Back in the 60s, if we felt something was “out of this world,” we’d say far out, man. We don’t hear this much today. Too bad. It might explain the rise of religious “nones.”
Religious “nones” say they’re spiritual but check “none of the above” for religion. We’re seeing a dramatic rise in their numbers. Nones already represent the majority of American millennials. If C.S. Lewis were alive, I think he’d attribute this to a discarded image.
Good news. Lewis lives, in his books.
The Abolition of Man was published in 1943. In it, Lewis writes that the essence of human nature is being eradicated. He attributed this to “the discarded image,” an idea he develops in The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, published a year after his death in 1963. It’s a scholarly book, so few have read it. Here’s a recap.
Lewis was a professor of medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge. He was familiar with the ancient image of the universe, a sphere. In the church, a sphere also depicts God who created the universe. The Corpus Hermeticum, a body of 3rd century texts from Hellenic Egypt, describes God as a sphere. The 13th century bishop Alain de Lille described God as a sphere. So did the Hermetic tradition in the Renaissance, notably in Nicholas of Cusa in the 15th century. Giordano Bruno, an Italian Dominican friar in the 16th century, described God as “an infinite sphere.”
This sphere is actually a series of spheres, or heavens, expanding from the center out. The center heaven is the Earth, beginning at the bottom of your feet and extending up through the top of your head. The second heaven is the firmament, the stars and planets. The third heaven is a sphere called the Primum Mobile (the “First Movable”). It had no luminous body and is therefore invisible to our senses. It is “the very Heaven,” where God dwells. This far out, we see discover who moves the universe. God.
But God is not just “up there” or “out there.” the Triune God inhabits all the heavens, as Jesus taught us to pray: “Our Father who dwells in the heavens (plural).” He’s in the heavenly bodies and the physical space around your body. He’s love (I Jn.4:8). In The Discarded Image, Lewis writes that when we go far out and look back to the center of the universe, we see “the revelry of insatiable love.” Love governs the universe. Love is insatiable in this life because it is completed in Eternity.
Medieval art depicts this. God is present in the first sphere, or heaven, but when Dante passes the third heaven he is told, “We have got outside the largest corporeal thing into that Heaven which is pure light… full of love.” Dante experiences the Triune God.
It’s mind-blowing. At the third heaven’s frontier, the whole spatial way of thinking breaks down. In Eternity, there is no three-dimensional space. The end of space is the end of spatiality. The end of time is timelessness. The end of space and time is transcendence, where the light beyond the material universe is light that’s full of God’s love. Words are inadequate to describe it, but the Apostle Paul tried anyway.
At some point in his life, Paul was “caught up to the third heaven, to paradise,” where he “heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell” (II Cor.12:1-4). He tasted eternity, transcendence, Heaven. God blew his mind. “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Cor.2:9).
Far out, man. If you doubt a sphere is central in church history, visit Annapolis, Maryland. Old churches prominently display a circle, or sphere, in their architecture. Travel to Ireland or Scotland and you’ll see the cross with a sphere in the center. My point is, there are resources in Western Christian traditions for orienting our view of God and the created universe around this historically important sphere.
Yet we rarely see this sphere in modern church architecture. Descartes discarded it. He replaced it with a different image, an inferior one that has elements of truth but little transcendence. I think the discarded image explains the rise of religious “nones.”
I’ll tell you why next week.
 c.f., Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2010)