Thursday, August 11, 2011

Faith Works 8-13

Faith Works 8-13-11

Jeff Gill


Lost origins hidden in plain sight



Last week I laid out my interest in the architectural & organizational setting of the Harry Potter books in Hogwarts, an imaginary place with some very specific real world roots.


If you visit Oxford or Cambridge or St Andrews in Great Britain, you are visiting both the origins of the modern university system for higher education, and three ancient monastic establishments as well, an architectural vernacular directly reflected in the general layout of Hogwarts itself.


You can easily see at graduation ceremonies the academic robes and mortarboards which point back to medieval monastic tradition, and at a place like Denison University there are a number of official occasions when the faculty wear their robes complete with hoods and other ceremonial headgear (depending on the particular traditions behind the institution where they got their PhDs), all designed to keep the dripping of dank stone ceilings from dampening your head, or your spirit.


Simple black monks robes were part of everyday wear for all undergraduates at one time: Oxford required academic "gowns" on students for attending class as late as the 1960s, and still are mandatory at test taking time or for visiting officials of the university, with gowns for dinner up to individual college tradition. The term "town and gown" has to do with the easily identified distinction between students in black robes and the everyday citizens of a college town.


All of this is because the great educational establishments of Europe began as places to educate clergy; they developed advanced degrees (master of theology, doctor of philosophy) and began to have their own officials parallel to those found in a monastic establishment (provosts and chancellors and deans).


Theology was then known as "the queen of sciences," a comment that would get you a sharp laugh or an angry look in a science department today, wondering what kind of odd joke you're making.


What is still anchored in science & technology today is first the monastic structure of undergraduate degrees; freshman or first-year, sophomore aka "wise fool," junior and then senior, four years leading to a baccalaureate or "bachelor's" degree signifying the "laurel" of honors in learning. Additionally, there is another, even more important element of Christian faith and tradition which supports learning and scientific advancement.


From the 12th century foundations of learning, there was much debate over the nature of reality, and questions of the Divine Nature which created and maintains it. Much of the ancient world saw nature as capricious, changeable, and constantly in flux, with the only consistency coming from the orbit of the planets through the constellations of the zodiac, or nervously encouraged through our sacrifices to nudge cosmic forces into paths we could predict. Unpredictable outcomes meant that the sacrifices had somehow changed the balance of the cosmos in the wrong way.


Into this hyper-complex, Ptolemaic world of epicycles and wheels within wheels, the theology of western Christendom said "No." The Church said (in Latin, the language which could cross the many national borders and local tongues which fragmented the remnants of the old Roman Empire) that God is consistent, coherent, and wants us to understand clearly how the book of Nature works as much as we were to understand how the Good Book taught us how to live.


So on one hand, scholars began to delve into the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible (with some unexpected outcomes, granted), and on the other, monks and friars began to test Nature, looking for immutable laws which were always and everywhere applicable.


You could argue that it was this commitment to finding Natural Laws which gave the Christian West the basis for their unprecedented leap into science & engineering proficiency that burst into the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; that argument continues, but what doesn't hold up at all is the idea that the Renaissance & Enlightenment were entirely movements that occurred in spite of religious faith, let alone in opposition to it.


We do see a split at work in today's world, not only between the scientific worldview and much of what is understood to be a religious worldview of almost any sort, but also between science and the humanities. Some of that division is more apparent than actual, not so much the lived experience of scholars as how it is seen & discussed (I know many religious scientists, for instance), but the problem persists.


Which is where I find it very interesting to replay the Harry Potter saga as a sort of allegory, with magic & wizardry as science & technology. When Harry & Hermione stand in Godric's Hollow and look at two tombstones, each with a Biblical quotation on them, they don't recognize the words as such.


Yet the words speak to them, and they yearn to understand them.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story you love at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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