Let us not mock God with metaphor

“Seven Stanzas at Easter” by John Updike (from Telephone Poles and Other Poems):

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

the direction in which their unmarred fulfillment must lie

J.R.R.Tolkien in his notes on “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.”

Finrod, however, sees now that, as things were, no created thing or being in Arda, or in all Eä, was powerful enough to counteract or heal Evil: that is to subdue Melkor (in his present person, reduced though that was) and the Evil that he had dissipated and sent out from himself into the very structure of the world.

Only Eru himself could do this. Therefore, since it was unthinkable that Eru would abandon the world to the ultimate triumph and domination of Melkor (which could mean its ruin and reduction to chaos), Eru Himself must at some time come to oppose Melkor. But Eru could not enter wholly into the world and its history, which is, however great, only a finite Drama. He must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment. Finrod therefore thinks that He will, when He comes have to be both ‘outside’ and inside and so he glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One’.

Since Finrod had already guessed that the redemptive function was originally, specially assigned to Men, he probably proceeded to the expectation that ‘the coming of Eru’, if it took place, would be specially and primarily concerned with Men: that is to an imaginative guess or vision that Eru would come incarnated in human form. This, however, does not appear in the Athrabeth.

***

We are here dealing with Elvish thought at an early period, when the Eldar were still fully ‘physical’ in bodily form. Much later when the process (already glimpsed by Finrod) called ‘waning’ or ‘fading’ had become more effective, their views of the End of Arda, so far as it affected themselves, must have been modified. But there are few records of any contacts of Elvish and Human thought in such latter days. They eventually became housed, if it can be called that, not in actual visible and tangible hröar, but only in the memory of the fëa of its bodily form and its desire for it and therefore not dependent for mere existence upon the material of Arda.* But they appear to have held, and indeed still to hold, that this desire for the hröa shows that their later (and present) condition is not natural to them, and they remain in estel that Eru will heal it. ‘Not natural’, whether it is due wholly, as they earlier thought, to the weakening of the hröa (derived from the debility introduced by Melkor into the substance of Arda upon which it must feed), or partly to the inevitable working of a dominant fëa upon a material hröa through many ages. (In the latter case ‘natural’ can refer only to an ideal state, in which unmarred matter could for ever endure the indwelling of a perfectly adapted fëa. It cannot refer to the actual design of Eru, since the Themes of the Children were introduced after the arising of the discords of Melkor. The ‘waning’ of the Elvish hröar must therefore be part of the History of Arda as envisaged by Eru, and the mode in which the Elves were to make way for the Dominion of Men. The Elves find their supersession by Men a mystery, and a cause of grief; for they say that Men, at least so largely governed as they are by the evil of Melkor, have less and less love for Arda in itself, and are largely. busy in destroying it in the attempt to dominate it. They still believe that Eru’s healing of all the griefs of Arda will come now by or through Men; but the Elves’ part in the healing or redemption will be chiefly in the restoration of the love of Arda, to which their memory of the Past and understanding of what might have been will contribute. Arda they say will be destroyed by wicked Men (or the wickedness in Men); but healed through the goodness in Men. The wickedness, the domineering lovelessness, the Elves will offset. By the holiness of good men—their direct attachment to Eru, before and above all Eru’s works—the Elves may be delivered from the last of their griefs: sadness; the sadness that must come even from the unselfish love of anything less than Eru.

***

Desire. The Elves insisted that ‘desires’, especially such fundamental desires as are here dealt with, were to be taken as indications of the true natures of the Incarnates, and of the direction in which their unmarred fulfillment must lie. They distinguished between desire of the fëa (perception that something right or necessary is not present, leading to desire or hope for it); wish, or personal wish (the feeling of the lack of something, the force of which primarily concerns oneself, and which may have little or no reference to the general fitness of things); illusion, the refusal to recognize that things are not as they should be, leading to the delusion that they are as one would desire them to be, when they are not so. (The last might now be called ‘wishful thinking’, legitimately; but this term, the Elves would say, is quite illegitimate when applied to the first. The last can be disproved by reference to facts. The first not so. Unless desirability is held to be always delusory, and the sole basis for the hope of amendment. But desires of the fëa may often be shown to be reasonable by arguments quite unconnected with personal wish. The fact that they accord with ‘desire’, or even with personal wish, does not invalidate them. Actually the Elves believed that the ‘lightening of the heart’ or the ‘stirring of joy’ (to which they often refer), which may accompany the hearing of a proposition or an argument, is not an indication of its falsity but of the recognition by the fëa that it is on the path of truth.)

I knew one who made his pilgrimage to springs

The Springs
by Wendell Berry
In a country without saints or shrines
I knew one who made his pilgrimage
to springs, where in his life’s dry years
his mind held on. Everlasting,
people called them, and gave them names.
The water broke into sounds and shinings
at the vein mouth, bearing the taste
of the place, the deep rock, sweetness
out of the dark. He bent and drank
in bondage to the ground.
Water
by Wendell Berry
I was born in a drouth year. That summer
my mother waited in the house, enclosed
in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,
for the men to come back in the evenings,
bringing water from a distant spring.
veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return
of that year, sure that it still is
somewhere, like a dead enemy’s soul.
Fear of dust in my mouth is always with me,
and I am the faithful husband of the rain,
I love the water of wells and springs
and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise
of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.
My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.
Also, this whole essay by Wendell Berry is related. Here are two excerpts:
If you are worried about the damming of wilderness rivers, join the Sierra Club, write to the government, but turn off the lights you’re not using, don’t install an air conditioner, don’t be a sucker for electrical gadgets, don’t waste water. In other words, if you are fearful of the destruction of the environment, then learn to quit being an environmental parasite. We all are, in one way or another, and the remedies are not always obvious, though they certainly will always be difficult. They require a new kind of life-harder, more laborious, poorer in luxuries and gadgets, but also, I am certain, richer in meaning and more abundant in real pleasure. To have a healthy environment we will all have to give up things we like; we may even have to give up things we have come to think of as necessities. But to be fearful of the disease and yet unwilling to pay for the cure is not just to be hypocritical; it is to be doomed.
…What I am saying is that if we apply our minds directly and competently to the needs of the earth, then we will have begun to make fundamental and necessary changes in our minds. We will begin to understand and to mistrust and to change our wasteful economy, which markets not just the produce of the earth, but also the earth’s ability to produce. We will see that beauty and utility are alike dependent upon the health of the world. But we will also see through the fads and the fashions of protest. We will see that war and oppression and pollution are not separate issues, but are aspects of the same issue. Amid the outcries for the liberation of this group or that, we will know that no person is free except in the freedom of other persons, and that man’s only real freedom is to know and faithfully occupy his place.
(If time allowed, I would copy a few short pages from Berry’s essay “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation” which clearly get at his frustrations with the way that we conceive of “nature” today and how this impoverishes our ideas about “environmentalism.”)
From The Silmarillion (a collection of J. R. R. Tolkien’s works, edited and published posthumously in 1977 by his son Christopher Tolkien):
It is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.
Tolkien is doing his own version of something akin to the points made in this passage from Tertullian (AD c. 155 – c. 240) in his work On Baptism, Chapter IV (which is echoed and developed metaphysically by many later Christian theologians):
The Spirit of God, who hovered over (the waters) from the beginning, would continue to linger over the waters of the baptized. But a holy thing, of course, hovered over a holy; or else, from that which hovered over that which was hovered over borrowed a holiness, since it is necessary that in every case an underlying material substance should catch the quality of that which overhangs it, most of all a corporeal of a spiritual, adapted (as the spiritual is) through the subtleness of its substance, both for penetrating and insinuating. Thus the nature of the waters, sanctified by the Holy One, itself conceived withal the power of sanctifying. …All waters, therefore, in virtue of the pristine privilege of their origin, do, after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification; for the Spirit immediately supervenes from the heavens, and rests over the waters, sanctifying them from Himself.

And this all connects back, in various ways, to the Feast of Theophany.

to heal and to teach suffering men

Saint Athanasius is remembered today. Excerpts from On the Incarnation:

The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men. For one who wanted to make a display, the thing would have been just to appear and dazzle the beholders. But for Him Who came to heal and to teach, the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it (not vitiating the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive it).

…You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.

…The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension—above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.

…Thus is happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.

…In ancient times before the divine sojourn of the Savior took place, even to the saints death was terrible; all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Savior has raised his body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ trample on it as it were nothing and choose rather to die than deny their faith in Christ. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.

…There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.

the continual sacralization of space

Alasdair John Milbank (born 23 October 1952) is a distinguished contemporary Anglican theologian. In a recent interview, he shared these thoughts about the church and incarnation:

The Church is at once very very spiritual and very very concrete. The Church continues that sense of the Incarnation, and I mean that quite literally, that the church is a communion of souls, it extends to another world, but it also is the material practices, it’s also physical churches, it’s also sacred sites, it’s also the continual sacralization of space, its also parish boundaries. I mean, I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I’m really bitterly opposed to this kind of disenchantment in the modern churches, including I think among most modern evangelicals. I mean recently in the Notthingham diocese they wanted to do a show about angels, and so the clergy – and this is a very evangelical diocese – sent around a circular saying, “Is there anyone around who still believes in angels enough to talk about this?” Now, in my view this is scandalous. They shouldn’t even be ordained if they can’t give a cogent account of the angelic and its place in the divine economy. I want everything put back again, in one sense. I believe in the lot. Pilgrimages, you know, everything. The importance of sacred sites, the traditions about the unseen, even about there being other creatures hidden within the dimensions of this world. These are things which I think we should take seriously that exist in many different traditions. And I think that one of the problems we have is that we have the wrong idea about monotheism, you know, that of course there are gods and angels and spirits, and what have you, in incredible plurality. The point about the divine unity is that it’s beyond all that. Monotheism is not denying the gods. The most radical monotheists have always seen that. There are many spiritual powers, and there may be some place between the good and the bad among them like the early Irish theologians acknowledged. Who knows? The point is that the supreme God is one who transcends any of that kind of thing, so for me, the Church is supremely concrete and supremely spiritual and I think that there is a sense in which, in a fallen world corporeality can lead us into despair, it’s a site of decay. And we can only not despair if corporeality is restored. So without the Incarnation and without the resurrection, we are not really going fully to value embodiment as glorious.

words so terrible you heard them with your whole body

And there was a voice above the firmament that was over their heads; when they stood, they let down their wings. She didn’t want to know what the verse meant, what the creatures were. She knew there were words so terrible you heard them with your whole body. Guilty. And there were voices to say them. She knew there were people you might almost trust who would hear them, too, and be amazed, and still not really hear them because they knew they were not the ones the words were spoken to.

From Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

the future is eating us alive

That’s the most interesting question in the world. How big is big enough? The Amish pretty much have solved it. Industrialism doesn’t propose a limit. David Kline, my friend, went to a Mennonite meeting. They were asking what community meant. And he said, “When my son and I are plowing in the spring, we rest our teams at the highest point on our farm. And from there we can see 13 teams at work. And I know that if I got sick or died those 13 teams would be at work on my farm.” Rightness of scale, you see, permits obedience to the Gospel’s Second Law.

…I like my physical life. I mean, I’m committed to live my physical life. I want to live my actual life, my body’s life, and die my body’s death with as little interference as possible. But I think that life for most people is getting less physical all the time. There’s a sort of death wish now operating among us. The future is eating us alive. If you’re obsessed with the future you can’t live in the present, and the present is the only time you’re alive. If you’re alive in the present, however bad the world is, goodwill still has scope to operate. You still can do a little something to make it better. Now is when the butterflies are flying and the flowers are blooming and the people who love you are putting their hands on you. That’s where it’s happening.

…If the teacher thinks that the place she’s teaching in is a good and worthy place then certain things are going to be communicated. “I’m teaching you things that could make you a powerful person. I don’t want you to start from here and get an education and come back here and desecrate this place.” Now most teaching has been done by people who think, “Coming from here is no advantage. I’m trying to give you something that will help you go to a better place.” Nowadays we easily forget that education makes bad people worse. But if you’re teaching for homecoming you can’t forget it.

Wendell Berry in this interview.

the natural elements of bread and wine are so affirmed that they acquire personal qualities — the Body and Blood of Christ

By the Metropolitan John Zizioulas (shortened version of a lecture given at the European Orthodox Congress given in October, 1993 that was reprinted here):

Theology and Church life involve a certain conception of the human being: personhood. This term, sanctified through its use in connection with the very being of God and of Christ, is rich in its implications.

The Person is otherness in communion and communion in otherness. The Person is an identity that emerges through relationship (schesis, in the terminology of the Fathers); it is an “I” that can exist only as long as it relates to a “Thou” which affirms its existence and its otherness. If we isolate the “I” from the “Thou,” we lose not only its otherness but also its very being; it simply cannot be without the other. This is what distinguishes the person from the individual.

The Orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity is the only way to arrive at this concept of Personhood: the Father cannot be conceived for a moment without the Son and the Spirit, and the same applies to the other two Persons in their relation with the Father and with each other. At the same time each of these Persons is so unique that their hypostatic or personal properties are totally incommunicable from one Person to the Other.

Personhood is inconceivable without freedom; it is the freedom of being other. I hesitate to say “different” instead of “other” because “different” can be understood in the sense of qualities (clever, beautiful, holy, etc.), which is not what the person is about. In God all such qualities are common to the each three Persons. Person implies not simply the freedom to have different qualities but mainly the freedom simply to be yourself. This means that a person is not subject to norms and stereotypes and cannot be classified in any way; its uniqueness is absolute. This means that only a person is free in the true sense.

And yet one person is no person; freedom is not freedom from the other but freedom for the other. Freedom becomes identical with love. God is love because He is Trinity. We can love only if we are persons, allowing the other to be truly other and yet be in communion with us. If we love the other not in spite of his or her being different but because they are different from us, or rather other than ourselves, we live in freedom as love and in love as freedom.

The other is a condition of our freedom. Freedom is not from but for something other than ourselves. This makes the person ecstatic, going outside and beyond the boundaries of the self. But this ecstasis is not to be understood as a movement towards the unknown and the infinite; it is a movement of affirmation of the other.

This drive of personhood towards the affirmation of the other is so strong that is not limited to the “other” that already exists but wants to affirm an “other” which is totally free grace of the person. Just as God created the world as free grace, so the person wants to create its own “other.” This is what happens with art: the artist creating a totally other identity as an act of freedom and communion. Living in the Church in communion with the other means, therefore, creating a culture. The Orthodox Church has always been culturally creative.

Finally, we must consider the ecological problem. The threat to God’s creation is due to a crisis between the human being and the otherness of the rest of creation. Man does not respect the otherness of what is not human; he tends to absorb it into himself.

This is the cause of the ecological problem. In a desperate attempt to correct this, Man may easily fall into the pagan alternative: to absorb Man into nature. We have to be very careful. Out of its tradition, Orthodoxy is called to offer the right Christian answer to the problem. Nature is the “other” that Man is called to bring into communion with himself, affirming it as “very good” through personal creativity.

This is what happens in the Eucharist where the natural elements of bread and wine are so affirmed that they acquire personal qualities — the Body and Blood of Christ — in the event of the communion of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, in a para-eucharistic way, all forms of true culture and art are ways of treating nature as otherness in communion, and these are the only healthy antidotes to the ecological illness.

to believe in a spiritually living creation that is full of spiritual life

Here is my own transcription from a part of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast by Jason Micheli “Episode 147 – David Bentley Hart: The Gloves Come Off” posted on April 13, 2018.

[22:55]

Hart: [N.T. Wright is] so hostile to the fact of the first century being Jewish and Greek at once (and Persian). I think, for me, the real proof of this is everywhere where he tries to deal with the issues of spirit and soul. And I think this is sad because that is actually a part of the New Testament that is too often obscured, and it really does grant us access to the way people thought at the time.

Micheli: Say more about that.

[25:00]

Hart: …In the first century, for a Hellenistic Jew, it would be normal to think that every kind of being, every kind of creature, has a body of some kind. All right, angels and demons. But what they possess is not what we have. What we have is a compound of flesh and blood which is animated by a life principle called psyche (soul). Therefore we have what Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, calls the “sōma psychikon.” The angels, however, spirits, have a different kind of body, one that does not consist in flesh and blood, and that is not animated. I mean, one way that you can translate psychikon (because psyche is the same as the Greek anima, it’s a substitute) is to say animated or animal body. Well, what it means is a perishable body because it’s flesh and blood which has to be animated by a life principle, spirit. So it’s necessarily a composite. Whereas a spiritual body, according to Paul, is one that is not flesh and blood (he’s quite clear about this, people don’t like to hear it: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”), and it is spiritual rather than psychical.

Now, most translations hide the whole psyche / pneuma distinction, not only there but throughout the New Testament. It’s an absolutely crucial distinction for most of the New Testament writers. So Paul probably believed that in resurrection, the body of death to which we’re bond is a psychical body of flesh and blood, in the transformation of the cosmos will become like an angelic body, a spiritual body. Flesh and blood will pass away. Soul will pass away. But we’ll become all spirit, like the angels. And I think that, you know, certain church fathers, that’s how they would have read Jesus saying in the world to come we will become as the angels. And you find this in Acts as well. In Acts 23:8 it says that the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection: “mēte angelos mēte pneuma.” That probably means “neither as angel nor as spirit.” Spirit was often used of those creatures, spirit in the language of the time (Hellenistic usage) often just meant beings that don’t have animal bodies. So angels are pneumata [πνεύματα]; we are psychés [ψυχές].

Micheli: You’re grating against a very popular N.T. Wright induced trend in asserting the embodiedness of Paul’s vision of resurrection.

Hart: Yeah, but what does he mean by body? That’s the problem, is he gets it dead wrong. It’s this wildly anachronistic reading that is not Paul’s language. In Acts, for instance, what does Acts say. It’s says, “They don’t believe in resurrection, neither as angel or as spirit.” N.T. Wright in his translation, cavalierly, and to my mind criminally, inserts, you know, writes it this way: “They didn’t believe in resurrection. Neither did they believe in an intermediate state in the form of angel or spirit.” So he has inserted into the text the notion that that reference to angel or spirit is about some transient intermediate state between the body (and this life) and then when it’s raised again and then animated (and that’s how he talks about us). Well, to me, you don’t stick an interpretive phrase of that, well, let’s just say one that distorts the meaning of the text that much, but if nothing else, inflects the meaning without at least a footnote. I think to do that, that’s not even paraphrase. That’s just dishonest.

And the same thing is true in the way he translates 1 Corinthians 15. We have the difference the psychical body (the ensouled body, the animated body) and the spiritual body becomes: “the body animated in a natural way” (which is meaningless) and “the body animated in a spiritual way” (which is contradictory because “animated” is in fact a synonym for “psychikon” and that’s exactly what Paul’s not saying). What Paul’s pretty clearly saying—what anyone who would, say, read Origen would know (or Gregory of Nyssa or anyone else who is more proximate conceptually, culturally, historically, or read Philo), you know, is that he’s talking exactly about the transition from a psychical to a spiritual body.

I think this also explains, if your interested, 1 Peter 3:18-20 where I think the proper way to read that is that Jesus died in the flesh, was killed in the flesh and raised as spirit. That doesn’t mean that—I mean, we tend to think of spirit as disembodied, and that’s not what they mean. For them, spirits had bodies, angels had bodies. In the first century, it was unthinkable that anyone other than God would be bodiless because everything else has to be local. It’s a radically different kind of body. Some might say that it’s composed of the fifth element, that is ether. Others had different theories. But it was like the same matter—whatever that body was, it was like the bodies of the stars which were thought to spiritual intelligences. And many Christians thought that too. That’s way God is called the “Father of the luminaries” in James [1:17].

[31:35]

…Well what does that say, 1 Peter 3:18-20? “Christ died in the flesh, was signed in the flesh, raised as spirit, and thereby was able to visit the spirits in prison”—meaning the angels, and the fallen angels, and the nephilim probably from first Enoch. Now it doesn’t say he visited them in the interval. It says he was able to visit them because he had been raised in a way made him physically, so to speak, transcendent of the conditions that a mere mortal, animal body suffers, that is it can’t move between realms. Now, all of this sounds odd to us now.

Micheli: But it also sounds a lot more clear.

Hart: Yeah, and it’s also correct. So, again, N.T. Wright has produced a translation that, without footnotes, distorts every single one of those verses but also just gets it wrong. I mean, it’s just wrong: demonstrably, objectively wrong.

[49:36]

Micheli: …You’ve already reclaimed a more spiritual understanding of resurrection, away from N.T. Wright.

Hart: I mean. I just think that’s clearly the case, in the text. N.T. Wright is closer to what I think the received picture of the person in the pews might be, you know. But it’s funny. It’s not like Paul is obscure on these points. When he says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.”

Micheli: [Chuckling.] It’s pretty clear.

Hart: It’s not like he’s being coy: “by flesh I mean sinful human nature, and by blood I mean violent propensities.”

Micheli: And to “put on imperishability” is just resuming the body.

Hart: Resuming the body you have but now animated by the, you know, I mean all of that, the whole. Yeah right. The N.T. Wright thing–a “naturally animated body” or a “spiritually animated body”–is his own weird invention. It’s obviously wrong. It doesn’t fit the text.

[50:54]

…The thing to do though, the thing you have to emphasize is that spirit in the first century is not an ethereal privation of body. It is a stronger, more living, more powerful, more indestructible body, a body capable of passing through walls, a body capable of moving between the realm of the terrestrial realm and the realm of spirits. It is fuller a kind of life. It more eminently, more virtually, to use a scholastic language, contains the kind of life we have in this world, but it’s fuller and indestructible. It’s not composite. It’s not made up of an adventitious or extrinsic composite of flesh, blood and soul.

Micheli: Does the New Testament require a more enchanted view of the world than Evangelicals are able to hold? Isn’t that the problem?

Hart: Well, I think a more enchanted view of the world than modern people, I mean, not just evangelicals. All of us who are modern, we recoil from the cosmology of the New Testament because we see only its morphology. That is, well we know that the heavens are not crystalline planetary spheres revolving around the earth, and God’s imperium is literally above it so that obviously, as in the Gospel of John, Jesus literally comes from above. That’s not just metaphorical language. He enters the whole and redeems the whole and conquers the whole cosmos, meaning the sphere of fixed stars (which are full of spiritual intelligences, probably), the planetary spheres, the powers on high, which are spirit, pneumata [πνεύματα], and angels, archons [ἄρχων]. He uses the words “the archon of this world.”

And yet, I think that you don’t need the morphology to believe in a spiritually living creation that is full of spiritual life. You know, I’m something of a panpsychist myself. Not in the modern way, in which, you know, you’re supposed to believe that every atom has a kind of quality called mind. But rather, that everything is founded upon spirit, is full of logos, is full of spiritual realities.

And I think that until, I think that because we can’t think like first century persons, we end up with, well, this whole issue of resurrection, say. How is N.T. Wright or any other evangelical of that sort thinking about resurrection? It’s weirdly dualistic, isn’t it? There’s this body thing that’s animated one way or another. You know, there’s matter; there’s spirit. Spirit would be more ethereal than matter. Matter is somehow more concrete and more living than disembodied or fleshless spirit. It’s just the opposite of the ancient view, which is that the mortal corruptible world is feeble, perishing, thin, ghostly by comparison to the fullness of spiritual reality that sufuses all things, that underlies all things, that transcends all things, into which we are ushered. Resurrection is to be lifted up out of the ghostly condition of being flesh and blood and soul into this vibrant, vivid, indestructible condition of being living spirits in the presence of God who is spirit. And because we don’t think in that way. Because we are condemned to a kind mechanical, bland, boring, dead-matter view of creation, you know, you end up with a need to create a theology that obviously isn’t there in the text. And of course it helps if you know the time, the issues. I wish that more Christians were immersed in the intertestamental literature, immersed in the larger Hellenistic world, realizing that Paul is a Greek too, I mean, in some sense. He’s a Jew, but he’s a Hellenistic Jew, in part of the pagan world that for three centuries had not only lived under pagan rule but had freely and happily, at times not so happily, but at times in the intellectual world, happily borrowed and used and integrated what it had found useful, just as it had done with Persian thought.

Micheli: That’s a good word, especially around Easter.

Tips I’ve Heard About How to Pray and Worship in an Orthodox Church

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.)

3. Stand guard over the heart. Stand with the mind in the heart. Descend from the head to the heart. All these are one and the same thing. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart.

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:

  1. 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.]
  2. 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.”