Seeing every created thing as a sign given to reveal God
The Protestant Revolution was not the only revolution of the 16th Century. Just three years prior to Luther’s presentation of his 95 Theses there was an even more earth shattering revolution started by Nicolas Copernicus. The Copernican revolution posited that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos but one of several planets in our solar system revolving around the Sun. Luther may have set in motion the rejection of the Sacraments, but it was the findings of Copernicus that put an end to the sacramental view of reality. Luther changed the way Revelation was received, but Copernicus changed the way nature acted as revelation. Luther’s was a revolution against Heaven, while Copernicus was about the revolution of the heavens. The former was most certainly culpable for the revolt that followed, while the latter, and even his pupil Galileo, was not. Nevertheless, as fathers of modernity they set in motion a revolution against reality. Modern man has lost the capacity to wonder.
Wonder enables us to see why things are the way they are. One sure sign that you are wonder-deficient is how you answer the question why. For example, why does a solar eclipse occur? If you answered because the moon blocks the sun, you will have answered how and not why. Wonder-less humanity makes this substitution and is satisfied with the answers science gives. But to truly attempt to answer why requires the capacity to wonder. The wonder-less scientist says that an eclipse is “nothing but” the moon blocking the sun. But the wonder-full scientist asks why is the apparent disc of the Sun the exact same size as the apparent disc of the Moon? The wonder-less scientist measures while the wonder-full scientist ponders. The wonder-less scientist finds random movements of atoms and the wonder-full scientist finds God in the sacrament of His creation.
This mindset, the one marked by a pervasive habit of “nothing but-ness” is why the Copernican Revolution flattened the cosmos. Wonder enables us to see everything God has made as a sacrament, a sign given to reveal Himself. But this is now opposed by an anti-sacramental view of reality that seeks only to weigh and measure. But man is too great for only that; if he is no longer the center of the universe then he will make himself that way. Where wonder dies, the will to power rises. Nature no longer causes wonder but instead is something to be manipulated and exploited for conquest. And man, as C.S. Lewis warned in The Abolition of Man, ultimately becomes less than himself and one more part of “nature” that must be conquered.
If modern man is incapable of wonder, how do we reverse the trend? Again C.S. Lewis, this time in his Meditations in a Tool Shed, gives an answer.
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. … Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam and looking at the beam are very different experiences.
Although Lewis doesn’t use the language of sacrament and anti-sacrament, he compares the two ways of viewing reality as looking at and looking along. Reality becomes charged with meaning if only we begin a to look along and not just at. When we do we find a pathway out of the existential boredom that afflicts many of us. Rather than seeking distractions, we find that the very things we are avoiding contain the meaning of life. We realize that meals are not “nothing but” the biological act of feeding but instead a profoundly human and social activity by which life and the sources of life are shared among the diners. Then we’re not so apt to miss something so ordinary as meals with our family. When we see sex as not “nothing but” an urge but instead a fruitful and total giving and receiving of a man and woman, then we will do nothing to violate its sacred character. When instead of seeing our work as “nothing but” how we make money, we see a call to complete God’s work of creation, then our work will fulfill us, no matter how menial the task.
Copernicus would have been shocked to learn that what began in astronomic wonder ended up astronomically killing wonder. But if we work to restore this habit, especially in the young, we will find that his revolution leads us right back to where we started. Man really is the center of the universe.