The blotted page of the book of nature

April 9, 2010 | 9 comments
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Despite a unique cosmology that has at times inspired artistic creation for a wider American audience, there is no Mormon astrology. Someone who knew Mormonism only through its scriptural texts might be forgiven for finding this omission curious.

After all, the biblical foundations for astrology in Christian tradition would seem only stronger in Mormon scripture. That God placed lights in the heavens for signs is found once in Genesis, but twice more in the Pearl of Great Price. The biblical verse was enough to give scriptural color to astrology for a millennium, with the seven planets imagined as God’s messengers, at least to those who were properly trained in the art of interpreting the heavens (and, as they would remind you, God would surely do nothing without revealing his secrets to his servants). The New Testament account of Christ’s birth also lent support to astrology, for if a star marked the appearance of the King of Heaven, then similar portents must surely foretell the advent of lesser kings and the fates of nations. The Book of Mormon takes the story one step further: the astronomical events do not just attend Christ’s birth, they also directly influence human matters of life and death, and so the astrological epistemology would seem complete: events in the divine realm affect the human sphere by way of the stars. And of course the Book of Abraham canonizes the idea of a divine cosmology with personified heavenly bodies at various distances from God governing the rest of the universe. The role of Oliblish would seem not very different from that played by Jupiter and Mercury from the Middle Ages into the seventeenth century.

Alas, there is no Mormon science of divining the future according to Kolob’s last gleaming. For the most part, this is the unsurprising consequence of our era, with scientific astronomy established and astrology in decrepitude for over three centuries, but it is also a consequence of how Joseph Smith and the milieu in which he lived looked at the world.

In a conference address, Joseph Smith made passing reference to the “blotted page of the book of nature” as something that limits human understanding of the divine law. The idea of the Book of Nature as one source of truth is at least as old as Augustine, and it was an idea that medieval astrologers repeatedly emphasized: God has written his will in the heavens as in a book, and the astrologers were the only ones trained to read it. This proposition was always controversial, but with the scriptural support of Genesis and other biblical verses for the notion that stars were heavenly signs, it was difficult to repudiate fully, and so a theologian like Pierre d’Ailly could be both a cardinal and an influential astrologer.

But in Joseph Smith’s formulation, the pages of the Book of Nature have become blotted: not perfectly corrupt, so that one could perhaps still recognize in it evidence of God’s creative power, but nevertheless blotted, so that the precise details of the Gospel were no longer apparent. (The parallelism of the complete passage also suggests that the Book of Nature is an imperfect but not utterly ruined medium for receiving knowledge, as it hypothesizes men who are “intelligent, learned, virtuous and lovely, walking in uprightness and in all good conscience, so far as they have been able to discern duty from the muddy stream of tradition, or from the blotted page of the book of nature.”)

Quite apart from short-circuiting the rise of a professional class of Mormon astrologers (to answer such questions as, “on what day of the month will my home teaching be most effective?”), the limited revelatory potential of the Book of Nature in Mormon thought makes imperfect Romantics of us, as Nature ceases to be a way to experience unmediated truth. We expect no illumination from looking up in perfect silence at the stars. If there is truth to be gleaned from the heavens, it requires the painstaking work of a learned astronomer.

9 Responses to The blotted page of the book of nature

  1. Gerald T on April 9, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    What about http://www.johnpratt.com/items/docs/lds/meridian/2006/48constellations.html
    From John P. Pratt who writes a monthly column for Meridian Magazine giving one L.D.S. perspective on current science. He has a Ph.D. in astronomy and specializes in religious chronology and ancient calendars.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on April 10, 2010 at 7:42 am

    Great post, Jonathan, as always, but Gerald T. anticipated my response. If we expand our definition of “astrology” to include various sorts of ostensibly “scientific” attempts to interpret historical and current events in light of heavenly signs, I think Mormon culture might indeed have an astrological aspect after all. And of course, this doesn’t even touch upon various folk astrologies, spun by armchair students of the scriptures without any pretense of learned expertise. Am I the only Mormon who had older relatives who, when prompted, would explain Joseph Smith’s “one eternal round” by reference to the orbit of planets, the predicted return of comets to our solar system, and the like? Maybe that’s something localized to Vernal, Utah, but I kind of doubt it.

  3. Jonathan Green on April 10, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Gerald, thanks for the link. Clearly my knowledge of Mormonism’s undercurrents is not what I thought it was.

    My first reaction was, “Whoa, that’s some pretty thick cr*p.” It betrays a lack of imagination on my part, but I’m just not willing to go chasing down the rabbit hole to figure out the internal logic of that project. That it gets published in Meridian is, frankly, shocking. Considering McConkie’s unambiguous thoughts on astrology, I would never have imagined that someone would decide that we needed a good, Mormon version to replace the evil, superstitious kind of astrology. Yeah, lack of imagination on my part and all that.

    But, on second thought, maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising. If there’s tension between textual possibility and current teaching, someone or other is bound to notice. Tension implies two contrary forces, and some people will inevitably find one side or the other more sympathetic. The intellectual path that ends in astrology hasn’t entirely ceased to function.

    So perhaps this merely exposes another type of tension in Mormon culture. If we invest the cosmos with meaning, most people will read in it simply a sign of God’s grandeur, but others will find more baroque interpretations. I would still maintain that an elaborate astro-religious reading of the stars would not be found among the apostles or seventies, that we’re still not about to have a Mormon Pierre d’Ailly, because for us the Book of Nature is blotted, not transparent.

    But what do I know? So tell me: where else does Mormon culture–high or low, Mormon Corridor or Mission Field, from the pulpit or in fading copies–intersect with astrological notions?

  4. eremite on April 11, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    One of my ancestors (William Kilshaw Barton) believed in a Mormon Astrology.

    Grandfather was a student of astrology. He either knew more about the subject than any man I know of, or else he entertained some ideas that today – 1966 would be considered unorthodox or unacceptable. Father Abraham seemed to have a great knowledge of the stars and I suspect that no living man knows all there is to know about them. However, and in spite of what others may think or say, this story came down to me from my own father. Said he:

    “My brother, James, lost a span of very fine mules. He hunted several days for them, but to no avail. Those mules seemed to have vanished. So James came to his father and told him of the loss of his mules. My Grandfather is reported to have said, ‘Come back in the morning. I may have some information that will help you.’ Then as night settled, my Grandfather took his priceless telescope out under the stars. He studied the heavenly bodies most of the night and wrote down his findings.

    The next morning James returned to receive the help he expected from his father. Grandfather said, ‘James, ride out towards the resevoir. When you get a little beyond the brick yard turn down the lane to the right, the first lane. You will meet a man on top of a load of hay. Ask him if he has seen your bay mules and he will tell you where they are.’

    James did as he was told, and when he halted the man riding on the top of the load of hay, he asked the man if he had seen a span of bay mules. The man said, ‘Why yes, I saw a span of mules right back there,’ and he pointed towards a willow patch. ‘The mules are lying down just the other side of those willows.’ James rode through the field and as the man said, there were the mules.”

    This story seems too unreasonable to accept as fact, but this is the story my own father told me, and he seemed to be very sincere about the whole matter. Grandfather believed that the heavenly bodies exercised some kind of mystic control over man on earth. He often spent hours out under the stars with his telescope. He speaks of charting some person’s life in the diary which he wrote.

    One example from the diary:

    I worked an astrological figure for Unica Bram and gave judgement she would die, I believed about the middle of July unless saved by the power of the Priesthood. She died Seventeenth July.

    The full text is available online at http://mark-bodell.net/barton_histories/williamkilshaw.html

  5. Jonathan Green on April 12, 2010 at 8:20 am

    Thanks, eremite, that’s fascinating. I suppose while we’re in the process of reducing the hypothesis of my post to dust, we could mention the attempts to prove that Christ really was born on April 6. Even if the method doesn’t deal directly with stars, there are fewer things closer to the purposes of medieval astrology that pinning down precise dates for biblical events, to which cosmological cycles can then be affixed.

    Any more?

  6. Adam Greenwood on April 12, 2010 at 10:35 am

    JG,

    This is a very good post, and of course Eremite is a blackguard whom all true saints refuse to countenance. :)

    I’ve sometimes thought that the idea of dispensations would fit pretty well with an astrological mindset too, if you take them to be an ordered, ritualistic progression, as implied by the Book of Revelations.

  7. Jonathan Green on April 12, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Adam, yes, dispensations are one more nail in the coffin for my post. This isn’t to say that dispensational periodization is necessarily astrological, but rather that it fits perfectly well with astrology, and all it takes is a little stargazing to fill in the rest. Squint at the star of Bethlehem the wrong way, and you end up halfway down the path of charting the Second Coming.

  8. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 12, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    I just read a book about Nicolaus Copernicus. It had some fascinating information, such as that he made his living as a canon of a cathedral in eastern Prussia, now part of Poland, which meant that he and seven other men were bureacrats who ruled a province on behalf of his uncle, the bishop; that he was criticized by his uncle’s successor for keeping a mistress who was ostensibly his housekeeper; that he did not publish his magnum opus on his sun-centered universe until he was very old, receiving the first copy of the book on his deathbed.

    One of the most intersting aspects of the story was that, at that time, the sciences of astronomy and astrology were very much a single branch of knowledge. Besides the basics of celestial navigation (which didn’t fully come into its own until they had decent clocks that could enable the determination of longitude), the primary reason that astronomers like Tycho Brahe could get huge subsidies from bishops and kings was because the more accurate their predictions of the movements of planets against the fixed stars, the more precise they could amke their astrological predictions. Astronomical research was driven most of all by a desire to predict the future, to find some rational, calculable basis for making decisions on issues of great import. Astronomy was a means of providing more accurate input to the machine of astrology, which was basically “applied astronomy”.

    Astrological predictions played a role in Christopher Columbus’ belief that God wanted him to make his voyage of discovery. We who place so much stock in the predictions of economists about the complex decisions of millions of economic actors in the marketplace, or who have confidence in the predictive ability of climate researchers who have never demonstrated the ability to make accurate predictions ten years ahead for global temperatures, should be more humble about ridiculing the mindset of Copernicus and his fellow scholars, who thought they were applying the best rational thought to interpreting the divine intent behind the Book of Nature.

    Copernicus, years before publishing his detailed treatise, published a summary of his conclusions years before, which made him famous among his fellow astronomer/astrologers, who insisted that he complete his research and publish (much as Darwin took a long time and much encouragement to finish The Origin of Species). Among those who encouraged him to publish was a bishop, who offered to subsidize his writing and support his hiring assistants to help him make confirmatory observations.

    Copernicus’ theory was widely hailed even in that preliminary form as highly intriguing, and both Catholics and Protestants vied to learn more. Eventually the young astronomer who helped him prepare his book for publication was a Lutheran who could have been arrested simply for being in Copernicus’ bishop-ruled province.

    Thus, the hoary notion that the case of Copernicus was the prime example of ignorant religion battling against the forces of human rational thought, was totally wrong. Copernicus and many of the men who encouraged him to complete his work and make it available to all Europe were people who took their religion very seriously, and saw no logical distinction between Astronomy, astrology, and belief in an active, Biblical God who set in motion the planets in their divinely ordained and therefore revelatory courses.

    The most frequent misrepresentation about Copernicus’ work is that he was demoting the earth and mankind from occupying the exalted center of the universe. The opposite was true. The center of the universe in the system of Ptolemy (a Second Century AD pagan Greek of Alexandria) was taken by Christians to be Hell itself, and the earth was just one level above the pits of Hell. By contrast, divine things rose to the realm of the sky, of planets, the sun, moon, and stars, the heavens which were celestial, the abode of God. Copernicus suggested that since the moon was both a celestial body and also an apparent world like the earth, the earth itself could be a celestial body, a planet like Venus, Mars and Jupiter. He exalted the center of the universe as abode of the sun, with light originating both at the center and at the periphery of the observed universe.

    Another primary aspect of Copernicus’ theory was that the earth itself rotated every 24 hours, thus creating the appearance of the entire body of distant stars rotating at high speed about the earth, and of the sun moving across the sky, but at a slightly different speed.

  9. Adam Greenwood on April 13, 2010 at 10:45 am

    But you’re right, JG, that there *shouldn’t* be Mormon astrologism. the old time astrology wasn’t very Christian in a lot of ways, but it shared the common assumption of the times that while the earth was fallen, the heavens were not, and therefore they were in a quasi-pre-lapsarian state of knowledge and influence. Mormonism doesn’t really have that assumption, I think.