Heaven before the space age

or How I grew up with two parallel cosmologies

Much has been said in cognitive approaches to religion about the co-existence in believers of beliefs that may seem blatantly inconsistent. The way religious ideas about the heavens co-exist with Space Age understanding the Universe is an interesting case in point that has not yet attracted much attention.

In reading Biblical texts as an adult, I have assumed that the New Testament writers (but not necessarily the writers of the Hebrew Bible) conceptualized themselves in a three tier universe: "the heavens" above (clouds, the sky, Sun, planets, stars), earth in the middle, and the underworld (Hades, the nondescript realm of the dead) below.  I thought that this general cosmology was shared (more or less–medieval Europeans substituted Heaven for the heavens and Hell for Hades) until the development of modern astronomy.

I was surprised to find recently that this cosmology was already regarded as metaphorical, at least by some, much earlier.  In The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous treatise in the Christian contemplative tradition from the fourteenth century, the author warns the reader at length not to confuse the direction up with approaching heaven.  He writes (Chap. 60), "For spiritually, heaven is as close down as up, and up as down, behind as in front, in front as behind, on one side as on the other."  Moreover, he attributes the same understanding to Paul, one of the New Testament writers.

This may help explain how Biblical discussions of the heavens and Hades have been so unproblematically preserved in the Space Age: metaphorical interpretations were already available in the larger tradition.  As a child in a Christian fundamentalist church, I do not recall receiving any instruction in reconciling the Biblical cosmology with what I was taught in school.  I don't think anyone thought it posed a problem.  Looking back, I think I personally grew up with two parallel cosmologies, and did not wonder about how to reconcile them until I was an adolescent, even though I sensed their tension somewhat earlier.  But I don't know how reliable my memory is.


  • comment-avatar
    Tom Rees 10 May 2010 (15:50)

    Medieval theologians were acquainted with ptolemaic cosmology, and also knew that the earth is a sphere – so they knew that ‘up’ is a relative concept. And so they may have been prompted to metaphorical conceptualisation for the same reason modern Christians are.

  • comment-avatar
    Ilkka Pyysiäinen 10 May 2010 (16:02)

    Brian, have you seen Taner Edis’s book Science and Nonbelief (2006/2008)? I think it is, perhaps, the most fair and objective discussion of the relationship between science and religion. As long as we talk about science and religion as abstractions, it is easy to argue that they are compatible or incompatible. Only when we start investigating concrete claims within science and religion can we proceed to real argumentation. When science challenges such religious beliefs as about the age of the earth, “believers” usually take recourse to a reinterpretation: this is only symbolic. It seems to me that much of the modern developments in theology are the result of trying to accommodate belief in the scientific view of the world. Some Protestants and Catholics accept science and reinterpret religious beliefs, while some Evangelicals and Catholics think that science is too important to be left to the scientists. There must be a way of reconciling science and religion. ID creationism is a sad example of this. But the symbolist reinterpretation of religious beliefs runs the risk of religion losing its relevance. As you know, the more uncompromising a religious sect is the better it prospers. Maybe it is a question of people wanting to see preachers producing costly signals of their commitment to what they preach, as Joe Henrich argues?