Friday, Sept 27 | 9:00-10:50 am

Old Stories: Creation, Science, Poetry, Liturgy | Room 210

The Wisdom of Poetic Cosmology

Is poetry dead? Modern science, allied with various modern philosophies, gives birth to assorted cultural narratives (scientism, materialism, naturalism, atheism) that maintain a divorce between science and the arts. Poetry and the arts are ranked below the sciences, since the dominant narrative modes assert that the arts have lesser powers than science when it comes to clear apprehension of truth. There is thus a de facto dualistic bifurcation of narrative discourses within cultural consciousness: a split between what science says is ultimate truth, and what people really believe anyway. The wisdom of ancient cosmology, however, consisted in its genius for embracing a diversity of modes of speculation and for thus providing a unified poetic vision within the culture of a truly cosmic worldview. This paper examines four modes of theoretical speculation (cosmogony, anthropogony, theogony, and historiogenesis) and compares the results of modern science in four respective fields of speculation (the Big Bang, evolution, quantum field theory, and intercultural historiography) with the way these four speculative modes are integrated in the ancient Greek poetry of Hesiod. Hesiod’s poetic cosmology embraces all fields of theoretical speculation. Hesiod integrates the arts and the sciences into a holistic vision that is commensurate with the demands of human nature, thereby providing us with an ancient model of how artists might perhaps fulfill their duty today by serving culture with narrative modes of discourse that embrace all truth within an architectonic of poetic wisdom. This paper discusses how the wisdom within Hesiod’s poetry may even still be understood as not contradicting the latest results of modern science. Hesiod thus provides us with vivid examples of how poetry fittingly serves as a cultural repository of traditional wisdom. Examples treated include physical causation within Hesiod’s cosmos, the role of human competition, cosmic hierarchy, and the ages of man.

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Christopher S. Morrissey is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College, the Catholic liberal arts college at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, where he also teaches courses in the Latin language and in Greek and Roman history. He studied Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught courses in these languages and in other classical subjects at Simon Fraser University. His academic studies embrace philosophical theology, traditional metaphysics, perennial philosophy, sophia perennis, sophiology, Trinitarian non-dualism, and ancient cosmology. Morrissey’s translation of Hesiod’s poetry, Theogany and Works and Days, is available from Talonbooks.


Accidentally on Purpose: Re-Visioning Origin Narratives Through the Lens of Human Making

No narrative has had a greater role in shaping our individual and cultural identities than the Biblical story of God’s creation of the earth and all that lives on it.  For millennia, the Genesis account has framed our understanding of humanity, placing us at the center of a cosmic story that includes fall and eventual restoration, along with the initial good creation.  Moreover, the Biblical creation text has been an almost-inescapable model for how we think of human creative activity, too, not least artistic making and story-telling. As Dorothy Sayers has suggested, our ability to make things and tell stories seems to be inextricably tied with being made, ourselves, “in the image of God.”

Yet over the past 150 years, scientific accounts of earth’s geology and biology have been proposed as an alternative origins narrative, challenging the truth and value of the Biblical story and its connection of creativity with the Imago Dei.  It is now common to hear assertions that there is no meaning in the cosmic unfolding, nor anything intrinsically special about our human species: we are here by chance, and our art-making is biological epiphenomena or evolutionary adaptation, not a point of connection between ourselves and God.  If this is true, then our stories tell us nothing universally true about ourselves, much less about the meaning of the world we inhabit: human creativity can give no insight into God’s own processes.

But are modern scientific and ancient narrative accounts of creation and human identity incompatible? Might artistic practices illuminate commonalities between them? This presentation explores several contemporary visual and musical works whose makers engage both scientific and scriptural origin stories, suggesting that both chance  purposefulness are key to re-telling the grand narrative of the cosmos and giving a full account of human being, as well.

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Mark Sprinkle is a Richmond, Virginia-based artist, craftsman, writer, and curator. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his Ph.D. from the College of William & Mary in 2004, focusing on the sociology and phenomenology of art in local and domestic environments. Now again an independent painter and frame-maker, from 2009-2012 he was Senior Fellow, Arts + Humanities and then Senior Editor at the BioLogos Foundation, writing and editing work that addressed the intersection of Science and Christian faith in disciplines that included cosmology, geology, genetics, anthropology, biology, philosophy, theology, history, biblical studies, painting, music and poetry.


Mechtild of Hackeborn: Liturgy an/as Mystical Narrative

The sensually stunning mystical visions of the thirteenth-century Cistercian nun, Mechtild of Hackeborn, provide a window into the artfully imagined world of cloistered women in the Middle Ages. Her sacred, oral narrative, transcribed by two companions, details the relationship between the Heavenly and the religious community of the Helfta convent, and is suffused with sensuousness; sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures abound, a testament to the physical nature of these women's spirituality.

Typically, artistic discussions of Mechtild and her chronicle of visions, the Liber specialis gratiae, focus on her extraordinary visual imagery, and her emphasis on music in and outside of the liturgy. As scholars such as Carolyn Walker Bynum, and Mary Jeremy Finnegan have shown, Mechtild's role as musical director, or cantrix, of the convent significantly influenced her mystical narrative, providing specific liturgical times and texts for her visions as well as musical images, such as instruments, dancing, and choirs of saints and angels led by her cantorial counterpart in Heaven, Christ. In this paper, I expand on these, and other, initial forays into the musical narrative that Mechtild presents. I argue that not only do explicit liturgical texts present a framework around which Mechtild builds her narrative, but texts related to those specifically cited (such as corresponding Responsories or Verses) also provide an insight into her imagery and create a second, implicit layer to the liturgical narrative which her sisters, and members of other religious communities, would have been familiar.

This musico-liturgical facet is only one of the many diverse strata in Mechtild's religious narrative. Even today, Mechtild's life and visions inspire not just religious women but scholarly writers of medieval women, mysticism, Latin literature, and art. Now this exceptional woman can begin to find her place in the larger, more complex narrative of music history as well.

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Ilana R. Schroeder is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison pursuing her Ph.D. in historical musicology, under the direction of Dr. Lawrence Earp. Her research focuses on the interaction of the visual and literary arts with music, specifically in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Her dissertation, currently in progress, reevaluates the relationship between rhythm and poetry in the early Parisian conductus repertory. In her free time she takes up her first love, performance, playing violin/viola with local early music ensembles and researching performance practices of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

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