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.
Greatly saddened was the Tree of Life when it beheld Adam stolen away from it; it sank down into the virgin ground and was hidden —to burst forth and reappear on Golgotha; humanity, like birds that are chased, took refuge in it so that it might return them to their proper home. The chaser was chased away, while the doves that had been chased now hop with joy in Paradise.
St. Ephrem the Syrian (Hymn on Virginity XVI, 10)
St. Ephrem (306-373) wrote some 400 hymns, many of them still used today. This ancient hymn by St. Ephrem is one of many on this theme, which is closely associated with the Nativity. One much-loved hymn sings of how the “Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave.” (I’ve shared that here on a previous Christmas.) Without claiming any direct connections, this theme certainly continues into other Christian traditions.
One example is “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” This old English Christmas carol was most likely written by Rev. Richard Hutchins, a Calvinist Baptist clergyman then in Long Buckby, Northhamptonshire. The first known publication, beginning “The Tree of Life My Soul Hath Seen,” was in London’s Spiritual Magazine in August, 1761. This credits “R.H.” as the submitter and presumed author. Another early printing, which cannot be dated and could be earlier, is an English broadsheet. This broadsheet uses the term “Methodists,” which certainly places it after about 1730. (Preceding details from Wikipedia.) Here are those lyrics.
The tree of life my soul hath seen, Laden with fruit and always green; The trees of nature fruitless be, Compared with Christ the Apple Tree.
His beauty doth all things excel, By faith I know but ne’er can tell The glory which I now can see, In Jesus Christ the Appletree.
For happiness I long have sought, And pleasure dearly I have bought; I missed of all but now I see ‘Tis found in Christ the Appletree.
I’m weary with my former toil – Here I will sit and rest awhile, Under the shadow I will be, Of Jesus Christ the Appletree.
With great delight I’ll make my stay, There’s none shall fright my soul away; Among the sons of men I see There’s none like Christ the Appletree.
I’ll sit and eat this fruit divine, It cheers my heart like spirit’al wine; And now this fruit is sweet to me, That grows on Christ the Appletree.
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, It keeps my dying faith alive; Which makes my soul in haste to be With Jesus Christ the Appletree.
It seems to me that ours is one of those epochs that is hospitable to a gnostic sensibility. Certainly, the newer religious movements that have flourished most abundantly in the developed world over the last century and a half …have often assumed strikingly gnostic forms; and the smaller sects that keep springing up at the margins …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—from Blake to Baudelaire, from Hugo to Patrick White, and so on—and all the arts of the modern age, high and low, often express spiritual longing in gnostic terms. (The science fiction film that is really a gnostic allegory, for instance, is in danger of becoming a cliché.) And 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.
I suppose it may all—the suspicion of the apparent world, the turn inward towards hidden foundations and secret depths, the fantasy of escape to an altogether different reality—have something to do with 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. With the loss of all the seemingly stable institutions and tacit accords that once provided the grammar of belief, it is only to be expected that religious yearning should express itself in ever more individualist, transcendentalist, and psychological forms.
It may also have a great deal to do with that seemingly irreversible alienation from the natural world that defines modernity: dark satanic mills, air conditioners, split atoms, industrial waste, biological weapons, the dissolution of any natural sense of space and time in the fluent instantaneity of modern communications, medicines that actually heal, opiates that genuinely obliterate pain, entertainments that relentlessly cretinize, constant technological change, the mutability of the ‘transparent society,’ the shrill fragmentariness of the ‘society of the spectacle,’ ubiquitous advertising, market fetishism, and so on. The realm of the senses has become ever more remote from us, and ever less meaningful for us.
Moreover, the metaphysical picture of reality that the West has embraced ever more unreflectively since the rise of a mechanistic philosophy of nature is one that forcibly expels the transcendent from the immanent. At one time, it seemed enough simply to open one’s eyes to see the light of the divine reflected in the mirror of creation: The cosmos was everywhere the work of formal and final causes and of a pervasive divine wisdom, an endlessly diverse but harmonious scala naturae rising up from the earth to heaven. The whole universe was a kind of theophany, and all of reality participated in those transcendental perfections that had their infinite consummation in God. Now, however, we have learned, generation after generation, 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, even this latter hypothesis has come to seem largely otiose. 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.
In such a cosmos, nothing of the ‘here below’ shows us the way to the ‘there above,’ and it is hardly surprising that many of us should come to imagine transcendence solely as an absolute absence of God from the world, a beyond ever further beyond, of which we become aware not through the beauty or order of the world, but precisely through our estrangement from the world—through our distrust of its seductive illusoriness, and through an insistently dissonant voice within each of us announcing that this is not our true home.
Yet even so, there remains an essential disparity between that voice as we hear it now and as it was heard by the ancient Gnostics. For them, 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. Our spiritual situation may be very different indeed.
The deep human longing for transcendence is ultimately inextinguishable, and can always be stirred and provoked and compelled anew by moments of beauty, love, creative exultation, spiritual ecstasy, and so forth. For the Platonist, it is a longing that can be satisfied only when one sees that the world of ordinary experience is a cave filled with flickering shadows and so learns to seek the true sun of the Good. For the Christian, this is a fallen and wounded world, but also one groaning in expectation of the glory that one day will be revealed in it. 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.
Our spiritual disenchantment today may in many ways be far more radical than even that of the Gnostics: We have been taught not only to see the physical order as no more than mindless machinery, but also to believe (or to suspect) that this machinery is all there is. Our metaphysical imagination now makes it seem quite reasonable to conclude that the deep disquiet of the restless heart that longs for God is not in fact a rational appetite that can be sated by any real object, but only a mechanical malfunction in need of correction. Rather than subject ourselves to the torment and disappointment of spiritual aspirations, perhaps we need only seek an adjustment of our gears. Perhaps what we require to be free from illusion is not escape to some higher realm, but only reparation of the psyche, reintegration of the unconscious and the ego, reconciliation with ourselves—in a word, therapy.
That may be, if nothing else, the best palliative for psychological distress that we can produce these days. But if so, there is a cultural cost to be borne. The gnostic expression of spiritual longing is the most extreme and hazardous religious venture of all; it is the final wager that the soul makes, placing the entire universe in the balance in its search for redemption. If it should be subdued by the archons of the age, the only spiritual possibilities left are tragic resignation or banal contentment. Beyond that point, for a culture or an individual, lies only one drearily predictable terminus: the delectable nihilism of Nietzsche’s Last Man, the delirious diversions of consumption and expenditure, the narcotic consolation of not having to think about death until it comes.
This, at least, is the troubling prospect that The Red Book poses to my imagination. It may truly be possible for an essentially gnostic contempt for the world to be inverted into a vacuous contentment with the world’s ultimate triviality. Jung quaintly imagined he was working towards some sort of spiritual renewal for ‘modern man’; in fact, he was engaged in the manufacture of spiritual soporifics: therapeutic sedatives for a therapeutic age. For us, as could never have been the case in late antiquity, even distinctly gnostic spiritual tendencies are likely to prove to be not so much stirrings of rebellion against materialist orthodoxies as convulsions of dying resistance. The distinctly modern metaphysical picture of reality is one that makes it possible to regard this world as a cave filled only with flickering shadows and yet also to cherish those shadows for their very insubstantiality, and even to be grateful for the shelter that the cave provides against the great emptiness outside, where no Sun of the Good ever shines. 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—which, come to think of it, might be an apt definition of late modernity as a whole. At least, that is how I tend to see the spirits of the age. This is no cause for despair, however. Every historical period has its own presiding powers and principalities on high. Ours, for what it is worth, seem to want to make us happy, even if only in an inert sort of way. Every age passes away in time, moreover, and late modernity is only an epoch. This being so, one should never doubt the uncanny force of what Freud called die Wiederkehr des Verdrängten—’the return of the repressed.’ Dominant ideologies wither away, metaphysical myths exhaust their power to hold sway over cultural imaginations, material and spiritual conditions change inexorably and irreversibly. The human longing for God, however, persists from age to age. A particular cultural dispensation may succeed for a time in lulling the soul into a forgetful sleep, but the soul will still continue to hear that timeless call that comes at once from within and from beyond all things, even if for now it seems like only a voice heard in a dream. And, sooner or later, the sleeper will awaken.”
From “Jung’s Therapeutic Gnosticism” posted to First Things by David Bentley Hart, January 2013.
In Romans 8:22, Paul describes the world giving birth to a new creation: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” This birth involves all of us because, a few verses earlier, we learned that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (8:19, ESV here and above). As we prepare for the birth of Christ, there is much to learn from this image of a world waiting with the eagerness of an expectant mother for a renewed humanity and suffering in the pains of childbirth for the revelation of a new cosmos.
Paul understood Christ to be the first human (consider the clear logic of 1 Corinthians 15:44-50, for example), and therefore Mary gives birth to the second Adam who will finally make possible the creation of the first Adam. Christ as the eternal Son of God is the original form upon which the first Adam was modeled, and Christ incarnate also becomes the firstfruits of a humanity for which the first Adam was always intended but to which he and all of his children had never attained.
Therefore, as Mary carried Christ, she carried all of us in our potential as fully realized humans. Moreover, containing Christ, Mary contained the whole of the new creation that Christ would bring about. Many ancient nativity hymns speak of Mary’s womb as paradise restored. Here is one example:
Prepare, O Bethlehem, For Eden has been opened to all. Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave. Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Fruit Divine; If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning.
Creation is ongoing and incomplete apart from Christ. Cut off from the Tree of Life, we are estranged from the Voice of God that is continually creating the world. God’s primary work is speaking as His Logos is coeternal with Him. However, God’s secondary work is shaping, and what we experience within the fallen world is a resistance on our own part to God’s shaping of the world. It is not possible to resist the Logos of God, but God allows us—the material called into existence—to defy the shaping work of His hands to some degree. In fact, our current cosmos, in its entire history, is a result of our rebellion against the image of the Logos that God longs to give to us. We will eventually delight to express this image in its fullness, but our opposition has resulted in a long and difficult labor, one in which the entire world must struggle to give birth to a new creation.
This language of the womb (both Mary’s and the world’s) is the language of creation for Paul. When God shapes humanity in Genesis 2, the same Hebrew verb (yatsar) is used as when the scriptures talk about God shaping each of us within our mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139:13–16 and Isaiah 44:24). Likewise, God’s Spirit hovering over the “welter and waste” in Genesis evokes a mother bird spreading herself over the eggs in her nest. The same verb used for the hovering of the Spirit in Genesis 1:2 is used in Deuteronomy 32:11 where we read that God cares for Israel “like an eagle who rouses his nest, over his fledglings he hovers” (Robert Alter’s translation throughout this paragraph).
Clearly, we have two related images with the work of the potter and the labor of a woman giving birth. Jean Hani, in his book Divine Craftsmanship shares wonderful insights into God as a potter (33-37):
The author of Ecclesiasticus pauses a moment to watch the potter at work and gives us a graphic portrait of him: “So doth the potter sitting at his work, turning the wheel about with his feet, who is always carefully set to his work, and maketh all his work by number. He fashioneth the clay with his arm, and boweth down his strength before his feet.” (Eccles. 38:32-33)
This care, this skill, this freedom of the human artist before his work, perfectly evokes the attitude of the Divine Artist vis-à-vis His creature: “All men are from the ground, and out of earth, from whence Adam was created. As the potter’s clay is in his hand, to fashion and order it all: all his ways are according to his ordering.” (Eccles. 33:10, 13-14)
Saint Irenaeus …presents this gloss of Ecclesiasticus (Contra haer. IV, 39, 2): “If then, thou art God’s workmanship, await the hand of thy Maker which creates everything in due time; in due time as far as thou art concerned, whose creation is being carried out.”
In the Letter of Barnabas 6.9 (AD 70 to 132) we read that “the human being is earth that suffers.” Citing this passage, John Behr expounds on our “suffering as we are molded by the hands of God, as clay in the hands of the potter, into his image, a process that continues throughout our lives, culminating in our death and resurrection, at which point one can even say that we are created” (The Wheel, 2008, “From Adam to Christ”).
Scott Cairns writes about the annunciation and nativity in a poem that is bookended by these images of formation and birth:
Deep within the clay, and O my people very deep within the wholly earthen compound of our kind arrives of one clear, star-illumined evening a spark igniting once again the ember of our lately banked noetic fire. She burns but she is not consumed. The dew falls gently, suffusing the pure fleece. Her human flesh adorns its Lord, and lo, the wall comes down. And—do you feel the pulse?—we all become the kindled kindred of a King whose birth thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.
This poem (composed for Gordon College students during a stay in Orvieto, Italy) opens with the work of God upon our collective clay and ends with the truth that, as Mary gives birth to Christ, she gives new birth to us all.
This world and Mary are both expectant, and we all wait to be born again in a birth that now can only come through death. “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot contemplates how “this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” This is why the traditional nativity icons always depict the baby and his mother deep within a cave. It is a cave like that in which Christ’s dead body must be laid after his crucifixion. For the same reason, his swaddling clothes as a baby are the same in all the old icons as those bands that will wrap his body for burial. Christ, joins us in the womb of his mother and in the belly of the earth, both in his birth and in his death. God is with all who are just “earth that suffers” so that we, and the whole cosmos with us, can be remade and born again.
Christmas is a time to draw close together in the dark and to enjoy the lighting of candles as we remember the birth of a baby to parents who were far from their own home. Somewhat in tension with this, I’ve often told my family with a smirk that chapter 12 of John’s Revelation is my favorite version of the Christmas story. I do love returning to it although the scope of John’s account is cosmic and does not fit well within the domestic scene that we associate with Christmas.
Part of our problem these days is that we’ve wandered far away from any capacity to recognize this world as our home. We don’t associate “cosmic” and “cosy” as G. K. Chesterton says that we should (in his beautiful chapter entitled “The Ethics of Elfland” from his book Orthodoxy). Chesterton insists that it is perfectly reasonable of him to say: “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see.”
With this turn of phrase, Chesterton almost turns the cosmos into a cow shed filled with sheep and a weary donkey. Similar ideas show up in a very different form within “The Starlight Night” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. His ecstatic recounting of a vision into the starry heavens explodes at first with multiple images but calls forth, in the end, “Prayer, patience, alms, vows.” More quieted, he concludes that the heavens “are indeed the barn; withindoors house / The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse / Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.” The firmament is like a barn wall filled with knot holes that let out points of light from the bright domestic gathering inside—the warm fellowship of “Christ and his mother and all his hallows.” There is a sense that, even in the glory of God’s eternal throne room, Christ and his mother still inhabit a place filled with livestock and the grain from a great harvest.
This idea of a cosmic home is difficult for modern people to appreciate, but it is the right setting for the baby who is born in John’s Apocalypse. “A great sign was seen in the heaven, a woman arrayed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Young’s Literal Translation, used throughout with some adaptations of archaic language). In John’s vision of this woman giving birth, a great red dragon waits just before her in the sky to devour her child as soon as he appears. He has seven heads, ten horns and seven crowns, and his tail lashes stars from the sky as he waits for the child to appear. At the moment of his birth, however, the baby is caught away to God and to His throne.
As her child is carried to safety, the woman flees and hides in “a place made ready from God” while Michael and his angels do battle with the dragon. We now learn that the dragon is “the old serpent, who is called Devil and the Adversary, who is leading astray the whole world.” Michael casts this dragon to the earth along with all of the dragon’s rebellious angels. The heavens are told to rejoice at this removal of the dragon from their midst, while the earth and the sea are told to beware at his wrath as he has been thrown down among them. More angry than ever, the dragon is said to have “pursued the woman who did bring forth the male.” Happily, “there were given to the woman two wings of the great eagle, that she may fly to the wilderness, to her place, where she is nourished a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”
The dragon then attempts to drown the woman in a flood of water that he pours forth out of his mouth, but the land helps the woman and swallows up the torrent of water. Denied his victim for the second time, the dragon “went away to make war with the rest of her seed, those keeping the commands of God, and having the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
John’s next vision features a beast coming out of the sea to worship the dragon and to receive authority from the dragon before spreading terrible lies throughout the earth and initiating a massive apostasy from God. It is tempting to follow the story through to the end, as we meet our beast again in chapter 17. With seven heads and ten horns, this is clearly our same red dragon but this time carrying “a woman arrayed with purple and scarlet-colour, and gilded with gold, and precious stone, and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and uncleanness of her whoredom.” John “saw the woman drunken from the blood of the saints and from the blood of the witnesses of Jesus,” and he “wondered, having seen her, with great wonder.” It is a vivid and terrible story.
In chapter 19, another woman appears briefly as “we rejoice and exult, and give the glory to Him, because” we have finally arrived at “the marriage of the Lamb and his wife who has made herself ready.” Our delight is brief, however. The dragon still rampages and is confronted again in chapter 20 when John sees “a messenger coming down out of the heaven, having the key of the abyss, and a great chain over his hand.” This angel “laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, who is Devil and Adversary, and did bind him a thousand years, and he cast him to the abyss, and did shut him up, and put a seal upon him, that he may not lead astray the nations any more, till the thousand years may be finished; and after these it behoveth him to be loosed a little time.”
As the tumult truly subsides, in chapter 21, John finally hears: “Come, I will show you the bride of the Lamb—the wife.” Then, says John, the angel “carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed to me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, coming down out of the heaven from God, having the glory of God, and her light like a stone most precious.”
With all these visions of John’s—each one rising up after another in a fearsome march toward the glorious end—we get the sense that they unfold a longer story while at the same time, perhaps, circling back on themselves and retelling parts of the same story more than once. Amid this swirling sequence of visions, it is not wise to grow too confident. However, this image of a mother with a child followed by images of the harlot and the bride may all hold together. If so, we can connect the righteous lady with the radiant Jerusalem that descends from heaven in the end and have this bride contrasted with the harlot who is named for the great earthly power of Babylon.
While a grand concept of the mother in Revelation 12 as a collective figure standing for “all the people of God” makes sense, it does not need to conflict with a more intimate association directly with Mary. In the Gospel of Luke, early Christians all realized that Luke was parallelling the story of Mary’s pregnancy in the first two chapters very closely with the ark of the Old Covenant in 2 Samuel 6. Luke is a careful scholar of the Old Testament as an educated Greek proselyte to the Jewish faith, and he is clearly portraying Mary as the ark of the New Covenant carrying the Word of God inscribed in flesh (instead of the stone tablets of the law from the Old Testament ark), the body of Jesus Christ as the bread from heaven (instead of the urn filled with manna from the wilderness), and the actual and eternal High Priest (instead of the rod of Aaron that budded to prove and defend the true high priest of the Old Covenant).
As we move from John’s vision in chapter 11 to the new scene in 12, the woman giving birth is directly juxtaposed with the ark of the New Covenant. The last verse of chapter 11 declares “and opened was the sanctuary of God in the heaven, and there was seen the ark of His covenant in His sanctuary,” which gives way in the next verse (at the start of chapter 12) where “a great sign was seen in the heaven, a woman arrayed with the sun.”
It makes sense to see this woman giving birth as Mary, the ark of the New Covenant who carries the bread of life. This does not conflict with her as also the chief representative of all God’s people, as the church and as the faithful bride who descends from heaven in the last vision. God’s people are described repeatedly as the intended bride of God within the Old Testament, and we have the image of the church as the bride of Christ prominent within the rest of the New Testament. Mary should also bring to mind that other great mother of the human race, Eve. Although a daughter of Eve, Mary completes the work left undone by Eve and gives birth to the child who will finally destroy the serpent of old and allow a new creation to take place. (See the fantasy novel Lilith by George MacDonald for a moving account of all these women in one story.)
As mentioned near the start, trying to read chapter 12 as a cosmic Christmas story, we might feel that the baby plays too small a part in the account. He is simply carried up to heaven in the same moment that he appears. The woman flees alone into the wilderness and Michael comes forth with his angelic army to wage war. The child is nowhere to be found. What about the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Several considerations tumble out together in response. First, there may be more of an overlap than we realize between the angels singing in the gospel account of Christ’s birth and angels waging war in this apocalyptic version of the story. Our prayers and songs of praise are described as great outpourings of judgement upon God’s enemies throughout John’s Revelation, and there may be little difference between an angelic choir and an angelic army from a devil’s perspective. As for the disappearing baby, where was Christ when every mother in Bethlehem had her baby slaughtered? Was he not kept safe by God in the far-off land of Egypt? From the perspective of eternity in heaven, Christ’s life on earth was a brief interlude amid the course of His endless reign as Son of God and then, as the firstfruits of the human race, the King seated upon the throne of David that will never fall. Moreover, as our King, Christ clearly puts a high value on the sufferings of his earthly people. He told His disciples that they would do greater things than he did because he is going to the Father while they would remain behind (John 14:12). Inspired by Christ, Paul also says that “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24, ESV).
Christ appears a few times in the rest of Revelation as a mighty warrior and judge, but his primary presence is as a lamb, offered up as spiritual food for God’s people. This image of the child-like priest and king—humble as a lamb and feeding his people with himself as the bread of life—is an image that shows up in the primary Christian icon associated with this Revelation 12 passage. In this icon, the mighty Angel Michael fills the center of the image, riding a red winged war horse while destroying Satan amid a glow of fiery colors. Far from the turmoil, Christ sits as a young child at an altar in heaven, ministering our heavenly food with quiet humility. It is true that the altar holds His cross and His body broken for us. Christ is fully present with us in our sufferings, and our sufferings are only made true when united to His own earthly life and death. However, Christ is alive and He is undisturbed by our sufferings. He has already overcome them and another mighty one does battle with an enemy whose defeat is already assured.
We are invited to seek help before the manger, the tomb and the altar as Michael battles Satan upon our doorstep, but perhaps this cosmic story still does not yet have the familiarity of home. It can help to approach this all from the opposite direction: to consider that the whole fury and majesty of the cosmos is contained within our homes and our hearts. G. K. Chesterton takes this approach when he describes our private life as a greater work than our public life: “For anyone who makes himself responsible for one small baby, as a whole, will soon find that he is wrestling with gigantic angels and demons” (“Turning Inside Out” in Fancies vs. Fads, 1923).
A passage attributed to Saint Macarius the Great places the cosmos within our heart itself:
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.
The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, 15.32
If you struggle to recognize this vast universe as your private home, try to recognize the vast universe that is at home in you. Within that universe, a child is born for whom angels both ride forth to war and stand to sing. Good news.
Envy, jealousy, and hate render alike those they possess, but in our world people tend to misunderstand or ignore the resemblances and identities that these passions generate. They have ears only for the deceptive celebration of differences, which rages more than ever in our societies, not because real differences are increasing but because they are disappearing.
The figure of Sophia, admittedly, arouses more than a little suspicion among even Solovyov’s more indulgent Christian readers, and some would prefer to write her off as a figment of the young Solovyov’s dreamier moods, or as a sentimental souvenir of his youthful dalliance with the Gnostics. To his less indulgent readers, she is something rather more sinister. And indeed it is difficult to know what exactly to make of the two visions of Sophia that Solovyov had in 1875–the first in the British Museum, the second in the Egyptian desert–or the earlier vision he had at the age of nine. But it is important to note that, in Solovyov’s developed reflections upon this figure (and in those of his successor Sophiologists,’ Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov), she was most definitely not an occult, or pagan, or Gnostic goddess, nor was she a fugitive from some Chaldean mystery cult, nor was she a speculative perversion of the Christian doctrine of God. She was not a fourth hypostasis in the Godhead, nor a fallen fragment of God, nor a literal world-soul, nor an eternal hypostasis who became incarnate as the Mother of God, nor most certainly the ‘feminine aspect of deity.’ Solovyov possessed too refined a mind to fall prey to the lure of cultic mythologies or childish anthropomorphisms, despite his interest in Gnosticism (or at least in its special pathos); and all such characterizations of the figure of Sophia are the result of misreadings (though, one must grant, misreadings partly occasioned by the young Solovyov’s penchant for poetic hyperbole).
In truth, the divine Sophia is first and foremost a biblical figure, and ‘Sophiology’ was born of an honest attempt to interpret intelligibly the role ascribed to her in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, in such a way as to complement the Logos Christology of the Fourth Gospel, while still not neglecting the ‘autonomy’ of creation within its very dependency upon the Logos. Solovyov’s Sophia stands in the interval between God and world, as an emblem of the nuptial mystery of Christ’s love for creation and creation’s longing for the Logos. Sophia is the divine Wisdom as residing in the non-divine; she is the mirror of the Logos and the light of the Spirit, reflecting in the created order the rational coherence and transcendent beauty in which all things live, move, and have their being. She is also, therefore, the deep and pervasive Wisdom of the world who, even as that world languishes in bondage to sin, longs to be joined to her maker in an eternal embrace, and arrays herself in every palpable glory and ornament to prepare for his coming, and by her loveliness manifests her insatiable yearning.
Another way of saying this is that Sophia is creation–and especially human creation–as God eternally intends, sees, loves, and possesses it. The world is created in the Logos and belongs to him, shines with the imperishable beauty of the Father made visible in him, and in the Logos nothing can be found wanting; thus one may say that he, in his transcendence, eternally possesses a world, and that the world, in its immanence, restlessly longs for him. And yet another way of saying this is that Sophia is humankind (which contains within itself all the lower orders of creation) as God eternally chooses it to be his body, the place of his indwelling, and in his eternity this humanity is perfect and sinless, while in our world it is something toward which all finite reality strives, as its eschatological horizon. One can thus speak of an eternal Christ: the Logos as forever turned toward a world, a world gathered to himself from before all the ages just as–in time–we see the world gathered to him in his incarnation. Here Solovyov is following a line of thought with quite respectable patristic pedigrees: seen thus, as the body of the Logos (the totus Christus in its eternal or eschatological aspect), Sophia is scarcely distinguishable from the eternal Anthropos of whom Gregory of Nyssa writes in On the Making of Humanity. She is not another hypostasis as such, but is the personal and responsive aspect of the concrete unity of a redeemed creation united to–and so “enhypostatized” by–Christ; or, looked at from below (so to speak), the ‘symphonic’ totality of created hypostases perfectly joined to Christ. She is thus indeed a kind of intelligence in the created order (analogous to the intelligence of the spiritual world of which Augustine speaks in The Confessions), and she is beauty, and order, and eros, but only insofar as she personifies the answer of creation to God’s call, the beloved’s response to the lover’s address; far from a kind of Romantic pantheism, what she represents is creation’s desire for God, its insufficiency in itself, its eternal vocation to be the vessel of his glory and the tabernacle of his indwelling presence. She is, in other words, a figure for the active longing of creation and for its accomplished rest; she is both passion and repose, ardent expectation and final peace. She is still God’s Wisdom, but as mirrored in the intricacy, life, unity, and splendor of created being, and in the unity and love the Church.
From David Bentley Hart’s forward to Solovyov’s Justification of the Good.
I’m not familiar with this controversial school of thought, but it evidently developed (in part) in response to a long iconographic tradition of depicting the Wisdom (Sophia) of God from Proverbs chapter 9 and elsewhere. Some images from this iconographic tradition below (with a little more info on the icons here and here).
“The curtain of history rises on a world already ancient, full of ruined cities and ways of thought worn smooth. Mediterranian peoples knew there had been disasters, but remembered little in detail” (2). These opening lines of Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy mesmerized me, and the spell remained throughout the book. Clark participates throughout his book in philosophy’s true task: “Philosophical discussion and reflection are not simply means for solving intellectual problems (though they are and must be that). They are also charms, counter-charms, for the deliverance of the soul” (41, quoting Hilary Armstrong). To put it more modestly, “what we need—tradition says—is to awaken insight” (36).
Clark does not remain modest in his claims for philosophy, however. Reflecting on the death of Socrates, Clark claims that he practiced “a kind of philosophy at once more dangerous and more obscure than moderns now remember” (43). The deadliness of philosophy was a commonplace as we see with Zeno who was “one of those who perished as philosophers were meant to do: defying a tyrant with such courage that, after his murder, the tyrant was overthrown” (63-64). This standard carried through to Christian sages as well. Describing Saint Maximus (who had his right hand removed and his tongue cut out to prevent his writing and speaking), Clark points out that “parrhesia, ‘outspokenness’, was the hallmark and privilege of the awkward holy man in all periods of Byzantium” (203, quoting The Byzantines by Averil Cameron). Stephen R. L. Clark clearly advocates the practice of what these sages preach, saying in his preface, “I have my own beliefs about the only truth that matters, but it is the nature of that truth, as Plato recognized, that it cannot be conveyed by writing” (xi).
The book moves chronologically overall but with a fluid topical arrangement providing enough systematic clarity to make me imagine using this book in a classroom with students. Although sweeping in its scope, Clark is not shy about identifying a center and taking sides. The chapter on Plato is titled “Divine Plato” and is placed at the center of a chiastic structure, with four chapters before and four after, each with some reverberating echoes in their content leading up to Plato and receding from him. Chapter ten functions more like an epilogue that places the entire ebb and flow of Mediterranean philosophy into active contact with our own world—one of a long-crumbled Christendom and of established modern superstitions (as Clark calls them, more below). Echoing his opening lines, Clark points out that we are once again “being brought up among the ruins” and that we are likely soon to pass through another period of youth which is always an opportunity to “rediscover glory” (208).
In a further example of taking sides, Clark calls Plotinus “probably the greatest” of Hellenic sages (196) and provides a delightful section of chapter9 (“The way we didn’t take”) which considers what Rome might have looked like had it become a “Plotinian empire” (200). It would at least have been kinder, Clark says, than the attempt at a pagan renaissance made by the emperor Julian. Despite his love for Plato, Clark gives a thoughtful and positive treatment to all the schools of wisdom seeking within the Mediterranean world. He gives none of them a corner on the market and recognizes multiple threads that link them together.
Although the book is not polemical, Clark quietly points out modernity’s blindspots at several points. For example, he says:
The story that has most affected recent writers is that our ancestors were enmeshed in superstition, that ‘the Greeks’ invented science to escape, then lost their nerve and succumbed again to ‘Oriental’ fantasies. Popular works on science refer disparagingly to the ‘Dark Ages’ and to ‘Medieval Superstition’. This story too is a fable. (5)
Another critique of the modern world is its greed. Clark notes that “‘wanting more’ (Greek morealists called it pleonexia) is the disease of progress” and that “not everyone has succumbed” (3) and goes on to say:
The very realism of much Greek thought was not friendly to the growth of anything we could call ‘science’. It was better not to disturb things, not to image that we could control the world, or always evade disaster. Even if we succeeded in the short term, the effects might not be good. (19) …Most philosophers gradually concluded …that …only small groups of friends, or even solitaries, could live well. (72)
Part of the solution for Clark is recognizing that we occupy a world that is more than material. Sounding like my hero Wendell Berry, Clark says that “in the merely material world, there are no privileged places, times or scales: there is nowhere that is uniquely here, no time that is uniquely now, no reason to suggest that the human scale of things is especially important” (116). As I have already pointed out, the way forward that Clark holds out for us is to rediscover glory. Based on the many examples of courageous sages that Clark holds up, however, any recovery of glory would seem likely to require a high degree of personal sacrifice, commitment and self-imposed limits (again very much like Wendell Berry). A modest assessment of ourselves as those who should “contemplate and imitate the world” in part “by building things” can open up “a mode of understanding” (176).
Clark insists that “we [moderns] should acknowledge our own superstitions: that each of us is competent to reason our way to truth and good behavior, and that we can identify ourselves entirely with particular human bodies. These are the errors that Socrates—maybe—spent his life rebutting.” (93) These are lessons that do not come easily to any of us today. We still believe the Enlightenment promise that reason can single-handedly provide solutions to all of our blindnesses and failures, and we consider our “particular human bodies” to be the ground of all ethical, economic, political and medical reasoning.
To more fully understand what Clark means by the modern superstition “that we can identify ourselves entirely with particular human bodies,” we would need to turn to another book of his where Clark 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” (God, Religion and Reality, 108). This idea is touched upon in Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy from an ethical angle when, for example, the Mishnah is cited as evidence that Hebrew scriptures say “each person is himself/herself a world” (149) and that “it is the duty of everyone to say: for my sake the world was created” (165).
This concept recalls what Dale Martin has to say about the Apostle Paul in The Corinthian Body (Yale UP, 1995, reviewed here):
The human body was not like a microcosm; it was a microcosm—a small version of the universe at large. (16) …No ontological dichotomy between the individual and the social can be located in Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 5. 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)
Likewise, contemporary Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith has written about this in many places. See, for example, this passage from How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor:
At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous (35). …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.” (36)
Although Clark is clearly not opposed to modern science, he suggests that “we are looking in the wrong place to find traces of experimental science” (11) and says that “it was not the Ionean theories that marked them as experimentalists but the engineering skills that they had learned from older societies” (12). The atomism of Democritus “was less a physical theory than a mystical conclusion” (58), and all the theories of the great Mediterranean sages “were not lisping attempts at modern science, but meditations on the transience of commonsensical subjects, and the strangeness of what comes ‘before’ our world” (60). Identifying the roots of modern science in examples such as “the technical skills of Thales, who enabled Croesus of Lydia to bypass the river that was in his army’s way” (19-20), Clark only suggests that such powers of experimental engineering should always be subject to “the moral lessons that the Greeks preferred (especially ‘don’t go too far’)” (20).
While issuing such warnings, Clark is not shy to point out the beauties of modern science as a potential source for rediscovering glory:
Plato’s demand for beauty in our equations was not vindicated until first Copernicus (following Aristarchus of Samos) and then Kepler devised a better mathematical model for the system of stars and planets. Even now, we are often faced by the ugly or the arbitrary in the heavens: stars may appear and disappear and matter falls together in whirls and clouds in unpredictable ways. The distant ideal is still a Platonic or Pythagorean one, to grasp the numbers that lie behind the phenomenal and also the physical world. (118)
…The Platonistic View is the only one tenable. Thereby I mean the view that mathematics describes a non-sensual reality, which exists independently of the human mind and is only perceived, and probably perceived very incompletely, by the human mind. (111, quoting Gödel’s “Some basic theorems on the foundations of mathematics and their philosophical implications” from 1951)
Likewise, Clark quotes Stephen Hawking at length on the self-sustaining power and beauty of a unified theory and suggests that Plato would have approved (118-119).
While supporting modern science in these ways, Clark asks us not to read the ancient Meditteranian sages and “label one speculative thinker ‘a philosopher’ and another only ‘a poet’ or ‘mystic’ merely because they speak of ‘elements’ instead of spirits’” (10). He turns our attention instead toward how they might help us to see the glory that lies hidden in our world. “We shall not see things straight, so Platonists supposed, until we see their glory” (199). Aristotle agrees in so far as concluding that “beauty is visible, for those who care to look, even in the smallest and the vilest of creatures (Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium, 1.645a15f). Every visible creature is, in a way, an image of the divine” (193). In the current state of this world, truth and glory are hidden. “The Greek word that we translate as ‘truth’ is Aletheia, and a stream of puns makes clear that the Greeks could, if they chose, hear this as ‘the Unhidden’, or as ‘the Unforgotten’” (57). Finding the truth requires the perception of what is hidden within and the recollection of what might easily be forgotten. “What Plato conceived as a proper dialectic …[was] to test hypotheses against each other and against the basic rules of logic, and so at length prevent good arguments from escaping or being forgotten” (63). Yet much is missed and forgotten.
In this plight of an unrecognized ignorance, we need harsh measures to awaken us:
We should attend more sympathetically to such dialogues as Cratylus and Enthydemus. In the former, familiar words are deconstructed by random etymologies (so that alethea becomes ‘a godly wandering’). In the latter, wildly fallacious arguments—including ones that seem to show how falsehood is impossible, and that anyone who knows anything must actually know everything—are greeted with mounting hostility by Socrates’ young companion, but with continued respect by Socrates himself. Confusion and not clarity may be the goal: the moment when we find ourselves entirely at a standstill, knowing that we know nothing.
After all, “only when we are dumbstruck by our own incompetence is there much chance of hearing what the Truth will tell us” (90).
In his analysis of Plato, Clark claims that “the principle effect of Plato’s work, in many differing schools, lies not …in his ideas, but in the figure of Socrates, and his delight in argument” (109). This figure was best captured in dialog:
Plato was correct, in Phaedrus and elsewhere, to say that writings, on their own, are easily misunderstood, especially if we don’t practice what their authors preached. So also in the Hebraic tradition, the oral teaching is the medium through which the written is to be interpreted. ‘The Talmud is essentially an activity, not a book: you engage in it, rather than read it as you would a piece of literature.’ The same should be true when reading any philosophy. (104-105)
Clark does justice to Plato’s ideas, nonetheless, and reminds us that “however abstract or pedantic Platonic Forms may seem, especially when they are identified with Numbers, we should remember that they are the objects of passionate love. They are Beauty in its several forms, and derive their being from the Good Itself.” (112) Describing the nous (or perceptive mind or intellect) that can “look at what transcends” the things that it typically perceives, Plotinus says that this is “the Intellect in love, when it goes out of its mind ‘drunk with the nectar’” (115).
Much of my own poor intellectual life could be summarized as a quest to find out what C. S. Lewis meant when he had Digory Kirke say, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” (The Last Battle). I’m therefore happy to see a chapter devoted the “divine Plato” and to hear his claim that:
The immortal Mind in me is just the same as the immortal Mind in you. That mind, in fact, is a god—though the way a particular corporeal being thinks is only intermittently, and waveringly, the immortal mind. We do not think the truth: when we do, there is only one thought in each of us, and that thought will survive our mortal bodies. (112-113).
Speaking of “our particular corporeal being,” however, it is critical to note that Clark clarifies one important misunderstanding of neoplatonism. These philosophers did not despise the material world:
Both pagan and Abrahamic Platonists have 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’ (Porphyry 2000). Nor was this at odds with Plato. (110)
In describing all the schools of gnosticism, David Bentley Hart confirms that “there is none that has an explicit metaphysics of participation” (see this podcast transcript where Hart identifies this lack of “a metaphysics of relation between God and creation” as the “one thing that these schools had in common so that you could classify them as gnostic”). Plotinus likely would have identified Christians as belonging among these gnostic sects (199 in Clark), and David Bentley Hart notes that Christians identified themselves as true gnostics. Nonetheless, this sacramental understanding of corporeal nature (this “metaphysics of participation” in the divine) is actually something that all pagan and Abrahamic Platonists (including early Christians) held in common over against the gnostics sects who did not see this world as a revelation, in any respect, of glory and truth.
Clark puts this sacramental understanding of the cosmos on display with language from Plutarch that exactly lines up with many passages in C. S. Lewis where he describes the “motions of the universe …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” (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature). Here is Plutarch (De Tranquillitate Animi):
I am delighted with Diogenes, who, when he saw his host in Sparta preparing with much ado for a certain festival, said, ‘Does not a good man consider every day a festival?’ and a very splendid one, to be sure, if we are sound of mind [nous]. For the universe is a most holy temple and …into it man is introduced through birth as a spectator, not of hand-made or immovable images, but of those sensible representations of knowable things that the divine mind, says Plato, has revealed, representations which have innate within themselves the beginnings of life and motion, sun and moon and stars, rivers which ever discharge fresh water, and earth which sends forth nourishment for plants and animals. Since life is a most perfect initiation into these things and a ritual celebration of them, it should be full of tranquillity and joy, and not in the manner of the vulgar. (quoted in Clark 239)
When Clark speaks of Abrahamic Platonists, it is clear that he identifies himself among them as a Chrisitan Platonist. From what I have read elsewhere, Clark is a devout Anglican, and he gives full consideration to Jesus Christ among the Medditeranian sages that he covers. In distinguishing Christians from most of the other “Hellenistic Schools” who “offered a way of life,” Clark cites Clement of Alexandria: “I long for the Lord of the winds, the Lord of fire, the Creator of the World, He who gives light to the sun. I seek God himself, not for the works of God.” (154-155)
In another passage, Clark identifies Jesus Christ with “the very Word of God, the thing that the Omnipresent has been saying, is saying, from the beginning and through whom all things were made.” Clark frames the revelation of Jesus Christ in this way, with characteristic modesty and stopping just short of an absolute claim to knowledge:
We cannot, in short, work out what the world is like merely by examining our own ideas of it, as philosophers often hoped. Is there any chance of locating God’s idea of it? Later writers conceived that Jesus himself was the very Word of God, the thing that the Omnipresent has been saying, is saying, from the beginning and through whom all things were made. Rabbinic speculative poetry or metaphysics proposed that Zion, which is Jerusalem, was the very first thing to be made: Jerusalem the City was the centre of history, even if — in human history — it came late. Muslims similarly were to suggest that the heavenly Koran was written ‘before’ all worlds. Christians concluded instead that Jesus was the center, the very first bit of the story as it is conceived in God. In all these cases, there were some features of the story, the place, the text as it was enacted in human history that really could have been otherwise, and other features that really could not have been different, since they were what God always is and says. Is this a story that Jesus himself could have told, as the gospel writers suggest he did? It is at least not clear that he couldn’t have: either the story is true (and clearly He could have told it) or it is at least a story that Hellenized Jews could tell (as Philo of Alexandria almost did). (168-169)
In the end—although this broken and transitory cosmos does contain within its every least and ugliest part a revelation of the divine and although God is even revealed perfectly within history by Jesus Christ—we circle back time and again to the need for small human communities with strong self-limiting practices and a deep desire to see the glory around them. This life is only possible when we remain intentionally modest, recognizing that a human scale is necessarily limited:
Solon told King Croesus that the best the gods could offer in answer to a mother’s prayers was the prompt death of her sons—though he also acknowledged that the unassuming life of a peasant farmer (in good times) was good (or at least was better than the life that Croesus lived). Similarly, in Plato’s Myth of Er, where he imagines how discarnate souls select the earthly life they will be living next, Odysseus shows his wisdom by searching out an ‘ordinary’ life, unnoticed by all others during the choice and destined to be unnoticed during life. The very worst life is one in which we do everything that we momentarily wish, seduced by sense. (194)
What, then, is our right course? We should pass our life in playing games—certain games, that is, sacrifice, song and dance. …[Mankind should] live out their lives as what they really are—puppets in the main though with some touch of reality about them, too. (Plato, Laws 7.803-4 quoted by Clark 120)
This survey of Clark’s book, though wordy, does no more than give a brief glimpse into the wealth of his short work. I’ve not covered the many schools of thought that he surveys with a myriad of bright insights or mentioned the breadth of the relationships that he suggests between the Mediterranean world and its neighbors. Clearly, this is a book that I commend. For my part, I will be looking for other books of his as well. The list is long. His most recent is Can We Believe in People?: Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos. Others include: God, Religion, and Reality, From Athens to Jerusalem, Aristotle’s Man, Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice, and G. K. Chesterton: Thinking Backward, Looking Forward. Clearly, Clark has spent some time laboring to point out glory amid the ruins that we inhabit. One small fragment of this is Clark’s own translation of a famous line from a song composed by Pindar (Pythian 8 line 95 is quoted by Clark on page 186 without citation). It was was commissioned by the family of an aristocrat named Aristomenes as a celebration of his victory in the wrestling event at the Pythian Games of 446 BC: “A shadow’s dream is man, but when a god sheds a brightness, shining light is on earth and life is as sweet as honey.”
Every early church father that I have found (Justin Martyr, Chrysostom and Origen) understands Christ in Matthew 10:28 to be saying that God can destroy body and soul (or breath) in hell (Vale of Hinnom). Only a tiny minority of recent scholars think that Christ is talking about Satan in Matthew 10:28. According to Peter Kreeft, N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington, Christ is saying that Rome is not the real enemy because Rome can only destroy your body, while Satan can destroy body and soul.
Reading over the passage some more, “fear” appears four times within a few verses: “do not fear” (them) twice in verses 26 and 28 followed by “instead fear” (the one) in verse 28 and finally “do not be afraid” (of my Father) almost immediately again in verse 31. This makes it clear that the overall message of Christ to his disciples is that they do not need to fear those who can kill them now and that their Father in heaven cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on their heads and will honor this care for them despite their calling now to pick up their own cross and to suffer with Christ.
Finally, Christ speaks positively about the loss of our soul (or breath) just a couple verses later: “whoever loses his soul for my sake will gain it” (verse 39). Paul also says that our “soulish body” must die in order for us to receive our “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44-45). The same Greek word for soul (or breath) is used twice by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ uses in Matthew 10:28 and 39, with both Christ and Paul indicating that our soul must be lost in order to inherit the fullness of life with God (having received what Paul calls a “spiritual body”). [As an aside, N. T. Wright and David Bentley Hart had an exchange a few years back over this passage from 1 Corinthians 15.]
Taking all of this together surrounding Matthew 10:28, a good case can be made for understanding Christ to be saying:
Don’t be afraid of the Romans who can kill your body because the real threat is Satan who can kill body and soul. My Father in heaven, however, cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on your head, and you therefore have no reason to be afraid. I will recognize you as my own before my Father if you have recognized me as your own by giving up your life for me when terrible persecutions will come upon you. In fact, you need to be willing to give up your body and your soul for my sake in order to gain eternal life with me for your soul.
However, the vast majority of Christians from the earliest years understood Christ to be saying something more like:
Don’t be afraid of the Romans who can kill your body. Only God has the power to destroy your body and your soul in the final refuse heap. Do not fear my Father in heaven, however, who cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on your head. I will recognize you as my own before my Father if you have recognized me as your own by giving up your life for me when terrible persecutions will come upon you. In fact, you need to be willing to give up your body and your soul for my sake in order to gain eternal life with me for your soul.
Here are a variety of resources that I found on Matthew 10:28 from various places:
Peter Kreeft makes the same claim “Satan not God” as the destroyer of souls in his book Practical Theology.
The earliest commentary I could find, takes the position that has been the strong majority understanding throughout Christian history:
“Fear not them that kill you, and after that can do no more; but fear Him who after death is able to cast both soul and body into hell.” Matthew 10:28. And hell is a place where those are to be punished who have lived wickedly, and who do not believe that those things which God has taught us by Christ will come to pass.
Justin Martyr in The First Apology, Chapter 19
When Origen comments on Matthew 10:28 (and Luke 12:45), he admits that it is God who ‘can destroy both the body and the soul in Gehenna’ but emphasizes that while the text speaks of human beings who do in fact kill, it says of God only that God can destroy the sinner. How could God actually do such a thing, he wonders, ‘since the Savior has come to seek and save those who perished’? In view of Christ’s saving act, Origen seems inclined to doubt the eternal character of divine punishment, If there are some texts in which he speaks of Gehenna as a definitive state, there are many others which seem to view it as a purifying chastisement.
“Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology” by John R. Sachs, S.J., Weston School of Theology. Theological Studies 54 (1993).
In “Homily 34 on Matthew,” Saint John Chrysostom makes the case that Christ in the 10:28 passage is giving his disciples the ultimate confidence against persecution:
Then, because He had lifted them up on high, He again gives warning of the perils also, adding wings to their mind, and exalting them high above all. For what says He? Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Matthew 10:28 Do you see how He set them far above all things, persuading them to despise not anxiety only and calumny, dangers and plots, but even that which is esteemed of all things most terrible, death? And not death alone, but by violence too? And He said not, you shall be slain, but with the dignity that became Him, He set this before them, saying, Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell; bringing round the argument, as He ever does, to its opposite. For what? Is your fear, says He, of death? And are you therefore slow to preach? Nay for this very cause I bid you preach, that you fear death: for this shall deliver you from that which is really death. What though they shall slay you? Yet over the better part they shall not prevail, though they strive ten thousand ways. Therefore He said not, Who do not kill the soul, but, who are not able to kill. For wish it as they may, they shall not prevail. Wherefore, if you fear punishment, fear that, the more grievous by far.
Do you see how again He does not promise them deliverance from death, but permits them to die, granting them more than if He had not allowed them to suffer it? Because deliverance from death is not near so great as persuading men to despise death. You see now, He does not push them into dangers, but sets them above dangers, and in a short sentence fixes in their mind the doctrines that relate to the immortality of the soul, and having in two or three words implanted a saving doctrine, He comforts them also by other considerations.
Thus, lest they should think, when killed and butchered, that as men forsaken they suffered this, He introduces again the argument of God’s providence, saying on this wise: Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall into a snare without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Matthew 10:29-30 For what is viler than they? says He; nevertheless, not even these shall be taken without God’s knowledge. For He means not this, by His operation they fall, for this were unworthy of God; but, nothing that is done is hid from Him. If then He is not ignorant of anything that befalls us, and loves us more truly than a father, and so loves us, as to have numbered our very hairs; we ought not to be afraid. And this He said, not that God numbers our hairs, but that He might indicate His perfect knowledge, and His great providence over them. If therefore He both knows all the things that are done, and is able to save you, and willing; whatever ye may have to suffer, think not that as persons forsaken ye suffer. For neither is it His will to deliver you from the terrors, but to persuade you to despise them, since this is, more than anything, deliverance from the terrors.
Finally, here is the passage form Matthew’s Gospel with context (from a recent translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart):
13And if in-deed the household should be worthy, may your ‘Peace’ come upon it; but if it should be unworthy, may your ‘Peace’ revert back to you. 14And whoever should not welcome you, or should not listen to your words, on departing outside that household or that city shake the dust off your feet. 15Amen, I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that city. 16See: I send you forth as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and as guileless as doves. 17And beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and they will flog you in their syna-gogues; 18And you will be led before leaders and even kings for my sake, as a witness to them and to the gentiles. 19But when they deliver you up do not worry over how or what you might speak; for whatever you might say will be given to you in that hour; 20For you are not the ones speaking, but rather the Spirit of your Father is speaking in you. 21And brother will deliver up brother to death, and father child, and children will rise up against parents and put them to death. 22And you will be hated by all on account of my name; but whoever endures to the end, that one will be saved. 23And when they persecute you in one city, flee to another; for, amen, I tell you, you will most certainly not have finished with the cities of Israel before the Son of Man arrives. 24A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his lord. 25It suffices that the disciple become as his teacher, and the slave as his lord. If they have arraigned the master of the household as ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more so those who belong to his household? 26Therefore, do not fear them; for there is nothing that has been veiled that will not be unveiled, and nothing hidden that will not be made known. 27What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in your ear, proclaim upon the house-tops. 28And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in the Vale of Hinnom. 29Are not two sparrows sold for the smallest pittance? And not one of them will fall to earth without your Father. 30But even the hairs of your head have all been numbered. 31So do not be afraid; you are of greater worth than a great many sparrows. 32Therefore, everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge him before my Father in the heavens; 33And whoever denies me before men, I also will deny him before my Father in the heavens. 34Do not suppose that I have come to impose peace upon the earth; I came to impose not peace but a sword. 35For I came to divide a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law-36And a man’s enemies: the members of his house-hold. 37Whoever cherishes father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever cher-ishes son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38And whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. 39Whoever gains his soul will lose it, and whoever loses his soul for my sake will gain it. 40Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who has sent me forth. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet because he is called prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a just man because he is called just will receive a just man’s reward. 42And whoever gives one of these humble ones a cup of cold water solely because he is called disciple, amen, I tell you, he most certainly will not lose his reward.
David Bentley Hart’s translation of this passage (Yale UP, 2017).
Transcription from David Bentley Hart on the “Actually, It’s Good” podcast with an episode titled “Gnosticism… It’s Good” published Nov 17, 2020:
19:32 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.
22:48 …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.
[25:22] 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.
[28:03] 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.
Interviewer: Even as late as Maximus, they are still claiming that Chrisitianity is this true gnosticism.
Interviewer: 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. Yah. …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.
…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 (they are certainly vulgar in the mythopoetic excesses sometimes), it’s this willingness to amplify that provisional dualism into a complete ontological schism.
36:40 …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 if they have a metaphysics of relation between God and creation, as far as we know there is none that has an explicit metaphysics of participation. There is not an ontological sophistication there. You have spatial metaphors like all of reality is contained within the Father who is the encompassing sphere, and I think it means that literally. …They tend to head instead toward metamyth [rather than metaphysics]. We are left wondering how literal is this, how allegorial. We’ve been taught to think that they literally mean all these things, but how do we know? How do we know that these aren’t propaedeutic figures?
41:54 …What a Thomist understands by the term angel, taking his cue from Thomas, and what St Paul thought about angels, taking his cue from the book of Enoch and Jubilees and from a long temple mysticism, are two completely incompatible things. They have next to no connection with one another.
43:44 …Interview: [Berdyaev] has the famous footnote which says, “This was revealed to me in a dream.”
Hart: Yah. Now of course I have refrained from putting that footnote with many of the things that I have written just because I don’t want to scare people. I don’t want to give them a sense of their inferiority, so the number of things that have been revealed to me in dreams, I have kept to myself. One of my favorite passages, I remember the first time I read it was when I was 18 in Berdyaev, it said: “The preexistence of souls doesn’t have to be argued doesn’t have to be argued. We just know it to be true. It’s an obvious truth of reason and experience, so let’s move on to what we can conclude from this.” I do think—as exotic and as idiosyncratic as Berdyaev’s use of these things are—he’s onto something. There is a sense in which this world is not yet the world that God creates. …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 know I’m trying to come up with a form of Vedantic Christianity to carry us into the next century.
Hart: Well, 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.
52:05 …Of course 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.
55:44 Jordan Wood: I get a little bit anxious around analogy talk. …Maximus presses constantly, incessantly upon identity which is the thing that Przywara and Balthasar rule out in principle in terms of what’s able to be said from an analogical perspective. Yet at the same time, my reading is that it’s actually because of the conviction that the highest God was crucified that actually gives rise to the provisional dualism or makes sense of it that you rightly detect in the New Testament and the gnostics and so forth. …Is there a possibility of affirming both that God is incarnating into all things …such that there must be an identity between the the true history, the true creation, the true world and that that actually entails the destruction of the false dualism that we generate? …It’s actually a christological identity which opposes, so you can actually say, that because God makes Himself identical with the world in the Word, that He does not simply develop through the slaughterhouse of history because He overcomes that history by His identification with that history.
59:47 Hart: I think that you’re worrying too much about analogy in the sense that you’re thinking of the actual interval of analogy as a pure disjunction. It’s not. An analogy is a unity that is different in aspect according to which side of the analogy is given priority but that ultimately is not a disjunction or even an opposition, certainly not an antithesis. …Analogy simply is to say that there is a unity between the way in which in God all possibility is actual and the way in which in the actuality of creation there is a real collapse of possibility into finite actually. Therefore, you are looking at a participatory unity. When I say unity, I mean unity. I don’t mean participation in the sense of something that is other than God in any but a modal way. I’m going to get excommunicated if I keep going on here. But an analogy is simply pointing to different modalities within a unity. That’s different from either opposition or simple identity that does not allow for the kind of distinction that you seem willing to preserve between the true story and the false story, the way in which we are integrated into the true story. And now I’m sounding more Jensonian than I mean to or more Yale school than I mean to …But at the end of the day I’m a monist as any sane person is. We can play games with it, but any metaphysics that is coherent is ultimately reducible to a monism.
1:02:24 Since you’ve read the book You Are Gods, you know how it starts. It argues that nothing can become anything that it isn’t already. …God does not become a man …in a way that it somehow alters who He already is. Nothing that is in a man is excluded from who God already is. In the same way, we cannot become partakers in the divine nature unless we are already fully partakers of the fullness of the divine nature. Between that understood as the dynamism of possibility and actuality from this end of spiritual perception, spiritual life, from this far removed end of the ordo cognoscendi, …from the other end, the ordo essendi, the fullness of God, what is for use the dynamism of the of the possible and the actual, is a full genuine manifestation and participation in that infinite actuality that is God. I’m not sure how analogy here is a problem for you. If you don’t want to use that word, you don’t have to. You do however, have to acknowledge that there is a modal distinction between being Jordan Wood and being God the Father.
1:04:43 …You can speak of analogy of Father and Son in the Trinity. It doesn’t indicate a disjunction. …The Son is the fullness of the Father reflected, the fullness of the depth of the paternal arche, but not in the mode of the Father. However you want to define analogy, the point of the analogia entis remember, and this is where you have to appreciate Przywara, is that his claim is not that there are two distinct, separate realities that are held together in a neutral medium called existence, but that rather the one reality of being, which is the fullness of God and a dynamism in us, is expressed in these radically different and yet utterly intimately inseparable ways. The analogy there is not a gulf. It is a union under the form of a distinction but not of a separation like the divine and the human natures of Christ.
But I’m quite content for you to use the christological language instead. If you want to throw the word analogy out you can because it’s a vague word. Among those arid, hopeless Thomists of whom I spoke, the manualist Thomists, it becomes quite a descecating category of linguistic attribution and ultimately dissolves into a kind of useless apophaticism, one that’s not enveloped in a deeper gnosis.
1:09:52 Jordan Wood: …The problem with alalongy from my perspective …is not so much that it’s wrong, it’s just that it’s too abstract to say what is peculiarly true of the Christian incarnation.
Hart: I don’t disagree with that.
1:14:47 …It is true that at that time [writing The Beauty of the Infinite] I was more hesitant to go all the way towards what should have been obvious to me. In many ways, this book You Are Gods, …is a much bolder and definitive statement of my theological views than has been printed before. …It has been a movement. I’m more unapologetically neoplatonist, more fully monistic, not at all worried about the sort of things that I thought I used to have to be careful so as not to …cross over a boundary that I shouldn’t cross. I’ve become more convinced that if you really …think about grace and nature—and it is one of the good things about the revival of this whole issue of the natural and the supernatural, as annoying as it is in one sense that there are people who read Garrigou-Lagrange with pleasure. …It helps to clarify things. You have to go one way or the other. I find that whole system utterly repugnant, genuinely hideous in its implications. …It allows you to send most people to hell with a clear conscience. …Those [earlier concerns of mine about analogy, etc.] were as much rhetorical than anything else. We’re all products of the period in which we had to deal with certain supervisors, certain teachers.
1:22:06 [Of Bulgakov:] …I don’t know of any other Christian theologian in the twentieth century that got it as right and who got what was right for all of the right reasons. What is the real meaning of a thoroughly consistent christology, and I think christology really is the heart of Bulgakov’s whole metaphysics. …My conviction always ways that the notion that orthodoxy could be formulated according to the correct acceptation of tradition, that the very notion of tradition, as we think of it, is self-defeating.
1:27:16 …You mentioned the Brandon Gallaher …exchange. For him, analogia entis involves somehow denying that the being of the creature is divine being. That’s not right. There is not an analogy between two different kinds of beings, but there is an analogy within the one infinite act of divine being, between the mode of creatureliness and the paternal fullness of the godhead. ..I prefer the language of sophia to the language of analogy just on poetic grounds. I’m willing to say it’s not the same thing, but it’s near enough as to make no difference if you understand analogy correctly. …Creation must be what it is. God must create, not because of an external compulsion, but because, as the fullness of reality, this is the fullness of the freedom to create that He has, in expressing Himself fully both as God in se and in alieno or in contraria. I don’t think Przywara would ever characterize creation as contingent in a metaphysical sense (that creation and this creation might or might not have been), …in regard to the divine nature, the divine identity, the divine story of Father and Son, and of the divine humanity (which even Przywara somewhat talks about). …But if I have to make a choice between the language of analogy and the language of sophia, …then I’ll stick with sophia.
[In a speed round of “random non-questions” with a “good or bad” response with “a sentence tops of why,” we learn that Hart finds Luther impossible to dislike (and with a sense of humor more brutal than Hart’s own), likes the early Romantic Marx (the Marx who believes in play and basic freedom) and finds the late capitalist Marx very bad (wanting to turn the whole world into a factory), hates the Catholic novel (not even liking Flannery O’Connor much), dislikes some of the same things that Roger Scruton dislikes, hates G.K. Chesterton (except distributism), among many other likes and dislikes.]