The human as micro-cosmos

July 9th, 2018 by

We have come to the end! The last seminar of the year and of the AT project at Fuller. For those of you who have been with us from the beginning, this is something like 60 seminars with speakers from around the country and the globe. It might be a fitting bookend in that our very first seminar was from Oliver Crisp…who obviously works right here at Fuller, and our last seminar was given by Dr. Ben Myers…from all the way in the land down under, where he is the Director of the Millis Institute in Australia. Ben is well known in the theology blogosphere as the driving force behind Faith and Theology, one of the very first and most well-known biblioblogs.

Let me offer a brief summary of his talk followed by a bit of an expanded summary of the main sections. I think the main idea can be put like this: talking about the relationship between theology and science, and how that relates to human nature, can be tricky. Some folks in the past thought that the human being is a microcosm of the whole cosmos, which is an interesting thought that might be helpful for today.

Myers offered a summary in three parts focusing on Francis Bacon, some Greek thinkers (mostly Plato), and Augustine. Here is my paraphrase of Myers’ summaries:

Part one: In the Instauratio Magna, Francis Bacon says many interesting things about education and society. One of the most interesting things he writes is when he allegorically interprets the 6 days of the creation week to mirror the proper way humans acquire knowledge. Bacon also talked about how he thought of humans as a microcosm of the universe. Which leads to…

Part two: This idea that humans are a microcosm of the cosmos pervades ancient Greek philosophy, especially in Plato. Plato says many interesting things, but in Republic and Timaeus he says that humans are a microcosm of the universe.

 

Brief interlude: the early church fathers said this too.

 

Part three: Pivoting now to Augustine, turns out like Bacon and Plato, he too says some interesting things about how humans are a microcosm of the cosmos. And, also like Bacon, he does some interesting figurative interpreting of the creation week in his commentary on Genesis against the Manicheans. Also, remember some of those weird bits in Confessions and City of God? Augustine layers a bunch of stuff onto this figurative interpretation of the creation week: the history of the world, an individual human’s stages of age, an individual human’s stages of spiritual growth, and even Augustine’s own life.

 

Epilogue: Mash it all up together and the thought is that a human is a microcosm of creation and the order of creation is how humans know creation.

What I don’t know after hearing Myers’ summaries is whether any of this is right. I really like Plato, so I’m super-sympathetic just to saying (like Digory in the Narnia books), “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato!” But, at the end of the day, just painting a picture of how some folks in the past thought things might be doesn’t tell me that this is actually how things are. Perhaps the idea is that if one paints the picture, then just the aesthetic appeal of the picture will be proof of its accuracy. In the classical world, goodness, truth, and beauty all—in the end—end up coinciding (…in the One, yada yada yada Plotinius, etc.). So the beauty of a picture really is truth-indicative. If this really is how Myers’ argument was supposed to function, then I suppose I find myself both convinced and not convinced. Convinced because I have had about 20 years of feeling an appeal toward Platonic views of the world. But also not convinced because I have not yet been assured my draw to Plato is not due to weird idiosyncratic vices in my intellect.

So, I’ll keep pondering this and, if the idea really is, “It’s all in Plato,” I’d say, perhaps Myers would just like to join me in reading some Plato together.

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James M. Arcadi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Templeton Research Fellow in the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project at the Herzl Institue. He completed his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol where he focused on a philosophical explication of the doctrine of the Eucharist.

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