Stable, local, human communities accumulate folklore over generations. This is a form of wealth that we are no longer capable of producing, valuing, or enjoying. Modern nation-states* no longer have the stable local communities or the value systems required for folklore creation and maintenance. It is well worth considering the many profound values offered by a growing store of folklore as well as the way that a human life is shaped when it is lived in pursuit of this form of wealth.
Folklore cannot be produced and maintained by any single person, no matter how powerful or gifted they are. It requires whole human communities with each of these qualities:
Frequent and reliable communication patterns sustained over a defined geographical region for many generations.
Significant shared labor and leisure times for all classes or subsets of the community to spend listening to and telling stories together in person so that deep repositories of oral tradition are continually being created and maintained.
Strong shared purposes and desires across all classes or subsets of the community so that heroes, villains, and all other story elements will be identified within the community, translated into folklore and/or mythology and carry these clusters of meaning and value onward for generations of people who will hear and retell the stories.
Human communities can value and produce many other types of stories, such as literature (great books) or entertainment (theater and film). However, folklore is radically different from even the most beloved classics of a literary culture, whether we are talking about the sacred writings of a community or simply the “great books” that become enshrined within the halls of education. Even more removed from folklore are the pop songs, comic books, TV shows, and blockbusters of our modern entertainment industry (or the opera, ballet and theater of earlier eras). While some communities within our modern society still have urban legends that develop, almost all other forms of story-telling or myth-making have been commodified or monetized by TV, Hollywood, Disney, celebrity culture, or pulp fiction.
It may be possible for human societies to maintain and enjoy a strong folklore heritage while also enjoying vibrant literary and entertainment cultures. However, there are clearly some elements of mutually exclusive conditions required for communities to consistently develop and enjoy folklore vs. blockbuster films. These different mediums require radically different forms of attention and human interaction, and they also directly compete for limited quantities of leisure time.
The products of folklore have been made very profitable by companies such as Disney and many others. However, folklore as a living practice within a community has never been connected to money or power. Can you imagine the originators of Br’er Rabbit or Robin Hood stories giving a fig about the opportunity to influence the high and mighty of this world? There is a kind of wealth reflected in these stories that cannot be easily given to anyone or easily taken away. Ever since the rise of capitalist economies, we no longer measure wealth in the most substantial or communal of categories. In a strange and vivid little image of what we have lost, C.S. Lewis laments that our society will never see “Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads” (source here). Imagine if all economic and political energies focused entirely on goals such as:
Depth and vibrancy of local folklore traditions.
Rich genetic variety within local strains of produce or livestock.
Or any quantifiable measures of shared spiritual lives and collective empathy across various classes and subcultures within local communities.
Societal values or objectives such as these would radically raise the bar on our ideas of progress and would require very different personal and collective commitments and decision-making criteria. Of all such standards, measuring the health of a rich local folklore is arguably the most meaningful single indicator of a society’s true wealth. This is because the growth of folklore and myth require so many other factors in order to develop: many generations of stable food supplies, predictable family structures, substantial leisure time spent physically together swapping stories that reflect and maintain shared value systems across various social classes.
We have lost the capacity to create and to enjoy folklore because, for many generations now, we have relied upon the written word and because we have pursued money over the ties of family and local community. Our loss of substantial time spent together in conversation and story telling has radically changed the nature of human society and individual experience. After many centuries of writing (and now well beyond the printed age and into the digital age), it is impossible for us to understand the extent of our isolation from each other and from the physical places that we inhabit. When one generation after another spends countless hours standing barefoot on the same piece of land and when these generations of barefoot people sit around the same fire to share the sames stories, the people, their land, and their stories all become one seamless fabric. This is a fabric that our fathers and mothers were torn out of a very long time ago. Writing as a tool for money, power, comfort, and entertainment has come to dominate our human interactions in ways that we cannot see or evaluate from the inside. About 2400 years ago, Socrates made this prophetic point in his dialogue with Phaedrus (written down, ironically, by Plato):
The parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the usefulness or uselessness of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of the written alphabet, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to letters a quality that they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. [That] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. [Translation by Benjamin Jowett (with a few of my own minor clarifications into more contemporary language).]
What would it look like to live a life committed to the restoration of stable local cultures capable of multi-generational creation and enjoyment of rooted oral traditions? I have no idea. It is almost certainly not a goal that any one individual could take up in any meaningful way. It is a goal that would require a community and the commitment of multiple generations. Nonetheless, I pray for the vision to somehow be included in such a work. I have no expectation of being able to see the thing of which I wish to be a part, but I pray that I might still, in some small way, be a part of it. This is not an opposition to writing or to the digital age. I love both alongside oral culture without any sense of contradiction. However, I am saying that our sense of value, proportion and priority are tragically damaged and distorted in ways that must be healed.
There is one more aspect to this vision that is even much more difficult to articulate. God’s entire creation participates in God’s own bright and fiery life of love, and all of creation also participated in human life as human life is made in the very image and likeness of God. I believe that spirits frolic, dance, and sing with every star, sand grain, leaf, ant, and asteroid in this cosmos-temple. When Job 38:7 speaks of how “the morning stars sang together,” I take that very literally.
God made many kinds of living creatures, and they all can be blessed (or harmed) by the life that humans take up (or forfeit) as God’s image bearers and priestly officiants within this loud and swirling temple throng that inhabits God’s creation. These spirits are typically not concerned or obligated in any conscious way by human life (or even by the life of God their maker, given that we’re in a fallen world). Often the disinterest that these other creatures show toward everything that we think is central to our human lives is the greatest gift that these creatures can offer to us. In any case, consciously interested in humanity or not, these many spirits are all bound up with us mortals in ways that run deeper than anything known by even the holiest saints and angels.
Humanity has always known these truths within our oral traditions. We inhabit a world of many spirits, and we know this very well within our folklore. Distinguished Notre Dame professor and world-renowned philosopher David Bentley Hart wrote about this world of spirits in “The Secret Commonwealth” (First Things, 2009). He describes a fabled pamphlet publication by a Scottish Presbyterian minister and Bible translator Robert Kirk (1644 to 1692). In addition to being a scholar trained at St. Andrew’s and Edinburgh, a master of Celtic tongues, and the author of the Gaelic Psalter of 1684, Reverend Kirk also possessed the second sight and wrote a short treaties on “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies” (which I have read for myself). David Bentley Hart writes:
One aspect of Kirk’s investigations I find especially interesting is the purely autochthonous quality he ascribes to the second sight. Once removed from his native heath, says Kirk, a prophet loses the virtue that allows him to see the other world, and he becomes as blind to preternatural presences as any other mortal. He is like Antaeus raised up off the earth. Not only is every fairy a genius loci, every seer is a vates loci with a strictly limited charter. And the reason it pleases me to learn this is that it allows me to offer a riposte to an English friend of mine “a famous theologian whose name (which is John Milbank) I should probably withhold” who has quite a keen interest in fairies, and who regards it as a signal mark of the spiritual inferiority of America that its woods and dells, mountains, and streams, are devoid of such creatures.
In proof of this, he once cited to me the report of some English traveler in the New World who sent back a dispatch from Newfoundland (or somewhere like that) complaining that there were no fairies to be found in these desolate climes. But, ah no, I can say (having read Kirk), of course some displaced sassenach wandering in the woods of North America would be able to perceive none of their ethereal inhabitants, as any faculty he might have had for seeing them would have deserted him. And, anyway, anyone familiar with the Native lore of the Americas knows that multitudes of dangerous and beneficent manitous haunt or haunted these lands. They may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization; and they may therefore be somewhat more Titanic than Olympian in their general character and deportment; but they certainly do not merit disdain or a refusal to acknowledge their existence.
Kirk and Hart both make it clear that a profound relationship exists between the land that human families inhabit and the storied forms of life that share this land with us. Beyond this, Hart strongly suggests that human communities somehow “domesticate” or otherwise influence the local spirits and stories over the course of generations. Hart says that North American fairies “may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization.” This may include some cultural snobbery but may also be mixed with a profound understanding of the many New Testament passages such as 1 Peter 3:22 that speak of the ways in which all “angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to [Jesus Christ].” Paul and all of the apostles inhabited a world permeated by diverse spirits and all deeply intertwined with the will of God for His image bearers.
As someone who grew up in a largely pagan and premodern Asian culture (throughout my childhood listening to shaman and séances working and chanting loudly through the night while following the water buffaloes through the rice paddies and swarms of dragonflies by day), I know just a little about oral cultures. The oldest son of a Presbyterian minister, I’ve ended up standing (for as many holy day as I can manage) within an Eastern Orthodox Church reciting very long verbal liturgies that have developed very slowly over millennia.
I certainly have no idea what I am doing or how to apply any of this for anyone else. However, it has been a great personal blessing to me as I have seen pieces of the human story come together for me more clearly across time and place. Therefore, I’ve shared these thoughts, and I do commend a life lived with a desire to grow in respect for stories and for their vital places within specific human communities.
Peter Pan is not an example of folklore (but of literary culture), and Peter is wrong when he claims: “Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.” However, I do think that every time a family sits down together to the table in their home, there are a few unseen creatures who care enough to pause and to either laugh or cry over every word that is said.
* Nation-state: this is a term coined by historians to describe a radical reorganization of human communities within modernity that represented unprecedented power structures and value systems. Historians continue to dispute exactly how nation-states came into existence, but there is wide agreement that nation states represent a cataclysmic and a relatively recent development in the rules and structures by which humans live and work together. In many ways, nation-states throw an invisibility cloak over the systems of empire and economic domination that drive the stories of interactions between human communities across time.
Life (that is the quality of being alive) is so easily seen in all aspects of creation, and this kind of seeing may be far more reliable than we know. Rocks and landscapes live lives of great loveliness, depth, and mystery. After all, the Spirit, the Giver of Life, broods over all that “is not” and encourages all that “comes to be.”
We say in the creed: “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life.” And this is expanded when we pray in the Trisagion: “O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and ﬁllest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.”
All of life both contains and is contained by bewildering contrasts: wildness and welcome, threat and nurture, symmetry and divergence, predictability and volatility. In all of this layered life, there is a dependable beauty. There is also a direction or purpose that can be sensed or glimpsed but not grasped or seen.
These contrasting and developing qualities of all living things make them impossible to posses, consume, or use. Life’s independent development as well as its irreducible complexity make it impossible to fully describe or to employ. We can respond to life, commune with it, enjoy it, but we cannot have it for our own or make it work for us. In fact, our own life depends on our communion with the life around us, and any effort to have or use the life around us is a destruction of this communion and a step toward our own death. Life cannot be demanded or taken but only received in gratitude and humility.
The difference between communion and consumption is life and death. Sadly, we teach consumption in every aspect of modern life. We teach only efficient production and consumption. Find ways to learn to commune. Find an altar before which to stand in quiet anticipation. Find a eucharist to receive. Eucharist means thanksgiving, and the word comes ultimately from the Greek word for “grace” (a gift offered freely with no expectation of return).
Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and in motherhood we have this same generous communion—this giving and receiving of life. It is no mistake that the first and most living image of the Spirit is that of a mother bird who spreads herself over those within her nest. The Hebrew word in Genesis 1:2 that is often translated “hover” actually means “brood,” as when a mother bird broods over her eggs to bring forth life.
Jesus takes up a long tradition of this image across Scripture (Deuteronomy 32:10-11, Ruth 2:12, and Psa. 17:8, 57:1, 91:4 for examples) when he says: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34)
Rather than seeking to seize, to use, and to hold onto life, may we all learn to receive the life so abundantly offered and to give up our own as an offering poured out. May we learn from our mothers how to live.
In no particular order and from various sources, here are some tips that I’ve heard regarding how to pray and worship in an Orthodox church (and which also double as tips for all of life):
1. Keep your mind quietly within the present moment and only in the present moment. God only meets with us in the present, but we spend most of our time in either the past (nostalgia, regret, bitterness, etc.) or the future (worry, fear, ambition, etc.).
2. Be open, alert, simple, and honest within your heart and mind to all that is within you and around you. Notice your inner emotions and your surroundings, but do not dwell on them. God, who is truth and the Author of reality, will commune with us as we see clearly all that really is. (Our perceptive or intuitive ability—nous—is typically overpowered by our abilities to judge, categorize, plan, and experience emotions. We therefore must quiet our hearts and our minds—not making plans, forming judgements, imagining beautiful things, or dwelling upon emotions—so that we can see and hear clearly everything that truly is. We are not emptying ourselves but quieting ourselves to perceive clearly and alertly.)
4. Everything that you are is important because it is known and loved by your Creator. Everything around you also is vitally important because it is a good gift from your Maker:
the incense rising through the air
the splash of holy water against your face
the candle flames
the smell of myrrh in the anointing oil
the icons before, beside and above you
the words of scripture, song and prayer
the cadences of the singing and chanting
the play of light
the people all around you
the child at your side and the baby in your arms
the parent whose suffering you recall as you pray for all those who are sick.
5. Follow the most experienced worshippers around you (but without worrying about actions and details that are confusing or uncomfortable to you in any way). Save questions for later (after the service) when it is good to ask and learn as much as possible, year after year, about each stage of the service, each personal activity, and the meanings associated with everything.
6. Experience your whole body and with your whole body. Your bodily existence is a gift and a key aspect of being in God’s image. Being aware of your body and of your intentional use of it within worship is a blessing (as well as a powerful aide to remaining present and attentive).
7. Stand straight but relaxed (with hands inactive and arms hanging straight at your sides). If standing becomes so uncomfortable as to distract you, sit down and rest with an upright posture whenever it is most suitable. Be prepared to stand for each of the most solemn moments and activities in each service (if at all possible without injury to yourself).
8. When the priest is visible or audible, pay particular attention to all that is done by him (and to those supporting him) as Christ’s representative within the service.
9. Do nothing to draw attention to yourself or to distract others (other than the most simple acts of helpfulness or kindness).
10. Do nothing to direct or correct others (adults or children) unless you have a particular responsibility, but even then keep all direction to the simplest possible minimum.
11. When caring for young children, the elderly, or the ill, remain as participatory as possible but consider every need of theirs as a part of the body of Christ which you have the privilege to serve.
12. Do not pursue great thoughts or wonderful feelings. Sentimentality is the greatest impediment to true depth of feeling and profundity is the greatest impediment to true clarity of thought.
13. Admit and accept your frailties (wandering thoughts, physical fatigue, inattentiveness, carelessness toward others, etc.), but do not indulge them.
14. Stand quietly before your God and allow Him to enter into your heart. There, He desires to heal you and to commune with you.
15. Attend church services whenever you can do so without neglecting your responsibilities to others, and prepare faithfully at home. Stand in church where you can see and hear. Attend to the beauty of your prayer corner at home. The daily and weekly patterns of prayer and spiritual disciplines as well as the yearly church calendar will continually invite you into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In my very small experience of them, these practices (when returned to after each falling away) will gradually increase:
your ability to use and enjoy your body and to stand still for long periods of time
your ability to pay attention and to notice details in everything around you
your awareness and honesty with your self regarding your own frailties, failures, and self-deceptions (as chief of sinners) as well as your sense of individual calling and gifting by God
your sense of joy and gratitude for the way in which you are known and loved
your deep sorrow over your own life of indifference and animosity
your deep sorrow over your suffering and the suffering of all those who you know
your desire for communion with God.
P.S. Two readers later added these two excellent points:
Be yourself. [A true and wise paradox. Personhood and a free will are found only in communion with God, and God only wants all that we uniquely are as a person. Much more to unpack here.]
Don’t get too stuck in the service books or the pews.
Image credit: from the Atlantic’s “Photos of the Week.” They published it with the caption: “Russian Orthodox believers attend the Orthodox Easter service in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Russia, on April 8, 2018.”
“You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.” Elder Sophrony gave this famous reply to a question from Olivier Clement regarding those who will not open their hearts to the love of God. In this Easter season, with Christ’s glorious and victorious resurrection preeminent, it is worthwhile asking if Jesus Christ is still, in any sense, within hell and among the dead. After all, we do see Jesus one time, long after the resurrection, appearing to be dead and yet enthroned in heaven. When we are introduced with John to the glorious “Lion of the tribe of Judah” enthroned in power at the right hand of the Father, what we actually see is “a Lamb as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:2-10). Even while reigning victoriously from heaven, Jesus Christ is revealed as a victim of sacrifice. Jesus remains, in some important sense, dead.
This idea is in keeping with many fundamentals of biblical truth: that we are united with Christ in his death as well as his life, that we are commanded to take up our cross daily as we follow Jesus, and that we feed ourselves repeatedly upon the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Many mothers and fathers of the church have taught that God is most fully revealed, in all of His glory and power, when Jesus is hanging upon the cross. Fr. Thomas Hopko shared in a lecture that, according to Hugo of St. Victor, “God wants to speak to us, to reveal himself to us, …and when he hangs on the Cross and his arms are open, the Book is open. The Book is totally open, like in the book of Revelation.”
Even before sin and death and all of creation, God was a God who emptied himself. Stephen Freeman has written about an “unfallen suffering” that is found within the life of our Trinitarian God even before creation and outside of time. Each person of the Trinity continually empties themselves in relation to the other persons of the Trinity. Within God’s inner life, there is a profound kind of self-giving, and this should not surprise us because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Therefore, God has always been one who gives Himself fully, and this God is only perfectly revealed by God’s entire self-emptying upon the cross.
Another way of understanding this is to recognize God’s entire strategy against sin and death itself. As Saint John Chrysostom said in his Paschal Sermon: “Hell was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. …It took a dead body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven.” God’s glorious and all-powerful strategy has always been to enter death itself, to find us at our weakest point and to join us there. Maximus the Confessor said: “Christ, the captain of our salvation, turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin” (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”). By becoming our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) and entering death with us, Christ transformed death into something life-giving. Maximus further says that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” By joining with us at our weakest point, Christ gives suffering and death back to us as great weapons against the ravages of our soul sickness and sin.
God’s strategy (of entry into death to commune with those who flee from him) has not changed since Christ’s resurrection. Although God’s entry into death is only accomplished in Jesus Christ, we now also participate in it through our union with Christ. God is now entering into suffering and death through all those who commune with Jesus. In fact, this is the only place to find full communion with Christ, the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). We see this at work in every Christian life and when Paul says: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
Even after the end of time, worship around the throne of our majestic and living king will always include a recognition of his greatest moment: “his voluntary, glorious, and life-giving death” as Christian liturgies repeatedly refer to it. The resurrection power that Jesus Christ displayed on Easter morning came easily to him. His first action after this surge of life brought breath back to his dead body, was to lift the small square of cloth from his face and fold it gently before laying it down. Christ’s great labor came in the final hours of an entire adult life that was directed toward the cross, and this is all that he empowers us to do. If we would seek to exercise the power of God graciously offered to us by Christ’s resurrection, we must shoulder our own cross and pray for the strength to enter death itself. Christ reopened the gates of Paradise that had been shut behind Adam, but he set these gates up just inside the gates of Hades.
I was encouraged to rewrite this poem that I wrote recently:
Your body holds you tighter hourly.
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel.
You have your gasped breaths and throbbing heart.
This morning, your eyes bring less daylight,
and you have let go, almost, of saying.
This less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more.
Today’s snowfall blankets your roof and windows
without your knowing now, joining many here
that taught long of rest and waiting.
These small white bodies
carry downward flames from heaven,
without heat but made of fire still
that banks and burns
Your body holds closer its own light
as a treasure carried far,
carried up, soon, amid a snow that you’ll
a flame to lay down before your Lord.
These are thoughts that I put down as I sat with my Grandma and other family members near the end of my Grandma’s life. She was in her own bedroom and surrounded by loved ones:
My body holds me closer hourly
It will have me know it fully before I’m fully known
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel
I have my gasped breaths and throbbing heart
This morning, my eyes bring less daylight
But this less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more
And I have let go, almost, of saying
Today’s snowfall blankets my roof and windows
Without my knowing now
Still, it joins the many here over months and years
Teaching long of rest and waiting
These small white bodies
Carry downward flames from heaven
Without heat but made of fire still
That banks and burns
My body cradles its own light as a treasure carried far,
Carried up, soon, past a snow that I’ll know newly,
A flame to lay down before my loving lord
Among her last words to me (the day before) were: “My little Jesse, you brought me tadpoles.”
And here also are the two passages that I included in my remarks at my Grandma’s funeral:
And following that train of thought led him back to Earth, back to the quiet hours in the center of the clear water ringed by a bowl of tree-covered hills. That is the Earth, he thought. Not a globe thousands of kilometers around, but a forest with a shining lake, a house hidden at the crest of the hill, high in the trees, a grassy slope leading upward from the water, fish leaping and birds strafing to take the bugs that lived at the border between water and sky. Earth was the constant noise of crickets and winds and birds. And the voice of one girl, who spoke to him out of his far-off childhood.
From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.
A man may say, “I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures.” But if it comes to that why should not a man 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”? One is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments.
…I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.
From “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.
As modern Western people, our dichotomized categories and preconceived notions about body, soul, matter, and spirit are tragically inadequate to the task of engaging with the full mystery and beauty of reality. Ancient people understood reality in ways that we have lost the ability to understand: its full dimensionality, interiority, and microcosmic qualities. As a modern myself, I’m not able to see just how far short our concepts come from being able to appreciate what is truly around us. Moderns have flattened the creation into just a few simple dualities such as: energy and matter, time and space, or (the ugliest reduction of all) supply and demand. In this simplified and demystified world, we’ve blinded ourselves to both the true beauty and meaning of the world outside as well as to the power of the same world as it also exists within ourselves. For human beings, the material world is supposed to be a powerful portal into the realities of life and beauty, into full communion with our Creator. Instead, we have lost this capacity, and we have allowed the material world to become a curtain that hides the rest of reality from our eyes. To undo this, requires long practice. However, there is also some value in trying to understand the categories of thought that blind our minds. This essay is my attempt to share how my own categories of thought have begun to shift.
Ancient Christians (and all ancient peoples in many essential ways) understood the world to be multi-layered, with simultaneous aspects of the same things coexisting within or across space and time. For example, stars and angels were often understood as the same thing but with multiple aspects: changeless cosmic bodies moving in a stately pattern according to the highest laws and mighty spiritual powers who are both conducting a sacred dance and waging a heavenly war.
The “heavenly hosts” made famous by English translations of the Bible have two distinct meanings: one is a reference to the stars; the other to God’s celestial armies, presumably of angels. Sometimes the two references seem to merge. In fact, the two meanings of the Hebrew phrase for “host of heaven” … reflect a probable association between angels and stars and planets in the Hebrew imagination. The heavenly hosts of stars, moreover, sometimes have associations of idolatry, since surrounding pagan nations were given to astrology and worship of the heavenly bodies. [Dictionary of Biblical Imagery by Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit and Tremper Longman, page 372.]
C.S. Lewis makes this same point in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (chapter 14):
“I am Ramandu. But I see that you stare at one another and have not heard this name. And no wonder, for the days when I was a star had ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.”
“Golly,” said Edmund under his breath. “He’s a retired star.”
“…In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
Ancients also saw the world as microcosmic or structured like fractals, with the whole complex pattern recurring at progressively smaller or larger scales. The entire cosmos existed at multiple levels simultaneously:
Many ancient philosophers as well as the Bible taught that each individual human person is a replica of the whole cosmic pattern, a particular union of heaven and earth, and a complete temple to God.
Likewise, the tabernacle/temple is a miniature presentation of the entire cosmos.
Finally, the entire cosmos itself is a temple modeled after God’s heavenly temple and throne room (with humanity as the priest and the divine image who makes God present within all of creation).
This kind of teaching is taken for granted throughout the scripture. For example, when Christ said that the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:20-21). Ancient Christian authors also reflected often on this theme. For example, Augustine wrote:
These things do I within, in that vast chamber of my memory. For there are near me heaven, earth, sea. …Therefore is the mind too narrow to contain itself. And where should that be which it does not contain of itself? …Men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves. …Where in my memory do You abide, O Lord? …What manner of chamber have You there formed for Yourself? What sort of sanctuary have You erected for Yourself? You have granted this honour to my memory, to take up Your abode in it. [Confessions (Book X)]
Ancient people understood the heavenly realm or the spiritual world to be both inside and above the physical world or earthly realm. Each of these spatial analogies are true, and both are metaphorical. As moderns, we have only kept a distorted understanding of the idea that the heavenly world is “above” the earthly realm, and this idea only makes it easier for us to reject the relevance or the reality of the heavenly world. Ancients believed that the spiritual world was “within” all of the physical world because the spiritual or heavenly realm expresses deeper truths about us and our world. Heaven, as it exists inside each thing around us, can shows us how each thing is made and what each thing truly is (at the core of its being). Finally, these more essential realities are said to be “inside” because they tend to be “hidden” or “mysterious” to us. We cannot as easily see, take, and try to possess or control the heavenly realities that surround us within the material world. This presumption of possession and control is a terrible mistake that we make constantly as modern people. It blinds us more profoundly than anything else to the true beauty and value of all that surrounds us. Thinking of the world in simply material terms, we make the world less sacred, and we make is more easy for us to think that we can “have” or “use” the things around us. As we try to “make use of” the material things surrounding us to increase our power and comfort, we become completely ignorant of the more powerful and uncontrollable spiritual qualities that are internal to these things. We utilize material things without realizing the spiritual death that we are bringing upon ourselves. We are like orcs chopping down trees while heedless of the ents.
Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers does an excellent job of unpacking the old idea of heavenly or spiritual realities being “within” all earthly or material realities. Although recommending the book highly, I am critical of his implication that the “internal” metaphor can be an almost complete explanatory category. Heavenly and spiritual realities are neither “above” or “within” in any complete or literal sense. Wink would agree with this, but his ideas rely heavily on the “‘withinness” of all spiritual realities.
One more way that we moderns have demystified the world is by splitting the world into material and spiritual realities that do not have any vital need to coexist. In the ancient mind, heaven and earth depended upon each other in a wide variety of complex ways. The spatial metaphor of “above” did teach that heavenly realities were more meaningful, substantial, or vital (“higher” in some sense). However, this idea of heaven being above the earth did not mean that heaven is in any sense distant from the earth. Heaven was always understood to be close at hand. We are in both heaven and earth at the same time every day, and heaven only becomes distant as a result of our own blindness and sin. Paul and other New Testament writers talk repeatedly about us being seated in heaven and carrying out vital activities in heaven at the same time as we are on the earth. We are clearly understood to be in both places. However, the heavenly Jerusalem still needs to “come down to earth” and be married to the earth in a wedding celebration that will heal the rift that has opened between heaven and earth as a result of our human rebellion and blindness:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” [Revelation 21:1-3a]
Earthly and heavenly realities are created to be complementary (as are material and spiritual realities by extension). Each aspect of the world offers something to the other. Earthly things are good and offer to us a relationship or contact point with heavenly things. Likewise, heavenly things are good and can show us the true nature and value of earthly things. As embodied creatures, our communion with heaven is clearly intended to be mediated by a right relationship with the material world (understood as the good and revelatory gift of God that it always is).
To regain contact with reality as a marriage of both the earthly and the heavenly, we must go back into the history of terms such as “body” and “soul” or “spirit” and “matter.” There are well over a thousand years of profound Christian writings (and even more importantly, practices) regarding a whole host of terms about our human abilities and parts. As just a few examples: heart, spirit, soul, body, strength, will, passions, flesh, and nous (“understanding” is a good translation, but we generally just don’t get this term today). Of course, these terms are all rich Greek and New Testament concepts, several with deep Hebrew roots as well. Regaining the good use of these (and several other such terms) should start with word studies, and these words have very physical (enfleshed) roots, particularly in Hebrew. Word studies are not abstractions, because language is always grounded in concrete metaphors from the bodily experiences of human persons. “Spirit,” for example is “breath” or “wind” in Hebrew, which is both remarkably tangible but also impossible to fully see or constrain.
To get at what “spiritual” and “heavenly” mean, it is critical to keep both the earthy word origins as well as the earthly target clearly in view. As the Lord’s prayer says: “on earth as it is in heaven.” As humans, our wholeness is primary, and we cannot separate any part of ourselves fully out from the rest of us or place any part of ourselves into competition with other parts. Ultimately, our spirit, soul and body are mutually dependant entities, and we must start with our bodily experiences as the basis of our spiritual lives.
Another fact that keeps the study of these terms profoundly practical and embodied (vs. abstract or theoretical), is that all of these terms were first developed and debated in the context of learning to worship and pray (by Jews and later by Christians). We don’t realize today that virtually all arguments over the technicalities of terms such as “will” or “nous” or over the human nature of Christ (as well as over trinitarian doctrines and the hypostatic union of Christ’s divine and human natures) were grounded in the daily practices of worship and prayer. Christ prayed “not my will but your will be done,” and Maximus the Confessor had his tongue ripped out and his right hand cut off because he insisted that Christ had a fully human will. Maximus was a scholar, but his scholarship was grounded in practices of prayer that imitated Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane as well as practices that relied upon Christ’s restoration of our human will to freely cooperate with the will of God. The emperor who ordered that Maximus to be rendered incapable of speaking and writing was actually the one obsessed with pure abstractions. He was intellectually offended at the idea of Christ having a human will. Maximus, however, was motivated by his own experiences of prayer and of striving to be unified with God’s will.
From my little reading in the monastic traditions (desert fathers and mothers), it seems that “nous” and “passions” are the two most seriously lost or misunderstood terms. I won’t try to write about “nous” other than to say that I think it has something to do with having our perceptions wide open to God’s presence. My focus hear, however, is the interrelationship of seeming dualities such as matter and spirit or body and soul. In this context I will say more about the passions, but first I must back up to talk about our bodies.
Monastics systematically subdued and trained their bodies in order to regain their bodies as an essential and powerful means for communion with their loving Creator. They loved their bodies and wanted their bodies back from the tyranny of the passions, and that is why they pushed their bodies to the point of ruination. A weak body that worked powerfully as a mediator and conduit of God’s presence in all of the created world (the original purpose of our bodies) was far more healthy and delightful than a strong body that was enslaved and insensible to God’s presence.
Saints bodies are precious to themselves and likewise precious to those who love the saint. Christ’s body, even dead, was precious to the myrrh-bearing women. Christ’s body, even dead, was a means of God’s presence and communion with us. This is why the Orthodox still treasure and honor the bodies and even the cloths of saints. Elijah’s mantle carried his holiness, and Elisha’s ancient bones brought a dead man to life. Even since God’s Spirit brooded like a mother bird over the surface of the primordial waters and ever since this Spirit indwelt the clay of our first parents, this Spirit has been deeply involved with material things. Our human bodies both make manifest God’s presence (as does all matter) and also bring that presence to us via all five senses.
Paul seems to use “flesh” to denote the desire for things other than God. “Fleshly” and “worldly” vs. “heavenly” in Paul’s writings are not actually about material vs. immaterial. Platonists and Gnostics despised material things. In Plato’s cave, the shadow world had to be left far behind. This is not the Christian message. God’s material creation is good, and it is a powerful tool for communion with God. Paul’s terms “flesh” and “world” do not denigrate the human body or the material world. “Fleshly” and “heavenly” indicate purposes or orientations (specifically, realms of power and authority), with the same good material things being subject to different purposes and powers. Material things are “heavenly” insofar as we allow them to mediate God’s presence and God’s communion with us. These same material things are “fleshly” or “worldly” insofar as we abuse them to serve as distractions, alternatives, or barriers to God’s presence with us.
In a similar way, “passions” (within the writings of the monastics) were not simply strong feelings or bodily desires. This term, again, has to do with orientation or purpose. Within a long and profoundly practical tradition of writing and teaching about Christian prayer, the “passions” came to mean all of the habitual needs and desires that we develop for anything other than God. Feelings that do not control us or draw us away from God are not evil. However, we tend to need much work to learn to desire God, and our strong desires are often cruel taskmasters that work against our ability to love and long after God. Death is sometimes called the greatest passion because all of our desires for things other than God lead naturally to death. Christ’s death is also called his passion. In a remarkable reversal, St. Maximus the Confessor argues that Christ turned death from the most powerful weapon against our human natures (threatening to destroy them) into our most powerful weapon against sin (setting free our human natures). Christ made our passions and death itself a means of our salvation.
At this point, I want to close with a series of reflections that draw primarily on my personal experience. I find that it is delightful and profoundly comforting to be able to recognize and respond throughout my day to Christ’s presence with us in human history—to be able to enjoy (with my own body) the material results (or relics) of his incarnation as a man among us. What I mean is to be able to venerate his image, his cross, the bodies of his ministers and saints, the chalice from which I receive his body and blood. The Seventh Ecumenical Council restored the use of icons to the church after sophisticated thinkers (who wanted to make Christianity as spiritually and philosophically tidy and impressive as Islam) had taken the icons away.
St. John of Damascus wrote beautifully in defense of icons. Adam and Eve were the first icons (same word as images and idols) of God, and God told humans not to make any images of God because God did not want humans to replace themselves as the image of God. The tabernacle and temple were full of images. However, the mercy seat appeared empty (although filled with the fire and cloud of Spirit glory at key times), and the priest was the primary image or mediator of God’s presence. With Jesus Christ, the image of God in humanity is perfectly restored, and all images of the human Jesus Christ are images of God. Jesus Christ brings together the glory-cloud and the priest at His transfiguration. Also, all images of Christ’s saints are primarily icons of Jesus (including his living icons—us the church militant).
Now that Christ has come to live a perfect life among us, participating fully in our material existence, the only way to combat idolatry is to reverence, cherish, kiss, and adore every material thing that points to Jesus Christ (which turns out to be just about every single particle of matter that surrounds us). The only way to learn to worship the true God is to venerate all of the icons, images, and holy object that have been taken up into the celebration and worship of Jesus Christ over the thousands of years since his life among us. I love the line from Winks book: “We discover our body as ‘temple’ by going to a temple.” I would add that we also discover all of creation as a temple (it’s clear purpose throughout the Bible).
Here’s a little from St. John of Damascus (7th century):
I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.
Even when we can’t see or feel it, we are blessed by having any small sign of Christ’s presence tangibly offered to us. Here is an extract from The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (a short scene described from memory by Prince Myshkin, the title character, when he is pressed to suggest a subject for a painting):
There is a ladder to the scaffold. Suddenly at the foot of the ladder he began to cry, and he was a strong, manly fellow; he had been a great criminal, I was told. The priest never left him for a moment; he drove with him in the cart and talked with him all the while. I doubt whether he heard; he might have begun listening but not have understood more than two words. So it must have been. At last he began going up the ladder; his legs were fettered so that he could move with only short steps. The priest, who must have been an intelligent man, left off speaking and only gave him the cross to kiss. At the foot of the ladder he was very pale, and when he was at the top and standing on the scaffold, he became as white as paper, as white as writing paper. His legs must have grown weak and wooden, and I expect he felt sick as though something were choking him and that made a sort of tickling in his throat. Have you ever felt that when you were frightened, or in awful moments when all your reason is left, but it has no power? I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction—if a house is falling upon you, for instance—one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes and wait, come what may…When that weakness was beginning, the priest with a rapid movement hastily put the cross to his lips—a little plain silver cross—he kept putting it to his lips every minute. And every time the cross touched his lips, he opened his eyes and seemed for a few seconds to come to life again, and his legs moved. He kissed the cross greedily; he made haste to kiss, as though in haste not to forget to provide himself with something in case of need; but I doubt whether he had any religious feeling at the time. And so it was till he was laid on the plank…It’s strange that people rarely faint at these last moments. On the contrary, the brain is extraordinarily lively and must be working at a tremendous rate—at a tremendous rate, like a machine at full speed. I fancy that there is a continual throbbing of ideas of all sorts, always unfinished and perhaps absurd too, quite irrelevant ideas—‘That man is looking at me. He has a wart on his forehead. One of the executioner’s buttons is rusty.’—and yet all the while one knows and remembers everything. There is one point which can never be forgotten, and one can’t faint, and everything moves and turns about it, about that point. And only think that it must be like that up to the last quarter of a second, when his head lies on the block and he waits and…knows, and suddenly hears above him the clang of the iron! He must hear that! If I were lying there, I should listen on purpose and hear. It may last only the tenth part of a second, but one would be sure to hear it. And only fancy, it’s still disputed whether, when the head is cut off, it knows for a second after that it has been cut off! What a thought! And what if it knows it for five seconds!
Paint the scaffold so that only the last step can be distinctly seen in the foreground and the criminal having just stepped on it; his head, his face as white as paper; the priest holding up the cross, the man greedily putting forward his blue lips and looking—and aware of everything. The cross and the head—that’s the picture. The priest’s face and the executioner’s, his two attendants and a few heads and eyes below might be painted in the background, in half light, as the setting…That’s the picture!
Since reading this passage, my life now maps in many ways to this prisoner on the way to the executioner’s block. I’m offered the little cross to kiss (in daily and weekly prayers and sacraments), and I’m recalled to life long enough to take one more step, to get up and move forward for one more day or week or minute. Although, in day-to-day living, I am only occasionally aware of my needs to this extent.
To close with a few images that resonate more regularly in day-to-day life, Saint Macarius (4th century) describes the human heart this way:
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, Homily 15.32]
Outside of ourselves, Chesterton has lovely passages about our “cosy little cosmos,” and how it should feel like a warm and welcoming home (rather than a vast and uninhabitable universe). Chesterton captures the idea of the whole material cosmos as conveying the presence of our Creator and Father in heaven. Gerard Manley Hopkins also does this remarkably in many of his poems (for example, when he describes the stars as our glimpse into the home of “Christ and his mother and all his hallows“). Finally, I’m reminded of Robert Kirk’s claim (in The Secret Commonwealth) that there is “no place nor creature but is supposed to have other animals (greater or lesser) living in or upon it as inhabitants; and no such thing as a pure wilderness in the whole universe.” Taken together, these images of the universe from Chesterton, Hopkins, and Kirk suggest that the physical sciences of astronomy and atomic physics are both exploring the domains of human and angelic life. Madeline L’Engle is another author who makes this point that microscopes and telescopes both point into the realm of heavenly powers. This is the entire premise of A Wind in the Door, and Meg’s battle cry at the end of that story captures much of this:
Be caterpillar and comet,
be porcupine and planet,
sea sand and solar system,
sing with us,
dance with us,
rejoice with us,
for the glory of creation,
sea gulls and seraphim,
angle worms and angel host,
chrysanthemum and cherubim
Sing for the glory
of the living and the loving
the ﬂaming of creation
Even Disney Studios has given it’s own voice to this ancient understanding of our entire cosmos as the home of us and our ancestors:
Pumbaa: Timon, ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?
Timon: Pumbaa, I don’t wonder; I know.
Pumbaa: Oh. What are they?
Timon: They’re fireflies. Fireflies that, uh… got stuck up on that big bluish-black thing.
Pumbaa: Oh. Gee. I always thought that they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.
Timon: Pumbaa, wit’ you, everything’s gas.
Pumbaa: Simba, what do you think?
Simba: Well, I don’t know…
Pumbaa: Aw come on. Give, give, give… Well, come on, Simba, we told you ours… pleeeease?
Simba: …Well, somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there, watching over us.
Timon: You mean a bunch of royal dead guys are watching us?
Pumbaa: Who told you something like that?
Timon: What mook made that up?
Simba: Yeah. Pretty dumb, huh?
There are no one-to-one corollaries between the material and the heavenly realms. The connections between “earthy things” and “ethereal things” work like language—like metaphors and the etymologies of words—with multiple clusters of association and with rooted histories branching back into the past. Scientific knowledge is wonderful. However, when we think of knowledge as the exploration of how matter and energy interact (or any other reductions), we impoverish our understanding of the world that we seek to know. True knowledge is always a form of love. The starting point, therefore, is simply to honor all matter—from galaxies to nuclei—to love both their stories and their structures as beautiful and mysterious revelations.
We must regain ways of seeing and talking aboutGod (and all of God’s creatures) within all of Creation. This is simply learning to “pray without ceasing” during every type of work throughout our daily lives. This means learning to have a different consciousness of the physical world and of our own bodies. Our modern lives do not teach us this. Ancient prayer practices did teach this greater consciousness of ourselves and our surroundings. In addition, all of the natural processes of maturation and suffering (such as losing a loved one) still do teach us these ways of understanding. We simply have many distractions in our current ways of living. We have to move slowly but deliberately to recover these older ways of seeing.
When Christ ascended to heaven to be hidden behind a cloud (and enthroned beside God the Father in glory until his return), Christ was hidden from view like the sun—just veiled by the clouds. Many ancient hymns draw close parallels between Christ and the sun (reigning victorious from heaven and giving light to all). I often tell my children that Jesus is not far away. Although he has a glorified body in heaven that we cannot see, I emphasized that his heavenly body is “as close as the sun.” It is just hidden by clouds for now, not immediately visible but close at hand, still indirectly seen and felt. I also remind my children that the body and blood of Jesus are given to us in the chalice from the altar—as food and drink that we take into our bodies. We know Jesus Christ through many different things and in many different ways, including this sunlight and this bread and wine. His closeness to us is profound.
Note: here are two books that I felt were particularly helpful to me with some of this a few years ago:
The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken.
Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith.
I’m also drawing (very ineptly) upon my understandings of many other writers such as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, David Bentley Hart, and Fr. Stephen Freeman.
Father Stephen Freeman recommends Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers:
A book worth looking at viz. the powers is Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers. As successive volumes of this came out, I thought it got a bit strange, but I remember this volume as very much worth the read.
The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph. For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God. But Christ has conquered them all.
In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession.
From Freeman, for example:
But in the Eastern Church, the Baptism of Christ takes up these Old Testament references of struggle with the watery chaos. Christ’s entry into the waters is understood as a foreshadowing of His entrance into Hades. It is a defeat of the hostile powers. The same theme runs throughout the sacrament of Baptism itself. The destruction of the demons is easily the strongest theme within that service. …It is not a hymn of payment, or punishment, but of going into the strongman’s kingdom, binding him and setting free those who are held captive. The heads of the dragons are crushed, the heads of leviathan are broken in pieces, Rahab has been cut apart.
Within the comments, Freeman acknowledges some common ground with Hart:
Hart is close on in his description, but his article is far too short. “Archons” (Ages) and the like (principalities, powers, etc.) are various forms of spiritual beings – though we shouldn’t necessarily equate them exactly with angels. It’s more complex than that. The gnostics use some of the same terms, but do not seem to have in mind the same things as described in St. Paul.
…It’s a very complex set of understandings – which makes it so easy for pseudo-scholars to manipulate for various agendas rather than trying to articulate what is, in fact, the case (with St. Paul, etc.). But I would agree with Hart, that what most people (i.e. our present Western understanding) see when they read St. Paul is, in fact, not what’s there.
In addition to my reading of Freeman and Hart as a recent convert to Orthodoxy (the tradition that both authors espouse), I personally have been teaching a medieval literature class (to middle school students) and reflecting on the nature of elves and monsters within medieval literature as well as the works of Tolkien, Lewis, and Macdonald. See here and here, for examples.
Within these contexts, I have again encountered the ideas of “the principalities and powers” of the Biblical authors.
Naming the Powers by Walter Wink was a very strong study of the terms involved. Wink starts with the texts and responds to the tendency of modern liberation theology to reduce “the powers” to the institutional, social, and legal structures of injustice. Wink also responds to other modern authors who have attempted to reduce the powers to “good” angelic beings carrying out the will of God.
In his own conclusions, Wink seeks to fully synthesize or reconcile ancient (mythic and spiritual) with modern (material or institutional/phycological/sociological) understandings. In his own conclusions from the texts, Wink is critical of both ancient and modern ideas or worldviews. Wink is critical of traditionalists (including the “orthodox church” specifically) for simply spiritualizing these “powers” as well as of moderns for reducing “the powers” to material or scientific categories. (Wink’s criticism of the Orthodox is ill-informed but in a very typical and understandable way.)
What I propose is viewing the spiritual Powers not as separate heavenly or ethereal entities but as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power. I suggest that the “angels of nature” are the patterning of physical things-rocks, trees, plants, the whole God-glorifying, dancing, visible universe; that the “principalities and powers” are the inner or spiritual essence, or gestalt, of an institution or state or system; that the “demons” are the psychic or spiritual power emanated by organizations or individuals or subaspects of individuals whose energies are bent on overpowering others; that “gods” are the very real archetypal or ideological structures that determine or govern reality and its mirror, the human brain; that the mysterious “elements of the universe” (stoicheia cheia tou kosmou) are the invariances (formerly called “laws”) which, though often idolized by humans, conserve the self-consistency of each level of reality in its harmonious interrelationship with every other level and the Whole; and that “Satan” is the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity, a power that increases or decreases according to the degree of collective refusal to choose higher values.
…These “Powers” do not, then, on this hypothesis, have a separate, spiritual existence. We encounter them primarily in reference to the material or “earthly” reality of which they are the innermost essence. The spiritual aspect of the Powers is not simply a “personification” of institutional qualities that would exist whether they were personified or not. On the contrary, the spirituality of an institution exists as a real aspect of the institution even when it is not perceived as such.
…It is far from the case, then, that human beings create their gods. The “spirits” of things emerge with the things themselves and are only subsequently divined as their inner essence. The gods, spirits, and demons are not mere personifications or hypostatizations. That is the language of reductionism; it means that these entities are not regarded as real, but only as poetic fictions or shorthand for speaking about realities the historian knows how to describe more precisely with his analytical tools. Personification means illusion. The Powers we are speaking about, on the contrary, are real. They work on us whether we acknowledge them or not. They do not depend on our belief for their efficacy. Humans cannot even lay claim to creating these Powers indirectly, by virtue of creating the structures…. To be sure, we do establish new structures and modify old ones. Insofar as we share in the creative process and bring new consciousness to it, we help create the spirituality of things. There is a reciprocity, so we could argue that it is as true to say that the gods create us as to say that we create the gods.
I agree with Wink that the ancient Christian understanding of these powers (and of the heavenly realm in totality) did not separate the physical and the spiritual realms but rather understood them to be radically and totally coterminous. Wink draws this critical insight out beautifully. However, in his synthesis of ancient and modern categories of thought, Wink does not fully account for the continuity and distinctness of the various “powers” as creatures made by God. We must recognize that God creates the “inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power” and that these “inner realities” can exist across time and in relation to multiple physical or “outer realities.” Wink himself gives an excellent example of this without seeming to concede the full implications of his example:
The very demons themselves, so long regarded as baleful spirits in the air, are pictured by the Gospels as abhorring decorporealization. When Jesus orders the “Legion” of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, they plead to be allowed to possess a nearby herd of swine (Mark 5:12). The historicity of the conception is guaranteed regardless of the historicity of the event. The unclean spirit can find no rest without a physical body in which to reside (Luke 11:24-26). The sense is clear: demons can become manifest only through concretion in material reality. They are, in short, the name given that real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities, and nations.
I fully appreciate the point about the “demons themselves … abhorring decorporealization,” but Wink seems to miss that it is the same demons inhabiting a single human at one moment and multiple pigs at the next. The demons are more than the “the psychic or spiritual power emanated” by a man (or a herd of pigs) “whose energies are bent on overpowering others.” These demons are intimately bound up with these destructive qualities in the man and the pigs, but they are also independent of both the man and the pigs in some fundamental way. Wink may account for this by not connecting all “powers” and interior realities to specific outward realities, but I did not notice him making this case.
Having read Wink, it seems to me most likely that God made more specific internal and spiritual realities than there are specific material and external realities. Every single person, nation, city, star, and blade of grass has its own unique angel that participates fully with the outer reality of that particular person or blade of grass (God and His spiritual servants being outside of time, the shortness of life for blades of grass is not a major issue here), but there are also angels (fallen, faithful, or just ignorant and confused) who are not directly connected to specific material things and who move among all of the many external/material realities that align with their own ways of being. Any person or institution manifesting hate and pride can accommodate Satan or some other such devils, for example.
These quibbles not withstanding, I am very grateful to Wink for his clear and thoughtful exposition of “the powers” in the Bible. My list of “things learned” from his book would be long indeed! Please see these excerpts and buy his book to read in full. Here are some of the areas in which I took away clarified and enriched understandings:
All New Testament authors were heavily invested in sophisticated ideas and complex vocabularies regarding hierarchical spiritual powers (that were typically coterminous with earthly and material powers).
Heaven is not a remote realm that is separate from earth in terms of space. Rather, heaven is the realm where the spiritual and inner qualities or truths of all things within the created world are seen and manifest.
Spiritual realities are not best understood as simply “immaterial” but in positive categories such as more fundamental, hidden, or interior.
Biblical authors had sophisticated ideas of angels connected to each nation of the earth.
Biblical authors understood heaven, earth, and each human person in terms of macrocosm and microcosm. They understood there to be a deep reciprocity, connection, or correspondence between different realms and on different scales. Each human person is a temple that in some sense reflects all of the material cosmos which is itself a temple that reflects the heavenly throne room of God.
In prayer and in faithful service to God, the church preaches to the angelic powers, teaching and changing realities within their realm. In connection to this, the book includes some specific and meaningful consideration of the divine liturgy in depicted in John’s Revelation.
I am trying to articulate the significance of Hart/Milbank/Chestertons’ appreciation for faerie for the endeavor of Christian formation. Any thoughts?
Three answers come to mind initially:
Most clear and helpful: faerie is a realm of story and imagination uniquely suited to teach us that all creation communicates the glory of God and that all creation can be our teacher in the ways of God. Through the world of faerie, we learn invaluable lessons about wonder, mystery, reverence, courage, and patience as it actually exists within the “real” or “everyday” world. G.K. Chesterton probably says this best, and a starting point would be chapter III in Orthodoxy: “The Ethics of Elfland.”
More complex to communicate (but perhaps profoundly important): the world of faerie grounds us and connects us to the stories of our people and our place. A people is know by its language, its gods, and its land. Modernity has uprooted many of us from place and family heritage. We do not know and care for the same streams and hillsides over generations as so many of our ancestors did for past centuries. We have also lost our relationship to our ancestors and our language. As we moderns seek a way home following the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, I expect that we will see lifestyle changes coinciding with a revival of oral tradition and story-telling in formats that span generations. (Tolkien masters this type of story-telling like no one else, as his deeply informed myth-making takes up and synthesizes the entire corpus and tradition of storytelling within the English language.)
Most speculative and difficult to communicate: faerie can be understood as part of a healthy Christianization or as the outworking of Jesus Christ’s dominion over the powers of creation and of the pagan gods. C.S. Lewis makes a strong case that the realm of faerie cannot be clearly categorized within a classical and Christian synthesis of the created order, and he claims that this is a key aspect of its value (chapter VI in The Discarded Image: “The Longaevi”). However, Lewis does end his discussion of faerie with four possible ways of understanding these creatures. He clearly rejects the idea that faerie should be associated with fallen angels and leaves himself only the options of lower angelic beings or of some third type of created beings who have been made closely associated with various areas and features of our earthly home. Decrying that some later Renaissance thinkers associated Fairies with “fallen angels; in other words, devils” and that “this becomes almost the official view after the accession of James I,” C.S. Lewis concludes: “One might have expected the High Fairies to have been expelled by science; I think they were actually expelled by a darkening of superstition.” Lewis speaks positively about the idea that some pagan gods may have developed more modest and healthy relationships with their local communities over time (as the Christian faith spread and these local powers were freed of potentially demonic domination and could live new and potentially less baleful lives): “Some studies of folklore are almost entirely concerned with the genealogy of beliefs, with the degeneration of gods into Fairies. It is a very legitimate and most interesting inquiry.” Lewis uses the term “degeneration” here to have common ground with those making a formal study of folklore, but he clearly would not see this change from gods to fairies as a negative development from a Christian standpoint.
In summary, I would say that a Christian and a biblical imagination must include a robust engagement with the realm of faerie. It is critical to Christian formation, and it is readily accessible to everyone in the form of great stories that lie at the heart and the root of our culture and heritage. Christians should continue looking to the likes of Tolkien, MacDonald, Chesterton, and Lewis for ongoing guidance and inspiration in this task. However, this is not primarily an intellectual or even an artistic task. This is ultimately connected to our lives and how we choose to live them: our commitment to concrete places and heritage.
Three primary sources in my mind:
Chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton: “The Ethics of Elfland.”
Chapter VI in The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis: “The Longaevi.” (This book is a collection of his lectures introducing the world of Medieval and Renaissance literature.)
“On Fairy-Stories” by J.R.R. Tolkien for the Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, in 1939. It received attention in printed form when it was published in Tree and Leaf (1964).
One need not believe in fairies to grasp that there is no good reason why one ought not to do so. To see the world as inhabited by these vital intelligences, or to believe that behind the outward forms of nature there might be an unperceived realm of (intelligent order, is simply to respond rationally to one of the ways in which the world seems to address us, when we intuit simultaneously its rational frame and the depth of mystery it seems to hide from us. It may be that the apprehension of such an unseen order, when it comes in the form of folklore about fabulous beings, has been overlaid by numerous strata of illusion, but so what? Everything we know about reality comes to us with a certain alloy of illusion, not accidentally, but as an indispensable condition. Even the dreariest Kantian can tell you that our ability to know the world depends upon those transcendental qualities the mind impresses upon it before it can impress them upon the mind, and that all perception requires the supreme fictions of the synthetic a priori. At the most primordial level of consciousness, the discrimination between truth and fantasy—if by truth, one means the strictly empirically verifiable—becomes merely formal.
Moreover, even if one suspects this is not a matter so much of illusion as of delusion, again that is of no consequence. A delusion this amiable is endlessly preferable to boredom, for boredom is the one force that can utterly defeat the will to be, and so the will to care at all what is or is not true. It is only some degree of prior enchantment that allows the eye to see, and to seek to see yet more. And so, deluded or not, a belief in fairies will always be in some sense far more rational than the absolute conviction that such things are sheer nonsense, and that the cosmos consists in nothing but brute material events in haphazard combinations. Or, I suppose, another way of saying this would be that the ability of any of us to view the world with some sort of contemplative rationality rests upon the capacity we possessed as children to see in everything a kind of articulate mystery, and to believe in far more than what ordinary vision discloses to us: a capacity that endows us with that spiritual eros that allows us to know and love the world, and that we are wise to continue to cultivate in ourselves even after age and disillusion have weakened our sight.
Here are two other blog posts in which David Bentley Hart writes about related ideas:
At the bottom of most traditional images of Christ’s baptism (Theophany icons), there are two figures riding fish (or waves or other sea creatures) and turning away or fleeing from Jesus Christ as He enters the water. These two figures represent all the powers of the deep as they were subdued by Jesus Christ when he entered into the Jordan river. Specifically, the two figures are personifications of the Red Sea and the Jordan River. These two bodies of water are connected together by the Biblical story of Israel fleeing from Egypt and being rescued by God as they crossed the Red Sea at the start of their journey and the Jordan River at the end. We see this idea of God subduing these bodies of water within Psalm 114:5, where the singer writes: “What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?”
Within some of these ancient images, these two figures are easily lost amid all of the other activity:
In some images, these figures are blended in with the water as if they are themselves made of water:
Often, one of the figures is pouring water out of a great jar, representing the headwaters or the source and origin of the seas and rivers:
Most often, these figures are shown riding fish and other water creatures, with their local authority represented by the rods, yokes, and reins in their hands. In this last icon, we also see the serpents of the deep crushed under the gates of Hades (in the shape of the cross). Many hymns and prayers at Theophany reference the dragons and sea monsters lurking in the waters and crushed by Christ at his baptism.
These personifications of the Jordan River and the Red Sea are typically understood as simply symbolic. Throughout some of Christian church history, such natural “authorities” have also been understood as demonic. However, within the worldview of those who wrote the Bible and painted these images, these figures were understood as real powers within God’s created order who could serve either God or other powers (such as themselves or the demonic forces). Bible writers refer often to the “gods” as real entities (and not necessarily demonic), and Paul speaks regularly about the various ranks of created “powers” and “authorities” who were made subject to Jesus Christ after his resurrection and ascension to be enthroned in heaven. In Colossians 1:20, Paul says that Christ has reconciled “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” Within the Bible, there is clearly an idea of various types of created powers within nature (heaven and earth) that were originally subject to God (and to humans as God’s image bearers). However, after the fall of humanity, these powers were no longer under clear authority. They could sometimes serve demonic or angelic powers, but might also be simply “neutral agents” connected to many of the specific places and forces of God’s created world. Some scholars would understand all such authorities as being among the various ranks of angels (those who fell away from service to God as well as those who continued to serve their Creator). However, some Bible passages suggest that there are more complex ranks and categories of spiritual and ethereal creatures than simply the angels. One hymn in the Royal Hours for Theophany even references the “gin” (from an Antiochian service):
O Life-giving Lord, when Thou didst come to the Jordan in the flesh, in the likeness of man, willing to be baptized to lighten us who have erred, delivering us from all the wiles of the dragon and his gins.
Regardless of what we might make of all this, it also seems clear from scripture that we are not to be fascinated or fearful regarding these realms and powers. They are not our direct responsibility or concern. The Scriptures simply make it clear that we have nothing to fear in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, however, it is also unhealthy to simply dismiss all such created powers as simply superstitious nonsense. David Bentley Hart makes this point wonderfully in the essays linked above. It is good to have a sense of wonder and mystery about the various powers within God’s creation (without fearing them or seeking to control them).
I have put the Longaevi or longlivers into a separate chapter because their place of residence is ambiguous between air and Earth. Whether they are important enough to justify this arrangement is another question. In a sense, if I may risk the oxymoron, their unimportance is their importance. They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, an oficial status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.
As David Bentley Hart claims: “Deluded or not, a belief in fairies will always be in some sense far more rational than the absolute conviction that such things are sheer nonsense, and that the cosmos consists in nothing but brute material events in haphazard combinations.” As Shakespeare famously puts it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet 1.5.167-8). Although Hamlet may simply be criticizing Horatio here, within in the First Folio (1623), the text actually reads “our philosophy,” suggesting that Shakespeare was speaking in general terms about the limitations of human thought.
Finally, we may also go one step further than simply a call to humility and childlike wonder. As we submit our lives with humble thanksgiving to Jesus Christ, we may also know that we bless all the powers of nature who continue to wait “with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). David Bentley Hart suggests that human society may change the nature of the “Hidden Commonwealth” that exists within the hills and streams surrounding us. He does this in the essay link at the top when he contrasts the “more Titanic than Olympian” character of the New World faeries with “the winsome charm of their European counterparts” who were “exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization.” This idea can easily become bigotry and imperialism under a strange guise, but it also suggests that it matters tremendously to the created world around us how we live our lives and the kinds of communities that we shape.
We have many precedents for this. For centuries in the east and west, Christian monastic communities intentionally sought out the most desolate places in order to take the fight directly to the evil spirits there and to reestablish communion with God in these places (for the monastics themselves as well as for all human society and for all of the created world around them). “Ever since Elijah[,] the desert had been the preordained place for the restoration of all things.” (From Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought by George H. Williams, page 46. This resource contains some good discussion of the monastic understanding of their relationships with the powers of the created world.) In the Celtic tradition particularly, monasteries were repeatedly established in the most remote forests and swamps only to become thriving town centers. If Jesus Christ makes the rivers and seas into his servants, that is just one more reason for us to treat every stream and swamp with all due respect.
Note: a wonderful question from a reader lead to this further effort to collect my thoughts: Faerie and the Endeavor of Christian Formation. Also, I only read chapter VI in The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis (entitled “The Longaevi”) after writing the initial draft of this post, and I quickly inserted the one key quote above from this essential essay by Lewis. Not surprisingly, Lewis left me thinking about much more that will ultimately refine some of what I have tried to formulate in this post. See also this post from Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.”