The stars that we are born to in the twenty-first century are not that different from the stars our ancestors have been born to for hundreds of generations. But the cultural setting within which we view those stars today is entirely new in the history of the Earth.

Both our perception of the stars and the ways we think of them within our various fields of understanding—astrology, astronomy, astrophysics, theology, mysticism, art, and so on—vary from place to place, time to time, so that stars have a very human history culminating in the mind of each person living today.

Consciousness is as much a matter of cumulative life experience as it is of perception and memory. Our personal experience is influenced by our natural experience, as well as our cultural, communal, and familial experience.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night conveys some small part of his personal experience of the stars. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope details other aspects of the stars that most of us have never personally experienced or imagined. Perspectives available to us today simply did not exist only a few decades ago.

Yet we are the progeny of stars themselves, and cannot be anatomically, physiologically, or psychologically separated from their influence on our innermost mental and physical being. We are born of the stars as well as to them. In a very real sense, the stars ‘R us. We are star stuff up and walking around, ogling our extended family spread through the universe.

That is no poetic dream. The atoms we are made of were forged in supernova explosions that cast those atoms into space, where gravity took over and condensed those same atoms into a mass so dense that they ignited to form a new stellar system, together with a retinue of planets that included what we now call Earth, our home in space for all the days of our lives.

It is fitting that throughout history every tribe and people has paid homage to the stars. The Sumerians did it according to their lights in Mesopotamia, Plato did it his way in Greece, the Neoplatonists in Alexandria, and now NASA, a governmental agency, spends billions of dollars in paying homage to the stars, planets, asteroids, comets, and meteors of today.

The meaning that every generation projects onto the stars is a salute to our origins as couched in the meaningful terms of the day. The stars have always had place on the leading edge of human understanding. The stars have not changed all that much, but our understanding is now undergoing an exponential growth spurt that leaves our past understanding lagging far behind.

We used to put haloes around the heads of our saints to signal their divinity (connection to the stars). We built Gothic cathedrals to seat our bishops that had stained-glass windows dedicated to the zodiac, and mechanical clocks with rotating symbols of the twelve zodiacal houses, again to show honor to the stars as we interpreted them in Mediaeval times. Those cathedrals served as models of the supposed celestial hierarchy worked in stone, with their vaults shining down on the seat of the bishop below, and those assembled around him, as if that seat were the throne of reason, order, harmony, truth, and beauty on Earth.

As Chartres Cathedral was abuilding in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote (in Latin) of the stars: “Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God.” The prime mover that drove the universe was as alive in our formative era as it had been in the days of Pseudo-Dionysius, Ptolemy, Aristotle, Plato and, before him, the Sumerians.

What all that effort achieved, rather than making a place for humanity in the stars’ cosmic scheme, was assign them their place in our psychic scheme, so having us ride our own coattails round and round, as if tied to a peg driven into the ground, setting us back for well over five thousand years in solving the world puzzle from inside our respective black boxes.

But that peg in the ground has been yanked up by a succession of new thinkers: Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Einstein, and many others who have built the new cosmology of today that recognizes the stars for what they are in themselves and not merely the due we thrust upon them out of our own needs.

The idea of binding our lives back to the orderly motion of the stars is one of the most profound realizations that the human mind has ever entertained. We have evolved to appreciate the patterns, brightness, and motions of the stars at night; that should suffice. We need not look for a message coming from them any more than we look to a mockingbird or giraffe for truth. If we truly honored the stars, we would celebrate their gift of light and energy, so receiving them as they give themselves to us without overlaying our psychic needs on their radiance.

We don’t look for messages from baseball or Roget’s Thesaurus, yet we freely engage with them as valuable aspects of our experience. Why impose such a burden on the stars in order to fit them into our scheme of things? Instead, we should do everything we can to live in harmony with the natural world, of which stars are one of the highest and most eminent expressions.

At this point I can hear my Quaker friend Ken Doyle stepping in to tell his joke about the three baseball umpires being interviewed by a reporter after the big game. How do they go about making such difficult and often controversial calls as their duties require them to?

The first umpire says, “I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.” The second says, “I calls ‘em as they are.” The third umpire says, “They ain’t nothin’ till I calls ‘em.”

Each umpire does the job his own way in light of his personal belief, as each player plays, and each fan roots, everyone in the stadium giving as he or she is able to give, and receiving a like gift from everyone else.

Like the three umpires, artists, scientists, and theologians see with different eyes. As do the young, the mature, and the elderly. The Sumerians saw the stars their way, Plato saw them his way, Pseudo-Dionysius his way. It is unrealistic to sort through them in trying to decide which is right. They are all right and all wrong in some respects.

But under the circumstances, they each were true to their perceptions, judgments, actions, and life engagements—to their minds and personal experience. Our predecessors have borne witness to the stars as only they could at that time in that place. What more could we ask? It is now our turn to see them through our own eyes. That, now, is something to celebrate. As well as an obligation to right the wrongs of the past.

Tomorrow: photos of the heavens from our modern point of view, so ending this review of human engagements with baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and most recently, the stars.

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Projected onto the stars, the meaning that some of our distant ancestors found in their orderly procession was that they were compelled as one body by a prime mover, alleged source of, and driving force behind, the rational, harmonious order of the universe.

The notion of a prime mover was wholly a fiction in human minds, a product of deluded imaginations in not being able to detect their own planet’s motions because as a people they moved with the Earth and had no reference other than the stars to gauge that impression by.

So if the stars seemed to move, that was enough to convince them that that must be the true state of affairs. Many believed it, and said so. Opening the door to a myriad of profound consequences, which still persist among us today.

Wars have been fought, millions killed, heretics burned at the stake as a result of such beliefs, or, rather, the denial of such beliefs. Those deadly consequences, as residing in human minds as matters of orthodox faith and belief, are what I am concerned with in these several posts dealing with our human engagements with the stars as I develop the big picture based on my reading and experience.

Along with the concept of one turning in reference to the nightly round of the stars, several other concepts accompany that of the prime mover; the idea of harmony as the essentially rational and defining characteristic of the stars moving in unison to constitute a cosmos in contrast with a disordered chaos; and the idea that deviation from harmony was a message played like notes against a musical scale intended to call people on Earth back into harmony with the circling stars.

The five visible, star-like planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), as well as sun and moon, did not share in the disciplined rotation of the stars, but travelled their own ways among them along a broad pathway of their own in the middle reaches of the stars overhead. That pathway was not random but stuck to a middle way along a particular band of stars that ancient peoples visualized as forming twelve houses or constellations, the band coming to be known as the ecliptic, the celestial path among the stars along which the messenger planets (Greek angelos, messenger) traveled and, when those paths coincided, conjunctions and eclipses might occur.

The twelve, thirty-degree zodiacal houses (constellations) along the ecliptic were deified as domains ruled in monthly succession by twelve godlike figures, together forming the ring of zodiacal signs marking the progress of the seven angelic messengers.

No one realized that that background of stellar houses was far behind the moving planets, so had nothing at all to do with them because it seemed to observers on earth that the stars and planets were equidistant, so that the luminous messengers traveled among and briefly resided in stellar houses that existed solely in human imagination.

Once the stars became animated by ancient humans projecting their quest for order onto the cycling radiance overhead, the stage was set for conception and projection of prime movers, creators, supreme beings, and rulers of the (supposedly) one-turning universe.

The stars and the messengers weaving among them bore whatever meanings arose in those who projected their minds in beseeching the cosmos for guidance in conducting their Earthly lives and affairs. Temples and sanctuaries such as those structures at Göbekli Tepe, Stonehenge, and in Sumer at the head of the Persian Gulf were in many instances built as stellar observatories to mediate the traffic of signs between heaven and Earth, local authorities assuming the office of translator of heavenly messages so their followers would receive the proper message and behave accordingly.

So did religion become a fact of life on Earth in binding human labors to the will of the gods above, or most particularly to the will of the prime mover who set the cosmos in orderly motion for the purpose of inviting humans, if they knew what side their bread was buttered on, to partake in the rational order exemplified by the stars overhead.

Sumerian minds, looking up from their marshy homeland in the delta of the combined waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, became famous for conceiving of such deities (shining or radiant ones, later depicted with haloes) some five- or six-thousand years ago.

Among other gifts to their descendants, the Sumerians are now famous for leaving behind them a great trove of statuettes of worshippers with folded hands and dilated, dark-adapted eyes, only much later to be discovered by archaeologists within the past 150 years.

The figures depict worshippers in the grips of a variety of fraught human situations beneath the stars at night, looking to be told by the messenger stars what to do because that was their duty, to heed the will of Sumerian gods.

What the Sumerians invented—along with cuneiform writing on clay tablets; an extensive literature of poetry, myths, lamentations, hymns, and wise sayings; and religion built around a priestly profession as we know it today—was an intricate system of awe so lustrous as to have a compelling effect in organizing the behavior of a people who sought answers to their most pressing problems from the seemingly informative movements of the planets weaving among the orderly motions of stars along the ecliptic.

The Sumerians placed not one but three gods in the heavens, one for each of the three regions: celestial polar region, residence of the creator and prime mover, Anu: zodiac against which the seven messengers moved, ruled by Enlil, king of the gods; and outer fringe thought to be closest to Earth on the outskirts of the cosmic dome, home of Enki, source of divine wisdom.

It was a great scheme by which the Sumerians mapped out the heavens some 5,400 years ago, a scheme still with us today in the doctrine and structures of the church. The essential teaching of that scheme was “On Earth as in Heaven,” a notion backed up by the seasonal return of the sun to the same house along the ecliptic, signing the start of a new year and another round of the liturgical calendar. Genius; pure genius. Because it was true: human affairs on Earth do run according to a calendar dictated by the seasons, and the seasons by the stars.

The hitch is that it wasn’t that the stars were moving according to the prime mover’s plan, so seeming to dictate to people what they should be doing with their limited bodily energies; those stellar motions were really due to Earth’s daily rotation about its axis and simultaneous orbit around the sun. There was no prime mover at the celestial pole. There was no godly king of kings managing the motions of planets along the ecliptic. There was no divine wisdom filtering down from the stars for human guidance.

We already had the seasons to alert us to our proper annual labors; the stars were incidental to what we already knew. They were an offshoot, not the source of our wisdom. The stars told us nothing we didn’t already know.

It was the Sumerian priesthood that maintained that the heavens were the center of Sumerian life on Earth, and that the people needed their lofty interpretation of signs and directives—otherwise they’d be out of a job. Priesthoods offer the best job security on Earth if they can convince flocks to behave as they already know they should.

There is a font of circular reasoning at the heart of every religion. And we have such a plethora of religions precisely because each one has to develop a convincing rationale for the people to support the local priesthood in its annual rounds of reasoning.

These comments are what I was talking about in developing the big picture of our human engagements with the stars. For much of my life I have read Joseph Campbell, Samuel Noah Kramer, E.O. James, and James Frazer, and others of similar bent in bringing ancient ideas to life. For me this has been recreational reading to accompany my fascination with fossils and the expanding literature of evolutionary biology. Looking both to the past and the future, I was doing my best to keep pace with the world I lived in, which was expanding at an ever increasing rate.

My bookshelves today are lined with such books, testament to the interests that have sustained me throughout adult life. Now that my life is winding down, the residuum of my reading takes on a greater importance because I see so much harking back to a more comfortable (because familiar) world rather than a willingness to enter the next stage of human development and understanding. If I do not contribute to that understanding, why have I lived through the past exciting years?

So here I sit at my computer keyboard in Bar Harbor, Maine, blogging about what matters to me at my time of life, adding my thoughts and observations to the great flow of human engagement with our Earthly surroundings.

Should I live so long, you can expect that I’ll have more to say about our stellar engagements tomorrow.

434. Cultural Inertia

February 16, 2015

We are born to cultures centered on worship and religion as fixtures of daily life. When I was growing up in Hamilton, New York, in the 1930s, buildings with spires were landmarks in my young eyes, conspicuous curiosities I passed in my roaming about town, but had little to do with. What is it about churches-mosques-synagogues-temples that they should occupy such prominent positions in our lives?

In one form or another, they’ve been around a long time. Recent excavations in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey have uncovered impressive sanctuaries 11,600 years old. On the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumerians built ziggurats in 3,200 BCE where priests worshipped gods in their starry heavens. A big part of Sumerian belief focused on the correspondence between the sun’s position in the zodiac and the seasonal labors of people on Earth.

During grape harvesting and pressing, for example, the same constellations of stars were visible overhead each year. That fact was summed in the religious teaching, “On Earth as it is in heaven.” The prime-mover God was sending us signs to make sure we coordinated our practices with his teachings. The priestly class emerged as mediators between the will of God above and dutiful humanity below.

About the same time, the first stage of what we call Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain. During their Babylonian captivity, ancient Hebrews came across what they called the Tower of Babel, a religious structure built by a culture whose speech they found incomprehensible.

In his dialogue the Timaeus, Plato mused about the origin of religion in the seemingly orderly, harmonious, and rational motions of the stars about the celestial pole. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, passed his mentor’s teachings on to the Middle Ages. Latin translation of part of the Timaeus reached Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria, who relayed a good part of Plato’s thinking into the new religion, Christianity, given the recognition and blessing of Constantine, last Roman Emperor.

From the beginning, Christianity’s central theme was the death and rebirth of Jesus, echoing the ancient belief in the miracle of planting a seed in the ground and its sprouting three days later. Jesus was one among a number of vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi, Osiris) who, as exemplary humans or demigods, personified the same cyclical fate that crops do in their annual plantings (death) and sproutings (rebirth).

Chartres Cathedral, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, emphasized not only the link between zodiacal constellations in the sky and the labors of humanity on Earth, but, too, the symbolic cycle of death and rebirth in its zodiacal stained-glass window and clock that still tracks the seasons as gauged by the stars overhead. The cathedral stands as a monument to those longstanding ancient traditions.

Ptolemy in the second century had pictured the motions of the stars as centered on the Earth, and that notion persisted for fourteen hundred years until Copernicus in the sixteenth century discovered Earth to be a planet orbiting around the sun. The stars, it seems, do not move; it is our home planet that is responsible for their orderly march day-by-day, year-after-year through the heavens. Tycho, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton refined the Copernican idea, fixing it in human understanding of the universe.

As late as the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas stated: Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God. That is a restatement of Plato’s belief as expressed in the Timaeus. But it is not the stars that move, it is Earth revolving about its axis that makes the stars only seem to move. As it is Earth’s orbiting about the sun that powers the progression of zodiacal constellations repeatedly through the seasons of the year.

But despite the enlightened cosmology put forward during the European renaissance in a new understanding that put Earth as a minor planet orbiting a typical sun in the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy, western religious culture did not update its primitive belief in the orderly and rational motions of a universe for which only a God as prime mover was deemed responsible.

Religion, which means binding (Latin, re-ligare) humanity to the apparent motion of the stars at the will of a prime mover, was too invested in its traditional ideas to change, so kept on as before, exposing its asserted beliefs as a matter of unsupported faith, so reducing church doctrine to the level of mythology.

Then Charles Darwin came along and provided compendious evidence that humans are descended from an ancient lineage of animal life, making it impossible to believe that we were created by God in his image. Without ceremony, Adam and Eve in their happy garden became merely a myth. Yet when I was born, all those steeple houses stood on the main streets of Hamilton, pointing skyward, just as the columns at Göbekli Tepe did 11,600 years ago in the mountains that fed melting snow into the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Strange business. My culture today sends me mixed and incompatible messages about the universe. Science says one thing based on corroborated evidence; the church says something entirely other on the basis of its longstanding faith. A faith that still erects spires pointing to the heavens.

How am I to engage such a culture so divided between passionate faith and demonstrable evidence? That’s easy. Evidence trumps faith every time. I go with the facts supporting our modern cosmology (just think of the evidence provided by the Hubble Space Telescope alone) over Plato’s ideals of order, harmony, and reason—which gave us a picture of the universe as he wished it were, not as we now know it to be.

Much of the turmoil in the world today stems from armed conflicts between different systems of faith. We keep lugging past ideas around with us as if they were as relevant to our time on Earth as they were 1,800 years ago, 2,700 years ago, or even 11,600 years ago. Once cultural memes get planted, they go on forever and never die off. We won’t let them die off. Out of sentiment, we are dedicated to preserving every thought anybody ever had, no matter how feeble or erroneous.

Consciousness is the medium that preserves those outdated ideas. We resurrect them because we somehow find them comforting as reminders of childhood. So our intelligence is split between faith and fact, tradition and the latest breakthrough. And for some reason we cannot tell the difference. Between what is relevant to our lives and what is superfluous. We know better yet seem not to know better at the same time. This is the conundrum at the core of our everyday culture. Due to trusting memory more than perception, the familiar past more than the now.

That was the conundrum I experienced growing up as a kid, and still find within me even though I have gained so much vital experience between then and now. Humanity suffers from cultural inertia in not being able to let go of outdated ideas. That is, from couching those ancient ideas as honored faiths and mythologies which, in all innocence, keep us chained to our primal ignorance and mistaken beliefs.

Even the word “universe” itself is a misnomer because it means one-turning, as a hidden reference to the impossible-to-believe-in prime mover behind what we used to think of as the motion of the heavens, but now understand as a reflection of the motions of our home planet.

So much to wrap our minds around, so little time. How do we know what to take off the shelf of our culture, and what to shun like the plague?

Discrimination is the secret, not personal preference, not tradition, not habit. Exercising the gifts we are born with in reaching out to the universe around us, not accepting it on anyone’s terms but our own. Seeing with our own eyes. But that is hard work. Requiring us to be on the forefront of our own minds at all times, defining the leading edge of our human understanding as we go.

That, I think, is the responsibility we owe to our ancestors, to transcend their faulty cultural beliefs by advancing with the experiences available to us that they never knew. That is the essence of engagement. Keeping up with what’s happening around us in our own times. Not living in the past, but shifting with every new day into the now. Going beyond old notions and ideas. Faith is a lazy way of avoiding the hard work being asked of us as we evolve with the life around us. Keeping up with the times. Looking to the future, not the past.

The culture we are born to is the challenge we must accept in growing into our new selves every day. We must make our efforts part of that culture, and so move it ahead with us. The risk if we don’t is to become imprisoned by the past. Is that why we’re here, to be stuck in the mire of ancient ideas?

I will conclude this section on cultural engagements with twelve examples of my personal cultural engagements divided among my next four posts.