Not Empty After All

Michael Metzger

Jo Dunkley, a British astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at Princeton, says the solar system is astonishingly empty. The Christmas story tells us otherwise.

Our Universe is the title of Dunkley’s book where she defines our solar system as a loosely defined collection of objects. This includes planets, asteroid rocks, comets, dwarf planets, and innumerable pieces of space debris. Yet “despite all this,” she concludes “the Solar System is astonishingly empty.”[1]

She might be astonished to learn it isn’t. Look at the Christmas story. An angel appears to the shepherds. They’re terrified. The angel says fear not – the Messiah is born. Then suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appears with the angel, praising God: “Glory to God in the highest heaven” (Lk.2:13-14). With that, the shepherds’ terror literally disappears.

How? Probably because of two things. First, the appearance of the heavenly host (more on this later). Second, the host said God is in the highest heaven. This implies a lower heaven, or heavens, which is how Jesus begins the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father in the heavens (the Greek word is plural – heavens).

Older Christian traditions understood there were at least three levels of heavens. All three make up the universe. The first heaven includes your body and the atmosphere surrounding it. Our Father in the heavens means God is present in us – and the immediate air around us.

The Apostle Paul knew this. He’s the only New Testament writer who was taken up third heaven, peering into the highest heaven (II Cor.12:1-4). He saw our universe stuffed with principalities and powers (Rom.8:38ff; Eph 1:21, 3:10, 6:12; Col.2:10, 15). Early commentators took principalities and powers as the names of various kinds of angelic beings, good and bad.

This was all old news in ancient times. As Charles Taylor writes, up until 1500 the universe was viewed as enchanted. It was stuffed with spiritual beings. They would appear on occasion. The shepherds lived in this world. You didn’t have to be religious to recognize it. It was the “implicit, largely unfocussed background” of everyone’s everyday experience.[2]

People knew that if the angel of the Lord appeared, it might be bad news. Read Isaiah 37:36. Judgment. 185,000 Assyrians wiped out. Small wonder the shepherds were terrified. But it was a different matter if the heavenly host appears. This group of angels has power from God to assist and strengthen God’s people. With their appearing, the shepherds felt comforted.

And awestruck. Dionysius states that there are nine orders (or choirs) of angels, three triads of three each, in order from highest to lowest. The highest order, the seraphim, devote themselves to contemplating God, beholding Him face to face, and loving and praising Him. Each order helps to reveal and declare God’s glory to the order below. The heavenly host is huge.

Pope Gregory I, in his Homilies on the Gospel, lists the same nine choirs, but with a different ranking. Dante in the Convivio gives still a third ranking, but affirms the ranking of Dionysius in the Comedy, canto 28. Aquinas discusses much of this in the Summa Theologica.

But who reads the Summa? Not a problem. Visit any old cathedral. Look up, at the ceilings. Note how they’re stuffed with spiritual beings (I’m pretty sure the Sistine Chapel ceiling has no empty space). If you want a fuller description of these spiritual beings, click this link.

But you might be asking, So what? Here’s what: in earlier societies, before the Enlightenment (c.1500), religion was “everywhere,”[3] was woven into everything else, and in no way constituted a separate “sphere” of its own. God was present in the entirety of the universe.

But with the Enlightenment, our public spaces were emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimate reality. This is why Jo Dunkley describes the solar system as empty. An empty universe is emptied of God, making the faith more of a privatized matter, less of a public faith.

This has even emptied out the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer. Most American Christians pray: “Our Father in heaven,” not the heavens. So God is up there, far away, largely absent from our universe that’s mostly empty, a few objects separated by nothing – what we call “space.”

The Christmas story tells us otherwise. But recognizing this requires seeing we live in an enchanted universe where the heavens and the earth are chock-full of God’s glory.

 

[1] Jo Dunkley, Our Universe: An Astronomer’s Guide (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019), 27-30.

[2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 3.

[3] “La religion est partout”; c.f. Danièle Hervieu-Léger, Le Pèlerin et le Convert (Flammarion, 1999), 20-21.

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7 thoughts on “Not Empty After All”

  1. Michael Metzger

    If you’re still wondering how all this caused faith to become a privatized matter, consider this. We live near Goddard Space Flight Center, which is near Washington, DC, and part of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Before the Enlightenment (and all the way back in antiquity), calling the universe “space” would have made no sense. “Space” denotes nothing exists between the planets, sun, and stars. Empty. Space. Back then, if Christians heard friends describe the heavens as “space,” they’d have thought their friends were nuts.

    Or sadly mistaken, to be more charitable.

    Or something like that.

    Today, if you’re a Christian and know someone who works at Goddard or NASA (all very smart people, btw), you know you ain’t about to tell them there is such thing as “space.” Goddard engineers would think you’re nuts. So you keep your opinions to yourself, which essentially makes the faith a privatized matter.

  2. Michael Metzger

    Dwight: Good question. People wiser than me tell me the wisest strategy is immersing yourself in a creative community of people who “flesh out” our enchanted (not just our world) universe. I.e. we generally don’t come to embrace it on our own by simply reading about it. It becomes a lifestyle when we first feel hints of life in it.

    [This is what my institute is working on (not braggin’ here). We’re hoping to resource folks like you in getting back in touch with our enchanted universe. More on this in a few weeks.]

    But back to reading. I recommend Christopher West’s “Our Bodies Tell God’s Story.” He will reintroduce you to our enchanted universe that is best known through our physical bodies, especially our sexuality as male and female. He’ll reintroduce you to a marital (i.e. spousal) view of the gospel and salvation.

    I also recommend reading just the first 40 or 50 pages of Charles Taylor’s “Our Secular Age” (it’s almost 900 pages w/ endnotes). He lays out how the Enlightenment of 500 years ago “disenchanted” the universe, making our view of the universe sound weird. He also notes how this “disenchanting” extended to the church, including “new understandings of the atonement” (p.13) that reduced the spousal view of salvation to a sin reading of it.

    None of this is new with Taylor. In “The Visible and the Invisible,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes of the “flesh of the world” (or simply the “flesh”) as the elemental tissue that gives rise to how we know (i.e. feel) the web of life. We know by our bodies.

    This accords with scripture. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh. Ours is a fleshy faith. This is why I tout Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary.” He writes, “American Christianity is undermining itself.” How? It turned “the Word became flesh into the flesh became Word.” So a bodily faith became a mainly-brain faith… teaching, studying, discussing, and so on. These are mainly functions of the left hemisphere, which means the American version of Christianity has become a left-brain faith.

  3. Mike, I appreciate that last asked question and I appreciate your lesson but I don’t appreciate your answer to the last question. i think when Dwight asks about “falling off the other side into weird superstition” he might be reminding you that the general culture likely thinks that all that’s weird – how do we avoid being seen as weird instead of credible? And some of the authors you quote merely speculate in their writing. Who really knows what’s “there” except for what’s in scripture. I think in your answer you “doubled-down” to convince Dwight rather than described how to carry your view – and it’s a good view – into the culture and not be treated as weird and ultimately marginalized. A secularist like Pinker – and they are legion – maybe even Taylor (?) doesn’t want you involved in democracy if you’re going to announce that your heavenly revelations translate directly into our country’s laws because “Thus sayeth The Lord.” Pinker would add that you can have as real all the hosts of heaven that you like but when you both sit across the table you have to find a common language together. It’s very good that you encourage us to understand the heavens and even feel them in our bodies but your tone seems to stop short of engaging “the other.” It rather sounds like you’re excusing yourself from a seat at the democracy table because it requires at least 50% left-brain engagement. I hope you understand I love your lesson to understand the heavens. Noting the “disenchanting” “new understandings of the atonement” that reduced the spousal view of salvation to a sin reading of it are especially right on, thank you for standing against the tide in citing that. But how would you put in your words what we need to do to bring that understanding into secular cultural engagement?

  4. Michael Metzger

    Hi Dave: At this point in my life, I see at least two ways forward: 1) Reimmerse Christians (through imagery over didactic teaching) in the ancient gospel, including how it is embodied, shaping our understanding of the heavens and the earth. This piggybacks on James Hunter’s recommendation (“To Change the World”) that if we’re serious about changing the world, “the first step is to discard the prevailing views of culture change and start all over.” Daunting advice, but I think he’s essentially correct.

    2) After some degree of immersion, launch local creative minorities that embody the gospel and do what the first creative minority did – the sons of Judah in the Babylonian exile. They had cultural capital, necessary for making any understanding of reality credible. One of the aims in launching a creative minority would be to equip Christians to accrue cultural capital so that our definition of reality is taken seriously and acted on. These two objectives will take the rest of my life.

    There are of course probably more ways forward. These two come to mind immediately.

  5. Mike,

    You and the core of responders, as expressed in these writings, take on a very intellectual viewpoint citing authors and demonstrating how well read you all are. That is a good thing. I am not all that well read but I am getting a good dose of steady bible study. Maybe that is just read well enough.
    The divide I see between people of Faith and those like Dunkley is one of seeing or not seeing. Dunkley only goes by what she see light years away. We go by what we see happening in our daily lives and what we see on the pages of the Bible.
    We see the heavens filled with God and His creation–His Word incarnate having been on Earth 2,000 years ago and now the Holy Spirit. But people like Dunkley look through a scope and only see the mass of objects in the Universe–no Holy Spirit, no God the Father nor The Son. When we look through the telescopes we cannot see the Trinity in a way that we can point to the Dunkley’s of the world to convince them of our faith being truth. There’s multiple references where God blinds those making them not see Him. How do we bridge that gap?
    Thanks for the work you are doing. We need the conversation.

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