Above Us Only Sky

I may be wrong about this, but I think there is a theological issue that, when we consider the whole sweep of human history, troubled a far higher proportion of the human population from far earlier and for far longer than any single other question. It’s not a question we ask today.

It’s not ‘does God exist?’ – there have always been people who haven’t believed in the gods, but until extremely recently, the vast majority of people have taken it completely for granted that there was at least one god around at some point. It’s not ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ – if you believe in more than one god, it’s because those gods are warring; if you believe in one god it’s because that god wills it; if you don’t believe in gods, it’s a foolish question.

I don’t know this for certain, because we have to look back a long way to see when it was first asked – we have to rely on interpretations of Neolithic art (at least twelve thousand years old), we have to depend on reconstructions of the Copper Age (seven thousand years ago), we have to look at paleolinguistics, the study of how ancient languages spread and developed. It was an idea that it seems was carved into stone seven thousand years before the Ten Commandments were. We know it was a question that was still being seriously considered by at least one major culture until about five hundred years ago. The symbolism survives today, in both Western and Eastern religious belief.

The ultimate theological question is: ‘Where does the Sun go at night?’.

The answer that so many civilisations agreed for so long was: ‘The Sun is driven by one of the gods, and at night it goes under the Earth to fight a battle. There is at least some risk that the god will lose this battle, and so the Sun may not rise tomorrow’. It’s something the human race understood was a cast iron fact before they knew how to cast iron. It survived as the working model twenty-five times longer than the four hundred years we’ve understood the Earth goes around the Sun. It was understood to be the literal truth, not some metaphor or piece of symbolism.

This idea spread with ancient man across the Middle East, India, into Europe. It was a belief – in some form – held simultaneously in Scandinavia, Indonesia and pre-Columbian America. From the late Stone Age, well into the Iron Age, surviving into late Roman, Aztec and, in vestigal form, modern Hindu and Christian belief there was consensus. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, there’s a very exciting sequence where Gilgamesh finds the tunnel the Sun goes down into at night and races along it, with the setting Sun barrelling after him like that giant rock at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This was a religious outlook held for far longer and by a far higher proportion of the human race then living than has ever believed ‘there is only one god’, ‘the god I worship created the universe’ or ‘God’s a paragon of virtue’. It’s a religious belief that can rightfully be said to have been ‘universal’, in the parochial sense human beings use the word. For thousands of years, it appears that all human beings believed it.

The vestiges of this belief still pervade our language, our image of God and to some extent our thought. One of the ways we can see how pervasive the idea was is that it survives in our languages. There are many processes by which languages diverge, but we can see one in action when we ask why Americans call cars ‘automobiles’ and lifts ‘elevators’ … it’s because those are things invented after the split with Britain, so they came up with their own words. Paleolinguistics looks at the similarities and differences between languages and can be used (with due caution) to infer when things are invented – we can see by collating what different languages call them, for example, that ‘wheel’ far predates ‘spokes’, that ‘equine’ predates ‘saddle’ and far predates ‘stirrups’. Some scholars believe we can pinpoint when different types of sword and spear were invented by looking at what different peoples called them. There are some words that are truly ancient – the words for ‘I’, ‘two’ and so on. 

Seven thousand years ago, in what we now call the Proto-Indo-European culture of the Middle East, the God that pulled the Sun through the sky was called something like Dyeusphaeter. It’s a name older than the Sanskrit language, which later rendered it as Dyaus Pita. It’s the origin of the names Jupiter and Zeus, and many other Sun gods in many other cultures – Dyaus of early Indian mythology, Ahura Mazda in Persia (the first monotheistic God), Astwatz, Dispater. In German it was Deiwos, that became Tiwaz – which is where we get the word ‘Tuesday’. The Latin word ‘deus’ – which is the ancestor of the English word ‘deity’ – derives from it, but this isn’t some word English borrowed from Latin, it massively predates that, so that two almost completely unrelated languages, Welsh and Persian, have similar words for God: ‘Duw’ and ‘Deva’. The first half of the name became the English word ‘divine’ (and possibly ‘day’, although that’s disputed), and ‘Phaeter’ became ‘father’, so modern English would render the name as ‘day-father’, which is sometimes personified as ‘Father Sky’.

Many of the gods people worship today share memes with Dyeusphaeter. One of the trendiest religions in first century Rome was the cult of Sol Invictus, ‘the undefeated Sun’, and the main feast day was to celebrate the end of winter, which was also the birthday of the God – December 25th (he was born of a virgin). Sol Invictus had a golden crown, a halo, and it’s possible to track the early Christian iconography and writings as they starting those elements into their own beliefs. It’s not because of Sol Invictus that Christians go to church on Sunday – that was taken from another rival cult, that of Mithras (and the day of the sabbath was the source of much dispute among Christians until the Council of Laodicea in 364).

Traditional images of the Christian God and Jesus himself owe a lot to Father Sky. Day-father was the God of the day, clearly one of the most important and powerful (although by no means the only god or the most powerful), and was associated with all the benefits the Sun brings. But half the time, at night, he wasn’t there. And in many places in the world the days were much shorter in the winter and longer in the summer. This was profoundly troubling – how could the influence of such a self-evidently powerful God ebb and flow like that?

Instinctively, now, we know that it’s always day somewhere on Earth. We’re so used to seeing, say, live TV pictures from the other side of the planet and if it’s night where we are, it’s day there. I don’t think we need empirical evidence of that, as such, it’s almost instinctive. Just something we know. We must all have acquired the information, but at such an early age it essentially counts as innate. We also know that it’s not ‘the Sun on the other side of the world’, as such, that’s how it appears from Earth. We orbit the Sun, not vice versa. Were people really so stupid in the olden days that they couldn’t work any of that out? We all know that everyone used to think the world is flat. We’re all wrong, as it happens. We all know that the Catholic church were dumb and so blinded by ignorance that they refused to believe the Earth went round the Sun even when Galileo heroically confronted them with science and declared otherwise. Coming to understand why we’re wrong about that, too, why it’s almost exactly the opposite, is pretty exciting and I’m sure I’ll talk about that at some point.

So here’s an interesting question: when did the human race discover that the Sun was simply on the other side of the world at night? And more to the point, when was that discovery widely accepted? That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. I think, bottom line, the person who deduces it first is Hipparchus, in around 135BC. I can’t even begin to work out when it was generally known, or intuitive. Clearly, some remnants of Solar Chariot religions survived beyond that, and clearly earlier astronomical theories dispense with the idea of the Sun crashing into the sea or slotting into a tunnel every night. I can’t answer the question ‘when was the latest someone could suggest a god moves the Sun across the sky without everyone just laughing at them?’. In the West … well … here’s Bill O’Reilly, United States of America, 2011, and he’s not saying exactly the same thing … but he’s not saying something that’s all that different, either. Whether he knows it or not, he believes in Dyeusphaeter’s Solar Chariot, via Aristotle, via the Catholic Church. 

Before we get too smug, none of us have quite escaped the myth. There’s a famous science fiction story that has a character on the Moon, looking at the Earth wistfully noting ‘just to think, it’s Spring back on Earth right now’. It takes most people at least a few moments to see the problem with that sentence – it’s an astronaut literally viewing the whole world, but unable to escape the old, limited worldview.

We know where the Sun goes at night. It’s settled law, now. There will be people who say it doesn’t count as a theological question. But understanding that it was a theological question – for at least three, possibly five, times longer than we’ve had any Christian theology – is important to bear in mind. It’s easy to dismiss the Solar Chariot as primitive superstition borne from ignorance, and to say that it doesn’t need to be studied in any great depth … well, yes. But isn’t that what the Courtier’s Reply says about modern theology? I admire the people who came up with the story of the Sun Chariot. They were trying to explain the world, and their explanation made sense of the empirical evidence. They were extrapolating what they knew and saw. These were not stupid people, they were extremely smart people tackling huge, huge problem. It’s amazing they even worked out where they might begin to try answering. I don’t hesitate to call them wrong, I don’t take the view that they were right in their own way, but they were wrong for the right reasons. They were thinking in what we’d arrogantly call a ‘modern’ way – looking at the evidence. They were wrong.

I admire the people who dismantled the Sun Chariot more. They had the courage to continue asking the questions, and to ask new and reframed questions. It took many thousands of years, but we got to what we now see is inarguably ‘the right answer’. We know that the answer operates on a scale far larger and far smaller than the human, but which human beings could readily understand by observing and deducing a few common, simple processes. That, ultimately, the answer was actually rather straightforward.

And it’s an answer you can use. It leads to further discoveries, to practical inventions. Frankly, the heavens are much more enticing without divine traffic whizzing around like space debris. And we’ve been there now, sent up our own space chariots. We use them every day to see around the world, and to explore a universe that’s a far larger, richer, grander, older and stranger place than the old religions had us believe.

Both groups of thinkers shared the same impulse: they wanted an explanation. Modern theology often seems abstract to the point of distraction, about things completely beyond the human capacity to understand, not just beyond science, but beyond the limits of human thought. ‘Life’ and ‘the divine purpose’ and ‘the greater good’ are so big and seem so confusing and inherently paradoxical that it’s impossible even to expect we might ever understand them. But we have to understand right from the outset that theologians in the past told us the same things about disease, harvests and the weather – equally vast, immensely important parts of our experience (and also all things attributed, for most of human history, solely to the capricious nature of the gods).

I think it’s an awkward fact for theology that, as far as I can see, a lot of theological issues have been conclusively solved, but all of them were solved outside the field. I don’t see this changing – one of the vibrant issues across a number of academic disciplines, including theology, is the very broad area of ‘consciousness’. I very strongly suspect we’ll see key breakthroughs in my lifetime, a real shift of understanding about what constitutes awareness, consciousness, intelligence, how these things can originate, how to define them and so on – but these breakthroughs will almost certainly come from the computer science departments, from the evolutionary biologists. It’s hard to see how they might even come from a theology department.

As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know’. Whenever we find ourselves concluding that a question is just too large to ever answer, I think it’s instructive to remind ourselves that we solved the biggest problem of them all: where the Sun’s hiding at night.

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