Our Fall as Apocalyptic or Mythic vs. Philosophical or Contemplative

In several writings, David Bentley Hart connects human sin and suffering strongly with the idea of oppression by fallen angelic powers. Hart points this out as a strong theme in Paul’s letters and the rest of the New Testament but also make it clear that he holds this same position himself. However, Fr. Aidan (Al) Kimel wrote recently: “Yesterday I learned that contrary to what I had believed for several years, David Hart does not locate the origin of evil in the angelic fall. I don’t know why I thought he did. I probably misinterpreted a line or two in The Doors of the Sea. So I wrote David and asked him to clarify. He wrote back: ‘I think Origen was right. And I think John Behr is right about Origen.'”

Of course being subject to oppressive and fallen angelic powers is not the same thing as saying the evil has its origin in the fall of angels before humans. Perhaps Hart would simply say that human’s damaged themselves (and were uniquely capable of damaging the cosmos with themselves because of the special priestly function of humans within the cosmos) but that after their fall humans became subject to oppressive fallen angels who had also fallen in their own separate way. This distinction seems reasonable but also feels a little arbitrary. Either way, humans now suffer under the dominion of fallen angelic powers.

One commenter (Roman Montero) pointed out that there is a consistent tension “between an apocalyptic [or] perhaps mythological narrative of an angelic fall and a tighter more philosophically elegant one such as what is provided by Origen.” This distinction helps in my mind. Below are two sets of passages from David Bentley Hart illustrating these two styles or modes of thought. The first represents a sample of what Hart has written on Origen’s ideas about the fall.

For Behr, one thing that Origen grasped with particular genius was the sheer incommensurability of eternity and time. Rather than, say, the mythology of a realm of disembodied intellects dwelling continuously in some sort of pre-temporal but consecutive eternity, then falling away into ensoulment and corporeality, and then being led by Christ upward again to their original condition, Origen taught merely that God’s creative and rational intentions and principles are with him from everlasting, in his “foreknowledge” and by virtue of the divine Wisdom, his Son. We were all of us, that is to say, in some sense created in our last end, before the foundations of the world, called into existence in the heavenly court; there, in the eternal intention and perfected creation of God, we are already—and in that sense eternally have ever been—joined to God, pervaded by his glory like iron thrust into the fire. But that does not mean that our worldly lives are merely the middle chapters in the several histories of isolated psychological selves. Our descent from that eternity is simply the difference between our eternal end and the temporal reality of creation, by which alone we can make our ascent to God in his Son. Our “fall” away from God was, and has always been, nothing other than our actual turning away from the reality of the union of God and humanity on the cross of Christ.

…I am not at all sure that a subtler but nonetheless somewhat more literal notion of a real fall of spiritual beings from the “aeon” around God would have been a particularly outrageous supposition in Origen’s time, or would be any more so today. Sergei Bulgakov, for instance, very ingeniously takes up such a theme without allowing it to degenerate into a crude mythology; and I have found it possible in the past to read Origen through Bulgakov without feeling I was imposing an alien scheme on the texts. But that may be purely a matter of taste and temperament.

From David Bentley Hart’s review of John Behr’s translation of Origen: On First Principles (Oxford Early Christian Texts).

In this second set of passages, Hart speaks much more apocalyptically about our fallen state in connection to the oppression of fallen angelic powers.

The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph. For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God. But Christ has conquered them all.

From “Everything you know about the Gospel of Paul is likely wrong” by David Bentley Hart at aeon.co on 8 January 2018.

The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death. …It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.

From “The Devil’s March” by David Bentley Hart.

Hart evidently considers both of these ideas of the human fall to be true and compatible:

  1. “Our ‘fall’ away from God was, and has always been, nothing other than our actual turning away from the reality of the union of God and humanity on the cross of Christ. …[Because] we were all of us …in some sense created in our last end, before the foundations of the world, called into existence in the heavenly court; there, in the eternal intention and perfected creation of God, we are already—and in that sense eternally have ever been—joined to God, pervaded by his glory like iron thrust into the fire. …[And] our descent from that eternity is simply the difference between our eternal end and the temporal reality of creation, by which alone we can make our ascent to God in his Son.”
  2. “The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. …We exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—[meaning] that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God.”

Perhaps Hart understands them to be two ways of speaking about the same realities, or perhaps Hart is saying that these two modes of describing our fall “may be purely a matter of taste and temperament.”

Adam and Eve are Expelled from the Garden. Duomo di Monreale. Monreale, Sicily.

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