I. Observation of the Sky and Natural Religious Experience 1. The Heavens: A Place of Divine Transcendence 2. The Mythical-Religious Meaning of Some Celestial Bodies - II. The Association between Celestial Phenomena and Human Lives according to Mesopotamian Astrology and Greek Polytheism 1. Two Different Ways of Relating to Celestial Bodies 2. Astrology and the Judaeo-Christian Tradition - III. References to the Sky and to Celestial Bodies in Sacred Scripture 1. The Sky in Natural Religious Language and the God of Israel. 2. Biblical References to the Sky and Their Principal Meanings 3. The Celestial Bodies - IV. Heaven in the Language of Theology 1.Scientific Thought and the Religious-Theological Notion of Heaven 2. Heaven as a Place and as a “Status.”
If nature, understood in the broad sense, was the place from which primitive religiosity and philosophy began their reflections, followed closely by scientific reflections, the natural place in which the weaving together of science, philosophy, and religion reached its greatest cultural expression was, without a doubt, the “sky,” regarded as a space of both conceptual and experimental consideration. Astronomy, having developed a methodology founded on the regularity of celestial phenomena and their predictability, was the discipline that gave philosophy the first elements that shaped early ideas about the universe and the place human beings occupy within it. The observation of the sky and its phenomena has also affected religious language, providing words to express much of religious content; these words have developed a sacral context that even the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in spite of the specificity and originality of its message, has recognized and embraced.
Furthermore, a broad range of artistic and cultural expressions, from primitive buildings to grand medieval cathedrals, testify to a profound connection between the sky and religion. Several monuments of ancient times, such as the ritual areas of Stonehenge and many of the pyramids, had both religious and astronomical aims. The Gothic Cathedrals built in the Middle Ages certainly offer the best example of the union between faith and geometry. Many places of worship, both Christian and non-Christian, maintain the ancient concept of the temple as a symbol and representation of the universe. In all of them, the position of the sun remains crucial. For example, in the hermits’ buildings of Celtic Christianity the light coming in from the windows, oeil-de-boeufs, and lunettes regulated the hours of prayer; in the cathedrals, it marked the day and month of the year on the floor of the church and illuminated the mosaics or bas-reliefs of the Virgin Mary or the saints on the days of their liturgical celebrations.
I. Observation of the Sky and Natural Religious Experience
From a lexical point of view, in modern languages the word “sky” (Lat. Coelum; Gr. ouranós) presents a certain ambivalence, since it is used for both scientific and religious purposes. Only the English language preserves the trace of a past distinction, by reserving the word “sky” for objective and scientific purposes, whereas “heaven” is used for religious connotations. It is also possible, however, to detect certain nuances in the ancient Hebrew language of the Bible: For instance, the word samayim, which is a plural form denoting “the skies”, is used as a synonym for raqîa‘, that is, “dome” (as, for instance, in Gen 1:8: “God called the dome ‘the sky’”). The former is actually connected primarily to a religious meaning, while the latter covers the cosmogonical side of the same concept. In literature and culture in general, many languages are accustomed to the fact that the word used for Galileo’s sky and the sky found in poetry is the same as the word used by Jesus of Nazareth for the prayer he taught his disciples (in English, the word is rendered “Heaven”): “Our Father, who art in heaven” and the Creator of “heaven and earth.” The overlapping of so many different religious experiences, existential paths, cultural backgrounds, and scientific elements leads the “sky” to become a scene of interdisciplinary dialogue and it raises a number of questions. Our modern age has often believed it could provide answers to these questions by simply substituting the object of religious experience with that of scientific observation.
1. The Heavens: A Place of Divine Transcendence. In most primitive religions, the name of the divinity seems to recall a Uranian context of some kind. A fragment of one of the lost works of Aristotle contains explicit reference to the role played by the observation of the sky. According to him, humanity had already derived a notion of God (even before philosophers had begun to reflect on the question) from two primary sources: the ordered movement of the stars and the human soul (cf. E. Gilson, God and Philosophy [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941], p. 32). In Book II of his De Natura Deorum, Cicero states that there are four reasons why the notion of God, or rather of gods, has been accepted since ancient times: the desire to access the future; gratitude for and astonishment at nature’s wonderful and beneficial gifts; the action of tremendous atmospheric agents inspiring fear and dependence; and the magnificent order there is within the universe and especially in the movement of the stars in the sky. Many centuries later, Immanuel Kant reached a very similar conclusion in his well-known statement: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more seriously reflection concentrates upon them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me” (Critique of Practical Reason, 1788, “Conclusions”).
Strictly speaking, the names most religious traditions have given their divinities or Supreme Being do not refer to the “sky” itself, but rather to Somebody who dwells in the sky, as if it were his home. Since ancient times, the sky has naturally been associated with the “place of transcendence” because it is a limpid image of the attributes of the latter: It is immense, lofty, eternal, and stable, and it is the seat of phenomena and energies that by far exceed that which is accessible to and controllable by human beings on earth. “The phrase ‘contemplating the vault of heaven’ really means something when it is applied to primitive man [...]. Such contemplation is the same as a revelation. The sky shows itself as it really is: infinite, transcendent. The vault of heaven is, more than anything else, ‘something quite apart’ from the tiny thing that is man and his span of life. The symbolism of its transcendence derives from the simple realization of its infinite height. ‘Most High’ becomes quite naturally an attribute of the divinity” (Eliade, 1971, pp. 38-39). The close relationship between the sky and the divinity does not necessarily imply a “Uranian naturalism”: Indeed, in archaic religions, Supreme Beings are never reducible to a mere hierophany (i.e., a manifestation of the sacred) of the sky and its phenomena. Their “being” is something more, and their characters are richer, than what celestial hierophanies may lead one to believe. Even where a divinity (or divinities) “is the sky,” it is actually always “more than the sky.”
A number of the names of ancient gods underline the close relationship established between the sky and the divinities of different peoples. Just to mention a few examples, among the many primitive peoples of Africa, for the Bushmen, Khaang is “he who dwells in the sky”; for the Bantu people of Rwanda, Imana is “he who made the sky and dwells in it”; for the Maasai, Ngai is “he who dwells in the sky, behind the clouds.” Among other peoples, for the Eskimos, Tulugankul is “he who dwells in the sky”; Kareya is “the one up there” for Californian Indians, while according to the Guaranì, Tamoi is “the old one up there”; among the Sioux and the Hurons the same names, Wakan and Orenda, are used to indicate the divinity and the sky itself. Among the primitive people of Australia, Kohin, the Supreme Being worshipped in the Herbert River region, “dwells in the Milky Way and sends his lightning,” and Nurelle, worshipped by the Wimbajo, is “the one who has risen to the sky, who destroys the moon every month and sets the rising and setting of the sun.” Among the names by which other Australian peoples have called their Supreme Being, there are even more interesting expressions, for example, the one who, living in the sky, has the stars “as his wives” (Atnatu, for the Kaitish) or “as the fires of his encampment” (Tukura, for the Loritja). In addition to this, almost everywhere, thunder is referred to as his voice, lightning as the sign of his action, and the sun and the moon as his eyes. In telluric areas where the name of the main divinity (or divinities) refers to the earth, there is often another god related to the sky and their coordinated relationship develops into the complex cosmogonies expressing the myth of the “origins.”
With respect to the life and activity of primitive human beings, the sky often stands out as the divinity’s seat, since it is here that most meteorological phenomena take place. Rain, thunder, and lightning, etc., tend to be associated with the “will” of god. Human beings respond to such phenomena by means of prayer. The rainbow, therefore, is perceived as a sign of pacification, the end of a (more or less) long time of turmoil and trouble. The Uranian divinity of all of the chief natural religions, especially when identified with the Supreme Being, often possesses the attributes of a Father, Sovereign, Maker, or Legislator. Besides being (omni)potent (i.e., all-powerful), and even prior to being good or just, this divinity is recognized as omniscient: Just as the sky surpasses the earth, likewise god surpasses human life with his sight, the sun, the moon, or the stars being “his eyes.”
According to the pattern of historical development most widely accepted today, the regular association of the name of the gods with the name of celestial bodies (i.e., planets) or constellations came into use later on, once more elaborate cultural models were attained. It seems that even the worship of the sun, which used to be considered extremely ancient, actually played a secondary role in primitive religions and not an originating one. As time passed, the relative “passivity” of Uranian divinities gave way to telluric divinities, which are closer to mankind, more active, and more in tune with life’s daily necessities. Animism and totemism, therefore, represent a “fall” from the transcendence of heaven to the concreteness of life, with their worship of the spirits of the dead and the rise in the number of local divinities assigned to the manifold functions of protection and propitiation. In ancient Greece, this passage is paradigmatically represented by the replacement of the worship of Ouranos with that of Zeus, who took upon himself the characteristics previously attributed to the prior celestial Supreme Being. Uranian references, however, never abandon mankind’s religious language: They retain the common name of “god” (Lat. deus), whose possible etymological development goes back to words referring to “sky” and “daylight” (Indo-European dyeuh; Lat. dies), which can still be found in one of the names for Zeus, “Jupiter” (dyeuh-pater), “sky-father” or “Father of the sky.”
2. The Mythical-Religious Meaning of Some Celestial Bodies. It is certainly interesting to give a few examples of the richness of some of the mythical-religious content generated by the observation of the heavenly vault, in order to exemplify the importance of the sky and its phenomena in forming the primitive religious conscience of humanity.
The first we shall focus our attention on is the observation of the sun. Until the end of the 19th century, scholars considered the worship of the sun archaic and universal. After studies on the history of religions carried out in the 20th century, the importance of this cult was reconsidered and put into perspective. The only civilizations clearly involved in sun-worship were the Egyptians and the populations of Mexico and Peru on the American continent. It was more common that the sun was considered a hierophany (also called “solarization”): It became a sign, a reference, and a manifestation of the supreme god or of one god in particular. In any case, it was connected to human religious language as a symbol of an all-embracing vision (i.e., nothing can escape its eye), as the herald of the victory of light over darkness and heat over cold (seasonal, yearly, and even daily, where it is never vanquished), and as the sole protagonist of a majestic course, a heroic journey from one side to the other of the sky (symbolically associated with the chariot and the wheel). In the transition from a Uranian sacral context to a telluric one, the sun’s attributes progressively changed from being the source of life and heat to the symbol of fertility and richness.
Some attributes of the divine, or attributes somehow connected to the divine, were conferred upon the moon, but it was rarely worshiped for itself. Whereas the sun was automatically connected to the idea of stability and virile strength, the moon was connected to the idea of change, transformation, and inconstancy, and associated with feminine symbolism. Where the sun was referred to as life, blood, fire, or dry elements, the moon hinted at water, lymphatic liquids and the humid element in general, at vegetation, but also at death, whose pallor and transformation from being to non-being it symbolically embodied. The “closeness” to human reality of phenomena connected with the moon, that is, its regular cycles and its light variability, progressively led to the identification of a “sublunary sphere” affecting the living. “It might be said that the moon shows man his true human condition; that in a sense man looks at himself, and finds himself anew in the life of the moon. That is why the symbolism and mythology of the moon have an element of pathos and at the same time of consolation, for the moon governs both death and fertility, both drama and initiation. Though the modality of the moon is supremely one of change, of rhythm, it is equally one of periodic returning; and this pattern of existence is disturbing and consoling at the same time—for though the manifestations of life are so frail that they can suddenly disappear altogether, they are restored in the ‘eternal returning’ regulated by the moon. Such is the law of the sublunary universe” (Eliade, 1971, p. 184). It is obviously an archetype, which makes use of a long-lasting symbolism and an emotional appeal that reach out into the cosmology of the Middle ages and Renaissance, with its influence touching even our present time (as evident in the language of poetry, the arts, and music).
The primeval observation of planets, stars, and constellations did not generate what we would call, strictly speaking, religious indicators. Being cyclical in their course, such bodies did not represent good indicators for understanding the will or the orders of the celestial god. Comets were a different matter, since they were considered transitory events and were therefore more easily associated with a divine announcement of a good or bad omen (the cyclical character of their movements was discovered only later through further developments in astronomical observation and thanks to the historical record of past movements). The stars could therefore have a purely symbolic religious meaning, of protection and propitiation, by worshipping them in connection with the cyclical organization of seasonal activities, such as sowing and harvesting, hunting and fishing. Their importance was not limited only to civilizations having a stable dwelling place, where their role was easily identified with the regulating rituals connected to fertility; the stars, in fact, remained the main reference point for nomadic peoples as well and whoever traveled on earth or by sea. The wonder of the starry sky (which the dark nights of ancient times, where factories had still not taken their toll, must have exalted enormously) often provided the background for mythologies (see below, II). The wonderful pictures drawn by the imagination on the heavenly vault, by placing all stars at the same level in spite of their effective distance from the earth, enabled the description of characters, and sometimes of whole stories, with the heavens as their ideal and eternal theatre.
The sacral value assigned to a few peculiar and bright celestial bodies, whose positions were known in all geographic areas belonging to the same hemisphere, allowed their symbolic significance to be acknowledged on a universal level. They are the planet Venus, which periodically anticipates the rising of the sun or follows its setting; the star Sirius, because it shines brighter than any other fixed star; and the stellar group of the Pleiades, for their scenic peculiarity, easily noticeable by the naked eye. Their appearance and cyclical movement were associated with the main stages of the farming seasons, signifying different moments for populations living in different hemispheres or at different latitudes of the same hemisphere. With the turning of the seasons during the year, the same star could be read as a herald of the rainy season or the dry season, initiating different rituals accordingly. The Pole Star (Polaris) in the northern hemisphere, and the Cross of the South in the southern one, were the focus of special attention due to their pivotal position in the apparent daily rotation of the celestial sphere, which made them available as a stable orientation throughout the year. Among the many different constellations, Orion and the Great and Little Bears have been the subject of important myths for most peoples, due to the beauty of their perspective pattern and to the splendor of their component stars. The constellations the sun and the planets occupy in the course of the year bear a special symbolic meaning. They are known as the twelve constellations of the Zodiac, located where the Ecliptic (which identifies the orbital plane of the earth, and roughly that of the whole solar system) intersects the celestial sphere. Among them the most important are the four connected with those celestial points corresponding to the autumn and spring equinoxes, and the winter and summer solstices. However, the position of these celestial points has changed throughout the millennia due to the phenomenon of precession (caused by the perturbations the sun and the moon exert on the terrestrial orbit). Soaring magnificently through the whole celestial vault, the Milky Way is the perspective projection against the sky of the two spiral arms closest to us within our galaxy (i.e., the stellar system that the sun and all stars visible to the naked eye belong to). Nearly all ancient cultures associated the idea of the “way of the souls,” or “way of the spirits,” to the Milky Way, in accordance with the ancient belief that the sky is the home of those who have passed away (see below, IV).
It is of a certain interest to inquire whether it still makes sense today to speak of the persistence of a natural religious experience connected to the observation of the celestial vault, now that scientific knowledge of the observation of the cosmos has significantly modified mankind’s relationship with the sky. By saying this we are not referring to the process of the “de-sacralization” of the sky and its phenomena, since far before modern times this had already begun de facto with the diffusion of Christian Revelation in the pagan world, in ancient Greece and Rome. Rather, we mean that “reference to the sacred and the divine” that the sky has continued to arouse with positive effects even in the Christian tradition. Does such a reference still exist even in the experience of contemporary scientists? We believe it does, and it does in forms even more intense than those experienced by a common man or woman. To know what stars actually are, to understand the physical and chemical laws governing them, does not prevent the scientist from marveling again and again at their beauty. Carl von Weizsäcker expressed this by saying: “Such an experience as the one I made during that night cannot be expressed in words […]. In the glory beyond words of the starred sky, God was somehow present. At the same time I knew that stars are nothing more than spheres of gas, made of atoms and ruled by the laws of physics” (Über Religion und Naturwissenschaft, [Freiburg: 1992], p. 17). In his memoirs, Enrico Fermi tells the story of an event that left a durable impression on him. One summer evening, while outside, Fermi overheard the voice of a nearby farmer: “Italian farmers seldom speak,” writes the scientist, “and when they do, it is only to say something proper, something sensible, and sometimes wise. On that moonless night, full of stars, a solid-looking farmer was lying on the grass, with his eyes to the sky. The man suddenly broke the silence as if he were obeying a profound inspiration, and he said: ‘What a beautiful sky… to think that there are some people who say God does not exist’” (cf. M. Micheli, “Enrico Fermi e Luigi Fantappiè. Ricordi Personali,” in Responsabilità del sapere 31 (1979), pp. 21-23).
II. The Association between Celestial Phenomena and Human Lives according to Mesopotamian Astrology and Greek Polytheism
We have stressed how the cult of celestial bodies was not a primary religion: Celestial bodies were generally attributed a “religious meaning” related to human history, and sporadically became the object of an actual religion. This generic and multi-purpose tendency, present in many populations of the earth, to assign a special meaning to celestial phenomena and to the overall appearance of the sky, to the movement of the sun, the moon, and the planets on the background of the vault of the fixed stars is called “astralism.” Astralism, therefore, is not the same as “astrolatry.” Astralism simply offers the solemn context, that is, the background of the sky, for the “astralization” of a polytheist mythology. In other words, the sky is seen as the place that makes the presence of the gods, easily associated with constellations and planets, eternal, together with the memory of their deeds. It becomes the scenario they use to communicate their will and their warnings to mankind. This transition, which through the centuries gave rise to a derived astrolatry as its consequence, led some scholars to believe that the whole pagan mythology, and even religions in general, had an astral origin. This idea has its origin in 18th century studies, and during the 19th and 20th centuries it converged into the German schools of “mythology of nature” and studies on myths, generating a broad phenomenological framework called “astral panbabilonism.” This picture was reduced in scope and breadth once researchers discovered that an actual sophisticated astralism appeared much later (VIII-VII century B.C.), even though astronomical observations did begin early on in the Assyro-Babylonian area (II millennium B.C.).
1. Two Different Ways of Relating to Celestial Bodies. All ancient astrology is referable to the Mesopotamian Middle East, and it later spread to the surrounding areas before reaching Greece. It had two main manifestations, which chronologically appeared one after the other. The first is commonly called omina, which means “divination” (Lat. omen, “omen, vaticination”) and it refers to the study of celestial bodies, their appearance and movement, as “indicating signs” of future earthly events. The sphere of the celestial world used to be considered a reflection and an anticipation of what was about to happen, or had already happened, on the earth. This persuasion gave a strong impetus for the practice of precise astronomical observations since these would endow the observer with the capacity to identify predictable celestial phenomena (eclipses, planetary conjunctions, etc.). The most ancient documents containing omina are the Babylonian tablets of Enuma Anu Enlil (ca. 1800 B.C.). These tablets quote a massive amount of astrometric observations, primarily the canon of lunar eclipses. Celestial phenomena were considered indications of future events desired by the gods, but there is no causal relationship between the two elements. An eclipse or a planetary conjunction do not “cause” a war or a famine; they simply predict it and proclaim it, so that it may be possible to make the necessary preparations. The achievement of such knowledge allowed the first astronomers to form a priestly class closely linked to political and religious powers (if not directly dependent on them).
The second manifestation refers to “astrology” itself, which later spread to the Hellenic world and aimed to study celestial phenomena and warn humankind about the “influx” of celestial phenomena on human life and activity. This is a case of a causal relationship. The sky is no longer looked at as the mirror of future events but as the seat of divine powers intertwining with the fate of humanity and directing it as it pleases. The sky became the expression of humankind’s increasingly “existential” relationship with its gods. The complete “astralization” of the Greek pantheon further helped this process: Whereas in Babylonian astrology, constellations were used to indicate specific peoples or to reflect earthly situations, in the Hellenic context constellations, as did all celestial bodies in general, came to be identified with the gods, demi-gods, and heroes, and with the rich dowry of their stories that intertwined with the fate of human beings. The language of contemporary astronomy seems to have preserved a trace of these two ancient astrologic traditions, the Assyro-Babylonian and the Greek. In fact, the names of most stars (positional astronomy) have Arab names (Mizar, Aldebaran, Alcor, Betelgeuse, etc.), whereas constellations (mythology) have Greek or Latin names.
Hellenic astrology immediately developed a horoscope connecting a person’s birth to the position occupied in that moment by the sun in a set (fixed) constellation, which was associated to the presence, or absence, of planets or other (moving) celestial bodies in the same constellation. The different meanings attributed to different planets (war, love, peace, fecundity, etc.) provided the rules to predict that person’s future and destiny. The pattern, drawing together those meanings symbolically recalled by the planets, could also be used to predict or inquire if it were convenient or not to undertake certain actions, according to what the sky looked like. This fascination with the sky has enabled certain irrational beliefs to be transmitted even to our times, in a manner which brings about the collapse of religiosity into magic: Once the respectful perception of the sacredness of nature is lost, the latter is debased and distorted and used for the needs and whims of the individual.
2. Astrology and the Judaeo-Christian Tradition. Astrology was harshly condemned by the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition, both due to the elements of astrolatry it contained and for its fatalistic Hellenic distortion. Since the beginning of its progress through history, the Judaeo-Christian tradition focused on both the uniqueness and transcendence of God, separate from the world, and on the role of personal freedom and responsibility in any human activity. By intentionally omitting the names of the sun and the moon in the biblical passage of “creation in six days,” in chapter one of the book of Genesis (cf. Gen 1:16), the sacred author took his stand against astrolatry. In the first Christian evangelization, the Fathers of the Church affirmed this condemnation. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) criticized those who do not worship the true God and instead “worship animals, and therefore bodies; and they first select the most beautiful, and among them the wondrous celestial bodies. Hence, they meet the body of the sun, and many stop there. Some consider the splendor of the moon worthy of being worshipped: truly it is closer to us, they say, therefore its beauty is believed to be closer, as well. Others add the bodies of other asters and the whole sky with its stars” (De Vera Religione 37, 68). It is interesting that Augustine does not condemn the astronomy of his times, capable of predicting eclipses and other celestial phenomena. On the contrary, the Bishop of Hippo reveals his appreciation for it, though he does lament the fact that scholars dedicated to the observation of the sky had not elevated themselves to the knowledge of their own Creator (cf. Confessiones V, 3, 4-5). Another remarkable Augustinian passage against astrology is that presented in his work De civitate Dei (cf. Book V, 1-8).
Speaking against astrolatry, Pope Leo the Great (440-461) made a distinction between the ancient cult of the Greek and Latin feast of Sol Invictus (on December 21, the winter solstice, when the sun starts increasing its point of elevation along the horizon once again) and the celebration of the Christian Christmas: “Having therefore so confident a hope, dearly beloved, abide firm in the faith in which you are built: lest that same tempter whose tyranny over you Christ has already destroyed, win you back again with any of his wiles, and mar even the joys of the present festival by his deceitful art, misleading simpler souls with the pestilential notion of some to whom this our solemn feast day seems to derive its honor, not so much from the nativity of Christ as, according to them, from the rising of the new sun. Such men’s hearts are wrapped in total darkness, and have no growing perception of the true Light: for they are still drawn away by the foolish errors of heathendom, and because they cannot lift the eyes of their mind above that which their carnal sight beholds, they pay divine honor to the luminaries that minister to the world [...]. For though they possess a wondrous beauty, yet they have no Godhead to be worshipped. That power then, that wisdom, that majesty is to be adored which created the universe out of nothing, and framed by His almighty methods the substance of the earth and sky into what forms and dimensions he willed. Sun, moon, and stars may be most useful to us, most fair to look upon; but only if we render thanks to their Maker for them and worship God who made them, not the creation which does Him service” (Sermones XXII, 6).
Many pages of the Old Testament explicitly criticize astrological practices, such as in a well-known passage from Isaiah: “You yourself with many consultations, at which you toiled from your youth; Let the astrologers stand forth to save you, the stargazers who forecast at each new moon what would happen to you. Lo, they are like stubble, fire consumes them; They cannot save themselves from the spreading flames. This is no warming ember, no fire to sit before” (Is 47:13-14; cf. Jer 10:2). Even in the New Testament there are precise admonitions along the same lines, such as St. Paul’s exhortation to leave aside “observing days, months, seasons and years,” meaning the practices connected to celestial cyclical cults and the myths of fertility (cf. Gal 4:8-11). Among the Apologetic Fathers of the Church, Tatian’s (c. 125-c. 189) Oratio contra Graecos deserves special attention, because it contains specific references against astrology: “For [they think] the delineation of the zodiacal circle is the work of gods. And when the light of one of them predominates, as they express it, it deprives all the rest of their honor; and he who is now conquered, at another time gains predominance. And the seven planets are well pleased with them, as if they were amusing themselves with dice. But we are superior to Fate, and instead of wandering demons, we have learned to know one Lord who wanders not; and, as we do not follow the guidance of Fate, we reject its lawgivers [...]. Let them have their Fate! I am not willing to adore wandering stars” (Address to the Greeks, nn. 9-10). Similar statements are found in many other works of the Fathers of the Church, such as Gregory of Nissa (cf. Contra Fatum, III-XIV), Basil of Cesarea (cf. Hexaemeron, VI, 5-7), Ambrose of Milan (cf. Hexaemeron, VI, 4, 12-19), Origen (cf. Contra Celsum, V, 10-13). The two basic ideas contained therein are always the same: to defend the moral responsibility associated with human freedom and to show the irrationality of the way of reasoning endorsed by astrologists.
Among the documents of the Magisterium of the Church from the first centuries, there are words of condemnation against astrology and the use of zodiac rules in the Synods of Toledo (400) and Braga (561) (cf. DH 205; 459-460), and during the pontificate of Leo the Great (cf. Quam Laudabiliter, 21.7.447, DH 283). It is significant that during the Renaissance, Pope Pius II (1458-1464) had to condemn, against Zanino de Solcia, the tenet “that Jesus Christ suffered and died, not for the redemption of the human race due to His love for the human race, but by the law of the stars” (DH 1364). Religion is never immune from the risk of being infiltrated by astrology. In contemporary times, this risk exists in the crevices of secularization, since a secular culture is unable to answer humankind’s existential questions except by providing surrogates, which happen to go along well with the laws of the market and the limited scientific formation of many, even in industrially developed worlds. A consumerist culture makes men and women used to obtaining whatever they yearn for among their material desires and leads them to believe the same is possible in the sphere involving the life of the spirit and human freedom. This makes them vulnerable to the degeneration of faith and prayer into superstition and the degeneration of religion into magic.
III. References to the Sky and to the Celestial Bodies in Sacred Scripture
1. The Sky in Natural Religious Language and the God of Israel. Since the language of the Holy Scriptures partakes in the common religious language used by humanity to refer to the sacred and to the divine, we should not be surprised if it evokes images close to other religious traditions in connecting “celestial attributes” with the biblical image of God. Hence, thunder is Jahveh’s powerful voice (cf. Ps 29:3-9), lightning proclaims his saving actions (cf. Ps 77:18-19; Jb 38:35) and clouds are the dust on his feet (cf. Na 1:3). The sun’s journey through the sky becomes the image of God’s glory, the “sun of justice” (cf. Ps 19:6-7), which the New Testament reads in a clearly Christological way: The proclamation of the Messiah, in the context of the birth of John as the Messiah’s precursor, is the proclamation that “the daybreak from on high will visit us, to shine on those who sit in darkness and death's shadow” (Lk 1:78). Similar to other religions, the God of the Bible considers the rainbow a sign of his peaceful alliance with Noah (cf. Gen 9:13-16) and meteorological events precede some of his most solemn teophanies (cf Ex 19:16-20; Is 30:30). Yet, in Exodus the sacred author, in referring to the “sapphire tilework, as clear as the sky itself,” notes that this phrase, far from being adequate, is simply the “least inadequate” image that can be used to describe where Jahveh “placed his feet” in his main Sinai teophany (cf. Ex 24:10).
It is important to note that, contrary to most extra-biblical divine revelations, celestial or meteorological phenomena are not the normal manner chosen by the God of Israel to reveal himself. He mainly manifests himself through his “word” (Heb. dabar). When biblical teophanies make use of Uranian or telluric elements, as for instance in the extraordinary Sinai teophany, this is nothing but a way of “pointing listeners to the word” and introducing it with great solemnity (cf. Ex 16:10-11). In such a context, by resorting to special signs belonging to typical religious language, such as smoke, fires, trumpets, earthquakes, etc., the sacred writer intends to make his addressees feel the same feelings and undergo the same religious experience perceived by those who actually witnessed divine revelation by approaching the God of Israel and the solemnity of his word. The people of Israel, therefore, do not recognize God’s will by interpreting external celestial or meteorological signs (i.e., thunder, lightning, observation of the sky, etc.), but rather they do so by listening to what he says. This is the constant exhortation of the prophets, which becomes Jesus’ summons: “Hear (Heb. sema‘) O Israel…” (cf. Dt 6:4; Mk 12:29), the distinguishing mark of the Jewish people’s dearest prayer.
Similarly, the opposition between light-sky and darkness-abyss, a widespread image in universal religious language used to depict the struggle between good and evil, is present in Scripture, but in its own way. In Genesis, the universe is not “born” as the result of a cosmic battle between light and darkness, as is common in Mesopotamian literature. It is born from the word of God. Mesopotamian literature offers only a background and a lexicon for the biblical narration. In many pages of the Bible, furthermore, darkness also stands for quiet, mystery, and silence, the expectation and prelude to God’s revelation. In the New Testament, the “kingdom of darkness” means evil as an obstinate opposition to God. Its paradigm is Satan, but the background picture of this conflict is not a fatalistic clash of opposing principles. The Gospel of John and especially its Prologue, packed with memories from Genesis, clarify that behind this conflict lie human sin and the tragedy of human freedom that do not open up to the word and grace of salvation (cf. Jn 1:4-5, 8-11).
2. Biblical References to the Sky and Their Principal Meanings. In Sacred Scripture, the “sky” remains closely related to God, although with different expressions and meanings, according to the different epochs in which the books were written. At the beginning, heaven is God’s dwelling-place and sanctuary (cf. Ps 33:13-14; Is 66:1; Mt 6:9). It is not a place so transcendent as to make him distant from humankind and its needs: “The Lord looked down from the holy heights, viewed the earth from heaven, to attend to the groaning of the prisoners, to release those doomed to die” (Ps 102:20-21; cf. also Is 66:2; Mt 6:11). Because of its immenseness, the sky is often referred to in order to help humankind understand the greatness of God’s promises: The stars in the sky, whose number is incalculable, are the measure of the descendants God will grant Abraham, by whom all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves (cf. Gen 22:17-18; Dt 1:10). In the Old Testament, especially in the most ancient books, God’s name is rarely substituted by the sky, though his blessing and salvation do come “from the sky” (cf. Gen 49:25) and he calls Abraham and his elected ones “from the sky.” Only in later times (cf. 1Mc 3:18-19 and 4:55) and particularly in the New Testament, influenced by the Jews’ respect for the name of God, the sky slowly becomes a synonym for what belongs to God and for God himself (see, for instance, the substitution of “kingdom of God” with “kingdom of heaven” in the Gospel according to Matthew). Jesus himself, who comes from the Father and returns unto him, descended from heaven and shall ascend to heaven (cf. Jn 3:13; 6:62; Mk 16:19); his body, offered through the mystery of the Eucharist, is bread “that came down from heaven”; in his baptism in the Jordan, heaven was opened (cf. Lk 3:21). In the testimony of the Acts of the Apostles Stephen, the first Christian martyr, saw the heavens opened moments before his passion (cf. Acts 7:55-56).
The God of the Bible is certainly a “God of heaven” (cf. Gen 24:3; Neh 1:4), but he dwells above what is considered the place where the waters, snow, and lightning are because he is “God of the heaven of heavens” (cf. Dt 10:14; Neh 9:6). From a cosmological point of view, the “dome,” or rather, the “dome of the sky” (cf. Gen 1:14; 1:17; 1:20) indicates the place where the stars are. It represents a vault, which is spread out or stretched out, according to the ancient Jewish pattern of a tent-house covering the earth, and closing the visible borders, up to the sea and the visible horizon. The sky is the upper limit enclosing human existence, and the earth is the place of everything that “happens under the sky” (cf. Gen 7:19). Generally speaking, Jewish cosmogony is rather sober: There are not the complex, spherical hierarchies that characterize the Hellenic world, even though there is an idea of the sky’s “stratification.” There must be some kind of order in God’s works and in the praise they raise to him. Even angels, whose creation theologians sometimes consider present in the first part of the binomial “heaven and earth,” take part in this praise (cf. whole Ps 148).
The binomial just quoted, especially the revelation of the God of the Bible as “creator of heaven and earth” (cf. Gen 1:1), is one of most powerful focal points for the term heaven/sky. This “profession of faith” in the creator of heaven and earth is like a refrain through the whole Old Testament (cf. Gen 2:4; Gen 14:19; Ex 20:11; Esth 4:17; Is 37:16; Jer 32:17; Ps 114:15; etc.) and it also echoes throughout the New Testaments (Acts 14:14; Rv 14:7). Clearly presenting the sky as the work of God—something “he made” and “he created”—Sacred Scripture ascribes a great originality to the God of Israel, when compared with other extra-biblical religious traditions. The originality does not concern the lack of celestial, divine attributes, which indeed exist and contribute to the forging of an adequate language for transcendence, but regards the affirmation that the sky, the earth, and everything they contain all exist in absolute dependence on God the Almighty and Creator. The invocation to the one “who made heaven and earth” is often presented as a form of anti-idolatry. The fact that God is the Almighty Creator of everything is what distinguishes the God of Israel from the false gods, since “these gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens,” and only Yahweh is “He who made the earth by his power, established the world by his wisdom, and stretched out the heavens by his skill” (Jer 10:12). In the New Testament, God’s sovereignty over “heaven and earth” becomes a clear reference to the Incarnate Logos and to his Paschal mystery: The Logos is a Word which remains stable for all ages, whereas “heaven and earth shall pass” (cf. Mt 5:18; Mk 13:31; Lk 21:33). It is a Word capable of bringing “reconciliation” (cf. Col 1:20), “bringing under one head” (cf. Eph 1:10), and leading unto the Father through the Spirit “all things in heaven and on earth.”
Finally, because of the indirect associations it generates in scientific minds, it is interesting to look into the episode of Jesus’ life when the Pharisees asked him to show “a sign from heaven,” from God’s dwelling-place, in order to have “testable” proof of his divinity (cf. Mt 16:1-4). Jesus answers them with an analogy, saying that just as men are capable of reaching veritable truths regarding the weather and atmospheric changes from the “observation of the sky,” they should be able to do the same by recognizing the equally eloquent signs revealing God’s presence among them. The ultimate “sign” will be his death and Resurrection (cf. Mt 12:39-40; Jn 2:19-22). It is hard for humankind to recognize this, as other passages of the Gospel demonstrate (cf. Jn 15:22-24), not due to the ambiguity or obscurity of the signs, but due to sin.
3. The Celestial Bodies. Scripture mentions the stars of the sky about forty times. On some occasions, it refers specifically to the names of planets, stars, or constellations. The purpose is obviously not scientific. It is to bear witness to the presence of an environmental and linguistic context, that of the starry sky, which is so important for human life and thought as to accompany the history of salvation and its narrative forms. With regard to implicit, or even hidden, astronomical references, some authors have stated there are much more than is commonly thought, but unfortunately there are at the present moment no extensive and convincing studies on the subject. An analysis of this kind may be performed on those biblical pages that make use of apocalyptic language, as in some chapters of the Prophetic Books and in the Book of Revelation. By mentioning “four living creatures,” immediately recognizable as a Bull, an Eagle, a Lion and a Man (cf. Rv 4:4-7; cf. also Ez 1:5 and 10:14), the author of Revelation may be suggesting the four constellations corresponding to the spring and autumn equinoxes and summer and winter solstices at the time (the Man would indicate Aquarius, and the Eagle could easily refer to a bit north of Scorpio). In the same way, by mentioning the legendary “Nimrod, a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord” (Gen 10:9), the writer may be referring to Orion, a well-known constellation to the Jews and surrounding populations.
The Book of Job, which refers to a human context outside the people of Israel, of a broader scope and paradigmatic meaning, contains two well-known passages where Pleiades, the Great Bear, and Orion are mentioned (cf. Jb 9:7-9; 38:31-32), and perhaps the constellations of the Dragon and Snake (cf. Jb 26:13). The verse mentions “the constellations of the south” (Jb 9:9) close to where reference is made to other constellations, perhaps suggesting extremely luminous constellations in the austral sky, the Cross of the South and the Centaur. For a very short time of the year, they could actually be seen even from Palestine, very low on the horizon, perhaps thanks to favorable conditions of the celestial latitude created by the equinox precession in the past. The Book of Amos, concerned with the idolatry of neighboring peoples, states that God made Pleiades and Orion (cf. Am 5:8), condemning the worship of two gods, Siccut and Chiiòn (cf. Am 5:26) associated to a star (perhaps the planet Saturn). In a similar ambit of anti-idolatry, King Josiah’s religious reform dismissed all the pseudo-priests “who burned incense to Baal, to the sun, moon, and signs of the Zodiac, and to the whole host of heaven” (2Kgs 23:5). Yahweh’s sovereignty over all celestial bodies is stressed also by the fact that he “calls them by name and they obey him” (cf. Is 40:26; 45:12 and 48:13; Bar 3:34). It is not their eternal movement that fatalistically conditions human life; rather, it is God himself who makes use of them as instruments for his plans of good and Providence through natural laws that only he knows, and which he has assigned to their movement. Other passages from the Wisdom Books refer to the heavenly bodies that exalt the beauty of Creation, and ask the sky, the sun, and the stars to sing their praise to God, the Creator of everything, to move humankind to join their song of praise (cf. Ps 8:4-5; Ps 19:27). A passage from the Book of Sirach requires special mention: The appearance of the sun, the moon, and the stars are used systematically within a solemn hymn in praise to the glory of God (cf. Sir 43:1-12).
Among the New Testament passages referring to the sky and its phenomena, there is, of course, Matthew’s episode about the appearance of a star which led the Magi to Bethlehem. They are said to have recognized the time of the Messiah’s birth by observing (and perhaps foreseeing) an astronomical phenomenon in its development even outside Palestine (cf. Mt 2:1-12). It probably derives from a prophecy present in the Old Testament (cf. Nm 24:17), read and interpreted in a manner quite similar to what would have been done in the context of the Babylonian omina (cf. above, II.1). The sky is again referred to in the New Testament when St. Paul compares the diverse splendor of the stars in the sky to the diverse conditions of the bodies of the risen (cf. 1Cor 15:41). We also find close associations with the sky in Jesus’ eschatological speeches (cf. Mk 13:24-25; Mt 24:29; Lk 21:25) where that which occurs to celestial bodies at the end of the age is presented as the sign and object of a final transformation, with consequences even at a physical level. It is harder to interpret the many references to different “stars” in the Book of the Revelation, particularly because of the allegorical language it employs (cf. Rv 1:16.20; 2:1; 8:10-12; 9:1; 12:4). The manifold meaning of such language might provide reference to astronomical objects in many different pages. However, it is still the archaic Jewish cosmogonic model that seems to back the whole description, rather than the Hellenic one (cf. Rv 6:14).
IV. Heaven in Theological Language
1. Scientific Thought and the Religious-Theological Notion of Heaven. In light of the biblical message regarding God’s transcendence and his sovereignty over creation, the transposition of God’s name with the word sky, which Scripture itself shows traces of (see above, III.2), has no implications regarding the divine nature as such. It simply represents, in theological language, one of the many ways of expressing a transcendent God and what belongs to him. This association has its roots in humankind’s natural religiosity and in its belief that the sky indicates and expresses highness and transcendence. However, such a connection with what is Uranian and celestial does not preclude the idea that transcendence may also be sought in the depths of one’s personal conscience, that is, “within,” rather than toward the “heights,” according to a path widely present in Scripture and in the Christian tradition. The two languages and the two paths, inner and outer, are complementary, like cosmology and anthropology, in accessing a natural knowledge of God.
It is, therefore, no surprise that religious terminology has made us accustomed to expressions where Heaven has a capital letter, such as God of Heaven, desiring Heaven, go to Heaven, to be in Heaven, angels and saints from Heaven, etc. The sky, heaven, is continuously looked upon as God’s dwelling place; it is used as a synonym for beatitude and eternal life and its meaning—it is interesting to stress this—reveals the persistence of a “locative” quality, somehow closer to natural religious language. This does not mean the identification of God with the sky, which was foreign to primitive religious sensitivity and is de facto absent from today’s religious language as well. The adjective “celestial” continues to indicate that which belongs to God and it refers to the semantic area proper to what is divine, e.g., celestial chorus, celestial music, celestial kingdom, etc. What lies “below the sky” is still qualified by the adjective “earthly.” In Psalm 115, and later in St. Paul, the two adjectives are correlative, within a dialectical opposition whose contrast does not necessarily indicate a conflict, but rather indicates a difference in roles and influence, spheres of autonomy, and the possibility of eschatological transformation: “May you be blessed by the Lord, who made heaven and earth. The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth is given to us” (Ps 115:15-16). And, in the context of the parallel drawn between Adam and Christ: “The first man was from the earth, earthly; the second man, from heaven. As was the earthly one, so also are the earthly, and as is the heavenly one, so also are the heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one” (1Cor 15:47-49).
For today’s scientific mind, references to a “God of Heaven,” and to whatever else the word Heaven still indicates on a religious level, could seem, at first glance, quite obsolete. A paradigmatic example of this (perhaps it is a little naïve or even ideological) can be found in what one of the first Russian cosmonauts said when he was in orbit around the earth and explained that, while he was in the sky, he had not found God. At an anecdotal level, one could note that a few years later, when Frank Borman, one of the astronauts of Apollo 8, was orbiting around the moon for the first time, he saw the wonderful azure image of the earth suspended in the darkness of the sky and chose to quote out loud some verses from Genesis and to say a prayer (cf. I. Barbour, Religion and Science [London: 1998], p. 195). The fact remains that the starry sky, once a distant and unreachable object of contemplation for humankind, has now become the object of scientific analysis and study, where human beings are present along with devices of human origin.
This somehow forces us to an awareness: Does insistence on the “celestial” attributes of the divine distance it from contemporary religiosity and diminish our capacity to turn toward it? Some authors, like J.A. Robinson (1919-1983) and P. Tillich (1886-1965), believed this to be the case. In place of a terminology that associates transcendence with highness, with the “Highest,” they sought other forms of expression, such as anchoring the highness-transcendence concepts of religious language to the “profundity” (Lat. altus, meaning “deep”) of being as another way of accessing the experience of the divine and making it understandable for the interlocutor. This approach, however, does not seem to provide a solution to problem, nor does it seem to be a step forward of any kind. Through such a process, we would actually be introducing a category very similar to the one we intended to set aside. It would still mean using an idea or an experience to anchor our language of transcendence (in this case, the experience of one’s inner conscience), when there is nothing illicit in doing the same with the concept of “sky,” since human beings have used it for millennia prior to the phenomenology of religion pondering it. The attempt to “de-mythicize” our language referring to God by avoiding categories that we consider obsolete is never completely feasible, since it is precisely by referring to a myth that our language can refer to what transcends it. Moreover, many of the attributes we find in the sky (infinity, immenseness, etc.) are not easily associated with the experience of limitedness and finiteness that in some way accompany human interior awareness. Finally, as we have seen, the two paths (inner and outer) should not necessarily be seen as alternative to each other.
2. Heaven as a Place and as a “Status.” A second question arises from those aspects of theological language expressing heaven as a “place,” as a word and a concept related to life after death. It is God’s eternal life, the presence of the Risen Christ “at the right hand of the Father,” the beatitude of those who participate and who will participate in the life of the One and Triune God. In this sense, “this perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity—this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed—is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1024; cf. 1023-1029). This issue is the subject-matter of eschatology, the “theology of the last things” (usually identified with four realities: death, judgment, hell, and heaven), but it also involves what is called “intermediate eschatology,” whose object is the study of the condition of the human soul as separated from the body and awaiting resurrection at the end of time. It must be said that in some theological formulations, the word “heaven” does bear the specific character of a “place,” in order to safeguard the realism of biblical language and, ultimately, the truth of the teachings that Revelation wishes to convey. To relegate such a word to a purely metaphorical context would fall short of expressing what God has revealed and promised. To consider the sky, or “the heavens,” as the “dwelling of God” is doubtless a metaphor, but the same cannot be said about the “existence of heaven” or the “promise of heaven,” that is, of a “future status of life” in which we partake in God’s very existence.
When we speak of heaven as the “place of God’s life,” in order to be coherent with the image of God conveyed by Holy Scripture (i.e., God as Almighty Creator, transcendent, etc.) we must not refer to it as “something which contains God,” but rather something “God contains.” Thomas Aquinas synthetically explained this by saying that “God's seat is said to be in heaven, not as though heaven contained Him, but rather because it is contained by Him” (“sedes Dei dicitur esse in coelo non sicut in continente sed magis in content,” Summa Theologiae, III, q. 57, a. 4, ad 1um). According to St. Thomas, what was termed the “empyrean sky,” which Medieval cosmology and iconography considered the seat of God, was a created reality (cf. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 66, a. 3), and the same must be said with regard to time (cf. Ibid., a. 4). Divine life, therefore, occupies no physical space, and it lasts for no physical time, though through the historical acts of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, space and time have been called to take part in the immanent life of God, to have a kind of “point of contact” with it. We cannot know the way in which this could happen, but we can “acknowledge” the fact that such a way exists and it has to belong to the mystery of the Word made flesh.
The condition of those souls enjoying the sight of God, and the future condition of the human being as a whole, that is, of the soul and the risen body, may be understood only in light of the Resurrection of Christ and the characteristics of glorified bodies, of which Christ’s risen body is the first-fruit. It is a condition that maintains continuity with the physical universe as we know it, but at the same time it transcends it and transfigures it. Aware of the powerful realism of Christianity in treating what refers to eternal life and the future status of human beings, and after having reflected on the convenience for risen bodies of having a “celestial localization,” St. Thomas adds that “rather than in the heavens, they are above all heavens, in order to be with Christ” (Summa Contra Gentiles, book IV, ch. 87). Beyond all the limits that any reference to the location of “heaven” in the divine life, in the glorified presence of Christ, or in the life of the blessed who contemplate God in him may necessarily have, the language used by theology seeks to underline the truth contained in what one believes, while setting aside any spatial or physical qualification.
We should therefore consider heaven as a “status,” rather than a place: “In the context of Revelation, we know that the ‘heaven’ or ‘happiness’ in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our meeting with the Father which takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit,” never forgetting that, “it is always necessary to maintain a certain restraint in describing these ‘ultimate realities’ since their depiction is always unsatisfactory” (John Paul II, General Audience, 21.7.1999). This makes it easier for us to understand how and why, in the life of grace, heaven begins on earth and any Christian who lives for Christ and in Christ may already experience the “things of heaven” in his or her historical and earthly condition. This is found, first of all, in the Eucharist and what it accomplishes in the Church and in all the faithful. “In this life, the contemplation of supernatural reality, the action of grace in our souls, our love for our neighbor as a result of our love for God—all these are already a foretaste of heaven, a beginning that is destined to grow from day to day” (St. J. Escrivá, Christ is Passing By [Dublin: 1974], n. 126). This realism is guaranteed by the perfect gift of the Holy Spirit, inhabiting the hearts of believers, not as a provisional aid, but rather as “the first installment of our inheritance” (Gr. arrabón), as a good which shall be brought to fulfillment and not substituted (cf. Eph 1:14; 2Cor 1:22). And all of this is in full accord with the stable and durable character of love (cf. 1Cor 13:13). Rooted in the historical gift of the Incarnation of the Son, Heaven’s mysterious presence on earth is brought about through the Spirit, whose mission in the world aims at preserving and spreading the fruits and effects of the Word made flesh. If it is true that our present history is developed in the eschatological expectation of “a new heaven and a new heart” (Rv 21:1), it is at least as much true that “what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him, this God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (cf. 1Cor 2:9-10).
Abbreviations and complete titles of the documents
Leo I, Quam laudabiliter, DH 283; DH 408; Synodus Bracarensis, DH 459-460; DH 1364; John Paul II, Audience: 21.7.1999, 28.7.1999, 5.8.1999; Spe salvi, 5, 13, 20, 35, 37.
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