A Conversation Between David Bentley Hart and John Milbank on You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature (April 2022)

Below is a conversation between David Bentley Hart and John Milbank hosted by Notre Dame Press and on the topic of Hart’s forthcoming book You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature (April 2022). This title comes from John 10:34 where Jesus is quoting Psalm 82:6.

DBH: I don’t understand the resurgence of this view of grace and nature or grace and supernature …because I tend to ascribe it to pathologies rather than to the logical exigencies of the moment. …It does answer a certain appetite for well-defined boundaries that are non-porous and exclusive. The hard and fast distinction between nature and supernature is also a distinction between those truths which are salvific in those which are not and tends to confine the former in an almost positivistic sense in a series, in a set of, divinely revealed and yet not rationally deducible truths that are the exclusive possession of a tradition. If you’re a traditionalist very worried about the liceity with which Christian culture seems to be flirting with all sorts of other possibilities of the narrow gate to salvation, what that means, I can see psychologically why you might want to embrace this as a way of reasserting cultural and religious demarcations. Because what it tells us is the entirety of nature, the entirety of natural experience, the entirety of art (and nature and culture and sociality) all of that is, in a sense, extrinsic to the saving mystery that comes in the form of a certain set of information that can be provided by Catholic tradition alone. I don’t know. It may be unfair. …But my first response is that there’s some kind of psychological need for the question to reassert itself or this way of seeing things to reassert itself.

Moderator: Any lived implications for why do you think it would be important to correct this pathology as it were?

DBH: Well, you know my experience of it is that it does breed a kind of moral obtuseness. I must say, many who are in this school, that’s simply what they’ve been told: that grace is extrinsic to the nature of the creature, but it carries with it the implication that the circle of the saved, the circle of those who receive grace is extremely small, that we should be comfortable with this, that in fact this is part of the good news. I mean, I think there is a kind of morally atrophying effect on the imagination and on the motives of the heart, and I’ve seen it. This is actually why I wrote the book to begin with, the rather grim experiences I had at various places I taught as a visiting professor where this style of second scholastic Thomism was resurgent again, and I saw that it appealed specifically to a desire to affirm the meagreness of grace in a sense and, in fact, in a sense, to rejoice in that and to find reasons for being comfortable with that.

…I remember speaking recently [and] this came to me second hand, from a Cistercian not a Dominican but a Cistercian in this tradition who was arguing that so great is the elevation from nature to supernatural and so unmerited by the creature that if God were to save but one soul and condemn all the rest to hell it would still be a cause of rejoicing. I mean, at that point you’ve arrived at consummate absurdity. There’s no point speaking of the gospel as good news. Obviously, it’s rather bad news for the cosmos at large. It may be good news for Henry, the one guy who enjoys the super elevation. It creates a kind of hardness of heart and a kind of spiritual narrow vision that’s hideously damaging and also drives saner souls away from Christianity.

Milbank: I very much agree with all that David has said, and I share his bewilderment. Why are all the good arguments and all the solid historical scholarship being rejected? I’d tend to agree with him that, while the people who’ve returned to neo-scholasticism are perfectly sincere, I do think that to explain why that’s happened we have to look at sociological, psychological and even pathological explanations. Part of the answer is a sense of panic and a sense that things have got too complicated and that there’s a past that we need to go back to that was simpler. It’s easier, you just have to read Thomas Aquinas and the way you’re told to read it. …It saves you an awful lot of hard work, and I think it’s a sincere but completely false diagnosis of the surrender to liberalism.

In fact, I think the people who were trying to overcome pura natura had had a sophisticated critique of modernity and of liberalism. Therefore the other reason why people are returning to pure nature is a kind of actually sinister doublethink. It allows Catholics to speak in the purely public sphere without making any apparently, any specifically, Catholic claims and to insist on conclusions that, actually, they’re only coming to because they’re Catholic but to pass them off as natural conclusions. It’s ultimately a power move because it’s saying we want to appropriate in the name of the church an essentially liberal, technocratic, individualist, non-teleological modernity because it’s completely clear that, if you assert pure nature, you lose teleology. This is why I’m puzzled that somebody like [Alasdair] MacIntyre can’t see that. It’s clear that [Francisco] Suárez completely loses teleology and goes over to something more like a kind of neo-stoic kind of view of morality. So it’s not an accident that this leads to so-called integralism or, if you like, a very bad form of integralism that’s all too akin to the moves made by somebody like Mura [spelling?], you know, that the church then is the arbitrary power in charge of an essentially secular sphere with privileges reserved for this elite group. In other words, let’s make no bones about this, the return to pure nature is incipiently fascistic.

DBH: And has revealed itself as such. I don’t know if those watching this review have encountered the [Thomas] Crean and [Alan] Fimister volume Integralism, but it’s a perfect example of a perfectly consistent (with a few dissonant American inflections about the free market and things like that which are just, you know, neoliberalism at it’s arbitrarily most acute expression) but it shows you that ultimately the sphere of nature has to be confined (within the limits of which is capable) would have to be governed from above by the cognoscenti who have access to a saving knowledge that either will or will not be embraced by the subjects of the regime but nonetheless.

And by the way, John, I would also add that that, in some cases at least, we see this in American Catholic circles, it allows certain Catholic public figures to argue for ends that don’t come from their Catholicism but to which they’ve decided there’s a kind of yeah there’s a kind of indifference on the part of grace, that nature has its own intrinsic logic that, though obedient to natural law, nonetheless has exigencies and limits that allow for prudential uses of non-christian measures to bring about the peace.

It’s a curious thing, too, because it is a retreat not really to an older Catholic tradition of any great antiquity. There’s something we should point out here, is this is already a 16th century aberration that we’re talking about one that the reason it is so comfortable with the kind of state absolutism in things like the integralism volume is this very partition between nature and supernature in this absolute sense is already the carving out of a secular sphere complete in itself. It’s totally at odds with the language of scripture, with the language of patristic tradition, with most of medieval tradition. I’m not aware of it actually organically coming from Thomas except unless you pluck certain phrases… And of course every really impressive Catholic theological and scholarly mind of the modern period that rejects it out of hand is clearly an aberration. Yet it seems to be the safe harbor for a certain sort of troubled soul that’s fleeing a modernity with which it’s actually quite complicit.

Milbank: I think what David is doing is arguing that the certain figures that you might see as the radicals, slightly seen on the margins (we are talking about Maximus, Eriugena, the School of Chartres, Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa and I would add to that many 17th century French Oratorians, [DBH speaking at the same time: “Cambridge Platonists”] even [Nicolas] Malebranche), that actually these people are the most orthodox in a certain sense because they’re following through on the implications of orthodoxy, particularly insisting on the divine unity, simplicity, on the ultimately perspective of eternity as being what one has to ascend towards. And if one believes in divine simplicity and unity and creation else nothing, you cannot simply see the creation as a kind of arbitrary production of God standing alongside God simply in the way that you know that teacup over there on my desk is alongside the plex. There’s too much even in the the most respectable thinkers that sometimes sounds like that, including the idea that God is looking at a repertoire of choices before him, a kind of menu and selecting from those menus. This is an absurdly idolatrous view of God, and it doesn’t really concur with what the Bible is talking about, the fathers are talking about, Augustine and Aquinas at their best are talking about.

I think another way of putting what David is saying is that he’s insisting that christianity is not qualifying monotheism. Christianity is monotheism. It’s not even qualifying perennial monism, if you put it in a deeper way. I think David and I would agree that in fact neoplatonism and Vedanta and Islamic mysticism are monistic than say Spinoza because imminentism collapses into a kind of dualism, the perspective of the whole versus the perspective of the parts. For all that I rather like Spidoza, I think that’s the problem. So I think his insistence that, actually, an emanationism, a monotheism, these are actually the more monistic visions and that if we’ve got all these things in Christianity like Trinity, incarnation, grace and deification and so on, these aren’t qualifying monism. They are spelling monotheism out. They’re spelling out the logic, the grammar, the coherence of monotheism, and that has an implication which I think David spells out extremely well in this book. There’s no longer any conflict between hospitality towards other religions and an insistence on Christian uniqueness. It’s not an accident that somebody who’s metaphysics was so christological like Nicolas of Cusa was also the first person to say, well hold on, you know, Islam is not all bad and so forth.

Why should that be the case? Exactly because, you’re saying, we agree with this rigorous monotheism. We agree and even with rigorous monism. It’s just that we actually think our doctrines are realizing this even more, and of course the complexity there is that you are referring to historical events. That means the peculiarities, if you like, you’re having to integrate history of metaphysics, and this is why David is right to say Hegel was trying to do the right thing. He did it in the wrong way, in the end, because of this sort of agonism in God that’s probably ultimately to do with Luther via Burma [spelling?], and yet in the end he’s kind of doing the right thing.

…I suppose you could also say that Hegel is is trying to bring together something one could see as a perennial monistic vision with a legacy that’s particularly Western. So my question is roughly along these lines: that, while I agree with you that we’ve got to now look at people like arugula we’ve got to put Eriugena at the center not Aquinas, it remains the case that I still think Augustine and Aquinas are peculiarly great theologians. Why? Because they pay such attention to time, to psychology, to experience, the politics, to history and to ethics. So is it possible to say that the positive thing in the Latin legacy is this sort of attention to the person and to the drama, if you like? But the task now might be to try and sort of reconcile that greater personalism of the West with a valid metaphysical monism that’s more Eastern. That’s the question.

DBH: Well, I think that, of course, [Sergei] Bulgakov already went some considerable way in that direction because he takes, throughout his work, an increasingly rich understanding of what constitutes persons as persons both in the hidden depths of the unexpressed and the expressed and understands this, as he goes along, as the very structure of being itself. I’m perfectly in agreement with that. I believe that what I say actually in the book is not to reject, obviously, Augustine and Aquinas but a certain displacement of the emphasis on scholasticism, say, that would make more room for what’s understood as the minority report but that I actually clarify. I mean I understand Eriugena as, in many ways, making advances not just on the Eastern tradition of which he was familiar but on Augustine as well. Early, when he first enters theological history, with the controversies that Gottschalk roused over a double predestination in the end, this obliged him to master the Augustinian corpus to use Augustine against Gottschalk’s Augustine. If you look at the Periphyseon, you see that he’s ever been as much an Augustinian when it comes to his understanding of the divine nature, how he understands divine simplicity how, he understands God’s expression of the paternal death in filial manifestation and, so to speak, the circuit of the divine rejoicing which is the Spirit and how that encompasses creation in its logic.

Aquinas, too, I will point this out though. When you mentioned earlier this this sort of image of God as deciding between different possibilities and the kind of landscape of possibilities as though he’s an extrinsic agent faced with, you know, a decision regarding which car to buy (the creation). This is one of the places where Thomas goes back and forth because, first of all, because his infra-lapsearian understanding of the incarnation immediately separates the rationale of creation from christology at least logically speaking, if not in actual fact. Then even the issue of whether or not the world that is the world of Jesus of Nazareth is the best of all of all worlds he could have created, he does say that there’s no such thing because they are an infinite number of worlds between that world and this that modally still are infinitely short of the glory of God. So I mean there is, there, a hint already of this problem of how to understand creation as a decision of a will, but it’s a sort of fleeting moment in Thomas. It’s one of the moments that he hasn’t thought out particularly well. I don’t want to blame him, but it becomes determinative in this later manualist tradition to a very great degree because once again the very nature of creation being infinitely remote from the order of grace already is a kind of arbitrary construct of the divine will to which super added there could be a gracious sequela if God chooses but he needn’t choose. So it’s not entirely absent from Aquinas, but, no, I agree with everything you just said.

In fact, you more or less uh answered the question you asked me before you asked me the question, so i’m a little at a loss here to think of how to amplify on it. But I think Bulgakov actually laid out the program better than any other modern theology and understanding. Well, first of all, because he took the time to understand the tradition. Even when he got it wrong, he had a vast grasp of the antecedent history of Western Christian thought before the German idealists. He understood where the German idealists went astray. I mean, of course, he begins, as all Russians in that period did, in a dialogue with Hegel and Schelling (with the late Schelling). I think his union of Augustinian personalism and the Maximian metaphysics is one of the brilliant theological syntheses of the 20th century and one that’s only now becoming more and more.

Milbank: It’s terribly encouraging. Yeah.

DBH: You see more and more as translations of Bulgakov are appearing over here.

Milbank: Can I follow that up with a related question? …If I was doing a similar sort of thing, possibly the words impossibility and paradox would feature more. I sometimes notice you edging away from paradox which is interesting because it’s such a favorite term for [Henri] de Lubac. So just to try to flesh that out a little bit. You know, throughout your book, you’ve got this idea of a point of indifference or indeterminacy between coming out and going back, between creation and salvation, and ultimately between God and creation. And I think this is correct that—and again it’s like Eriugena—you have to say that God is somehow more than God, that uncreated god is also created god. But if we’re saying there’s something more than God even though there can’t be something more than God and if we’re refusing any kind of univocity of being or something like that [and] we’re refusing the idea that there’s a bigger framework of being, then aren’t we forced to see that very much as paradox? I  think slightly similar considerations apply, without spelling them out, to Christology where there’s a coincidence even though finite and infinite aren’t in competition to say that they’re perfectly coming together is somehow mystery.

Then just to illustrate the use of the word impossibility, the only point where I slightly hesitated in the book was when you were saying, look, there’s evil there because we’re on the journey from nothingness to God (and so, as it were, nothingness as an alibi) because if everything, if God is drawing us forth and there’s nothing sinister about this nothingness—there’s no pagan sinisterness left about the nothing—don’t we still have to say that the fall remains absolutely incomprehensible and in a way we only have a kind of ethical access to that? Again, I think that’s where there may be a difference between [us].

DBH: I don’t think the difference, though, is as great as you think. If you look at what I say about that, what I mean is simply that the possibility… all I’m saying there is, the possibility of evil is not the divine need. This is the problem. Well, why did God ordain an order in which evil was a possibility? What was the purpose thereof? Like I said, whatever that possibility is, it’s not ordinated in the theological sense, it’s not ordained by God towards a specific end in which evil plays a constitutive part. It’s simply that, if the possibility opens up there, it opens up within that vocation out of genuine nothingness. But you’re right, I mean it still doesn’t explain—because I’m quite clear—I take the high intellectualist understanding of rational freedom is that, even in that infantine state, children are better than we are, after all for, the very simple reason that they genuinely, until a certain degree of sophistication sets in, are like God, incapable of evil. God is the eternal child.

Milbank: What I’m driving at is that, given the sort of metaphysical incomprehensibility of evil, the fact that it’s just sheer nonsense, there is a sense in which our access to it is existential and dramatic. Perhaps at that point, is it possible to say that the Vedantic doesn’t quite have the platonic sense of the good and the linking of the good to our behavior in the city and so forth? Isn’t there something different here?

DBH: Yeah, no, I mean obviously there are differences. Although even there you have to qualify that regarding whether you’re talking about certain schools of Advaita Vedānta or Vishishtadvaita and forget about Vaita, but the Vishishtadvaita tradition also has political theory and cultural theory at the margins that actually makes room for understanding the good as a pragmatic and practical and social thing as well. But you’re right. This is one of the deficiencies of the Vedantic tradition. You do have to turn back to the Christian platonist tradition and then again, as Augustine lays out, there is nothing like the City of God before the City of God. It’s sort of a thunderbolt in that it understands that the eternal and the historical coincidence in Christ has ramifications that an older, more antique platonic metaphysics hadn’t yet discovered for obvious reasons.

But let me get back to the thing about nothing. The question, the way it’s often posed, is why didn’t God simply create beings already beyond the capacity for evil, and my only claim there that I’m making is that a creature is a creature only if it has the history of a creature. It actually has to have an absolute past in non-being. It can’t be a fiction, not simply a dramatist persona who has been crafted with a fictional past and that, whatever the mystery of evil is of sin, it happens in that always pastness of whatever it is that makes us who we are. It’s why it’s understood in Christian thought as an inheritance even though it’s also something that I think  Bulgakov is right about. You have to understand what’s happening on the threshold between the ionic and the chronic. So I’m not trying to put the blame on nothingness as this is just a sort of constitutive deficiency and that evil is explicable in those rational terms. To me evil, like the designated hitter rule, is just a mystery that no one can penetrate how this could have happened.

As for paradox again, it depends. I’m all for paradox as long as one remembers that the proper meaning of paradox is that the contradiction is at one level, at the apparent level, but what it reveals is an unexpected and deeper unity. Again, one of the things I love about Bogakov’s christology is that he took the neo-chalcedonian, what would almost look like a paradoxical use of hypothesis as uniting natures that otherwise would almost be antithetical to one another, which creates to me a kind of Christ chimera. And he used the image of sophia in the sophianic language to see how, in fact, what this affirms is the rootedness of both divine and human nature in the divine depth, the divine paternal depth of what he calls hypostasibility. But that infinite intention towards full personhood [is] again a way of grounding the metaphysics in a kind of personalism. I don’t use the word paradox as much as you do. In fact, I tend to think you use it a little obsessively if you don’t mind my saying so. …On the one hand, you’re right, you can impoverish the language of Christianity if you don’t insist upon the sheer surprise of christology, but I still think that, to use one of your terms, that what we’re pushing towards is a christological momentum which reveals that the paradox, actually, is the revelation of a deeper rationality that can be unfolded through a proper trinitarian metaphysic. You need the Holy Spirit there to do this, but I don’t think those are great differences between us. It’s a matter of idiom.

Milbank: I didn’t think they were, and I should probably unpack paradox a bit more.

DBH: You don’t want to be mistaken for just one of those people who, in the train of Kierkegaard, stop with the paradox and then demand a kind of, if not fideistic, at least, you know at least, theatrically…

Milbank: No, no, I think that probably misreads Kierkegaard anyway.

DBH: No, it does. I think when you get to the late writings, Practice in Christianity [1850] and Works of Love [1847], you realize that that itself, as is infuriatingly the case with Kierkegaard, is a stage in a progressive argument. But what you encounter first is paradox.

Milbank: Yeah, I think that the point is more that, if you like, this point of indifference. If it isn’t simply a kind of univocal sort of monism, then inevitably it’s incredibly enigmatic, and it leaves us in a kind of to and pro and so on, but if i could just…

DBH: Well, can I just interject there clearly, I mean, remember, that point of indifference is very much pneumatological. I mean it’s in, not only my essay, but, something I would point out, in Paul. You know, ttranslations for so long have obscured this, but in Paul there is a rhetorical and then logical sort of indifference at times between divine and human spirit.

Milbank: I completely agree with all you say about the spirit. And actually that leads well into the next question because this has to do with the model, you know, the circle of glory that your book is very much about, the circle. It’s about an outgoing and a return, and they’re the same things. And your model of the Trinity is often very much to do with return. I mean, there is being, a manifestation and then there is a rejoicing that sort of takes you back to the beginning.

And incidentally, I don’t want to fail to say this. I thought that the way you connect the theology to the chiasmic co-belonging of being and intelligence is fantastic. That’s just wonderful, and that’s a new move that I think is really, really important.

But that keeps me on the track of the circle, so that you insist very strongly that, you know, the beginning and the end are identical, and of course that’s completely correct. It can lead us, you know, with the kind of question that Origen asks about, well, could there be repeated falls? And I guess that the answer to that as it is in Origen is christological, that you discover, if you’re fallen, that you actually can’t fall because God has brought you back again.

DBH: I believe there’s only one circle of eternity. I don’t believe there are successive circles.

Milbank: No, I get that, but I think it’s for christological—it’s because God has gone right down to the bottom.

DBH: And been brought back in the Spirit.

Milbank: But that does raise the question about the relationship of the the circle to the straight line. Quite rightly, you say that Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine have actually quite similar models of the Trinity and quite similar understandings of the Spirit as a kind of bond, but there there is, as you know, there is another model of the Trinity that we find in Dionysus, that we find in Victorinus, that we find in Maximus and we find in Eriugena which is deriving from Porphyry and is this sort of “esse, vivere, intelligere” (sometimes expressed as “essence, potency and operation model”) which you might say, you know to put it really crudely, it where the other one is circular this is kind of developmental. So my question is along the lines of: is there any sense at all in which there is also linearity in God, a sort of progress in God in which there’s the moment of being, the moment of manifestation but then the intellectual moment is in a way, the the spiritual moment, is in a way, the third moment. Yeah, and whether then we can sort of…

DBH: That’s why Hegel’s question is an inevitable one for Chrsitisans.

Milbank: Yes, if you like, it’s almost saying there’s a kind of epitasis in God and whether one can relate that to the idea that evil is a kind of impatience. It’s a failure to get to the end, if it’s a failure to arrive at the spirit. It’s a failure to arrive at the incarnation. It’s a failure to have thecomplete Trinity, if you like. So my question is just whether one could do more with that other model of the Trinity and how one would integrate it with the more circular model.

DBH: Yeah, I mean, obviously, the two models aren’t exclusive, and the easy thing to do is simply to try to divide them between the eternal and the temporal, you know.

Milbank: But this is an advanced course, you know…

DBH: Right. But I mean also that if you allow that to become a discontinuity then, in a sense, the course of history both expresses and dissembles but also doesn’t participate in the divine mystery. So I think that, yeah, I like the idea that, and others have said it before, that the Spirit also represents a kind of futurity. You get this in the Cappadocians occasionally, while denying all temporality of God, speaking of the Father in one sense as that absolute past that is always becoming manifest and moving towards the absolute future of Spirit. In time, this is manifested, of course: the age of Spirit is coming, the Olam Haba is the spiritualization of creation, I mean the absolute revelation of the Holy Spirit, the fabric of nature. There’s no reason not to map this onto the story of the history of revelation as well as Gregory of Nazianzus did which again, as I say, is why the sort of questions that Hegel raises are implicit already within the tradition.

Milbank: The interesting thing about the “being, life, intelligence model” is that it exists in the East and in the West. It’s in there, and therefore it is a point of mediation and perhaps a point where we see how we can integrate more evolutionary and historical thought into this monistic picture.

DBH: Right. Which again, Eriugena is tremendously helpful. You ask that question, but Eriugena has already, to some degree, demonstrated how these two models of the Trinity are not in competition with one another, how both take in the mystery of creation and as a trinitarian mystery of divine self manifestation, both return and so to speak (in the full development, you have to be careful of the language you use because someone will accuse you of being a process theologian if you dare use the wrong word here) but you know what I mean is that the Father really unfolds fully in the Son and reaches the complete form of divine knowledge and joy in the Spirit that is a procession that is both a generation: God generating God and God proceeding from that generation as God, you know, to to the fullness of God.

Moderator: Thank you very much. Unfortunately, we are already at the end of our time. However, I would like to give David the final word if he could finish responding to your previous question and also, perhaps, tie it in more explicitly to the nature super-nature debate for our viewers.

DBH: The nature super-nature debate. I honestly, I mean it’s a very complex thing now that you’ve asked but to return to that issue.

Moderator: Five minutes?

DBH: Well, that may be too much time because that’ll tempt me to say even more. I was trying to come up with a very simple formula. I wanted to leave you with something enigmatic and aphoristic. Then you say five minutes. You can conquer the world if you use those five minutes correctly. Okay, all right.

Understand that the revived second scholastic Thomism is one that, in a sense, entirely cuts off nature and history and culture from the trinitarian mystery. The Trinity becomes information that the church possesses as does the beatific vision, neither of which have to enter into our understanding of history or nature or evolution. In a sense the entirety of Christian revelation as a saving mystery has become an extrinsic fact about a world that exists in itself without manifesting the divine except insofar as it is vaguely oriented towards transcendental goods. I don’t think that’s what the Christian story is. I don’t think that makes sense of God becoming a man that humanity might become God and that the tikkun olam, apokatastasis ton panton, the restoration of all things would be the real revelation of the God who is all in all. It is such a truncation, such an abridgment of what is proclaimed from the New Testament onward that I think that it’s fundamentally a nihilistic parody of Christianity.

So that’s how I would tie it in with what John and I have been discussing here. I mean as exotic as it may sound, I think it is simply good, New Testament, Nicene, Calcidonian, reflection. I don’t even say that in an exclusive way because the non-Calcidonian churches actually have a rich a Christological [heritage]. It’s just a different language. I just mean that this is orthodoxy. The richness of it takes in the entire experience of nature and the human community of human culture and of the history of evolution. Grace infuses all of this, and it’s already fundamentally redemptive. Creation and salvation are not separate moments. They are the calling of all things out of nothingness into union with the God who, in a sense, not just expresses himself but is the God he is in being God in the created as well. I think that’s not only where the future of healthy Christian orthodox reflection leads, but you have to prevent at all costs this alternative picture which is so hideously destructive of that beautiful narrative.

Milbank: What you’re saying though does surely involve, and I think implicit in what you’re saying, that there’s value in the finite and the scarce as well as in the infinite and the plenitude.

DBH: Yes. Yeah.

Milbank: Ultimate value, in a sense.

DBH: I mean that actually the history, the story, the labor of being created and being saved, which is one and the same, includes Alice in Wonderland, Michelangelo’s David and all the butterflies that you’ve ever appreciated. Yes and not to see that, not to understand that, is a form of consummate philosophical and theological philistinism.

Milbank: Blasphemy as well, yeah.

DBH: Blasphemy, yeah, against the goodness of creation and the infinite modalities of God’s beauty.

Book cover.

George MacDonald, God’s Justice, and My Thanksgiving Thoughtlessness

“On the whole, theological issues have little effect on the daily lives of the faithful. Theologians aren’t really nearly as important as they imagine themselves to be, and the church as a whole would probably be better off if they were all periodically exterminated.” This was a David Bentley Hart quip during a lecture at Fordham University in 2017. Hart is making the same point here that Georoge MacDonald makes in his Unspoken Sermon on “Justice” when he says: “Some of the best of men have indeed held these theories [of vicarious sacrifice], and of men who have held them I have loved and honoured some heartily and humbly—but because of what they were, not because of what they thought; and they were what they were in virtue of their obedient faith, not of their opinion.” My own demanding overindulgence with the initiation of theological readings and conversations among my family members this Thanksgiving brought to mind the comparison of these two passages.

On Thanksgiving Day, several of my eight long-suffering siblings (with many more were I to count my siblings in-law) allowed me to read aloud from a favorite author. I started into Cheerful Words, a collection of passages from George MacDonald compiled in 1880, during his lifetime. All of us loved it, and I heartily recommend it. The day after Thanksgiving, I read “The Consuming Fire” from MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons out loud to a gathering in which my father joined several more of us siblings. Although its strong universalist language was theologically out of line with their own eschatology, my father and siblings clearly loved plenty about the sermon. One brother-in-law pointed out that perhaps the most striking passage to him was near the opening when MacDonald insists that any action that must be requested cannot be called a loving action. “Love which will yield to prayer is imperfect and poor. …It is not love that grants a boon unwillingly.” Reading this minor classic out loud with my extended family was moving, and I wept a little while sharing the passage about Moses not being prepared to see the face of God in Jesus Christ. (Reflecting on that passage in the couple of days since then, while I think more than ever that MacDonald is profoundly right, I also think that he should have attributed the poor spiritual condition of the Isrealites more to the abject bleakness of their pagan surroundings than to their centuries spent in slavery—which may have been as much a help in their salvation as a hinderence. However, that is another topic entirely from this present reflection.)

Two days after Thanksgiving, I asked the gathered family if they would enjoy another sermon by MacDonald. To my delight (and their credit), all of those present said yes, and I launched into a reading of “Justice” from MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. This was a thoughtless and pushy choice on my part. I remembered it as yet another place where MacDonald speaks directly about his convictions regarding universal salvation. With the many other wonderful options that everyone would have enjoyed, this was a self-serving and combative selection. In my defense, I did not remember how doggedly MacDonald goes after the doctrine of propitiatory (or substitutionary) atonement. MacDonald utterly rejects the idea that God must punish sin in order to be a just God and that Jesus Christ died because God needed someone to punish instead of us sinners. Rather, MacDonald insists that God owes it to all of his creatures to destroy their sinfulness entirely by causing them to see it fully as sin and to learn to hate their sin and to love their Father:

God is not bound to punish sin; he is bound to destroy sin. …Punishment, I repeat, is not the thing required of God, but the absolute destruction of sin. What better is the world, what better is the sinner, what better is God, what better is the truth, that the sinner should suffer—continue suffering to all eternity? Would there be less sin in the universe? Would there be any making-up for sin? …Grant that the sinner has deserved to suffer, no amount of suffering is any atonement for his sin. To suffer to all eternity could not make up for one unjust word. …Sorrow and confession and self-abasing love will make up for the evil word; suffering will not. For evil in the abstract, nothing can be done. It is eternally evil. But I may be saved from it by learning to loathe it, to hate it, to shrink from it with an eternal avoidance. The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner. …Sin and suffering are not natural opposites; the opposite of evil is good, not suffering; the opposite of sin is not suffering, but righteousness.

…As the word was used by the best English writers at the time when the translation of the Bible was made—with all my heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, I believe in the atonement, call it the a-tone-ment, or the at-one-ment, as you please. I believe that Jesus Christ is our atonement; that through him we are reconciled to, made one with God. There is not one word in the New Testament about reconciling God to us; it is we that have to be reconciled to God.

MacDonald is categorical in his rejection of the standard Western Christian accounts of salvation. After describing “the teaching of the Roman Church” as resting upon a “morally and spiritually vulgar idea of justice and satisfaction held by pagan Rome,” MacDonald turns to the Reformation and says that “better the reformers had kept their belief in a purgatory, and parted with what is called vicarious sacrifice!” Such a defense of purgatory while rejecting God’s need to punish sin is guaranteed to offend everyone. Although MacDonald clearly maintains that he is at war with the deplorable ideas and not with the people who hold these ideas, the ideas are name, again and again, as despicable:

I desire to wake no dispute, will myself dispute with no man, but for the sake of those whom certain believers trouble, I have spoken my mind. I love the one God seen in the face of Jesus Christ. From all copies of Jonathan Edwards’s portrait of God, however faded by time, however softened by the use of less glaring pigments, I turn with loathing. Not such a God is he concerning whom was the message John heard from Jesus, that he is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

…If you say the best of men have held the opinions I stigmatize, I answer: …In virtue of knowing God by obeying his son, they rose above the theories they had never looked in the face, and so had never recognized as evil. …They are lies that, working under cover of the truth mingled with them, burrow as near the heart of the good man as they can go. Whoever, from whatever reason of blindness, may be the holder of a lie, the thing is a lie, and no falsehood must mingle with the justice we mete out to it. There is nothing for any lie but the pit of hell. Yet until the man sees the thing to be a lie, how shall he but hold it! Are there not mingled with it shadows of the best truth in the universe? So long as a man is able to love a lie, he is incapable of seeing it is a lie. He who is true, out and out, will know at once an untruth; and to that vision we must all come. I do not write for the sake of those who either make or heartily accept any lie. When they see the glory of God, they will see the eternal difference between the false and the true, and not till then. I write for those whom such teaching as theirs has folded in a cloud through which they cannot see the stars of heaven, so that some of them even doubt if there be any stars of heaven. …Every man who tries to obey the Master is my brother, whether he counts me such or not, and I revere him.

While still several paragraphs away from the conclusion of this essay, one of my sisters-in-law asked that we cease and desist. It was far more combative regarding soteriology than I had remembered, and I was glad enough to let it rest. (Although I will pause to note that one brother-in-law mentioned his appreciation for MacDonald’s reference to those who “even doubt if there be any stars of heaven.”) All-in-all, however, I was feeling more than a little selfish for having taken it up at all on this third day together with my family.

To understand the extent of my thoughtlessness, note that my devoted father is a Presbyterian minister. Two of my younger siblings have plans to leave this spring for long-term assignments in difficult missionary work overseas. One brother-in-law serves tirelessly and selflessly as a ruling elder at a Presbyterian church. Another brother (who also attends a Presbyterian church) had spent much of Thanksgiving Day at the bedside of a close friend and young father (like himself) who was not expected to live many more days and who took great comfort in my brother’s reading of Puritan spiritual classics to him. I could go on and on. Simply put, however, I was surrounded by a profoundly loving family that had suffered and sacrificed together in countless ways and that had shown endless kindness and patience to me. In this context, I had selected a devotional reflection that utterly rejected all that they held most sacred with regard to Christian teaching and to the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. As for me—when I left in a rush to make it to a prayer service at my home church—I did not even leave time to empty the trash basket in the bathroom attached to the bedroom that was given to me or strip the sheets from my bed and take them down to the laundry room.

My reflection here, nonetheless, is not just a confession of my selfishness. It’s also, to some degree, a clarification and a defense upon further reflection. First, there is a difference between soteriology and eschatology. Many would agree with MacDonald in rejecting the doctrine of vicarious sacrifice while not agreeing with his universalism. This is largely true of C. S. Lewis. The teachings in MacDonald’s “Justice” were echoed by C. S. Lewis when he insisted that the gates of hell are only locked from the inside (The Problem of Pain, 130). While speaking often of his reverence for MacDonald and making him his guide in heaven in The Great Divorce, Lewis clearly rejected MacDonald’s universalism. This is explicit at the end of The Great Divorce and in a 1959 letter to the Reverend Alan Fairhurst where Lewis wrote, “I parted company from MacDonald on that point because a higher authority — the Dominical utterances themselves — seemed to me irreconcilable with universalism.” (On these statements by our Lord, by the way, I highly recommend Kim Papaioannou’s book The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehena, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth which is solid scholarship and which does not come down on the side of universalism.)

Even in matters of soteriology, Lewis is far more subtle and inclusive of various doctrines than was MacDonald in his “Justice” sermon. Many have argued over the soteriology of Lewis at great length, but one simple example of his nuance comes from a very familiar source for most. Here is Aslan describing the deeper magic (in Chapter 15 of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe):

It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.

This passage does not confront the doctrine of vicarious sacrifice headon, but it makes clear that the logic of the witch was undone by a deeper logic. While the witch knew that a deep magic called for death as a just response to treachery, she did not realize that the death of an innocent person would undo that more feeble logic from within and cause death itself to have no lasting power. Edmond’s repentance and this deeper magic work together in Lewis to fulfill the crude logic of the law with a higher logic that, in some real sense, condemns and undoes the sacrifice of an innocent victim as unjust according to the truths recorded during “the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned.” While the Deep Magic comes from Aslan’s father the Emperor and while Aslan obeys it, Aslan and his father are aware that the deep magic only makes sense in the light of the deeper magic that condemns the death of an innocent victim. Lewis is far from joining MacDonald in an all out rejection of vicarious sacrifice. However, Lewis is placing vicarious sacrifice within a larger framework that rests upon a recognition of the injustice of vicarious sacrifice when taken alone. MacDonald cites the scripture saying that God does not actually desire sacrifice. Lewis agrees by making it clear that God’s desire is not for a victim (as was the desire of the witch), but that God desired to see the cracking of the sacrificial table and the reversal of death by divine life working from within.

Many books have been written on these topics of course, and many more will be. There are even those who maintain that penal substitutionary atonement is taught by the early church fathers (as with “Penal Substitution in the Early Church” published by Brian Arnold on April 13, 2021 at The Gospel Coalition or the book An Existential Soteriology: Penal Substitutionary Atonement in Light of the Mystical Theology of the Church Fathers by Orthodox priest Joshua Karl Schooping). While there is some sense in which God does desire sacrifice (despite his multiple protests to the contrary in places such as Psalm 51:16 and Hosea 6:6), we are, by far, best off considering this while participating in the Divine Liturgy where we the priest prays, “Again we offer unto You this rational and bloodless sacrifice.” Here the word “rational” is sometimes translated as “reasonable” (as in submitting to what is most reasonable, right and good). The term sacrifice is sometimes translated as “service” or “worship.” Critical here is the understanding of sacrifice in the Old Testament as rooted in the giving back of creation to God who gives all of it to us continually as the gift of life from God himself. Sacrifice, rightly understood, is most fundamentally about participation in the life of God through the continual receiving and offering back to God of all that we have in thanksgiving. This is why Christ’s sacrifice is called the Eucharist (rooted in the word “thanksgiving”).

We might also consider how John Scotus Eriugena uses Augustine wonderfully to correct Augustine. There is so much that is so profoundly good and insightful in Augustine, especially in his early work (when he was closest to Ambrose and unclouded by later polemics). However, despite all of his blessed insights, it is also obvious that Augustine’s basic inability to read the Greek of passages such as Romans 5:12 added profoundly to the later theological confusions of the church regarding the nature of sin and fall.

Augustine also clearly does not read Paul as well as the Cappadocian fathers regarding Paul’s concern with corporate rather than personal election (as we see clearly in Romans 9:6-7 where Paul says that “children of Abraham” does not equal “Jews” but Gentiles). Gregory of Nyssa explains Paul’s meaning most convincingly and fully by understanding Paul (across all of his letters) to be talking about the movement of all human history through the various courts of approach into the temple of God. Some are predestined to be called out from the world as a witness to God’s saving work beyond history while others remain for a time entirely within the darkness and destruction of this fallen world. In Christ, however, all will be ushered into the Holy of Holies where God will become “all in all.” In 1 Corinthians 15:28, “panta en pasin” does not simply mean “God in all” but exceeds even that meaning with God “as all in all” so that we have God fully present in each and every creature as well as in all creatures together.

We might also note that Augustine—and even more those who came after him—did not understand that by “works” for Paul refers to the Law of Moses and not to a general human effort to appease or please God. This brings us back to the question of true sacrifice and what is meant by this in the Old and New Testaments. However, all these points are distractions and drag us back into theology over and against the contemplation of Christ which I failed to do with my family this Thanksgiving. My brother was drawing a beautiful pencil image during this entire time of John reclining against Christ’s breast—the “one thing needful” as Christ told Martha (Luke 10:38-42). It is also a distraction from obedience to what Christ teaches as Christ makes extraordinarily clear to the woman who calls out not long after Martha that “blessed are the breasts at which you nursed” (Luke 11:27-28).

Still, while theories about God are of very little value (coming, at least, after listening, gazing and obeying), I’ll end by pointing to what theories I would most recommend on these topics if I could suggest just a few short books by one humble author. I would point you to Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope, and the New Jerusalem by Bradley Jersak. He has two other related and wonderful books called A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel and A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way. I also heartily recommend Cheerful Words (and all else) by George MacDonald.

Saint (and Emperor) John III Doukas Vatatzes the Merciful

There was once a Christian emperor who ordered a census so that he could give a piece of land to the 7000 poorest people in his empire. How have I not heard of Saint (and Emperor) John III Doukas Vatatzes the Merciful before? This news comes to me this year just at the start of the Christmas Fast (November 15 to December 24).

For Orthodox Christians, it’s the start of preparations for Christ’s Nativity. This fast begins after the Feast of the Apostle Philip and is sometimes called “Philip’s Fast” because Philip told Nathanael to “Come and see!” (John 1:43-46) just as we are called to prepare and join all those who come to witness the baby born of Mary.

A visiting priest for vespers yesterday, told stories afterward of Saint John the Merciful during an informal homily. He connected this life of extreme mercy to our calling as we prepare our hearts to receive the child Christ.

As often happens (because the calendar is so filled with wonderful saints), the priest conflated two different saints with the same names and with similar feast days. John III Doukas Vatatzes ruled as Emperor of Nicea from 1221 to 1254 and is feasted on November 4 while John the Patriarch of Alexandria ministered from 606 to 616 and is feasted on November 12 (both are beloved as “Saint John the Merciful” and both left many incredible stories for us).

The Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes of Nicea had a reign like no other that I’ve heard of in history, and it should be celebrated as a high point in the human story. His policy of appointing people of non-aristocratic descent in administrative posts was ground-breaking, causing much resentment among members of the aristocracy (on whom he relied heavily for military support). He took extraordinary steps to improve the living standards of both rural and city people such as conducting a census and bestowing on each subject of the empire a plot of land. He also took firm measures against the exploitation of the poor. Towards the end of his administration, he even requisitioned movable and immovable property belonging to great land-owners and the nobility (causing their further disgruntlement).

He was admired by all, however, for constructing new roads and distributing taxes with great equity. According to all the sources, he led a very frugal life, and took additional measures to curtail excessive spending of private wealth.

These internal policies were not only bold but successful. He is noted for achieving economic self-sufficiency for his empire through the improvement of domestic production as well as diminishing the import of foreign products (especially western luxury goods). He also had great military success, expanding his rule and establishing peace in an empire surrounded by warring rivals.

John Vatatzes also saw after the Church. In 1228 he issued a decree in which he forbade the interference of political authorities into ecclesiastical inheritance. He also made generous donations to ecclesiastical institutions and saw to the rebuilding of the existing churches and monasteries as well as the construction of new ones.

In periods of peace, Vatatzes also promoted the happiness of his subjects by patronizing arts, sciences and education. He was deeply committed to the collection and copying of manuscripts. The scholar, writer and teacher Nikephoros Blemmydes (the foremost representative of the educational movement of the 13th century) lived during his reign. Among Blemmydes’ students were Vatatzes’ heir, the learned Theodore II Laskaris, as well as the historian and statesman George Akropolites. The sources abound with references to the emperor’s great concern for the development of his state’s intellectual life, and he promoted the creation of many centers of learning.

With rare unanimity, Byzantine historians all praised him along with his successor. Seven years after his death, when his grave was opened, a sweet fragrance permeated the surroundings, and it was fond that his body and clothing were incorrupt. Miracles began to be connected with his memory, and a half-century after his death, he was recognized as a saint and the construction of a church in his honor was undertaken.

Not long after, his incorrupt relics were transferred to Constantinople right after it had been liberated from the Franks. With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, his relics were hidden in a catacomb. Many legends have proliferated since that time telling how the saintly emperor is awaiting the liberation of Constantinople. Some of these stories state that John has his sword with him in its sheath, and that each year the blade of the sword emerges a few millimeters, until the time comes when the entire sword will emerge to signify the time for the liberation of the city.

However colorful the mythologies, Saint (and Emperor) John III Doukas Vatatzes the Merciful remains most astounding to me for the matter-of-fact details from his own remarkable life. It’s a wonderful and merry way indeed to start this Christmas fast.

(See my main source here.)

for all of whom one harmonious festival will prevail

When God brings our nature back to the first state of man by the resurrection, it would be pointless to mention such matters [i.e., all the contextual details that influence our behavior in this lifetime] and to suppose that the power of God is hindered from this goal by such obstructions. He has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained. This is nothing else, according to my judgment, but to be in God Himself.

…When our nature will have its tabernacle pitched again by the resurrection, and all the corruption which has entered in connection with evil will be abolished from the things that are, then the festival around God will be inaugurated in common for those who are covered by the resurrection, so that one and the same joy will be set before all. No longer will rational beings be divided by different degrees of participation in equal good things. Those who are now outside because of evil will eventually come inside the sanctuary of divine blessedness. …The apostle says this more plainly, expounding the agreement of the universe in the good: ‘To Him every knee will bow’ of heavenly, earthly, and subterranean beings, and ‘every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.’ …He speaks of angelic and heavenly beings, and by the rest he signifies the creatures which are ranked next after them, namely us, for all of whom one harmonious festival will prevail.

St Gregory of Nyssa, called “Father of Fathers” by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in chapter 10 of On the Soul and the Resurrection.

Some Data on Modernity’s Downsides

Yes, I love to talk about topics—like fairies and an atemporal fall—that don’t fit into most modern categories. Nonetheless, I’m truly on board with the modern scientific method and grateful for the many blessings of contemporary life. As a history major in college and graduate school, I’ve long loved to think about the question of progress in human history. Owen Barfield thought C.S. Lewis was a little backward for thinking that human history showed no signs of overall progress. My favorite thinkers, however, have always been the ones who agree with C.S. Lewis in this rather unpopular conclusion. David Bentley Hart, for example, writes in his most recent subscription newsletter essay “Time, Technology, and History: Disjointed Reflections on the Rise of Homo Interreticulatus” that “there is no such thing as a science of history, in the sense of some theory or experimental regimen that could reduce the flow of human events to a set of invariable laws—economic, social, political, anthropological, or whatever—or produce reliable models for predicting what comes next.” After rejecting even the grand systems of Hegel and Heidegger while pressing this point as far as he can, Hart maintains that:

Historical eventuality is a vast, tumultuous, uncharted river carrying all our fragile vessels along—hazardous, scarcely navigable, and with unanticipated bends always just ahead. All we can really be certain of is that there will be moments of acute crisis when all the river’s currents will be forced together in a particularly turbulent confluence or precipitated down a particularly steep chute, and survival will depend on whose hands hold the tiller.

Coming down from the heights of these sweeping philosophical claims, I also love to think about the more mundane causes of modernity and tallying up what we have lost. Skipping over the delightful considerations of how our modern secular world came to be (which I will likely continue to blog about for years to come as I’m endlessly fascinated with the rise of many wildly irrational modern ideas such as secularity, the autonomous individual, the sovereign nation state, and a libertarian concept of freedom), this blog post will just focus on tallying up of what we have lost. Of course, what has disappeared in the face of modernity is generally much less visible to us than the many celebrated benefits.

While we generally think of modern life as far more secure and non-violent than premodern life, the total number of human deaths by conflict have climbed astronomically since the rise of the secular nation state and its totalizing ideologies (generally connected to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648). Take a look at the death tolls from the many devastating (and often ideological) conflicts of modern nations compared to those of premodern nations:

Charts like that one above are ideally read with some understanding of the ways in which Marxism, fascism and capitalism are all expressions of the totalizing ideologies that serve the power of secular nation states. However, such considerations take us off tract.

Getting back to the numbers, of course, the massively escalating total numbers of human deaths by conflict within the chart above are in some large part the result of rapid growth in the worldwide human population (due substantially to the positive benefits of modern medicine and agriculture). However, even when the growing human population is factored in, per capita death rates due to human conflicts have still been measurably higher overall since the Enlightenment (not discounting the great blessing of well over a decade of historically low rates of human conflicts globally):

(As an aside, before moving to the next types of data, it is worth noting that any consideration of human death rates across time should include the increased rates of induced abortions to some extent. Obviously, this is an extremely politicized topic that creates distractions and understandable concerns from multiple directions. However, I’ll simply point out here that there were an average of 56 million induced abortions each year from 2010 to 2014 according to the World Health Organization. Any serious consideration of human death rates across all of human history would need to take these substantial numbers into account to some degree.)

Moving past global human death rates, however, the real genius of the secular myth of progress is that the devastation of modernity is hidden underneath piles of improvements—the majority of which are truly very good (certainly, we should all celebrate and continue to advocate for medical progress and progress in the legal protections provided to the most vulnerable). However, we should also track the losses. These make up a massive but hidden list such as environmental devastation, losses in human attention and consciousness (difficult to define and measure of course) as well as vast extinctions in local culture, craft and lore of place. Especially these last factors (of human attention and consciousness along with local culture, craft and lore of place) all correlate profoundly with the real empowerment and happiness of people. My strong suspicion is that humans in the modern world are substantially less happy, perceptive and capable on average than humans in the premodern world. If we could measure the presence of mental health needs, depression and addictions in the premodern world globally, I suspect that our modern world would not compare as favorably as many today might imagine.

However, this kind of data is not easy to find and perhaps not even possible to extrapolate in any form. Instead, I will do what I can here to sketch a picture with the various pieces of disjointed data that I have been able to find.

Insects are a good place to start. As a boy (in 6th grade), I got to know a couple of PhD students in entomology from Cornel University. They gave me a tour of the facilities there which were some of the best in the world. As friends of our family, they spent time looking over my own collections as an amateur naturalist of various insects, skulls, birds eggs and many other small items arranged with care on the shelves in my bedroom that I called my museum. Because my father was a PhD student (in literature) at SUNY Binghamton, I was able to check out books from the library at Cornel University. By the end of 8th grade, I had checked out well over a hundred books on insects from one of the best entomology libraries in the world. In addition to raising all kinds of bugs to feed to my many snakes, lizards and other pets, I also did a lot of things that many other children did. I collected milkweed leaves and raised monarch butterflies. I spent hours looking through the inches of bugs that piled up under streetlights at night. One time I found a beautiful female specimen of a giant water bug close to four inches long. I had read about these in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard where she recounts her astonishment at watching a frog, who she thought was beautiful and filled with life, collapse suddenly in on itself before its empty skin floated ghostlike to the bottom of the shallow water where it had been sitting at the surface in the sunlight. Dillard spent some time reading to find what could have caused this incredible vision, and concluded that it must have been a giant water bug. I named mine Cleopatra, and I watched her feed happily on several frogs before I released her.

With my own children, I’ve tracked down the nuptial flights of queen ants on warm days after light rains. We’ve collected these native queens and raised them carefully until they lay eggs and the eggs hatch so that the queen is attended by the nanitics as she begins to build her colony. (Nanitics are the very first generation of workers who are smaller and hatched without the benefit of other workers to care for them as eggs.) Despite growing up for 14 out of the first 18 years of my life in Taiwan, I began to suspect while raising my own children that insect populations in America were not what they used to be when I was a child. As I looked into it, there have, in fact, been massive world-wide drops in insect biomass globally since I was a child. This study shows a global 45% decline of invertebrates over the past 40 years (Dirzo Science, 2014):

Another study shows a 75% loss of insect life from 63 locations in Germany identified as low-altitude nature protection areas surrounded by human populations and measured between 1989 and 2016 (Hallmann in PLoS ONE, 2017):

While I don’t find that most people know about the global loss of insect biomass, there have been some reports on the struggles of honeybees and monarch butterflies. Just to look at the data on monarchs is truly saddening. When eastern and western monarch populations are taken together, we have seen an overall 75% decline from 1975 to 2019:

Just focusing on the western monarch, we see that while the number of overwintering sites monitored by concerned people has climbed dramatically, the total number of monarchs reported has dropped to virtually zero in 2020:

While we don’t know much about why insect populations are declining, one candidate is pollution levels that are not connected to local areas but are instead widespread in global ocean and ground water sources. Prominent among these kinds of pollutants are micro-plastics. I do not know much about the definitions of what constitutes micro-plastic pollution or about its possible harm to living things or ecosystems. At any rate, micro-plastic are just one example out of many kinds of pollutants that we could look at. They are an area of growing study, and the initial data on the prevalence of micro-plastic pollution is sobering:

Turning to a human health indicator that gets limited new coverage (and where micro-plastic pollution is also one suspect), there are several studies of male sperm counts dropping substantially in recent decades worldwide. This most well-publicized study was from France:

With far more complicating factors involved but nonetheless worth considering when evaluating longterm changes in human culture, it is also worth looking at overall fertility rates for humans in various parts of the world:

Now we come to one of the most important indicators of human cultural health: the prevalence of local artisan guilds and handcraft traditions. These are numbers that are not easy to find, but there is not doubt that these numbers are in dramatic decline worldwide as a result of globalized industrialization. Both human languages and human handcraft traditions are disappearing completely on a yearly basis. This first study shows the decline in Japan and then in a specific city in Japan (revered for its many handcraft traditions):

Finally, one more local study in the loss of handcrafts, this one from Pakistan:

Of course, handcrafts indicate the life of towns and cities. Human cultures also involve food production and agricultural life. On this topic, Wendell Berry is, of course, a leading contemporary thinker. (However, his basic concepts of human scale and collectively learning how to care for your particular place are equally applicable to cities, towns and farmland.) Without getting into the theories, here are some simple examples of numbers regarding the relative size and number of agricultural land holdings over time (generally showing the replacement of the family farm with corporate agriculture:

This next chart shows data that I’ve found almost no examples of (with this one being a low-budget study). However, one key indicator of human cultural health is our relationship to work versus sacred time, and this indicates what we would expect in the modern world:

While wealth distribution, of course, involves a very complex set of factors, there is a case to be made that our long-term trends in this regard from premodern to modern times have not been healthy. This is related, as well, to the factors above involving our relationship to local places and to work versus sacred time.

Finally, here is some data that has gotten a great deal of attention (and of which much more could be found). Our collective consumption of mass media and entertainment has escalated dramatically by every measure. Much of this, of course, is saturated by increasingly sophisticated efforts to keep our attention and to shape our appetites. One of many books on the topic that I recommend is Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams. Here are some basic charts regarding out consumption of entertainment, specifically:

Most of the charts above are easily found online by searching key terms on the charts themselves. I’m glad to answer questions about sources in comments here as well. This is, obviously, not a formal study of any kind, but just a tour of categories where I have found numbers that felt relevant to me in consider what we may have lost as people with the rise of the modern Enlightenment in Europe and the secular nation state (which has been exported as a concept to the entire globe).

the ground of all nature is personal presence

The Bible doesn’t give you imagery of some other place than this world. In the Old Testament, the New Testament, in the Prophets, in Paul—the only image of salvation that there is, is cosmic. It’s always not just human beings praising God but all the animals of the land and the sea. It’s a restored creation. It has a new Jerusalem in it—that imagery of a purified Jerusalem descending to earth. There is no notion of going to some ethereal heaven apart from the rest of creation.

The imagery is of a renewed world, a renewed cosmos in which everything—mineral, vegetable, animal, human—is present. The ground of all nature is personal presence. That’s more original than everything else. I think that is a reality that one can confirm in experience not just through some sort of set of metaphysical commitments.

It’s clear that, when you interact with animals, you’re interacting with personal beings. I don’t give a damn how offensive that is to anyone in the tradition. You are dealing with creatures that have consciousness, that have identity, that have (to some degree) personality, so they are spiritual beings. Any attempt to deny that is simply based on a rather childish fixation on a notion of what constitutes proper human dignity. The notion that they are somehow excluded from the universal dispensation of a new creation seems to me, self-evidently, a rather squalid picture of things. Those who have owned a dog know who that dog is—unlike every other dog in many ways—that he or she has little idiosyncrasies or habits …you know if this dog is excessively timid. You are, in all of nature, always confronted with a kind of personal presence. I tend to think that here [Sergei] Bulgakov is right: all of nature, all of creation, is in its inmost essence always already personal. Its destiny can’t be the destiny of a machine that merely collapses into dust at the end of its utility. Apokatastasis literally means restoration of all things, and all things would seem to include all things.

This is from a short video clip of a forthcoming interview with David Bentley Hart that will be included within a larger documentary from what I’ve heard.

The term apokatastasis is used in the New Testament just once (in Acts 3:21) but is also talked about by many early church fathers in relation to Paul’s reference, in 1 Corinthians 15:28, to Christ subjecting himself to God so “that God may be all in all.” I’m tempted here to reflect on the similarities and differences between David Bentley Hart’s vision of the eschaton and that of N. T. Wright. Both of them insist upon a heaven that is in profound contact with the here and now, but they go about this in radically different ways. Wright insists upon the materiality (fleshly and earthly) of heaven and avoids metaphysical categories. Hart grounds the presence of God in the here and now as well as in the most substantial reality of “personal presence” and of “spiritual beings.” While Hart beautifully maintains that this is a “reality that one can confirm in experience not just through some sort of set of metaphysical commitments,” even in this passage, you can see that Hart is leaning in to metaphysical categories that he believes are profoundly present in Paul and other New Testament authors as well.

I’m also tempted to consider the image of the fire of God burning at the heart of each individual thing (each self) within creation—an image that shows up prominently in the church fathers, in Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889), and in George MacDonald (1824 – 1905). However, I’ve tried to write about all of this before, and I will leave off trying to do any of it again for now.

Notes and Reading List on the Atemporal Fall

One of the more challenging topics I’ve read, written, and talked about in the past few years is the atemporal fall. I get more and more questions about it, so I’m collecting a reading list here that I can build out over time and share easily in response to questions. This concept of an atemporal fall was widespread in the Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian context (the entire background of Jesus and Paul) but has not been prominent within the Latin tradition of theology for a long time. As the piece linked below by Alexander V. Khramov demonstrates, this is largely because Augustine moved over the course of his own lifetime away from the idea of an atemporal fall that he had first learned as a new Christian—rejecting what had been the standard idea in the Greek speaking theological world. Augustine did this for what were apparently theologically-motivated reasons related to his own unique readings of Paul on topics such as original sin (another way in which Augustine shaped theology in the West for long after his lifetime).

Put simply, the atemporal fall is the idea that humanity was created in a heavenly realm of time and space and that the human fall literally caused a reduced form of time and space to come into being. Humanity then also showed up within this fallen world but in a new and reduced form of themselves. Many early church fathers (including Augustine at least for the first part of his career) considered Genesis 1 to be about the eternal creation of God while Genesis 2 moved our cosmic story across the line into the fallen world that we now inhabit. This means that the fall of humanity took place outside of time as we now experience it—therefore “atemporal.”

Calling this concept the “atemporal fall” privileges the relationship of the fall to our present world in terms of time and does this at the expense of space. However, our current world is related to the world from which we fell in terms of both time and space. In fact, a Christian understanding of an atemporal fall must maintain both a spatial and a temporal participation between the fallen world and the eternal creation of God. Without this participation, the idea of an atemporal fall reduces easily to a full dualism or heterodox gnosticism rather than remaining simply a contingent dualism (with actual participation in the life of God throughout all of reality) as we see in the New Testament and the church fathers.

One other reason that it so difficult to speak now of an atemporal fall is that it is entirely incompatible with a physicalist or mechanistic metaphysics (which is really just the blindness or prejudice of refusing to have any metaphysics at all). Our modern secular world of inert material resources that exist only to be manipulated for the sake of progress or commodification (creating more stuff to awaken new consumer desires) cannot be understood as a reality that is ultimately dependent upon a more permanent, substantial and living world. Although modern humans still have an atrophied nous (“the single eye of the heart” that Jesus teaches about or the “intuitive mind” of the Greek philosophers) that can perceive the most substantial, free and alive realities, we only give any attention or respect to what we can see with our frail fleshly eyes and control with muscle or money. For all of these reasons, you are unlikely to hear much about the atemporal fall in our world today.

While on the topic of imponderables, any consideration of an atemporal fall must also posit some version of a corporate and heavenly Adam as well as Jesus Christ. As we read in Paul, Jesus is the second Adam and also the first human to be fully created (or to have displayed the fullness of the divine image for which purpose humans were created). Jesus is also called the head of the entire body of his people. Likewise, Adam is, of course, the source or head of the entire human race. Both figures relate to human history and to all other human persons, to some significant extent, from outside of history. There is much more to consider on these points, but it is beyond the scope of these notes.

Where I first heard of this concept was in fairytales or mythologies. We see this atemporal fall suggested in the bending of our world into its current reduced shape as this took place in Tolkien’s stories with the downfall of Númenor. It shows up in the myths of Atlantis and of the Temple-Garden of Eden sinking into the earth with the great flood. I’ve written about this in several places such as these:

Few authors write about the idea of an atemporal fall outside of fiction and story. The first place that I saw any reference to it in a contemporary nonfiction source was in The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart where he speaks explicitly of time as we know it now being “fallen” and reduced in its form. Even in this book, however, the concept is not developed but simply eluded to. Most other places where I have found this idea talked about are just recordings of conversations between authors and scholars as well as a few articles and blog posts. I’m hopeful that some books coming out in future years will give this more formal attention. If anyone reading these notes and this list has additional resources, please let me know.

Without further ado, here is the reading list:

  • Fitting Evolution into Christian Belief: An Eastern Orthodox Approach” by Alexander V. Khramov in the International Journal of Orthodox Theology (2017). Also found here from the publisher.
  • Paul’s Adam and Paul’s Christ” by David Armstrong on A Perennial Digression from 26 August 2021.
  • St Maximus the Confessor on the Cosmic Fall” by Jordan Daniel Wood at the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog on 14 November 2020.
  • Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution” by Charles Andrew Gottshall at the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog on 1 May 2017.
  • The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart (2005).
  • “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a Few Dostoyevskian Meditations” by David Bentley Hart. Published in Creation “ex nihilo”: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges (2017) and Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest (2020).
  • Torstein Theodor Tollefsen in his chapter “Saint Maximus the Confessor on Creation and Incarnation” from the book Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen.
  • I am excited about a forthcoming book by Jordan Wood called The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus the Confessor (from the University of Notre Dame Press, publication date not yet finalized but within a year). It promises insight on many topics and possibly this one as well.
  • The Fall and Hypertime by Hud Hudson (2014). [Recommended by Stephen R. L. Clark (as something he wants to read related to this).]
  • Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures by Paul J. Griffiths (2014). [Recommended and not yet read by me.]
  • The Symbolism of Evil by Paul Ricoeur. [Recommended and not yet read by me.]

One final note regarding provenance with this topic:

  • This claim is properly within the truth domaines of theology, anthropology, metaphysics, myth and poetry.
  • As for the physical sciences: they do not conflict at all with the concept of an atemporal fall. At the same time, science cannot give us any evidence of it on its own terms.
  • As for exegesis of scripture: it takes an atemporal fall for granted on every page. It, however, is not something we tend to see as modern readers. One example is Romans 8:19-23. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Silent Evolution, Musa (off the coast of Mexico), nearly 500 figures cast from people of the village of Puerto Morelos. Sculptor: Jason deCaires Taylor.

P.S. A few of my family members occasionally read and interact with my theological postings on my blog. Shortly after I posted the material above, one of my amazing sisters commented to me elsewhere about the atemporal fall being rather incomprehensible, so I gave this summary a shot:

Dear sister, a distinguished and much-loved Orthodox theologian of the last generation, Olivier Clément, wrote a book called Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition that is probably the best start I could think of for talking about an atemporal fall.

One way to describe the atemporal fall is to say that all of cosmic history in this current fallen world of ours is the result of only one moment or event within the heavenly or eternal time of God’s kingdom life. When the heavenly Adam fell (who was created for the purpose of filling an un-fallen cosmos with life in God’s image and so that the incarnation might take place even without a fall) all of fallen human history unrolled instantly—from the Big Bang until the last moment of biological life anywhere in our cosmos. This means that every part of this contingent story that we are in right now is only incompletely in contact with the true history of humanity’s un-fallen relationship to God. Our fallen history did not destroy us and our world, because, at the instant of our fall, the eternal Son and Word of God joined himself to us even to the point of death. This incarnation shows up in the middle of our fallen time when Mary says yes to God—undoing the human fall in cooperation with God. However, this incarnation and death and resurrection of God are also the “lamb slain from the foundation of the cosmos” (as John says in his Apocalypse). Every moment of cosmic history is therefore the immediate result of two things: 1) Adam’s resistance to life with God and 2) Christ’s commitment to incarnation in the flesh even though humanity resisted life with God and brought death to themselves and their entire world.

Coming at the atemporal fall from another direction, my second best approach would be through the work of a living and also much-loved Orthodox theologian John Behr with a book called John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (now in a 2nd ed.). In this book, John Behr explains how all of the early church fathers understood John the Theologian to be teaching in his gospel that the work of creation by God was only accomplished upon the cross by Jesus Christ from the very foundation or middle of our contingent and fallen time.

Dreaming with Mr. Raven

Adam—hearing God’s call to divine fellowship—dreamed of green and flowering cities, tempting even angels with the visions. They, leaning in, enticed Adam, in turn, to dream more and more lavishly. Before his eyes had fluttered open, his visions had long outstripped his childish wisdom and grown lost in fantasies of life apart from God. Only partially awake, Adam’s world first stirred in pain. It grew in twilight amid broken brotherhoods, crushed by death and darkness.

Early along this thorny road to God, first Adam beheld Eve and rejoiced that they would not be alone, though, he spurned her soon as a temptress, and went to dwell with Lilith. When Lilith left Adam to wield fierce powers as Queen of Death, Adam return to Eve and her children brought them promises of life. But bitter labor and broken fellowships soon took Adam back beneath the earth to dream fitfully again.

Watching his tortured dreams from the sweet-scented Cave of Machpelah, Adam first saw Mary. Gazing as she spun her yarn for the temple veil, Adam thought vividly of what it would be to wake fully and behold himself saying yes to God. He felt again God’s hands giving form to clay—his own soul shaped again with the knitting of the child that Mary carried.

God visited this night of Adam’s world as Jesus Christ and walked the dusty roads with Adam’s sons and daughters. Remembering lost evenings of quiet fellowship in a first fruited garden—a place governed by lights and filled with the voice of God—almost, Adam came forth from his cave to stand with God again.

Yes, watching Mary follow her son through death within his bitter dreams, Adam’s ears and eyes longed to fully wake and walk with God himself. Then a bold cry thundered up from the depths of the earth, filling buried Eden and echoing through the cave of the patriarchs. John, called out to the dead and sleeping, “Behold, the new Joshua and the son of David, putting death to flight. He approaches. Stir yourselves and behold.”

I dream now with Mr. Raven—George MacDonald’s Adam librarian—gathering little worms across the grassy fields of paradise where a thousand, thousand sleeping souls surround us, buried but ready to learn of light and air, to hear the echoes of Mary’s yes to God, the yes that even Adam and Lilith, finally, would imitate.

A Note on His Teachings During This Feast Day of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite

Christians feast Saint Dionysius the Areopagite today. He was appointed by the Apostle Paul as the first bishop of Athens after he became a Christian while hearing Paul teach on the Areopagus (Acts 17). Among other places, Dionysius is always depicted in the icon of the Dormition with the other bishops who were there: James, the brother of the Lord, Timothy and Heirotheus. Stories about Dionysius pour forth across time like exotic treasures from a viking trove. For example, while living in Alexandria, Egypt years before his conversion, he noticed the sky darkening one day and remarked at the time that either the creator of the world must be suffering or the world must be ending (later learning that this was the day of Christ’s crucifixion). After becoming a Christian, Dionysius traveled to see Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ and to hear from her directly about her son who had died, returned from the grave and ascended into heaven. Dionysius reports that if he had not known anything about Mary, he would have immediately recognized her as a remarkable and holy woman because she radiated a divine light. For most of Christian history, Dionysius was also thought to have traveled to Paris in Gaul where he died a martyr. However, most historians of hagiography now consider Saint Dionysius (or Denis) of Paris to have been another saint with the same name. Either way, Saint Dionysius of Paris is the most famous cephalophore of the many who appear in Western Christianity, and most images of this saint show him carrying his own head (with the halo sometimes with the head and sometimes where the head should be and sometimes partially in both places). The account was much loved of Dionysius the Areopagite picking up his own head after his decapitation and carrying it to the church to deliver a powerful sermon on the beauties of repentance before he finally laid himself down to rest.

Among the many potent and beautiful materials connected to Dionysius the Areopagite, are a set of astounding writings that patristic scholars continue to marvel over. Most scholars today would say that these writings are by a later person working within his school of teaching:

  • Divine Names (Περὶ θείων ὀνομάτων)
  • Celestial Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς οὐρανίου ἱεραρχίας)
  • Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (Περὶ τῆς ἐκκλησιαστικῆς ἱεραρχίας)
  • Mystical Theology (Περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας)
  • Ten epistles

Despite having a reputation for extraordinary (almost alienating) profundity and depth, these writings are loved by the whole church and considered well within the framework of all that was shared by the mothers and fathers of the church within its earliest years.

Not knowing Greek and being one who loves to find excellent shortcuts in my learning, I recently read a summary of all that Dionysius taught by a leading contemporary American scholar (professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University). I highly recommend Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric David Perl. While focusing on the core metaphysical system that is astoundingly consistent and rigorous throughout the works of Dionysius, Perl (a devout Christian himself) does cover angelology and the nature of sin along with the incarnation. In fact, Perl’s book concludes: “Dionysius’ discussions of the incarnation suggest that the whole of being, as theophany, is to be understood in incarnational terms, and that God incarnate, as the ‘principle and perfection of all hierarchies’ is the fullness of reality itself. Being as symbol, as theophany, and hence as being, is perfectly realized in Christ, in God incarnate, the finite being which is God-made-manifest.”

So what is taught by this school of Saint Dionysius? Everything around us each moment that we see, feel, smell, hear and touch is a manifestation of God—a theophany. Everything that exists does so only because it is intelligible by our nous (the mind’s eye or the mind of the heart). We cannot ultimately distinguish between intelligibility and existence. All intelligibility is also a simultaneous revelation of God and a hiding of God in one and the same event. God is not one of all the things that exist but is instead the source of all that is revealed or made intelligible. This means that God does not exist but makes all existence possible, that God is no thing but is revealed by all things. This relationship between God and creation defies explanation under the categories of either monism or dualism and is sometimes called non-dualism. All of creation is simply the manifestation of God while also the veil that keeps God eternally hidden.

Sensations (our five physical senses) inform our nous (mind’s eye or inner perception) but are not needed in order for our mind to see things. We can perceive the life of angels, for example, without the need of our physical senses. However, despite expounding an understanding of the world that makes spiritual bodies more substantial than material bodies, Dionysius does not in any way disparage or undermine material things. He writes explicitly that Plotinus was wrong about matter being evil and develops a line of thought from Proclus to argue that matter is a direct gift of God and a revelation of God’s own love, life and goodness. Dionysius repeatedly clarifies that there is no lack of divine goodness or power within any of the furthest reaches of the hierarchies or emanations that connect together the world revealed to us by God. It is not that spirit is closer to God and matter is further from God. Both come directly from God, but matter depends up on spirit and mind for its existence in a hierarchy of being that continually holds everything together. “The entire hierarchy of reality, therefore, from the highest seraph to the least speck of dust, is the immediate presence and manifestation of God.”

There would be pages to write here in summarizing the wonderful and life-giving teachings that we receive in such clear terms from the school of Dionysius. He clearly identifies sin, evil and suffering and states the case most boldly and unequivocally that these have not final place in the life of God into which we are invited and which is restored for us in incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Dionysius goes so far as to say that any attempt to give a reason or a purpose to evil (any kind of theodicy) is itself the greatest of evils. Evil is a contingent, purposeless and irrational lack being or intelligibility that ultimately can only be made full and good.

When we see and feel the sensible world around us, we gather all of these sensations up into a wholeness of perception until we see all of these sensations united together with the higher forms that hold them together. In this form of seeing with our mind, there is no leaving of any physical sensations behind but a weaving together of them all so that we can perceive them as a unified whole within the life of God who is both fully revealed by this wholeness of vision (the immanent and immediate source of all that is) and entirely hidden (transcendently apart from every thing as the one and constant source of each thing’s existence). God is, as Augustine says—at one and the same time—higher than my utmost and more inward than my innermost. God’s transcendence is the result of his profound immanence.

Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos from the Cathedral of the Dormition located on the north side of Cathedral Square of the Moscow Kremlin in Russia.

that becomes our picture of the libertarian modern individual subject invested with absolute prerogatives whose freedom consists in pure spontaneity of will

In this third and last interview of David Bentley Hart by Tony Golsby-Smith, Tony starts out asking David to contrast Augustine’s reading of Paul with the reading that we get in Gregory of Nyssa (the focus of their first and their second interviews). Tony uses language at first that casts all of Augustine in an exclusively negative light, but David quickly points out that Augustine is revered as a saint both east and west, and gives several reasons for this. David points out multiple ways that Augustine’s theology is most beautiful at its outset (including elements that David praises as filled with timeless beauty and insight). However, David says that he follows the Irish theologian John Scottus Eriugena in using the early Augustine to critique the late Augustine. David argues that Augustine’s later theology grows calcified and cruel as Augustine labors under some basic misunderstandings of the original Greek in Paul and also faces tremendous stresses in the challenges of life and church leadership within the Western part of the Roman Empire.

David and Tony’s conversation ends up moving into an analysis of the modern world. David makes a case here for how the fall of Christianity came about as a response to the problems of late Augustinian theology, especially as it became even more extreme in various late medieval Catholic theologians as well as in the works of Luther and Calvin. Although the reformers come out looking entirely rejected and condemned in this excerpt, David (here and elsewhere) does have praise for both Luther and Calvin (although primarily only as a stylists, in the case of the latter).

I’ve transcribed the passages below for three key insights that I’m interested to consider further. First is that the modern autonomous self and its sovereignty of will is a concept that can be traced back to the theology of the late Augustine with regard to God. Second is that the modern nation state is the inheritor of a relatively late medieval concept of divine sovereignty that briefly went under the name of the “divine right of kings” but quickly was handed over to the secular nation state (at the Peace of Westphalia), giving rise to modernity and secularism as we know it today. Third is that secular modernity came about in large part because the God of late Augustine became a false God that was rejected (while at the same time becoming the basis of our own self-understanding.


From the high middle ages onward and in the next century, the 14th century more and more, the Augustinian tradition—in a now modernized and even more severe form—began to become one of the dominant strains of thought. Luther comes out of an Augustinian monastic tradition. He’s familiar with nominalist doctrines of absolute sovereignty—ideas that actually go beyond Augustine’s much more careful much and more brilliant metaphysical understanding of God—and begin more and more to take the element of what looks like sheer arbitrariness in the God of the late Augustine and elevate that to a virtue to make it represent divine sovereignty which now becomes the highest good.

There’s a curious convergence between this way of thinking about God and the emerging political models of early modernity. The absolute monarch (which is not a medieval idea, it’s an early modern idea), the absolute prerogatives of the nation state—more and more there’s some sort of strange occult interchange going on between the picture of God as this absolute sovereign (hidden behind quite often the nominalist veil of absolute mystery who’s only dealing with his creatures is the pure power of his will to be the sovereign disposer of all things) and the image of the monarch as the absolute sovereign. Then you could argue that the story of modernity has been more and more the migration of this understanding of what it is to be free—to be truly free, to be absolutely sovereign, to be just pure will willing what it wills for the sake of what it wills—migrates from the image of God to the image of each individual, and that becomes our picture of the libertarian modern individual subject invested with absolute prerogatives whose freedom consists in pure spontaneity of will—sovereignty over self.

How this happened—you can see the genealogy of this picture of divine sovereignty and its effect both in political thought and on our thinking about what it is to be a free rational creature from the late medieval period onward, but it’s by a subterranean stream that this is a possibility in late medieval thought because it has always been latent in the tradition going back to the late Augustine. Because from the moment the late Augustine decides that the answer to the Pelagians is this story of absolute praedestinatio anti-provisum merit—which is one of his clear misreadings of Paul (that God predestines either to damnation or salvation entirely without any pre-vision of the merits of the creature because those merits are in fact the effects of predestination not their premise, not their cause)—from that moment onwards, this poison, I hate to say it, is present in the blood system of the West and of Christendom.

…Theologically, [Calvin] took it to a new extreme because he was willing in book three of the Institutes to say something that neither Augustine nor Aquinas would say, which was that God predestined the fall. So that the whole drama of fall, mortality, damnation, salvation exists purely as the display of divine power, display of divine sovereignty. Calvin’s quite clear here (and sadly there’s great precedent for this in the tradition), the rarity of grace, the fact that it’s given to only very few (understand, the vast majority of humanity was created with no other purpose than to suffer eternally)—the rarity of grace is what demonstrates its preciousness, its goodness. Actually the truth is, if that were true, it would demonstrate a certain revolting ego in that grace.


…You know, obviously, I believe that the whole notion of eternal torment is an accident of ecclesial history, and I can give you any number of arguments for why it became the predominant view. For most of Christian history, most Christians were largely unacquainted with the details of something like the theology of grace that you have in the late Augustine. It’s only in early modernity. …One of the reasons why, obviously, Calvin is an influential figure is because the printing press existed, and I think more and more the theology of the 16th century became more and more militantly late Augustinian. I want to point out again in Catholicism too, not just in Reformation in Evangelische circles but in a lot of Roman Catholicism as well. It also was the first time that many Christians actually came to be acquainted with the full contents of this theological and dogmatic tradition. Actually, [for] most medieval Christians you know, rather vaguely, there’s heaven, there’s hell, there’s the Mother of God who will plead first before her son the Judge. …Once a year you may communicate if you’re especially pious, if you’re one of the peasants. There’s not a strong consciousness of the theology—as a system of thought about God and God’s relation to creation. But in the early modern period, the late medieval into the early modern period, now, it becomes a matter of general consciousness, and that’s the beginning of the end when the Augustinian tradition is dominant. All of these movements—the Reformed church, Lutheranism—at first they’re marked by great vitality, but all these modern expressions of Christianity more and more begin to sink into a kind of morbidity because as people become aware of the full spectrum of this kind of late Augustinian theology [they are going to] see how repellent it is.

Now at first this will take the form of attempts to rescue other kinds of Christianity from historical forgetfulness, like John Wesley was a great reader of the Greek fathers, and he rejected out of hand this picture so the Methodist tradition stands outside. There were huge movements of universalism in 19th century Britain (not just in Britain …but throughout the Christian world, Russia too)—but if you just look at Britain in the 19th century, the the sheer number of prominent figures who were believers like say the Brontes, Lewis Carroll, George McDonald, you know, …Tennyson—you go down the list of people who are devout but with enough sensitivity and intellectual tact to be genuinely horrified by the picture they’ve been presented. But then of course what also happens is that more and more, at a very tacit, very quiet level, more and more people are driven away from this picture.


The late modern picture of God that became dominant, the voluntarist God of absolute sovereignty who was rooted in the late Augustine’s theology, is two things at once. He becomes the model of freedom as such, pure sovereignty, so he becomes a rival to each of us, an intolerable rival. He’s also a tyrant, and for both those reasons he has to be killed. In modernity, we discover our liberty by killing the ancient omnipotent rival to our liberty—the only one who can be sovereign in a way that leaves us subordinate to him. But also he’s a tyrant, you know, you cannot believe, you cannot love this God, and you should not, and he must die. So by the time we get to the late 19th century, and Nietzsche’s proclaiming the death of God and giving it a genealogy that’s rather brilliant, but one thing he leaves out is the degree in which the age [of] the death of God, the birth of modern atheism, the fragmentation of the Christian view of reality is something incubated within late medieval and early modern christianity itself.