“Ah,” I said, sinking back onto my pillows, “that seems like it would be a hard sell among modern physicists.”From Roland in Moonlight by David Bentley Hart..
“I’m not interested in being a salesman,” said Roland. “My interest isn’t scientiﬁc, after all. I’m just as happy to call that interval between inﬁnite actuality and inﬁnite potentiality the realm of Fairy, or the Dreamtime. I do wonder, though, whether the actualization of a world in the conventional consciousness of any given age might have a retroactive effect. Whether the past is in some sense changing with every new conformation of the cosmos in thought. Or perhaps, it might be better to say, whether the past as we know it, and as it connects to the conventional picture of the present, is changing. I mean, we know that in a sense entanglement is as much a temporal as a spatial inseparability and…” His voice trailed away.
Roland, David’s beloved dog, shares this summary of his philosophy with David early on in David Bentley Hart’s new book Roland in Moonlight:
It certainly seems reasonable to say that being is manifestation, that real substance is revelation, that to exist is to be perceptible, conceivable, knowable—and that, moreover, to exist fully is to be manifest to consciousness. …It is only as an intelligible order, as a coherent phenomenon, that anything is anything at all, whether an elementary particle or a universe. …We must believe that being in itself is pure intelligibility. …Every act of conscious, unified, intentional mind is necessarily dependent upon infinite mind—which is to say, God. …Experience of the ‘natural’ proves to be ‘super-natural’ knowledge.
And here is Roland, a little later, commenting on vision as he watches the sunset with Hart:
It’s also possible that the qualitative consciousness that attends your physical visual sensations in this world isn’t really a feat of constructive representation—a symbolic translation of stimuli into a private picture of a world that exists only within your skull—but is instead actually a direct communion in the ontological and noetic forms of things, and that we see one and the same world, you and I, because our spirits are looking not at sensations but at reality, and the physical transaction between the world and our optic apparatus is just the occasion for an act of discovery and unveiling that is, in reality, an event of direct spiritual communion.
Roland (David Bentley Hart’s beloved dog) speaking to Hart (in the new book Roland in Moonlight):
“I’ll tell you the whole story of our two peoples one day,” he said. “As for your sin—your original sin—I can’t speak to it. It was already something established in your natures before your kind and mine ﬁrst truly met. I know the myths, of course—the Eden myth and the other tales from around the world of the loss of an original beatitude or innocence. But, even if that’s something that actually happened rather than an allegory about something that’s always happening in your kind, then it happened in some other world, some other kind of time. As for this world—this fallen world, this aftermath of that other world—here, in this world, it may be that your feeling of original sin also consists largely in a kind of oblivious memory of your organic past… an ineffable ache of conscience that’s really a kind of organic recollection of all the phylogenic misery and slaughter and blood-soaked attritions by which your species climbed its way out of the mire of purely biochemical existence. Long before your species had even appeared in the world of chronos, the world of the time of death, you were gestating in the womb of nature as a mere stochastic organic possibility, an only remotely likely ﬁnal issue of incalculable ages of violence. And you bear that lineage and that whole physical history as a kind of ontological guilt, a stain deeply imbrued in every cell in your body—written in every strand of your DNA. Every one of you is Cain, the mark of your immemorial guilt indelibly inscribed on each mitochondrion and every cell-wall… Ah, well, so it goes. A delicate blue ﬂower springs up atop a noisome midden, and its fragile, incandescent beauty dazzles us, and we forget all the purulence and waste and dissolution and ceaseless decay from which its exquisite, transient charm was born. That evanescent flicker of enchantment inveigles and beguiles us. But deep down in the cellars of your cerebral cortices your reptile brain still lurks—a serpent, so to speak, perhaps the Serpent of Eden himself—and all the later concrescences of your modular brain are compounded upon that ineradicable ophidian core. And it knows. It remembers, in its cold, cruel, scaly way. And you, of course, my friend, are no blue flower.”
“…Anyway, I wasn’t trying to be a philosopher, or even to tell a complete story. That organic history is only an echo of the spiritual history that preceded it. Your still more original original sin was your departure from the pleroma in the divine aeon through an act of self-assertion—which is to say, your departure from the Dreaming in the wrong way, at the wrong moment. And that’s a fall that happened to all of you as one and to each of you as individuals.”
In the ancient or mediaeval worlds, the idea of the evolution of species would not necessarily have posed a very great intellectual challenge for the educated classes, at least ot on religious grounds. Aristotelian orthodoxy maintained the fixity of species, true, but one often finds a remarkably undogmatical approach to the questions of natural history in classical, patristic, and mediaeval sources, and (as I have noted) no dominantly great interest in a literalist reading of the creation narratives of scripture. It would not have been drastically difficult for philosophers or theologians to come to see such evolution as the natural unfolding of the rational principles of creation into forms primordially enfolded within the indwelling rational order of things.The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart
One day some time later, when I was leaving Elder Paisios’s cell, I recalled something that was troubling me and I mentioned it to him: “Elder, that yogi, Niranjan, was able to produce a light.”The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios by Dionysios Farasiotis
“What kind of light?” he asked.
“Once, when we were all sitting around him, his body suddenly started to give off a golden—yellowish light in the form of a continually expanding sphere, which eventually engulfed us all. I wasn’t the same afterwards—it altered my way of thinking. What was that light?”
Without saying a word, the elder gently lifted up his hand and placed it on my head. Suddenly, the entire yard was ﬂooded with a light that welled forth from the elder and could be seen in all directions. It was as powerful as a ﬂash of lightning, but it was continuous, showing no sign of passing away. Although it was intense, it didn’t hurt my eyes. On the contrary, I couldn’t get my fill of looking at this sweet, immaterial, noetic light. And, although the light was supernatural and rare—not like a white light, but more like glass, or water—there was still something so very natural about it that it didn’t startle me, but instead granted me a profound sense of joy. This light was all-embracing and intoxicating, yet it left my movements peaceful and my mind extremely lucid. Although I was absorbed by the vision of this light, I continued to see my natural surroundings. My five senses continued to function normally, while alongside of them another sense, a spiritual kind of vision, had begun to function as well. Although it was around noon and the sun was shining brightly, when the immaterial light began to emanate from Father Paisios, the sun’s light seemed weak by comparison, like that of the late-afternoon sun.
Photos above of Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati and Elder Paisios of Mount Athos.
It may be felt that such doctrines make Dionysius into a mere “monist” or “pantheist.” God, he insists, is not something other than the world but is “all things in all things.” Again, if being is nothing but theophany, does this not imply that the world is not real at all, but only appearance? Such objections, however, represent a failure to understand the Neoplatonic metaphysics of manifestation and intelligibility. Dionysius’ metaphysics is not a form of “pantheism,” if by this we mean the doctrine that all things are God. On the contrary: every being, precisely in that it is a being, i.e. something distinct, ﬁnite, and intelligible, ipsofacto is not God. Indeed, since to be is to be intelligible and therefore to be ﬁnite, to be means to be not God. This, again, is precisely why God is beyond being. Every being, then, absolutely is not God. Nor are all things, taken as a totality, God, for “all things” is plural, a multiplicity of distinct intelligible beings. The God of Dionysius is “all beings and none of beings,” “all things in all things and nothing in any,” and in these formulas the “all” can never be separated from the “none.” As all things without distinction, God is neither any one thing nor all things in their plurality. All things, qua all things, the whole of reality, are absolutely other than God.Eric Perl in Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite
But if Dionysius is not a monist or pantheist, neither is he a dualist, regarding God as another being over against the world. All things are not God, but God is not therefore something else besides all things. Such a notion, as the very words indicate, is manifest nonsense. If God were another being besides his products, he would be included as a member of a more inclusive totality, subordinated to a more embracing universal term, and distinct from the other members and therefore ﬁnite. If God were merely other than the world, he would be another thing and so not truly transcendent, but contained in the world. All things are other than God, but God is not other than all things. Since all things are not God, Dionysius is not a monist; but since God is not something else besides all things, neither is he a dualist.
Dionysius, like his fellow Neoplatonists, is able to negotiate a way between monism and dualism by means of the Platonic concept of appearance, taken up into the doctrine of being as theophany. The relation between an appearance and that of which it is an appearance is not a relation between two beings: the appearance is not another being, additional to that which is appearing. But in that the appearance, qua appearance, is not that which is appearing itself, neither is this a monistic reduction of the appearance to what is appearing. As Plato says, with reference to the status of sensibles as appearances of the forms, they are not being itself, the forms, but neither are they non-being, or nothing. The appearances both are and are not the reality; they are “in between“ being and non-being. So, for Dionysius, beings are not additional things other than God, in such a way that God and the world would constitute two things. But neither are they nothing, or illusion, as in a monist philosophy. Wherever we look, we are not seeing God, in that every being, every object of thought, is not God; and wherever we look, we are seeing God, as he appears, for every being, every object of thought, is nothing but a presentation or appearance of God.
To say that the world is the manifestation or appearance of God, then, is not to say that it is not real. Rather, Dionysius’ Neoplatonic point is that reality itself is appearance: to be real means to be intelligible, to be given to thought, and thus to be appearance. To go beyond appearance, in this sense of what is given to thought, is to go beyond being. As Dionysius’ Neoplatonic metaphysics is neither theism nor atheism, so also it is neither monism nor dualism, but can only be called, for want of a better term, “theophanism.” The relation between appearance and that which appears is irreducible to either unity or duality and cannot be expressed in any terms other than those of appearance, manifestation, image, expression. Only through this Platonic concept is it possible to understand Dionysius’ metaphysics or to make sense of the relation between the world and God without reducing the world to God (monism) or God to a being (dualism).
[Note: this is a short narrative by Elizabeth Russell written as a college course assignment on the topic of my mother’s death and our family’s goodbye to her. Also enjoy this wonderful reading of the story by Dr. Leslie Sillars, Professor of Journalism at Patrick Henry College.]
To my dear, beloved husband of almost 43 years:
You are trying to sleep right now behind me, fully clothed in your work attire, on a noisy crunchy plastic couch several feet shorter than you are. [You are] here with me in the hospital, after a very long hard day full of all kinds of stress, sacrificing, trying with all that is in you to serve me and help me. It’s a very appropriate picture of your life as my husband these many years…
He knows the words well by now. They bring back so many memories – raising nine children, years of missionary work in Taiwan, countless hikes and adventures and books read aloud in the evenings. The letter is creased and worn from many readings. He doesn’t know when she wrote it, exactly, but it must have been only a week or so before the end – before November 21, 2018, when cancer overwhelmed her body and sent her on ahead to God.
Steve and Faye Hake. Both of their names are etched into the headstone at his feet. They were not meant to be apart. Every month since her death, he has driven out to the cemetery to sit beside her in an old camp chair – reading her letter, reading his Bible, praying, remembering.
Today marks one year since her death. Here, among the cemetery’s bare trees and rolling hills, in the quiet and the cold, he has come to keep vigil with her. He will stay near her all day and all night.
It’s November 18, 2018. The Hakes’ small house, tucked into the rolling hills of West Virginia, is full of people. Thanksgiving is coming up in a few days, and their whole family has gathered to celebrate. The living room overflows with grandchildren and games.
Faye spends most of her time in her bedroom, slipping in and out of a medicated sleep. She’s declining rapidly, and they all know it. But no one says anything.
Faye never wants to talk about death. Ever since she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in May 2014, she’s been fighting and planning and questioning the doctors’ grim diagnosis. She’s so optimistic and full of life – it simply isn’t in her nature to accept the statistics. Only 22% of patients with Stage IV breast cancer live longer than five years after their diagnosis. But Faye is determined to be in that 22%. If she can just gain a little strength, she can start another round of chemo, hold on a little longer… But Steve has known for a long time that she is dying. He can almost bear it if they do it all themselves – if they make sure it’s done right.
Months ago, he began researching natural burials and chose a local cemetery that allowed them. He bought a Walmart flat sheet to use for the shroud, and coils of hemp rope to lower her with. He asked his son-in-law Joel to carve the headstone – a smooth gray river rock taken from a property they’d loved. He even chose the hymns for her funeral. But he’s never been able to tell Faye any of it.
Steve’s oldest son Jesse pulls him aside.
“Have you asked Mom about everything? Is she okay with it?”
“I don’t know if I can,” he admits.
So Jesse goes into the bedroom, alone, to confront his mother with her death.
A few minutes later, she shuffles out into the kitchen. The room is crowded with children and grandchildren. Everyone is laughing – they’re making her an egg salad sandwich with pickles on top, some family joke. She laughs about the sandwich with them.
When the laughter dies down, she speaks quietly.
“Jesse told me about everything, and it’s okay.”
It’s very still. Then the jokes and laughter begin again, and that is all. But it’s enough.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, 2018. Faye was taken to hospice yesterday and slipped away quietly this morning, sometime just after sunrise. Steve spent the night on the floor, lying beside her bed. Now, he and his children are bringing her home.
Somehow, they get her body into the back of the old van. When they reach home, four of the boys gently roll her onto blankets and begin carrying her inside. Steve walks with them, at her head. They wonder if the front or the back way is fastest. They choose the back door, but the room they are carrying her through is full of boxes and old furniture from a move. A table leg sticks out too far, and they wait in strained silence while one of the girls rearranges the furniture. Someone breaks into nervous laughter. It’s strange and sad and comical and Steve wonders, Are we doing this right?
He doesn’t know. But it helps that they’re doing this together. The vast wilderness of loss is not uncharted; it only feels that way. He clings to that moment in the kitchen, to her voice saying softly, “It’s okay.”
Steve knows that Faye is not here anymore. But the body still feels like her. So they dress her in her favorite clothes and drape her in her favorite blue-and-brown blanket. They fill the bedroom with flowers and prayers and readings from her favorite Bible passages. Someone is always in there with her, holding her hand. Her hands are cold; under her are 25 pounds of dry ice, to keep the body from decaying. But the pain is gone from her face. Her gray-brown hair has been smoothed back from her full cheeks. She looks almost like she did back in college.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and Steve is mostly numb with the strangeness of it all, like an amputation. But a weary thankfulness washes over him – gratitude that at least they can honor her. At least they can say goodbye like this.
Two days later, Steve and his sons are digging her grave. The morning is cold. They take turns, shovels biting into the deep red soil and heaping it up on either side of the grave. Six feet deep, six feet long, two feet wide. It’s hard work, but it feels good to do it themselves.
He needs to know what it will be like for her. Struck by a sudden impulse, he lies down in the grave. Staring up at the pale blue sky, he thinks One day this will be me, next door.
A year later, night is falling as Steve sits beside the grave. He can still make out the pale letters on the headstone that read Steve and Faye Hake. Cancer now runs through his body, too. How long before he is laid next to her?
Steve doesn’t know. But he is not afraid.
He hopes that, when his kids dig his own grave, they scoot him over right next to her.
As dusk falls, he lies down beside her, huddled in an old sleeping bag. He stares up into the cloudy night-blue sky, and her words come back to him.
I am getting very sleepy and fuzzy with pain medicine now, at 1:19 a.m. in this hospital bed. You are snoring peacefully behind me, if not comfortably, on that couch. I hope to have a few more days, weeks, or months – if not years, possibly – to hear and enjoy your snoring that I sometimes flipped you over to avoid.
I will quit now. I love you, Steve…I can’t wait to bow down together before God someday…and afterwards, to express our gratitude…
Thank you for the lovely long hike. I love you, Steve.
To compare to this famous passage from C.S. Lewis, here is a passage from Theological Territories in “Remarks to Bruce McCormack regarding the Relation between Trinitarian Theology and Christology” by David Bentley Hart:
In all of us, and in all things, there sleeps a fallen god called by God to awaken and seek union with him as a natural end—to risk a formulation that will offend just about every Christian, but that merely expresses the inescapable conclusion of thinking the theology of divine incarnation and human glorification through to its logically inevitable terminus.
Creation is not the magical conjuration into existence of something that possesses all the attributes of the past without actually possessing a past. Surely that must be true, right? If it were, then there would be no such thing as free rational creatures, but only fictional characters summoned into existence in a preordained state of character.David Bentley Hart (in the comments here)
So, the issue of evil isn’t a utilitarian calculus, it’s a matter of the process whereby nothingness and every possibility of evil inherent in the conditions of finite freedom is conquered while actually bringing free spiritual natures into existence. But spirit can exist only under the conditions of those rational conditions that logically define it. To ask why God did not create spiritual beings already wholly divinized without any prior history in the ambiguities of sin—or of sin’s possibility—is to pose a question no more interesting or solvent than one of those village atheist’s dilemmas: can God create a square circle, or a rock he is unable to lift? A finite created spirit must have the structure of, precisely, the finite, the created, and spirit. It must have an actual absolute past in nonbeing and an absolute future in the divine infinity, and the continuous successive ordering of its existence out of the former and into the latter is what it is to be a spiritual creature. Every spiritual creature as spirit is a pure act of rational and free intentionality away from the utter poverty of nonbeing and toward infinite union with God. This “temporal” or “diastematic” structure is no less intrinsic to it than is its dynamic synthesis of essence and existence, or of stability and change. And that means that even the first stirring of a created spiritual nature’s existence must be a kind of free assent to existence on the part of the creature.
…Yet again, to say that evil is not necessary in itself does not mean that the possibility of evil–possibility, not necessity–is not present in the “venture” of creation. To say that a negative possibility is entailed in something is not to say that there is any intrinsic necessity for or positive value in the actualization of that possibility. When surgery is performed to remove a tumor, it is possible that there will be nerve damage. That does not mean that nerve damage is an intrinsically good or necessary aspect of surgery. The possibility of a falling back toward evil and nothingness is entailed in the creation of a free finite spiritual being, almost by definition. That does not mean that the actual falling back toward evil and nothingness is in itself a necessary or good “part of the journey.” But, in the course of God overcoming evil and nothingness in finite free spiritual creatures, it may happen. Happily, one would like to believe, God does not cease to conquer that evil, in this age or the age to come.
If it is one’s sordid fate to be an academic philosopher, one might even try to convince oneself that the question of existence is an inept or false query generated by the seductions of imprecise grammar, or one might simply adopt the analytic philosopher’s classic gesture of flinging one’s hands haplessly in the air and proclaiming that one simply finds the question entirely unintelligible. All of this, however, is an abdication of the responsibility to think. This rare and fleeting experience of being’s strangeness within its very familiarity is not a transitory confusion or trivial psychological mood but a genuine if tantalizingly brief glimpse into an inexhaustibly profound truth about reality. It is the recognition, simply said, of the world’s absolute contingency. The world need not be thus. It need not be at all. If, moreover, one takes the time to reflect upon this contingency carefully enough, one will come to realize that it is an ontological, not merely an aetiological, mystery; the question of existence is not one concerning the physical origins of things, or of how one physical state may have been produced by a prior physical state, or of physical persistence across time, or of the physical constituents of the universe, but one of simple logical or conceptual possibility: How is it that any reality so obviously fortuitous—so lacking in any mark of inherent necessity or explanatory self-sufficiency—can exist at all?The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart (in the opening of part two)
The American philosopher Richard Taylor once illustrated this mystery, famously and fetchingly, with the image of a man out for a stroll in the forest unaccountably coming upon a very large translucent sphere. Naturally, he would immediately be taken aback by the sheer strangeness of the thing, and would wonder how it should happen to be there. More to the point, he would certainly never be able to believe that it just happened to be there without any cause, or without any possibility of further explanation; the very idea would be absurd. But, adds Taylor, what that man has not noticed is that he might ask the same question equally well about any other thing in the woods too, a rock or a tree no less than this outlandish sphere, and fails to do so only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we are accustomed. What would provoke our curiosity about the sphere would be that it was so obviously out of place; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place. As Taylor goes on to say, the question would be no less intelligible or pertinent if we were to imagine the sphere either as expanded to the size of the universe or as contracted to the size of a grain of sand, either as existing from everlasting to everlasting or as existing for only a few seconds. It is the sheer unexpected “thereness” of the thing, devoid of any transparent rationale for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature, but of its very existence.
The mystery of being becomes deeper, however, and even somewhat urgent, when one reflects not only upon the seeming inexplicability of existence as such, but also upon the nature of the things that have existence. The physical order confronts us at every moment not simply with its ontological fortuity but also with the intrinsic ontological poverty of all things physical—their necessary and total reliance for their existence, in every instant, upon realities outside themselves. Everything available to the senses or representable to the mind is entirely subject to annicha (to use the Buddhist term): impermanence, mutability, transience. All physical things are composite, which is to say reducible to an ever greater variety of distinct parts, and so are essentially inconstant and prone to dissolution. All things are subject to time, moreover: they possess no complete identity in themselves, but are always in the process of becoming something else, and hence also in the process of becoming nothing at all. There is a pure fragility and necessary incompleteness to any finite thing; nothing has its actuality entirely in itself, fully enjoyed in some impregnable present instant, but must always receive itself from beyond itself, and then only by losing itself at the same time. Nothing within the cosmos contains the ground of its own being. To use an old terminology, every finite thing is the union of an essence (its “what it is”) with a unique existence (its “that it is”), each of which is utterly impotent to explain the other, or to explain itself for that matter, and neither of which can ever be wholly or permanently possessed by anything. One knows of oneself, for instance, that every instant of one’s existence is only a partial realization of what one is, achieved by surrendering the past to the future in the vanishing and infinitesimal interval of the present. Both one’s essence and one’s existence come from elsewhere—from the past and the future, from the surrounding universe and whatever it may depend upon, in a chain of causal dependencies reaching backward and forward and upward and downward—and one receives them both not as possessions secured within some absolute state of being but as evanescent gifts only briefly grasped within the ontological indigence of becoming. Everything that one is is a dynamic and perilously contingent synthesis of identity and change, wavering between existence and nonexistence. To employ another very old formula, one’s “potential” is always being reduced or collapsed into the finitely “actual” (always foreclosing forever all other possibilities for one’s existence), and only in this way can one be liberated into the living uncertainty of the future. Thus one lives and moves and has one’s being only at the sufferance of an endless number of enabling conditions, and becomes what one will be only by taking leave of what one has been. Simply said, one is contingent through and through, partaking of being rather than generating it out of some source within oneself; and the same is true of the whole intricate web of interdependencies that constitutes nature.
There are various directions in which reflection on the contingency of things can carry one’s thoughts. One can follow, at least in principle, the chain of anything’s dependency back through ever deepening layers of causality, both physical and chronological—descending toward the subatomic, retreating toward the initial singularity—and still ultimately arrive at only the most elementary contingencies of all, no closer to an explanation of existence than one was before setting out. Alternatively, if one prefers metaphysical logic to the multiplication of genetic enigmas, one can forgo this phantasmagoric regress toward primordial causes altogether and choose instead to gaze out over the seas of mutability and dependency in search of that distant stable shore that, untouched by becoming, prevents everything from flowing away into an original or final nothingness. Or one may attempt to turn one’s thoughts from the world’s multiplicity and toward that mysterious unity that quietly persists amid the spectacle of incessant change: that oneness that is everywhere and nowhere, at once in the world and in one’s consciousness of it, holding all things together as a coherent totality while also preserving each separate thing in its particularity, and each part of each thing, and each part of that part, and so on ad infinitum. In seeking to understand the world in any of these ways, however, one may be tempted to try to reduce the essential mystery of existence to something one can contain in a simple concept, like a mechanical or physical cause, or a trivial predicate, or something else that one can easily grasp and thereafter ignore. Thinkers in all the great religious traditions have repeatedly warned that it is far easier to think about beings than about being as such, and that we therefore always risk losing sight of the mystery of being behind the concepts we impose upon it. Having briefly awakened to a truth that precedes and exceeds the totality of discrete things, we may end up all the more oblivious to it for having tried to master it.
Even so, one must try to understand, even if only now and then. Reason is restless before this question. And any profound reflection upon the contingency of things must involve the question of God, which—whether or not one believes it can be answered—must be posed again and again in the course of any life that is truly rational.