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Obsolete liturgical language about cosmology and structure of universe


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#1 Lakis Papas

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Posted 18 November 2012 - 12:40 AM

Many ancient civilizations had the belief that the Universe has a multilayer structure. That oceans is the lower layer of the universe, on top of which the layer of earth is founded and that above earth there is the layer of stars which is called heaven.

This cosmic structure (with variation) was accepted by many peoples for many centuries as a fact. Ancient Hebrew cosmology followed this belief too. Thus in many OT scriptures there are references that comply to the multilayer cosmological structure. I mention here just two OT examples (there are many):"God spread out the earth upon the waters" (Ps. 136:6) and "he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers" (Ps. 24:2).

I do not wish to start a debate about the scientific progress of knowing the real structure of the universe and about the historical role of Church in this path.

When Church was founded at the Holy Pentecost (and for many centuries), the prominent cosmology was in accord to the tripartite universe--heaven, earth, and underworld ocean. So, when Church hymns and prayers were created by Christians, for many centuries, they adopted the cosmological terminology that was used by the OT because it was considered at the time that was corresponding to reality. Many Church Fathers also were presenting this three story cosmology in their homilies and writings when they had to talk about the structure of the universe.

Today, I am puzzled because Orthodox Church still uses this kind of language in worship. For example, there is a prayer that uses these words (it is included in baptism in case of necessity): "O Lord God Almighty, the Author of all creation, visible and invisible, Who made the heavens, the earth, and the sea, and all that is in them; Who gathered the waters together in one gathering; Who shut up the Abyss and sealed it by Your terrible and glorious Name; Who raised up the waters above the heavens: You have fixed the earth above the waters; You have established the sea by Your power; You have crushed the heads of the dragons in the waters. Therefore, who shall oppose You?"

The above prayer contains quotes from the OT, as is usually the case.

This out of date language is the only language that Church uses today regarding cosmology in worship. It can be considered as poetic reference to an old tradition, but there is an absolute lack of usage of a realistic language on this issue. In our days, a christian never glorifies God for the actual structure of the universe in worship, or when he/she uses a standard prayer book. If a Christian wants to refer to actual universe in his prayer then he must improvise and create sui generis type of prayers. The gift of making prayers is not mastered by many.

This kind of modernization problem in liturgical language is not unique in Christians, other religions face it too. But, I am interesting in Christianity. I do not set the issue of creating a new liturgical language. I wonder how to pray to my God through an anachronistic language that is not responding in any reality and all that it has is a reference to a mythical ignorance ?

I understand that Church gave a colossal and difficult fight to destroy mythical structures of the ancient world. I understand that Church gave a very difficult fight to overcome Jewish tradition. I understand that hymnographers and Church Fathers were always scrupulous about their work and they followed the scientific knowledge of their times.

I think this issue is of some importance.

If someone knows, please inform if there is an Orthodox prayer that refers to actual structure of the universe ?

#2 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 18 November 2012 - 09:02 AM

The Church’s scripture, patristic consensus, hymnography, and iconography (collectively Tradition) express our dogma, our faith. In relation to creation, they sometimes describe what happened in terms that may seem not to be in accord with current scientific belief or even apparently observable fact. But science itself, in such matters as how creation happened, has theories. In reality, nobody knows. We should not be quick to assume that current scientific thinking is superior to scriptural accounts and patristic comment thereon. Further, Tradition deals with creation not merely in terms of scientific knowledge but on the spiritual and mystical plane. Our prayers are likewise spiritual and mystical and ought not to deal with scientific knowledge (which may not always be true).

We know that the Father Almighty by His Word is maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. That is dogma. What the beginning of Genesis tells us is why God the Word became incarnate and why we need Him. That is what our prayers are about. Prayer that was based on current scientific thinking about creation could be subject to change if that thinking changed, and what then becomes of lex orandi lex credendi?

#3 Owen Jones

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Posted 18 November 2012 - 09:44 AM

It's quite simple for any Orthodox person: these are typologies. The heavens are not literally constructed as a vaulted ceiling. But the literal level of meaning is not what is most important. What is extremely important is to understand there being an overworld, an underwold, and an intermediate world (in between world) in typological terms rather than spacial terms. This defines what man is! He is an intermediate being. Unfortunately for most believers, this understanding of the human type is lost in debates over literalism. What priests are apparently not taught in seminary is to help people understand themselves and Biblical history in typological terms.

#4 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 18 November 2012 - 02:28 PM

I think that when we use such prayers, their language puts us into a specific sacred and liturgical context.

#5 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 18 November 2012 - 02:28 PM

This prayer is given as an example of ‘obsolete language’:

"O Lord God Almighty, the Author of all creation, visible and invisible, Who made the heavens, the earth, and the sea, and all that is in them; Who gathered the waters together in one gathering; Who shut up the Abyss and sealed it by Your terrible and glorious Name; Who raised up the waters above the heavens: You have fixed the earth above the waters; You have established the sea by Your power; You have crushed the heads of the dragons in the waters. Therefore, who shall oppose You?"


Much of it is far from obsolete but perhaps an expression such as ‘waters above the heavens’ is meant.

These words are from Psalm 148 which, like the Song of the Three Youths in Daniel 3:60-81, describes all creation praising God. Creation, like us, is in need of redemption. Creation is not outside the redeeming work which Christ accomplished by His resurrection and so is within the Church which tells us of the new heaven and new earth to come (Revelation 21:1). The Holy Fathers have speculated upon the meaning of the ‘waters above the heavens’ but there is no consensus about that meaning. We do not know the meaning of everything, nor do we need to; we should not think that what we do not understand does not exist. Let us not be proud or haughty but rather humbly acknowledge our ignorance: let us not exercise ourselves in great matters, or in things too high for us (cf Psalm 131:1), or speak of things we do not understand, things too wonderful for us to know (cf Job 42:3). Above all, let us not presume to know better than the Church which has given us such prayers with which to praise God along with all of creation.

#6 Owen Jones

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Posted 18 November 2012 - 05:39 PM

Let's be clear. The question (not necessarily the questioner) implies a critical method approach to the faith. I got three years of this in an EPiscopoal seminary. The underlying premise is that most of Scripture, both OT and NT, are mythical in structure, including the cosmological passages. And since modern man derives his knowledge from science, not myth, what you have to do is strip away the mythical to arrive at the true "Kerygma" of Scripture. Of course this premise is entirely bogus because the fact is that everyone lives according to certain myths and symbols. But the point of deconstruction ancient myth is to ask the question: what is its existential meaning to present day alienated beings. So, to take one example, Moses and the burning bush is a mythical construct. It has to be deconstructed of its myth and re-interpreted in existential terms: with Moses having had some kind of aha! moment where the meaning of his own personal existence came into clarity. And on and on.

Let's also be clear: the Apostles and the Church Fathers were not idiots. The understood what we have forgotton, that Holy Scripture is multilayered, as is reality. So any interpretation of Scripture has to take into account the literal/historical; the moral; and the mystical, with the latter being the highest level of understanding. Their aha! moment was when the Holy Spirit opened their eyes to the OT and they could see that God was working in and through the history of the Israelites (and the Greeks too perhaps) to prepare the world for the coming of the true Savior. And so Joseph's brothers tried to kill him, left him for dead, only for him to descend into Sheol (Egypt), be seated at the right hand of Pharoah, where he could prepare a home for his people when they were faced with destruction -- just to cite one example.

#7 Kosta

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Posted 18 November 2012 - 11:02 PM

Well this is the first time I've ever heard that the stars are the heavens.

The earth is a metaphor for the material (matter) and heaven a metaphor for the spiritual (invisible). There is evidence that the stars were believed to of been angels.

Not only do I not see the language being obsolete but that modern science has borrowed from it and has created more refined and fancier language. What's the difference between what the prayers say about the waters and the modern scientific word of "hydrosphere". Or what's the difference between saying firmament and atmosphere?

#8 Lakis Papas

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Posted 18 November 2012 - 11:47 PM

Well this is the first time I've ever heard that the stars are the heavens.
The earth is a metaphor for the material (matter) and heaven a metaphor for the spiritual (invisible). There is evidence that the stars were believed to of been angels.

Dear Kosta,


St Basil writes in "The Hexæmeron" (Homily ΙΙ): " We could also say of the heavens that they were still imperfect and had not received their natural adornment, since at that time they did not shine with the glory of the sun and of the moon and were not crowned by the choirs of the stars. These bodies were not yet created. Thus you will not diverge from the truth in saying that the heavens also were “without form.”"

It is the cosmology of Cappadocian Fathers that I am referring to.

#9 Archimandrite Irenei

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Posted 19 November 2012 - 01:22 AM

The following is superb:

Let's also be clear: the Apostles and the Church Fathers were not idiots. The understood what we have forgotton, that Holy Scripture is multilayered, as is reality. So any interpretation of Scripture has to take into account the literal/historical; the moral; and the mystical, with the latter being the highest level of understanding. Their aha! moment was when the Holy Spirit opened their eyes to the OT and they could see that God was working in and through the history of the Israelites (and the Greeks too perhaps) to prepare the world for the coming of the true Savior. And so Joseph's brothers tried to kill him, left him for dead, only for him to descend into Sheol (Egypt), be seated at the right hand of Pharoah, where he could prepare a home for his people when they were faced with destruction -- just to cite one example.



#10 Ben Johnson

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Posted 19 November 2012 - 03:07 AM

If we were to change the language to fit a more accurate view of the universe, how shall we do so? I remember just a few years ago that our solar system had 9 planets. Now science says it is 8. What will science say a few years from now? New discoveries here and there modify scientific theory, so I do not see how anyone can change what is written even if they wanted to.

#11 Owen Jones

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Posted 19 November 2012 - 04:03 AM

I find Orthodox cosmology to be deeply moving. Speaking of the sun and the stars as the adornment of the heavens! Isn't that beautiful? Who has the spiritual capacity to look at them that way today? Our minds have been sullied by the cynicism of scientific literalism. I would suggest reading the introduction to Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann for how to perceive the created order.

#12 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 19 November 2012 - 05:11 AM

To go further than Owen, I would say that I find it beautiful that our hymnography has not only human beings and angels praising God but also all the works of God, even inorganic nature which is not so inert as we think. I love such verses from the Sunday of the Cross in Great Lent as this: 'Let all the trees of the forest dance and sing, as they behold their fellow-tree, the Cross, today receiving veneration.'

#13 Owen Jones

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Posted 19 November 2012 - 01:44 PM

Great image, Andreas. Thanks. I can just see the typical biologist who got lost, stumbling into an Orthodox service and upon hearing those words saying to himself: this religion is ridiculous. trees don't dance and sing! But at the deepest spiritual level we know better.

#14 Archimandrite Irenei

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Posted 20 November 2012 - 02:06 AM

Well this is the first time I've ever heard that the stars are the heavens.


St Basil writes in "The Hexæmeron" (Homily ΙΙ): " We could also say of the heavens that they were still imperfect and had not received their natural adornment, since at that time they did not shine with the glory of the sun and of the moon and were not crowned by the choirs of the stars. These bodies were not yet created. Thus you will not diverge from the truth in saying that the heavens also were “without form.”"


Just on this specific point, St Basil does not consider the stars to be the heavens, but their adornment (as he states in the quoted passage).

INXC, ​Fr Irenei

#15 Archimandrite Irenei

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Posted 20 November 2012 - 02:11 AM

In all this, it is also important for us to remember that the function of liturgical / theological cosmology is not to explain the material basis and structure of the universe (what is generally considered as 'the science of the universe' in today's vernacular), but to restore in worshippers the vision of the spiritual realities of creation.

#16 Lakis Papas

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Posted 20 November 2012 - 02:35 AM

Mr Jones, Rdr Moran, I think that understand your point of view.

Allow me to ask a lengthy question (in an effort to clarify my first post):

I understand that every day life has dimensions that are bind to uncreated energies of God and are transformed and remodeled accordingly. I understand that Church hymnographers (and iconographers) try to utter and to present the ineffable through a mystical, symbolic, poetic, traditional and transcendental "language". In doing so, they use the arts of poetry, music, and painting. But always they use a "language" that it is faithful to what is the truth of the events.

Iconographers and hymnographers present: Holy Spirit as a dove, Moses in front of a bush, Christ on the Holy Cross. These presentations are actualities that have physical substance. Even presentations of prophetic visions are restricted to narration of natural images.

My point is that ancient people used the proper language of their time in their effort to present the picture of cosmos in relation to God and His energies. They were justified to believe what they believed. We know today, by scientific progress, that their picture of cosmos (tripartite universe) was wrong. As I said in a previous post I am referring to cosmology of Cappadocian Fathers, whose scientific scholarship I admire and respect (as I also venerate them as carriers of the Holy Spirit).

Today Church, in worship, is quoting saints of OT and of old Christian ages as they used a false language in picturing cosmos. By the way, I understand that our cosmos is the same true cosmos that is denoted by their false scientific language - I think this is very important.

Let's assume that scientific evidence proves (without doubt) that the bush that burned in front of Moses was not a bush, but it was a burning pomegranate tree. Then, I propose, we should honor the unveiled reality by conforming our hymnography accordingly and by using the proper verbal presentation of this event.

If the "burning bush" incident is "mythical in structure" (as Mr Jones properly analyzed), so is the "burning pomegranate tree" incident - if this was the actual plant in front of Moses. What made Moses "having some kind of aha! moment" ? -I take the liberty of using Mr Jones terminology here. Was it, the type of plant? What makes "Holy Scripture multilayered" ? Is the persistence to a certain false natural description of cosmos that makes Scriptures what Scriptures are ?

Μan is trying to know, relate with and describe Cosmos since day one of creation in a path that is worthy - and this journey is not over yet. I think this journey is a part of the "mythical in structure".

I think that the modernization of language regarding cosmology, does not betray the Spirit of saints of OT and of Christian saints. Neither does destroy "mythical in structure" and "mystical" perspective of scriptures. It just gives the proper prospect to natural realities that are being described through natural language.

#17 Deacon John Martin

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Posted 20 November 2012 - 04:52 AM

Let's assume that scientific evidence proves (without doubt) that the bush that burned in front of Moses was not a bush, but it was a burning pomegranate tree. Then, I propose, we should honor the unveiled reality by conforming our hymnography accordingly and by using the proper verbal presentation of this event.


Are you saying that we should sing about quasars and pulsars and string theory in our hymnography, and portray dark matter in our icons? What exactly are you aiming at here?

#18 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 20 November 2012 - 08:34 AM

to know, relate with and describe Cosmos


I think in our hymnography we are trying to relate not so much to the cosmos as to the Creator of the cosmos.

#19 Owen Jones

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Posted 20 November 2012 - 09:27 AM

Our hymnography is essentially non-literal. Mary is most certainly not a heifer! Yet our hymnography says she is! Neither is our iconography a literal representation. The whole point of our worship and its theological underpinnings is to help people see and experience divine things (which are in fact not things at all) in a non-literal way. And so I think rather than insisting that our hymnography be changed to conform to a literal representation of the cosmos, we should be encouraging one another to conform our minds to the way the Fathers saw things in their spiritual essence. Try it sometime. It can be very illuminating.

#20 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 20 November 2012 - 01:37 PM

Owen is right, of course, in post #19. I think we need to accept scripture, and commentary thereon, and hymnography in the right way, which is with the mind of the Church. Genesis is not poetry (though it may be poetic); commentaries may use the literary and rhetorical devices of their times; hymns may be poetic and likewise employ literary devices. But all this is by way of using analogy, that is, the use of comparison, correspondence, resemblance and parallels to create equivalence of attributes for the purpose of revealing and explaining realities. At its simplest, we see this in Christ's own use of metaphor - 'I am the door' - and simile - 'the kingdom of heaven is like'. Christ is not a 200 x 75 cm plank of wood; the kingdom of heaven is not buried in a field. It is the difference between scripture and hymnography on the one hand and the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis on the other. I assume all this is well known so I apologise for stating it.




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