It may be felt that such doctrines make Dionysius into a mere “monist” or “pantheist.” God, he insists, is not something other than the world but is “all things in all things.” Again, if being is nothing but theophany, does this not imply that the world is not real at all, but only appearance? Such objections, however, represent a failure to understand the Neoplatonic metaphysics of manifestation and intelligibility. Dionysius’ metaphysics is not a form of “pantheism,” if by this we mean the doctrine that all things are God. On the contrary: every being, precisely in that it is a being, i.e. something distinct, ﬁnite, and intelligible, ipsofacto is not God. Indeed, since to be is to be intelligible and therefore to be ﬁnite, to be means to be not God. This, again, is precisely why God is beyond being. Every being, then, absolutely is not God. Nor are all things, taken as a totality, God, for “all things” is plural, a multiplicity of distinct intelligible beings. The God of Dionysius is “all beings and none of beings,” “all things in all things and nothing in any,” and in these formulas the “all” can never be separated from the “none.” As all things without distinction, God is neither any one thing nor all things in their plurality. All things, qua all things, the whole of reality, are absolutely other than God.Eric Perl in Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite
But if Dionysius is not a monist or pantheist, neither is he a dualist, regarding God as another being over against the world. All things are not God, but God is not therefore something else besides all things. Such a notion, as the very words indicate, is manifest nonsense. If God were another being besides his products, he would be included as a member of a more inclusive totality, subordinated to a more embracing universal term, and distinct from the other members and therefore ﬁnite. If God were merely other than the world, he would be another thing and so not truly transcendent, but contained in the world. All things are other than God, but God is not other than all things. Since all things are not God, Dionysius is not a monist; but since God is not something else besides all things, neither is he a dualist.
Dionysius, like his fellow Neoplatonists, is able to negotiate a way between monism and dualism by means of the Platonic concept of appearance, taken up into the doctrine of being as theophany. The relation between an appearance and that of which it is an appearance is not a relation between two beings: the appearance is not another being, additional to that which is appearing. But in that the appearance, qua appearance, is not that which is appearing itself, neither is this a monistic reduction of the appearance to what is appearing. As Plato says, with reference to the status of sensibles as appearances of the forms, they are not being itself, the forms, but neither are they non-being, or nothing. The appearances both are and are not the reality; they are “in between“ being and non-being. So, for Dionysius, beings are not additional things other than God, in such a way that God and the world would constitute two things. But neither are they nothing, or illusion, as in a monist philosophy. Wherever we look, we are not seeing God, in that every being, every object of thought, is not God; and wherever we look, we are seeing God, as he appears, for every being, every object of thought, is nothing but a presentation or appearance of God.
To say that the world is the manifestation or appearance of God, then, is not to say that it is not real. Rather, Dionysius’ Neoplatonic point is that reality itself is appearance: to be real means to be intelligible, to be given to thought, and thus to be appearance. To go beyond appearance, in this sense of what is given to thought, is to go beyond being. As Dionysius’ Neoplatonic metaphysics is neither theism nor atheism, so also it is neither monism nor dualism, but can only be called, for want of a better term, “theophanism.” The relation between appearance and that which appears is irreducible to either unity or duality and cannot be expressed in any terms other than those of appearance, manifestation, image, expression. Only through this Platonic concept is it possible to understand Dionysius’ metaphysics or to make sense of the relation between the world and God without reducing the world to God (monism) or God to a being (dualism).
[Note: this is the text prepared and delivered for an adult Sunday school class at Derry Pres (video here), a three-hundred year old congregation near my home.]
Thank you so much to Andrew for the kind invitation to share with you this morning in your beautiful and historic church.
I think of myself as a Pennsylvanian having been born and baptized in Doylestown (a little north of Philadelphia) while my dad was in seminary. At just six months old, my parents took me to Taiwan where I grew up speaking two dialects of Chinese. Although Kaohsiung was a growing and boisterous city and has a population of almost 3 million today, it was a very traditional southern Chinese culture, and this, no doubt, influenced my outlook on the world.
Since moving back to Pennsylvania, to attend college and eventually to settle down for the past fifteen years of my life, I have come to love the ancient Susquehanna River valley running from Harrisburg to York and Lancaster. (By the way, the Susquehanna may be one of the three oldest river valleys on the planet. There is geological evidence that the Susquehanna’s riverbed predates the formation of the Appalachian Mountains and that it once flowed in the opposite direction over rocks far beneath the surface of its own current bedrock.)
I taught high school at Covenant, a classical school in Harrisburg, for seven years, and then served as academic dean and principal at Logos in downtown York, another classical school, also for seven years.
I have some personal connection to Hershey as my wife, Elizabeth, and I served as weekend relief houseparents at the Milton Hershey School for about nine years until our move to York and the birth of our third child when we needed to retire from that position.
With all of my love for local lore, it was a delight to read a little about the history of Derry Presbyterian. What a remarkable story of 300 years so far in the life of your congregation.
Although my Presbyterian missionary parents have always modeled for me a lifelong love for Jesus Christ and although I always felt at home in the church within which I was raised, I ended up moving as an adult into the Orthodox Church, being chrismated at Saint John Chrysostom Church in York with my wife and three children when our youngest, now three years old, was baptised. Having taken a job with a curriculum publisher, Classical Academic Press, a little closer to Harrisburg again, we now attend Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Mechanicsburg. To be clear, I am not remotely qualified to speak for my new church family in any way, and whatever I share today is simply my own personal reflections (although I certainly hope that they do reflect some of what I am learning within the Orthodox church).
There are many ways to approach or to describe my thesis this morning: the entire world holds together in God in profound ways. This simple thesis was essential to the ancient Christian understanding of reality.
Probably the easiest approach for our modern minds to understand is our physical and biological interdependence. This is only one result of our more substantial connectedness, but it is a good place to start. Contemporary Anglican philosopher Stephen R.L. Clark, in his book, God, Religion and Reality, says:
A human person requires a cosmos to sustain it: of anyone it is literally true that the whole world is her body, since the light of the sun, and the respiration of algae, are essential to her bodily survival.
This claim that our bodies literally depend upon the entire universe surrounding us is one way to approach an ancient understanding of the human body and the cosmos as profoundly connected, and this cosmic body must, of course, also be a shared body.
We modern Americans don’t wake up and go about our days as if the entire universe is our body. However, many humans did experience this as a daily reality prior to the Enlightenment. As difficult as the image might be, this vision of a shared cosmic body is important to consider seriously if we want to understand our Bibles, our world or ourselves. Dale Martin is a preeminent New Testament scholar with distinguished careers at Duke and Yale. Without endorsing many specific aspects of his own theology, Martin’s scholarship regarding what Paul believed about human bodies is profoundly respected and lines up with many others that I will reference. These passages from his book The Corinthian Body provide a quick introduction:
Greeks and Romans could see as ‘natural’ what seems to us bizarre: the nonexistence of the ‘individual,’ the fluidity of the elements that make up the ‘self,’ and the essential continuity of the human body with its surroundings. (21)
In most of Greco-Roman culture the human being was a confused commingling of substances, [and] the human body was of a piece with its environment. The self was a precarious, temporary state of affairs, constituted by forces surrounding and pervading the body, like the radio waves that bounce around and through the bodies of modern urbanites. In such a maelstrom of cosmological forces, the individualism of modern conceptions disappears, and the body is perceived as a location in a continuum of cosmic movement. (25)
No ontological dichotomy between the individual and the social can be located in Paul’s logic. …One may argue that the modern concept of the individual is simply unavailable to Paul. In any case, the logic underlying 1 Corinthians 5 depends on the breaking down of any possible boundary between the individual body and the social body. (173)
To be clear, this understanding of our bodies extends far beyond Paul’s world and was actually the norm for most of premodern human history. Calvin College philosophy professor, James K.A. Smith makes this clear in a passage from his book How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (which provides a set of guided notes through the massive work of Charles Taylor called A Secular Age). Smith writes:
The human agent was seen as porous. Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment.”
To turn aside from theologians and philosophers for a moment, we can see these same points profoundly unpacked for us by the farmer and poet Wendell Berry:
The body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone. It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil. Intellectually, we know that these patterns of interdependence exist; we understand them better now perhaps than we ever have before; yet modern social and cultural patterns contradict them and make it difficult or impossible to honor them in practice.
…What is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity, among soul and body and community and world? These are all the works of God, and it is therefore the work of virtue to make or restore harmony among them.
…The concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness. To be healthy is to be whole. The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy.
These passages were published by Berry in the year that I was born, 1977 [The Unsettling at America, pp. 103-112]. They are his first comprehensive statement of a thesis that he has lived out as well as defended with stories and prose to this day.
As Wendell Berry points out, “we know that these patterns of interdependence exist; we understand them better now perhaps than we ever have before.”
While our modern minds can understand something about an ecological network of mutual dependence (extending out into the cosmos and even across time) and our body’s radical reliance on the world around us, this point goes far beyond just our biological life. This ecological approach is only the most accessible way of considering this question, and we have already seen hints in the Apostle Paul and Wendell Berry that these truths must be considered more holistically and that they point to what is holy.
For all ancient people, the material world was understood to be dependent on even more substantial realities. Some of these more substantial realities are also fairly easy for our modern minds to grasp, such as the realities of language and light—two basic realities that J.R.R. Tolkien loved best. Tolkien’s use of light and darkness shows a respect for the reality of both and a need to be gentle and modest in our love for the light, so that we can learn to see and to love the light even amid the sometimes gift of darkness. Tolkien was clearly aware of a long tradition regarding the uncreated light of God that Moses saw in the burning bush. In a recent essay for the Front Porch Republic, I described how Wendell Berry, George MacDonald and Maximos the Confessor all reference this revelatory power at the burning bush. Picking up on a theme already old in his day, Maximus writes:
The unspeakable and prodigious fire hidden in the essence of things, as in the bush, is the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of His beauty inside every thing, …a shining forth, an epiphany, of the mysterious depths of being.[Cited in The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty by Paul Evdokimov pointing to Ambigua ad Iohannem p. 9 (or paragraph 1148C) translated by Constas 2014 and Jeauneau 1988 (from a Latin translation by John Scottus Eriugena).]
To move on, however, to other ways of considering the more substantive realities that connect us all, the most familiar would be mind, spirit, angels and God. Our problem is that all such categories tend to feel more subjective than substantive to us moderns. We very easily think of these realities as functionally irrelevant to daily life if not outright falsehoods or fantasies that exist only in our minds. Material objects and their components tend to be the only realities that we grant outside of our private imaginings or intellectual abstractions. Even Christians today (myself included) tend to live as though the material world is the only reality.
Furthermore, among Christians, any talk of spiritual or other realities tends to raise the concern that we are despising matter and the stuff of creation. It is as if the spiritual must either not exist or be a strictly private issue and as if, among believers, any consideration of the spiritual as real becomes an immediate threat to our respect and appreciation for the material world in which we live.
In fact, however, there is a deep and wide heritage of thought that acknowledges and receives our material world with respect and appreciation while also acknowledging that our material world participates in spiritual realities and ultimately in the life of God, who is the Creator and Sustainer of all. These are schools of contemplative life and metaphysical thought stretch from the Vedic traditions of India to various Presocratic and later Platonic schools of thought in Europe. These contemplatives have insisted that existence itself is a good gift and an inexplicable mystery.
Into the midst of this wide accumulation of interrelated contemplative traditions, the Jewish nation comes to be and the news of God’s incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension arrives among us. Early Christian thinkers quickly identified the neoplatonic school as both their greatest rival and their next most inspired neighbor. In Origen Against Plato, Mark Edwards explains that disagreements between schools of thought in the ancient world were not primarily over ideas but over allegiance to certain canons or collections of writings and their inspiration. Therefore, many Christians freely made reference to both similarities and differences with various ideas from neoplatonic thought, but the critical difference for Christians was that these ideas now found their highest life meaning within the accounts of Jesus Christ and those who followed him. In the end, ideas in isolation made no sense to them. Both neoplatonism and Christianity were understood, most essentially, as rival allegiances and ways of life, and it was only within these communities of practice that the ideas had any value or vitality. With our modern ways of thinking, we tend to focus on the abstract ideas or doctrines as if they are of primary importance, but they were secondary among all the ancient schools of thought.
Within the ancient world, the neoplatonists understood the material world sacramentally. In other words, nature both truly participated in and revealed the life of God. In Ancient Mediteriann Philosophy, Stephen R.L. Clark explains:
Both pagan and Abrahamic Platonists …found corporeal nature sacramental. Plotinus was vegetarian, refused medicines made from animals, and denounced those ‘gnostics’ who despised the earth. Porphyry, his pupil, was until recently the only ‘professional philosopher’ to write at length in favour of ‘the rights of beasts’.
Likewise, the classicist and Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart said in a recent podcast on the topic of Christianity and gnosticism that if he had to identify one thing to use in classifying schools of thought as gnostic it would be their lack of any “explicit metaphysics of participation” or (to state the same thing in reverse) there “willingness to amplify provisional dualism into a complete ontological schism” (a separation between evil matter and higher goods).
Although neoplatonists initially thought of early Christians as among the despicable gnostic sects, the early Christians appreciated the sacramental understanding of creation within neoplatonism and very widely understood the incarnation of Jesus Christ to be the ultimate expression and guarantee of this sacramental or participatory relationship between creation and the Creator. At the same time, Christian writing to condemn the gnostics who borrowed from their scriptures, famously called themselves the true gnostics. In doing so, however, Christians were separating themselves over principles such as the goodness of creation and its participation in the life of God, principles that were widely recognized, from the side of Christians, as shared territory with the neoplatonists. It’s not a simple picture, but the boundary lines were clearly maintained over centuries of debate for all of those within these competing schools.
This more complex picture runs against two different and equally strong tendencies among contemporary Christians. Our first wrong tendency is to lump Platonism, gnosticism and early Christianity together as despising the material world and our bodily lives. That is largely true of gnostic sects but not of either neoplatonism or Christians. Early Christianity should be understood within a long but consistent process of understanding the truth of the incarnation in terms that fully reveal the glory and goodness of the material world as this was expounded at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 which famously and loudly celebrated the goodness of all material things. All of the exposition of Christian worship and belief at this council took place within cultures that had little reason to think of the material world as good outside of the powerful declarations of this within Jewish scriptures and the neoplatonists who most closely shared the ideas involved in an understanding of the material world as a manifestation of God’s glory and beauty.
A second common misunderstanding that all of this needs to clear aside is our modern idea that “the God of the philosophers” is utterly impersonal and incompatible with the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible who becomes incarnate as Jesus Christ. It is certainly true that the Jewish and Christian God is profoundly personal, embodied and active within the Jewish scriptures and that the Christian claims and recognition of Jesus Christ as God among us and in our flesh was a profound and irrational scandal in the minds of sophisticated and educated people throughout the Roman Empire. However, there were also critical and meaningful points of contact in the world of ideas, and these came to have profound significance as the Christian faith spread rapidly across the Hellenized world proclaiming that Jesus Christ, a Jewish manual laborer and crucified rebel, was also the eternal Logos of God, fully identifiable with God outside of time and inside of time in every aspect of transcendence and immanence. This astounding claim picked up and transformed or fulfilled the highest aspirations of the neoplatonists among many others.
One of these ancient claims, argues the patristics scholar Andrew Louth in a recent lecture [The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology], is that creation is utterly a gift. This idea of creation ex nihilo comes from Greek thinkers as they encounter the Christian faith and enter into it. This ex nihilo concept was not understood by the neoplatonists in terms of time, primarily, but in terms of existence itself as a gift in every moment and instance of it, regardless of its temporal duration. This insight into creation as a gift given to us by God out of nothingness became the basis for understanding the incarnation in some essential respects because the eternal Son of the Father and Logos of God was understood to be a person within the timeless and triune life of God who was the eternal purpose and template of the entire divine intention and plan with regard to all of creation. God’s incarnation as Jesus Christ, the first fully human person, was seen as the ultimate purpose of all creation and the essential link between the timeless life of God and the life of all created things.
This idea has been developed in many ways by various thinkers, but one of the most famous is Maximus the Confessor. Maximus famously developed the concept of individual logoi as the eternal purpose of every individual thing within God’s vast and diverse creation, and Maximus taught that the logoi of each thing was a direct expression of the eternal Logos of God. Summarizing three related teachings within Maximus, patristic scholar Jordan Wood says:
Maximus walks the ancient path first tread by Irenaeus: Christ reveals the truth of creation. The truth he sees in the historical Incarnation is that everything, all of creation, the entire world, is that Word’s Incarnation. Maximus never qualifies his conviction that the Logos’s self-distribution as the logoi is an Incarnation of this Word. …In his famous and curt explanation of Gregory Nazianzen’s remark that “the Logos becomes thick,” Maximus proffers three instances where this is so: the Word’s historical Incarnation as Jesus Christ, his ineffable self-encryption as the logoi of all creatures, and his consent to be “embodied and expressed” in language.“Creation is Incarnation: the Metaphysical Peculiarity of the Logi in Maximus the Confessor” from the 2017 issue of Modern Theology.
Christ’s incarnation fulfills the entire function and purpose of all created things in multiple ways. When we begin to grasp the full extent of God’s participatory relationship with creation, binding all of His glorious diversity of creation together into a vibrant and living whole, we can start to understand the full meaning of the Greek poet that Paul quotes on the Areopagus in Athens: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). [End Note 1]
For the Chistian Platonist writing in the tradition of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite:
[God is], to speak simply, the life of living things and being of beings.
This typical way of seeing insisted on God’s utter transcendence and even unknowability apart from the cosmos because the life of living things is not any of those lives and the being of beings is not any of those beings. God is beyond all living things and all beings which also means that God is not any living thing or any being. These statements about God’s transcendence can be misleading, however, because it is the very transcendence of God that make possible God’s radical immanence and our individual lives. God is the only source of existence at the innermost core of every particular thing that exists and the only source of life at the innermost core of every particular living thing. Only this combination of utter transcendence and radical immanence makes possible our participation in this life and this being that is God as well as the revelation of God by each thing in the cosmos to all other things. An excellent, although thorough and technical, exposition of these ideas is Eric Perl’s Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite.
However, to be clear, these basic concepts are not those of an esoteric minority following the rise of Chrisitianity, but they show up ubiquitously across early Christain writings. In his prayers, Augustine says to God: “You were more inward to me than my most inward part and higher than my highest” [Confessions, 3.6.11]. George MacDonald no doubt had this in mind when he wrote that “the God to whom we pray is nearer to us than the very prayer itself ere it leaves the heart” [Paul Faber, Surgeon in chapter 35, “A Heart”].
While it is easy to see how such statements could mistakenly be collapsed into modern pantheism, this would be to miss the insistence on a transcendence that all Platonists and Christians most clearly understood as essential to any concept of God as the sustainer of all creation out of nothingness. In brief, pantheism reverses the ontological grounding between God and the cosmos, saying that God exists because of the cosmos while most ancient sages (even those who held to an eternal cosmos) would have insisted that the cosmos exists because of God who must be transcendent in order to be immanent. [End Note 2]
Today’s most outspoken and popular advocate of this ancient view is the Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart, and the most direct survey regarding this ancient understanding of God and the cosmos that I would recommend is The Experience of God. Describing the way in which everything is contingent or dependant on God at the most basic level, Hart takes an illustration from the American philosopher Richard Taylor:
[He] once illustrated this mystery, famously and fetchingly, with the image of a man out for a stroll in the forest unaccountably coming upon a very large translucent sphere. Naturally, he would immediately be taken aback by the sheer strangeness of the thing, and would wonder how it should happen to be there. More to the point, he would certainly never be able to believe that it just happened to be there without any cause, or without any possibility of further explanation; the very idea would be absurd. But, adds Taylor, what that man has not noticed is that he might ask the same question equally well about any other thing in the woods too, a rock or a tree no less than this outlandish sphere, and fails to do so only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we are accustomed. What would provoke our curiosity about the sphere would be that it was so obviously out of place; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place. As Taylor goes on to say, the question would be no less intelligible or pertinent if we were to imagine the sphere either as expanded to the size of the universe or as contracted to the size of a grain of sand, either as existing from everlasting to everlasting or as existing for only a few seconds. It is the sheer unexpected “thereness” of the thing, devoid of any transparent rationale for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature, but of its very existence. [End Note 3]
Each moment of our life and every detail of our existence is fundamentally a direct gift of God. We see the reality of our past and our present only insofar as we can learn to see them as gifts of God and works of God. Moreover, only this vision reveals to us the ultimate connectedness in God that we have with each other and with the rest of creation.
Within this shared life and mind of God, we each find a profound common ground. Saint Gregory of Nyssa in On the Making of Man gives the most developed version of this vision:
All humanity is included in the first creation. …The entire plenitude of humanity was included by the God of all, by His power of foreknowledge, as it were in one body, and …this is what the text teaches us which says, God created man, in the image of God created He him. For the image is not in part of our nature, …but this power extends equally to all the race. …The Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then. …He saw, …how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals. …For when …the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, …[Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time [that he] names a moment and the twinkling of an eye.
These passages show that Gregory understood the “image of God” as only being manifested by all of humanity taken together as one body. For God, every single individual was in view from the outset of creation so that we are all created at once, as it were. Nonetheless, this creation outside of time and within the foreknowledge of God, takes place for us now within time so that we must wait for every individual human to show up within our fallen history before the full image of God is made known and the transformation of this fallen creation into the new heavens and the new earth can finally take place. With this full number of souls brought to be, God will suddenly roll up all of cosmic time within a moment or a twinkling of an eye as time is taken into eternity. This understanding of humanity as only being the full image of God when taken as a collective whole, is wrapped up with the restoration of all things taught openly by Gregory of Nyssa as one of only a few church fathers to do so. This teaching of radical solidarity across the entire human race is picked up and expounded at some length by David Bentley Hart in his controversial book That All Shall Be Saved (which uses this concept of Gregory’s as part of what is likely the most dogmatic and demanding case for Christian universalism that the church has witnessed to date).
I hope to have suggested that these principles of common ground rest on deep foundations, have far-reaching implications, and show up in many ways of thought. It is really far too vast a topic with too many expressions and corollaries to do more this morning than just provide the most basic of surveys. Although any additional sharing would go even further beyond my very limited knowledge, we could look in much more depth at a long list of closely related topics only some of which I have mentioned in passing this morning: the eternal Logos, the lamb slain before the foundation of the cosmos in Revelation, christology, the theory of logoi in Maximus the Confessor, God’s body as a nexus of powers, the divine essence and energies distinction of Saint Gregory Palamas, deep incarnation, sophiology, mariology, sacramental theology, iconography, the theophany of God at Christ’s baptism, the uncreated light of the burning bush and the transfiguration, and even much more.
These ancient ways of thought remained in some forms up through the Protestant Reformation and were never entirely erased, even by the Protestant reformers. For example, John Calvin wrote in his Commentary on Ezekiel:
All creatures are animated by angelic motion …because God exerts and diffuses his energy in a secret manner, so that no creature is content with his own peculiar vigor, but is animated by angels themselves.
With these statements, John Calvin is taking for granted that the peculiar vigor of every human and animal is continually infused with the energy of God himself through the animating power of angels. We no longer think in these mixed and layer categories, but they were commonplace even up through John Calvin’s time.
In Eighty-Three Different Questions, Augustine says that love is “a kind of motion, and all motion is toward something.” Dante says that it is “love that moves the sun and other stars” (The Divine Comedy, “Paradiso”, XXXIII.145). C.S. Lewis says:
In every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God. …The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one.From Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature.
Our internal lives are no less mysterious, as Augustine’s says in his Confessions:
Men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves.
Christian Saint Macarius in the 4th century says:
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.From The Fifty Spiritual Homilies in homily 15.32.
As Lewis says in “The Weight of Glory,” there is a great deal involved when it comes to human potential:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. …There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
David Bentley Hart takes this a step further:
In all of us, and in all things, there sleeps a fallen god called by God to awaken and seek union with him as a natural end—to risk a formulation that will offend just about every Christian, but that merely expresses the inescapable conclusion of thinking the theology of divine incarnation and human glorification through to its logically inevitable terminus.From Theological Territories in “Remarks to Bruce McCormack regarding the Relation between Trinitarian Theology and Christology.” (With more on this topic, Hart has a book releasing soon called You Are Gods, taking his title from Psalm 82:6.)
We see some of this same language as well as one source for Gregory of Nyssa’s vision in the Apostle Paul:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.Romans 8:19-22
All of the cosmos is waiting to be born only once the full number of humanity has themselves been spiritually born as the image of God in Jesus Christ.
Such grand visions are instructive but not sustainable, of course. The one simple thread connecting all of this together is the life of contemplative prayer. The single eye of the heart, says Jesus in Matthew 6:22, can fill the whole body with light. This single eye is the nous (our intuitive mind), and it can guide us when at rest within and in command from the heart (our chest as C.S. Lewis calls it in The Abolition of Man) and when it is not under the tyranny of either our analytical mind (head) or our passions (belly).
Seeking to see in this way places us into a relationship with the world and the life that it has apart from us. Although, because of this independent life, the cosmos is all the more in a real relationship with us. Wendell Berry laments the loss of this relationship with Lady Nature in his essay “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation.” Berry quotes C.S. Lewis [Studies in Words, 1975, p. 42] saying that “of all the pantheon, Great Mother Nature has… been the hardest to kill” [A Small Porch, p. 77]. Berry goes on to say:
We have lost the old apprehension of Nature as a being accessible to imagination, linking Heaven and Earth, making and informing the incarnate creation, and requiring of humanity an obedience at once worshipful, ethical, and economic. Her stern instruction …that we humans have a rightful but responsible place in the order of things, has disappeared, and has been absent a long time from working consciousness and our formal schooling.
Although Wendell Berry generally puts things in plain language that is fully comprehensible to modern ears, he knew and loved C.S. Lewis and would have understood Lewis perfectly when Lewis wrote that, although he does not expect to see it, it would be a hopeful sign to one day see “Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads” [“Is Theism Important? A Reply” from the Socratic Digest, 1952].
Wendell Berry understands that the world is alive but does not seek to sensationalize the fact. He is content to advocate tirelessly over a lifetime for the dignity of local farms and businesses and to call out the blindnesses of large-scale industry and centralized power. What many do not realize is that his principles can apply just as well to city life as they can to farm life. You can live in a city and find advocates working to awaken a respect for our land, attention to local neighborhoods, and empowerment of institutional structures that honor what Berry calls “the human scale” (i.e. when everyone bound together by the commitments of the institution can know everyone else by name).
So what do we do? Although sojourners, we must learn that eternity is only in contact with the present and that heaven is only in contact with our current place. We must learn to dwell with each other now in the places that we share. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves (June 22, 1930), C.S. Lewis once shared this about another friend:
Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the woods – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them.
We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.
Without all returning to six generations of caring for the same place, we must all learn to better see the beauty and glory of God in all that is around and within us.
We can be intentional about learning to see with our intuitive mind (or the single eye of our heart). Then we can recognize—from within a quiet heart and a gratitude for our own place and moment—the connections that we have to each other and even to our entire world across space and time. We can find that each human heart is capable of reuniting heaven and earth, in each moment of life, within the presence of our Creator who has become, forever, one of us, even now under this current veil of death. Jesus Christ is the only crucified God, and this crucified God is also our Creator who reveals the power and beauty that overcomes sin and suffering. Jesus, then, calls His people to follow him in a task that is difficult for us but possible in his strength, to gain a quiet and grateful heart that knows how to be connected and in communion with the suffering as well as the glory of our neighbors, our enemies and our world.
- As a guest here in your Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I want to share that a PCUSA pastor, Aaron Berkowitz, is one of the moderators for the very lively social media group called “Fans of David Bentley Hart” on Facebook and to recommend him as a remarkably well-read resource on these topics.
- You would also be very welcome, of course, as visitors to the churches that I have called home across several relocations in recent years:
- Christ the Saviour in Harrisburg
- St. John Chrysostom in York
- Holy Apostles in Mechanicsburg
Twelve books to recommend:
- The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart
- Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry by Hans Boersma
- For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann
- Poems and Prose by Gerard Hopkins
- Bread & Water, Wine & Oil by Meletios Webber
- Our Only World by Wendell Berry
- A Small Porch by Wendell Berry
- Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
- How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles by James K.A. Smith
- The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken
- The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis
- Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric Perl
- This ancient understanding of God and creation must also be distinguished from three modern inventions. First, deists confuse God with a gnostic demiurge or a cosmic clockmaker who exists alongside his creation while remaining highly exalted above it. Among the ancients, such thinking would have only been found in some popular understandings of gnostic dualism with a timeless evil at war with a timeless good or in the case of a lesser created being who could create a world and walk away from it. No ancient philosopher, however, would have been able to conceive of the kind of separation between the transcendent and the immanent that deists and most modern thinkers take for granted and that leaves us with a material world disconnected from its Creator. While respecting modern science and locating its origins clearly in the development of ancient technologies, Stephen Clark makes it clear that modern science does not start within ancient philosophy and that all the theories of the great Mediterranean sages “were not lisping attempts at modern science, but meditations on the transcendence of commonsensical subjects, and the strangeness of what comes ‘before’ our world” (60). He warns us that it is a mistake to “label one speculative thinker ‘a philosopher’ and another only ‘a poet’ or ‘mystic’ merely because they speak of ‘elements’ instead of ‘spirits’” (10). Dale Martin agrees, even with regard to the famous materialist and first atomists, when he explains how “according to Lucretius, the mind strikes the spirit, the spirit strikes the body, and so the body walks or moves” (9).
Atheism is a second modern invention that is only made possible by deism as a first false step. Atheism today—as it is popularly understood to mean a reduction of all reality to material processes—requires a total separation between transcendence and immanence that was never entertained by any ancient philosopher. As Dale Martin pointed out with regard to Lucretius and the primacy of the mind and spirit in moving the body, ancient atheists did not deny that transcendent realities were responsible for and involved with the most intimate details of daily life. When Socrates and Christians were accused of atheism, it was because they denied the power of the pagan pantheon and placed One utterly transcendent and immanent God between humanity and these lesser gods.
Pantheism is the third and last modern invention to clear away as a possible misunderstanding when studying ancient views of God and our interconnected cosmos. Pantheism is a recent term coined by the Irish freethinker John Toland in 1705 and constructed from the Greek roots pan (all) and theos (God). It has been most famously advanced by Albert Einstein as a way of promoting an impersonal God who is entirely identifiable with the cosmos. As William Mander puts it within the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “pantheism may be understood positively as the view that God is identical with the cosmos, the view that there exists nothing which is outside of God, or else negatively as the rejection of any view that considers God as distinct from the universe.” This claim that God and the cosmos are identical does not satisfy the most basic concerns of any ancient thinker as they insisted that we must look for transcendent causes or foundations that can sustain the diversity of life and movement in which we exist. Particularly in the Platonic school of thought, the case was made for a transcendent reality that was so fundamentally responsible for every particular instance of existence that this ultimate reality’s transcendent and its imminence are mutually dependent and the only possible explanation for each of us existing.
- To clarify the distinction between a participatory metaphysics and pantheism, some scholars use the term panentheism. However, it is probably least anachronistic to just speak of a classical theism that is centered on a strong participatory metaphysics and not charactured in terms of the the utterly aloof or impersonal “God of the philosophers” who is nothing more than the infamous “unmoved mover.” What I’m pointing toward is a classical theism that is fully grounded in a neoplatonic and Christian vision of a sacramental goodness in the material world as all of creation participates in the life of God.
- Hart goes on after this passage to describe how “the physical order confronts us at every moment …with … [our] necessary and total reliance for [our] existence, in every instant, upon realities outside [ourselves].” As he surveys thousands of years of reflection on this point, Hart writes:
Everything available to the senses or representable to the mind is entirely subject to …impermanence, mutability, transience. All physical things are composite, which is to say reducible to an ever greater variety of distinct parts, and so are essentially inconstant and prone to dissolution. All things are subject to time, moreover: they possess no complete identity in themselves, but are always in the process of becoming something else, and hence also in the process of becoming nothing at all. There is a pure fragility and necessary incompleteness to any finite thing; nothing has its actuality entirely in itself, fully enjoyed in some impregnable present instant, but must always receive itself from beyond itself, and then only by losing itself at the same time. Nothing within the cosmos contains the ground of its own being. …Both one’s essence and one’s existence come from elsewhere—from the past and the future, from the surrounding universe and whatever it may depend upon, in a chain of causal dependencies reaching backward and forward and upward and downward—and one receives them both not as possessions secured within some absolute state of being but as evanescent gifts only briefly grasped within the ontological indigence of becoming. Everything that one is is a dynamic and perilously contingent synthesis of identity and change, wavering between existence and nonexistence. To employ another very old formula, one’s “potential” is always being reduced or collapsed into the finitely “actual” (always foreclosing forever all other possibilities for one’s existence), and only in this way can one be liberated into the living uncertainty of the future. Thus one lives and moves and has one’s being only at the sufferance of an endless number of enabling conditions, and becomes what one will be only by taking leave of what one has been. Simply said, one is contingent through and through, partaking of being rather than generating it out of some source within oneself; and the same is true of the whole intricate web of interdependencies that constitutes nature.
Thank you again to Andrew for this invitation.
[Note: this is a short narrative by Elizabeth Russell written as a college course assignment on the topic of my mother’s death and our family’s goodbye to her. Also enjoy this wonderful reading of the story by Dr. Leslie Sillars, Professor of Journalism at Patrick Henry College.]
To my dear, beloved husband of almost 43 years:
You are trying to sleep right now behind me, fully clothed in your work attire, on a noisy crunchy plastic couch several feet shorter than you are. [You are] here with me in the hospital, after a very long hard day full of all kinds of stress, sacrificing, trying with all that is in you to serve me and help me. It’s a very appropriate picture of your life as my husband these many years…
He knows the words well by now. They bring back so many memories – raising nine children, years of missionary work in Taiwan, countless hikes and adventures and books read aloud in the evenings. The letter is creased and worn from many readings. He doesn’t know when she wrote it, exactly, but it must have been only a week or so before the end – before November 21, 2018, when cancer overwhelmed her body and sent her on ahead to God.
Steve and Faye Hake. Both of their names are etched into the headstone at his feet. They were not meant to be apart. Every month since her death, he has driven out to the cemetery to sit beside her in an old camp chair – reading her letter, reading his Bible, praying, remembering.
Today marks one year since her death. Here, among the cemetery’s bare trees and rolling hills, in the quiet and the cold, he has come to keep vigil with her. He will stay near her all day and all night.
It’s November 18, 2018. The Hakes’ small house, tucked into the rolling hills of West Virginia, is full of people. Thanksgiving is coming up in a few days, and their whole family has gathered to celebrate. The living room overflows with grandchildren and games.
Faye spends most of her time in her bedroom, slipping in and out of a medicated sleep. She’s declining rapidly, and they all know it. But no one says anything.
Faye never wants to talk about death. Ever since she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in May 2014, she’s been fighting and planning and questioning the doctors’ grim diagnosis. She’s so optimistic and full of life – it simply isn’t in her nature to accept the statistics. Only 22% of patients with Stage IV breast cancer live longer than five years after their diagnosis. But Faye is determined to be in that 22%. If she can just gain a little strength, she can start another round of chemo, hold on a little longer… But Steve has known for a long time that she is dying. He can almost bear it if they do it all themselves – if they make sure it’s done right.
Months ago, he began researching natural burials and chose a local cemetery that allowed them. He bought a Walmart flat sheet to use for the shroud, and coils of hemp rope to lower her with. He asked his son-in-law Joel to carve the headstone – a smooth gray river rock taken from a property they’d loved. He even chose the hymns for her funeral. But he’s never been able to tell Faye any of it.
Steve’s oldest son Jesse pulls him aside.
“Have you asked Mom about everything? Is she okay with it?”
“I don’t know if I can,” he admits.
So Jesse goes into the bedroom, alone, to confront his mother with her death.
A few minutes later, she shuffles out into the kitchen. The room is crowded with children and grandchildren. Everyone is laughing – they’re making her an egg salad sandwich with pickles on top, some family joke. She laughs about the sandwich with them.
When the laughter dies down, she speaks quietly.
“Jesse told me about everything, and it’s okay.”
It’s very still. Then the jokes and laughter begin again, and that is all. But it’s enough.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, 2018. Faye was taken to hospice yesterday and slipped away quietly this morning, sometime just after sunrise. Steve spent the night on the floor, lying beside her bed. Now, he and his children are bringing her home.
Somehow, they get her body into the back of the old van. When they reach home, four of the boys gently roll her onto blankets and begin carrying her inside. Steve walks with them, at her head. They wonder if the front or the back way is fastest. They choose the back door, but the room they are carrying her through is full of boxes and old furniture from a move. A table leg sticks out too far, and they wait in strained silence while one of the girls rearranges the furniture. Someone breaks into nervous laughter. It’s strange and sad and comical and Steve wonders, Are we doing this right?
He doesn’t know. But it helps that they’re doing this together. The vast wilderness of loss is not uncharted; it only feels that way. He clings to that moment in the kitchen, to her voice saying softly, “It’s okay.”
Steve knows that Faye is not here anymore. But the body still feels like her. So they dress her in her favorite clothes and drape her in her favorite blue-and-brown blanket. They fill the bedroom with flowers and prayers and readings from her favorite Bible passages. Someone is always in there with her, holding her hand. Her hands are cold; under her are 25 pounds of dry ice, to keep the body from decaying. But the pain is gone from her face. Her gray-brown hair has been smoothed back from her full cheeks. She looks almost like she did back in college.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and Steve is mostly numb with the strangeness of it all, like an amputation. But a weary thankfulness washes over him – gratitude that at least they can honor her. At least they can say goodbye like this.
Two days later, Steve and his sons are digging her grave. The morning is cold. They take turns, shovels biting into the deep red soil and heaping it up on either side of the grave. Six feet deep, six feet long, two feet wide. It’s hard work, but it feels good to do it themselves.
He needs to know what it will be like for her. Struck by a sudden impulse, he lies down in the grave. Staring up at the pale blue sky, he thinks One day this will be me, next door.
A year later, night is falling as Steve sits beside the grave. He can still make out the pale letters on the headstone that read Steve and Faye Hake. Cancer now runs through his body, too. How long before he is laid next to her?
Steve doesn’t know. But he is not afraid.
He hopes that, when his kids dig his own grave, they scoot him over right next to her.
As dusk falls, he lies down beside her, huddled in an old sleeping bag. He stares up into the cloudy night-blue sky, and her words come back to him.
I am getting very sleepy and fuzzy with pain medicine now, at 1:19 a.m. in this hospital bed. You are snoring peacefully behind me, if not comfortably, on that couch. I hope to have a few more days, weeks, or months – if not years, possibly – to hear and enjoy your snoring that I sometimes flipped you over to avoid.
I will quit now. I love you, Steve…I can’t wait to bow down together before God someday…and afterwards, to express our gratitude…
Thank you for the lovely long hike. I love you, Steve.
To compare to this famous passage from C.S. Lewis, here is a passage from Theological Territories in “Remarks to Bruce McCormack regarding the Relation between Trinitarian Theology and Christology” by David Bentley Hart:
In all of us, and in all things, there sleeps a fallen god called by God to awaken and seek union with him as a natural end—to risk a formulation that will offend just about every Christian, but that merely expresses the inescapable conclusion of thinking the theology of divine incarnation and human glorification through to its logically inevitable terminus.
Creation is not the magical conjuration into existence of something that possesses all the attributes of the past without actually possessing a past. Surely that must be true, right? If it were, then there would be no such thing as free rational creatures, but only fictional characters summoned into existence in a preordained state of character.David Bentley Hart (in the comments here)
So, the issue of evil isn’t a utilitarian calculus, it’s a matter of the process whereby nothingness and every possibility of evil inherent in the conditions of finite freedom is conquered while actually bringing free spiritual natures into existence. But spirit can exist only under the conditions of those rational conditions that logically define it. To ask why God did not create spiritual beings already wholly divinized without any prior history in the ambiguities of sin—or of sin’s possibility—is to pose a question no more interesting or solvent than one of those village atheist’s dilemmas: can God create a square circle, or a rock he is unable to lift? A finite created spirit must have the structure of, precisely, the finite, the created, and spirit. It must have an actual absolute past in nonbeing and an absolute future in the divine infinity, and the continuous successive ordering of its existence out of the former and into the latter is what it is to be a spiritual creature. Every spiritual creature as spirit is a pure act of rational and free intentionality away from the utter poverty of nonbeing and toward infinite union with God. This “temporal” or “diastematic” structure is no less intrinsic to it than is its dynamic synthesis of essence and existence, or of stability and change. And that means that even the first stirring of a created spiritual nature’s existence must be a kind of free assent to existence on the part of the creature.
…Yet again, to say that evil is not necessary in itself does not mean that the possibility of evil–possibility, not necessity–is not present in the “venture” of creation. To say that a negative possibility is entailed in something is not to say that there is any intrinsic necessity for or positive value in the actualization of that possibility. When surgery is performed to remove a tumor, it is possible that there will be nerve damage. That does not mean that nerve damage is an intrinsically good or necessary aspect of surgery. The possibility of a falling back toward evil and nothingness is entailed in the creation of a free finite spiritual being, almost by definition. That does not mean that the actual falling back toward evil and nothingness is in itself a necessary or good “part of the journey.” But, in the course of God overcoming evil and nothingness in finite free spiritual creatures, it may happen. Happily, one would like to believe, God does not cease to conquer that evil, in this age or the age to come.
If it is one’s sordid fate to be an academic philosopher, one might even try to convince oneself that the question of existence is an inept or false query generated by the seductions of imprecise grammar, or one might simply adopt the analytic philosopher’s classic gesture of flinging one’s hands haplessly in the air and proclaiming that one simply finds the question entirely unintelligible. All of this, however, is an abdication of the responsibility to think. This rare and fleeting experience of being’s strangeness within its very familiarity is not a transitory confusion or trivial psychological mood but a genuine if tantalizingly brief glimpse into an inexhaustibly profound truth about reality. It is the recognition, simply said, of the world’s absolute contingency. The world need not be thus. It need not be at all. If, moreover, one takes the time to reflect upon this contingency carefully enough, one will come to realize that it is an ontological, not merely an aetiological, mystery; the question of existence is not one concerning the physical origins of things, or of how one physical state may have been produced by a prior physical state, or of physical persistence across time, or of the physical constituents of the universe, but one of simple logical or conceptual possibility: How is it that any reality so obviously fortuitous—so lacking in any mark of inherent necessity or explanatory self-sufficiency—can exist at all?The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart (in the opening of part two)
The American philosopher Richard Taylor once illustrated this mystery, famously and fetchingly, with the image of a man out for a stroll in the forest unaccountably coming upon a very large translucent sphere. Naturally, he would immediately be taken aback by the sheer strangeness of the thing, and would wonder how it should happen to be there. More to the point, he would certainly never be able to believe that it just happened to be there without any cause, or without any possibility of further explanation; the very idea would be absurd. But, adds Taylor, what that man has not noticed is that he might ask the same question equally well about any other thing in the woods too, a rock or a tree no less than this outlandish sphere, and fails to do so only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we are accustomed. What would provoke our curiosity about the sphere would be that it was so obviously out of place; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place. As Taylor goes on to say, the question would be no less intelligible or pertinent if we were to imagine the sphere either as expanded to the size of the universe or as contracted to the size of a grain of sand, either as existing from everlasting to everlasting or as existing for only a few seconds. It is the sheer unexpected “thereness” of the thing, devoid of any transparent rationale for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature, but of its very existence.
The mystery of being becomes deeper, however, and even somewhat urgent, when one reflects not only upon the seeming inexplicability of existence as such, but also upon the nature of the things that have existence. The physical order confronts us at every moment not simply with its ontological fortuity but also with the intrinsic ontological poverty of all things physical—their necessary and total reliance for their existence, in every instant, upon realities outside themselves. Everything available to the senses or representable to the mind is entirely subject to annicha (to use the Buddhist term): impermanence, mutability, transience. All physical things are composite, which is to say reducible to an ever greater variety of distinct parts, and so are essentially inconstant and prone to dissolution. All things are subject to time, moreover: they possess no complete identity in themselves, but are always in the process of becoming something else, and hence also in the process of becoming nothing at all. There is a pure fragility and necessary incompleteness to any finite thing; nothing has its actuality entirely in itself, fully enjoyed in some impregnable present instant, but must always receive itself from beyond itself, and then only by losing itself at the same time. Nothing within the cosmos contains the ground of its own being. To use an old terminology, every finite thing is the union of an essence (its “what it is”) with a unique existence (its “that it is”), each of which is utterly impotent to explain the other, or to explain itself for that matter, and neither of which can ever be wholly or permanently possessed by anything. One knows of oneself, for instance, that every instant of one’s existence is only a partial realization of what one is, achieved by surrendering the past to the future in the vanishing and infinitesimal interval of the present. Both one’s essence and one’s existence come from elsewhere—from the past and the future, from the surrounding universe and whatever it may depend upon, in a chain of causal dependencies reaching backward and forward and upward and downward—and one receives them both not as possessions secured within some absolute state of being but as evanescent gifts only briefly grasped within the ontological indigence of becoming. Everything that one is is a dynamic and perilously contingent synthesis of identity and change, wavering between existence and nonexistence. To employ another very old formula, one’s “potential” is always being reduced or collapsed into the finitely “actual” (always foreclosing forever all other possibilities for one’s existence), and only in this way can one be liberated into the living uncertainty of the future. Thus one lives and moves and has one’s being only at the sufferance of an endless number of enabling conditions, and becomes what one will be only by taking leave of what one has been. Simply said, one is contingent through and through, partaking of being rather than generating it out of some source within oneself; and the same is true of the whole intricate web of interdependencies that constitutes nature.
There are various directions in which reflection on the contingency of things can carry one’s thoughts. One can follow, at least in principle, the chain of anything’s dependency back through ever deepening layers of causality, both physical and chronological—descending toward the subatomic, retreating toward the initial singularity—and still ultimately arrive at only the most elementary contingencies of all, no closer to an explanation of existence than one was before setting out. Alternatively, if one prefers metaphysical logic to the multiplication of genetic enigmas, one can forgo this phantasmagoric regress toward primordial causes altogether and choose instead to gaze out over the seas of mutability and dependency in search of that distant stable shore that, untouched by becoming, prevents everything from flowing away into an original or final nothingness. Or one may attempt to turn one’s thoughts from the world’s multiplicity and toward that mysterious unity that quietly persists amid the spectacle of incessant change: that oneness that is everywhere and nowhere, at once in the world and in one’s consciousness of it, holding all things together as a coherent totality while also preserving each separate thing in its particularity, and each part of each thing, and each part of that part, and so on ad infinitum. In seeking to understand the world in any of these ways, however, one may be tempted to try to reduce the essential mystery of existence to something one can contain in a simple concept, like a mechanical or physical cause, or a trivial predicate, or something else that one can easily grasp and thereafter ignore. Thinkers in all the great religious traditions have repeatedly warned that it is far easier to think about beings than about being as such, and that we therefore always risk losing sight of the mystery of being behind the concepts we impose upon it. Having briefly awakened to a truth that precedes and exceeds the totality of discrete things, we may end up all the more oblivious to it for having tried to master it.
Even so, one must try to understand, even if only now and then. Reason is restless before this question. And any profound reflection upon the contingency of things must involve the question of God, which—whether or not one believes it can be answered—must be posed again and again in the course of any life that is truly rational.
More from Eric Perl’s book Theophany which so far is unpacking that “being as convertible with intelligibility is such an important idea for platonic thought [that has] disappeared with the rise of nominalism” (as a friend who better understands put it).
Despite differences of expression, the structure of participation, implying at once transcendence and immanence, remains the same in Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, and Dionysius: one and the same term is present in many different things, and as what is the same in all of them (immanent), it is other than and unconditioned by all of them (transcendent).
But if all the determinations of all things are the presence of God in them, then God is not merely “in all things,” as if he were in something other than himself. Rather, God is the whole content of reality, “all things in all things.” God “is all things as cause of all things, and holding together and prepossessing in himself all principles, all limits of all beings.” The various features, characters, or natures, the determinations found in a thing, constitute the entire intelligible content of that thing, all that there is in it for the mind to encounter. And since to be is to be intelligible, they constitute the whole of the thing itself. A being can be nothing but the totality of its intelligible determinations, down to the least details by which it is this particular thing and no other. The divine processions are “in” all things, then, not as contained in something other than themselves, but as constituting their entire content. God is the “cause” of all things, and so subject to all names, therefore, in that the entire intelligible content of all things, and hence the whole of reality, is nothing but the differentiated presence of God.
Eric Perl, in his book Theophany, quoting and explicating Saint Dionysius the Areopagite:
God is the “illumination of the illumined and principle of perfection of the perfected and principle of deiﬁcation of the deiﬁed and simplicity of the simpliﬁed and unity of the uniﬁed… and, to speak simply, the life of living things and being of beings.” He is present to all beings as being, the universal character common to all beings such that they are beings: God “neither was nor will be nor came to be nor comes to be nor will come to be; rather, he is not. But he is being to beings.” Likewise he is present to all living things as life, the universal determination by which they are living things as distinct from non-living things. But the determining, constitutive divine presence is not limited to such exalted attributes as being and life, but includes all the features of each thing, which constitute it as that distinct thing, as itself, and hence as a being.
…Here these “paradigms” or logoi contained without distinction in God, are explicitly identiﬁed as the deﬁning or determining principles which make beings to be. God is thus present in each being as its determining or deﬁning logos, by which it is itself and so is. All the features of all things, therefore, are God—in—them, making them to be by making them what they are, so that God is not only being in beings and life in living things but “all things in all things.” This constitutive presence of God in all things is what Dionysius variously calls the “powers,” “participations,” “processions,” “providences,” “manifestations,” or “distributions” of God. All these expressions refer to God’s causal presence.
Excerpts from “The Sophiology of Father Sergius Bulgakov and the Living Tradition” by Andrew Louth (printed in The Wheel, Summer 2015, pp. 5-9):
Bulgakov had felt this danger, and it was his sense of this danger that gradually led him from the Marxism he had espoused as a young man back to the faith of his fathers. Marxist economics could not see nature as God’s creation, and tended to regard nature as material for human consumption and use. Bulgukov’s sense of the fundamental wrongness of such an attitude to nature came to him as an experience about which he wrote in his Autobiographical Sketches, passages from which he—signiﬁcantly, I think—included in the early pages of Unfading Light. Let me quote a few passages:
“Evening was falling. We were traveling along the southern steppe, covered with the fragrance of honey—coloured grass and hay, gilded with the crimson of a sublime sunset. In the distance the fast-approaching Caucasus Mountains appeared blue. I was seeing them for the first time My soul had become accustomed long ago to see with a dull silent pain only a dead wasteland in nature beneath the veil of beauty, as under a deceptive mask; without being aware of it, my soul was not reconciled with a nature without God. And suddenly in that hour my soul became agitated, started to rejoice and began to shiver: but what if it is not wasteland, not a lie, not a mask, not death but him, the blessed and loving Father, his raiment, his love? …God was knocking quietly in my heart and it heard that knocking, it wavered but did not open. …And God departed.”
But it didn’t end there. Bulgakov goes on to speak of renewed experiences:
“Before me the first day of creation blazed. All was clear, all became reconciled, replete with ringing joy. …And that moment of meeting did not die in my soul; this was her apocalypse, her wedding feast, the first encounter with Sophia.”
…Bulgakov’s sophiology, whatever its intellectual antecedents, grew out of his pondering on what man achieves through his re-creative activity, and his realization that he could only make sense of his experience of the beauty of nature by accepting its sophianic foundation, which entailed accepting the reality of God.
From this realization, we can, I think, begin to understand the fundamental role of sophiology in Bulgakov’s theology. It is, and this is not incidental, related to the way his theology is rooted in the Liturgy. This was something that Fr. Alexander Schmemann saw, even though he was somewhat averse to Bulgakov’s theology. In an article called “Trois Images,” he speaks of Bulgakov celebrating the Divine Liturgy:
“My third memory of Fr. Sergius, the third image, is … of Fr. Sergius before the altar, celebrating the liturgy …He was not ac- complishing a well-established rite, traditional in all its details. He delved down to the very depths, and one had the impression that the Liturgy was being celebrated for the first time, that it had fallen down from heaven and been set up on the earth at the dawn of time. The bread and the chalice on the altar, the ﬂame of the candles, the smoke of the incense, the hands raised to the heavens: all this was not simply an “office.” There was accomplished here something involving the whole created world, something of the preeternal, the cosmic—the “terrible and the glorious” [strashnoe i slavnoe], in the sense these liturgical words have in Slavonic. It seemed to me that it is not by chance that the writings of Fr. Sergius are very often laden—so it seems—with liturgical Slavisms, that they themselves so often resonate with liturgical praise. It is not just a matter of style. For the theology of Fr. Sergius, at its most profound, is precisely and above all liturgical.”
The Liturgy, like Sophia, negotiates an “in-between,” relating man to God.
…What is creation like, if God indeed created it (through Wisdom)? As we ask these questions, we ﬁnd ourselves asking questions that have exercised Christians for centuries, and perhaps most acutely at the beginning, when, in the second century, Christianity faced the manifold challenges of Greek philosophy and Gnosticism. Christianity was not consonant with just any View of the universe. Christians agreed with the Platonists over the existence of a transcendent divine, divine providence and human free will, and adopted Platonist arguments against other Greek philosophers—Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans—who rejected one or other of these positions. They completely rejected the view, held by most of those whom scholars now call Gnostics, that the universe was the product of a god or gods who were either malevolent or negligent. At one point Irenaeus defends the Christian view of a universe, created out of nothing by a good God who rules it through his providence, by appealing to the Christian Liturgy:
“How can they say that ﬂesh is destined for corruption, the ﬂesh that has been nourished by the body and blood of the Lord? Either they must change their opinion, or cease to offer him what they have said they do. Our opinion is consonant with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our faith. We oﬂer him what belongs to him, harmoniously proclaiming the communion and union of ﬂesh and spirit. For taking from the earth bread, after the invocation of the Lord it is no longer common bread, but Eucharist, joining together two realities, the earthly and the heavenly, so that our bodies, receiving the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but possess the hope of eternal resurrection. We make an offering to him, not because he needs anything, but to give thanks for his gifts and to sanctify the creation.”
For Irenaeus, to take bread and wine, to offer them to God and invoke the Holy Spirit to transform them into the Body and Blood of Christ, entails a certain View of creation: that it is good, that the one to whom we offer the Eucharist is the Creator. In the same way, for Bulgakov, to celebrate the Eucharist entails that creation belongs to God, that it is not alien to him, that to be a creature is already to be graced, something that Fr. Schmemann’s “third image” seems to suggest: Bulgakov’s celebration of the Divine Mysteries seemed to him something autochthonous, something rooted in the very being of creation. It is this intuition that lay at the heart of his sophiology.
Two Orthodox priests, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and Fr. Stephen De Young, have been podcasting together recently and shared about these five-ish angelic falls. They have also referenced three human falls which Fr. Stephen has blogged about previously here as well. These lists include some notes and clarifications later shared by Fr. Andrew in an outline group connected to the podcast group.
These five-ish angelic falls are wrapped up with the three human falls listed below but are articulated here from the angelic perspective:
- Succession myth / serpent (=devil) cast into Hades. Attempt to overthrow the Most High from His throne in heaven that parallels various pagan myths of younger gods destroying the former gods. This is represented in all pagan myths as a success, but it is a failure in Genesis.
- Initial fall in the heart or mind of a divine council member. This is not recounted in Genesis directly. Subsequent readings of Genesis tend to fill in the gap and place this succession myth before creation (as in Milton’s Paradis Lost). However, casting it before the creation of the world creates a basic logical problem. You can’t dethrone the Most High God in reality, but you can try to dethrone him in the hearts and minds of his creatures. This requires there to be other creatures. Therefore, the serpent (a member of the divine council) is depicted as having “overthrown God” within his own heart at beholding the creation of humans and then to have invited humans to do the same. This succession myth gets told in Isaiah 14. The dethroning happens in the minds of the fallen angels, which is how this is described by St. Gregory the Great.
- Casting out of the devil into the Underworld for tempting mankind: the serpent, a divine council member, overthrows God in the hearts of humanity by tempting them with a shortcut to maturity and is sent by God to preside over the land of dust (i.e. of death or Sheol). This is the first angelic fall directly depicted in Genesis (a failure in contrast to the triumph of pagan succession myths). [Fr. Andrew notes that “fall” from this point on is not a moral fall or betrayal. In that sense, these angels are already fallen before these events happen. Fall here focuses on “being cast down.”]
- Apkallu / Watchers / Nephilim-generation (the Watchers (the fathers) falling by generating nephilim). Angels tempt humans with technology for which they are not ready and then involve themselves in human procreation to produce a line of demigods (1/3 fallen angel) who start human royal dynasties. Paralleled in pagan myths such as the Sumeran Kings List and the story of the Apkallu or the story of the Seven Sages.
- Nephilim / Unclean Spirits / Mastema+crew (the nephilim (the sons) falling by being defeated by the Flood when most are cast into the Abyss). Many of these demigods are finished off by Joshua and David. Their spirits trouble the earth as unclean spirits.
- Accepting worship post-Babel. Fallen angels receive the worship offered to them at the Tower of Babel (gate of the gods) and become the 70 gods of the original divine council placed over the traditional 70 nations.
- Satan (=devil?) falling like lightning. When Christ says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning” after his 70 disciples return from their commissions to declare the kingdom of God. This is also connected with Rev. 12:9. Some claim that Christ’s earthly ministry changed something for Satan. Are these two different figures who both fall, or is this one figure, one person, who falls two different times in two different ways? St. Andrew of Caesarea thinks it’s one figure who falls in two different ways.
Three human falls:
- Fall of Adam. A trespass but no mention of sin in Genesis (seeking a childish shortcut to maturity despite God’s warning). This trespass of Adam brings death. It is the first fall and the last enemy to be defeated by Christ.
- Fall of Cain. Considered by several patristic writers to be the first to sin with his murder of his brother.
- Fall of humanity at the tower of Babel. Coming under the dominion of the angelic powers overseeing the nations.