Here is a place for you in the midst of my growing household…

For several years, I’ve come back regularly to an effort at summarizing the whole story of the Bible within as few words as possible. Here’s a recent attempt. Is it making sense?

God said, “Let there be light.” A few days later, God said, “Let there be heavenly bodies to guide an ageless dance between the great light of day and the many beautiful lights of night over which I delight to sing.”

Finally, God said to humanity, “Here is a place for you in the midst of my growing household so that you who carry my image can learn to show me fully to all that share life with me. Enjoy this home and care for it, my children, but be warned that refusal of this place in my household will lead to your death.”

But humanity said to God, “We are mature already, and we are ready now to be like you.”

God replied, “No, my children. To join with you fully is my purpose, but that step in the dance is not yet reached. Because of your disordered desire, you will need to mature within the realm of death where your own will cannot forever take you away from my life. This restriction of time by the contingency of death will limit your wanderings as you each mature amid the confusion and suffering of your misdirected loves. I will be with you, and you can still mature fully to show your divine image as my human family to all of my creation. Even from the foundation of this realm of death in which you must be entombed, my eternal Son will participate fully in your suffering, and a woman among you will bear fruit. She will be a human who prepares and agrees, even within the realm of death, to carry my perfect image as my eternal Son. Through her acceptance of her own humanity, this woman will fulfill my intent for all humanity as a way for me to join with my creation. With this union of her child’s life and the Life shared by me and my eternal Son as our gift to all creation, everything that we have made will be restored in the life of this woman’s child.”

And humanity slowly reply, “Remember us, O Lord, in your kingdom.”

the universe offers the God-bearing martyrs as the first fruits of creation

Today is the Feast of All Saints for Orthodox Christians. (Some of my funny Orthodox friends like to joke that last night was Orthodox Halloween.) One of the primary hymns for this feast (the kontakion, sung repeatedly in services this morning) starts out with these lines: “The universe offers the God-bearing martyrs as the first fruits of creation to You, O Lord and Creator.”

What does it mean for the universe to offer something to God? And what does it mean for the first fruits of creation to be the God-bearing martyrs?

This hymn preserves an understanding of the universe that we see in one of the first Christian martyrs, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote a famous series of letters on his journey to Rome to die. Along the way to his final destination, Saint Ignatius wrote a letter to the church in Rome saying, “When I shall have arrived there, I shall be a human being [ekei paragenomenos anthrōpos esomai]. Suffer me to follow the example of the passion of my God” (Letter to the Romans 6). This translation is as cited by Fr. John Behr in “From Adam to Christ: From Male and Female to Being Human” in The Wheel, 2018. In this same article, Fr. John Behr says of this passage that, as Ignatius approaches Rome, he clearly thinks of himself as “not yet born, not yet living, not yet human; only by his martyrdom, in imitation of Christ, will he be born into life as a human being.” Where I lived last in York, PA, I once got to hear Fr. John Behr speak in person about St. Ignatius and his martyrdom. It was powerful to hear him speak of how Christ created the world from the cross, speaking the final words of God in the creation of the world and finishing chapter one of Genesis when He said from the cross, “It is finished.” Jesus Christ was the first human being, the first one to show us the perfect image of God given to Adam but immediately obscured by the human fall. St. Ignatius understood this and was eager to be created by his Savior, Jesus Christ, as a full and mature human being. To be fully shaped by Jesus Christ as a fellow image-bearer of God, St. Ignatius carried his own cross to the point of death in Rome where he was fully united to Christ in his own death.

To understand this hymn about the martyrs as the first fruits of creation, we must turn to another letter to the church in Rome, this one by the Apostle Paul (8.19-22): “For the earnest expectation of creation anxiously awaits the revelation of the sons of God. For creation was made subordinate to pointlessness, not willingly but because of the one who subordinated it, in the hope that creation itself will also be liberated from decay into the freedom of the glory of God’s children. For we know that all creation groans together and labors together in birth pangs, up to this moment.” (Translation by David Bentley Hart.) Here we have all of creation waiting for the children of God to be revealed in glory. All of creation is described as still in the process of being born into the true life of God that Jesus Christ enters into when He conquers death, the life that each martyr enters into as they join Christ. This is indeed a picture where “the universe offers” up to God “the martyrs as the first fruits of creation.” We are used to thinking of creation as happening in the past. However, in this hymn, as well as in the letters from Paul and Ignatius, creation his happening right now, happening as we join Christ in his creative work on the cross, declaring, “It is finished.”

Of course, this language comes from all over the holy scriptures. In 1 Corinthians 15:22-26, Paul writes: “For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life and each in the proper order: the Anointed as the firstfruits, thereafter those who are in the Anointed at his arrival, then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God and Father, when he renders every Principality and every Authority and Power ineffectual. For he must reign till he puts all enemies under his feet. The last enemy rendered ineffectual is death.” (Translation by David Bentley Hart.) All of cosmic history, as we know it, is given over to death and the entire universe suffers with one voice; it “groans together and labors together in birth pangs” until it has given birth to the first human beings: Jesus Christ and his martyrs. These are “the first fruits of creation” as we sang this morning.

“Synaxis of All Saints” (icon from All Saints Orthodox Church in Hartford, CT).

humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God

My own partial transcription from portions of this excellent conversation between David Bentley and Tony Golsby-Smith about Gregory of Nyssa:

4:59

[Gregory of Nyssa] is arguably the first metaphysician who in any significant way explored the metaphysics of divine infinity. …Infinity was ascribed to God …very rarely in Platonic tradition. The invite was not taken to be a positive attribute for many schools of thought until fairly late in the development of Hellenistic philosophy. He had is own anthropology. He had is own approach to an understanding of the nature of the human being, the nature of creatures as thoroughly dynamic expressions of being in relation to a God who is infinite. I don’t think that anyone before Gregory was as successful as he at arguing that the very things that for a more standard metaphysics would be seen as separating humanity from the divine—that is the mutably, the changeableness of human nature—Gregory was able to treat as the very terms of union with God. That is he had a very specific theology of the way in which human beings are related to God in union with God that was his rather creative use of a verse from Paul [Ph. 3:13] of eternal dynamic ascent into the divine. That our union with God, our eternal union with God, would be one also of eternal novelty, of epectasis [ἐπεκτεινόμενος], of being stretched out into an ever greater embrace that, by virtue of the divine infinity, is inexhaustible and by virtue of the inexhaustibly changing nature of the creature is nonetheless something in which we can participate. …All of this, in its own way, is quite original.

19:45

All sorts of things are called gods. Saints are called gods. John of Damascus and the other church fathers often speak of saints as gods because they don’t mean God in the sense of God most high. They just mean a divinized creature.

23:35

What does it mean to say [with the Nicene Creed established by Gregory and his fellow Cappadocians] that in Christ God has entered into immediate communion with humanity? What is humanity? How is it that God, by becoming one man, in another sense is present in all of humanity, pervades the entirety of human experience that is available to all of the spirit? This leads to Gregory of Nyssa coming up with all sorts of fascinating claims about what it is to be human, what it is to be truly human, how God created humanity form the vantage of eternity as apposed to the process of creation in time and how these two relate. Here he far surpassed his brother [Basil] and Gregory of Nazianzus in the range of speculative genius and also theological profundity. The picture of the human that emerges from it is one of a sort of radical coinherence, radical community, such that the human essence itself is one that is community before it is individuated in persons.

27:04

What he does with the Life of Moses is he turns this into a mystical treatise about he ascent of the soul into God’s infinity. And the other is his great commentary on the Song of Songs which …has all these odd premonitory hints of a kind of almost romantic vision of the soul as this infinite insatiable energy that is plunged by its error for the divine, striving—not tragically striving—but nonetheless moved by this insatiable hunger for the beauty of God into ever-deeper communion.

33:17

[Gregory of Nyssa] recognizes the animality, the physicality, the degree to which, especially for fallen humanity, [it is given] in preparation for the fall. He talks about preparing certain organs (among them, organs of procreation) to be appropriate to the life that we live in this mortal flesh now. …At the same time, he realizes that even in this condition—he’s always …recogniz[ing] this divine light, this divine music even in the human[‘s] most indigent and coarsely physical form.

35:37

In a sense, [Gregory of Nyssa] starts [the creation story] at the end. The creation of humanity starts—he does this wonderful thing where he takes the two different creation accounts, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and makes them, so to speak, two different creative horizons within God’s working—he beings with the human being as already glorified, already united to Christ, already in its totality, all human being together rejoicing in and divinized by the presence of God. From there—that’s the primordial creative act of God, the eternal already accomplished end—from there then unfolds, even from the conditions of sin, how does God create us in time—this being not just the end of the story, but its foundation, its beginning. Rather than starting from this sort of tragedy of a promising creature created in a limited landscape of possibilities, who makes a mess of things, condemns himself and his descendants, …that’s actually an interval in the story that is surpassed before the story even gets underway.

You are confronted first and foremost with this dizzying claim that humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God. That’s where the story begins.

39:51

I’m a great champion of the romantic movement—especially the English romantic—the great rebellion against the mechanization, and I have no problem with a full robust, red blooded, seemingly panentheistic [vision]. I think that this is another reason to read Gregory On the Making of Humanity and Basil in the Hexameron. …Now, there is a certain degree of the Platonic melancholy there, a certain distrust of matter. You just can’t get away from that in the fourth century, especially in a fallen world. …But they are not talking about a world in which dead matter is the fictile clay by which God creates a working order of mechanisms related to him only in terms of his power. It really is for [them] a vision of created as pervaded by the Spirit of God. It really is the πνεῦμα, the breath of God really does permeate, fill and enliven all things. Life is literally at once the eternal spirit of God but actually the breath of God in all things. It is perfectly healthy to see the romantic rebellion [as being] against the mechanized picture—either the dualistic or the materialist version—this picture of creation as nothing but a collection of organic machines and matter as something inherently dead which is brought to life simply as a mater of functional arrangement but that in itself [is dead]. For Gregory, everything is just the mirror of the divine nature. …In both Basil and Gregory, they both deny that there is even, in any meaningful, sense a material substrate. Their understanding of matter—I don’t know if you’d say that it’s Berkeleian, that’s a bit of an anachronism—but their understanding of matter or the material creation is that it exists as a coalescence of radiant forms [Greek phrase given here, 41:53], of pure spiritual forms. They don’t believe that there is any sort of inanimate, non-divine, non-illuminated, purely passive level of material existence. And this is something that [Gregory] shared with Basil.

42:15

The portion in this conversation above about the two nested horizons of God’s creative work provides some helpful language regarding the nature of the cosmos that we inhabit now (see three previous posts here, here and here for just a few other examples of material in my blog related to this). Gregory considers there to be a foundational work of creation outside of time (both the beginning and the end of this current world) in which there is a “humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning [that] was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God.” This fullness of humanity is Adam made in the perfect image of God’s eternal son. This undifferentiated humanity falls at the moment of its creation (as Maximus the confessor puts it in three places) and Jesus Christ is therefore the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the cosmos” (Revelation 13:8) and the second Adam to whom all of humanity must remain united in order for the image of God to be preserved. Within fallen time, this image of God is now being differentiated as a kind of secondary work of creation—God’s joining with us in sin and death to nonetheless participate fully with even the life of fallen creation and to accomplish the end of God’s primary creative work. Later in the conversation, David summarizes Gregory as saying that, from our current perspective, creation has not yet taken place. From God’s eternal perspective, it can be clearly inferred as well, it has already taken place.

This entire interview is well worth listening to, and I hope the entire thing is transcribed. Two more are planned focussing on other writings of Gregory. This first interview touches on many other topics such as: Who were all of the Cappadocian saints and what is the nature of the Christian orthodoxy that they were critical in helping to establish? Why did Gregory advocate for the release of all slaves when no other Christian thinker (or likely any human thinker ever) had done so before in this way? Was Gregory a widower and what did Gregory say about marriage and monastic life? How does Gregory compare to Coleridge?

God as Architect/Builder/Geometer/Craftsman, frontispiece of Bible Moralisee (c. 1220-1230, illumination on parchment).

a theophany that is an infinitely diversified, infinitely playful manifestation of the bliss and wisdom of the Triune God

This lucid introduction to panentheism by David Armstrong is shared here with his permission. (He originally posted it to his social media page on June 7, 2021. David is a graduate of Missouri State University’s Religious Studies program.)

There are only so many ways to phrase the God-World relationship. If God is something in the World, like one object among others, then he is no more than a god; classical monotheism tends to believe in gods that exist within the World created by God, but distinguishes the two by an infinite differentiation. Roughly speaking, this is the view of the so-called “theistic personalists,” for whom God’s finitude and mutability is a biblical non-negotiable, but this does not provide a long term philosophical foundation for talk about God. The immediate move is to radically differentiate God and the World: God is not the World, and the World is not God, and never the twain shall meet or be confused, for God is infinite and uncreated and the world finite and created. But there’s an internal contradiction in this view: on this reading of things, God’s infinity is immediately contradicted by his exclusion from the World, which now conditions him as an Aliud, an Other that stands alongside God. This is more or less the view of the Old and Middle Academies: Plato’s God is a Demiurge working with Eternal Forms and preexistent, Eternal Matter that exist alongside of him, with which he is always in a kind of competitive dominance. But this does not succeed in establishing God as the infinite, primary reality: such a God could never have true ultimacy as a fact of his existence, for he would always coexist alongside a second principle of origination.

So we are left with two options. The first is to simply collapse God and the World together: God is the World, in its quantitative infinity, is controvertible with the numerically infinite catalogue of finite beings that constitute the World system and order. The second is to qualify this picture by saying that God is more than the World, but God is also Not Other (Non Aliud) than the World: the world exists from God, in God, through God, and for God, as a qualitatively finite, created manifestation of God, an intentional overflow of God’s own being into the infinitely myriad possibilities of essence and existence that creatures display. The first is sometimes called “pantheism”–literally, τὸ πᾶν or “the All” is God (ὁ Θεός)–while the latter is sometimes called “panentheism”–“the All” is “in” (ἐν) God, and therefore, God is in the All. Conceptually, these positions are really not very far from one another: to say, as Jesus Ben Sirach does in Ben Sirach 43:27, that God “is the All” (τὸ πᾶν γὰρ ἐστιν αὐτός), is not to reduce God to any one finite creature in the order of the World, still less is it to reduce God to the catalogue of creatures in the World, but rather it is to say that God himself is the unifying Being by which the variety of spiritual and material creatures in the universe can be construed as belonging to a common order, a cosmos, and therefore be an “All” to begin with. And so most intellectually curated forms of pantheism end up being panentheism, while panentheism, taken to its logical conclusion, requires some rather pantheist ideas about the value of the spatiotemporal and material universe as the arena of divine manifestation, about the meaning of the actual existence of creatures and the stillness in which they reside.

Both pantheism and panentheism, then, are really just forms of what Mary-Jane Rubenstein calls “Pantheology”–that is, an attempt to provide an account of how God is the All and the All is God. And in its most sophisticated and authoritative formulations, classical monotheism is always a Pantheology: whether the Vedantic system of the Principal Upanisads, the Stoicized Middle Platonism of Philo of Alexandria or Plutarch of Chaeronea, the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus, and Iamblichus, the cosmology of Origen of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers Sts. Gregory Nazianzen, Basil the Great, and Gregory Nyssen, the mystical theology of Ps.-St. Dionysius the Areopagite, the clarity of the theoria of St. Maximos the Confessor, the summative patristic philosophy of John Scotus Eriugena or St. John of Damaskos, the gradually developing worldview of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah, the Sufi metaphysics of someone like Ibn Arabi or Avicenna, the God-World relationship is typically phrased as a kind of Pantheology. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, this Pantheology does not permit, as it does in Vedic and Greco-Roman pagan systems, the worship of cosmic or hypercosmic gods and their idols, though for Christians at least, it does provide the philosophical basis for seeing the unity of God and the World in the hypostasis of the Son, the Logos of God who is the infinite logoi of the World, enfleshed, crucified, and raised as Jesus Christ to secure the World’s true creation and deification. But even while the Abrahamic or Adonaistic monotheisms are differentiated from these other monotheisms on the grounds of cult, their metaphysics no less justifies the basic insight of Hellenic philosophy as it was summarized in late antique Neoplatonism: the World is full of God, and therefore it is also full of gods, or at least possible gods.

The God-World relationship presupposed by the Nicene Symbol, then, is one in which creatio ex nihilo–creation “from nothing”–is really creatio ex Deo: creation “from God.” That is to say, the fundamental philosophical shift in Christian discourse toward the idea that God created the universe “from nothing” is a rejection precisely of the notion that there is any secondary principle of origination exterior to God from which God constructed the World: there is non aliud, “No Other” than God from which the World could have arisen, and therefore by which it can be sustained or toward which it can move as though to final consummation. The World’s creation “from God” also, by the logic of the apophatic metaphysics of the divine nature which obtain in this system, does not mean that God creates the World through some kind of depreciation, depletion, or exhaustion of his own resources, but rather as the superabundant effulgence of his divine being and nature, which are always perfectly complete in himself in the Trinitarian perichoresis. That is to say, God creates as nothing other than celebration of his own infinite self-realization, that the fully realized life of God in the Trinitarian processions and love may also come to be realized in the economic acts of creation, incarnation, and deification, so that created “others”–or perhaps, the Logos in creaturely form–may participate by grace in that which God is by nature. At its most basic substrate of metaphysical truth, the universe is rooted in the Trinitarian life: first, the Father’s contemplative vision of all the logoi which he beholds in the Son as Logos, and his loving will in breathing forth the Spirit upon the Son that all these logoi should come to be vivified; second, the Son’s kenotic consent to the Father’s will, divesting himself of the divine glory which he shares with the Father that he might exist as the logoi and that they might come to be in the void of his self-abasement; and third, the Spirit’s delight to exalt the Logos in the vivification of the logoi, in, through, and with which the Son now presents himself to the Father in worshipful love and the Father, in his adoration of the Son, receives in gladness.

There are a few corollaries to this vision of things. First, God is the innermost being, awareness, and infinite potential of every creature: if the universe is created from nothing other than God, and in the Christian vision, specifically the Trinitarian life of divine knowledge and love shared between Father, Son, and Spirit, then at the heart of every created being, from stars and planets to humans and animals to plants and dirt, is God–the Father as the arche of that thing’s existence, the Son as the interior logic of its being, and the Spirit as that vivifying presence activating and expanding its being so as to participate ever more deeply in the life of God. We live in the midst of a theophany, not merely of God in the abstract, but of God the Father in the Trinitarian processions of Son and Spirit. Second, because the Logos is God, and is therefore qualitatively infinite, the logoi which subsist in him are quantitatively infinite; and so in the eternal instant that God pours forth the Spirit upon the Logos, vivifying the logoi resident within him, it must be that an infinite number of such logoi are so actualized. This is the surest Christian philosophical argument for what Rubenstein, again, calls the “ultimate Multiverse,” that is, the actualization of an infinite number of universes or Worlds. Insofar as this constitutes a single system, we may continue to think of such quantitatively infinite creations as a single World; but insofar as there may be spatial, temporal, material, or otherwise dimensional divisions between these realms that are not passed or at least not easily navigated by finite beings, without divine or preternatural assistance, we may continue to think of them also in their multiplicity, what Rubenstein calls their “plurisingularity.” We live in a theophany, but in a theophany that is an infinitely diversified, infinitely playful manifestation of the bliss and wisdom of the Triune God.

Artist’s impression of the galaxy COSMOS-AzTEC-1 (located 12.4 billion light-years away and forming stars 1000 times more rapidly than our Milky Way Galaxy). Credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

the Big Bang should be interpreted not as the first creative act of God but as the first cognizable manifestation of the human Fall

Excerpts from an article “Fitting Evolution into Christian Belief: An Eastern Orthodox Approach” by Alexander V. Khramov (International Journal of Orthodox Theology. 8:1. 2017. Pages 75-105.):

St. Maximus is definitive in stressing “the difference between the temperament of the human body in our forefather Adam before the fall, and that which is now observed within us and predominates, because then the temperament of man’s body was obviously not torn apart by mutually opposed and corrupting qualities, but was in a state of equilibrium devoid of flux and reflux.” Of course, this is not to be understood as stating that before the Fall humans existed as souls separated from the bodies. St. Maximus lets to know clearly that he follows the refutation of this Evagrian doctrine by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. What he wants to say is that the bodily nature of humans has changed dramatically after we went astray from God.

These teachings cannot be dismissed as extreme and untypical cases of spiritualism. For example, St. John of Damascus, sometimes called “the Thomas Aquinas of the Greeks”, who synthesized the doctrines of the Eastern Fathers and tried to find a balance between extremes, was of the same opinion.

…Remarkably, the early Augustine also held [these] views which were in contradiction to his later position. In his “Two Books on Genesis against the Manichees” (388-389), Augustine underscored that great changes had occurred in the ontology of humans because of their sin. Before the Fall, the lot of human beings was to bear “the spiritual offspring of intelligible and immortal joys”, but this propensity “changed into carnal fecundity after sin”. Augustine in this treatise understood the life in the Paradise in highly spiritualistic terms – according to him, the man plunged into this world of flesh and blood, being “drawn down by the weight of his own sins to a place that suits him.”

…God did not create humans in their present bodily condition; rather prelapsarian human beings had spiritual bodies and lived a kind of angelic life. Humans turned to the organismic life only after the Fall.

…We come to the conclusion that evolution with all suffering intrinsic is not the means by which God created the world, but a consequence of the Fall, which happened before the beginning of the empirically known universe. Indeed, since angel-like humans changed into the biological organisms because ofthe Fall, and, as science tells us, such biological organisms have been produced by evolution, it is entirely reasonable to suppose that evolution itself started in the fallen world after the first sin had been committed. So we can speak of humans in a twofold sense. Humans as a part of the empirical realm are the result of evolution, but, as those who belong to the primeval and now unattainable order of things, they are its cause.

…Following this logic, the Big Bang should be interpreted not as the first creative act of God, but as the first cognizable manifestation of the human Fall; it ruined primordial creation in a catastrophic manner. On such a view, the basic properties of matter that made evolution possible are in fact no other than corruption brought by sin to the “very good” world which preceded our observable Universe.

The Eastern theology traditionally viewed the human act of disobedience in paradise not as an isolated event, but as a trigger for the global transformation of the whole creation: “cursed is the ground because of you” Gen. 3:17). For example, Origen taught that the change of humans from the angel-like state to the animal one were accompanied by the recasting of the entire natural order because the world designed for spiritual beings is different from the world necessary to sustain biological life. So “descent from higher to lower conditions” has been experienced not only by fallen souls but by the whole of nature as well.

…[This] understanding of evolution by no means assumes in a gnostic style that the animals, human bodies, and the whole material realm have not been created by God. What it claims is that all these things were created in a different state from one in which they are now. The beauty of the present world is just a pale imitation of the primordial creation originally made to be “very good”. Since the cognitive faculties offallen humans have been impaired, we are shielded from any certain knowledge about the prelapsarian world by a kind of “veil of ignorance” [let me borrow this term from john Rawls]. The Big Bang is the first event on our side of the veil, but we cannot know anything about what was behind the veil, except what is revealed in the Scripture. After all, how can a brain shaped by cruel natural selection learn about life in paradise? We do not know how we ourselves, stars, rivers, plants and other realities of our world looked like before the Fall. Certainly, at that time, the laws of nature worked in different ways from the ways in which they do now since such things as maintaining body power without food were possible. There was no entropy and struggle for existence.

…According to John Polkinghorne, “if the world to come is to be free from death and suffering, its ‘matter-energy’ will have to be given a different character. There will have to discontinuous change of physical law”. Christopher Southgate supposes that resurrected animals will live in the special “pelican heaven”, “without competition or frustration on the part of predator or prey.”

If the world after the resurrection of the dead is going to be so dissimilar to what we see, why cannot we assume the same for prelapsarian creation, keeping in mind Origen’s principle “the end is like the beginning”?

…More successful and more philosophically sophisticated attempt in this direction was made by Russian thinker Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948). He was well aware of Eastern theology, often citing St. Gregory of Nyssa and especially St. Symeon the New Theologian. Berdyaev combined insights from them with a Kantian philosophy to interpret the Fall as objectification (or self- estrangement) of the human spirit, as a result of which primary reality has been fallen apart into subject and object, mutually impenetrable realms of phenomena and noumena (things-in-themselves).

“Man is the supreme center of the cosmic life, it fell through him, and through him it must rise,” Berdyaev writes. God did not create the current world order with universal laws of nature. What he did create is concrete beings or “existential centers” which on account of the sin have been turned into phenomena in space and time, subjected to a rigid principle of causation. “The world is the servitude, the enchainment of existences, not only of men but of animals of plants, even of minerals and stars…. The enslavement, the enslaving state of the world, the determinism of nature are the outcome of objectification. Everything is turned into object. …Evolution belongs to the system of objectification,” it is related only to humans in the phenomenal sense, that is, to humans as fallen beings, and cannot be regarded as an expression of God’s creativity.

In the eschatological consummation, God will reverse objectification to return all created things to themselves. “The end of the world will be an end of that world of objects.” Like Moltmann and his followers, Berdyaev links the resurrection of the dead with the global transformation of the whole natural order: “my salvation is bound up with that not only of other men but also of animals, plants, minerals, of every blade of grass—all must be transfigured and brought into the Kingdom of God.” By this the core structure of reality, now distorted by the Fall, will be restored. But until it happens, we have to remain objects among objects: “man as a noumenon is at the beginning, and as a noumenon, he is at the end, but he lives out his destiny in the phenomenal world.”

…Olivier Clément, strongly influenced by Berdyaev, also took theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor as his starting point. “Holy fathers, delving into the biblical texts, showed that the Fall represented a cosmic catastrophe, an eclipse of the paradisiacal mode of being and emergence of a new mode of existence in the whole universe.” If science cannot find any trace of paradise in our past, it does not follow that paradise has never existed at all, but rather that it is not within the sphere of competence of scientific inquiry. “Geology and paleontology, with all their achievements, stop at the gate of paradise, for it is a different state of existence. Science cannot reach beyond the Fall, because it itself is a part of the fallen state of the world, being inseparable from spatial, temporal and material conditions that arose from the destruction of paradisiacal state.” Since events described in Gen. 1-3 pertain to the realm of unknown, evolution studied by science is not a synonym of six days of creation. “What science calls ‘evolution’ from the spiritual point of view is a process of objectification of primeval Adam or universal Man, which involves all humanity and all the world.”

Iconographer Christina DeMichele. Commissioned for St. Andrew Orthodox Church, Riverside, CA.

sacramental ontology

Too many Christians are living like atheists, operating as if God doesn’t exist. We don’t expect to bump into God around the watercooler or doing the dishes. We might believe in God, but we don’t expect to encounter God.

…Christians live like atheists, according to the Orthodox priest and author Stephen Freeman, because we think we’re living in a two-story universe. In this two-story universe, the cosmos is a house with two floors. As Freeman describes it, “We live here on earth, the first floor, where things are simply things and everything operates according to normal, natural laws, while God lives in heaven, upstairs, and is largely removed from the story in which we live. To effect anything here, God must interrupt the laws of nature and perform a miracle.” For us to see or hear from God, God has to come downstairs to visit us. But most of the time, it’s just us alone on the first floor. God is absent, upstairs and minding his own business.

When we live our lives in the two-story world, we practice what Freeman calls “Christian atheism.” Since God is “up- stairs,” God is “not here.” God isn’t close; God is elsewhere, far away and distant. And not just physically distant, mentally distant as well. God is at the back our minds, an afterthought, if we think of God at all.

What we need to recover, according to Freeman, is a one-story vision of the universe. We need to see that God is, in the words of Freeman, “everywhere present and filling all things.” In a one-story View of the universe, God and humanity are all living on the same floor. We’re roommates with God and expect to see each other all the time. Like Jacob declared, we’re living in the house of God.

…Theologians have a fancy name for this one-story view of the world. They call it a “sacramental ontology.” Ontology is concerned with “existence,” our thoughts and ideas about “reality.” A good definition of sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible reality.” Putting the two together, “sacramental ontology” is about how everything around us, everything that exists, points us toward God. All the world is a sign.

But that’s not quite right. Sacraments are more than signs. …If sacraments are merely signs, we’re back to living in the two-story universe, with the downstairs “sign” pointing toward an upstairs “reality.” But as Flannery O’Connor teaches us, sacraments participate in and embody the spiritual reality they symbolize. Sacraments bring the miracle close. As Catholics say about the Eucharist, God is “really present” in the sacrament, in the same room with us, and not just observ- ing us from the upstairs. A sacramental ontology expands this vision, coming to see God as “really present” in all things and everywhere in the world. Again, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” God’s vitality and life crackle through nature. …The sunlight, the wind, and the rain are not just signs pointing us toward the Creator. God is “really present” in nature. God is embracing us in the sunlight on our face, the raindrops on our skin, and the breeze in our hair. God comes to us in people as well. As Hopkins wrote in a different poem, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.” God is really present in the faces and hands of other human beings as we love each other.

…This sacramental ontology shows up all over the Bible. My favorite example comes from Acts 14, the first sermon in the his- tory of the world preached to a wholly pagan audience. …Unable to appeal to Abraham or Moses, Paul turns the attention of his audience to the natural world. God is “every-where present” in this one-story world. Just like a roommate, God has always been speaking to us. As Paul says, “He has not left himself without witness.” God’s voice is heard in the rain and in the harvest. God is close where there is good food and the laugher of friends. God has been with you this entire time, declares Paul, “filling your hearts with joy.” Start with joy if you’re looking for enchantment. Let gladness be your guide to the gateway of heaven.

Recovering this sacramental ontology is the next big step toward enchanting our faith in this skeptical age. This is a one-story universe. So let’s stop going through the day living as if God doesn’t exist. God is everywhere present. God isn’t that mysterious neighbor living in the apartment above you. God is closer than you can imagine. The signs and sacraments are all around you. …You are living in the House of God.

Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age by Richard Beck

Annunciation Poems and Reflections

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

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

“Annunciation” by Allwyn Fabre

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

“Annunciation” John Donne

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

Charles Péguy on the Annunciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

there sleeps a fallen god called by God to awaken and seek union with him as a natural end

To compare to this famous passage from C.S. Lewis, here is a passage from Theological Territories in “Remarks to Bruce McCormack regarding the Relation between Trinitarian Theology and Christology” by David Bentley Hart:

In all of us, and in all things, there sleeps a fallen god called by God to awaken and seek union with him as a natural end—to risk a formulation that will offend just about every Christian, but that merely expresses the inescapable conclusion of thinking the theology of divine incarnation and human glorification through to its logically inevitable terminus.

every possibility of evil inherent in the conditions of finite freedom is conquered while actually bringing free spiritual natures into existence

Creation is not the magical conjuration into existence of something that possesses all the attributes of the past without actually possessing a past. Surely that must be true, right? If it were, then there would be no such thing as free rational creatures, but only fictional characters summoned into existence in a preordained state of character.

So, the issue of evil isn’t a utilitarian calculus, it’s a matter of the process whereby nothingness and every possibility of evil inherent in the conditions of finite freedom is conquered while actually bringing free spiritual natures into existence. But spirit can exist only under the conditions of those rational conditions that logically define it. To ask why God did not create spiritual beings already wholly divinized without any prior history in the ambiguities of sin—or of sin’s possibility—is to pose a question no more interesting or solvent than one of those village atheist’s dilemmas: can God create a square circle, or a rock he is unable to lift? A finite created spirit must have the structure of, precisely, the finite, the created, and spirit. It must have an actual absolute past in nonbeing and an absolute future in the divine infinity, and the continuous successive ordering of its existence out of the former and into the latter is what it is to be a spiritual creature. Every spiritual creature as spirit is a pure act of rational and free intentionality away from the utter poverty of nonbeing and toward infinite union with God. This “temporal” or “diastematic” structure is no less intrinsic to it than is its dynamic synthesis of essence and existence, or of stability and change. And that means that even the first stirring of a created spiritual nature’s existence must be a kind of free assent to existence on the part of the creature.

…Yet again, to say that evil is not necessary in itself does not mean that the possibility of evil–possibility, not necessity–is not present in the “venture” of creation. To say that a negative possibility is entailed in something is not to say that there is any intrinsic necessity for or positive value in the actualization of that possibility. When surgery is performed to remove a tumor, it is possible that there will be nerve damage. That does not mean that nerve damage is an intrinsically good or necessary aspect of surgery. The possibility of a falling back toward evil and nothingness is entailed in the creation of a free finite spiritual being, almost by definition. That does not mean that the actual falling back toward evil and nothingness is in itself a necessary or good “part of the journey.” But, in the course of God overcoming evil and nothingness in finite free spiritual creatures, it may happen. Happily, one would like to believe, God does not cease to conquer that evil, in this age or the age to come.

David Bentley Hart (in the comments here)

there was accomplished here something involving the whole created world, something of the preeternal, the cosmic

Excerpts from “The Sophiology of Father Sergius Bulgakov and the Living Tradition” by Andrew Louth (printed in The Wheel, Summer 2015, pp. 5-9):

Bulgakov had felt this danger, and it was his sense of this danger that gradually led him from the Marxism he had espoused as a young man back to the faith of his fathers. Marxist economics could not see nature as God’s creation, and tended to regard nature as material for human consumption and use. Bulgukov’s sense of the fundamental wrongness of such an attitude to nature came to him as an experience about which he wrote in his Autobiographical Sketches, passages from which he—significantly, I think—included in the early pages of Unfading Light. Let me quote a few passages:

“Evening was falling. We were traveling along the southern steppe, covered with the fragrance of honey—coloured grass and hay, gilded with the crimson of a sublime sunset. In the distance the fast-approaching Caucasus Mountains appeared blue. I was seeing them for the first time My soul had become accustomed long ago to see with a dull silent pain only a dead wasteland in nature beneath the veil of beauty, as under a deceptive mask; without being aware of it, my soul was not reconciled with a nature without God. And suddenly in that hour my soul became agitated, started to rejoice and began to shiver: but what if it is not wasteland, not a lie, not a mask, not death but him, the blessed and loving Father, his raiment, his love? …God was knocking quietly in my heart and it heard that knocking, it wavered but did not open. …And God departed.”

But it didn’t end there. Bulgakov goes on to speak of renewed experiences:

“Before me the first day of creation blazed. All was clear, all became reconciled, replete with ringing joy. …And that moment of meeting did not die in my soul; this was her apocalypse, her wedding feast, the first encounter with Sophia.”

…Bulgakov’s sophiology, whatever its intellectual antecedents, grew out of his pondering on what man achieves through his re-creative activity, and his realization that he could only make sense of his experience of the beauty of nature by accepting its sophianic foundation, which entailed accepting the reality of God.

From this realization, we can, I think, begin to understand the fundamental role of sophiology in Bulgakov’s theology. It is, and this is not incidental, related to the way his theology is rooted in the Liturgy. This was something that Fr. Alexander Schmemann saw, even though he was somewhat averse to Bulgakov’s theology. In an article called “Trois Images,” he speaks of Bulgakov celebrating the Divine Liturgy:

“My third memory of Fr. Sergius, the third image, is … of Fr. Sergius before the altar, celebrating the liturgy …He was not ac- complishing a well-established rite, traditional in all its details. He delved down to the very depths, and one had the impression that the Liturgy was being celebrated for the first time, that it had fallen down from heaven and been set up on the earth at the dawn of time. The bread and the chalice on the altar, the flame of the candles, the smoke of the incense, the hands raised to the heavens: all this was not simply an “office.” There was accomplished here something involving the whole created world, something of the preeternal, the cosmic—the “terrible and the glorious” [strashnoe i slavnoe], in the sense these liturgical words have in Slavonic. It seemed to me that it is not by chance that the writings of Fr. Sergius are very often laden—so it seems—with liturgical Slavisms, that they themselves so often resonate with liturgical praise. It is not just a matter of style. For the theology of Fr. Sergius, at its most profound, is precisely and above all liturgical.”

The Liturgy, like Sophia, negotiates an “in-between,” relating man to God.

…What is creation like, if God indeed created it (through Wisdom)? As we ask these questions, we find ourselves asking questions that have exercised Christians for centuries, and perhaps most acutely at the beginning, when, in the second century, Christianity faced the manifold challenges of Greek philosophy and Gnosticism. Christianity was not consonant with just any View of the universe. Christians agreed with the Platonists over the existence of a transcendent divine, divine providence and human free will, and adopted Platonist arguments against other Greek philosophers—Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans—who rejected one or other of these positions. They completely rejected the view, held by most of those whom scholars now call Gnostics, that the universe was the product of a god or gods who were either malevolent or negligent. At one point Irenaeus defends the Christian view of a universe, created out of nothing by a good God who rules it through his providence, by appealing to the Christian Liturgy:

“How can they say that flesh is destined for corruption, the flesh that has been nourished by the body and blood of the Lord? Either they must change their opinion, or cease to offer him what they have said they do. Our opinion is consonant with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our faith. We ofler him what belongs to him, harmoniously proclaiming the communion and union of flesh and spirit. For taking from the earth bread, after the invocation of the Lord it is no longer common bread, but Eucharist, joining together two realities, the earthly and the heavenly, so that our bodies, receiving the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but possess the hope of eternal resurrection. We make an offering to him, not because he needs anything, but to give thanks for his gifts and to sanctify the creation.”

For Irenaeus, to take bread and wine, to offer them to God and invoke the Holy Spirit to transform them into the Body and Blood of Christ, entails a certain View of creation: that it is good, that the one to whom we offer the Eucharist is the Creator. In the same way, for Bulgakov, to celebrate the Eucharist entails that creation belongs to God, that it is not alien to him, that to be a creature is already to be graced, something that Fr. Schmemann’s “third image” seems to suggest: Bulgakov’s celebration of the Divine Mysteries seemed to him something autochthonous, something rooted in the very being of creation. It is this intuition that lay at the heart of his sophiology.

image from transcaucasiantrail.org