With the recent “super blood moon” and a Halloween asteroid (2015 TB 145) hurtling towards the earth, I felt inspired to do a series of posts on astrology and astronomy. There has been some press about Mormons and other Christians predicting the end of the world based on some of these phenomenon. The Church issued a statement and followed up with a blog entry which gives the details of some of that silliness. In my personal life I knew of no members of the church who were at all concerned by the blood moon and in fact I set up my scope in our tightly Mormon neighborhood and had half the ward watching the eclipse with me. The few people I did know who expressed concern were some coworkers, most of whom have no particular religion but seem to enjoy conspiracy theories and most predictions that the world is coming to an end only to disappointedly have to return to work on Monday.
This interesting phenomenon got me to pondering about the role of astrology in the ancient world. In our modern science heavy world we often praise astronomy while despising astrology. We insist that they are two separate and unrelated disciplines. The word astrology is from astron meaning star and logia meaning a body of knowledge (from logos that has important religious meaning as it is a title of Christ in John 1). As such it would seem to belong next to words like biology, geology, and meteorology. And yet it is relegated to describing only beliefs we would like to ignore while any worthwhile knowledge is termed astronomy. This odd division is both arbitrary and historically disingenuous. For example, the arrangement of stars into constellations including those that form the zodiac is embraced by Astronomy, yet the idea that the movements of the Sun, moon and planets have any importance on human affairs is soundly rejected even though this was a fundamental reason the zodiac was developed some 3000 years ago and the movements of the planets, moon and sun were first systematically observed. Indeed without the benefit of the scientific method, ancient Babylonian and Egyptian astrologers developed a complex tracking system for the movement of the visible objects in our universe in an effort to discover meaning and order to how the world works. Without their initial ground work no modern astronomy would be possible, yet their amazing efforts are dismissed because they did not follow scientific procedures that would be invented only two and a half millennia later. Instead they were motivated by and entwined their studies with various forms of spiritual belief. In a distinct effort of scientists to inherit all past knowledge that was useful yet reject the methods by which it was obtained and distance themselves from the beliefs of the ancients, they insisted on naming a new branch of science and retroactively claiming a separation that did not exist historically. 1
At this point I think I must clarify a few points. Most of what passes for “Modern Astrology” is fanciful nonsense that I put no belief in. For the most part these belief systems have no connection to ancient beliefs. The very popular “daily horoscope” is a modern invention probably from the 20th century to sell newspapers. Notably many of the modern horoscopes include predictions based on planets such as Uranus, Neptune and Pluto which where unknown anciently. This is what most people think of as astrology, yet the idea of horoscopes in general accounts only for a small fraction of astrological belief. What I would like to do is to rehabilitate the understanding of ancient beliefs concerning the stars. I would like to show how these beliefs, while not testable with the scientific method, are of great worth and heavily influenced the ancient societies that wrote the scriptures and also our modern society in ways we might not expect. Due to the negative connotations associated with “astrology” I will, going forward, use the term “astronomy” to include both scientific belief and spiritual belief concerning the stars as I do not think they should be properly separated.
I would like to then begin by declaring a few beliefs to establish my perspective:
- I believe in science and the scientific method. I am well acquainted with the modern science of astronomy and I enjoy it in all aspects. While there is much we don't know, I accept mainstream theories as the most probable explanation of our Cosmos and claim no training that would qualify me to contradict them.
- I believe the ancients were as intelligent as modern man. Many in our modern world can do little but mock those who came before, claiming a realm of superiority by virtue of having extensive knowledge available today that was not available before modern times. Many view the past as a large Monty Python sketch as though none of the ancient beliefs held had any basis in fact or experiance. This does a great disservice to history and the incredible leaps of discovery that were required to produce the modern world.
- I believe that astronomical signs have been used and will continue to be used to signal important events. Prophetic power can be used to predict and interpret such signs. The most obvious example of this would be the birth of Christ and the famous star.
- I do not believe any “system” can be developed to predict the future based on the night sky. Such prophetic power comes from communication with God not from mathematical calculations or finding hidden codes in scripture. To attempt to take divine communication out of prophecy is an act of hubris and apostasy. This type of a “system” appeals well to the scientific mind and when the system fails to work in experimentation any type of belief in the spiritual importance of the night sky is dismissed. It is my belief that righteous people anciently did not believe prophecy could be reduced to a system either. Interpreting the skies was the work of a priest in spiritual communication with the divine, not the work of a mathetician with a code book.
- I believe the objects of the cosmos hold great symbolic meaning to the purpose of life and our role in the plan of God. For this reason they decorate our temples and have constant reference in scripture ancient and modern. It is not hard to imagine a father in any culture sitting with his son at night with what must have been a spectacular sky before modern light pollution and recalling the stories of his people, using the stars to aid his memory.
- I believe a persistence in the belief in the power of the stars occurred because it actually worked. In our modern society we dismiss magic. Magic of ancient societies largely centered on the ability of a person with knowledge to perform acts that where unavailable to those who lacked knowledge. So when the ancient priest looked into the night sky and determined what crops were ready for planting or determined that sufficient time remained to send troops to battle before they were needed at harvest, or estimated the day the Nile would overrun its banks, this was magic to those who heard it (and even to the preist who was probably acting on memorized information handed down and refined over generations). Today we acknowledge it only as science and reserve the term magic only for those things that we think didn't work. We then gleefully declare “Magical predictions never work”. Yet to the ancients no such distinction made sense.
- Clearly mankind ancient and modern has held beliefs that were false and even foolish, however it is a disservice to believe because of this that all their beliefs were false and foolish or that there is nothing to be learned from them. I will in my posts focus on those teachings from the ancient world that I feel have enduring value. This should not be interpreted to mean that I am unaware of the many obviously incorrect beliefs that were once held.
So with this introduction I will close this post. The posts that follow will deal with more specific scriptural examples of how the cosmos effected ancient peoples and how it applies to the Gospel in our day as well as anciently.