the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God

In Theophany by Eric Perl, when covering Dionysius on the nature and causes of evil, Perl ends with a wonderful explanation of the fact that any apparently successful theodicy is itself evil. Here is the full passage:

For Dionysius, evil is privation and lack and weakness and asymmetry and failure [usually translated as “sin” but literally having the negative meaning “missing” or “failing”] and aimless and beautyless and lifeless and mindless and irrational and purposeless and unstable and causeless and indeterminate and unproductive and inactive and ineffective and unordered and unlike and limitless and dark and insubstantial and itself no being whatever in any way whatsoever.

Dionysius’ inability, or rather refusal, to assign a cause to evil, then, marks not the failure but the success of his treatment of the problem. To explain evil, to attribute a cause to it, would necessarily be to explain it away, to deny that evil is genuinely evil at all. For to explain something is to show how it is in some way good. “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” Only by not explaining evil, by insisting rather on its radical causelessness, its unintelligibility, can we take evil seriously as evil. This is why most “theodicies” fail precisely insofar as they succeed. To the extent that they satisfactorily account for or make sense of evil, they tacitly or expressly deny that it is evil and show that it is in fact good. Dionysius’ treatment of evil, on the other hand, succeeds by failing, recognizing that the sheer negativity that is evil must be uncaused and hence inexplicable, for otherwise it would not be negativity and would not be evil.

It has been wisely remarked that any satisfactory account of evil must enable us to retain our outrage at it. Most theodicies fail this test, for in supposedly allowing us to understand evil they justify it and thus take away our outrage. For Dionysius, however, evil remains outrageous precisely because it is irrational, because there is no reason, no justification for it. The privation theory of evil, expressed in a radical form by Dionysius, is not a shallow disregard or denial of the evident evils in the world. It means rather that, confronted with the evils in the world, we can only say that for no reason, and therefore outrageously, the world as we find it does not perfectly love God, the Good, the sole end of all love. And since the Good is the principle of intelligibility and hence of being, to the extent that anything fails to partake of that principle it is deficient in being. The recognition of evils in the world and in ourselves is the recognition that the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God, the Good.

For a little more context, just before this passage in Theophany by Eric Perl, there is a fascinating summary of Plotinus defending an incoherent idea that matter is evil. Proclus rejected this as did Dionysius, both claiming that matter must be good. Here are the details regarding Proclus and Dionysius on this point:

Proclus differs from Plotinus by expressly rejecting the doctrine that evil is matter and that, as matter, it is necessary. He argues, more consistently than Plotinus, that “if matter is evil, one of two things is necessary: either to make the Good the cause of evil, or [to make] two principles of beings.” Either alternative is unacceptable. “Since matter is from the Principle, even this has its entrance into being from the Good. …Nor is evil from the Good.” To say, as Plotinus does, both that matter is evil and that it proceeds from the Good leads to absurdity: “Thus the Good will be evil, as the cause of evil, but evil will be good, as produced from the Good.” Proclus further argues that matter, precisely in that it is a necessary aspect of the sensible cosmos, cannot be evil: “But if matter is necessary for the All, and the cosmos would not be ‘this all-great and blessed god’ if matter were absent, how can the nature of evil still be referred to this? For evil is one thing, and the necessary another, and the latter is such that [the universe] could not be without it, but the former is privation of being.” By denying Plotinus’ identification of evil with matter, Proclus thus avoids the difficulty of claiming that evil is a necessary condition for the good cosmos.

…[Dionysius] expressly follows Proclus in denying Plotinus’ “notorious” position that “evil is in matter, as they say, in that it is matter.” Dionysius argues, first, that “if [matter] is in no way whatsoever, it is neither good nor evil. But if it is somehow a being, and all beings are from the Good, this too would be from the Good.” He goes on to take up Proclus’ cogent argument that if matter is necessary, it cannot be evil: “If they say that matter is necessary for the completion of all the cosmos, how is matter evil? For evil is one thing, and the necessary another.” Whatever is necessary for the perfection of the whole is not evil but good. If, as Plotinus argues, matter is necessary, then it cannot be evil. This argument is effective not only against Plotinus’ doctrine that matter is both evil and a necessary consequence of the Good, without which the (good) cosmos could not be produced, but also against all attempts, such as have been made from antiquity to the present, to explain the evils that occur in the world as necessary contributions to the perfection of the whole. Any such theory, as Dionysius here points out, does not explain evil but rather explains it away by claiming, in effect, that it is not really evil at all.

Lazarus Saturday: Christ’s Defiance of Death and Offer of Life

Jesus Christ identifies himself as “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It’s a confident and bold claim, but it is one that Jesus has worked toward carefully with many bold decisions and words leading up to it. Among the most astounding of these is Christ’s decision to wait for his beloved friend Lazarus to die before responding to the pleas of Mary and Martha that Jesus come to save their brother from death. We face a dramatic series of twists and turns leading up to the moment when Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb despite the worrying of some witness of that Lazarus would stink. We learn, memorably, that Jesus wept (John 11:35) in response to the weeping of Mary and those with her as she confronted Christ and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (32).

Why does Jesus Christ use his beloved friends, Lazarus, Mary and Martha to demonstrate his power over death? It is difficult to reach any other conclusion from the story than that this was a deliberate decision on the part of Jesus Christ “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (4). Ultimately, this question goes back to the question of why God creates the world. Scripture teaches that we are still children who await, and who also have collectively resisted, our full formation (as well as the final formation of our entire cosmos). Our experience of death is a merciful and also terrible result of this resistance by us to our own creation. God enters the story of struggle that we have initiated by our rebellion as the human Jesus Christ. By entering the story of death fully, Jesus reveals death’s own impermanence and final defeat entirely from within our current and incomplete story of death. We encounter life itself in Jesus Christ. These topics, however, take us too far from the story of Lazarus.

Lest we be tempted to think this a crass, calculated and unfeeling act on Christ’s part, we are told repeatedly that these three were loved by Jesus. The two sisters first send word to Christ that “he whom you love is ill” (3). Then John writes, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (5). Finally, when Jesus “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (33) and then wept himself, the crowd of witnesses cries out, “See how he loved him!” (36). Despite all of these reassurances, we may still be tempted to wonder at Christ’s calculated waiting at the start of the narrative.

What is at work, however, is not a lack of feeling but a demonstration of perspective and power. Jesus Christ is not impressed or moved by death, but Christ’s awesome power does not at all prevent him from being deeply moved by love and by compassion for the suffering of others. This lordly disregard for death itself does not prevent Jesus from suffering with his friends or with each of us. We tend to associate a calculated display of power with a cold indifference because we have hearts that are not capable of combining lordly power and deep compassion. Jesus Christ, however, was fully in possession of both. He is—as the hymns of this seasons remind us over and over—”the only lover of humankind” but also the the Lord who intentionally despoils death itself in the most flagrant way in preparation for his own upcoming death and resurrection. Another hymn from this evening taunts death directly as we sing, “Through Lazarus, O death, Christ has already despoiled you.”

Nothing gets easier after the powerful command from Jesus Christ to a long-dead corpse: “Lazarus, come out!” We have one last intimate glimpse into this scene as the dead man obeys and stands helplessly bound up and blinded before the crowd. Lazarus is able to walk out of his grave but unable to remove the cloth that covers his own face. Christ tells them to set Lazarus free, but the story does not pause for any rest or celebration. It moves immediately into meeting of the Sanhedrin who decide that this teacher has gone too far and must die. Lazarus is dramatically rescued from death itself, but Jesus has sealed his own fate at the hands of the worldly powers surrounding him. From this point on in the story, every movement that Jesus makes is watched, and there are only a few days left before the final countermove comes with the help of one in Christ’s own inner circle.

This dramatic tension extended to the friends and followers of Jesus Christ as well. Tradition tells us that the Sanhedrin not only decided that Christ must die but that Lazarus must be killed as well. According to widespread accounts from the earliest days of the church, Lazarus had to flee from his home to save his own life, and Lazarus spent the rest of his life in exile on the island of Cyprus.

We might say that all this power and triumph by Jesus does no earthly good in this case. However, the victory is so complete precisely because it comes from within. We ourselves know sin and death from the inside, but Christ joins us there and still reveals to us that only life has any true power. In his book, The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart makes the case that the followers of Jesus Christ should learn to have a similar enmity for death and evil:

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For after all, if it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.

This is why so many of the hymns for Lazarus Saturday and then for Pascha (Easter) itself all mock death and reiterate its utter powerlessness and failure in the face of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus, we are called to defeat sin and death in the power of Christ and to give them no foothold in our own lives. This does not mean that we do not suffer. Clearly, we are called to suffer with Christ (even “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” as Paul writes in Colossians 1:24). In suffering with Christ, we will find that this suffering softens our hearts so that we learn to be present with others in their suffering. We will learn to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) for blessed are “the poor in spirit” and “those who mourn” (Matthew 5:3–12). Learning this kind of compassion, however, gives no ground to sin and death. We are not stoically resigned to suffering but grateful for the life with Christ that we can enjoy even in the midst of death and in the midst of our fellowship with others in their sufferings.

As Jesus said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) Without fleeing from suffering and death, we can participate in Christ’s “relentless and miraculous enmity” toward sin, suffering, evil and death as we live day to day in communion with Jesus Christ.

Annunciation Poems and Reflections

Capturing several favorite items from yesterday (the Annunciation, March 25):

A point of time, immesurable
waves of sound, unparticled
contain eternity, a singing cosmos.
Time is and isn’t,
space an ever-moving repose
shimmering, awaiting our sight.
A slight participation, it seems: “fiat.”
Two syllables, two moments,
undivided presence.

“Annunciation” by Allwyn Fabre

Salvation to all that will is nigh ;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo ! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb ; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother ;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived ; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.

“Annunciation” John Donne

It is the complete end of a world and the beginning of another…And in one of those long beautiful days of June where there is no more night, no more gloomy darkness, where the day goes hand in hand with the day, it is the final instant of the evening and at the same time the first instant of the dawn. It is the final instant of the promise and at the same time the first instant of the keeping of the promise. It is the final instant of yesterday and at the same time the first instant of tomorrow. It is the final instant of the past and at the same time, in the same present, the first instant of a tremendous future.

Charles Péguy on the Annunciation

In the case of Adam, God neither foretold nor persuaded him concerning the rib from which Eve was to be fashioned, but put him to sleep, and in this way deprived him of the member in question; in the case of the Virgin, however, He first instructed her and awaited her assurance before proceeding to the deed. Regarding the creation of Adam, He conversed with His Only-Begotten Son, saying: ‘Let Us make man.’ But when, as Paul says, He was going to bring this wonderful Counselor, the First-Begotten, into the world, and to form the second Adam, He made the Virgin a participant in his decision. And this great counsel, about which Isaiah speaks, God proclaimed and the Virgin ratified. The Incarnation of the Word was the work not only of the Father, Whose good pleasure it was, and of His Power, Who overshadowed, and of His Spirit, Who descended, but also of the will and faith of the Virgin. For, just as, without those Three, it would have been impossible for this decision to be implemented, so also, if the All-Pure One had not offered her will and faith, this design could not possibly have been brought to fruition.

…For the Virgin was not like the earth, which contributed to the creation of man but did not bring it about, but merely offered itself as matter to the Creator and was only acted upon and did not do anything. But those things which drew the Artificer Himself to earth and which moved His creative hand did she provide from within herself, being the author thereof. …A mind furnished with wings that was not daunted by any height; a longing for God, which had absorbed the entire appetitive faculty of the soul into itself; possession by God, a union with God inconceivable to any created intellect. Having trained both body and soul to receive such beauty, she turned the gaze of God towards herself, and by her own beauty rendered our common nature beautiful and won over the Impassible One; and He Who was despised by men on account of their sin became man because of the Virgin.

…Today all of creation rejoices, and He Who holds Heaven in His hands is not absent from the Feast, either. Rather, the present celebration is in very truth a festival: all things are gathered together in a single act of rejoicing—the Creator, all of His creatures, and the Mother of the Creator herself, who made Him a partaker of our nature and of our liturgical synaxes and feasts. For He, being our Benefactor from the beginning of creation, and making this His own proper activity (never being in need of anything from anyone), to bestow gifts and to do good, and knowing only such things as these, on this day both does those same things and assumes a secondary place and stands in solidarity with the recipients of His benefactions. Bestowing some things on the creation from Himself, and receiving other things from it, He rejoices not so much in giving great gifts, since He is munificent, as in receiving small gifts from those to whom He has done good, since He loves mankind. He obtains honor not only from what He has laid down for His poor servants, but also from what He has received from us paupers.

…If there is ever a time when a man should rejoice, exult, and cry out with gladness, when he should go off and search for what great and brilliant statements he might utter, when he should wish to be vouchsafed sublimity of ideas, beauty of diction, and powerful oratory, I see no other occasion than this day.

St. Nicholas (Cabasilas). Translated from the Greek text in “Homélies Mariales Byzantines (II),” ed. M. Jugie, in Patrologia Orientalis, Vol. XIX, ed. R. Graffin and F. Nau (Paris: Firmin- Didot, 1920), pp. 484-495.

Finally, here is a list of all the events that Christians have connected to March 25 over the years (compiled by Fr. Aidan Kimel here):

  • God created the universe.
  • God created Adam and Eve.
  • Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
  • The Ring of Power was destroyed in the fires of Orodruin.
  • Abraham offered in sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah.
  • The Angel of Death passed over the Hebrews in Egypt.
  • The angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to the Savior.
  • The eternal Word of God took flesh in the womb of Mary.
  • Jesus Christ was crucified on Golgotha.

Five-ish Angelic Falls and Three Human Falls

Two Orthodox priests, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and Fr. Stephen De Young, have been podcasting together recently and shared about these five-ish angelic falls. They have also referenced three human falls which Fr. Stephen has blogged about previously here as well. These lists include some notes and clarifications later shared by Fr. Andrew in an outline group connected to the podcast group.

These five-ish angelic falls are wrapped up with the three human falls listed below but are articulated here from the angelic perspective:

  1. Succession myth / serpent (=devil) cast into Hades. Attempt to overthrow the Most High from His throne in heaven that parallels various pagan myths of younger gods destroying the former gods. This is represented in all pagan myths as a success, but it is a failure in Genesis.
    1. Initial fall in the heart or mind of a divine council member. This is not recounted in Genesis directly. Subsequent readings of Genesis tend to fill in the gap and place this succession myth before creation (as in Milton’s Paradis Lost). However, casting it before the creation of the world creates a basic logical problem. You can’t dethrone the Most High God in reality, but you can try to dethrone him in the hearts and minds of his creatures. This requires there to be other creatures. Therefore, the serpent (a member of the divine council) is depicted as having “overthrown God” within his own heart at beholding the creation of humans and then to have invited humans to do the same. This succession myth gets told in Isaiah 14. The dethroning happens in the minds of the fallen angels, which is how this is described by St. Gregory the Great.
    2. Casting out of the devil into the Underworld for tempting mankind: the serpent, a divine council member, overthrows God in the hearts of humanity by tempting them with a shortcut to maturity and is sent by God to preside over the land of dust (i.e. of death or Sheol). This is the first angelic fall directly depicted in Genesis (a failure in contrast to the triumph of pagan succession myths). [Fr. Andrew notes that “fall” from this point on is not a moral fall or betrayal. In that sense, these angels are already fallen before these events happen. Fall here focuses on “being cast down.”]
  2. Apkallu / Watchers / Nephilim-generation (the Watchers (the fathers) falling by generating nephilim). Angels tempt humans with technology for which they are not ready and then involve themselves in human procreation to produce a line of demigods (1/3 fallen angel) who start human royal dynasties. Paralleled in pagan myths such as the Sumeran Kings List and the story of the Apkallu or the story of the Seven Sages.
  3. Nephilim / Unclean Spirits / Mastema+crew (the nephilim (the sons) falling by being defeated by the Flood when most are cast into the Abyss). Many of these demigods are finished off by Joshua and David. Their spirits trouble the earth as unclean spirits.
  4. Accepting worship post-Babel. Fallen angels receive the worship offered to them at the Tower of Babel (gate of the gods) and become the 70 gods of the original divine council placed over the traditional 70 nations.
  5. Satan (=devil?) falling like lightning. When Christ says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning” after his 70 disciples return from their commissions to declare the kingdom of God. This is also connected with Rev. 12:9. Some claim that Christ’s earthly ministry changed something for Satan. Are these two different figures who both fall, or is this one figure, one person, who falls two different times in two different ways? St. Andrew of Caesarea thinks it’s one figure who falls in two different ways.

Three human falls:

  1. Fall of Adam. A trespass but no mention of sin in Genesis (seeking a childish shortcut to maturity despite God’s warning). This trespass of Adam brings death. It is the first fall and the last enemy to be defeated by Christ.
  2. Fall of Cain. Considered by several patristic writers to be the first to sin with his murder of his brother.
  3. Fall of humanity at the tower of Babel. Coming under the dominion of the angelic powers overseeing the nations.
Rendering by Natalia Lvova of a traditional icon (Archangel Michael, the Commander of the Heavenly Forces).

an abstraction does not need a Mother

In her very person as a Jewish girl become the mother of the Messiah, Mary binds together, in a living and indissoluble way, the old and the new People of God, Israel and Christianity, synagogue and church. She is, as it were, the connecting link without which the Faith (as is happening today) runs the risk of losing its balance by either forsaking the New Testament for the Old or dispensing with the Old. In her, instead, we can live the unity of sacred Scripture in its entirety.

To use the very formulations of Vatican II, Mary is ‘figure,’ ‘image’ and ‘model’ of the Church. Beholding her the Church is shielded against the aforementioned masculinized model that views her as an instrument for a program of social–political action. In Mary, as figure and archetype, the Church again finds her own visage as Mother and cannot degenerate into the complexity of a party, an organization or a pressure group in the service of human interests, even the noblest. If Mary no longer finds a place in many theologies and ecclesiologies, the reason is obvious: they have reduced faith to an abstraction. And an abstraction does not need a Mother.

From Rapporto Sulla Fede, a series of 1985 interviews given by Pope Benedict XVI to Vittorio Messori.

a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For after all, if it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.

From chapter 9 of The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart. [Transcribed from the audible book version with my own punctuation.]

heirs of a culture that sprang from Peter’s tears

“The Face of the Faceless” (chapter 13 in Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, Yale UP, 2009) by David Bentley Hart is a beautiful chapter in a profound book. Read it if you have not. Here’s an extended excerpt:

All four of the canonical Gospels tell the tale of the apostle Peter’s failure on the very eve of Christ’s crucifixion: Peter’s promise that he would never abandon Christ; Christ’s prediction that Peter would in fact deny him that same night, not once but three times, before the cock’s crow; Peter’s cautious venture into the courtyard of the high priest, after Christ’s arrest in the garden, and his confrontation with others present there who thought they recognized him as one of Christ’s disciples; and the fear that prompted Peter to do at the last just as his master had prophesied. John’s Gospel, in some ways the least tender of the four, leaves the story there; but the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—go on to relate that, on hearing the cock announce the break of day, Peter remembered Christ’s words to him earlier in the evening and, seized by grief, went apart to weep bitterly.

To us today, this hardly seems an extraordinary detail of the narrative, however moving we may or may not find it; we would expect Peter to weep, and we certainly would expect any narrator to think the event worth recording. But, in some ways, taken in the context of the age in which the Gospels were written, there may well be no stranger or more remarkable moment in the whole of scripture. What is obvious to us—Peter’s wounded soul, the profundity of his devotion to his teacher, the torment of his guilt, the crushing knowledge that Christ’s imminent death forever foreclosed the possibility of seeking forgiveness for his betrayal—is obvious in very large part because we are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter’s tears. To us, this rather small and ordinary narrative detail is unquestionably an ornament of the story, one that ennobles it, proves its gravity, widens its embrace of our common humanity. In this sense, all of us—even unbelievers—are “Christians” in our moral expectations of the world. To the literate classes of late antiquity, however, this tale of Peter weeping would more likely have seemed an aesthetic mistake; for Peter, as a rustic, could not possibly have been a worthy object of a well-bred man’s sympathy, nor could his grief possibly have possessed the sort of tragic dignity necessary to make it worthy of anyone’s notice. At most, the grief of a man of Peter’s class might have had a place in comic literature: the querulous complaints of an indolent slave, the self-pitying expostulations of a witless peon, the anguished laments of a cuckolded taverner, and so on. Of course, in a tragic or epic setting a servant’s tears might have been played as accompaniment to his master’s sorrows, rather like the sympathetic whining of a devoted dog. But, when one compares this scene from the Gospels to the sort of emotional portraiture one finds in great Roman writers, comic or serious, one discovers—as the great literary critic Erich Auerbach noted half a century ago—that it is only in Peter that one sees “the image of man in the highest and deepest and most tragic sense.” 1 Yet Peter remains, for all that, a Galilaean peasant. This is not merely a violation of good taste; it is an act of rebellion.

This is not, obviously, a claim regarding the explicit intent of any of the evangelists. But even Christianity’s most implacable modern critics should be willing to acknowledge that, in these texts and others like them, we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visibility, arguably for the first time in our history: the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of an infinite value. It would not even be implausible to argue that our very ability to speak of “persons” as we do is a consequence of the revolution in moral sensibility that Christianity brought about. We, after all, employ this word with a splendidly indiscriminate generosity, applying it without hesitation to everyone, regardless of social station, race, or sex; but originally, at least in some of the most crucial contexts, it had a much more limited application. Specifically, in Roman legal usage, one’s person was one’s status before the law, which was certainly not something invariable from one individual to the next. The original and primary meaning of the Latin word persona was “mask,” and as a legal term its use may well have harked back to the wax funerary effigies by which persons of social consequence were represented after their deaths, and which families of rank were allowed to display as icons of their ancestral pedigrees. Thus, by extension, to have a persona was to have a face before the law—which is to say, to be recognized as one possessing rights and privileges before a court, or as being able to give testimony upon the strength of one’s own word, or simply as owning a respectable social identity, of which jurists must be conscious.

For those of the lowest stations, however—slaves, base-born noncitizens and criminals, the utterly destitute, colonized peoples—legal personality did not really exist, or existed in only the most tenuous of forms. Under the best of the pagan emperors, such as Augustus, certain legal protections were extended to slaves; but, of themselves, slaves had no real rights before the law, and no proper means of appeal against their masters. Moreover, their word was of no account. A slave was so entirely devoid of any “personal” dignity that, when called to testify before a duly appointed court, torture might be applied as a matter of course. For the slave was a man or woman non Habens personam: literally, “not having a persona,” or even “not having a face.” Before the law, he or she was not a person in the fullest and most proper sense. Nor did he or she enjoy any greater visibility—any greater countenance, one might say—before society at large. In a sense, the only face proper to a slave, at least as far as the cultural imagination of the ancient world went, was the brutish and grotesquely leering “slave mask” worn by actors on the comic stage: an exquisitely exact manifestation of how anyone who was another’s property was (naturally) seen.

We today have our bigotries, of course; we can hardly claim to have advanced so far as to know nothing of racism, for instance, or of its most violent expressions; it was not so long ago that blackface and the conventions of the minstrel show were as inoffensive to us as the slave mask was to ancient audiences; and certainly there is no such thing as a society without class hierarchies. All we can claim in our defense is that we have names for the social inequities we see or remember; we are, for the most part, aware—at least, those of us who are not incorrigibly stupid or cruel—that they violate the deepest moral principles we would be afraid not to profess; we are conscious also—the great majority of us, at any rate—that they are historical accidents, which do not reflect the inmost essence of reality or the immemorial decrees of the gods or of nature, and therefore can and should be corrected. But this is only because we live in the long twilight of a civilization formed by beliefs that, however obvious or trite they may seem to us, entered ancient society rather like a meteor from a clear sky. What for us is the quiet, persistent, perennial rebuke of conscience within us was, for ancient peoples, an outlandish decree issuing from a realm outside any world they could conceive. Conscience, after all, at least in regard to its particular contents, is to a great extent a cultural artifact, a historical contingency, and all of us today in the West, to some degree or another, have inherited a conscience formed by Christian moral ideals. For this reason, it is all but impossible for us to recover any real sense of the scandal that many pagans naturally felt at the bizarre prodigality with which the early Christians were willing to grant full humanity to persons of every class and condition, and of either sex.

A few modern men, it is true, have been able to induce a similar dismay in themselves, or have at least succeeded in mimicking it. Nietzsche, for instance, did his very best to share the noble pagan’s revulsion at the sordid social sediments the early church continuously dredged up into its basilicas (though, middle-class pastor’s boy that he was, he never became quite as effortlessly expert in patrician disdain as he imagined he had). But to hear that tone of alarm in its richest, purest, and most spontaneous registers one really has to repair to the pagans themselves: to Celsus, or Eunapius of Sardis, or the emperor Julian. What they saw, as they peered down upon the Christian movement from the high, narrow summit of their society, was not the understandable ebullition of long-suppressed human longings but the very order of the cosmos collapsing at its base, drawing everything down into the general ruin and obscene squalor of a common humanity. How else could they interpret the spectacle but as a kind of monstrous impiety and noisomely wicked degeneracy? In his treatise Against the Galilaeans, Julian complained that the Christians had from the earliest days swelled their ranks with the most vicious, disreputable, and contemptible of persons, while offering only baptism as a remedy for their vileness, as if mere water could cleanse the soul. Eunapius turned away with revulsion from the base gods that the earth was now breeding as a result of Christianity’s subversion of good order: men and women of the most deplorable sort, justly tortured, condemned, and executed for their crimes, but glorified after death as martyrs of the faith, their abominable relics venerated in place of the old gods.

The scandal of the pagans, however, was the glory of the church. Vincent of Lérins, in the early fifth century, celebrated the severe moral tutelage of the monasteries in his native Gaul precisely because it was so corrosive of class consciousness: it taught the sons of the aristocracy humility, he said, and shattered in them the habits of pride, vanity, and luxuriance. It is arguable that, during the second century, the legal and social disadvantages of the lower classes under Rome had grown even more onerous than they had been in previous centuries, and that the prejudices of class had become even more pronounced than they had been in the Hellenistic or earlier Roman world. During this same period, however, Christians not only preached but even occasionally realized, something like a real community of souls, transcendent of all natural or social divisions. Not even the most morally admirable of the pagan philosophical schools, Stoicism, succeeded so strikingly in making a spiritual virtue of indifference to social station. The very law of the church was an inversion of “natural” rank: for Christ had promised that the first would be last and the last first. The Di-dascalia, for instance, prescribed that a bishop ought never to interrupt his service to greet a person of high degree who had just entered the church, lest he—the bishop—be seen to be a respecter of persons; but, on seeing a poor man or woman enter the assembly, that same bishop should do everything in his power to make room for the new arrival, even if he himself should have to sit upon the floor to do so. The same text also makes it clear that the early church might often have arranged its congregations into different groups, distinguished by age, sex, marital status, and so on, simply for propriety’s sake, but that social degree was not the standard by which one’s place was assigned among “the brethren.”2 Men of high attainment—literate, accomplished, propertied, and free—had to crowd in among slaves, laborers, and craftsmen, and count it no disgrace.

I do not wish to exaggerate the virtues of the early Christians on this count. Perfection is not to be found in any human institution, and the church has certainly always been that. Even in the early days of the church, certain social distinctions proved far too redoubtable to exterminate; a Christian slaveholder’s Christian slaves were still slaves, even if they were also their master’s brothers in Christ. And, after Constantine, as the church became that most lamentable of things—a pillar of respectable society—it learned all too easily to tolerate many of the injustices it supposedly condemned. The enfranchised church has never been more than half Christian even at the best of times; often enough, it has been much less than that. Neither, however, should we underestimate how extraordinary the religious ethos of the earliest Christians was in regard to social order, or fail to give them credit for the attempts they did make to efface the distinctions in social dignity which had traditionally separated persons of different rank from one another, but which had been (they believed) abolished in Christ. When all is said and done, the pagan critics of the early church were right to see the new faith as an essentially subversive movement. In fact, they may have been somewhat more perspicacious in this regard than the Christians themselves. Christianity may never have been a revolution in the political sense: it was not a convulsive, violent, or intentionally provocative faction that had some “other vision” of political power to recommend; but neither, for that reason, was the change it brought about something merely local, transient, and finite. The Christian vision of reality was nothing less than—to use the words of Nietzsche—a “transvaluation of all values,” a complete revision of the moral and conceptual categories by which human beings were to understand themselves and one another and their places within the world. It was—again to use Nietzsche’s words, but without his sneer—a “slave revolt in morality.” But it was also, as far as the Christians were concerned, a slave revolt “from above,” if such a thing could be imagined; for it had been accomplished by a savior who had, as Paul said in his Epistle to the Philippians, willingly exchanged the “form of God” for the “form of a slave,” and had thereby overthrown the powers that reigned on high.

Perhaps even more striking than the episode of Peter’s tears—at least, in regard to its cultural setting—is the story of Christ before Pilate. …In the great cosmic hierarchy of rational powers—descending from the Highest God down to the lowliest of slaves—Pilate’s is a particularly exalted place, a little nearer to heaven than to earth, and imbued with something of the splendor of the gods. Christ, by contrast, has no natural claim whatsoever upon Pilate’s clemency, nor any chartered rights upon which he might call; simply said, he has no person before the law. One figure in this picture, then, enjoys perfect sway over life and death, while the other no longer belongs even to himself. And the picture’s asymmetry becomes even starker (and perhaps even more absurd) when Jesus is brought before Pilate for the second time, having been scourged, wrapped in a soldier’s cloak, and crowned with thorns. To the ears of any ancient person, Pilate’s question to his prisoner now—“Where do you come from?”—would almost certainly have sounded like a perfectly pertinent, if obviously sardonic, inquiry into Christ’s pedigrees, and a pointed reminder that, in comparison to Pilate, Christ is no one at all. And Pilate’s still more explicit admonition a moment later—“I have power to crucify you”—would have had something of the ring of a rhetorical coup de grâce. Christ’s claim, on the other hand, that Pilate possesses no powers not given him from above would have sounded like only the comical impudence of a lunatic.

…I have to assume, however, that most of us today simply cannot see Christ and Pilate in this way. We come too late in time to think like ancient men and women, and few of us, I hope, would be so childish as to want to. Try though we might, we shall never really be able to see Christ’s broken, humiliated, and doomed humanity as something self-evidently contemptible and ridiculous; we are instead, in a very real sense, destined to see it as encompassing the very mystery of our own humanity: a sublime fragility, at once tragic and magnificent, pitiable and wonderful. Obviously, of course, many of us are quite capable of looking upon the sufferings of others with indifference or even contempt. But what I mean to say is that even the worst of us, raised in the shadow of Christendom, lacks the ability to ignore those sufferings without prior violence to his or her own conscience. We have lost the capacity for innocent callousness. Living as we do in the long aftermath of a revolution so profound that its effects persist in the deepest reaches of our natures, we cannot simply and guilelessly avert our eyes from the abasement of the victim in order to admire the grandeur of his persecutor; and for just this reason we lack any immediate consciousness of the radical inversion of perspective that has occurred in these pages.

who would love us more than he

This passage from The Belgic Confession (1561, in Article 26) brings to mind “the only lover of mankind” as a way of referencing Jesus within many old prayers:

For neither in heaven nor among the creatures on earth is there anyone who loves us more than Jesus Christ does. Although he was “in the form of God,” Christ nevertheless “emptied himself,” taking “human form” and “the form of a slave” for us; and he made himself “like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” Suppose we had to find another intercessor. Who would love us more than he who gave his life for us, even though “we were enemies” And suppose we had to find one who has prestige and power. Who has as much of these as he who is seated at the right hand of the Father, and who has “all authority in heaven and on earth”?

His mother had been careful to make him aware of that

From Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt (chapter 4):

Suffering at the mercy of the elements was accepted by Jethro as being quite as natural as the hunger for green vegetables and fresh fruit that was always with him during the winter. When one found comfort, he was grateful, but he was never such a fool as to expect a great deal of it. The hardships one endured had a purpose. His mother had been careful to make him aware of that.

all these beliefs rest securely upon a more fundamental and radical faith in the nothing

David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009) lakes up a theme that he’s gone much farther with in recent articles:

Those of us who now, in the latter days of modernity, are truest to the wisdom and ethos of our age place ourselves not at the disposal of God, or the gods, or the Good, but before an abyss, over which presides the empty power of our isolated wills, whose decisions are their own moral index. This is what it means to have become perfect consumers: the original nothingness of the will gives itself shape by the use it makes of the nothingness of the world—and thus we are free.

Earlier in this same chapter of Atheist Delusions, Hart put it this way:

To be entirely modern (which very few of us are) is to believe in nothing. This is not to say it is to have no beliefs: the truly modern person may believe in almost anything, or even perhaps in everything, so long as all these beliefs rest securely upon a more fundamental and radical faith in the nothing—or, better, in nothingness as such. Modernity’s highest ideal—its special understanding of personal autonomy—requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose.

David Bentley Hart picks up this theme again years later in The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (2013):

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the only truly substantial value at the center of the social universe: the price tag.