reading books is good but possessing nothing is more than anything

Icon of St. Macarius the Great with a cherub. (The one written more recently is in higher resolution and from this blog.)

Saint Macarius, commemorated today, has many sayings collected. Here is one that should be a warning to me:

Theodore, surnamed Pherme, had three good books. He went to Macarius, and said, ‘I have three good books, and I am helped by reading them. Other monks also want to read them, and they are helped by them. Tell me what to do.’ Macarius replied, ‘Reading books is good, but possessing nothing is more than anything.’ When he heard this, he went and sold the books, and gave the money to the poor.

And I’ve share this one before on this blog (from The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, 15.32):

Within the heart are unfathomable depths. …It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.

Finally, here is a story told of him:

Once, Saint Macarius was walking and saw a skull lying upon the ground. He asked, “Who are you?” The skull answered, “I was a chief priest of the pagans. When you, Abba, pray for those in hell, we receive some mitigation.”

The monk asked, “What are these torments?”

“We are sitting in a great fire,” replied the skull, “and we do not see one another. When you pray, we begin to see each other somewhat, and this affords us some comfort.”

Having heard such words, the saint began to weep and asked, “Are there still more fiercesome torments?”

The skull answered, “Down below us are those who knew the Name of God, but spurned Him and did not keep His commandments. They endure even more grievous torments.”

This story recognizes our current suffering as well as the love of Jesus Christ in his saints. May we weep with Macarius. Lord, have mercy. And Saint Macarius, pray for us.

this image of Jesus made a contribution to the formulation of the founding principals and secular values of modern political philosophy

From Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (chapter 11) by Jaroslav Pelikan:

This controversy over poverty [following the life of Saint Francis] had some unlooked-for political consequences. Nothing would seem to be more otherworldly and apocalyptical, indeed downright idealistic, than the doctrine that because Christ, Mary and the apostles had practiced total poverty it was incumbent on the church to obey their example and to abstain from owning anything. Yet by one of those curious ironies with which history (and perhaps especially the history of the church) is fraught, this otherworldly position formed an alliance with various radical secularists of the fourteenth century who were asserting the authority of the state over against that of the church. The eminent Franciscan theologian and philosopher, William of Ockham, attacked Pope John XXII for modifying the requirements of the Rule and Testament of Francis on poverty. During the ensuing conflict, Ockham found political asylum at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis of Bavaria, who was engaged in a struggle with the papacy over the relative prerogatives of church and state. Taking over some of Ockham’s arguments and adapting them in a manner that was in fact quite un-Franciscan and that Ockham—as a devoted churchman and, so he insisted, an orthodox Catholic had not intended—the emperor and his supporters cast themselves in the role of liberators of the true church from the burdens of property and power. In the process then, this image of Jesus made a contribution to the formulation of the founding principals and secular values of modern political philosophy. This was a long distance indeed from the Francis of the stigmata and his quest for the simplicity of the life set forth in the Gospels.

the goal of the cosmos

As the goal of the cosmos, the Logos represented the hope that even the devil could finally be restored to wholeness in the restitution of all things—apokatastasis ton panton. And with the reformation of the world, humanity also shall be changed from the transient and the earthly to the incorruptible and the eternal. …All of these metaphysical constructs of fourth century Christian philosophers about the preexistent Word and Logos were supposed to find their religious and moral focus and even their intellectual justification in the historical figure of Jesus in the Gospels, in the humble word—sermo humilis—and in the glory of his passion on the cross.

From Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (chapter 5) by Jaroslav Pelikan (distinguished Yale historian and convert to Orthodoxy).

it is precisely and solely this full community of persons throughout time that God has elected as his image

From That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation by David Bentley Hart:

In his great treatise On the Making of Humanity, Gregory reads Genesis 1:26–7—the first account of the creation of the race, where humanity is described as being made “in God’s image”—as referring not to the making of Adam as such, but to the conception within the eternal divine counsels of this full community of all of humanity: the whole of the race, comprehended by God’s “foresight” as “in a single body,” which only in its totality truly reflects the divine likeness and the divine beauty. As for the two individuals Adam and Eve, whose making is described in the second creation narrative, they may have been superlatively endowed with the gifts of grace at their origin, but they were themselves still merely the first members of that concrete community that only as a whole can truly reflect the glory of its creator. For now, it is only in the purity of the divine wisdom that this human totality subsists “altogether” (ἀθρόως, athroōs) in its own fullness. It will emerge into historical actuality, in the concrete fullness of its beauty, only at the end of a long temporal “unfolding” or “succession” (ἀκολουθία, akolouthia). Only then, when time and times are done, will a truly redeemed humanity, one that has passed beyond all ages, be recapitulated in Christ. Only then also, in the ultimate solidarity of all humankind, will a being made in the image and likeness of God have truly been created: “Thus ‘Humanity according to the image’ came into being,” writes Gregory, “the entire nature [or race], the Godlike thing. And what thus came into being was, through omnipotent wisdom, not part of the whole, but the entire plenitude of the nature altogether.” It is precisely and solely this full community of persons throughout time that God has elected as his image, truth, glory, and delight. And God will bring this good creation he desires to pass in spite of sin, both within human history and yet over against it.

…For Gregory, moreover, this human totality belongs to Christ from eternity, and can never be alienated from him. According to On the Making of Humanity, that eternal Human Being who lives in God’s counsels was from the first fashioned after the beauty of the Father’s eternal Logos, the eternal Son, and was made for no other end than to become the living body of Christ, who is its only head. It is thus very much the case that, for Gregory, the whole drama of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection was undertaken so that the eternal Son might reclaim those who are his own—which is to say, everyone. By himself entering into the plenitude of humanity as a single man among other men and women, and in thereby assuming humanity’s creaturely finitude and history as his own, Christ reoriented humanity again toward its true end; and, because the human totality is a living unity, the incarnation of the Logos is of effect for the whole. In a short commentary on the language of the eschatological “subordination” of the Son to the Father in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Gregory even speaks of Christ as having assumed not just human nature in the abstract, but the whole plērōma, which means that his glory has entered into all that is human. Nor could it be otherwise. Such is the indivisible solidarity of humanity, he argues, that the entire body must ultimately be in unity with its head, whether that be the first or the last Adam. Hence Christ’s obedience to the Father even unto death will be made complete only eschatologically, when the whole race, gathered together in him, will be yielded up as one body to the Father, in the Son’s gift of subjection, and God will be all in all. At Easter, Christ’s resurrection inaugurated an akolouthia of resurrection, so to speak, in the one body of the race, an unfolding that cannot now cease (given the unity of human nature) until the last residue of sin—the last shadow of death—has vanished. Gregory finds this confirmed also, according to one of his early treatises (a “Refutation” of the teachings of the theologian Eunomius), in John 20:17: When Christ, says Gregory, goes to his God and Father, to the God and Father of his disciples, he presents all of humanity to God in himself. In his On the Soul and Resurrection, moreover, Gregory reports the teaching of his sister Makrina that, when this is accomplished, all divisions will at last fall away, and there will no longer be any separation between those who dwell within the Temple precincts and those who have been kept outside, for every barrier of sin separating human beings from the mysteries within the veil of the sanctuary will have been torn down; and then there will be a universal feast around God in which no rational creature will be deprived of full participation, and all those who were once excluded on account of sin will enter into the company of the blessed. We see here the exquisite symmetry in Gregory’s reading of scripture’s narrative of creation and redemption, and in his understanding of eternity’s perfect embrace of history: just as the true first creation of humanity (Genesis 1:26–27) was the eternal conception in the divine counsels of the whole race united to him while the second (Genesis 2:7) was the inauguration of a history wholly dependent upon that eternal decree, so the culmination of history (1 Corinthians 15:23) will at the last be, as it were, succeeded by and taken up into this original eternity in its eschatological realization (1 Corinthians 15:24), and the will of God will be perfectly accomplished in the everlasting body of Christ.

For Gregory, then, there can be no true human unity, nor even any perfect unity between God and humanity, except in terms of the concrete solidarity of all persons in that complete community that is, alone, the true image of God. God shall be all in all, argues Gregory in a treatise on infants who die prematurely, not simply by comprising humanity in himself in the abstract, as the universal ideal that he redeems in a few select souls, but by joining each particular person, each unique inflection of the plērōma’s beauty, to himself. Even so, Christ’s assumption and final recapitulation of the human cannot simply be imposed upon the race as a whole, but must effect the conversion of each soul within itself, so that room is truly made for God “in all”; salvation by union with Christ must unfold within human freedom, and so within our capacity to venture away. For Gregory, of course, good classical Christian metaphysician that he was, evil and sin are always accidental conditions of human nature, never intrinsic qualities; all evil is a privation of an original goodness, and so the sinfulness that separates rational creatures from God is only a disease corrupting and disabling the will, robbing it of its true rational freedom, and thus is a disorder that must ultimately be purged from human nature in its entirety, even if needs be by hell. As Gregory argues in On the Making of Humanity, evil is inherently finite—in fact, in a sense, is pure finitude, pure limit—and so builds only toward an ending; evil is a tale that can have only an immanent conclusion; and, in the light of God’s infinity, its proper end will be shown to be nothing but its own disappearance. Once it has been exhausted, when every shadow of wickedness—all chaos, duplicity, and violence—has been outstripped by the infinity of God’s splendor, beauty, radiance, and delight, God’s glory will shine in each creature like the sun in an immaculate mirror, and each soul—born into the freedom of God’s image—will turn of its own nature toward divine love. There is no other place, no other liberty; at the last, to the inevitable God humanity is bound by its freedom. And each person, as God elects him or her from before the ages, is indispensable, for the humanity God eternally wills could never come to fruition in the absence of any member of that body, any facet of that beauty. Apart from the one who is lost, humanity as God wills it could never be complete, nor even exist as the creature fashioned after the divine image; the loss of even one would leave the body of the Logos incomplete, and God’s purpose in creation unaccomplished.

Really, we should probably already know all of this—not for theological reasons, but simply from a sober consideration of any truly coherent account of what it means to be a person. After all, it would be possible for us to be saved as individuals only if it were possible for us to be persons as individuals; and we know we cannot be. And this, in itself, creates any number of problems for the majority view of heaven and hell. I am not even sure that it is really possible to distinguish a single soul in isolation as either saint or sinner in any absolute sense, inasmuch as we are all bound in disobedience (as the Apostle says) precisely by being bound to one another in the sheer contingency of our shared brokenness, and the brokenness of our world, and our responsibility one for another. Consequently, I cannot even say where—at what extremity of pious despair—I could possibly draw a line of demarcation between tolerable and intolerable tales of eternal damnation. Some stories, of course, are obviously too depraved to be credited and may be rejected out of hand: A child who, for instance, is born one day in poverty, close to the sun in lonely lands, suffers from some horrible and quite incurable congenital disease, dies in agony, unbaptized, and then—on some accounts, consecrated by theological tradition—descends to perpetual torment as the just penalty for a guilt inherited from a distant ancestor, or as an epitome of divine sovereignty in election and dereliction, or whatever. Now most of us will recognize this to be a degenerate parody of the gospel, so repugnant to both reason and conscience that—even were it per impossibile true—it would be morally indefensible to believe it. But, then, under what conditions precisely, and at what juncture, does the language of eternal damnation really cease to be scandalous? For me, it never does, and for very simple reasons. Let us presume that that child who dies before reaching the font does not in fact descend into hell, and is not even conveniently wafted away on pearl-pale clouds of divine tenderness into the perfumed limbo of unbaptized babes, but instead (as Gregory of Nyssa believed such a child would do) ascends to eternal bliss, there to grow forever into a deeper communion with God. This is a much cheerier picture of things, I think we can all agree. But let us not stop there. Let us go on to imagine also another child born on the same day, this one in perfect health, who grows into a man of monstrous temperament, cruel, selfish, even murderous, and who eventually dies unrepentant and thereupon descends to an endless hell. Well, no doubt this brute chose to become what he became, to the extent that he was able to do so, conscious of the choices he was making; so maybe he has received no more than he deserves. And yet, even then, I cannot quite forget, or consider it utterly irrelevant, that he was born into a world so thoroughly ruined that a child can be born one day in poverty, suffer from some horrible and incurable congenital disease, die in agony … What precisely did that wicked man, then, ever really know of the Good? And how clearly, and with what rational power over his own will? Certainly he did not know everything, at least not with perfect clarity, nor did he enjoy complete rational discretion or power over his own deeds and desires. Not even a god would be capable of that. This thought alone is enough to convince me of the sheer moral squalor of the traditional doctrine.

Yet this still is not my principal point. I want to say something far more radical, something that I touched upon lightly in my First Meditation above. I want to say that there is no way in which persons can be saved as persons except in and with all other persons. This may seem an exorbitant claim, but I regard it as no more than an acknowledgment of certain obvious truths about the fragility, dependency, and exigency of all that makes us who and what we are.

God our Savior, Who Desires all People to be Saved

The Crucifixion, tempera, Andreas Pavias (active in Crete during the second half of the 15th century).

At a recent book club discussion (on The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, to give only the subtitle), a gentle Christian lady seated to my left asked me if the author David Bentley Hart could still be considered a Christian after his most recent book—That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (Yale UP, 2019). I told her that I did not have the qualifications or authority to answer that question but that I really appreciated the book. My godfather—a third generation Orthodox priest of Eastern European ancestry—had gone to the bathroom just before this question, and I directed it to him a little later in the course of the conversation. He joked that he had stepped out at just the right time before answering that he had not read the book but that Hart had reportedly gone too far in saying that his thesis was the only possible correct understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Just before our book club meeting, my godfather told me that he had never imagined reading a David Bentley Hart book because of this author’s reputation as snarky and polarizing. However, the book club in his church selected The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, and he had thoroughly appreciated it. When talking about the passage on Peter’s tears and how Christ gave a face to the faceless, my godfather shed his own tears. He was also amazed that anyone had been able to give him compassion for Julian the Apostate.

As our conversation touched on the topic of universal salvation, I reminded my godfather of how he had once reassured me that I was far too insignificant to ever be at serious risk of becoming a heretic. He laughed and said that he belongs in the same category. To be a heretic, you must be a false teacher who needs to be formally confronted by a church authority and who then refuses to be corrected. Certainly, I am concerned to understand and love all that the church teaches to the best of my ability, but I am unlikely to ever have the responsibility of being a teacher within the church who would ever be worth anyone’s time to actually bring before the church for formal correction.

So if I am not qualified to say anything about the position taken by David Bentley Hart in That All Shall Be Saved, why am I writing this review? Well, honestly, it is mostly because I have three other little writing ideas waiting patiently to get out into words, and this content is one of two little clusters of ideas that feel like they are sitting in the way. So I’m weak, and I’m taking the easy way around. Writing always helps me to understand my own thoughts a little better and to continue on with the next ponderings. Finally, there is the excuse that a few other people (besides the kind lady beside me in the book club discussion) have asked me about this book. For these various reasons, I’m offering my poor thoughts freely to anyone who wants to know.

I’ve read the book twice and also read about a dozen reviews of it, and here is the short answer regarding what I think: being intellectually persuaded that all will be saved has no value compared to learning actually to long for the salvation of all people—learning to live and to pray like I really want it. In his letter to Timothy, Paul describes “God our Savior” as one who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:3-4). Looking at the whole of what Jesus Christ reveals to us, it seems clear that to be a person after God’s own heart, we should learn to desire the salvation of all people. This is widely and clearly taught in my own Orthodox Christian tradition. David Bentley Hart goes far beyond this, however, and argues that the only coherent understanding of the gospel revealed by Jesus Christ includes the eventual restoration of all things to a right relationship with the Creator (a concept known among the Greek fathers as apocatastasis, coming from Acts 3:21). Hart follows a tightly constructed philosophical case that he claims, repeatedly, to be irrefutable (within the book as well as in essays responding to critics of his book). This philosophical case involves a close examination of what we can coherently mean by speaking of God as loving, good and omnipotent. His case includes a number of biblical reasons (flowing out of his recent translation of the entire New Testament) as well as historical and theological reasons. However, these biblical and theological points are all secondary to his main metaphysical arguments.

Historically, Hart describes a church in which the idea of apocatastasis was the majority position, at least among clergy in the Greek-speaking east, for almost the first 500 years:

The great fourth-century church father Basil of Caesarea (c. 329–379) once observed that, in his time, a large majority of his fellow Christians (at least, in the Greek-speaking Eastern Christian world that he knew) believed that hell was not everlasting, and that all in the end would attain salvation. This may have been hyperbole on his part, but then again it may very well not have been; and, even if he was exaggerating, he could not have been exaggerating very much, as otherwise the remark would have sounded silly to his contemporaries, whereas he stated the matter as something almost banal in its obviousness. Over time, of course, in large part as a result of certain obvious institutional imperatives, the voices of the universalists would dwindle away to little more than a secretive whisper at the margins of the faith.

Theologically, Hart leans most heavily on Gregory of Nyssa (Basil’s younger brother) who defended apocatastasis plainly in several existing texts. Follow this link for an extended quotation in which Hart moves between multiple texts to unpack Gregory’s theology of our salvation as only being possible as a whole human race because the image of God is only revealed fully in all of humanity as one body that is connected to Jesus Christ as our head.

In his scriptural arguments, Hart only touches upon a few basic points regarding key terms such as age, eternity and hell as these are used by various biblical authors. He also outlines a scriptural understanding of human history as being contained within two envelopes or horizons, both at its beginning and at its end. God’s restoration of all things takes place, in some ultimate sense, beyond the confines of our current temporal framework. Our experiences within time now as well as after death (which Hart leaves mostly unaddressed as essentially unknown) are certainly of eternal significance and involve both deep suffering (a real hell in this life and the next) as well as the potential for profound joy.

This raises a critical point of contrast between Hart’s universalism and that of many contemporary universalists. Hart is not presenting a cheerful or positive picture of our condition now or after our deaths. It is clear that Hart considers our desires and longings to stay with us as we go to encounter the fiery love of our Creator beyond this life, and it is also clear that it will be a terrible thing as most of us find that our desires are not for our God in whom we are made to find our joy. Beyond these differences, Brad Jersak offers this helpful summary of the distinctions from “pop universalism” in this blog post:

The universalism Hart advocates is a specific subset that some call patristic universalism. Unlike pop universalism, Hart retains all the key vital features found in two of my favorite saints, St. Gregory of Nyssa (which is also to say, St. Macrina the Younger) and George MacDonald. Hart might describe these elements differently, but in general, they expand on the tenet proffered earlier:

    • Jesus Christ alone is the author and finisher of our salvation.
    • The Incarnation of Christ, climaxing in his Passion (death, descensus and resurrection) is the fundamental means by which God saves us and restores all things.
    • Sin and death matter greatly, but Christ has already and will ultimately overcome sin (by his freely given forgiveness) and death (by raising up humanity in his resurrection).
    • There will be a final judgment, and although it’s nature, duration and details are held in mystery, the agenda and outcome are revealed as entirely restorative and redemptive.
    • That all sentient beings will ultimately willingly embrace this salvation through the restoration of their natural wills, established in Gethsemane and effected by the beatific vision, when every eye sees him, every knee willingly bows and every tongue joyfully confesses the Lordship of Christ.

[Hart’s] patristic adaptation of the universalist label may work with his fans, but I suspect he’ll confound and confuse both disciples and detractors who assume universalists abandon any the above essentials because that’s exactly what most do. This isn’t Hart’s fault. The problem is with the term and with sloppy readers (if they even bother with reading). If we’re to call Hart a universalist on his own terms, then I recommend always including the patristic modifier and insisting others do so also.

Beyond just this one helpful category of patristic universalism (which might also be called apocatastasis), it is also critical to note that there were several distinct doctrines of apocatastasis described and defended within the first five or six centuries of Christianity.

These differences are essential to understanding the frequently cited point that universalism or apokatastasis was condemned as heresy by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (A.D. 553) and ratified again by the Sixth Ecumenical Council when the the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas were reviewed and kept in place. Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog provides an excellent review of the scholarship surrounding these matters. He explains that many scholars consider the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas to have been added on later without full conciliar authority. Even if they do carry conciliar authority, it is clear that they are condemning a distinct and distorted doctrine of apokatastasis that was developed by disciples of Evagrius Ponticus centuries after Origen or Gregory of Nyssa. In this regard, Fr. Aidan cites Brian E. Daley (Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology):

The denounced theses represent a radicalized Evagrian Christology and cosmology, and a doctrine of apokatastasis that went far beyond the hopes of Origen or Gregory of Nyssa. They envisage not only a spherical, ethereal risen body, but the complete abolition of material reality in the world to come, and the ultimate absorption of all created spirits into an undifferentiated unity with the divine Logos, so that even the humanity and the Kingdom of Christ will come to an end. …E. M. Harding agrees that the views of the sixth-century Origenists were rooted not in Origen himself but in the teachings of Evagrius Ponticus. Augustine Casiday concurs, with an important qualification: just as there are crucial differences between Origen and sixth-century Origenism, so there are crucial differences between Evagrius and sixth-century Evagrianism. [See original blog post for full citations.]

In his recent book on the apokatastasis (as taught by at least one of the Cappadocian Fathers,  Gregory of Nyssa), David Bentley Hart is not advocating any of the later versions that may have been condemned as heresies by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (such as those involving the pre-existence of souls or “the ultimate absorption of all created spirits into an undifferentiated unity with the divine Logos”).

What Hart does do in his book, however, is utterly reject and vigorously condemn the idea that any human would be left in eternal conscious torment by our God. He makes it clear that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is morally despicable to him and rightly condemned in his view as idodic and horrific. Many reviewers have commented on Hart’s harsh language. He has responded that he intentionally reserved his blistering invectives for despicable ideas (that distort and hide who God is) and not for any of the particular people who have taught and defended these ideas over the centuries. Hence, readers will typically find that Hart will argue civilly with Calvin’s thinking (for example) and save his disparagement for Calvinism. This distinction is small comfort to most fellow Christians. It should be noted, however, that Hart does not play favorites at least. A beloved theologian of many people sympathetic to universalism in recent decades is Hans Urs von Balthasar (d. 1988) who made the case that Christians can and should hope for the salvation of all. Hart says that he “has very small patience” with this idea and dismisses anyone who is “timidly groping his way toward some anxious, uncertain, fragile hope.”

This brings me back to my own position on all of this. I’ve appreciated reading and learning. Hart’s case was compelling and will keep me reading and thinking about this at some level for the rest of my life. However, what matters is clearly the love (or the lack of it) within my own heart for God and for my neighbor. Whether or not I am intellectually convinced that my neighbor will be saved is not the most critical issue. In fact, any intellectual confidence on my part could easily become a distraction, an idol or a reason for complacency. Therefore, I prefer to face questions in response. Do I long for my own salvation and the salvation of my neighbor? Do I have the heart of Jesus Christ toward all those who I have come to know, and do I desire more than anything else for them to grow in their love for my Heavenly Father? Do I see the apathy and self-indulgence in my own heart that leaves me cold and suffering even within the warm and loving presence of my Creator? I am not criticizing David Bentley Hart with any of these questions. Right or wrong in all the particulars of his case, Hart is clearly zealous to defend our loving Father as Jesus Christ reveals Him perfectly to us. Moreover, Hart’s calling is obviously different from mine which makes is foolish for me to judge it. At the end of it all, I don’t want to feel compelled to turn over every stone within each part of the arguments or to come to rest upon my intellectual confidence. I want simply to grow in my desires for others to know and enjoy God’s love.

__________________________________________

Note, if you are interested in more about this book, here are three reviews from a variety of positions:

  • Jason Micheli (positive review from December 4, 2019)
  • Michael McClymond (critical review from October 2, 2019)
  • Peter Leithart (critical review from October 2, 2019 and which is followed by a response from Hart that raises many profound exegetical questions about the Old Testament)

Finally, here are two books that Hart and others have recommended in connection to this:

  • Origen: On First Principles by John Behr
  • A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Volume 1 of 2) by Ilaria L. E. Ramble

heirs of a culture that sprang from Peter’s tears

“The Face of the Faceless” (chapter 13 in Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, Yale UP, 2009) by David Bentley Hart is a beautiful chapter in a profound book. Read it if you have not. Here’s an extended excerpt:

All four of the canonical Gospels tell the tale of the apostle Peter’s failure on the very eve of Christ’s crucifixion: Peter’s promise that he would never abandon Christ; Christ’s prediction that Peter would in fact deny him that same night, not once but three times, before the cock’s crow; Peter’s cautious venture into the courtyard of the high priest, after Christ’s arrest in the garden, and his confrontation with others present there who thought they recognized him as one of Christ’s disciples; and the fear that prompted Peter to do at the last just as his master had prophesied. John’s Gospel, in some ways the least tender of the four, leaves the story there; but the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—go on to relate that, on hearing the cock announce the break of day, Peter remembered Christ’s words to him earlier in the evening and, seized by grief, went apart to weep bitterly.

To us today, this hardly seems an extraordinary detail of the narrative, however moving we may or may not find it; we would expect Peter to weep, and we certainly would expect any narrator to think the event worth recording. But, in some ways, taken in the context of the age in which the Gospels were written, there may well be no stranger or more remarkable moment in the whole of scripture. What is obvious to us—Peter’s wounded soul, the profundity of his devotion to his teacher, the torment of his guilt, the crushing knowledge that Christ’s imminent death forever foreclosed the possibility of seeking forgiveness for his betrayal—is obvious in very large part because we are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter’s tears. To us, this rather small and ordinary narrative detail is unquestionably an ornament of the story, one that ennobles it, proves its gravity, widens its embrace of our common humanity. In this sense, all of us—even unbelievers—are “Christians” in our moral expectations of the world. To the literate classes of late antiquity, however, this tale of Peter weeping would more likely have seemed an aesthetic mistake; for Peter, as a rustic, could not possibly have been a worthy object of a well-bred man’s sympathy, nor could his grief possibly have possessed the sort of tragic dignity necessary to make it worthy of anyone’s notice. At most, the grief of a man of Peter’s class might have had a place in comic literature: the querulous complaints of an indolent slave, the self-pitying expostulations of a witless peon, the anguished laments of a cuckolded taverner, and so on. Of course, in a tragic or epic setting a servant’s tears might have been played as accompaniment to his master’s sorrows, rather like the sympathetic whining of a devoted dog. But, when one compares this scene from the Gospels to the sort of emotional portraiture one finds in great Roman writers, comic or serious, one discovers—as the great literary critic Erich Auerbach noted half a century ago—that it is only in Peter that one sees “the image of man in the highest and deepest and most tragic sense.” 1 Yet Peter remains, for all that, a Galilaean peasant. This is not merely a violation of good taste; it is an act of rebellion.

This is not, obviously, a claim regarding the explicit intent of any of the evangelists. But even Christianity’s most implacable modern critics should be willing to acknowledge that, in these texts and others like them, we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visibility, arguably for the first time in our history: the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of an infinite value. It would not even be implausible to argue that our very ability to speak of “persons” as we do is a consequence of the revolution in moral sensibility that Christianity brought about. We, after all, employ this word with a splendidly indiscriminate generosity, applying it without hesitation to everyone, regardless of social station, race, or sex; but originally, at least in some of the most crucial contexts, it had a much more limited application. Specifically, in Roman legal usage, one’s person was one’s status before the law, which was certainly not something invariable from one individual to the next. The original and primary meaning of the Latin word persona was “mask,” and as a legal term its use may well have harked back to the wax funerary effigies by which persons of social consequence were represented after their deaths, and which families of rank were allowed to display as icons of their ancestral pedigrees. Thus, by extension, to have a persona was to have a face before the law—which is to say, to be recognized as one possessing rights and privileges before a court, or as being able to give testimony upon the strength of one’s own word, or simply as owning a respectable social identity, of which jurists must be conscious.

For those of the lowest stations, however—slaves, base-born noncitizens and criminals, the utterly destitute, colonized peoples—legal personality did not really exist, or existed in only the most tenuous of forms. Under the best of the pagan emperors, such as Augustus, certain legal protections were extended to slaves; but, of themselves, slaves had no real rights before the law, and no proper means of appeal against their masters. Moreover, their word was of no account. A slave was so entirely devoid of any “personal” dignity that, when called to testify before a duly appointed court, torture might be applied as a matter of course. For the slave was a man or woman non Habens personam: literally, “not having a persona,” or even “not having a face.” Before the law, he or she was not a person in the fullest and most proper sense. Nor did he or she enjoy any greater visibility—any greater countenance, one might say—before society at large. In a sense, the only face proper to a slave, at least as far as the cultural imagination of the ancient world went, was the brutish and grotesquely leering “slave mask” worn by actors on the comic stage: an exquisitely exact manifestation of how anyone who was another’s property was (naturally) seen.

We today have our bigotries, of course; we can hardly claim to have advanced so far as to know nothing of racism, for instance, or of its most violent expressions; it was not so long ago that blackface and the conventions of the minstrel show were as inoffensive to us as the slave mask was to ancient audiences; and certainly there is no such thing as a society without class hierarchies. All we can claim in our defense is that we have names for the social inequities we see or remember; we are, for the most part, aware—at least, those of us who are not incorrigibly stupid or cruel—that they violate the deepest moral principles we would be afraid not to profess; we are conscious also—the great majority of us, at any rate—that they are historical accidents, which do not reflect the inmost essence of reality or the immemorial decrees of the gods or of nature, and therefore can and should be corrected. But this is only because we live in the long twilight of a civilization formed by beliefs that, however obvious or trite they may seem to us, entered ancient society rather like a meteor from a clear sky. What for us is the quiet, persistent, perennial rebuke of conscience within us was, for ancient peoples, an outlandish decree issuing from a realm outside any world they could conceive. Conscience, after all, at least in regard to its particular contents, is to a great extent a cultural artifact, a historical contingency, and all of us today in the West, to some degree or another, have inherited a conscience formed by Christian moral ideals. For this reason, it is all but impossible for us to recover any real sense of the scandal that many pagans naturally felt at the bizarre prodigality with which the early Christians were willing to grant full humanity to persons of every class and condition, and of either sex.

A few modern men, it is true, have been able to induce a similar dismay in themselves, or have at least succeeded in mimicking it. Nietzsche, for instance, did his very best to share the noble pagan’s revulsion at the sordid social sediments the early church continuously dredged up into its basilicas (though, middle-class pastor’s boy that he was, he never became quite as effortlessly expert in patrician disdain as he imagined he had). But to hear that tone of alarm in its richest, purest, and most spontaneous registers one really has to repair to the pagans themselves: to Celsus, or Eunapius of Sardis, or the emperor Julian. What they saw, as they peered down upon the Christian movement from the high, narrow summit of their society, was not the understandable ebullition of long-suppressed human longings but the very order of the cosmos collapsing at its base, drawing everything down into the general ruin and obscene squalor of a common humanity. How else could they interpret the spectacle but as a kind of monstrous impiety and noisomely wicked degeneracy? In his treatise Against the Galilaeans, Julian complained that the Christians had from the earliest days swelled their ranks with the most vicious, disreputable, and contemptible of persons, while offering only baptism as a remedy for their vileness, as if mere water could cleanse the soul. Eunapius turned away with revulsion from the base gods that the earth was now breeding as a result of Christianity’s subversion of good order: men and women of the most deplorable sort, justly tortured, condemned, and executed for their crimes, but glorified after death as martyrs of the faith, their abominable relics venerated in place of the old gods.

The scandal of the pagans, however, was the glory of the church. Vincent of Lérins, in the early fifth century, celebrated the severe moral tutelage of the monasteries in his native Gaul precisely because it was so corrosive of class consciousness: it taught the sons of the aristocracy humility, he said, and shattered in them the habits of pride, vanity, and luxuriance. It is arguable that, during the second century, the legal and social disadvantages of the lower classes under Rome had grown even more onerous than they had been in previous centuries, and that the prejudices of class had become even more pronounced than they had been in the Hellenistic or earlier Roman world. During this same period, however, Christians not only preached but even occasionally realized, something like a real community of souls, transcendent of all natural or social divisions. Not even the most morally admirable of the pagan philosophical schools, Stoicism, succeeded so strikingly in making a spiritual virtue of indifference to social station. The very law of the church was an inversion of “natural” rank: for Christ had promised that the first would be last and the last first. The Di-dascalia, for instance, prescribed that a bishop ought never to interrupt his service to greet a person of high degree who had just entered the church, lest he—the bishop—be seen to be a respecter of persons; but, on seeing a poor man or woman enter the assembly, that same bishop should do everything in his power to make room for the new arrival, even if he himself should have to sit upon the floor to do so. The same text also makes it clear that the early church might often have arranged its congregations into different groups, distinguished by age, sex, marital status, and so on, simply for propriety’s sake, but that social degree was not the standard by which one’s place was assigned among “the brethren.”2 Men of high attainment—literate, accomplished, propertied, and free—had to crowd in among slaves, laborers, and craftsmen, and count it no disgrace.

I do not wish to exaggerate the virtues of the early Christians on this count. Perfection is not to be found in any human institution, and the church has certainly always been that. Even in the early days of the church, certain social distinctions proved far too redoubtable to exterminate; a Christian slaveholder’s Christian slaves were still slaves, even if they were also their master’s brothers in Christ. And, after Constantine, as the church became that most lamentable of things—a pillar of respectable society—it learned all too easily to tolerate many of the injustices it supposedly condemned. The enfranchised church has never been more than half Christian even at the best of times; often enough, it has been much less than that. Neither, however, should we underestimate how extraordinary the religious ethos of the earliest Christians was in regard to social order, or fail to give them credit for the attempts they did make to efface the distinctions in social dignity which had traditionally separated persons of different rank from one another, but which had been (they believed) abolished in Christ. When all is said and done, the pagan critics of the early church were right to see the new faith as an essentially subversive movement. In fact, they may have been somewhat more perspicacious in this regard than the Christians themselves. Christianity may never have been a revolution in the political sense: it was not a convulsive, violent, or intentionally provocative faction that had some “other vision” of political power to recommend; but neither, for that reason, was the change it brought about something merely local, transient, and finite. The Christian vision of reality was nothing less than—to use the words of Nietzsche—a “transvaluation of all values,” a complete revision of the moral and conceptual categories by which human beings were to understand themselves and one another and their places within the world. It was—again to use Nietzsche’s words, but without his sneer—a “slave revolt in morality.” But it was also, as far as the Christians were concerned, a slave revolt “from above,” if such a thing could be imagined; for it had been accomplished by a savior who had, as Paul said in his Epistle to the Philippians, willingly exchanged the “form of God” for the “form of a slave,” and had thereby overthrown the powers that reigned on high.

Perhaps even more striking than the episode of Peter’s tears—at least, in regard to its cultural setting—is the story of Christ before Pilate. …In the great cosmic hierarchy of rational powers—descending from the Highest God down to the lowliest of slaves—Pilate’s is a particularly exalted place, a little nearer to heaven than to earth, and imbued with something of the splendor of the gods. Christ, by contrast, has no natural claim whatsoever upon Pilate’s clemency, nor any chartered rights upon which he might call; simply said, he has no person before the law. One figure in this picture, then, enjoys perfect sway over life and death, while the other no longer belongs even to himself. And the picture’s asymmetry becomes even starker (and perhaps even more absurd) when Jesus is brought before Pilate for the second time, having been scourged, wrapped in a soldier’s cloak, and crowned with thorns. To the ears of any ancient person, Pilate’s question to his prisoner now—“Where do you come from?”—would almost certainly have sounded like a perfectly pertinent, if obviously sardonic, inquiry into Christ’s pedigrees, and a pointed reminder that, in comparison to Pilate, Christ is no one at all. And Pilate’s still more explicit admonition a moment later—“I have power to crucify you”—would have had something of the ring of a rhetorical coup de grâce. Christ’s claim, on the other hand, that Pilate possesses no powers not given him from above would have sounded like only the comical impudence of a lunatic.

…I have to assume, however, that most of us today simply cannot see Christ and Pilate in this way. We come too late in time to think like ancient men and women, and few of us, I hope, would be so childish as to want to. Try though we might, we shall never really be able to see Christ’s broken, humiliated, and doomed humanity as something self-evidently contemptible and ridiculous; we are instead, in a very real sense, destined to see it as encompassing the very mystery of our own humanity: a sublime fragility, at once tragic and magnificent, pitiable and wonderful. Obviously, of course, many of us are quite capable of looking upon the sufferings of others with indifference or even contempt. But what I mean to say is that even the worst of us, raised in the shadow of Christendom, lacks the ability to ignore those sufferings without prior violence to his or her own conscience. We have lost the capacity for innocent callousness. Living as we do in the long aftermath of a revolution so profound that its effects persist in the deepest reaches of our natures, we cannot simply and guilelessly avert our eyes from the abasement of the victim in order to admire the grandeur of his persecutor; and for just this reason we lack any immediate consciousness of the radical inversion of perspective that has occurred in these pages.

the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave

Our homily in church this morning was on Jesus Christ as the tree of life as it is given back to us at Christmas. This idea that Jesus is the tree of life is among the most prominent images from the church’s oldest Nativity hymns and prayers. Here is one example:

Prepare, O Bethlehem, For Eden has been opened to all. Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave. Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Fruit Divine; If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning.

I’m not qualified to teach theology or to accurately represent what our priest shared this morning, but here are a few of the key points as I recall them:

  1. The tree of life in Genesis represents God himself as God was present with Adam and Eve in Eden. God is shown to be the source of all life, with living water flowing in four rivers from the tree of life.
  2. Adam and Eve separate themselves from God when they turned away from the source of life to pursue the fruit of another tree, one from which they had been told not to eat because it would lead to death.
  3. This death was not a punishment by God. It was simply the result of turning away from God as the source of all life. This result was actually the grace of God, placing a limit on how much humans would be able to hurt themselves and each other in their blindness and separation form the source of life. Our priest asked us to imagine a world in which men such as Attila the Hun, Hitler and Stalin all were still alive and able to “do what they do.” By placing a guard of cherubim around the Tree of Life, God was putting a limit on the harm that we could do to each other in our sin. Finally, death was part of God’s gracious plan to give us a way back to him as Jesus Christ would unite himself with us in death itself and thereby “destroy death by death.”
  4. In Jesus Christ, we therefore have the Tree of Life from the Garden restored to us. Our priest told us that we would be coming up to that tree and eating its fruit near the end of our liturgy as we partook of the Eucharist. He told us that we should take this quite literally as the fruit from the tree of life.

If you are interested, you can look over a sampling of other old Nativity hymns that I once collected here. Finally, here are a few traditional images related to this old idea that Mary opens up Eden to us, removing the flaming swords of the cherubim and allowing us to eat from the Tree of Life once again:

tree of life

Above: a traditional “Tree of Life” icon showing all the family of Jesus Christ joined together and offering Jesus to the world as the fruit of the tree of life. Left to right, top to bottom, the smaller figures are Jeremiah, Jacob, Malachi, Aaron, Zephaniah, Moses, Gideon, Abraham, Daniel, Elisha, David and Solomon.

Pacino_di_buonaguida,_albero_della_vita,_00

Above: “Tree of the Cross” a panel form the Galleria dell’Accademia by Pacino di Bonaguida, 1302-1340. At the bottom, you see Adam and Eve being separated from the tree of life in contrast to the tree of life being given back to us as Jesus Christ offers himself as the bread of life from the cross.

of the sign icon

Above: traditional “Our Lady of the Sign” icon (Russian in this case) showing Jesus carried by his mother Mary. This shows the Theotokos (mother of God) during the Annunciation at the moment of saying, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This icon shows Christ a the moment of conception but nonetheless with the face of a wise teacher (and often holding a scroll). His right hand is raised in blessing. This term “of the Sign” is a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14): “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [meaning ‘God with us’].”

who would love us more than he

This passage from The Belgic Confession (1561, in Article 26) brings to mind “the only lover of mankind” as a way of referencing Jesus within many old prayers:

For neither in heaven nor among the creatures on earth is there anyone who loves us more than Jesus Christ does. Although he was “in the form of God,” Christ nevertheless “emptied himself,” taking “human form” and “the form of a slave” for us; and he made himself “like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” Suppose we had to find another intercessor. Who would love us more than he who gave his life for us, even though “we were enemies” And suppose we had to find one who has prestige and power. Who has as much of these as he who is seated at the right hand of the Father, and who has “all authority in heaven and on earth”?

the books of their wisdom were multiplied as the leaves of the forest

Clearly a counterproductive multiplication of books:

Hearing these things, despite the true knowledge which Nólemë had and spread abroad, there were many who hearkened with half their hearts to Melko, and restlessness grew amongst them, and Melko poured oil on their smouldering desires. From him they learnt many things it were not good for any but the great Valar to know, for being half-comprehended such deep and hidden things slay happiness; and besides many of the sayings of Melko were cunning lies or were but partly true, and the Noldoli ceased to sing, and their viols fell silent upon the hill of Kôr, for their hearts grew somewhat older as their lore grew deeper and their desires more swollen, and the books of their wisdom were multiplied as the leaves of the forest.

J.R.R. Tolkien (The Book of Lost Tales, Part One: Part One)

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