Infinity, Faith and Time: Christian Humanism and Renaissance by John Spencer Hill

By John Spencer Hill

This article is an exploration of Renaissance literature and the significance of a robust culture of Christian-Platonist rational spirituality derived from St. Augustine and Nicholas of Cusa. John Spencer Hill argues that this practice had a formative position within the considered Renaissance writers by means of permitting them to assimilate into their international view significant discoveries of the Renaissance - that the universe is countless and that human existance is sure and controlled by way of the passage of time.

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But since for Herbert, as for Cusanus earlier, the meaning and purpose of the universe are ultimately spiritual, its physical size, whether infinite or not, is unimportant. His poetry largely ignores the new astronomy (except to censure the rationalism of its method) not out of fear but because, in the final analysis, it had nothing of significance to teach him. Another figure in the early seventeenth century whose attitude to the new astronomy has been misunderstood is Robert Burton. It is widely held that in the Anatomy of Melancholy, a book that went through six revised and successively augmented editions between 1621 and 1651, Burton begins as a defender of the old astronomy but ends as "a zealous advocate of the system of infinite worlds" (Barlow 302).

22-8) If Vanitie (I) shows the new astronomy in a negative light, then The Search, which explores immanence and transcendence in terms of the Cusaean paradox of the infinite sphere, may be said to redress the balance. The poem opens with the speaker lamenting his inability to find God in the universe and sensing that his efforts at searching for Him are mocked by the rest of nature: Whither, O, whither art thou fled, My Lord, my Love? My searches are my daily bread; Yet never prove. 34 The Expanding Universe My knees pierce th' earth, mine eies the skie; And yet the sphere And centre both to me denie That thou art there.

For, to this crying up of faith in opposition to reason, we may, I think, in good measure ascribe those absurdities that fill all the religions which possess and divide mankind ... So that in effect religion, which should most distinguish us from beasts and ought most peculiarly to elevate us as rational creatures above brutes, is that wherein men often appear most irrational and more senseless than beasts themselves. Credo, quia impossibile est: I believe, because it is impossible, might, in a good man, pass for a sally of zeal, but would prove a very ill rule for men to choose their opinions or religion by.

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