We’ve occasionally published student work from upper-level History courses like Modern Europe and Senior Seminar, but this week I thought I’d share some writing by Bethel students who aren’t necessarily majoring in History… but are studying the past in Christianity and Western Culture, the multidisciplinary first-year course that is a foundation of Bethel’s gen ed curriculum. Taking some inspiration from our former colleague Chris Armstrong, we asked CWC students to conclude their second exams with a short essay sharing “one important lesson… we can learn from medieval Christianity.” We’ll start with this wonderful piece by pre-nursing student Lynsey Zeng (Plymouth, MN).
When Dante Alighieri wrote his way to heaven, he was putting into words what the Medieval mind already knew: that the world, nestled within concentric, crystalline spheres, was little more than an abyss — a hollow pocket to faintly echo the symphony of the cosmos. Beneath the earth, the wintry crater of hell juxtaposed the swift revolution of the planets with its stillness, and the human being, caught at the center of the universe, was given the choice to either ascend or be drawn under. The heliocentric universe, with its conviction that it is outer space which is silent and the world which is a cacophony, would have been ridiculous to the medievals. To them, heaven was paralleled in the order of the universe, and God was just beyond the rim of the stars. For centuries, they built cathedrals like causeways and constructed and constructed towering scholastic arguments in an attempt to peer beyond the physical. Above all, the paradox of the Sacraments was a startling reminder that the Christian must contradict the world in order to be oriented towards God. Modernists may scoff at the primitive science of the “Dark Ages,” but it is telling of our spiritual state that we are often content to live comfortably within the world while the medieval was always trying to climb out of it.
Heliocentrism is correct; human ears cannot perceive sound in the vacuum of outer space and so we have filled the earth with endless distractions. In the 21st century, it is a rare and uncomfortable thing to experience silence, but to the medieval, it was essential. It is what the Christian would have confessed his sins into, and hearing them apart from himself in the quiet, they would have appeared alien and ugly. Silence is what the mystic needed to envision, the scholastic to rationalize, and the monk to reflect. Modern Christians need not believe in geocentrism, but there is something admirable in the medieval attempt to turn culture into a compass towards God. From the Middle Ages we are reminded that we are between heaven and hell, that the distractions of this world are ephemeral, and that perhaps only in the silence can the symphony of heaven be heard.