an abstraction does not need a Mother

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

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

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

when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected

God has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained. …The difference between a life of virtue and a life of wickedness will appear hereafter chiefly in allowing us to participate earlier or later in the blessedness which we hope for. The duration of the healing process will undoubtedly be in proportion to the measure of evil which has entered each person.

St. Macrina the Younger quoted by her brother St. Gregory Nyssa from On the Soul and the Resurrection.

the fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history

The moral apostasy of rational beings from the proper love of God is somehow the reason for the reign of death and suffering in the cosmos, that human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly “methorios” (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell. Thus we may say, as fantastic as it seems—and as fantastic as it truly is when reduced to fundamentalist literalism regarding the myth of Eden—that all suffering, sadness, and death, however deeply woven into the fabric of earthly existence, is the consequence of the depravities of rational creatures, not of God’s intentions. Not that we can locate the time, the place, or the conditions of that event. That ours is a fallen world is not a truth demonstrable to those who do not believe; Christians can see it only within the story of Christ, in the light cast back from his saving action in history upon the whole of time. The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death—perhaps the divine or angelic aeon beyond the corruptible sub-sidereal world of chronos, or perhaps the Drcamtime or the supcrcclcstial realm of the pure forms or the Origcnist heaven of the primordial intelligences, or what have you. In any event, this (or something roughly like it) is the story that orthodox Christianity tells, and it can tell no other.

…It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender. There is a kind of “provisional” cosmic dualism within the New Testament that simply cannot be evaded: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles, but certainly a conflict between, on the one hand, a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God and, on the other, the saving love of God in time.

The explicit claim of Christian scripture is that God’s will can be resisted by a real and (by his grace) autonomous force of defiance, and that his purposes can be hidden from us by the history of cosmic corruption, and that the final realization of the good he intends in all things has the form—not simply as a dramatic fiction, for our edification or his glory, nor simply as a pedagogical device on his part, but in truth—of a divine victory.

From “The Devil’s March” by David Bentley Hart.

There is a lot in this echoing Chesterton who writes that we are “the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world” (more here) and that “the end of the world was long ago, / And all we dwell to-day / As children of some second birth, / Like a strange people left on earth / After a judgment day” (citation here).

a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity

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

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

Notes on Dr. Michael S. Heiser’s The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible

Book cover.

Dr. Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm opens with the story of an uncomfortable realization after church one Sunday. A friend and fellow Hebrew language graduate student asked about Psalm 82’s description of a large council of gods responsible for the care of various nations and over which the God of Israel presided. Within American Christianity, we only tend to talk about one real God. The gods of other nations are not supposed to be characters in the biblical story who have played a major role in the course of human history. However, with all of his expertise as a student of ancient Hebrew, Heiser saw no other way to read the passages in Psalm 82, and it immediately started to suggest equally uncomfortable readings of many other biblical accounts. This growing list of Bible passages came together for Heiser over the next few years to describe human history in terms of a clear storyline about God’s ongoing interactions with humans alongside a vast but unseen realm of divine and angelic creatures.

Most modern commentaries on Psalm 82 obscure the clear references to the God of Israel interacting with a council of lesser gods who were commissioned to “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless” and to “maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed” throughout all the nations of the earth. In this psalm, these gods are condemned by God for having failed at these assignments that God gave. God tells them that they must now “die like mere men” while He and His people take up the care of all the helpless inhabitants of every nation.

Over the course of his book, Heiser weaves a compelling and grand narrative about God’s creation of an angelic and then a human divine household (intended to function ultimately as a ruling council) and of their multi-stage rebellions and interactions that culminate in God’s restoration of His rule with the life, death and ascension of Jesus Christ. To give an overly simplistic summary off the top of my head:

  1. God created a household of angelic beings who were a council of lesser gods intended to care for all of God’s creation.
  2. There is some indication that all was not well in this first household, and that creation was far from perfect even before the creation of humans. (However, this is not entirely clear to me from Heiser’s reading as he seems to say some things both affirming and denying this idea of a pre-human fall. Heiser clearly seems to reject an angelic fall but also to suggest that the council of lesser gods was already out of order in some way.)
  3. God created a second household of humans to join his first household as additional members of his council.
  4. God brought these humans into his first sanctuary of Eden (which was a temple, highplace, garden, palace and household), and the lesser gods were jealous of the new divine image bearers and household members (the humans).
  5. The serpent was a lesser god and member of the first divine council in Eden who invited the young humans into a state of rebellion and war with God.
  6. Eventually, some members of the first household had children with some humans.
  7. These children were heroes and powerful leaders (Nephilim and a later race of humans perceived as giants) among humans and further led the world into selfishness, rebellion and chaos.
  8. As these children died (in the flood among other punishments), their spirits became the demons of later human history and continued to interact with the lesser gods who God would put over the nations. To be clear, Heiser does not specifically support this idea, but he seems to deny that demons are fallen angels and to point toward this wide-spread and ancient belief (that demons are the disembodied souls or spirits of dead Nephilim) without denying it.
  9. After the flood and the Tower of Babel, God places at least some members of the first divine council (the lesser gods) over each of the nations of the earth with the charge to care for these banished and wandering human clans.
  10. God takes upon Himself to care for one nation that He calls out from among all the other nations in order to prepare a way to restore humanity to God.
  11. God often interacts with his nation of Israel in the celestial body of an angel, and Israel calls this manifestation of God “the Angel of the Lord” or “the Angle of Yahweh.” Heiser makes a strong case for the fact that this incarnation of God as an angel in the Old Testament is intended to be identified in the New Testament with the Son of God who is incarnate as the human person Jesus Christ (and identified as the second person of the Trinity by the early church).
  12. The gods of the other nations are not faithful to God and do not care for the poor and the weak. Instead, they seek power and continue to defy the God of Israel.
  13. God eventually condemns these other gods to die and says that they will be removed from power. (Psalm 82 is one reference to this.)
  14. God fulfills His plan for the restoration of humanity by becoming the human Jesus Christ and overcoming all the rebellious powers of this world including sin and death. Jesus Christ overcomes death with a glorified (celestial) human body and takes the throne at the right hand of God the Father in order to rule over an everlasting Kingdom that will include His entire human family. [Heiser does not give much detail regarding his ideas about the church era or the “end times.” On a separate note, while Heiser does note that Jesus Christ is the prototype for humanity as the perfect image of God, he does not seem to pick up on an idea prominent among the early church fathers of Jesus Christ as the “first full human” or the one in whom the creation of humans is finished (both the beginning and the end in God’s work of creating humans).]

With this off-the-cuff summary, I’ve certainly missed some critical details and misrepresented some points that Heiser made clear. This narrative is outlined a few times in the book with many recapitulations and deeper dives into specific periods and thematic points. While having some topical sub-structures, the book is organized chronologically overall, and it follows the story of God’s people across the biblical canons of the Old and New Testaments.

Heiser’s scriptural exegesis is specific and convincing, and his narrative is detailed yet coherent. Nonetheless, there are few specific answers to the many related topics and questions that are encountered along the way. Questions about metaphysics, eschatology or the nature of the afterlife are all raised in his book with few specific resolutions or suggestions provided. For example, Heiser mentions near the end that he does not subscribe to any current escatological systems. At the same time, he makes no attempt to outline his own escatological system. Likewise, in the first section of the last chapter (42, “Describing the Indescribable”), he has a section on “Celestial Flesh” that describes the bodies of glorified humanity following the general resurrection. However, nowhere in this account does he suggest how we should understand the relationship between the categories of spiritual and fleshly bodies that are under discussion. Apart from one brief allusion to the fact that Paul’s metaphysics have some points of similarity as well as difference with the Stoics, there is no analysis of Paul’s language and arguments within the thought categories of Paul’s own day. Nor is there any attempt to say what the implications of these biblical categories might be for our own modern categories of thought regarding celestial vs. earthly bodies. In this section, Heiser also points back to a portion of Chapter 20 called “Heirs of the Cosmos” in which he addresses the idea of angelic bodies along with the idea in scripture that humans are intended to become “as the stars.” Again, there is almost no help given to moderns regarding how to understand such alien language. Finally, there is not even a basic survey given in the book of the parallels between humanity, stars and angels despite the fact that this set of parallels is made by many biblical authors (as well as their extra-biblical counterparts within surrounding cultures) during the course of several millennia and the fact that Heiser’s entire thesis is about the relationship between lesser deities and humans within God’s salvation history.

Perhaps I was seeking too much from one book. Heiser does provide excellent footnotes throughout. For example, on the topic of becoming “as the stars,” Heiser points to the article “‘So Shall Your Seed Be’: Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions” by David Burnettin in The Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters, vol. 5 no. 2 (2015). This is an excellent study under the tutelage of N.T. Wright among others. I cite this one sample passage:

Philo of Alexandria and the Saying “So Shall Your Seed Be”

In commenting on Gen 15:5 in Who Is the Heir? 86–87, Philo states:

When the Lord led him outside He said “Look up into heaven and count the stars, if thou canst count their sum. So shall be thy seed.” Well does the text say “so (οὕτως ἔσται)” not “so many (τοσοῦτον)” that is, “of equal number to the stars.” For He wishes to suggest not number merely, but a multitude of other things, such as tend to happiness perfect and complete. The “seed shall be (οὕτως οὖν ἔσται),” He says, as the ethereal sight spread out before him, celestial as that is, full of light unshadowed and pure as that is, for night is banished from heaven and darkness from ether. It shall be the very likeness of the stars.

Here, Philo argues from the grammar of LXX Gen 15:5 that the adverb οὕτως should be understood not merely quantitatively but qualitatively as well, suggesting that the promise to become as the very likeness of the stars was the original intention of the scribe. The promise of Gen 15:5 for Philo entails being transformed into beings full of light, being in the “very likeness of the stars,” and participating in their celestial life.

In Questions and Answers on Genesis, Philo similarly comments on the patriarchal promise of star-like seed as it was retold to Isaac in Gen 26:4a:

What is the meaning of the words, “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven?” Two things are indicated, in which the nature of all things in general consists, (namely) quantity and quality—quantity in “I will multiply,” and quality in “as the stars.” So may (thy descendants) be pure and far-shining and always be ranged in order and obey their leader and may they behave like the luciform (stars) which everywhere with the splendour of  ethereal brightness also illumine all other things. (QG 4.181)

Philo here again sees implicit within the language “so may thy descendants be” the promise of the ethereal life of the stars. In Gen 26:5, Abraham’s seed will be multiplied as the stars of heaven and be given all these lands “because Abraham obeyed my voice.” For Philo, Abraham acts as the stars act who are always “ranged in order and obey their leader.” In both of these texts, Philo seems to axiomatically employ the phrase “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)” as though it were to be taken as a kind of adage that was intended to denote celestial immortality.

Two other articles referenced positively in the footnotes and yielding excellent reading were: “Becoming Like God: An Evangelical Doctrine of Theosis” by Robert V. Rakestraw (1997) and “When Did Angels Become Demons?” by Dale Martin (2010).

Despite these rich footnotes, however, I cannot forgive one gap in Heiser’s book. It would have been strengthened by clearly acknowledging the need for an alternative to our standard modern and materialist metaphysics—the need for a way of seeing and talking about ourselves and the world that goes beyond Enlightenment’s spiritual vs. material dichotomy. With his idea of an “unseen realm” in his title, Heiser clearly seeks to find some alternative language for expressing the reality of a thick and substantial world of life and beings who are so easily dismissed by us moderns. Generally speaking, however, Heiser simply uses the standard modern categories of spiritual (and therefore invisible) vs. material (and therefore visible) in order to describe these two realms. In using these standard categories, Heiser seems unaware of the ways in which he repeatedly reinforces the Cartesian dualism that dominates our modern way of approaching the world and that separates our senses and bodies so hopelessly from what is (to the ancient mind) most real and substantial within everything that surrounds us during each waking moment.

To be clear, Heiser is not defending a Cartesian dualism. He speaks repeatedly of the unseen realm being closely intertwined with our everyday world of physical bodies. However, he fails to acknowledge how Cartesian dualism hides the primary nature of mental and spiritual realities from us and therefore isolates us within a material world that is somehow “more real.” Heiser sees no need to offer alternative ways of understanding our relationship to ultimate realities, and he leaves his readers having to imagine a spiritual world that, at best, parallels our visible and material world in some intangible or abstract way. We moderns cannot read any language about “spiritual and material realms” without defaulting to the idea that the material world is ultimately independent of the invisible world and entirely capable of functioning without it rather than recognizing the material world (as all of ancients would have understood it) to be completely dependent on the realm of mind and spirit for its very existence. This leads to my main concern: it would be easy to read the whole of Heiser’s book earnestly and carefully while thinking that the “unseen realm” was only important given its profound connections to the story of salvation and not because we humans are all blind participants in the unseen realm and utterly dependent upon this realm for all the daily details of our own lives and all the basic workings of our material existence.

Only someone already deeply interested in the biblical account of salvation history would find Heiser’s book challenging. He does connect the unseen realm powerfully and convincingly into the Christian story of salvation which is a helpful achievement. However, for any Christians who already tend to understand salvation as mostly being about our future “rescue” and “removal” out of this world, Heiser’s account may achieve nothing more than to further abstract the salvation story from any contact with our current daily lives and the visible world around us. Such readers may care about their future places in the unseen realm. They may also be fascinated to learn that their own salvation in Jesus Christ is somehow connected to this wild narrative about a pantheon of gods who are installed and then removed by the God of Israel. However, this will have no clear connection to how they eat their supper, mow their grass or treat their children later today. Such abstract and sweeping concerns, however, takes me far outside any response to Heiser’s book, however, and into a critique of modernity and American Christianity.

To refocus on Heiser’s book, I will mention two more minor weaknesses before listing a few additional points that I found noteworthy and that Heiser did an excellent job of presenting and defending. These two minor weaknesses are related. First, Heiser was stronger in the Hebrew world of thought than in the Greek. Second, Heiser maintains a fairly focused Protestant and American Evangelical set of categories in his analysis of the Bible, and he therefore missed some of the benefits and insights offered by other traditions. For example, in the first section of chapter 7 (“Earth Was Not Eden”), he blames the early church fathers for spreading the misconception that the earth was created in a state of perfection. The earliest of the church fathers (writing in Greek) actually tended to note that Eden was separate from the rest of the world and also to recognize that the rest of the world had already fallen before Eden was set apart by God. These fathers also describe the state of Eden itself as immature and innocent rather than as perfect (like a seed or a child filled with potential but not yet developed). Even Augustine (writing much later and in Latin) made some of these distinctions and did not simply equate Eden with perfection at the start of the world. In another example, when Heiser argues that the imaging status of humans (created as “images of God”) is shared with other creatures who were made before humans, Heiser does not note that earlier theologians (such as John of Damascus) have made this same case long ago.

With all my complaining out of the way, I want to reiterate that I was impressed with Heiser’s careful and open scholarship, his clear reverence for God and the Bible and his many insights based on extensive reading and research. His book is filled with thought-provoking connections. Here are just a few of the points that I noted for further reading and reflection while listening to the book:

  1. Yahweh, whenever embodied, is the Angel of Yahweh (implying, among other things, that angels have bodies in comparison to God, which is also a point made by John of Damascus and many earlier church fathers).
  2. Elohim is a term for any inhabitant of the spiritual realm (spanning the gulf from God to the spirits of deceased humans—a range that includes multiple other categories of creatures). This term often refers to the divine council of gods over whom God presides as creator and source of all life.
  3. Animals have soul (nephesh), and Heiser says that nephesh is interchangeable with rûach (spirit) in biblical Heberew.
  4. Eden is called “the seat of the gods” by Ezekiel.
  5. Jesus speaks of the “Gates of Hell” near Caesarea Philippi because it was situated near a mountainous region (containing Mount Hermon) that had many ancient associations with evil powers in the unseen realm. Form an online article by Heiser on this topic: “In the Old Testament, this region was known as Bashan [‘the place of the serpent’]. This was a region controlled by two kings—Sihon and Og—who were associated with the ancient giant clans: the Rephaim and the Anakim. These cities and their Rephaim inhabitants are mentioned by name in Canaanite (Ugaritic) cuneiform tablets. The people of Ugarit believed the Rephaim were the spirits of dead warrior-kings. They also believed that the cities of Ashtaroth and Edrei were the entryway to the Underworld—the gates of Sheol. Also, during Israel’s divided kingdom period, Jereboam built a pagan religious center at Dan—just south of Mount Hermon—where the Israelites worshiped Baal instead of Yahweh. For the disciples, Bashan was an evil, otherworldly domain. But they had two other reasons to feel queasy about where they were standing. According to Jewish tradition, Mount Hermon was the location where the divine sons of God had descended from heaven—ultimately corrupting humankind via their offspring with human women (see Gen 6:1–4). These offspring were known as Nephilim, ancestors of the Anakim and the Rephaim (Num 13:30–33). In Jewish theology, the spirits of these giants were demons (1 Enoch 15:1–12).”
  6. Armageddon is described as taking place in Jerusalem and not Megiddo (a position for which Heiser cites some early church fathers in defense and that is also advocated by amillennialist Meridith Kline—although Heiser clarifies that he is not an amillennialist like Kline).
  7. Finally, Heiser talks in several places within his book about the people of Jesus Christ as the new “holy ground.” Heiser is referencing the temple language that is used to describe the bodies of believers and of the church as a whole (and as the body of Christ). These reflections on the nature of Eden, the Promised Land, the Old Testament temples and then the New Testament church are a rich theme in the book that carry great insights into the nature of sacred space and the way in which God works. This may have been one of my favorite motifs out of many within the book, and I hope to find more by Heiser on the topic.

I hope that this “random sampling” convinces you that there is much value in Heiser’s book. If you want to find more without getting his book, he has shared generously over the years in many online formats as well. After finishing this book, I’m tempted to try an assimilation of what I’ve learned about the unseen realm in Heiser’s work with what I read earlier in Naming the Powers (1984) by Walter Wink (see here), in The Corinthian Body (Yale, 1995) by Dale Martin (see here), in Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford, 1994) by Alan Scott (see here) and in Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (book II, chapter 3, “Concerning angels”) by Saint John of Damascus (see here). However, I have another book or two that I hope to read before any such compilation of my own thoughts on the unseen realm (which will be tentative thoughts on a subject not to be overly concerned with regardless of what has been read).

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.’


‘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?’


‘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?’

%d bloggers like this: