What Heaven Reveal / Joshua Alan Sturgill
In ancient Chinese culture, Heaven is both the realm of the gods and the place of stars. Hebrew scriptures, as well, speak of Heaven as the abode of God and the angels, but also as the location of stars and planets, sun and moon. In some passages, God is referred to as “Lord of Hosts”—and this can mean both Lord of armies of angels or Lord of the myriad stars. For the modern or post-modern mind, this seems to be a confusion between the spiritual and material. We might even say it’s a mythologizing of the simple though untouchable forces of the universe. We would first divide the idea of gods from that of stars and planets, and then dismiss the first category altogether.
But in the mind of earlier cultures, Heaven’s significance is precisely that the gods are revealed in the stars and planets: the matter is spiritual, so a particular object is capable of being both a thing (a comet, for example) and a sign (good fortune, for example). Individual things could be signs, and whole vistas could be signs—Heaven is a multi-layered text. On one hand, single things: comets, planets. But on the other hand, the whole character of the divine: the daytime sky as the source of life and the nighttime sky as the revelation of ultimate reality.
Perhaps, though, the starkest contrast with our notion of “outer space” is that Heaven was once believed to have will and volition. The Chinese dynastic tradition was founded on the Mandate of Heaven, and emperors were Sons of Heaven whose duty was to keep Heaven and Earth in harmony. Heaven was personal, was working toward its own benevolent goals and intentions which included peace and stability in the empire.
I had these ideas in mind when writing What Heaven Knows:
We stand, my friends, at the apex
of the sundial. Observers and participants;
Record-keepers, also kings;
Breathing knowledge unaware. Blind
while all our Self spreads out above us
absolute by day and nightly infinite
A veiled architecture, winding paths for us
building fates for us, singing
over coffins and cradles
Long before, long after
Johannes Kepler (whose genius is scandalously under-appreciated) lived and wrote at a time when the modern cosmology of Heaven as a center-less emptiness was beginning to replace the ancient cosmology of Heaven as the realm of the divine. Kepler felt that earth, no longer an immovable center, was still the place of humanity’s unique perception. For Kepler, Earth was something like an observation platform, a platform whose movement gave us the ability to observe through participation in the motions of the stellar bodies.
Kepler’s image resonates with me. Though I tend to have and to embrace geocentric leanings, I love the idea of Earth as a kind of “school for being in Heaven.” It puts me in mind of Moses being placed in a cleft of the rock on Sinai as God passes by, displaying His Glory. Earth is a cleft, where we can see the Glory without being consumed, or like the apex of a cosmic sundial: the best place for seeing the play of light and for communing with the truths which light reveals. Our position—as bodies and as souls—allows us to participate and to observe, to record our observations and to cultivate good relations with Earth and her neighbors. Our physical bodies depend on, and are therefore part of, the whole universe. In this sense, What we see (especially at night) is our Self. The sky is a mirror.
The sky is a mirror of humanity because it is first a revelation of the divine. For the cultures mentioned above, Day and Night correspond to the many complimentary pairs of reality. Day and Night are Yang and Yin, respectively, and they are our first teachers of the divine attributes Absoluteness and Infinity. Day, dominated by the Sun and by life and work, teaches us the oneness and centrality of God, who has no equal and no peers. Night, tended by the moon and by stillness and contemplation, teaches us the manifold attributes and immanence of God. Day is God in His Power; Night is God in his Mercy.
George MacDonald said, “they who believe in the influences of the stars over the fates of men are, in feeling at least, nearer the truth than they who regard the heavenly bodies as related to them merely by a common obedience to an external law.” In some way, more or less clear at different times and to different people, the Heavens predict, prepare, and protect our earthy existence. But the exact relationship is veiled. We seem to be living in a curtained house, with many walls and windows obscured. There are people gifted with the ability to see and know the Signs. Also, there are people charismatic and convincing enough to fool us with attractive lies. Who can discern?
We are left with the intuition that our kinship with Heaven is unshakeable. The “music of the spheres” is a common poetic idea because it is first a common prophetic experience. Fantasy worlds like Tolkien’s or MacDonald’s, are closer to this truth than the common notion of the planets as earth-like (read: arbitrary) stones trapped by and subjected to forces. If we happen to live in a culture that considers Heaven to be a wasteland of burning debris, is that because we are more more intelligent than our ancestors or because it serves some cultural purpose for us to believe so? If traditional cultures saw both gods and planets over and around them, were they aware of something we’ve forgotten, and if we wanted to, could we recover that lost awareness?