Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The flat earth. . .

I was doing some reading the other day and an article popped up suggesting that the idea of a flat earth was largely invented by modernity to contrast its erudition and learning from the ignorance and superstition of previous times.  It suddenly dawned on me how important the suggestion that the earth was flat was to the rejection not only of the science of the past but of Christianity itself.  If you can stain Christianity with the idea of the flat earth, then the claims of the faith must fall with it against the force of intellect and the great power of our experience.

But, of course, that is the point.  The whole idea of a common understanding of the earth as a flat plane is itself an invented myth.  First of all, the secular art of the ages contradicts the common assumption that folks bought into a flat earth.  Holding the world in one’s hand, or, more ominously, under one’s foot, has been a symbol of power and authority since antiquity. For example, to citizens of the Roman Empire, the plain spherical globe held by Jupiter represented the world or the universe and translated into the belief that this domain was under the dominion of the Emperor.  

In addition, the iconography of earliest Christianity attests to the globe as being the symbol of the earth.  Christ holding the orb or globe in His hands has, from the beginning of Christian art, given image to His power and authority over all creation.  The orb (Latin ‘orbis terrarum’, the ‘world of the lands’, which is the origin of the word “orb”) was surmounted with a cross.  This ‘globus cruciger’ symbolized the domination of the world by Christ. 

The earliest documentation of a spherical Earth comes from the ancient Greeks (5th century BC).  By the Early Middle Ages (700 AD), virtually all scholars maintained the spherical viewpoint.  Certainly by the 1400s there was no Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge the spherical shape of the earth and even know its approximate circumference.  They were not fools.  But it was not simply a convenient myth to hang on Christians.  Some Christians of the very modern era (1870-1920) fell into this as well.  The myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth is flat appears to have been promoted by some Protestants and flourished around the time when the evolution debate began in earnest.  Together, the Protestant prejudice against the Middle Ages and Roman Catholicism and the Rationalist prejudice against Judeo-Christianity as a whole, fostered the legitimacy of the myth of the flat earth and it conveniently supported the assumption that our education, erudition, and sophistication were superior to those of other cultures and to religion.

It is time to let it go.  Christians are not Luddites.  Christians do not disdain the role of observation or legitimate science in surveying the world around us.  But no Christian should presume that such observation or science is itself an end or that it is able to answer the ultimate questions of being that remain the realm of God's own self-disclosure.  At bare minimum, the question of purpose and values cannot be answered by any observation or science and requires the role of faith and God's own revelation.  So Christians were not ignorant flat earthers and neither is Scripture.  A reflection of the estimation of the time does not constitute a judgment that such presumptions are true.  The issue of evolution cannot be supported or debunked with any appeal to a flat earth. 


1 comment:

William Tighe said...

I remember reading somewhere, years ago, that the idea that the Earth is flat, and that all Europeans believed right up to Columbus's voyages of discovery was invented by the American popular writer Washington Irving (1783-1859). His Wikipedia biography says the same thing:


and that he did this in his book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), Ch. VII, pp. 40-47, esp. p. 43.