Draft Letter of Appreciation and Encouragement to Dr. Ilaria Ramelli

On 16 January, 2022: this post resulted in this project here:

Public Letter of Appreciation to Dr. Ilaria Ramelli

The development of this project benefitted from this input by Al Kimel:

Jesse, as far as I know Ilaria is not working on any more books on universalism. She suffers from progressive scoliosis and immune deficiencies that compromise her physical strength and ability to stand, walk, even sit, or combat infection. …Ilaria’s scholarly work continues. I just saw that she has recently written an essay on the patristic sources of Eriugena’s protology and eschatology. I would love to obtain a copy of it.

This is a draft concept to share for feedback before implementation. Separately, I am seeking some partners in this endeavor to collect signatures of appreciation and encouragement leading up to a meaningful date. If you have feedback or ideas regarding this very rough draft of a letter and concept, please comment below. More to follow soon, I hope…

[Significant Date Here]

Dear Dr. Ilaria Ramelli,

We the undersigned have each been reached and blessed in a meaningful way by your scholarly labors. We have read your books, listened to some of your lectures online or read and benefited from the many who cite your work in their own labors.

Not all of us are necessarily Christians, but we all are blessed by your public offerings. Naturally, the majority of us will share your love for the traditions and teachers of the Christian church over the years of her history. What all of us clearly share, however, is a love and appreciation for your ongoing study, particularly how the doctrine of apokatastasis went from a central tenet in the gospel message to being condemned and largely ignored for millennia.

We write in the solidarity of thankfulness for your skilled and generous labors. Those of us who pray, join with you in this way as well. May God sustain you in your work to complete the projects that you have underway.

We appreciate you and all that you have done in service of the history of the Christian faith.


A total number here of all those who have signed this over the past … days…

Note this quote from her preface in A Larger Hope regarding her ongoing work:

It (the Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis) will be followed in due course, God willing, by two other scholarly monographs: one on non-Christian and pre-Christian philosophical concepts of apokatastasis, from ancient philosophy to late antique Platonism (Proclus, Damascius), and another on the political, theological, pastoral, ecclesiastical, social, historical, and even linguistic causes for the rejection of the doctrine of apokatastasis or universal restoration, in late antiquity, by the “Church of the Empire”—mainly under the influence of Justinian in the East and of Augustine in the West.

A Larger Hope?, Volume 1: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich by Ilaria L. E. Ramelli

Der Heliand (The Savior): An Old Saxon Epic Retelling of the Gospel from the First Half of the 9th Century

I learned about a delightful text from medieval history recently that I had somehow missed despite being a history major and grad student and then getting to teach Beowulf for years at a classical Christian high school. Der Heliand (The Savior) is an Old Saxon epic that harmonizes the four Christian gospels in the alliterative style of Germanic poetry. Written in the first half of the 9th century, it was part of a larger (apparently unfinished) project to cover all of the Christian canon, but we only have fragments from the book of Genesis and two manuscript versions of this gospel harmony. Some of the fragments have musical directives, indicating that this was intended to be performed in Saxon feasting halls. I came across this because there is a great description of it in a forthcoming volume of The Curious Historian (published by the company where I work).

Here is a little from the opening of Heliand as translated by Mariana Scott in 1966 (and available here as a free digital download from the University of North Carolina Press):

Many there were
tensing their minds

To say what was whispered:
that Might-Wielding Christ

Had here among men
done miracles many

With His words and His works.
Wise men aplenty,

People of earth—all would praise
the preachings of Christ,

God’s holy Word,
and write with their hands

Bright in a book
how best God’s bidding

They might carry out,
the kith of mankind.

There were four from the many:
they had might from the Maker,

Help, too, from Heaven
and from the Holy Ghost,

Strength from the Savior:
so were they chosen for this.

Singly they were to inscribe
the Gospel there in a book,

Committing to writing
so many commandments of God,

Holy, heavenly Word:
nor dared any here,

Any child of man,
emulate them, these four,

Picked for the task
by the power of God:

Matthew and Mark,
as these men were called,

Luke, also John—
they were beloved of God.

Worthy were they for the work.
The Wide-Wielder

Had filled the hearts of the heroes
with the Holy Ghost,

Perfectly all
with pious opinion,

And wise words many
and still more of wit,

That they should begin
the goodly Gospel

With their holy voices,
raise it on high—

The Word in this world
which has nowhere a like:

That it praise Him ever,
the Prince All-powerful,

The Lord who layeth low
the loathsome thing,

Who doth stamp out all sin
and the hate of Satan,

Withstandeth the strife.
For He is strong of mind,

Mild, too, and good—
He who is Master of these,

Aethling and Maker,
Almighty Lord.

So were those four
to inscribe with their fingers,

Set down and sing
and say forth boldly

That of Christ’s might and His strength
much had they heard

And had seen indeed,
which He Himself had here spoken;

Proclaimed and accomplished
miracles countless,

As He Himself had promised—
He, Wielder of Power,

Wide Ruling Lord—
when He first shaped world,

Surrounding it all
with a single Word,

Heaven and earth
and all that they held,

Full-worked or still waxing:
with God’s Word

All was encompassed
and set forth accordingly

Which world-men should rule
over widest lands

And when each age of this earth
should come to its end.

There was still one before them—
for five had slipped by

For the kinsmen of earth—
and now the sixth was to come,

Blessed by God’s strength
and the birth of Christ,

Best of All Healers,
and the Holy Ghost,

Come to this mid-world
to help the many,

The world-children all
‘gainst the wiles of the Fiend

And his secret snares.

Christ as a heroic warrior from the 9th century Stuttgart Psalter (fol. 23, illustration of Psalm 91:13)

mine to call upon and mine to awaken

From pages 175 to 176 of Kenogaia (A Gnostic Tale) by David Bentley Hart:

But, as Michael began to rise, Oriens reached out and gently took him by the arm. “Michael Ambrosius,” he said.

“Yes?” said Michael resuming his seat. “You can call me just Michael. We’re friends.”

“Forgive me,” said Oriens, “I mean no offense. I wish to give you something, for your protection.” And reaching around behind his neck, he raised his hands over the top of his head as though holding something between them, though nothing was visible at first; but, as he brought his hands away from his body, a thin golden cord shimmered into visibility and then, as it swung away from his chest, a small silver pouch with embroidered blue flowers appeared. Laura quietly gasped and Michael felt a cool shiver run down his spine.

“The jewels you brought with you,” said Michael.

“Yes,” said Oriens blandly. “They are very powerful, and I shall tell you as much as I can about what they can do. This cord cannot be broken, not even by the hand of a god, and so long as you wear this purse about your neck no one but you in all this world can touch it, much less take it from you or remove any of its gems. Nor can anyone take one of these gems from your hand unless you freely give it.”

“I mustn’t take them,” said Michael. “They’re for your protection. Your whole reason for being here . . . your journey. . . your sister.”

“And your father?” said Oriens. “Again, no one can take them from you. They are safe with you. And my hopes for finding my sister lie in your hands, so in protecting you they protect her and me. Even now, my guide is seeking out a way to reach her, and we shall await you here, so that we may all go together and win her back.”

“I can’t be certain . . .”

“You can, if you wish it. You must simply master your doubt. Then you will become invincible. Not even a god can change victory into defeat for one who has vanquished himself.”

“No,” said Michael, more pathetically, “I truly can’t.”

“I am sorry,” said Oriens, now with a faint but kind smile, the otherworldly blue of his eyes seeming to shine even more brightly than usual, “but you fail to understand. You have said I am your friend, and I say you are mine. You are not free, then, to refuse my gift, or to fail to bring it back in order to protect us with it; and so you must return to us safely.”

Michael lowered his eyes. “I won’t take them.”

“I command it,” said Oriens, his voice still calm.

“Command?” whispered Laura, in a tone not of protest but of curiosity.

“Yes, command”— his back grew somewhat straighter, his gaze more penetrating—“I, your liege, Prince Oriens Anatolius of House Enteles, regent and heir to the Kingdom of Pleroma, son of the High and Hidden King and of the Queen Beyond the Veil, and brother to the Princess Aurora Orthrina, keeper of the vessels of light.”

Michael smiled bleakly and raised his eyes to look directly at Oriens. “You’re not my prince,” he said. “I’m not from your world.”

“Oh, but you are,” Oriens replied, stretching out his arms and placing the cord over Michael’s head and around his neck, so that both cord and purse vanished in an instant. “You think you know yourself, but your true self is hidden from you. As my guide would say, within you there are two birds seated upon a single bough, and one eats of the fruit of the tree and is sated by it, and so is content to stay where it is, but the other does not eat, and looks instead to the skies and remembers its true home, and longs to take wing. Heed the second bird’s Wisdom. Follow its desires. You have passed through many lives, worn many names, been made to forget again and again, wandered in this dark prison of Kenogaia, this sorcery, this maze of dreams”— he withdrew his hands and folded them together in his lap —“but the glory that sleeps within you is from above, is from my kingdom, and is mine to call upon, and mine to awaken. And, in truth”— here his smile, for all its kindness, took on a hint of regal haughtiness — “your father pledged himself, and therefore his entire house, to my cause long ago. You cannot break faith with him.”

A New Project: Jesus and the Ancient Paths

Those stats above are the visitors to this blog over the years since I started it for myself. It’s only intent for years was as a kind of virtual common place book, but I’ve drifted in recent years into posting my own thoughts more often. This has been a delight and has encouraged me to write a few pieces for other online venues. One of the chief pleasures has been meeting others who read and write about similar topics. This pleasure of shared reflection has lead to a new blogging project at Jesus and the Ancient Paths.

I’m excited to blog alongside several others in the coming year and plan to move my own reflections there while continuing to use Copious Flowers for its original purpose of virtual common placing. I anticipate growing as a writer with more companionship, and I hope that our combined blogging might be more meaningful to a wider variety of people than any solo work would be.

We are just lovers making use of our private time, but we love to spread the love in any small way. As a reader or as an interested contributor, please take a look and consider following this project here:

we are incompletely embodied spirits

Our problem, if this reading of the Philokalia is correct, is not that we are embodied spirits, but that we are incompletely embodied spirits — that is, that we are as yet unable to live in this material and mutable world without clinging to our impressions, distorting our impressions, or compulsively marking out our territory. The things of the world — and our human neighbours in the world — appear either as food or as threat to the ego. Unless we become able to receive the truth of what is before us as it stands in relation to God, not to us, we are failing to be embodied in the sense of being properly part of creation: we are caught in an implicit idolatry, the effort to separate ourselves from the order of which we are a part.

…Very much at the centre of the philokalic vision is the conviction that the ideal and purposed state of being for the human intelligence, its ‘natural’ life, is a welcoming receptivity to the other, without the violence that seeks either to possess or exclude. To quote Schmemann once more, for the baptized person in Christ, ‘The world is again his life, not his death, for he knows what to do with it’;everything is now ‘given to us as full of meaning and beauty’. It is as we think through the implications of this as the natural, God-reflecting state of human intelligence that we may begin to see how this entire picture requires in turn a particular understanding of the divine nature and persons.

From Looking East in Winter by Rowan Williams.

the divine Word whose agency is entirely response to the gift

“The Word is that which the Father generates, yet this is not a static mirroring of ‘one’ to ‘another’, as the Father is always already the one who ‘breathes’ Spirit, the Spirit that eternally holds open the space in which the Word lives, and will also, in the finite world, realize the life of the Word within history.” —Rowan Williams (Looking East in Winter)

More context:

Another and equally important element in this Maximian reading is the ultimate grounding of what is said about human subjectivity in trinitarian theology. All sorts of themes converge on the focal reality of logos: in eternity, divine logos is the identity-in-difference of the divine as the limitless source of all. The next few chapters of the book trace these themes in a little more depth. Beyond finite reality, we recognize an infinite returning-to-itself of this limitless source—a limitless returning that does not and cannot exhaust the limitless source’s action in generating/‘breathing out’ divine life into an other. In the vocabulary of the tradition, the Word is that which the Father generates, yet this is not a static mirroring of ‘one’ to ‘another’, as the Father is always already the one who ‘breathes’ Spirit, the Spirit that eternally holds open the space in which the Word lives, and will also, in the finite world, realize the life of the Word within history. This is what infinite being simply is; and finite being is thus sustained by an eternal act that has this shape and no other. Hence we can say that resting upon, and being animated and directed by, Word and Spirit are the most important truths about all finite being and in a very distinctive sense the most important truths about human existence. To mature as a human is to grow more fully into this foundational reality. So our theological discussion of knowing, praying, acting, whatever else, is shaped by this; and what it means to become fully a created person is shaped by the eternal ‘filial’ reality of the divine Word whose agency is entirely response to the gift from the divine Source.

What Baby Jesus did to Census Taking

There is an old Slavic proverb that the only place you can go to on your own is to hell. Ancient people did not have a concept of the autonomous individual except as some kind of horrific disaster. To our ancestors, we are made up of our connections to others—formed by our place in the web or hierarchy of kinship and grounded in a shared transcendent source of life. To be separated from others was to be robbed of all potency and rendered entirely vulnerable to a multitude of outside forces—either accursed or claimed by the gods. Census taking was therefore considered a terribly dangerous activity because it identified or singled out each person.

Hebrew scholar and Old Testament translator Robert Alter explains:

It was a belief common to Israel and to the Mesopotamian cultures that it was dangerous for humans to be counted. Perhaps it was felt that assigning individuals in a mass an exact number set them up as vulnerable targets for malefic forces. The story of David’s ill fated census in 2 Samuel 24, which triggers a plague, turns on this belief. The danger of destruction inherent in census taking could be averted by the payment of a ‘ransom’ for each threatened life as a donation to the sanctuary. The supposed danger of the census thus becomes the rationale for the institution of a poll tax, which in turn will be an important source of revenue for the maintenance of the sanctuary and its officiants.

The oldest recorded censuses, however, are tools of civic authority (although civic and sacred authority were mixed and overlapping realms, of course). As Ireland’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) summarizes on their website:

The first known census undertaken nearly 6000 years ago by the Babylonians in 3800 BC. There are records to suggest that this census was undertaken every 6 or 7 years and counted the number of people and livestock, as well as quantities of butter, honey, milk, wool and vegetables.

The oldest existing census in the world comes from China during the Han Dynasty. This census was taken in the year 2 A.D. and is considered to be quite accurate. It recorded the population as 59.6 million, the world’s largest population.

This census in China would have taken place close to the same time as that famous account of “a decree that went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” and how “this was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Although there is significant debate over the timing of this census in relation to Christ’s birth and Herod’s death, we know that the census was a key tool of Roman administration and that it was conducted every five years in a rotation across regions to maintain a register of citizens and their property. Our word census originates from the Latin word ‘censere’ which means ‘estimate’.

This connection of census taking with kingly power throughout the Old Testament and all of human history is a critical element in the story of Jesus Christ entering the world as a helpless baby who was destined to confront the power of Emperor Augustus and all earthly princes. Christ’s power, however, is never manifested as we would expect. There is no place for Christ in the inns or the royal palaces of this world. His power is manifested in human hearts—in the faithfulness of his virgin mother and of her wise and attentive husband who listens to the visiting angels in his sleep rather than to the threats and demands of this world.

When Jesus faced Roman power as a grown man, his focus was equally singular. Like his mother and his earthly father, Jesus was concerned only with the will of his Father in Heaven. Caesar’s heart no doubt matters to King Jesus (who was particularly demanding regarding human hearts), but Caesar’s will had no bearing on Christ’s own conduct: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

This entirely other-world locus of Christ’s reign, however, has shown up within our sad history as flickers of the beautiful light from around Christ’s heavenly throne. That baby who drew three kings to worship him by the light of a star has cast light into other kingdoms long after his ascension to the throne of God. After all, while the powers of state have not been entirely tamed and the secular nation state has arguably taken more human lives per capita than most previous (and supposedly less enlightened) forms of government (see the first two images here), we do see censuses being put to many good uses following the witness to the light that we have in the infant Christ’s escape from Herod and later confrontation as a man with the power of Rome.

I’ve obviously not done the rigorous historical research that would be required, but I strongly suspect that the evidence would bear this fact out over the course of human history. Census taking had many good and valuable uses before Jesus Christ, but the change in approach and purpose for census taking in the years following the spread of the Christian faith is notable and even beautiful despite it’s lack of consistency or perfection in goodness. I’ve posted on this blog once before regarding the most dramatic example of this reversal in the example of Saint (and Emperor) John III Doukas Vatatzes the Merciful. His remarkable example stands as a tribute to the power of baby Jesus: a Christian emperor who ordered a census for the express purpose of giving a piece of land to the 7000 poorest people in his empire. And this was no emotionally-driven whim. By all accounts, this was a sound plan with positive a economic outcome for the empire. Although I’ve not heard this story told or celebrated very widely, it is a powerful testimony to the influence of a helpless baby born centuries earlier in the midst of a mighty empire and its management of human populations.

Emperor John the Merciful, pray with us this nativity that Christ would reign in our hearts in all of our dealings with each other.

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.)