In Review

Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

By Christopher Queen

There was something particularly mesmerizing about the Jacob’s Ladder song at the church camps of my youth. Watching the campfire sparks fly up over the trees as we sang “Every rung goes higher, higher” had the effect of lifting me up, too, over the trees into the black-ness where the stars and planets glisten. Up there, it seemed to me, there were no “soldiers of the cross” or “sinners, do you love my Jesus”—only the mute immensity that made sparks and stars possible.

Some years later, I was teaching teenagers the stories of the Torah and the Gospels. And we came to the saga of Jacob, fleeing the righteous wrath of his brother, collapsing in exhaustion on a hill, and dreaming of an infinite staircase connecting heaven and earth. “And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it, and the Lord stood above it!” And suddenly we were blown out of the classroom, back to Mesopotamia where the thousand brick stairs of the ziggurat of Ur connected the Sumerians to their gods—as Jacob prob-ably learned from family tales of the “old country” that grandfather Abraham had left behind. There, the priests, passing up and down the temple tower on festival days, embodied the connection between the orderly movements of stars and planets and the conduct code handed down by the sun god Shamash.

Epiphanies of the degrees of separation between oneself and the cosmos—and the search for empirical, literary, or historical evidence of such a vision—do not impress most people. College friends urged me to leave religious studies for something more practical. My seminary classmates flocked to homiletics and clinical training while I burrowed into The Lives of a Cell and Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. But each time I returned to the practical business of class preparation and student advising—now I was a residence director and teacher at a boarding school—the magic stairway reappeared. Seeking audiovisuals for a school symposium on the environment in 1974, I found Cosmic Zoom, a short animation that starts with a man fishing from a rowboat, then zooms up and over the river, the region, the continent—retreating by powers of 10—beyond the earth, the solar system, the galaxy, galaxy clusters, and out into the blackness.1 But then, as if we had hit a wall—the wall of Ignorance or the edge of God—we fall back through the powers of ten, back to earth, down to the fishing boat and down into the man’s hand, into his epithelial cells, their nuclei, the molecules that make them up, and the atoms with their particles and subatomic particles and again, emptiness. I was getting used to these visits to the outer limits.

Then came The Great Chain of Being,  Arthur O. Lovejoy’s “study of the history of an idea,” just as I was settling down to the serious study of religion: Sanskrit and the history of religions at Harvard Divinity School.

It has now been more than 75 years since Lovejoy, who had been rejected for the late William James’s chair in philosophy at Harvard, delivered Harvard’s 1933 William James Lecture, which the university published soon thereafter. As Johns Hopkins University’s first full-time philosophy professor and a former professor at Stanford and Columbia, Lovejoy was a big thinker. It was perhaps with a touch of irony and a tweak at James that he chose to speak on metaphysics, exploring “probably the most widely familiar conception of the general scheme of things, of the constitutive pattern of the universe,” which reigned in the West for more than 2,000 years, only to be buried, like the ziggurat of Ur, under advancing sands of scientific fact. If the topic was ironic, the outcome was fitting, for the pragmatists James, Dewey, Peirce, and Holmes had labored to rescue philosophy from the obscurities of metaphysics and to align it with the findings of science and the requirements of human welfare (as Louis Menand so wonderfully shows in The Metaphysical Club, surely the next most extraordinary history of ideas to appear).


The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History  of an Idea, by Arthur O. Lovejoy. The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University, 1933, Harvard University Press, paperback 382 pages, $23.

I learned that one doesn’t climb the great chain of being; one is assigned to a level and required to stay there.

Back in the 1970s, just as I thought I was climbing Jacob’s ladder again, I learned that the idea of the great chain of being, according to Lovejoy, began with Plato and Aristotle and not the Sumerians or the Hebrews. More important, I learned that one doesn’t climb the great chain of being; one is assigned to a level and required to stay there. Looking down, we humans see the lower animals, plants, and minerals; looking up, we see through clouds of angels and archangels, seraphim and cherubim, the “principalities and powers” of St. Paul’s universe, to the very throne of God. Plato’s conception of a great chain of forms, Lovejoy shows, culminating in the ideal realm of universals, is a key source of Western otherworldliness and the inspiration for the theological worlds of the Neoplatonists, the Scholastics, and the poets of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Romantic period.

For Aristotle, on the other hand, despite 20 years in Plato’s Academy, the great chain was a way of seeing the scala natura—the structure of the sensible world—displaying the properties of plenitude, continuity, and hierarchy in such a way that “an infinite number of links range in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existents, which barely escape nonexistence, through ‘every possible’ grade up to the ens perfectissimum.” This would be a fitting template for modern science were it not for the static juxtaposition of its rungs and the absence of Darwin’s two great principles: random mutation (an irrational factor), and selective adaptation (a temporal factor).

So, after 20 centuries, it was this gigantic, immovable, encrusted monument of categories—not of beings themselves—that cracked and crashed to earth after repeated blows from the new astronomy, the new physics, and especially the new biology. Unable to ascend or descend, even the reader feels trapped, as metaphysical certainty turns to psychological doubt. James called the great chain a “block-world,” devoid of the characteristics that animate life and inspire true religion. Yet Lovejoy, easily justifying his magisterial investigation of an admittedly failed idea, concludes that the story of the great chain of being teaches us a crucial lesson: “that existence as we experience it is temporal—a world of time and change—which can neither be deduced from nor reconciled with the postulate that existence is the expression and consequence of a system of ‘eternal’ and ‘necessary’ truths inherent in the very logic of being.”

As a doctoral student frantically preparing for general examinations, I felt strangely purged and liberated by The Great Chain of Being. How could I be ambushed by the magic staircase again, knowing now that hierarchical thinking, linking immanent and the transcendent realms, was static and self-defeating, and recognizing that the findings of the laboratory and the field journal, and the politics and poetry of the public square revealed and shaped the distribution of complexity and potency in the known universe? How could the lure of hierarchical thinking, like a drug, be allowed to cloud the objective training of a professional academic? Rereading Louis Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (1966) added weight to my growing conviction that static vertical systems continue to enslave the minds, the bodies, and the spirits of countless millions in the world today.

Then came Robert Bellah, Clifford Geertz, and their Harvard mentor, Talcott  Parsons, warning, “Not so fast.” These were not hierarchical thinkers, of course, but they were “systems” thinkers, who saw the necessity of accounting for the organic, the biological, the social, and the cultural dimensions in humanistic studies, just as science proceeds at the interstices of the disciplines today: biophysics, organic chemistry, sociobiology, bioinformatics, neuropsychology, and so on. In Parsons’s theory of social action, dating from the 1940s and 1950s, and in Bellah’s and Geertz’s work from the 1960s—summed up in their classic collections Beyond Belief (1970) and The  Interpretation of Cultures (1973)—religious symbol systems provide the most general way of experiencing the world and our place in it. Religion views the world from “high up” in the meaning chain, or as Dumont had put it, “hierarchy [is] the principle by which the elements of a whole are ranked in relation to the whole, it being understood that in the majority of societies it is religion which provides the view of the whole, and that the ranking will thus be religious in nature.”

Parsons and his students liked to draw boxes representing the “action system,” made up of four compartments (e.g., organic, psychological, social, and cultural subsystems) that are interconnected with arrows going in all directions. Each subsystem may be further subdivided into constituent parts (religious symbols are a sub-subsystem of the cultural subsystem), and each subsystem performs specific roles with respect to the whole: adaptive, goal-seeking, integrative, and pattern-maintenance roles. And the arrows represent “cybernetic” feed-back loops of energy and information which can be measured, analyzed, or interpreted, depending on the level of organization and the trajectory of the local system. Finally, as Bellah shows in breathtaking fashion in his chapter “Religious Evolution,” the implicit hierarchies of the action system—persons and groups—are subject to the sands of time and the irrational ebullitions of creativity and piety that forever animate the history of religions.

And with the discovery of the humanistic systems theories of the Harvard social thinkers, the philosophical writings of Norbert Wiener and Edward O. Wilson, the work of the great general systems theorists Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Ervin Laszlo, and the systems theologies of James E. Hutchingson, Ralph Wendell Burhoe, and Wolfhart Pannenberg, I mounted again the magic staircase, accompanied by great bursts of campfire sparks and rising strains of “Jacob’s Ladder.” For me, The Great Chain of Being had been reborn in harmony with the findings of science and in response to the need for a fresh approach to theology.

I completed my doctoral dissertation, “Systems Theory in Religious Studies: A Methodological Critique,” at Boston  University in March 1986.


  1. You can see recent versions of Cosmic Zoom and Powers of 10 on YouTube.

Christopher Queen is dean of students for continuing education and Lecturer on the Study of Religion in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He lectures on Buddhism and world religions in FAS, at HDS, and at the Harvard Extension and Summer Schools. He has edited four volumes on socially engaged Buddhism and American Buddhism.

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