. Bacteria are the dominant form of life by sheer numbers (Gould), and evolution has no inbuilt tendency to progress (Koonin). This illustrates that what the Chain represented, for all its faults, was meaning – or to put it another way, “cosmos”. As Dionysius had said of atheistic atomism, it “finds its refuge in infinite disorder (akosmia).” Or “Humans came about through an unguided process that did not have us in mind” (Kenneth Miller).

My original cosmic temple picture had no connection with the Chain of Being (it predated it by many centuries), but in another way it gave meaning to all things equally, from their relationship to God in his sustenance and providential government. But since we are all inheritors of the modern “Short Chain of Being” worldview through our culture, it being all that modern science admits to the cosmological table, it’s worth asking those who believe in God how he might be fitted into this cosmological picture. That is, if the religious worldview is to relate to the secular one I’ve illustrated and not be, in S J Gould’s terms, a non-overlapping magisterium, which is another way of saying “a personal quirk”. Here are a few tentative suggestions.

zgreatchainbeing3a This would seem to be the option chosen by the Semideists and Free Process theologians, who believe that God created a largely autonomous evolutionary process. Seen diagramatically it looks distinctly odd – it’s a top-down process like the Great Chain of Being, but God is only intimately involved in the very lowest stage, setting chaos on the road to becoming. Creation (perhaps) works its way back to him through man. Spiritually, of course, it implies the popular TE idea of the Fall being, in fact, a Promethean Rise to greater wisdom from animal selfishness (see this recent exchange on  BioLogos (from #86207). It has the advantage of interfering minimally, if at all, with the predominant materialist worldview.

By some this “hands off” cosmology of the natural world is combined with an altogether different religious picture of a God who acts “hands on” in salvation both historically and individually. Maybe the illustration illustrates that if such a “double cosmology” is adopted, there must be very good reasons supplied for dividing God as Saviour from God as Creator so radically. I’ve never seen a good case offered for it (in fact, I’ve never seen any case offered), and it seems sometimes to be motivated by a desire to hold on to the dominant secular atomism and Christianity at the same time, whether or not they are compatible).

zgreatchainbeing3bIn this alternative God is creation (pantheism) or is in it (panentheism), as suggested by the Process Theology of a number of the prominent science-faith scholars like Ian Barbour and Arthur Peacocke. Both God and creation are in a process of evolution, or becoming, and so God fits into the upward trajectory of the Short Chain of Being quite comfortably. The same may be said, more messily and less coherently, of the Open Theistic view, in which a transcendant God empties his own nature to co-evolve with his creation: in fact, he becomes an effect of his own creation, perhaps more than the cause of it.

zgreatchainbeing3cWhat’s this? This is just my poor attempt to return to our original starting point, the cosmic temple of God seen in Genesis. Whatever the current scientific fashion sees as being the content of creation, and whatever direction it is assumed to be moving (up, down or sideways), it is still constituting God’s temple and “dwelling in his courts”. It is created, sustained and directed by the Logos of God, through his Spirit, who is, as he always was, all in all, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. It’s not a very elegant combination of images, but I suggest it’s closer to a true Christian understanding than some of the others.


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Philosophy, Politics and sociology, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Cosmology through the ages #4 – Modern

  1. Cal says:

    It appeared to me that the Chain of Being logic is a return to pagan concepts of power. This concept was grown by Platonists and nurtured in a Pagan world where the strong crush the weak, and dominating power is the only definition. Of course, Pagans would council against crushing and domination, and allowing for a patronizing attitude, to create a stable order. But that’s the axis the world run on.

    Then Jesus, echoing the Law and the Prophets, says that contrary to the Gentiles, and their benefactors, the greatest must be the servant of all.

    I wonder whether it’s this drive that influences such developments. It is certainly beneficial to kings when they are backed with ‘divine right of kings’ rather than merely an attitude of respect and mistrust (vis. Romans & Revelation 13).

    If we define power as Pagans, and we’re prone to do so out of the lies of devils and our own flesh, then we’re going to go astray. God ceases to be a Fatherly King, and becomes a reflection of the kings of men.

    Anyway, I appreciated this series. I do hope that the Church will begin to wrestle with the intention that this be a Cosmos, despite rebellion, and shines forth the Lord Jesus’ glory.

    My thoughts,

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Hi, Cal.

      As the resident Christian Platonist here, I want to raise an objection to your first paragraph.

      As Arthur Lovejoy expounds in his book, The Great Chain of Being (a true classic in the history of ideas), the Platonic idea underlying the chain is that God is not “jealous” and does not begrudge existence to anything. Creation is then a sort of outpouring of God’s love or generosity; it is not an expression of power, but of beneficence. One might contrast this with the language of creation in many ancient near Eastern cultures, or even in Islam, where the creation of the world seems like a showy exercise of God’s raw power.

      This shows the danger of thinking of Plato as a “pagan” philosopher. Of course, formally, he was “pagan”; since he was not a Jew, Christian, or Muslim. But many aspects of his philosophy ran against the general attitudes of the pagan world, and overlapped with Christian sensibilities. It is for this reason that so many of the early Fathers, e.g., Clement and Origen, admired Plato; and in some Eastern Orthodox church artwork Socrates and Plato are depicted next to the saints.

      I know that you didn’t actually say that Plato was a bad guy, but your remarks about Platonism and pagan practice are sufficiently negative in their general trajectory to create that impression.

      One of the tricky things in speaking of the pagan character of classical civilization is that the civilization tends to be treated monolithically, as if Pericles and Caesar, on the one hand, and Socrates and Aeschylus, on the other hand, all represent the same thing. In fact, the best classical thought was often very critical of actual classical civilization, whether that civilization was Roman or Athenian. Indeed, Socrates’ execution was in part due to his distance from the “pagan” conception of the gods entertained by Athens and Athenians. And Plato’s Republic offers a sustained argument against that conception.

      So if we go by purely formal definition, then Plato and Platonism are just as “pagan” as the Roman Empire which worshipped power, and ravaged and enslaved the world; but if we go by the inner heart of Platonic thought, we see that the motivation behind Platonism is almost the opposite of the motivation behind Roman (or Athenian) imperialism; the motivation is kindred with (not identical to, but kindred with) the motivation of Christianity. Hence the long historical partnership between Platonist and Christian thought, from the early Fathers through the mystical writings of the early Middle Ages up to modern writers such as C. S. Lewis.

      Of course, any conception from the thought of any philosopher can be developed in a destructive way. I think the “great chain of being” concept did not become destructive until it became developed in an anti-Platonic spirit. The idea of physically climbing up the chain of being, which lies behind evolutionary thinking, is such an anti-Platonic development. The chain become a ladder by which creation pulls itself up until it equals God (as in the novels of Arthur Clarke, for example). The chain ceases to be evidence for the abundant love and generosity of God, and becomes thought of as evidence that creation does not really need God. Given enough time, unthinking matter will become something divine on its own. Nothing could be further from Plato’s view.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Thanks Cal and Eddie.

        I understand from Eddie (personal comm.) that the Great Chain didn’t really start clanking until it was adopted by mediaeval Christianity, being only the germ of an idea in centuries BC. My apologies that I didn’t make that too clear in the original post.

        Of course, it doesn’t alter the fact that it was a synthesis of mixed blessing. Glad you enjoyed the series anyway, Cal.

      • Cal says:

        Hi Edward,

        As a preliminary, I have read quite a lot of Plato and worked with thinking (I don’t know how many times I’ve had to read Phaedo…). I’m not utterly hostile to Plato, and I’ve appreciated some insights he has had. I use to despise all things Plato, but I’ve become more sympathetic.

        As regards to Lovejoy: I’m not sure what sort of Platonism he’s describing. For Plato, created reality was something of a conundrum. It was by far better to be disposed of a mortal body to go back to the Forms, but suicide was still wrong. Later Platonists would talk of an incompetent demiurge. But not all Platonism was hostile, but still marked creation as a lower point, instead of a theater of God’s glory (vis. Calvin).

        While contrary to the arbitrary choices of Allah, or the ME creation in the chaotic forces of either orgy or killing (or both!), it’s still not the Hebrew world of a loving Creator. Eminating and speaking are still quite a part.

        In regards to the phrase ‘pagan’:

        True, not all Pagans thought in the same way. There were radical differences, as you listed. But there was still a monolithic concept of Power, that created hierarchy. Whether it was based upon some numinous notion of destiny and the gods’ blessing (Roman Imperialism), or the natural orderings of a Human soul (Platonic Republic), both conceived the top in similar ways.

        The Christian difference is that Power resulted not in retaining and static orientation, but a static-flux(!) of giving. The Plotinian disciples were aghast at a God who would Incarnate and open His arms to the rabble. Emanation is not the same as grace. It’s why some theologians struggled to say God actually loves, which they sometimes chalked up as an anthropomorphism.

        Christian and Platonic coherence and antagonism is a rather complex sort. Suffice to say, I don’t find Platonic grammar and insights, by definition, wrong or offensive. Christians can “plunder Egypt”, taking and leaving the insights of whoever. Plato has some goods to offer, but I do not think Christ and Plato fit hand in glove.

        Though, again, I am a realist, find good in picking up grammar of participation to discuss union in/with Christ and sacrament.


        PS. On Socrates, it’s ambiguous what it exactly was that got him in trouble. Was it a set up because he was friends with quite a few of the 40 tyrants? Was his ethical treatment detrimental to Athenian nationalistic revenge fantasy (Sort of like certain 50’s thinkers who were blacklisted as Communist for not actively supporting the US)? It was definitely not for any sort of monotheism, even if he did call into question Athenian religious custom and conceptions.

        • Cal says:


          I’m locating certain chain-of-being thinking within the apologies for Constantine and new synthesis of Rome and the Kingdom of God.

          A fascinating article, written by a Unitarian(!) no less, linked Arianism with Imperial standing. One of Arius’ main arguments was that God was fundamentally ‘Uncreate’, over Athansius who insisted it is ‘Father’. Arius, and/or his followers, utilized certain chain-of-being logic that allowed the Emperor to have a greater portion of participation in Christ.

          Maybe it’s why Constantine had the gall to have his tomb painted with the 12 apostles, and he in the center!

          The Cosmic Temple imagery runs contrary to all of this, especially when taken in the Bible’s covenantal, and redemptive historical, form.


        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

          Hi, Cal. Thanks for an engaged reply. Dialogue like this is good.

          I’m glad you are not anti-Platonist by any automatic reflex. Given, however, a widespread anti-Platonism found in many Protestant evangelical circles (which from your autobiographical remark, I gather you are aware of!), I had to make sure. Your initial remark above left room for doubt, being fairly compact and sketchy.

          I would not say that Christianity and Plato fit “hand in glove” but they are certainly “natural allies” on a whole range of issues (against materialism, atheism, polytheism, etc.).

          I agree that some of the neo-Platonists had the problems with Biblical religion that you mention. Regarding the “anti-bodily” strand in Plato, I concede it is there, but of course it is most pronounced in the Phaedo, and when we consider the subject of that dialogue (the imminent death of Socrates) the strong emphasis on the downside of the body is understandable. But if you move to the Timaeus, the body as such is not denounced, and there is great emphasis on the good of the created world. (Reminiscent of Genesis, though obviously the Demiurge is not omnipotent. Many medieval Christian theologians, I add, took it for granted that Genesis and the Timaeus were roughly compatible.) It is from the Timaeus, the most cosmos-affirming of the dialogues, that Lovejoy’s account proceeds.

          I agree that the causes of Socrates’ trial and condemnation were complex, which is why I was careful to qualify my statement with “in part.” A full account of that event would take outside the purpose of this web site. But I wasn’t claiming that Socrates endorsed monotheism, merely that he opposed the standard pagan mythology about gods — i.e., the belief that they were driven by the same lower passions that drive human beings.

          I don’t understand your remark about the ordering of the human soul in Plato. In Plato the rational part of the soul is supposed to rule the spirited and appetitive parts, but it doesn’t rule by “power”; indeed, it is precisely because it has to rule by persuasion rather than compulsion that it sometimes fails.

          This microcosm of the soul is repeated in the macrocosm of political life, whereby the most rational part of the body politic must persuade the less rational parts of the best policy. Needless to say, in most cases the less rational parts won’t listen. Thus, the only state that can be wholly rational in its ordering will be one in which the philosopher has absolute power to compel the less rational elements of society to go along. People have to come up to the philosophers and say, “Philosophers, please rule us for our own good.” But Plato knows that this is not going to happen, and the Republic is a sustained demonstration of why it can’t happen. Most readers of the Republic miss this. Many of them are misled by the reading of Karl Popper. Allan Bloom has a deeper understanding of Plato’s literary strategy than most commentators.

          As for Lovejoy, all I can say is, make the time to read his book before you die! It is one of the greatest works of pure scholarship ever produced, by one of the best philosopher-scholars America ever produced. One can learn a vast amount about Plato, Leibniz, Spinoza and much else from the book. It also sets the intellectual scene for 19th-century evolutionary biology in a brilliant way.

          • Cal says:


            Yeah, the Harnackian ‘Hellenizing’ thesis is overplayed, though containing elements of truth. There is a balance in use, contrary to synthesis or accomodation, which is good and right.

            The ordering of the soul comment is what you pointed out. The reign of the Rational part of the soul over the other parts still has this univocal conception of power that Christ rejected. And that’s not dealing with Plato’s faulty anthropology.

            I appreciate the dialog. I’ll definitely put Lovejoy on my list of next to read!


            • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


              I don’t see any “univocal conception of power” in the tripartite division of the soul. I don’t see how “power” comes into Plato’s analysis at all. As for whether Christ rejected a “univocal conception of power” I’m not sure what that means either. When he returns with the sword to judge the earth, he will, I imagine, exhibit a “univocal” conception of “power.” I guess I don’t know what your phrase means.

              If you mean that Christ taught that surrender of the will was better than imposition of the will upon others, I would certainly endorse that; but Plato comes close to such a teaching in his description of the fate of the perfectly just man in the Republic. Of course, the Athenians whom Plato was criticizing thought just the opposite.

              I’m not at all certain that Plato’s anthropology is faulty, but again without knowing exactly what you are calling “Plato’s anthropology” — often what people call Plato’s view is not clearly taught by Plato himself — it is hard to comment.

              I myself am an intense lover of both Platonic and Hebraic strands within Christianity, which is not impossible (despite Harnack etc.), as is shown by the Cambridge Platonists, Lewis, Williams, etc. Where German-speaking and Dutch-speaking theologians (and Americans influenced by them) often unnecessarily polarize these strands, the British tradition has often wonderfully balanced them.

              • Cal says:


                I suppose I should spend some time defining my terms, at least briefly!

                When I say univocal conception of power, I’m talking about, a singular strict hierarchism. So, for example, in the Gospel, Jesus is at the same time Lord of All, able to cast demons out with a word, and still storms with a beckon. But then He proclaims He is the servant of all. His Lordship reveals itself differently. In Plato’s Republic, my impression was there was restraint imposed upon the masses given to the appetitive soul. It might be just Popper’s fears.

                But it’s more than Plato. It’s that the Neo-Platonists were offended with the One who would enter the particularity. I see a large gulf between emanation, which is loveless and necessary, over and above a Creator who creates out of freedom, and then joins His creation.

                Of course, Plato was not a ‘might makes right’ brute. That’d be better to suffer injustice than to afflict it (forget which dialog that is…Gorgias?) But that’s not what I’m saying.

                Platonic anthropology is that Mankind is most purely a Soul, the body being a carrying case. Then on top of that, the soul is divided into 3: which reason ought to rule, followed by the spirited(zeal) part, maintaining strict control of the appetite.

                Again, I can appreciate using some of Platonic grammar to describe Biblical realities. It’s certainly speak of Christ the Logos as the Form, from which the impressions of the Old Testament. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks similarly. This is a fair plank in dialog between Christians and Platonists, that the latter accepts the reality of a Heavenly Form (Christ), who is beyond the earthly shadow-copies.

                But I wouldn’t identify as a Platonist by any stretch.


  2. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    Thanks for these further clarifications, Cal.

    Yes, I agree that Jesus reveals two sides: the highest authority combined with the greatest servitude. And I agree that the theme of servitude is not developed in Plato the way it is in Christianity. There are also other themes that are absent from Plato’s writing, or weakly developed in Plato’s writing, that are strong in Christianity. That is why I would describe myself as a Christian Platonist, or Platonic Christian, rather than as a straight Platonist. (Though in terms of traditional philosophical schools I call myself a Platonist, to distinguish myself from a Hobbesian, a Baconian, a Cartesian, a Kantian, an Aristotelian, etc.) Christian Platonism has some things in common with neo-Platonism but, as you say, it has some differences, related to the appropriation of Biblical thought.

    Your account of Platonic anthropology is recognizable to me; there is some doubt how literally Plato meant that anthropology, insofar as it is most frequently expressed in the “myth” parts of his dialogues. But I know what you mean by calling it Platonic.

    Of course, the soul/body distinction you are making has been a very large part of the popular and even learned Christian conception over the ages. I would wager that most Christians today, including most Protestants and many evangelicals, speak of and think of dear old Granddad as being “in heaven” at the moment, or of hoping soon to join a beloved spouse “in heaven” upon death. And of course by that, they don’t mean that “the union of body and soul” is in heaven, but only the soul, since they concede that the body is decaying in the grave. This is the case despite the fact that Christians are “supposed” to believe (in accord with the anti-Greek trend of the last 125 years of Protestant theology) that the body and soul die together, and will be resurrected again together in the the final days of the world. The so-called “true Biblical” conception — that we will have no consciousness after we die until we are raised again for the final judgment — has rarely been the actual conception held in practice by Christians. For all the raging against “dualism” by Francis Schaeffer etc., Christianity has largely operated under the notion that the soul is separable from the body and is in a crucial sense more important than the body.

    As for the Republic, Socrates there sketches an imaginary state, the purpose of which is to shed light upon the nature of the human soul. But even in that imaginary state, the coercion of the citizens is no different from the coercion legitimated by Paul when he says that the magistrate bears not the sword in vain. Christianity (except for minority groups like the Mennonites) has never taught that we can do without the state or that coercion for legitimate public goods is wrong. In worldly matters Christians have quite frequently endorsed “hierarchy” in the sense of a chain of authority binding on citizens, soldiers, etc., and early Christians were quite willing to obey the Emperor in non-religious matters. So the fact that in the Republic the citizens are expected to obey the guardians is not at all contrary to Christian teaching.

    In fact, there is a sense in which the guardians in the Republic are servants as well as rulers. Why should the philosopher take the time to rule the masses? The philosopher gets no joy out of it. The philosopher does not gain pleasure from having the authority to order people about. He would rather be contemplating the heavens or engaging in ethical discourse with other philosophers. The philosopher rules in the Republic (a purely imaginary city which Plato did not believe would ever exist, contra Popper) out of a sense of duty; since the public has been responsible for his course of study which has enabled him to attain his intellectual heights, he feels it is just to repay the public by serving the public good, taking on the dull task of writing up laws and supervising the lower functionaries when needed. In his capacity as ruler, the philosopher lives for the good of others, not for himself. This is of course the very opposite of the motivation of the ruler in Machiavelli or Hobbes.

    We agree on much — you have acknowledged the many points of overlap between Platonic and Biblical ideas. This is good. The attempt to sever Christianity entirely from Greek and classical thought has not done the good that Teutonic theologians hoped it would do. In fact, the “least Greek” Christianity — that of Protestant fundamentalist USA — is markedly inferior in spiritual maturity, Christian culture, etc., to the Greek-influenced Christianity of European tradition.

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