the Logos becomes thick

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. We might expect such qualification since he seems intent upon nestling them into the same category. 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.

Jordan Wood (“Creation is Incarnation: the Metaphysical Peculiarity of the Logi in Maximus the Confessor” from the 2017 issue of Modern Theology)

Wondering Where Music and Laughter Come From

We have two extended family chat threads where all the living grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews read brief messages and share photos (or occasional videos and memes) from everyone else in a setting that is private to ourselves. (One is on my side of the family and the other is with the family of my wife, Elizabeth.) This practice in each extended family has its moments of fatigue, hurt and confusion of course (and more often than not, these are my fault), but both are ultimately a source of connection and joy to all of us Harrisburg Hakes.

Yesterday, my little sister Elsie shared a post—a less frequent and delightful event in my large family, where I am the oldest (and most obnoxious) of nine siblings (now much extended by our marriages and children). I got her permission to share her comment here on my blog (as well as my father’s permission because Elsie is not yet 18):

Jesse, I’ve enjoyed your comments on the Splintered Light book [by Verlyn Flieger], and am interested in reading it at some point. Here is a memory that I have that goes along with that quote and which would be of interest to you all. A few years before he passed away, Uncle Jerry sent me an email in which he said that he wondered where music and laughter came from. Since then, I had / have toyed with writing a story where music and laughter are in the form of two great waterfalls, and are kept by the Light People. Jesse, you would probably have a better idea and form of conveying those than I do, so I’ll just put it out there. I love you all very much my dear family! May God bless you richly!

I assured Elsie that I would not have a better idea than hers for conveying this idea regarding the source of music and laughter. Both Tolkien and Lewis, I am sure, would fully understand and appreciate these two great waterfalls kept by the Light People.

Also following up in response to Elsie, my sister Katie (mother of seven) shared this passage with waterfalls and song from Psalm 42:7-8 (that Katie had read the same day):

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

I’m tempted to write more, but I’ll just note a little here about my Uncle Jerry, my mother’s oldest brother. He was the first of the five children (my mother and her four siblings) in that family to pass away. My mother was the second of those five to die when we lost her about two years ago. My Uncle Jerry started his adult life as a high-school English teacher but eventually ended up building a large and successful swimming pool construction company. He was a generous man who lived large and who loved to laugh and who always resisted making too many claims about God (or any related matters). In some ways Uncle Jerry was a lost sheep (within a family that sometimes seemed to specialize in lost sheep). Near the end of his life, he remarried my Aunt Dotty (who he had divorced for a period of many years) and settled down, much to his mother’s delight. However, he still did not approve of those who claimed to know much about God. His comment to Elsie was typical, however. He promoted wonder. And it’s a blessing to have a little sister who values and continues that legacy. Lord have mercy on me and grant me a heart that does not falter in wonder.

Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland (photo from online but a place that I have visited with Elizabeth many moons ago)

the Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity

Saint Gregory of Nyssa (feasted today, January 10) says that the image of God is only seen when every human person is included both at the outset of creation and at the end of time. Here Gregory describes how God’s image applies to the entire human race gathered from across all of fallen history:

In the Divine foreknowledge and power all humanity is included in the first creation; for it is fitting for God not to regard any of the things made by Him as indeterminate. …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, nor is the grace in any one of the things found in that 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, Who knows all things even before they be, comprehending them in His knowledge, 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, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time. [And Paul gives to] that limit of time which has no parts or extension the names of a moment and the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).

These excerpts from Gregory’s On the Making of Man (intended to supplement and complete the Hexaëmeron of his older brother Saint Basil) illustrates Gregory’s idea that God created all of humanity at once in the beginning, but that this universal humanity is revealed within fallen time as a multitude of individuals all contributing to the image of God but not manifesting the fullness of that image without each other. Gregory sees all of human history, as we experience it now, to be a result of the human fall which took place with the first creation of all humanity before any individual humans existed. All of humanity is therefore currently participating in both our fall and our creation (both of which were initiated before time itself). Once each person arrives within this fallen history, humanity then be restored to our union with each other and to God, allowing us to once again display the fullness of God’s image as intended from the start (in the first creation, before our fall).

Gregory even says that this movement from the first creation of humanity as a collective whole into a “plenitude” of particular humans could have happened without a fall, in which case we would have become a multitude in whatever way the angels themselves became a great multitude (which process Gregory says is inconceivable to us in our current condition). Once the full number of humans ordained by God has been born within fallen history, the final manifestation of all humanity, transformed with bodies of incorruptibility and united to Jesus Christ as the first fruits of this resurrection life, will mark the fullness and end of history and of time itself as humanity is once again a complete whole as it was initially revealed in the first creation. This way of thinking is far from intuitive for modern people. Here is a more complete sample of the passages expanding these ideas from Gregory (in a slightly convoluted older translation):

In saying that God created man the text indicates, by the indefinite character of the term, all mankind; for was not Adam here named together with the creation, as the history tells us in what follows? Yet the name given to the man created is not the particular, but the general name: thus we are led by the employment of the general name of our nature to some such view as this—that in the Divine foreknowledge and power all humanity is included in the first creation; for it is fitting for God not to regard any of the things made by Him as indeterminate, but that each existing thing should have some limit and measure prescribed by the wisdom of its Maker. [XVI.16]

Now just as any particular man is limited by his bodily dimensions, and the peculiar size which is conjoined with the superficies of his body is the measure of his separate existence, so I think that the entire plenitude of humanity was included by the God of all, by His power of foreknowledge, as it were in one body, and that 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, nor is the grace in any one of the things found in that nature, but this power extends equally to all the race: and a sign of this is that mind is implanted alike in all: for all have the power of understanding and deliberating, and of all else whereby the Divine nature finds its image in that which was made according to it: the man that was manifested at the first creation of the world, and he that shall be after the consummation of all, are alike: they equally bear in themselves the Divine image. [XVI.17]

…Yet while, as has been said, there is no marriage among them, the armies of the angels are in countless myriads; for so Daniel declared in his visions: so, in the same way, if there had not come upon us as the result of sin a change for the worse, and removal from equality with the angels, neither should we have needed marriage that we might multiply; but whatever the mode of increase in the angelic nature is (unspeakable and inconceivable by human conjectures, except that it assuredly exists), it would have operated also in the case of men, who were “made a little lower than the angels,” to increase mankind to the measure determined by its Maker. [XVII.2]

…God says, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and God created man, in the image of God created He him (Genesis 1:26-27). Accordingly, the Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then. [XXII.3]

…Man, then, was made in the image of God; that is, the universal nature, the thing like God; not part of the whole, but all the fullness of the nature together was so made by omnipotent wisdom. …He saw, Who knows all things even before they be, comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals. [XXII.4]

…For when, as I suppose, the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time, giving to that limit of time which has no parts or extension the names of a moment and the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). …So that it will no more be possible for one who reaches the verge of time (which is the last and extreme point, from the fact that nothing is lacking to the attainment of its extremity) to obtain by death this change which takes place at a fixed period, but only when the trumpet of the resurrection sounds, which awakens the dead, and transforms those who are left in life, after the likeness of those who have undergone the resurrection change, at once to incorruptibility (1 Thessalonians 4:17). [XXII.6]

On the Making of Man by Saint Gregory of Nyssa (translated by H.A. Wilson)

Note: see also this extended passage from David Bentley Hart reflecting on this material from Gregory of Nyssa.

a mirror of infinite beauty but as glimpsed through the veil of death

The Christian should see two realities at once—one world, as it were, within another. One, the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, gandure and dreariness, delight and anguish, and the other, the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply nature but creation, an endless sea of glory radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty but as glimpsed through the veil of death. It is to see creation in chains but beautiful as in the beginning of days.

…Whether or not one believes in such glory or has faith in its final advent or can in fact see it even now through the veil of death and our estrangement from God (though I suspect that all of us see it at times whether our internal dispositions permit us to recognize what we see or not), one should be able to grasp that it is not a glory immediately revealed in cosmic or human history but is rather one that appears before, alongside, within and beyond that history, always present yet also for now deferred and so visible to us only through a glass darkly. This glory is not simply the hidden rationality of history but a contrary history that pervades and that will finally overwhelm the world of our fallenness. It is not the sublime or sacred logic of nature but what shines through the promise of nature’s loveliness, a beauty of which nature as we now know it is only a spectral remnant or a delightful foretaste.

The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart. [Transcribed from the audible book version with my own punctuation.]

it was a way

Once, when Griffiths and Barfield were lunching in my room, I happened to refer to philosophy as ‘a subject’. ‘It wasn’t a subject to Plato,’ said Barfield, ‘it was a way.’ The quiet but fervent agreement of Griffiths, and the quick glance of understanding between these two, revealed to me my own frivolity.

C. S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy

Gnosticism in the Words of David Bentley Hart (2013 to 2020)

I became interested in the portrayal of Gnosticism by David Bentley Hart over his career because it is complex and it sounds like it will feature prominently his forthcoming book You Are Gods (due out in 2021). In pulling together this summary of key passages below from four sources, I find the portrait consistent over time despite its complexity (and some possible shifts in focus). Despite the many points of similarity, what distinguishes Gnosticism from Christianity is the fact that Christianity (like Platonism) maintains a participatory metaphysics with no complete ontological schism between earthly or fleshly creation and the life of God.

Four Sources (identified below by the publication year in bold here):

  1. “Jung’s Therapeutic Gnosticism: the Red Book Reflects a Lat-Modern Desire for Transcendence without Transcendence” posted to First Things by David Bentley Hart, January 2013.
  2. The Story of Christianity published in 2015.
  3. “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a few Dostoyevskian Meditations” is an essay contributed to Creation ex nihilo: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Challenges (eds. Gary A. Anderson and Markus Bockmuehl) in 2017 as well as reprinted in Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest in 2020.
  4. Transcription of David Bentley Hart on the “Actually, It’s Good” podcast from an episode titled “Gnosticism… It’s Good” published Nov 17, 2020.

Gnosticism Overview:

  • To the Gnostics of old …this world is an immense prison guarded by malevolent powers on high, a place of exile where the fallen and forgetful divine spark dwelling deep within the pneumatikos (the “spiritual man”) languishes in ignorance and bondage, passing from life to life in drugged sleep, wrapped in the ethereal garments of the “souls” it acquired in descending through the planetary spheres, and sealed fast within the coarse involucrum of an earthly body. The spiritual experience at the heart of the Gnostic story of salvation was, as Hans Jonas puts it, the “call of the stranger God”: a call heard inwardly that awakens the spirit from its obliviousness to its own nature, and that summons it home again from this hostile universe and back again to the divine pleroma—the “fullness”—from which it departed in a time before time. (2013)
  • The earliest Gnostic or proto-Gnostic teacher of whom we know was Simon Magus (or Simon the Magician) who makes a brief appearance in the Book of Acts, where he attempts to purchase supernatural powers from the Apostles Peter and John. …Simon’s story contains a number of elements common to later, more developed schools of Gnostic speculation: the idea of a primordial fall within the divine realm itself; the claim that this world is the creation not of God but of inferior beings; an understanding of salvation as spiritual recollection followed by escape from the powers who rule this world. The great second-century systems devised by Valentinus, Basilides and other Gnostic sages all taught that the true God has no connection to this world, and that the material cosmos is the evil or defective creation of the ‘archons’ or ‘rulers’ who reign in the planetary spheres above, or of a chief archon, the ‘demiurge’ or ‘world- maker’ (often identified with the God of the Old Testament). Many spoke of a divine Pleroma or ‘Plenitude’ of light, a sort of pre-cosmic community of divine beings called the ‘aeons,’ generated in eternity by the divine Father, who himself remained eternally inaccessible, even to his own offspring. According to some Gnostic systems, the lowest of the aeons Sophia or Wisdom, conceived an unlawful longing to know the hidden Father, and in this way fell from the fullness of the godhead; then she, in one way or another, generated the demiurge and the lower powers; and then, either by accident or through divine cunning, sparks of divine spirit became enmeshed within the machinery of the demiurge’s cosmos. (2015)
  • Thus the spiritual temper of Gnosticism is, first, a state of profound suspicion—a persistent paranoia with regard to the whole of apparent reality, a growing conviction that one is the victim of unseen but vigilant adversaries who have trapped one in an illusory existence—and then one of cosmic despair, and finally a serenity achieved through final detachment from the world and unshakable certitude in the reality of a spiritual home beyond its darkness. The deepest impulse of the gnostic mind is a desire to discover that which has been intentionally hidden, to find out the secret that explains and overcomes all the disaffections and disappointments of the self, and thereby to obtain release. (2013)
  • For the Gnostic, the world is a prison from which the spirit must flee altogether in order to find the true light of truth. In each case, though, what remains constant is the real hope for an encounter with a divine reality greater than either the self or the world. (2013)
  • For Gnostics, the inner ‘call of the stranger God’ remained an expression—however tragically muted and distorted—of a perennial and universal spiritual longing: the wonder at the mystery of existence that is the beginning of all philosophy and all worship, the restlessness of the heart that seeks its rest in God, that luminous elation clouded by sorrow that is the source of all admirable cultural achievements and all spiritual and moral heroism. Even at its most despairing, the Gnostic religious sensibility still retained some vital trace of a faith that, in more propitious circumstances, could be turned back towards love of the world and towards a vision of creation as a vessel of transcendent glory. (2013)

What Distinguished Gnosticism from Christianity:

  • Gnosticism (even Christian Gnosticism) was clearly not an organic outgrowth of the Apostolic Church, but rather a kind of syncretistic, trans religious theosophy that drew from Christian, Jewish, Greek, Syrian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Persian sources, often simultaneously. As such, it may be likened to modern ‘New Age’ spirituality. (2015)
  • Even pagan observers were apparently able to tell the difference. The great Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus (205—70) attacked Gnosticism vigorously, but never treated it as a species of Christianity. (2015)
  • Gnosticism spoke to a particular sort of spiritual discontent among persons of a certain type of temperament. It was not, however, a message of hope for a suffering humanity. (2015)
  • So what is the great distinction? Well, God created this world. There aren’t two gods. Well, even then, there are certain ambiguities there. As the lawgiver, God the Father is not even the author of the law. …What we vaguely call gnostic sects, …if they can be classified as in any way as heterodox, …[is] this willingness to amplify that provisional dualism into a complete ontological schism. (2020)
  • If I had to say that there is one thing that these schools had in common so that you could classify them as gnostic, is that …there is none that has an explicit metaphysics of participation. (2020)
  • [Compare the last two points to Clark in Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy: “Both pagan and Abrahamic Platonists have found corporeal nature sacramental. Plotinus …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’ (Porphyry 2000). Nor was this at odds with Plato.” (110)]
  • One has to tread delicately here because I’m more than willing to say that, in one sense, all of creation is a real theophany, a real incarnation, even, of the divine story, of the divine nature, but am I willing to allow that the fallenness of that history is constituent of the goodness, is constituent of the nature of God such that violence, death, betrayal, cruelty become, even if negative, nonetheless probative aspects of the divine story? That is actually not a gnostic impulse. To say that is just the opposite. The so-called gnostics …[had] absolute horror of that suggestion. The God most high is not, in any of these systems, …is in no way involved in the fall of nature. The Father remains absolutely inaccessible, unknown, incomprehensible and removed from any taint of evil, from any finitude. It is something of a point of …a neurosis in the gnostic texts that might alone explain why they go in the direction they go in—the anxiety to make sure that in no way can the evil of this world, the darkness of this world, the pain of this world in any way be attributed to the true divine nature. (2020)

How Gnosticism Can Help us to Read the NT:

  • My interest in recovering the real form of gnosticism, trying to understand what it really was (if we are going to keep trying to use that word) is mostly to try to detach our understanding of the New Testament and the early church from the pictures that we formed of it based on later theological developments, later theological habits of thought, and later cultural alienations and estrangements from the original texts that allow us to imagine that we understand the world of the New Testament much better than we actually do. (2020)
  • There is a kind of “provisional” cosmic dualism within the New Testament that simply cannot be evaded: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles, but certainly a conflict between, on the one hand, a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God and, on the other, the saving love of God in time. (2017)
  • The explicit claim of Christian scripture is that God’s will can be resisted by a real and (by his grace) autonomous force of defiance, and that his purposes can be hidden from us by the history of cosmic corruption, and that the final realization of the good he intends in all things has the form—not simply as a dramatic fiction, for our edification or his glory, nor simply as a pedagogical device on his part, but in truth—of a divine victory. (2017)
  • We tend to characterize Chrsistianity’s understanding of creation as, in an unqualified way, one of affirmation. Now it is in the sense that there is no notion in Paul or John that this world is literally ontologically estranged from God to the point that it is actually handiwork of a lesser celestial demon or the demiurge. And yet if you actually look at the New Testament, the Gospel of John is about as stark and dualistic in some of its formulations as it’s possible to be. Christ descends from above, and that above is not—and this is one of the things that I hope we talk about, the cosmology of the first century and other things like angelology that are often misunderstood, not just by modern Christians but Christians from the medieval period onward—but that descent is quite real. He is the man who is above, and he alone knows the secrets of the Father and descends into the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend him. Throughout John’s gospel, it is a war of darkness and light, and it’s also a light that divides rather starkly. Christ passes through the Gospel of John not like the frail man of sorrows or the political revolutionary of the synoptics but as already, not only risen but as one who comes from the mysterious realm that is already in some sense if not alien to but so transcendent of this realm that there can only be enmity until the end between the children of this world and of the devil who is called the ruler of this age, the ruler of this world, the archon of this world or the prince of this world in the King James and the one who comes from the Father who alone reveal the words of eternal life that gnosis that saves and heals. (2020)
  • In Paul, 1 Corinthians 15 is where it is most evident, but it is there throughout Paul. The current age, the olam ha-zeh in Hebrew, is not just a somewhat diminished reality. It is one that has been under the rule of mutinous angelic celestial powers literally in the heavens above separating us physically and spiritually from the highest heaven of God the Father as well as beings under the earth and on the earth that are very much the sort of malign spiritual agencies that were part of the intertestamental and second temple literature of the Noahic fall. For Paul, if you read 1 Cornithians 15, the age to come is one in which these powers are subdued by force, placed under the governance of the Son that may be handed over to the Father, and only then will the cosmos be under the rule of God and the way clear, physically and spiritually, to communion between us and God so that there is no longer any height or depth, no angel or archon or power between us and God. That imagery should be taken very literally because Paul meant it quite literally. The fallen heavens are guarded by these sentinel beings and the nations governed by them. The age to come is one in which we will put aside flesh, and he means flesh. …[Flesh] is actually an element incapable of inheriting the Kingdom of God. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” So our body in the olam ha-ba, the age to come, will be a spiritual body that is literally a body composed of the element called spirit which is a semi-physical reality in its own right in the metaphysics that Paul’s language presumes. (2020)
  • So there is a very dark view of the condition of the cosmos under the reigning archon, the god [or archon] of this present evil age [or cosmos]. …It’s easier for twentieth and twenty-first century Chrsitians with antibiotics that work and when strep throat doesn’t kill your child and infant mortality rates aren’t fifty-two percent. It’s easy for us, somehow, to delude ourselves that the dissatisfactions and sorrows of life that we haven’t encountered aren’t as bad as they’ll prove to be, and we certainly can’t look at the world from the perspective of ancient persons who understood suffering and reconciled themselves to it far more easily than we do. Nonetheless, throughout Christian history, this provisional dualism [rather quickly] receded. It is there up to the early Alexandrians. You find it even in Origen when he talks about the nature of the cosmos. They still inhabited the same cosmology. It’s almost literal, physical estrangement, and I should say estrangement of nature between creation and the most High God. (2020)
  • Interviewer: “Even as late as Maximus, they are still claiming that Chrisitianity is this true gnosticism. …And one of the key claims is that—especially in the Alexandrian tradition starting with Origen—not everything that appears to us is a work of God, a creation of God. …That infuses the New Testament themes that you are talking about with the most substantial sense in which that provisional dualism is a true dualism, that one side has to be overcome, obliterated. This is inherent in the gospel, in the Kingdom of God.” Hart: “Right. …It is actually Paul who speaks of the ‘god of this age.’ John and Ephisians both speak of the archon, the prince of this cosmos. First John, all things lie in the power of the evil one. The heavenly spheres are throned by archons and powers and principalities in Romans, in First Corinthians, in Ephesians. They are cursed by a law that was in fact ordained by lesser, merely angelic powers. Galatians quite clearly says the law was written by angels delivered through human mediators. So even the law comes to us in a defective form because the angels that govern the nations, even the angel that governs Israel apparently—the Angel of the Lord, is defective in his rule. So the world is a prison of spirits, and this is a darkness and in John it doesn’t know the true light. A divine savior descends from the aeon above into this world. In John, aionios doesn’t mean everlasting in the durative sense. It doesn’t necessarily even mean the age to come, in the sense of the future but actually refers to things heavenly or divine that exist in the aevum or aeon above rather than in the realm of chronos time. He brings with him a wisdom that has been hidden from before the ages we’re told in Romans and Galatians and Ephesians and Collasians. It’s a secret wisdom unknown even to the archons of this cosmos in First Corithians. He has the power to liberate fallen spirits we’re told in John 8. And now there are certain blessed persons who possess gnosis, First Corinthians, and they constitute an exceptional group called the pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones. …In Jude, when it speaks of psychical men who do not possess spirit, and that is always translated as ‘who don’t possess the Holy Spirit’, but there is no ‘the’ and no ‘holy.’ It means …who are without spirit. In that context, it is as much a quality of one who has been sanctified as it is an actual element or constitution of their nature. And so the savior opens a pathway through the planetary spheres, the heavens and the armies of the air and the powers on high. That is when Paul will tell us that neither death nor life, nor angels nor archons nor things present nor things imminent nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (2020)
  • This is the way that Paul is thinking constantly. Creation is that which is yet to be revealed. In part, creation is something that is constructed by spiritual natures. He doesn’t talk in terms of a demiurge. He does talk in terms of a god of this world, but …the world we inhabit is the one that has been corrupted by spiritual natures. I think he probably has a book of Enoch notion of the degree to which angels participated in this, the degree to which we participated in it. I don’t know if what he talks about the impress, the image of the celestial man, if we fully understood, but that seems very much inline with the first and second and third century mysticism of the true human who dwells in the heavenly places as the true image of God and of the Son of God. Until then, the world that we inhabit, that we create together as spiritual beings, that we perceive, that is the work of our wills in our ignorance is maya. …You’ve already got it there in the neoplatonic tradition, I just think that there are all these wonderful Indian thinkers who had all sorts of categories and reflections that can enrich the Christian treasury of terms. But actually, it’s a good term. …What does maya mean? …Appearance, illusion. …To a degree, that’s the meaning it has. …But really, it’s the same Indo-European root as maguš, magic. It’s the power of creation but it’s also illusion. It has that dual sense. There’s that kind of demiurgic distance between us and the world that is a work of spiritual estrangement from God that’s both, in one sense, natural, even physical if you want to use the Pauline language and also moral. Berdyaev instinctively understood that this is something that is actually there in the essence of the New Testament language even though he wouldn’t be encouraged to think that from later Christian thought—although in the East, obviously, many of these tropes were retained a bit more fully. (2020)

How Gnosticism Shows up Today (all points below from the 2013 source):

  • Current gnostic tendencies due to:
    • The constant erosion of Christendom over the past few centuries, and with the final collapse of the old social order of the West in the twentieth century’s political and ideological storms, and with all those seas of human blood that overwhelmed the ruins.
    • Seemingly irreversible alienation from the natural world that defines modernity. …The realm of the senses has become ever more remote from us, and ever less meaningful for us.
    • We have learned to see nature as only a machine, composed of material forces that are inherently mindless, intrinsically devoid of purpose, and therefore only adventitiously and accidentally directed towards any end, either by chance or by the hand of some demiurgic “Intelligent Designer.” And, with the rise of Darwinism, in the context of the mechanistic narrative, the story of evolution appears to concern only a mindless process of violent attrition and fortuitous survival, random force and creative ruin, in which order is the accidental residue of chaos and life the accidental residue of death.
  • It all is the suspicion of the apparent world, the turn inward towards hidden foundations and secret depths, the fantasy of escape to an altogether different reality.
  • With enough therapy and sufficient material comforts, even gnostic despair can become a form of disenchantment without regret, sweetened by a new enchantment with the self in its particularity. Gnosticism reduced to bare narcissism …might be an apt definition of late modernity as a whole.
  • Ours is one of those epochs that is hospitable to a gnostic sensibility:
    • The newer religious movements that have flourished most abundantly in the developed world over the last century and a half (including a great deal of American Evangelicalism).
    • The smaller sects that keep springing up at the margins (Scientology, for instance) are even more acute manifestations of the same spiritual impulses.
    • Gnostic themes, moreover, have been a persistent and recurrent element in Western literature since the Romantic age.
    • Most of us now are susceptible to the psychologistic assumption that spiritual disaffection is something to be cured by discovering and decoding some forgotten, half-effaced text inscribed somewhere within the self.
  • For Jung, Gnostic myth was really just a poignantly confused way of talking about the universal human tragedy of the ego’s alienation from the unconscious, which each of us enacts in growing out of childhood. The infant dwells in the super-personal unity of the unconscious, so the story goes, wholly unaware of any duality of self and other; but with age comes progressive individuation, which involves the ego’s traumatic emergence from that original state of blissful plenitude into the winnowing drama of personality.
    • And the same story, says Jung, unfolds itself in the development of human society; cultural phylogeny, so to speak, recapitulates psychological ontogeny. Primitive cultures remain just at the boundary of the infantine state, half dreaming in the tender dawn-light of the nascent ego, effortlessly projecting the contents of the unconscious onto the world in the forms of gods, spirits, ghosts, and demons. The somewhat more mature civilized peoples of the ancient world then transformed those projections into rigid religious systems, thus abandoning the flowing immediacy of dreams for the static day-lit objectivity of doctrines. Modern persons abandon myth and creed alike in favor of the subtler projections of ideological and social prejudice. In each case, though, a tragic internal division persists, and is even hardened over time. All of us have lost touch with that inner world in which our souls were born, and remember it only in the alienated forms of imaginary external forces and principles.
    • According to Jung, it was the special distinction of the ancient Gnostics in some sense to have understood this: to have recognized that the stories we usually tell about the world are in fact just projections—just fabrications—behind which lies the true tale we have forgotten, the perennial story of that primordial catastrophe that has shattered each of us within. Unfortunately, not having the benefit of Jung’s “scientific” psychology to explain their spiritual distress to them, the Gnostics inevitably fell back upon projections of their own. They imagined the unconscious as a divine pleroma from which the spirit had literally suffered a prehistoric fall. They interpreted the latent but restless presence of the unconscious behind the ego’s elaborate plaster façade as the imprisonment of a divine scintilla in the vast dungeon of the cosmos. They dramatically transcribed their inchoate awareness of inner inhibitions and confusions into a figural language of hostile cosmic archons. They transformed the ego’s denial of its dependency upon the unconscious into the story of the “god” of this world, who proudly denies that there is any God above himself whose creature he is. And they mistook the dreamlike deliverances rising from their own inner depths for the voice of a savior descending from beyond the sphere of the fixed stars.
    • All understandable errors, Jung thought, but with some singularly unfortunate consequences. In Gnostic thought, the primal human longing to overcome the ego’s alienation from the unconscious was distorted into a yearning for a final escape from spiritual exile and a return to a divine unity transcending world and ego alike. But that, thought Jung, stripped of its mythic garb, is nothing more than a pathetic longing for the ego’s disappearance into its impersonal ground. That would be to trade one tragedy for another. The only true rescue from the human predicament lies not in a retreat from the ego back into the abyss of the unconscious, but in one’s reconciliation with one’s own primordial depths, achieved by raising the unconscious up into consciousness without sacrificing one’s individuality or autonomy. In the end, he concluded, psychic alienation can be conquered only through Jungian psychotherapy. The only true pneumatikos, it turns out, is a psychiatric patient (one whose psychiatrist likes to talk a great deal about archetypes).

Christian Platonism Reading List

  1. Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition by Hans Boersma
  2. Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry by Hans Boersma
  3. Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite by Eric Perl
  4. Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition by Eric Perl
  5. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World by Verlyn Flieger
  6. Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis by Owen Barfield
  7. Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry by Owen Barfield
  8. God, Religion and Reality by Stephen R. L. Clark (with an introduction by David Bentley Hart)
  9. Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy: An Introduction by Stephen R. L. Clark
  10. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart
  11. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth by David Bentley Hart
  12. Christian Platonism: A History by Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney
  13. Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premoden Exegesis by Craig A. Carter
  14. Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism by Craig A. Carter
  15. The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims by Peter Kreeft
  16. Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for Our Times by Paul Tyson
  17. De-Fragmenting Modernity: Reintegrating Knowledge with Wisdom, Belief with Truth, and Reality with Being by Paul Tyson
  18. The Iconic Imagination by Douglas Hedley
  19. Living Forms of the Imagination by Douglas Hedley
  20. Catherine Pickstock’s forthcoming book on Plato

Christmas Ghost Story 2020: A Chat with Mom

“Did you say that you couldn’t get the coal stove lit?” My mother’s voice was strong and young and all the more evocative because of it.

I pulled my knees closer to my chest and tucked my ears farther under the edge of my sleeping bag, away from the December cold. After their marriage on the third day of Christmas 1975, my parents had spent a couple of hopeless days up here in this ancient farm house. It was a story that I had heard a thousand times. My dad couldn’t get the old furnace lit. Then, without anything on hand but ice and snow, he couldn’t wash the thick coal dust from his face and arms. They had decided to make the best of it and go tobogganing anyway only to hit a tree on their first run down the hill, splintering the toboggan. Finally, given up amid the frigid temperatures, they walked a mile back to their car at the bottom of the mountain only to find its battery dead because they hadn’t turned off the radio.

Rumor had it that this place was built in the late 1700s as a stagecoach inn along the frontier trail from Binghamton to Albany. As a boy, I had loved hearing my uncles tell stories of the Briarcreek Ghost who haunted this house. Just north of the Catskills, my Grandpa Brown bought these 500 acres on top of a mountain as a place to settle down in his retirement. He had just finished his career with the New Jersey power company that had hired him following WWII. When the war broke out, he had dropped out of highschool, married his sweetheart and joined the Merchant Marines. My mom was the second-to-youngest out of Ralph and Arlene’s five children. A spirited girl, with a name that referenced the elemental life of nature, her father used to tell her, “Don’t be facetious, just be Faye.”

The property had a three-story barn built into the side of the hill with timber-frame construction and stacked-stone foundations so solid that you could drive a modern tractor into all three levels despite its one hundred years. My grandpa had just reroofed this barn, remodeled the beautiful old farmhouse and built a massive new fireplace and chimney before he developed the emphysema and Parkinson’s disease that ended his retirement so early.

Here I was, an old man myself now, back to visit the beautiful folks of this place at Christmas with my own grandkids in tow. I’d been down to the cemetery near the Susquehanna River to pay my respects at the graves of my grandparents, Ralph and Arlene Brown as well as Ralph’s sister, my Great Aunt Ruth. My grandma often made me a bed as a child under this hallway window, looking out over the little front porch roof. It was colder than the bedroom, but I had chosen this childhood overflow bed on this Christmas eve night.

My thoughts blurred as I drifted back toward sleep before I heard my mother’s voice again, still strong but not so young: “Jesse, are you upstairs?” She was laughing, knowing that I must be surprised. I had taken her last remark about the coal stove to be a snatch of dream, but this summons was unmistakably part of a wide-awake world. It came up the stairwell that was beside me in the center of the hallway. I got up slowly and made my way around the banister to the top of the stairs. She could likely hear the steps creak as I descended to check the living room from where I had heard her. Yes, there she sat, in a rocker, smiling at me.

I spoke first. “That’s funny, Mom. You know that the Briarcreek Ghost always chose a rocking chair. Are you and he on familiar terms now?”

“Jesse, it’s good to hear you teasing me again. It’s probably going to set me back, but it’s really good to hear you again. I’m glad you’re not terrified or scandalized. I was pretty sure that you’d be up for a chat when I saw you pick out that old bed under the window.”

“Yes, well, I’m pretty old myself, Mom. You can get away with all kinds of things, now, I guess. What did you mean by saying that this will set you back?”

“Oh, I’m not really sure what I mean. A kind angel tried explaining some things to me years ago about my progress, but I was watching Katie’s twins wrangle some sheep. I told the angel to try explaining it to me another time. But I’ve thought more about it since. Whenever that explanation does happen, I can probably already guess the basic gist of it. Since dying, I’ve had a lot of time to pay attention to things around me. There’s something beyond it all that I need to see. I mean, obviously it’s Jesus, my Creator and Savior, but I only sense Him very obscurely, and I’ve never seen him. I thought I would see him when I died. I thought it would be clear after death. In one sense, it is. The world is much more clear after death, but it’s not any easier to see Jesus. It’s harder, actually, when the world gets so clear and bright. Oddly, I think that I’ve fallen more in love with life in this world after dying than I ever did before, and you know that I always loved a whole lot about life in this world. Anyway, if I have to guess, my eventual progress probably has something to do with dying all the way. I’ve got to lose my life to see what it truly is. Of course I always knew this, but I never actually did it, you know. But I’ve got a sense growing in me that Jesus is waiting, and I get this impression, more and more from everything around me. They are all pointing beyond themselves, asking me to let them go so that, together, we can see Jesus and what we are all about.”

We sat silently together for a few moments before I said, “Yes, that makes sense.”

She added, “Sometimes, I understand Aslan and the moon. Remember that passage from Prince Caspian? ‘All night, Aslan and the Moon gazed upon each other with joyful and unblinking eyes.’”

“Yes, I do. It reminds me of that passage after all the journeys and wars are finished for Gandalf, Elrond, Celeborn and Galadriel. ‘Long after the hobbits were wrapped in sleep they would sit together under the stars, recalling ages that were gone and all their joys and labours in the world…. If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands.”

“Yes, there is so much to be seen and said in that way. I’m learning to love it.”

“Were you talking to Dad a few minutes ago about the coal furnace?”

“Ha! Yes, I was. I don’t travel through time in the same way anymore. It’s all more and more present to me in some ways now. I still move slowly through space, as with a normal body, but much of my life is before me continually now. Of course, I don’t remember all of it, but I’m seeing what I do remember better and better. My first time through life, I saw so very little of it, and I was a pretty perceptive woman.” She paused to smile with me over this. “It’s wonderful to go back and watch Dad now, going through all of his labors on behalf of me and our family. He worked hard, that man, and he was good at seeing certain things that I wasn’t quiet enough to see. I was always doing or loving something, but he was my Steve, the first martyr.”

“Have you seen Dad since he passed away?”

“Yes, he and I were together for a while after he was buried. We were a little like that passage that you described with Celeborn and Galadriel. There was a lot to say, but we said it slowly and with long periods of quiet attention. He had learned a lot since my death, and I think he saw Jesus already—more fully than I do even now.”

“When did you come up here to the farm?”

“I’ve walked to a few places since I was buried, including a few trips that took many months. Most of the time, I’m slipping in and out of different times as I walk, but that makes less and less difference. I’m seeing the same beauties triumph more and more amid the sufferings. It’s a delight to see it all. Oh, but to answer your question… I hope you won’t mind. I caught a ride with you and Elizabeth.”

“Ha! That’s good to know. Hope you enjoyed the ride. It will be nice to have you with us all tomorrow.”

“Yes, I’m looking forward to it. Celebrating Christ’s birth with all these beautiful families.”

“You know that passage in Lewis about Aslan and the moon? I think the moon was his mother.”

“Wow, mom. Have you been studying your C. S. Lewis since you died? Yes, at his resurrection after his death on the stone table, Aslan walks out from the brightness of the sun. And Lewis was certainly familiar with the long tradition—inspired in part by John’s language in Revelation 12—of Mary as the one who reflects the life-giving Light of God. That passage about Christ and his mother gazing all night ‘upon each other with joyful and unblinking eyes,’ comes in a book where Casipian marries a star’s daughter and where scholars have identified the entire book as Lewis expounding the life of the sun. What a beautiful image for this Christmas Eve, to reflect on Christ and his mother enjoying each other in eternity.”

“Yes, Jesse. I’m progressing, I suppose. There are things I’m coming to love and see now that I would have laughed at during my own life. You were way ahead of me, but I see that you still enjoy pointing it out.”

“Ha! Well, thanks for waking me up tonight to say hello and to let me know how right I am. With all this flattery, I’m sure to be blinded to the Christ child now. No Christmas for me. You know, Mom, I can’t help thinking of Elder Lua as we sit here chatting together. All those years as missionaries, and all we could do was shake our heads at him. I guess maybe his stories weren’t so crazy after all.”

“Yes, I’ve remembered him as well, often, since I died. Dad and I loved to tell the stories of our Presbyterian elder who would often sit up at night, smoking and chatting with his long-dead father who had been a shaman during his life. This pagan father loved to visit his Christian son around Chinese New Year. I guess we always took him seriously enough, but it was, well, mostly just a story. What did we know? That crazy, generous, strange man. Yes, who knows what he understood that we could not.”

“Wow, it’s good to be with you again, Mom.”

“Jesse, you know that poem by Charles Williams that ends with this stanza?”

But my soul hurrying
Could not speak for tears,
When she saw her own Child,
Lost so many years.
Down she knelt, up she ran
To the Babe restored
“O my Joy,” she sighed to it,
She wept, “O my Lord!”

“I’ll be praying for us both to learn better to say yes with Mary.”

“Yes, I’ve listened for a voice telling me from the cross, ‘Son, behold your mother.’ But that is only a help along the way as we listen, finally, for the cry of the babe that our soul bears with Mary. I’ll be praying with you, Mom. Thank you for your prayers. Merry Christmas.”

We didn’t say any more, but we sat quietly, each glad in the other’s gaze. I eventually nodded off to sleep in my chair. When I awoke in the cold darkness, her rocking chair was empty, and I made my way back up to my bed beneath the hallway window. It would be Christmas morning soon, and I would need my rest.

P.S. Today is my parents’ anniversary, two years after my mother’s passing. It is also the Feast of Saint Stephen (or the day after on the Western calendar). This story is just that, a story by a child who loves his parents and misses his mother.

P.P.S. I also realized later that I probably got some of the “pictures” behind this story (without knowing it) from Wendell Berry:

“I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves in it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.” —Wendell Berry (A World Lost)

“I know by now that the love of ghosts is not expectant, and I am coming to that. This Virgie of mine, this newfound ‘Virge,’ is the last care of my life, and I know the ignorance I must cherish him in. I must care for him as I care for a wildflower or a singing bird, no terms, no expectations, as finally I care for Port William and the ones who have been here with me.” —Wendell Berry (Hannah Coulter)

Mary is our Abraham

Dante called Mary “Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy Son”. Dante’s description of Mary, “Daughter of thy Son”, challenges any assumption that the address to Mary by Jesus from the cross is simply an example of a son’s solicitude for his mother’s welfare.

…In spite of the current presumption that Christianity is important for no other reason than that Christians are pro-family people, it must be admitted that none of the Gospels portray Jesus as family-friendly. In Mark, when he is told that his mother and brothers are “outside asking for [him]”, Jesus responds, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3.34-35).

Nor should we forget that in Luke 14.26 Jesus says that “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” In our desire to make Jesus “normal”, a man who liked children, we are tempted to forget that Jesus never married or had children. That he welcomed the children to come to him as manifestations of the Kingdom may be for no other reason than that children do not have children.

I do not call attention to Jesus’s anti-family remarks to denigrate his address to Mary from the cross. Indeed, I think we can only appreciate his commending Mary to the beloved disciple, as well as his charge to the disciple to regard Mary as his mother, when we recognise that Mary is not just another mother. Rather, Mary is the firstborn of the new creation. Without Mary’s response “Here am I” to Gabriel, our salvation would not be. Raniero Cantalamessa quite rightly, therefore, entitled his book on Mary Mary: Mirror of the Church (Liturgical Press, 1992).

Cantalamessa, moreover, makes the fascinating observation that in the New Testament Jesus is often designated as or assumed to be the new Adam, the new Moses, or the new David, but he is never called the new Abraham. Cantalamessa suggests that the reason Jesus is not associated with Abraham is very simple — Mary is our Abraham.

Just as Abraham did not resist God’s call to leave his father’s country to go to a new land, so Mary did not resist God’s declaration that she would bear a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Abraham’s faith foreshadows Mary’s “Here am I,” because, just as we are Abraham’s children through faith, so we become children of the new age, inaugurated in Christ through Mary’s faithfulness.

God restrained Abraham’s blow that would have sacrificed Isaac, but the Father does not hold back from the sacrifice of Mary’s son. Jesus’s command that Mary should “behold your son” is to ask Mary to see that the one born of her body was born to be sacrificed so that we might live.

As Gregory of Nyssa put it: “If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say not that his death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.” When God tested Abraham by commanding the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s “Here I am” (Genesis 22.1) did not result in Isaac’s death. Mary’s “Here am I,” however, could not save her son from being the one born to die on a cross.

In the 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, we are reminded that “by faith” did our foremothers and fathers live. Yet Mary, true daughter of Israel, was tested as no one in Israel had ever been tested.

Jesus’s “behold your son” asked Mary to witness the immolation of the Son, to enter the darkness that is the cross, yet to hold fast to the promises she had received from the Spirit that this is the one who will scatter the proud, bring down the powerful from their thrones, fill the hungry with good things, and fulfil the promises made to Abraham and his descendants. Her son, the Messiah, will do all this from the cross.

Jesus charges Mary to regard as her own, her true family, the “disciple whom he loved”. Drawing disciples into the Church, Mary shares her faith, making possible our faith. At this moment, at the foot of the cross, we are drawn into the mystery of salvation through the beginning of the Church. Mary, the new Eve, becomes for us the firstborn of a new reality, of a new family, that only God could create.

Augustine observed that the God who created us without us refuses to save us without us. Mary is the first great representative of that “us”. Accordingly Mary, the Jew, in a singular fashion becomes for us the forerunner of our faith, making it impossible for Christians to forget that without God’s promises to Israel our faith is in vain.

When Christians repress the role of Mary in our salvation, we are tempted to forget that God remains faithful to his promises to his people, the Jews. Our Saviour was born of Mary, making us, like the Jews, a bodily people who live by faith in the One who asks us to behold his crucified body.

Jesus, therefore, commands the disciple, his beloved disciple, not to regard Mary as Jesus’s mother, but rather to recognise that Mary is “your mother”. Mary’s peculiar role in our salvation does not mean that she is separate from the Church. Rather, Mary’s role in our salvation is singular because, beginning with the beloved disciple, she is made a member of the Church.

Mary is one of us, which means the distance between her and us is that constituted by both her and our distance between Trinity and us, that is, between creatures and Creator. In Augustine’s words, “Holy is Mary, blessed is Mary, but the Church is more important than the Virgin Mary. Why is this so? Because Mary is part of the Church, a holy and excellent member, above all others, but, nevertheless, a member of the whole body. And if she is a member of the whole body, doubtlessly the body is more important than a member of the body.”

So may we never forget that we, the Church, comprise Mary’s home. A home, moreover, that promises not safety, but rather the ongoing challenge of being a people called from the nations to be God’s people. We are a people constituted by faith in the One who refused to triumph through the violence that the world believes to be the only means possible to achieve some limited good, to ensure that we will be remembered.

The refusal to use violence in the name of the good does not mean this people can forget those singled out in Mary’s song of triumph — that is, the poor and powerless. Rather, it means that such a people, Mary-like, must live by hope — a hope that patiently waits with Mary at the foot of her son’s cross.

If this is not the second person of the Trinity, the One alone who has the power to forgive our sins, then this Mary-shaped patience in a world constituted by injustice and violence would be the ultimate folly. That is why it is so important that we not forget that these words from the cross are the words of the Son of God.

The work that the Son does on the cross through the Spirit makes us the remembered, God’s memory, so that the world may know that there is an alternative to a world constituted by the fear of death. We confess that too often we forget we are God’s remembered. And that is why we pray “Hail, Mary, full of grace, pray for us.”

Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Last Seven Words by Stanley Hauerwas.
Ethiopian Crucifixion Icon (with Mary and John). Twelve-panel folding icon or chain manuscript, c. 1900. African Art Museum of the SMA Fathers at Tenafly, New Jersey.

evil does not exist by its nature outside of free choice

This is Saint Macrina teaching her younger brother Saint Gregory of Nyssa:

For evil must be altogether removed in every way from being, and, as we have said before, that which does not really exist must cease to exist at all. Since evil does not exist by its nature outside of free choice, when all choice is in God, evil will suffer a complete annihilation because no receptacle remains for it.

Recounted by Gregory in On the Soul and the Resurrection.
Fresco in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev.