The stars, inasmuch as they are visible, do not embody exact knowledge, which can only be grasped by the mind and thought.

Summary of Plato’s understanding of the stars from Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by Alan Scott (Oxford Early Christian Studies, Clarendon Press, 1994):

Plato is less concerned with how things happen than with why they happen, and for this reason he regards astronomy as only of secondary importance. Though Plato does associate wisdom and purity with gazing upon heaven, his ideal is not the astronomer but the philosopher. Like geometry, astronomy is a discipline in which knowledge of what is eternally true can be available, but such knowledge is of no use unless it is first subordinated to philosophy. Plato has little interest in observational astronomy: true astronomy is not concerned merely with what is seen in heaven but with the understanding of what lies behind what is seen. Even if the Greater Hippias is not a genuine Platonic work, it is faithful to Plato in depicting the learned, pompous, and intellectually shallow Hippias as particularly expert in astronomy. The destiny of the soul is not to look upon the sensible heaven but upon the ’superheavenly place’, which is not possible for physical eyes but only for the soul. The stars, inasmuch as they are visible, do not embody exact knowledge, which can only be grasped by the mind and thought. For Plato, as also for the Pythagoreans, astronomy  was useful chiefly as a means of understanding what was purely rational. To the mind which understood properly, there was true harmony in heaven even if this was not possible for the material bodies of heaven, even as there is exactness in geometry though it is not part of any merely visible diagram. This is the understanding of sun, moon, and stars enjoyed by the inhabitants of the ‘true earth’ in the Phaedo. Thus geometry and astronomy are part of the necessary training for insight into what was immutable and eternal.

Just as Plato accepts elements of the latest astronomical research but not the philosophical and religious implications it was sometimes thought to have, so too before his later writings he can accept the popular veneration of the heavens without taking it altogether seriously. In the Republic, Plato does say that the craftsman of heaven, like Daedalus, fashioned the courses of the stars with the greatest beauty possible, and at one point Plato even goes so far as to refer casually to ‘the gods in heaven’, one of which is the sun, and yet he also openly doubts that the visible stars are eternal and immutable. Even in his ‘middle period’ Plato shows little interest in the visible stars and planets and with observational astronomy. In this again he was similar to Socrates, who by all accounts avoided the investigation of the heavens and concerned himself mainly with ethical questions.

…The astral soul is either immanent or transcendent; if it is immanent it acts directly on the body, if transcendent, it acts either through the intermediary of a special material body which it provides itself, or through some unknown agency. Plato does not make clear at this point the number of souls in heaven: his usual assumption is that each heavenly body has its own soul and is a god, but if in heaven soul transcends its body there might be only one heavenly soul. It is also not clear in the Laws (as it was in the Timaeus) if stars are gods as well as planets: the Laws only explicitly refers to the divinity of the planets (which is the view found in the Statesman).

One thing which is clear is that the astral soul itself is invisible: we do not look upon the soul, we only calculate its movements mathematically. As Plato had said earlier in the Republic, it is not what is seen in heaven which is important, but what is intelligible. Thus, strictly speaking, one would expect Plato to assert that the heavenly bodies are not gods, but are merely controlled by gods in some way. More specifically, one might expect him to say that the visible star or planet is a body joined eternally to a soul, which is how he says he imagines the gods in the Phaedrus myth. But Plato is very elusive in matters of religion, and in the end his real opinion is never clear. What is clear is that he has no objection to calling the planets (and sometimes the stars) gods and worshipping them, just as he includes devotion to images in the religion of the state.

…The author of [Epinomis] tells us as Plato did that most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence. The planets do not ‘wander’, and youths should learn enough astronomy to avoid such an error. Mathematical training is combined with astronomical theory, for number is a divine gift which has been granted to humanity to be learned through the observation of heavenly revolution, and is a prerequisite of wisdom. Their precise movement is a proof of universal divine providence and of the priority of soul to body, as it was also in the Laws. The divinity of the stars and of the seven planets is both presumed and stated throughout the dialogue, as it is in much of the Platonic corpus.

This last point that “most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence” is the same one that G.K. Chesterton makes here:

People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness.

God as Architect/Builder/Geometer/Craftsman, The Frontispiece of Bible Moralisee. c. 1220-1230. 13.5 in by 10.2 in.

we are enfolded in the universe

In some sense man is a microcosm of the universe: therefore what man is, is a clue to the universe. We are enfolded in the universe.

David Bohm speaking in an interview with Renée Weber. Published in “Dialogues with scientists and sages: the search for unity” (1986) by Renée Weber (page 152).

God can be God even in the very heart of human terror

The dark background against which Jesus is shown [in the transfiguration icon] is something you will see in other icons as a way of representing the depths of heavenly reality. In the transfiguration, what the disciples see is, as you might say, Jesus’ humanity “opening up” to its inner dimensions. …So the disciples look at Jesus, and see him as coming out from an immeasurable depth; behind or within him, infinity opens up, “the dwelling of the light”, to borrow the haunting phrase from Job 38.19.

…Second, there is the connection of the [transfiguration] icon …and the story with the end of Jesus’ earthly life. God can live in the middle of death. That is good news on one level; on another, it means that living with God will not spare us trial, agony and death. In the Gospels, when Jesus has received Peter’s admission of faith – “You are the Anointed, the Son of the Living God” — he immediately goes on to predict his betrayal and death, and Peter protests. It is as if, there as here [in the icon], [Peter] lifts his hand to his eyes because he can’t manage what he sees. If only the vision of glory spared us suffering! But on the contrary, glory can only be seen for what it really is when we see it containing and surviving disaster.

…The Orthodox hymns for the feast of the Transfiguration make the point often made by Orthodox theologians: Peter, James and John are allowed to see Christ’s glory so that when they witness his anguish and death they may know that these terrible moments are freely embraced by the God-made-human who is Jesus, and held within the infinite depth of life. It is surely not an accident that it is Peter and James and John who are also with Jesus in Gethsemane: the extreme mental and spiritual agony that appears there is the test of what has been seen in the transfiguration. We are shown that God can be God even in the very heart of human terror: the life of Jesus is still carried along by the tidal wave of that which the dark background of glowing blues and reds in the icon depicts, the life of God.

…This is the great challenge to faith: knowing that Christ is in the heart of darkness, we are called to go there with him. In John 11, Thomas says to the other disciples, “Let us go and die with him”; and ahead indeed lies death — the dead Lazarus decaying in the tomb, the death of Jesus in abandonment, your death and mine and the deaths of countless human beings in varying kinds of dark night. But if we have seen his glory on the mountain, we know at least, whatever our terrors, that death cannot decide the boundaries of God’s life. With him the door is always open, and no one can shut it.

The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ by Rowan Williams.
Icon of The Transfiguration of Christ, Russia, 16th century, Novgorod school, wood panel, tempera and gilding, 78×61 cm.

God is in our sensuality

For I saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our sensuality, for in the same instant and place in which our soul is made sensual, in that same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained from him without beginning. He comes into this city and will never depart from it, for God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end.

Julian of Norwich (commemorated today, May 8).

when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real

In the passage below from The Great Divorce (end of Chapter 13), the protagonist (who is clearly C.S. Lewis) holds a dialog with his great Teacher (who is clearly George MacDonald). At one point, Lewis says to MacDonald:

In your own books, Sir, you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.

MacDonald responds:

Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will  be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions. …Because all answers deceive.

MacDonald goes on to make his case:

If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality.

There’s so much to consider in The Great Divorce. I suppose that my first question is actually just what Lewis is seeking to do with MacDonald. It almost seems as if Lewis is seeking to recast his great teacher within this heavenly setting as more of a mystic with regard to “final things” than MacDonald chose to be within his own writings during his lifetime. In any case, Lewis does not seem to come down clearly on the final state of things outside of time other than to make his case that “it’s ill talking of such questions. …because all answers deceive.” In the course of making his case, Lewis makes some big claims with regard to the nature of time, goodness and freedom (to name just a few concepts touched upon).

Without further comment, here is the core of the conversation between Lewis and MacDonald. It picks up just after a generous, glorious, joyfilled female saint has tried her utmost to win over her self-centered and theatrical husband, only to watch him be swallowed up (rather literally) by his own false image of himself:

‘And yet . . . and yet . . . ,’ said I to my Teacher, when all the shapes and the singing had passed some distance away into the forest, ‘even now I am not quite sure. Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his selfmade misery?’

‘Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her? He did it many a day and many a year in their earthly life.’

‘Well, no. I suppose I don’t Want that.’

‘What then?’

‘I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on Earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.’

‘Ye see it does not.’

‘I feel in a way that it ought to.’

‘That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.’

‘What?’

‘The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.’

‘I don’t know what I want, Sir.’

‘Son, son, it must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.

‘But dare one say—it is horrible to say—that Pity must ever die?’

‘Ye must distinguish. The action of Pity will live for ever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of Pity, the Pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded and to flatter when they should speak truth, the pity that has cheated many a woman out of her virginity and many a statesman out of his honesty—that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.’

‘And what is the other kind—the action?’

‘It’s a weapon on the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good. But it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil. Every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured: but we will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on still having jaundice, nor make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of some who cannot abide the smell of roses.’

‘You say it will go down to the lowest, Sir. But she didn’t go down with him to Hell. She didn’t even see him off by the bus.’

‘Where would ye have had her go?’

‘Why, where we all came from by that bus. The big gulf, beyond the edge of the cliff. Over there. You can’t see it from here, but you must know the place I mean.’

My Teacher gave a curious smile. ‘Look,’ he said, and with the word he went down on his hands and knees. I did the same (how it hurt my knees!) and presently saw that he had plucked a blade of grass. Using its thin end as a pointer, he made me see, after I had looked very closely, a crack in the soil so small that I could not have identified it without this aid.

‘I cannot be certain,’ he said, ‘that this is the crack ye came up through. But through a crack no bigger than that ye certainly came.’

‘But—but,’ I gasped with a feeling of bewilderment not unlike terror. ‘I saw an infinite abyss. And cliffs towering up and up. And then this country on top of the cliffs.’

‘Aye. But the voyage was not mere locomotion. That bus, and all you inside it, were increasing in size.’

‘Do you mean then that Hell—all that infinite empty town—is down in some little crack like this?’

‘Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.’

‘It seems big enough when you’re in it, Sir.’

‘And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. If all Hell’s miseries together entered the consciousness of yon wee yellow bird on the bough there, they would be swallowed up without trace, as if one drop of ink had been dropped into that Great Ocean to which your terrestrial Pacific itself is only a molecule.’

‘I see,’ said I at last. ‘She couldn’t fit into Hell.’

He nodded. ‘There’s not room for her ’ he said ‘Hell could not open its mouth wide enough.’

‘And she couldn’t make herself smaller?—like Alice, you know.’

‘Nothing like small enough. For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.’

‘Then no one can ever reach them?’

‘Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend—a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.’

‘And will He ever do so again?’

‘It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not Work that Way when once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.’

‘And some hear him?’

‘Aye.’

‘In your own books, Sir,’ said I, ‘you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.’

‘Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.’

‘Because they are too terrible, Sir?’

‘No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself Freedom. They are a lens. The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition. Time itself, and all acts and events that fill Time, are the definition, and it must be lived. The Lord said we were gods. How long could ye bear to look (without Time’s lens) on the greatness of your own soul and the eternal reality of her choice?’

free of the mechanical hypotaxis of the one and the boring boisterousness of the other

The circular, “synthetic;’ and pleromatic grandeur of the Hegelian infinite and the chaotic, univocal, and unharmonizable flux of the postmodern infinite are equally dreary; but the Christian infinite, free of the mechanical hypotaxis of the one and the boring boisterousness of the other, yields a profuse and irreducible parataxis, a boundless flood of beauties, beyond synthesis, but utterly open to analogy, complexity, variations, and refrains.

Within such an infinite, the Spirit’s power to redeem discordant lines is one not of higher resolution but of reorientation, a restoration of each line’s scope of harmonic openness to every other line.

It is the promise of Christian faith that, eschatologically, the music of all creation will be restored not as a totality in which all the discords of evil necessarily participated, but as an accomplished harmony from which all such discords, along with their false profundities, have been exorcised by way of innumerable “tonal” (or pneumatological) reconciliations. This is the sense in which theology should continue to speak of the world in terms of a harmonia mundi, a musica mundana, or the song of creation.

…Let me stipulate that creation can never be understood, in Christian thought, simply as a text that conceals a more fundamental set of abstract meanings, to which all its particularities can be reduced; when I use the word “theme” here, I mean it in its strictly musical sense, to indicate a phrase or motif, a point of departure, which is neither more true nor less complex than the series of variations to which it gives rise. The “theme” of creation is the gift of the whole, committed to limitless possibilities, open to immeasurable ranges of divergence and convergence, consonance and dissonance (which always allows for the possibility of discord), and unpredictable modulations that at once restore and restate that theme.

The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth by David Bentley Hart.

Giver of life

There’s a phrase in the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed identifying the Holy Spirit as the “Giver of life.” This phrase often gets unpacked in ancient hymns that expand on the Holy Spirit as the source of all the glorious life in the world around us. These examples below are not the most effusive, but I noticed them today as this kind of expansion upon the key phrase in the creed. At the bottom, I’ve also placed a few passages from the Beauty of the Infinite by David Bentley Hart that remind me of this phrase as well. When I come to this phrase in the midst of prayer and worship it often overwhelms me with a sense of gratitude and wonder that isn’t reducible to words (something of joy and awe at God’s loving presence pouring out life so abundantly, graciously making and remaking as I take breath after breath amid it all—a constant gift).

And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life.

Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed.

With the Holy Spirit every gift is good; for He doth shine forth together with the Father and the Son; and in Him doth all creation live and move.

Verily, all the riches of honor are of the Holy Spirit. And of Him too is grace and life for all creation. Wherefore, He is to be praised with the Father and the Word.

A couple of the ancient hymns from today’s Orthros service.

As God is Trinity, in whom all difference is possessed as perfect peace and unity, the divine life might be described as infinite music, and creation too might be described as a music whose intervals, transitions, and phrases are embraced within God’s eternal, triune polyphony.

…For Christian thought, …true distance is given in an event, a motion, that is transcendent: a pure prolation in which all patterns are “anticipated,” in an infinitely fulfilled way that allows for every possibility; it even makes space for the possibilities of discord, while also always providing, out of its analogical bounty, ways of return, of unwinding the coils of sin, of healing the wounds of violence (the Holy Spirit is a supremely inventive composer).

…One might best characterize the properly Christian understanding of being as polyphony or counterpoint: having received its theme of divine love from God, the true measure of being is expressed in the restoration of that theme, in the response that submits that theme to variation and offers it back in an indefinitely prolonged and varied response (guided by the Spirit’s power of modulation).

…Within such an infinite, the Spirit’s power to redeem discordant lines is one not of higher resolution but of reorientation, a restoration of each line’s scope of harmonic openness to every other line.

…In short, it is a “thematism of the surface;’ not a thematic “content” more essential than created difference: a style of articulation, a way of ordering desire and apprehending the “shape” of being, its proportions, dimensions, and rhythms. Being is a surface of supplementarity, an expressive fabric forever filling itself out into ever greater adornments of the divine love, a porrection of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to creation and, thereby, to the Father.”

The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth by David Bentley Hart.

in the inferno of the same

The crisis of love does not derive from too many others so much as from the erosion of the Other. This erosion is occurring in all spheres of life; its corollary is the mounting narcissification of the Self. In fact, the vanishing of the Other is a dramatic process—even though, fatefully enough, it largely escapes notice. Eros concerns the Other in the strong sense, namely, what cannot be encompassed by the regime of the ego. Therefore, in the inferno of the same, which contemporary society is increasingly becoming, erotic experience does not exist.

Byung-Chul Han in The Agony of Eros.

He may be approaching our consciousness from behind

To give us the spiritual gift we desire, God may have to begin far back in our spirit, in regions unknown to us, and do much work that we can be aware of only in the results; for our consciousness is to the extent of our being but as the flame of the volcano to the world-gulf whence it issues; in the gulf of our unknown being God works behind our consciousness. With His holy influence, with His own presence (the one thing for which most earnestly we cry) He may be approaching our consciousness from behind, coming forward through regions of our darkness into our light, long before we begin to be aware that He is answering our request—has answered it, and is visiting His child.

George MacDonald (as quoted in the anthology of 365 readings collected and published by C.S. Lewis).

a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy

Wendell Berry on Heaven and Hell:

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

Wendell Berry in A World Lost.
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