Monday, August 19, 2013

Holy Wisdom and the Liberal Arts

Wisdom with her daughters
Faith, Hope, and Love

This icon's inscription, HAGIA SOPHIA, can be read as Saint Sophia or as Holy Wisdom. Saint Sophia refers to a Christian martyr of legend who died from grief after being forced to watch her three daughters tortured.

Holy Wisdom, on the other hand, is portrayed in biblical scripture as God's "master worker" (Proverbs 8), as God's "only begotten," the "active cause of all things" who "orders all things well" (The Wisdom of Solomon 7–8), and consistently, in both Hebrew and Greek, as female. Tradition has often called her Lady Wisdom.

As a teacher in a liberal arts college I prize the liberal arts for their immeasurable (and unmeasurable) worth to us as individual persons and as a society. In a posting of August 8th I quoted John Calvin to illustrate that this Christian reformer and originator of one of the great traditions of the church also prized the liberal arts. Calvin prized them because he believed that all truth, whatever its source, comes from God, and that the liberal arts bring us knowledge and insights that are "true and just":
Those persons are superstitious who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. (Commentary on Titus 1:12, tr. William Pringle, pp.300-301)
Long before Calvin, a passage from The Wisdom of Solomon made an even broader assertion. It declares that an entire range of disciplines involving inquiry, reasoning, and skill are manifestations from God, and that these disciplines are taught by Holy Wisdom:

          May God grant me to speak with judgment,
         and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received;
       for he is the guide even of wisdom
          and the corrector of the wise.
       For both we and our words are in his hand [rhetoric, authorship],
          as are all understanding and skill in crafts. [artisanship].
       For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, [metaphysics]
          to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements, [physics, chemistry]
          the beginning and end and middle of times, [cosmology, history]
          the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
          the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars, [astronomy]
          the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals, [zoology]
          the powers of spirits and the thoughts of human beings, [psychology]
          the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots. [botany, pharmacology]
       I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
          for Wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.... (7:15–22)

Who more than she is fashioner of what exists?
       And if anyone loves righteousness, her labors are virtues;
          for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; [ethics]
       nothing in life is more profitable for mortals than these. (8:6–7)

Some years ago I read this biblical passage with a class. Afterwards one of my wonderful students, a chemistry major, came into my office. She told me, through tears, that though she had grown up in church, never before had she ever heard a single word of religious affirmation concerning her studies in chemistry.

I asked her, "So do these biblical verses increase your respect for your major?" "Oh no," she said. "They increase my respect for God."

I think my student got it exactly right. Some Christians reading this passage might tend to boast, "So, we see that academic studies are subordinate to the God we worship." My student upended this reasoning with a more profound insight: the God who is worthy of worship is revealed through our authorship and artisanship, our study of cosmology and physics, our observations in zoology and botany, our experiments in psychology and chemistry, our inquires in metaphysics and ethics.

Lady Wisdom (13:5) tells us so:

       For from the greatness and beauty of created things
          comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.



Thursday, August 15, 2013

Isaac Watts: God as "Boundless Unconceivables and Vast Eternity"

Thy Sovereign Voice bids ancient Night
Her spacious realms resign,
And lo! ten thousand globes of Light
In fields of azure shine.

Every Sunday of my childhood I must have sung at least one hymn by Isaac Watts, his text matched with some appealing musical setting: "Joy to the World," "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," "Come We that Love the Lord," and a score of others. In protestant hymnals to this day, texts by Watts are typically rivaled in number only by those of Charles Wesley and outnumbered only by the biblical Psalmist.

I felt welcome and comfort in Watts' hymns—though in the brash self-occupation of youth I would never have thought in that way. I barely knew the name of Isaac Watts. Still, from my childish response I can testify that Watts achieved his stated goal for these congregational hymns:
I have aimed at ease of numbers [rhymes] and smoothness of sound, and endeavour'd to make the sense plain and obvious. ("Preface" to Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707)
Mid-way in my childhood years an imaginative aunt gave me a children's book that stretched my awareness, first down and down into the infinitesimal realm of subatomic particles, and then up and up into the infinite realms of intergalactic space. I no longer remember the book's title, but I shall never forget its images that awakened in me a sense of wonder and awe, a deeply inward cosmic feeling that I later recognized as religious.

In those youthful years I would have been fascinated to learn that the Isaac Watts of our hymn book was passionate about astronomy. In 1725 he published The First Principles of Geography and Astronomy, a textbook of uncommon clarity and demanding scope. In a letter to a friend, a close associate of Isaac Newton, Watts spoke of the religious importance of his amateur interest:
Without commencing some acquaintance with these mathematical sciences, I could never arrive at so clear a conception of many things delivered in the scriptures; nor could I raise my ideas of God the Creator to so high a pitch.... Nor was there ever any thing that has contributed to enlarge my apprehensions of the immense power of God, the magnificence of his creation and his own transcendent grandeur, so much as that little portion of Astronomy which I have been able to attain.... When we muse on these things we may lose ourselves in holy wonder, and cry out with the Psalmist, Lord, what is man, that thou art mindful of him....
Now, more than six decades beyond childhood, I have discovered that Watts wrote hymn texts expressive of his cosmic sense of God's transcendent grandeur. He published them under the title Horae Lyricae (Lyric Hours) a few months before the publication of his collection of more standard Hymns and Spiritual Songs from which I sang as a boy. Watts characterizes the two collections as opposites:
As in that book [Horae Lyricae] I have endeavour'd to please and profit the politer part of mankind without offending the plainer sort of Christians, so in this [Hymns and Spiritual Songs] it has been my labour to promote the pious entertainment of souls truly serious, even of the meanest capacity, and at the same time (if possible) not to give disgust to persons of richer sense and nicer education.
The Horae Lyricae hymns are strong medicine against religious presumption. From the hymn "God's Infinity":

       Thine essence is a vast abyss
          Which angels cannot sound,
       An ocean of infinities
          Where all our thoughts are drowned....

       In vain our haughty reason swells,
          For nothing's found in Thee
       But boundless unconceivables,
          And vast eternity.

From "Worshipping with Fear":

       Created powers, how weak they be!
          How short our praises fall!
       So much akin to nothing we,
          And Thou eternal All.

Not many of these cosmic texts have appeared in hymnals. A notable exception is the final hymn of Horae Lyricae titled "God Exalted above All Praise":

       Eternal Power! whose high abode
       Becomes the grandeur of a God,
       Infinite length beyond the bounds
       Where stars revolve their little rounds!

       The lowest step beneath thy seat,
       Rises too high for Gabriel's feet;
       In vain the tall archangel tries
       To reach thine height, with wond'ring eyes.

       There while the first archangel sings,
       He hides his face behind his wings,
       And ranks of shining thrones around
       Fall worshiping, and spread the ground.

       Lord, what shall earth and ashes do?
       We would adore our Maker too:
       From sin and dust to Thee we cry,
       The Great, the Holy, and the High.

       Earth from afar has heard Thy fame,
       And worms have learnt to lisp Thy name;
       But, O! the glories of Thy mind
       Leave all our soaring thoughts behind.

       God is in heaven, and men below;
       Be short our tunes, our words be few;
       A solemn reverence checks our songs,
       And praise sits silent on our tongues.

We might expect such a cautionary hymn to prove unacceptable to both the "politer part" and the "plainer sort" of Christians. In fact, for much of the 18th century this hymn was found in all protestant hymnals. (This information thanks to It appeared in numerous hymnals through the 19th century, and in a handful during the early 20th. Since 1950, however, it has not appeared in any hymnal.

It was the decade of the 1950s that gave us the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. In 1972 we saw the first photo of our earth's globe suspended in space. For twenty-three years now the Hubble Telescope has been transmitting pictures from astounding abysses of space.  Yet so far as I am aware, precious few hymns expressing cosmic sensibility are replacing those by Watts that have now vanished from our hymnals.

I have to wonder: are these breathtaking disclosures of boundless unconceivables in our day simply lost on worshipping Christians, polite and plain? For me cosmic feeling remains at the heart of religious life, subduing religious presumption, transcending dogma and intolerance, yearning toward universality and mutuality. I think of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew:
I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Blessing as impartial as sunshine and rain! Jesus startles with this metaphor for God's mercy drawn from the order of nature. It suggests a God of disquieting universality, a God indwelling the cosmos. 

I am therefore especially grateful for this recent hymn written by the Rev. Michael Hudson of St. David's Episcopal Church in Cullowhee, North Carolina. His suggested tune is Flentge, found at #698 in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982.

       The burning love that fired the blood of stars
       and arced across creation to combust
       as wisdom, peace, and justice through the worlds
       still burns and circulates in each of us.

       The rushing wind that drove the cosmic tide
       and swooped to earth to animate our dust
       still drives the waves of cosmogenesis
       and moves and broods and breathes in each of us.

       The living water that refreshed the thirst
       of simple swimming cells and then was thrust
       up through the veins of every living thing
       still satisfies the deepest thirst in us.

       The union of created life and God
       eludes our understanding, but we trust
       that here and now and through the sweep of time
       we each exist in God. And God in us.

From Songs for the Cycle © 2004 by Michael Hudson. Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.


Thursday, August 8, 2013

Calvin and Copernicus: On Faithful Reasoning and Reasoning Faith

 Photo © Cenk E. Tezel and Tunç Tezel. Used by permission.

I was reading a good book by a Christian writer whom I thoroughly admire. The author was writing about church opposition to the heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus. As an illustration of this opposition she quoted John Calvin in this sentence:
"Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?" John Calvin howled out loud....
Now I love John Calvin, though heaven knows we have our quarrels. Reading this sentence, I shook my head in disbelief that Calvin would ever have written (let alone howled out loud) the words that were being attributed to him. Calvin was a brilliant humanist, skilled in Greek and Latin, a student in Paris of the liberal arts—grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

I checked the author’s footnote at the Calvin quotation and found that she was quoting from an award-winning writer of popular science. I checked the science writer’s footnote and found that he was quoting from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy—a work almost entirely without footnotes. I began to see that my search was not going to be easy.

Then, mercifully, I came upon a 1960 article written by Professor Edward Rosen of The City College of New York titled “Calvin’s Attitude toward Copernicus.” To make a long article short, Rosen traces the quotation attributed to Calvin back to Frederic William Farrar, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral and personal chaplain to Queen Victoria. In an Oxford University lecture of 1885 Farrar declared:
"Who," asks Calvin, "will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?"
Farrar’s lecture does not indicate where he found the exclamation he attributes to Calvin, and Rosen was unable to trace the quotation further.

Rosen reports that in subsequent decades the words Farrar attributed to Calvin were, with variations, published again and again: by the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, by the first President of Cornell University, by a Director of the Lick Astronomical Observatory in California, and I would add by a 20th-century scholar who wrote an otherwise superb study of the Copernican revolution in astronomy.

So far as I have been able to discover, in all his writings Calvin never mentions Copernicus. But Calvin is not silent about astronomers and their discoveries, nor about the liberal arts more generally. Of the latter he writes:
Then follow the arts, both liberal and manual. ...Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.... (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.14–15, tr. Ford Lewis Battle)
Calvin goes on in this passage to commend pagan figures who contributed to law, philosophy, rhetoric, medicine, and mathematics. Thus Calvin recommends reasoning faith for his Christian flock, and he commends the faithful reasoning of pagan thinkers.

As for astronomers, Calvin praises their work. In his commentary on the biblical account of creation he quotes Genesis 1:16:
And God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also.
Then Calvin comments in these three paragraphs:
I have already said that Moses is not analyzing acutely, like the philosophers, the secrets of nature; and these words show it. First he [Moses] sets the planets and stars in the expanse of the heavens. Astronomers distinguish a number of spheres in the firmament and teach that the fixed stars have their own place in it. Moses mentions two great luminaries. The astronomers prove with strong arguments that the star Saturn, which seems small because of its distance, is larger than the moon.
All this shows that Moses described in popular style what all ordinary men without training and education perceive with their ordinary senses. Astronomers, on the other hand, investigate with great labor whatever the keenness of man's intellect is able to discover. Such study is certainly not to be disapproved, nor science condemned with the insolence of some fanatics who habitually reject whatever is unknown to them. The study of astronomy not only gives pleasure but is also extremely useful. And no one can deny that it admirably reveals the wisdom of God. Therefore, clever men who expend their labor upon it are to be praised and those who have ability and leisure ought not to neglect work of that kind....
God has stretched out his hand to us to give us the splendor of the sun and moon to enjoy. Great would be our ingratitude if we shut our eyes to this experience of beauty! There is no reason why clever men should jeer at Moses' ignorance. He is not explaining the heavens to us but describing what is before our eyes. Let the astronomers possess their own deeper knowledge.  Meanwhile, those who see the nightly splendor of the moon are possessed by perverse ingratitude if they do not recognize the goodness of God. (Commentaries 23, p.356, tr. Joseph Haroutunian)
July 2009 marked the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. A question for thought: How might half a millennium of debates between faith and reason concerning creation of the world have been different if Calvinists had read their Calvin? Not to do so seems to me unreasoning faith. And how might those debates have been different if scholars had checked their sources? Not to do so seems to me unfaithful reasoning.