‘Cosmos’: A Poetic Reflection on the Medieval Model
Beginning June 6th, a group of us here at The Symbolic World will be reading and discussing C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy (message me here for an invitation!). Beginning with Out of the Silent Planet, we will pay close attention to Lewis’s fictional exploration of cosmological models. In his treatise on medieval literature The Discarded Image, Lewis expressed his “hope to persuade the reader not only that this Model of the Universe is a supreme medieval work of art but that it is in a sense the central work, that in which most particular works were embedded, to which they constantly referred, from which they drew a great deal of their strength.”1
As this model was the great strength of Medieval culture, so Lewis sees the modern scientific model as the great weakness of our culture. For Lewis, man in the modern cosmos is “like one lost in a shoreless sea,” blind to who he is or where he is going, while man in the medieval cosmos is like one “being conducted through an immense cathedral,” awake to the wonder and meaning of his Logos-shaped world.2 In the Ransom Trilogy, Lewis imagines a Neo-Medieval view of the cosmos that perceives the symbolic meaning present within new scientific data.
The following is my response to Lewis’s endeavor and a starting point for our summer discussion. Through this original poem and subsequent reflection, I explore how the cosmic cathedral was lost and how we might begin to renew our vision once more.
Revolution! Copernicus did fling
Earth’s sphere into high orbit.
Luna laughed as Terra stumbled to conceive
Her own reeling, tethered traverse.
Neither up nor down, twin poles tip and taunt
Horizons are lost and words echo naught.
Love no more moves her celestial spheres,
The airless void is Eve’s womb now.
Beyond Gaea’s fragile veil, the sun’s golden
Bright rays inflame and ravage all.
Life clings to its chance outpost, marbled blue,
As cosmic dangers marshal round.
She is an orphaned beauty, the soul child
Of atoms, random profligate seed.
Voyager exposes Saturn’s icy rings
Stretched round their barren no-where world.
Hubble’s optic burst slaps home with cold dread
As the angelic host falls silent.
Thou observed when first the stars sang for joy.
Quantum spark set the cosmos aflame.
Boundless wave in particulate presence;
Time unfolds from heaven’s One door.
All cosmos is the Lord’s unsparing gift.
Odds are lost and miracles return.
Galactic legions march the realm of space,
Now the infinite made extant.
Apollo’s glory! This star’s perfect blaze,
Logos light and love’s endless burn.
As Mary’s womb did eternal God enfold,
So earth’s small sphere His Body holds.
The Messenger reclaims his medium
and sets fine-tuned forms dancing again.
Our silvered moon keeps tilt and tide;
And gloved Sinai’s bright holy face.
Signed world, rare Earth revolves to wonder.
All this for you, God made, was made, man.
Like so many children, I grew up feeling a sense of wonder as I gazed into the dark night sky. The unfathomable ‘otherness’ of the moon, the dazzling Milky Way, and the twinkling bright planets, right there naked before our very eyes, create a sense of both awe and longing. The stars and vast expanse of space are both so very real and yet so very unreal. To gaze upon the heavens and feel spiritual wonder is an utterly natural and fundamentally human experience.3 Yet atheists such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins have endeavored to strip the heavens of any spiritual meaning. According to Sagan, “We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy, which is one of billions of other galaxies.”4 Sagan’s video series, Cosmos, boldly taught a generation to look up to the heavens and wonder not at the glory of God but at our own existential abandonment and ultimate meaninglessness. There is a war in the heavens.
In the poem “Cosmos”, I endeavor to expose this battle over cosmological meaning and provide the imaginative tools to win it. I have chosen to use poetry as a medium for meditation on cosmological meaning in order to pry open cracks within the modern mind so that old ideas might seep in. Poetry forces the imagination to engage actively with the faculties of analytical understanding. The density of poetic imagery demands that the reader make unfamiliar connections between symbols and ideas which wrestle open new possibilities for understanding and thereby prompt new interpretive lenses for old, dried-up facts. “Cosmos” ventures to take advantage of this potential in poetry in order to help modern readers reimagine the universe as a place of wonder and sacred meaning.
Using the structural framework of the Medieval cosmos, this poem progresses through the modern deconstruction of meaning in the universe to a chiastic turning point at which the poem then rebuilds layers of spiritual significance as it returns to Earth with a renewed understanding of cosmology. The poem’s sacramental conception of the heavens draws from both the Medieval imagination and new scientific data, such as quantum particles, the existence of galaxies, and the indeterminate nature of light. Through the chiastic structure of “Cosmos,” the reader reverses history. The first half of the poem follows the modernist interpretation of the universe as the reader ascends from earth, to the Moon, to Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and to the celestial sphere — to the edge of the known universe. Here at the edge of meaninglessness, the reader faces the stark psychological alienation that is the fruit of atheistic materialism. If Sagan is correct that “the Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be,” then we are orphaned souls, isolated minds, the freak accidents of an unknowing world.5
The psychological alienation of materialism expressed in the central word “Alone” provides the point of inversion from feigned meaninglessness to reintegration of physical reality and spiritual meaning. Only the transcendent God, dwelling in eternal Trinitarian unity, is capable of bearing the weight of such a word as “Alone”. He alone can provide the foundation for both the material reality of the cosmos as well as the spiritual reality of the human soul. His Being alone can allow the poem to reweave spiritual meaning into the material fabric of the universe.
The chiastic structure of the poem further conveys that the atheistic understanding of the universe promoted by Dawkins or Sagan is every bit as much of an imaginative construct as any other cosmological model. Commenting on Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, Malcolm Guite notes that “paradoxically, it is the human construction of a picture of the universe as supposedly dead, inert, and merely material that may turn out to be the vain or ‘false imagination’, the idol from which we need to be liberated in our search for truth.”6 In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis also argues that the Medieval cosmological model was not so much disproven by scientific facts as discarded by a change in imagination. Lewis contends that each model of the universe is “influenced by the prevailing temper of mind… and reflects the prevalent psychology of [the] age.”7
At the same moment that Copernicus’s heliocentrism required a reworking of the cosmological model, technological advancement was changing the imaginative landscape of Western civilization from one of ordained order to one of unfolding progress. A divinely ordered cosmos demands our creaturely submission, but an ever-changing, meaningless universe allows man to be his own meaning-maker. The Medieval model could have been adjusted to accommodate heliocentrism; a sun-centered solar system can still proclaim the glory of God. It is not the scientific facts that cause the forerunners of Tyson and Sagan to perceive the universe as just a “a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star”; this is their imaginative interpretation of facts.
The Westminster Catechism states that the purpose of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. This truth provides the primary principle for interpreting the meaning of the material universe. God has created us to know Him and to live in joyful contemplation of his wondrous beauty.
Modern science has begun to clearly reveal that the cosmos is indeed well crafted to accomplish this purpose. In 1995, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez studied a total solar eclipse in Neem Ka Thana, India. This eclipse became an epiphany for Gonzalez. As he stared at the perfect fit between moon and sun, Gonzalez said, “It occurred to me — the best place in the solar system to view a solar eclipse is also the best place in the solar system to support complex life.... The same narrow circumstances that allow us to exist also provide us with the best overall setting for making scientific discovery.”8 Gonzalez’s work is part of an unfolding body of scientific evidence that reawakens real meaning within the material universe. As Gonzalez and co-author Jay Richards argue in The Privileged Planet, we are discovering that to be is to know; to exist is to be placed in a world intricately set up for the observation and the discovery of our Creator’s inexhaustible glory.
The infamy of Copernicus’s name accurately reflects the intensity of the cultural shift away from a Classical-Medieval world view to the Modern understanding of the world. At the dawn of the third millennium anno Domini, we again stand at a cultural turning point. The wars of the last century have blunted our confidence in progress and we are plagued with as many social, economic, and political problems as ever. We are exhausted, disillusioned, alienated, and overwhelmed by our own technology. Simultaneously, astronomy and biology are again presenting us with vast new amounts of revolutionary data that must be interpreted and sorted into a fresh model of the universe. Cosmology has discovered the incredibly precise fine-tuning of the universe for the existence of life, and the fields of genetics and cellular biology have exposed the staggering complexity of life itself. The idea that the complex life flourishing on Earth could have just happened by meaningless chance becomes ever more intellectually untenable. On both the micro and the macro scale, we are rediscovering that science and poetry belong together, united by our holy wonder.
Annie Crawford is a cultural apologist and classical educator with a Master of Arts in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University. She teaches apologetics and humanities courses and is co-founder of The Society for Women of Letters. She has written for The Blyth Institute, American Thinker, Circe Institute, The Worldview Bulletin, Classical Academic Press, and An Unexpected Journal, where she is a founding editor and writer. Learn more at anniecrawford.net.
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1. C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 12.
2. Ibid., p. 100.
3. Plantinga argues that our sense of divine presence in the world, the sensus divinitatis, is properly basic to human understanding. See Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Eerdmans Publishing, 2015).
4. Interview on ABC News Nightline, December 4, 1996.
5. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (video), directed by Adrian Malone (Carl Sagan Productions, 1980).
6. Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope, and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Routledge, 2016), p. 90.
7. Lewis, The Discarded Image, p. 222.
8. Quoted in Reid Forgrave, “A Universal Debate,” Des Moines Register, August 31, 2005. Accessed October 22, 2016.