Discovering the Ancient Roots of our Christian Interconnectedness: Sunday School at Derry Presbyterian (Hershey, Pennsylvania)

[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.

Some resources:

  1. 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.
  2. You would also be very welcome, of course, as visitors to the churches that I have called home across several relocations in recent years:
    1. Christ the Saviour in Harrisburg
    2. St. John Chrysostom in York
    3. Holy Apostles in Mechanicsburg

Twelve books to recommend:

  1. The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart
  2. Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry by Hans Boersma
  3. For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann
  4. Poems and Prose by Gerard Hopkins
  5. Bread & Water, Wine & Oil by Meletios Webber
  6. Our Only World by Wendell Berry
  7. A Small Porch by Wendell Berry
  8. Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
  9. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles by James K.A. Smith
  10. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken
  11. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C.S. Lewis
  12. Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric Perl

End Notes:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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