I have vivid memories of kindergarten—wriggling on the carpet during naptime, bored, or swinging high on the swing set, hoping the swing would one day carry me to Narnia. It was also in kindergarten that one auspicious afternoon we gathered in the adjoining classroom where I first saw Star Wars: A New Hope. In hindsight, I am unsure why this was a school-day activity, but I was captivated. I watched the trilogy repeatedly throughout my childhood, memorized the lines, and fell in love with Hans Solo. Star Wars became an important fixture in the furniture of my imagination: a story of the brave underdog in the seemingly impossible fight of good versus evil. As I revisit the films with my children, however, I am troubled by what I see in the Star Wars universe. I see little beauty. There are planets and moons, but mostly there is nothingness. It feels chaotic and random, producing anxiety and the wrong sense of smallness. If anxiety-producing randomness is what the universe has to offer, is there any wonder I grew to dislike science?
It took years of reading old books to see just how new and strange our view of the universe is. In the great books, we find a rich view of the cosmos, and it has been lost. In C.S. Lewis’s major academic work, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Including Drama, he describes what happened in the shift from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican model. The cosmos was demoted to the universe. “She” became “it.” In so doing, she was “emptied, first of her indwelling spirits, then of her occult sympathies and antipathies, finally of her colours, smells, and tastes.”1 Before, the cosmos was “tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine.”2 Timothy Patitsas describes the eventual result in his popular book, Ethics of Beauty: “By taking the universe as a given, or as the “last word” on what is out there, science inadvertently commits a kind of idolatry. They have made a material thing (the material universe) the final reference point of human existence.”3
The challenge for those of us who do not consider the material universe the final reference point is our imaginations. My imagination is filled with the view from the Death Star of emptiness and void. The universe is similar in my mind to my Russian professor’s description of the Soviet party: it became an empty stage upon which one could put whatever he wanted. There is no going back…is there?
Would a return to the festal cosmos necessitate an impossible return to the Ptolemaic model? I think not. The Earth does not need to be the literal center of the solar system to be central to God’s creation. The cosmos has not changed; it still has colors and tastes. It is ontologically ceremonial. It is also full of order. Chaos was subdued and the void was filled when the world was created through Christ, the logos. Not only that, by the logos all things continue to be upheld and sustained (Hebrews 1:3). Looking for and imitating the logos is the beginning of a Christian return to the cosmos.
Patitsas would say (and I would agree) that the world is an icon. A more familiar expression to Western Christians is to say that the cosmos is sacramental. What does “sacramental” mean? While the church historically has identified seven discrete sacraments, sacramental describes the physical nature of the world and how it relates to the unseen Reality. The word sacrament comes from the Greek mysterion or mystery. Scholar Thomas Howard describes sacramentality as the belief “that the physical is the very mode under which we make our way along to our destiny (telos) and that the effort to shuffle off the physical, or to deplore it, is both misbegotten and dangerous.”4 Theologian Hans Boersma writes that a sacramental view perceives the oneness of natural and supernatural and created objects “are sacraments that participate in the mystery of the heavenly reality of Jesus Christ.”5 In short, mystery, not chaos.
David writes in Psalm 19,
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tabernacle for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming out of its chamber, and rejoices like a strong man to run its race.
An ordered, sacramental cosmos is beautiful. It is a unified whole and the foundation upon which the liberal arts stand. Without a Christ-centered view of the cosmos, the work of the classical renewal is incomplete.
The best analog to the cosmos that I can think of is the cathedral, beautiful and ordered, everything has its meaning and its place. The building is full of angles and light, all culminating centrally in Christ. Now imagine taking some works of art from the cathedral – a painting, say, or removing a sculpture from the wall. Maybe added to these works of art are some relics or historical bits. Now imagine taking these pieces and translating them into a large room in a strip mall. Maybe they are well displayed, like track lighting on The Altar of Ghent. But severed from their context and their home they are not fully real. Thus, it is if we try to sever education from its cosmic home: the liberal arts in a warehouse with track lighting (or, more honestly, three-sevenths of them). Vague in foundation and in aim. Is it better than nothingness? Of course. But it is not what it could be. It is not what it is.
1 C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford University Press, 1962), 3.
2 Ibid, 4.
3 Timothy G. Patitsas, The Ethics of Beauty (Editorial: Maysville, Mo: St. Nicholas Press, 2019), 166.
4 Thomas Howard, Dove Descending (Ignatius Press, 2006), 41.
5 Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2011), 8.