Posted by: dacalu | 2 April 2016

Silly Humans

The world does not revolve around you. It never did. You’ve heard the story no doubt; we all have. Once upon a time, perhaps 500 years ago, humans were foolish. Our silly ancestors thought they were the center of the universe. Luckily for us, science showed us how unimportant we really are. Copernicus showed us that the Earth goes around the Sun, and not the other way around. Darwin discovered relationships between all living things, reducing us to animals. Freud dove into the depths of the psyche, uncovering just how much our unconscious selves rule our lives. It is one of the myths of our age that we are better off than our silly ancestors, who thought too much of themselves, and too much of humanity.

That much is true. At least I believe it to be true. We have found a humility once lacking in humanity. But who exactly were our silly ancestors? That question matters. I suspect you’ve been told that the silly humans were religious, specifically Christian, while the wise descendants followed the path of reason and science. Not so much. The disciples of reason and science – many of them Christians, of course – were the ones who convinced us we were special in the first place. Indeed, Christians have long held that humans are not so special as they would imagine. So here is the story behind the story.

One thousand years ago, humans counted themselves less wise than we do today. No one thought humanity was the center of the world. And, if you think a bit, you know this… though you may not know that you know. They thought that Hell was the center of the world. The Earth revolved around Satan, as the stars revolve around the Earth. Not the answer you were expecting, was it? Still, if you think about…if you think about what “down” meant 1000 years ago…you’ll realize that I’m right. So let’s get to the bottom of things.

Forget what you were told about Christopher Columbus. Anyone with a decent education knew the Earth was round 2000 years ago. Lucretius thought the Earth was flat just before the time of Christ, but others were catching on. Using trigonometry, Eratosthenes gave us a good estimate of the Earth’s size two centuries before.

Plato and Aristotle both, living five centuries before the Roman Empire, felt certain the Earth was a sphere. Aristotle explained gravity as things falling toward the center. He didn’t get gravitation and mass, but he did know that physics would get really messy if things fell any other way. Not just a spherical planet, but a spherical universe simplified the problem.

Augustine of Hippo (roughly 400 ce), perhaps the most influential theologian in the history of Christianity, points out that Creation could not have taken place in six 24-hour days. That would be silly. The Earth is round and the Sun can’t be shining on all sides at once. The book of Genesis must mean something else.

If the Earth is round, what will we find in the center? Hell. We can blame this on Plato, actually. He writes about the underworld of Hades and below that, deep down in the bowels of the Earth, Tartarus. There the unredeemable suffer fiery punishment for their sins. (Bet you thought that was the Bible. Nope, but that’s a story for another time.) There may be something below Tartarus, but that is as low as Plato goes. Aristotle may have a less heated picture, but even he values heavenly fire above Earthly muck. Down is bad.

Getting back to the late Middle Ages (say 1300), Dante paints a memorable picture of Hell in his book Inferno. The Earth is still round, but now Satan is right in the middle. Of course he’s in the middle, because you can’t fall any farther than that.

So, Satan is face down in the dung heap. Medieval Christians explain this quiet poetically. Humans are messed up. Ever since we broke with God – some nonsense with an apple – we’ve gotten things backward. The true center is God. Everything revolves around God and we orbit at a vast distance – though slightly closer than the Devil.

In our blindness, we invert things, seeing God in the vastness behind the stars. Note, this is not space. Space is the heavens, the sky, the firmament. God is behind those things. Just like saying “beyond the West,” no one took it literally. It meant farther than far. Things got less perfect the closer to humanity they got. And then things got worse.

Whether you have the God-centered cosmos or the inverted cosmos, you realize that humans exist somewhere in between, either in the suburbs of Heaven, or with the flies on the surface of Hell. Being in the middle gave us no pride of place – quite the opposite. We were neither here nor there.

Who told us we were special? The Humanists. Humanism was a movement in the early Renaissance that said people should be our focus. Human perspective, human intellect, and human needs should be the center of our reality.

The earliest Humanists were devout Christians (Petrarch and Erasmus), but by the 18th century people began confusing the study of human nature and human interests with a desire to replace God.

In the earliest days of Modern Science, scholars thought we could know things about the world because we could read the mind of God. Human nature and destiny called us to speak about divine order, invisible to other creatures.

Copernicus thought the Sun was more fitting to God’s dignity than the Earth – hence, it should be the center. [I guess no one told him about the inversion problem.] Darwin had problems with God and humans, but for entirely different reasons; he felt there was too much suffering in the world. And Freud…well we all know he had issues with his mother. He, by the way, was the first to compare himself to Copernicus and Darwin as a scientific revolutionary. Ego, much?

I like humanism. I value science immensely. I just don’t think we can tell this story anymore and pretend that science and humanism saved us from the Christians. Christians know better. Christians know that humans are one among countless species under God’s eye. Read Job if you need convincing.

Christians know that humans are animals. Aristotle called them animals; Augustine called them animals; Aquinas called them animals. Neither our location, nor our bodies, nor our species ever laid claim to be the center of the world. It was our minds. It was the Humanists, and worse, the Enlightenment thinkers who presumed we, and only we, could know the mind of God. We, and only we, could act as the rulers of nature. They put us in the center.

Luckily, this same philosophy pushed us out again. This science that I love dearly, showed us that even our reason is less than we thought it was. Even our reason is no reason to think ourselves masters of the universe.

We must learn to learn the right lesson. We must not continue saying science saved us from faith, especially not if we are advocating for Humanism or atheism. We were never the center of the world until the Humanists told us so. We were never more important than God until the Enlightenment.

Modern science restored a humility thrown away by the Humanists and Enlightenment thinkers as they took the first steps to knowledge. We were, quite literally, sophomores, wise fools who thought we knew more than we did in the first years of our education. If science returns us to humility, it can also return us to an openness to God and to a middling place in the universe – neither above the heavens nor under the dead, but somewhere in-between.

If you don’t see God in the center, I understand. Perhaps you will place something else there, perhaps even humans, but do so with your eyes open. Science will not put us there. Nor will Christianity (or Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism…).

If we are better than our ancestors, it is because we grew up. We graduated to an understanding of ourselves as part of something bigger. To put all our hope on science (or mind or reason) would be a step backward. Silly humans.


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