Sunday, October 28, 2012

Endoscope and Telescope, Firmament and Foundation : An Exploration and Response to “The Theological Origins of Modernity”


A child has a mother and a father and she loves them both. They are divorced and she lives her life between them, constantly ferried from one house and back again. The parents are amicable and polite to each other, but, it is a politeness just for their daughter. The girl has tried to deal with the tension of the situation and has even used it to her advantage playing one parent against the other to gain a few toys and a succession of trips to the Zoo. However, the situation will never be as comfortable as before. Well, the before that she thinks she remembers. It has been so very long that this dual life lived out in different houses with different parents is all she knows. What came before is a distant memory. Merely a desire that echoes in her when she stops long enough to let it haunt her. The parents live out their lives trying their best for their daughter but they cannot go back to what was before. There is too much hurt and trying to build from the ruins of the past would be even more disastrous. Better to live in this way as there is less of an issue. Less of an issue for the parents as they only see each other in passing where the daughter lives in the constant tension of life in two houses. Each house is different, the spoons go on the left in Mum's house where they go on the right at Dad's. The daughter lives in a duality where to notice the tension too much or to let the echo of desire for uniformity and structure where it could all rest in peace, reveals the fact that the world is in pieces.

The child of divorce lives in a world where the universals of love, joy and truth are divided much as the division between the parents. The divorce that is being alluded here is the one between Man and God that was created in the battle between Realism and Nominalism that birthed Modernity which in turn becomes Post-Modern that is (possibly) changing into the supposed Post-Everything world to come. In “The Theological Origins of Modernity” Michael Allen Gillespie describes this battle in the hope that a survey of the battle may bring understanding by knowing the origin of the world we live in today. The issue is that like the child modernity rarely remembers the origins of its current situation, let alone what came before. Because of these forgotten origins there is little understanding of the metaphysics that lie at the core. A core where man replaces God as the centre of the universe. More cynically this could be described as the you-niverse as it appears that modernity looks at the universe through an Endoscope and not a Telescope.

Moore and Parker's “Critical Thinking” is a modern introduction to logic and thinking. Logic is mentioned and even wished for, but, they seem to acquiesce to the lamented status quo and package logic as critical thinking. This they describe as “the careful application of reason in the determination of whether a claim is true or not” (Moore & Parker, 2009 : 3). Their main concern about argument and persuasion is on how to avoid the snares of those who argue in emotional claims that have little or no proof at all. It is about how not to get duped and not ending up doing something based on no argument at all (Moore & Parker, 2009 : 5-16). They spend a single paragraph on truth and two on knowledge but there are three pages on value judgements. In this explanation the analogy of beating a donkey and the response people give is used to explain a moral value, however, they also appear to give religious belief the category of taste and not a value. If this is so where did the moral value gain its weight from? The starting point appears to be the individual or the society where critical thinking allows the person or society to avoid harm. The centre of this you-niverse is the individual, the critique is of words and their meanings. The value is the safety of the individual from the arguments that could bring harm.

In comparison to More and Parker is Plato's Timaeus where the cosmos and creation is explained in a detail that seems to echo the future discoveries of biology, physics and medicine. It is an intricate fashioned chronicle of the cosmos, an awe-filled account of the order and beauty that is the the work of a creator god (Plato's Timaeus, 2012 : np). There is little focus on values as they are part of the common knowledge of the day. Timaeus is a grand vision of a saviour god who crafts the whole of the cosmos in an harmonious and awe-filled artistry. There is a place for all things in the Timaeus, there is order and harmony as the shapes of the elements which reflect the created beings as the beings reflect the creator. Even the internal angst is explained in the creation of the person where the soul (made in moving pieces divided on the fibonacci number) struggles within the body and its sensory information. This telescopic view begins with harmony and order of the creator god and ends with the human being able to see the intelligence in the movement of the stars and planets which move in musical rhythm. Order and beauty and intelligence exist within all of the created cosmos (Plato, 2008 : 20-38). With this knowledge, there is no need for personal safety when the created world is such a joy and delight to be a part of.

What happened? Was Plato merely naive and/or a rich person who never had to struggle in a life of opulence and pleasure? Well that could be true as Plato is not a slave and the categories of the city did suggest an elite class with others below them. Gillespie's explanation is that since the time of Plato the divine attributes have travelled from god to man and nature (McClure, 2010 :700). Plato sits at the beginning of this voyage while today, the western world is possibly at the end. Possibly, because where else can the divine attributes move to other than back to god? What is being dealt with is ontology (the study of being) and metaphysics where being and becoming signify the difference between the creator and the created. For Plato god is being while the rest of creation is always becoming. This creation is good and beautiful and therefore its creator is as well (Plato, 2008 : 19). Divine attributes existed within the realm of theology, the attributes of man within an anthropology and nature within cosmology. They leant logic and ontology their foundation in exploration and identity. In the analogy of the daughter of divorce this is the time before that has been forgotten. It is the same for modernity points out Gillespie that without an understanding of the theological and its importance leads us into the struggle that occurs as modernity struggles, like the daughter of divorce, to find equilibrium. Plato looks above to the divine and down to the earth he lives in. Life is defined not in forward or back historically within time, ontology is defined by society, geography or god. Modernity defines itself by looking forward pressing onwards striving for the new (Gillespie, 2008 : xii).

Gillespie's analogy of choice is Oedipus who does not know where he comes from and because of this disaster results (Gillespie, 2010 : 705) . Our daughter of divorce is less naïve than Oedipus and knows that something is wrong but because of the dual life she lives in she cannot decipher the issue that is foundational to her calamity. Yes her parents are no longer together but why? Gillespie asserts that the world today was the result of the conflict between nominalism and scholastic realism. In this struggle the ontology of being has changed, this ontological alteration did not happen all at once but gradually. Like a stone creating ripples in a pond the difference in the way God and the divine was conceived flowed out into the way man and nature is conceived. To understand this ripple effect requires an explanation of Heigeger's ontic realms.(Gillespie, 2010 : 705-706)

As explained before Plato's Timaeus has a telescopic view that includes god, man and nature all are connected by the hand of the artisan deity in whose divine reason all are made. For Plato the ontic realms of Theology, Anthropology and Cosmology (the metaphysica specialis) are obviously apparent and do not need any pointing out. Plato's logic and ontology (metaphysica generalis) flow from the foundation of these three realms. The understanding that the divine being creates the mortal and human which is always becoming, the ontological is informed by the theological and anthropological arrangement. This foundational theology that informs ontology is the pond in which a stone was thrown, a stone called Nominalism. Nominalism brought not a change of nature, or of man but of God in the exchange of divine reason for divine will. The effect of this exchange altered the informed ontology of man, the cosmos and logic. The alteration developed into the ontology of the individual that we see today (Gillespie, 2010 :706). God changes, and, because of the structure that was in place modernity came to be. Much like the “deeper magic” that Aslan knows because he was there when Narnia was made, modernity is like the White Witch who came after the foundations were made (Lewis, 1980 : 148). The difference between Moore and Parker's Endoscope and Plato's Telescope is their ontology. Plato exists in a world of identity and difference, a quandary where there is no exclusive focus on identity or difference. If focus is solely on the personal identity, the individual, the one how do you live with the different, the other, the many? If you only live for the many then the one is squashed and subjugated. What was once divine reason that made man reasonable is exchanged for divine will that leads to individual units and the confusion between this and the needs of community, love and procreation. The contradictions that arise create confusion and the unknown theological origins merely obfuscate especially when the origin is believed to be a turning away from religion to a secular world (Gillespie, 2010 : 706-708).

The winter that we exist in today brought by the effects of the divorce between God and Man hide in the snow an origin that is in Gillespie's opinion theological. What response should be given because the responses available appear to sit between two extremes. At the end of “The Theological Origins of Modernity” Gillespie explains one of these responses, mysticism. In this the one is absorbed into the other, the human abandons itself into the divine to becoming a feather in the wind (Gillespie, 2008 : 290-292). Luther calls for a fanatical response with his scriptural revelation. However, as history has shown the reformation was not the golden age for Christianity and Europe, but a time of war. Religion, especially revelation and those following it brought nothing but pain and sorrow. Enlightenment theories of the self and the purity of human thought was offerd but that was brought to naught by more war. Before you can say secularism and übermensch, God is declared dead and is replaced by man and nature. The divine attributes have to go somewhere and they merge with nature and man. Appearing the divine sanctity of the individual and the uncontrollable wild ferocious nature that has to be tamed by man (Gillespie, 2010 :709).

Today the contradictions are still there in the snowdrifts and the responses can be seen in literature and song. In “We didn't start the fire.” Billy Joel offers up the conclusion that the fire has always been there “always burning since the world's been turning.” that the baby boomers “didn't light it but we tried to fight it.” (Joel, 1989 :np.). How it was fought was an ontology of the individual. In response to this post-modernism attempts to fight and find the answer within diversity. To say that this has not been an unqualified success can be read in the songs of today. The ontology of emptiness from Billy Corigan and the Smashing Pumpkins is an example of the ennui that waits in the snow drifts for those willing to search “Emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness, and cleanliness is godliness, and god is empty just like me.” (Corrigan, 1996 : np.).

Plan B's “Lost my way” describes the position that western society has found itself, fallen down a hole of its own creation with no way out. In the second verse the lyric retells the Genesis creation story, but with a twist turning to the modern emptiness of greed and commercialism.
“God said: "Let there be light"
Created Adam and Eve
Then he gave them eyes and told them both to both believe
In something they'd never actually physically see
But then the devil came along and planted a seed
And doubt started growing from the ground like trees
Right up to the sky so profoundly seen
To be the only thing in this life that wasn't a dream
Made from stone, steel and iron beams
The council blocks they defined the mean
And bullied the sky so that everybody can see
Some birds are caged and will never be free
And gradually people began to change their beliefs
Until god was nothing more than just a fictional being
The worship and money merged all colours and creed
Into one true religion that was driven by greed
Corporate machines trying to sell you shit you don't need
On television and the ad breaks in between
Until people only cared about material things
Not lives with other fellow human beings
And I'm guilty of it too, or so it seems...” (Drew & Shuckburgh, 2011 :np)

Where do go when you find yourself in the hole? What responses are there? If there is no way for the daughter of divorce to reunite her parents what is she left with but a hole?

Warren Ellis in “Supergod” uses the argument the man makes his own gods, creatures that will save the world. Ellis's characters tell us that the divine is the result of a neurochemical reaction, a high that has been denied and lied about. Humanity is merely a bunch of well dressed monkeys that get their fix on the transcendent. God is our stash concludes Ellis something used to get off on. The story ends with the super-beings created by man destroying the world. The main characters response is to give up and join the created super-being abandoning himself to the destruction and death brought by the omnipotent (Ellis, 8 :2010). This is a mystical response to the fall of the world of science and technology that has emerged from nominalism. It can also be an addiction to not just the divine but merely to the transcendence of emotion and feeling. Australian hip-hop artist Illy's description of life being one where the reality that we exist in is transcended by happiness of parties that momentarily pauses reality. A happiness that is owned by the individual experiencing it, a happiness that is a moment that requires continual pursuit to get back to (Murray, 2010 : np).

Where else does one run too? Beauty is certainly possible, however, beauty can run to the sensual being a physical element. Gillespie's mystical foil Abu Hamid al-Ghazali was jaded by the political skirmishes of his time. Deluded, he traveled about his world searching for answers in philosophy finding solace only the sight of an omnipotent God (Gillespie, 2008 :290). Around the same time Omar Khayyam left his studies and education to focus on sensual pleasures and speculations of the divine.
“The grape that can logic absolute
The two and seventy jarring sects confute:
the sovereign alchemist that in a trice
Life's leaden metal in gold transmute;” (Khayyam,1974 : 77). There is not much of a distance between Khayyam's poetry and the lyrics of Illy's “It can wait”
“Happiness is fine but its momentary a momentary lapse of reality
reality is fine,
for the moment it can wait
I'm addicted to the chase of my happiness”(Murray 2010, : np.).

Perhaps beauty and God do not have to be so separate? John Mark Capper's “Joy in the Church Dogmatics? A Neglected Theme” illuminates Barth's theology of joy and how this has been missed. In Capper's opinion Hans Urs von Balthasar's linking of the concepts of beauty and glory is an aesthetic that does not deal with Barth's attention on divine Joy. Unlike Barth, Balthasar's understanding of the divine glory was relied on the aesthetic of beauty instead on joy. For Barth God is Beautiful because of his love for his creation and is deserving of love being that he is God. Even though Barth is able to describe God as beautiful he avoids in making it a leading element. Beauty is too close to the created world of being and not the divine world of becoming. But Joy is not so attached with earthly aesthetics as beauty is. Joy comes from dwelling and thinking about the divine. That Joy spills put continuously in the life and communication of God to us (Capper, 2001 : 102-116).

What is unfortunate is that this view of Joy requires a cosmological balance where Anthropology and Cosmology are rejoined with Theology. To be able to find this divine joy that flows from God there are some elements of our view of God that need to be altered. This is not a call to return to the Platonic understanding and a denial of the efforts that many have made in scientific discovery. Neither is it a mystical denial of the individual or a need to enhance the difference that each person/culture/faith brings. Yes there is a deeper magic that is lost in the winter of modernity a theological origin that does not have to be dominant and restrictive. Perhaps the need to worship something, that to experience the transcendent is neurochemical because the creator made us that way. The ennui and angst that declares God dead or empty, that drives some to despair or distraction is something obscured that needs to be brought into focus and engaged with. The hole that we fell down we do not need to stay in, it was a hole of our own making. To be able to find a path out requires not just emotions and feeling but balance. The foundation that we can see touch and feel requires a firmament above to give us, not a boundary requiring a promethean efforts to defy the deity, but a balance to the bottom heavy view that exists. A firmament where the divine can be and known. Joy is not the solution it may just be a light to find the way, but which ever path is chosen if joy of the divine is there then maybe it will melt the snow of winter.


She remembers back when she younger and so full of pain and worry. The life that she lived between the houses of her mother and father were not so bad. She knew they both loved her despite that they could not get along with each other. But today they both are in the same room, laughing. When she was a girl they would greet the other with curt and polite sentences that disguised the anger that lay beneath the surface. The joy that fills the room is so far away from back then.
“He's got your nose.” Says her mother to her father.
“Thanks goodness that's all he's got.” laughs her father.
In the small cot sleeping lies her new born son as his two grandparents continue delight in the child's presence. It was not the restoration that she dreamed of when she was younger. No, that is not possible now. But if this joy could be bottled and remembered in the hard times and not forgotten then maybe it will not happen to her own child.


Capper, J.M. (2001). Joy in the Church Dogmatics? A Neglected Theme. In G.Thompson and C. Mostert (Eds.). Karl Barth: A Future for Postmodern Theology?. Adelaide, Australia : Australian Theological Forum, 98-121.

Corrigan, B. (1996). Zero. On Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. [CD]. Chicago, Illinois : Virgin Records.

Drew, B and Shuckburgh, Al. (2011). Lost My Way. On Ill Manors. [CD]. London : Atlantic.

Ellis, W.(2010). Supergod. (3)(March, 2010). Rantoul, Illinois, USA : Avatar Press

Gillespie, M.A. (2008). The Theological Origins of Modernity. Chicago, Illinois, USA : The University of Chicago Press

Gillespie, M.A. (2010). Response to My Critics. The Review of Politics. (72)1 : 705-710.

Joel, B. (1989). We didn't start the fire. On Stormfront. [CD]. New York : Columbia

Khayyam, O.(1974).Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. (E.Fitzgerald, Trans.). New York : Galahad Books

Lewis, C.S. (1980). The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. London : Fontana Lion

McClure, K. M. (2010). Reflections on Michael Gillespie's Theological Origins of Modernity.The Review of Politics. (72)4 : 697-704.

Moore, B.N. and Parker, R. (2009). Critical Thinking. (9th Ed.). New York : McGraw-Hill.

Murray, A.(2010). It can wait. On The Chase. [CD]. Melbourne, Australia : Obesse.
Plato (2008). Timaeus and Critias.(D.Lee and T.K. Johnson, Trans.) London : Penguin Classics

Plato's Timaeus. (2012). Available Internet( October 2012).  

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