Monday, September 27, 2010

The Breaking of the Light

I take the following mainly from a conversation I've bee
n having with a friend. It involves the question of a "static" vs. "dynamic" ideal for the cosmos in Catholic thought. These are scattered thoughts, I don't really know what they mean or imply, but are simply some things to think about and remind ourselves of regarding how our view of the universe has changed.

Ultimately, I now very much favor a "dynamic" ideal of creation, even though I am very much a medievalist who used to tend to view anything "breaking the symmetry" of the universe as an imperfection.

To demonstrate what I mean by "symmetrical" or "static" universe, just consider that the medievals were even troubled by the craters on the moon, to the point that Dante basically dedicated a whole canto of the Paradiso to explaining them away. Because the heavenly bodies were supposed to be perfect balls of homogenous quintessence. So why was the moon "smudged"?

For another example, the Summa Theologica (though only in the supplement that Aquinas himself did not write) denied the existence of animals, plants, and minerals after the Last Judgment. For these were composite beings (not sustained by an immortal soul) and thus destined for ultimate decay. After the End, only God, Angels, the Heavenly Bodies, and Man would endure, with the pure elements Fire, Air, Water, and Earth remaining in their non-composite forms, having all "rested" at their proper level, the movement of the heavenly bodies having ceased, the sun at high noon forever.

Every man and woman would be in a perfect 33-year-old body (like Christ). And there was a lot of angsting among theologians as to whether hair or fingernails would keep growing, what length they'd stop at (men would all have beards...or would they?), and why Christ's foreskin was available as a relic (why didn't it reattach when He resurrected?!) There would be no eating or drinking in this world either.

It strikes me that this "static" idealist view of the glorified cosmos would strike us today as...well, rather boring. This idea that all the even purely material flux was going to come to "rest" in some final unmoving stasis...seems, to us moderns, a rather bleak and depressing heaven.

I feel the same way about universalizing narratives that would dismiss "differently abled" people as being a sign of fallen imperfection, about a theology that would explain that all away as "glitches" of some sort. Will conjoined twins be separated after the Last Judgment? Traditional "static ideal" theology would say certainly...I am not so sure anymore. There are some pairs whom you couldn't pay to separate; that's who they are! Will Little People suddenly be of normal height? Will those with Down Syndrome suddenly be "normal"? Will the albino? Will the hirsute? Will the homosexuals all be made "straight"? Should people with tattoos expect them to last? What exactly is to happen with all of our milk teeth? And, indeed, just what about circumcisions?!?

There is something disturbing to me about an ideal that would see all the beautiful diversity as imperfection, even if it wouldn't have existed without the Fall. But then, as I asked recently, would different races or ethnicities or cultures? Would different languages? There was even a lot of debate among theologians at one point as to whether anyone would have been called to virginity or celibacy before the Fall. O Felix Culpa! I tend to see, now, the Fall as like a mirror being shattered, but the coming of Christ (First and Second) as not like the mirror being repaired, but rather like a million colored lights being reflected in all the pieces, or a million different smiling faces.

Part of it is living in a post-Darwinian world, but the view of a universe made up of essentially static eternal Forms with realities that can only deviate from them as "imperfections" no longer seems satisfactory. And even the Church has internalized this. Some in the Theology of the Body crowd now advocate the idea that there may be even sex and eating in the New Heaven and New Earth. I certainly don't think anyone is any longer insisting, like the Summa, that they couldn't contain animals, plants, or any composite minerals. And I simply cannot look forward to a heaven in which there will never be another sunset!

Then again, maybe I'm just too attached to this world; shouldn't the Beatific Vision be enough?

Something in my own life recently suggested to me the analogy of "perfect ideal white light" being split up into all the colors by a prism. The light is "broken," of course, but only into the beautiful diversity of the concrete specificity of all the colors. And yet, the old "static" view of the universe might have called this an imperfection. Perhaps the pre-Fall world was like Pleasantville or the book The Giver, where color only comes to people as a fall from innocence. This idea may seem absurd, yet it must have some sort of internal logic, as it has suggested itself to a variety of authors. I remember there is a passage in
A Canticle for Leibowitz where a religiously skeptical scholar insists (in an attempt to cast aspersion on religion) that the Church must believe that pre-Fall light was not refrangible (ie, could not be refracted into different colors) because, after all, the rainbow was only first created after the Flood. Well, the monks simply all laughed at that! So should we.

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