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Mysterium Cosmographicum

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Johannes Kepler was one of those cutting-edge new scientists in his day back at the end of the 1500’s. It was a heady time. Copernicus had tipped the scale away from the geocentric theory of the cosmos to the heliocentric theory. Kepler is more famous for his discovery that the planets travel elliptical rather than circular orbits around the sun. But the manner in which he figured that out is part of why I bring him up this morning.

Kepler threw his support behind Copernicus and the heliocentric theory primarily for theological reasons. They were mathematical reasons as well, but in Kepler’s mind, that’s practically the same thing.

The heart of his book Mysterium Cosmographicum was that he could figure out the distances between each of the six planets (they only knew about the closets six at that time) using the five Platonic solids. Essentially, Kepler was saying the universe is a creative math problem. 

First, I have to tell you a little about what a Platonic solid is. A Platonic solid is a three-dimensional, regular polyhedron. Each face of a Platonic solid is congruent and regular, meaning each face is identical in shape and size and all the angles are equal. There are exactly five shapes that meet these criteria: Tetrahedron, Cube, Octahedron, Dodecahedron, Icosahedron.

If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons or other similar role-playing game, you may recognize these five shapes as five of the six basic dice. 4, 6, 8, 12, and 20- sided polyhedrons. (Pull out D&D dice, roll them.) Let it be known I did not waste my youth playing a little fantasy game, I was exploring the Platonic solids.

So, here’s what Kepler did. For each polyhedron, he imagined an inner and an outer sphere. It is like those nesting dolls. The inner sphere is created at the tangent of each face of the polyhedron while the outer sphere is created at the vertices. Then, you stack them. Start with a sphere, inside that sphere is a cube, inside the cube is another sphere, followed by a tetrahedron or pyramid, then another sphere and so on with five polyhedrons and six spheres. Kepler used that model to show the distance between each planet, where the spheres represent the six planets.

Fascinatingly, Kepler was very close. The distances he came up with using his model of Platonic solids gave numbers that are remarkably close to the numbers we are able to determine today. Close but not close enough. This is perhaps my favorite part of this whole story, and really my whole point for today. Kepler was wrong. He was fabulously wrong. Elegantly and ingeniously wrong.

But let’s not be too hard on him. It’s like he was playing the Mystery Box game I showed the kids a few weeks back. (pull out box, shake it) “What is the nature of the universe? (shake, shake) I think it sounds like it has Platonic solids.” 

This magnificent inaccuracy is, however, the basis for his research leading to his three laws of orbital dynamics – which are accurate still today, the first of which is about elliptical orbits. And that stuff is good. Kepler never gave up his flawed theory of the nested Platonic solids, but his work served as a foundational step for science in a heliocentric universe. And in his time, his measurements were close enough to be intriguing and to keep other astronomers looking.

So that’s the math. I mentioned at the beginning that Kepler acceptance of a heliocentric universe was also theological. His central premise was that the God was at the center of it all, that the universe itself was an image of God.

Imago Dei is the theological concept that human beings were created in the image of God. Traditions and individuals through the ages have argued what that image is, exactly. Most are quick it is not a statement that we humans are physically in the literal likeness of God. Instead theologians talk about certain qualities and capacities we have that are the mark of divinity within. Some say it is our freedom, or our ability to love, our capacity to do good. Augustine said it was a reflection of the trinity: memory, intellect, and will. There are many versions what it means.

Johannes Kepler thought the universe itself was an image of God. He asserted that it was not only humans made in the image of God, but the entire universe. He suggested the sun, at the center, was the image of God the father. The celestial sphere at the outer edge represented Christ the son. And all the empty space between was akin to the Holy Spirit. Kepler included a chapter in his 1596 book Mysterium Cosmographicum analyzing a large number of biblical texts that refer to the movements of the stars and the earth as proof of both his mathematical and theological points.

What we know about the Universe today is considerably more than Kepler and his colleagues had figured out in the late 15- and early 16-hundreds. For example, what they thought was the whole universe, we know to be a portion of just our solar system. We know today that neither the earth or the sun is at the center of the universe. Indeed, we really have no sense of where the quote-unquote ‘center of the universe’ might be because the Universe is expanding and is far more complex than we can grasps. We know that it still obeys the laws of physics and math, but not always in a manner that appears orderly or sensible or neat.

I wonder what Kepler would make of our knowledge about the universe today. Would he still see the universe as an image of God? Kepler’s Universe, and Kepler’s God were very fixed and stable, ordered and understandable. That is not how most modern astrophysicists would describe the universe. I mean, some parts are ordered and stable. Our planet Earth keeps spinning to give us this thing we call sunrise each morning. We can map the stars and each night they are predictably where we look to find them. Some things are ordered and stable. But as we look closer at the particulars, things get weird.

As we update our understanding of the universe for Kepler, can that updated universe still serve as an image of God for him and others? Can this vast, dynamic and expanding, sometimes predictable and sometimes weird universe reflect the image of a vast, dynamic and expanding, sometimes predictable and sometimes weird God?

And, here’s a fun implication for this line of thinking: does that also describe the image of God within us? Think about it. We say in our 7 UU Principles that we are interconnected, we are part of the interdependent web of existence. That means, we are participants with the universe, as if we have the image of the universe within. We are part of the sometimes predictable and sometimes weird universe. If the universe is dynamic and expanding; we are dynamic and expanding. Right? But have you ever considered those qualities in our universe and in yourself to be the image of God?

The two qualities in our universe I find most intrigue for this line of thinking are emergence and the unknown.

There is so much we do not know or understand about the universe. We are lightyears ahead of Kepler in our understanding, yet what we do not understand is vast. Dark Matter and Dark Energy are terms astrophysicists use to describe over 80% of the universe. I was watching a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining Dark Matter. He said he gets this question a lot. “What is Dark Matter?” and in this video his answer is quick and brief: “We really don’t know.” It is the biggest mystery since they detected it in the 1930’s. And it’s not exactly ‘matter.’ That’s a misnomer. Neil deGrasse Tyson said it was really a problem of there being too much gravity in the universe that we can’t attribute to the mass we can see. So, there must be something else out there.

You know what that sounds like to me? (Take out Mystery Box, shake it) “What’s inside the box? (shake, shake) Dark Matter?” The problem modern astrophysicists are wrestling with sounds similar to what Kepler was dealing with. We have this great model to explain everything and it almost works. It’s close. We haven’t discovered that it’s wrong, or perhaps we can say we haven’t figured out which part of it is wrong yet. But we know something in the model is off. And the term we’ve come up with to talk about that is Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

Yes, I’m oversimplifying this, there actually are some compelling theories and observances out there about Dark Matter. I think we just have to do what Kepler did. We make theories and observations, we work within the assumptions we have for as long as we can, so we can figure out a little more about how it all works.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay Self-Reliance, wrote: “Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.” And in the end, we may be gloriously wrong about what we thought it was all about, but at the same time we’ve advanced the human venture and our collective scientific understanding a little further all the same. And at the end of the day, even in our fumbling hubris – something true and lasting and good has emerged.

And that’s the second quality of our universe I see linked to this idea Kepler has turned me on to. Emergence. Despite our fumbling hubris – something true and lasting and good has emerged. We live in an emergent universe. For a long time, we tried to reduce everything down to its smallest parts thinking that would give us the best clue to what everything was and what mattered. It turns out reductionist thinking can’t really tell you about the really interesting stuff.

For a simple example, think about yourself. A reductionist perspective would say you are made up of organ systems, which are made up of organs, which are made up of tissue, which are made up of cells, which are made up of molecules, which are made up atoms, which are made up of subatomic parts like quarks and electrons. And yet none of that really explains that you are alive. At some point along the complexification of atoms and cells and organs, you are alive and you are yourself. Emergence is where the exciting stuff happens. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts because we live in an emergent universe.

You are a reflection of the universe. You contain mystery and you are a dynamic example of emergence. And from whichever theological framework you use – the image of God, the highest qualities of humanity within you, or your localized manifestation of the gods and goddesses – however that fits you, can you also see the way your theology aligns with the reality of our world?

You and God, and the whole blessed universe are all like those mystery boxes – shake it a little bit, what’s inside? Mysteries and emergence; dynamic and sometimes weird.

Kepler was wrong. But that’s the best part. I’m probably wrong too. We’ve learned so much over the past few hundred years. We will learn a lot over then next few hundred years. So, shake the box. Hunt down a few connections. Consider how the image of God within you may be as dynamic and mysterious as the expanding universe in which we live.

And believe me when I say –

In a world without end, may it be so.