I contemplate the eternal rabbithood of God

Darwin and Christianity – Part 13: God and Creation” by Father Thomas Hopko.

You could contemplate a tree and know the glory of God himself in that tree. Now, the tree is not God. The sun is not God; the moon is not God. That’s what Genesis wants to say. But that they declare the glory of God, and that they even express ideas in the mind of God who is the Logos from before all eternity. So there’s a sense in which all creatures and every single creature, from the highest seraph to the lowest grain of sand and everything in between, so to speak, are showing forth in creaturely form what God is.

Fr. Bulgakov, a Russian theologian who was very dissatisfied with how Christian theology formulated the issue of the relationship of God and the world, and he brought forth his own theory of the divine chokmah, the premudros, the sophia of God, the divine wisdom as a way of trying to understand it—I think rather unsuccessfully, but nevertheless very interestingly and worth studying, but probably, ultimately, not acceptable—but he tried. He tried his best. But in any case, it’s probably better simply to follow the Church Fathers and Palamas in what they actually do, what they actually say.

But they affirm the mystery negatively, as Fr. Bulgakov pointed out. They said that divinity and creation, the uncreated and the created, or speaking, taking the cue from the divinity and the humanity, the one Person of Jesus Christ, are united in a perfect union, and then they use four negative adverbs: achoristos, adiairetos, atreptos, and asynchytos, in Greek, which means without separation and without division, but without fusion and without changing. So God is always God, creatures are always creatures, but there is a real union that is effected by the grace of God through his divine energies, where humanity really can become co-worker with God and can really be deified. Human beings can really know God through his divine actions and energies.

Ultimately these actions and energies of God, they all proceed from the Father, through the Son, and are accomplished in us by the Holy Spirit. And that means that all the divine energies and actions and operations of God, from creation to redemption to salvation to deification to transfiguration to glorification are all enacted by agency of the Logos who is incarnate as Jesus Christ—in other words, by the agency of Christ himself, as the Creed says, following St. Paul, “through whom all things were made”—and by the accomplishing action of the power of the divine breath, the divine wind, the divine Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the all-holy, good, and life-creating spirit.

So you have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting in the world from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, the Spirit in us through the Son, taking us into communion with Father, and there really is a union without separation or division, but without fusion and mingling. God doesn’t become a creature; creatures don’t become God. God doesn’t stop being God; creatures don’t stop being creatures. God is always God, and he can’t stop being God, and creatures are always creatures and can’t stop being creatures.

Nevertheless, the union exists without a separation and a division. We abide in God; God abides in us. We in him, he in us—what the process theologians would call panentheism: God is in everything, and everything is in God.

…Bulgakov, when he tried to solve the problem of how uncreated relates to created, he said a sentence once which is unacceptable. He said the creation, wisdom in its created form—he [spoke] about the uncreated wisdom and the created wisdom—he said is God in created form, that the cosmos is God in created form. Well, that comes close to process theology. However, I think the classical patristic Orthodox theology, following the Bible, would say God doesn’t have a created form—God is God—but that creatures in the forms that they have show forth and manifest that which exists in an incomprehensible manner within the Godhead—that would be the truth, that there are the divine ideas, the divine logoi of all creation that exist in God and are somehow even actualized in the divine manner within the divinity.

As the Roman Catholic great monk, Thomas Merton, a writer, a thinker, a philosopher, a spiritual writer said, “When I go out to feed the rabbits, I contemplate the eternal rabbithood of God.” Now, he wasn’t a Platonist who said, “I go out and contemplate the perfect rabbit in the divine idea of rabbit that exists in the Platonic world of ideas.” What he meant by “the eternal rabbithood of God” was that God himself actualizes within divinity something somehow someway that we can’t even imagine that has its created form in that little rabbit or in that tree or in that lion. Here the holy Fathers would speak about all of these elements in creation being symbolic of God, and by the way, they are. Everything that exists in the created order can somehow symbolize and manifest God, can give us an idea of God.

Analogies are right, but the Christian theology goes beyond analogies. We not only can contemplate an idea of God through trees or through animals or what-all exists that there must be God, he must cause it, he must be beautiful, it must have a purpose—but in experiencing those very realities themselves, within them we actually touch God, because the claim would be God indwells everything, and if he didn’t, as the book of Job says, if God withdrew his breath, everything would disappear.

But there are the presence of God and the Logos of God in all things. The holy early Fathers spoke about the logoi in plural that are spread in through creation and have their created forms. So we could say there is a necessary connection between God and the world for sure, but it’s a world that God created and in some sense that God does not need to actualize everything that could possibly be actualized. God actualizes everything that can possibly be actualized, we would say philosophically, within the Godhead itself.

But then I think we could take the next step and say: Since God has decided to create, God has also decided to actualize in created form as creaturely expressions of what exists in an incomprehensible way within divinity in all the things that exist, and that all proclaim his glory and his wisdom and his power and his beauty and his strength; and that our groaning and in travail, as St. Paul says, until the revelation of the children of God when anything ultimately will be transfigured and deified, and everything will be filled with all the fullness of God and therefore creation will ultimately reach the omega point that it was created to be from the alpha point, the arche and the telos, what it was supposed to be from the beginning and ultimately will only reach and become and more perfectly become forever and ever in the coming kingdom of God when Christ comes in his glory at the end to bring to completion God’s plan which was there from the beginning which according to St. Paul was hidden even from the angels from before the foundation of the world. This is how Christians look at it, I believe.

a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God

And so there is, over and beyond our faculties, at the point where they originate, a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by him upon the abyss of void, posed as a living mirror of his life and being. In this mirror, beyond habitual consciousness, our interior gaze meets that of our Creator, outside the confines of space and time.

From The Song That I Am: On the Mystery of Music by Elisabeth-Paule Labat (translated by Erik Varden).

This passage was a generous gift this morning from a mother in the faith. I love this description of a “mysterious sanctuary” existing at “the point where our faculties originate” in which “we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by Him” and also where “our interior gaze meets that of our Creator.” In the last line, however, I would suggest that “outside the confines of space and time” should be amended to say “deeply within the confines of space and time.” Three realities indicate that our union with God is bodily (and therefore profoundly within the confines space and time):

  1. our being made in God’s image,
  2. the incarnation of God the Son (the Logos) as Jesus Christ,
  3. and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ to ascend into heaven and to be seated on the throne of God.

God placed us in time and space as a means of communion with Him (who transcends time and space). Within the Christian tradition, I’ve read of three ways in which our communion with God is strictly within time and space:

  1. God is only in the present moment. The present is the only time in which we touch God’s eternity and commune with Him. We can be lead astray from God into the past (nostalgia or pride) or the future (worry or hubris). There are right relationships with the past (gratitude) and the future (hope) but only when we are grounded in our present communion with God.
  2. God only meets with us in our particular place (via our bodies and the material world that we inhabit). All of creation is designed to be sacramental and to bring our bodies into communion with God. Material things of all kinds (from the waters of baptism to the bones of saints) can carry great sanctity and be the gracious means of God’s communion with us.
  3. God stands at the door of our heart and knocks. All the saints who speak of communion with God in prayer speak of it as an inward but still clearly an embodied experience (or vision) of transcendent and unifying love, heat, or light. “To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing.” Our intuitive perception of eternal or ultimate truth and love are from the heart (a perceptive capacity that is called the nous). Our intellect (in our head) can perceive with bodily senses and can analyze these perceptions using rational thoughts. Our passions or desires were long associated with the stomach or liver. In between these upper and lower faculties is the heart. C.S. Lewis describes modern people as having become “men without chests” (in The Abolition of Man) because we have lost this middle capacity that unifies our thoughts and feelings with an intuitive inner vision of God’s love. This nous in our heart sees immaterial things, but it still has a strong association with a particular part of our body. Some desert fathers were very specific: “not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart …close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.” (This quotation and the one near the start of this bullet point are from The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, which I posted about here.)

Therefore, to enter this “mysterious sanctuary” wherein “our interior gaze meets that of our Creator,” we must not let our minds or our feelings run freely. We must “descend into our heart” or “stand guard over our heart” and listen quietly there for God. This is not an emptying of our intellect; it is not a denial or leaving of our body; it is not an insensibility to the surrounding world or to the input of our five senses. Instead, this communion with God in the quietness of our hearts unifies and fills all of these other things. Out nous allows all of our other faculties (sensations, thoughts, and feelings) to be made potent and meaningful while remaining only supportive agents of our primary purpose: this steady gazing and quiet listening of our heart’s interior ears and eyes. There we may learn to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

True, at this table of the Lord, we do feast outside of time with those from many other places and many others times. However, all of us gathered there are doing so within each of our hearts in the reality of our particular places and our present moments. In doing so, we mysteriously bring together many particular times and places—transcending, unifying, and sanctifying these places and times without discarding or annihilating them. Each present time and unique material place gives access to the throne of God, where all times and places have their origins and find their true identities.

do whatever you see that your soul desires according to God

One of the fathers asked Abba Nistheros the Great, the friend of Abba Antony: “What good work should I be doing?” He said to him:

Are not all actions equal? Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. David was humble, and God was with him. Elias loved interior peace, and God was with him. So, do whatever you see that your soul desires according to God, and guard your heart.

true beauty is not the idea of the beautiful

David Bentley Hart (The Beauty of the Infinite, pp. 176-177):

The harmony of Father and Son is not the absolute music of an undifferentiated noise, but the open, diverse, and complete polyphony of Father, Son, and Spirit.

…The most elemental statement of theological aesthetics is that God is beautiful: not only that God is beauty or the essence and archetype of beauty, nor even only that God is the highest beauty, but that, as Gregory the Theologian says, “God is beauty and also beautiful, whose radiance shines upon and is reflected in his creatures” (Oration 28.30-31).

…God’s beauty is delight and the object of delight, the shared gaze of love that belongs to the persons of the Trinity; it is what God beholds, what the Father sees and rejoices in the Son, in the sweetness of the Spirit, what Son and Spirit find delightful in one another, because as Son and Spirit of the Father they share his knowledge and love as persons. This cannot be emphasized enough: the Christian God, who is infinite, is also infinitely formosus, the supereminent fullness of all form, transcendently determinate, always possessed of his Logos. True beauty is not the idea of the beautiful, a static archetype in the “mind” of God, but is an infinite “music,” drama, art, completed in–but never “bounded” by–the termless dynamism of the Trinity’s life; God is boundless, and so is never a boundary; his music possesses the richness of every transition, interval, measure variation–all dancing and delight. And because he is beautiful, being abounds with difference: shape, variety, manifold relation. Beauty is the distinction of the different, the otherness of the other, the true form of distance. And the Holy Spirit who perfects the divine love, so that it is not only reflective but also evocative–calling out to yet another as pure delight, outgoing, both uncompelled and unlimited–also makes the divine joy open to the otherness of what is not divine, of creation, without estranging it from its divine “logic”; and the Spirit communicates difference as primordially the gift of the beauty, because his difference within the Trinity is the happiness that perfects desire, the fulfillment of love; for the Spirit comes to rest in the Son, there finding all the joy he seeks, reinflecting the distance between Father and Son not just as bare cognizance, but as delight, the whole rapture of the divine essence.

Life from Inside of Death

“You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.” Elder Sophrony gave this famous reply to a question from Olivier Clement regarding those who will not open their hearts to the love of God. In this Easter season, with Christ’s glorious and victorious resurrection preeminent, it is worthwhile asking if Jesus Christ is still, in any sense, within hell and among the dead. After all, we do see Jesus one time, long after the resurrection, appearing to be dead and yet enthroned in heaven. When we are introduced with John to the glorious “Lion of the tribe of Judah” enthroned in power at the right hand of the Father, what we actually see is “a Lamb as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:2-10). Even while reigning victoriously from heaven, Jesus Christ is revealed as a victim of sacrifice. Jesus remains, in some important sense, dead.

This idea is in keeping with many fundamentals of biblical truth: that we are united with Christ in his death as well as his life, that we are commanded to take up our cross daily as we follow Jesus, and that we feed ourselves repeatedly upon the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Many mothers and fathers of the church have taught that God is most fully revealed, in all of His glory and power, when Jesus is hanging upon the cross. Fr. Thomas Hopko shared in a lecture that, according to Hugo of St. Victor, “God wants to speak to us, to reveal himself to us, …and when he hangs on the Cross and his arms are open, the Book is open. The Book is totally open, like in the book of Revelation.”

Even before sin and death and all of creation, God was a God who emptied himself. Stephen Freeman has written about an “unfallen suffering” that is found within the life of our Trinitarian God even before creation and outside of time. Each person of the Trinity continually empties themselves in relation to the other persons of the Trinity. Within God’s inner life, there is a profound kind of self-giving, and this should not surprise us because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Therefore, God has always been one who gives Himself fully, and this God is only perfectly revealed by God’s entire self-emptying upon the cross.

Another way of understanding this is to recognize God’s entire strategy against sin and death itself. As Saint John Chrysostom said in his Paschal Sermon: “Hell was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. …It took a dead body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven.” God’s glorious and all-powerful strategy has always been to enter death itself, to find us at our weakest point and to join us there. Maximus the Confessor said: “Christ, the captain of our salvation, turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin” (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”). By becoming our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) and entering death with us, Christ transformed death into something life-giving. Maximus further says that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” By joining with us at our weakest point, Christ gives suffering and death back to us as great weapons against the ravages of our soul sickness and sin.

God’s strategy (of entry into death to commune with those who flee from him) has not changed since Christ’s resurrection. Although God’s entry into death is only accomplished in Jesus Christ, we now also participate in it through our union with Christ. God is now entering into suffering and death through all those who commune with Jesus. In fact, this is the only place to find full communion with Christ, the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). We see this at work in every Christian life and when Paul says: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Even after the end of time, worship around the throne of our majestic and living king will always include a recognition of his greatest moment: “his voluntary, glorious, and life-giving death” as Christian liturgies repeatedly refer to it. The resurrection power that Jesus Christ displayed on Easter morning came easily to him. His first action after this surge of life brought breath back to his dead body, was to lift the small square of cloth from his face and fold it gently before laying it down. Christ’s great labor came in the final hours of an entire adult life that was directed toward the cross, and this is all that he empowers us to do. If we would seek to exercise the power of God graciously offered to us by Christ’s resurrection, we must shoulder our own cross and pray for the strength to enter death itself. Christ reopened the gates of Paradise that had been shut behind Adam, but he set these gates up just inside the gates of Hades.

humans are expert at wasting time

So far, machines are not very good at asking questions. So we have this world where, basically, answers have become cheap and ubiquitous and pervasive, and they’re everywhere, and so what’s much scarcer are good questions. And good questions are kind of like a discovery.

…And it turns out that [humans are] not very efficient. And so what machines are really good at are all the things where efficiency counts, where productivity and efficiency counts, and those are the kinds of tasks we’re gonna give to the machines. And we’re, as humans, left with things that are inefficient, which happens to be the things that we enjoy most, like discovery or innovation. Innovation is inherently not efficient — or science, for that matter. Science is inherently inefficient, because if you are 100 percent efficient as a scientist, you’re just not learning anything new. So trial and error, there’s the error part. There’s the failure. There’s the dead ends. There’s trying prototypes. All these things are the essential part of exploring, trying, discovering, which are all inherently inefficient. And so are human relationships. And so we’re — humans are — we’re expert at wasting time. We’re expert at the things where efficiency and programmability don’t count for much.

…And I think, in some ways, that does echo some structure of the universe — that it’s probably built on a question, rather than an answer; that it’s very likely that the universe is really a kind of a question, rather than the answer to anything. And so I think that’s why we resonate with a question — a good question so much, rather than just with a smart answer.

Kevin Kelly is actually a generous family friend (of my father and now of me as well). I love his Christmas letters every year. I’m always delighted and challenged to hear his mind and heart at work. I recommend listening to the unedited version of this conversation. Also, his account of Kevin’s Christian conversion experience in Jerusalem (on NPR’s This American Life) is a wonderful story. Finally, here is Kevin’s essay on The Next 1000 Years of Christianity.

the leaping greenly spirits of trees

e e cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Source: Complete Poems 1904-1962.

it is more than slightly frightening to assimilate the notion that God finds us lovable

From Patrick Henry Reardon’s book Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption (Volume 1 of 3: The Incarnate Word).

It is difficult, it is bewildering, and it is more than slightly frightening to assimilate the notion that God finds us lovable. It is among the most astounding truths in Holy Scripture. What could God possibly find lovable in us?

Indeed, even some Christians are so bewildered by this idea that they resort to subtleties to parse away its paradox. They may explain, for example, that God, being love, had to do so, even though He finds nothing intrinsically lovable in us. It is taken for granted, in some Christian circles, that God could not possibly find human beings desirable. It is assumed as obvious that there is nothing in us that would attract Him. It is impossible for God to love us for our own sake, we are told, but He does so because of His loving nature. He is forced to love us, as it were, because love is His definition.

Let me suggest that theories like this are difficult to reconcile with what God has told us about Himself—and us. In Holy Scripture He describes Himself as a Bridegroom rejoicing over a bride, who is the apple of His eye. He speaks of Himself as a Father who celebrates the return of a faithless son, in whom He recognizes His own image. Surely, these are the teachings that justify that beautiful adjective by which Holy Church addresses God: philanthropos.

When the Church calls God the “lover of mankind,” She affirms an important truth about the human race: God finds man attractive.

…Even the souls in hell are the object of His relentless affection, because they are formed in His image, the same image He saw on the day His hands gave them shape.

Learning to Laugh with Angels

He remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it. The whole gave him a sensation, the vividness of which he could not explain, that Nature was always making quite mysterious jokes. …He wondered whether even the archangels understood the hornbill.

Coming across this passage yesterday in G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday and being flat on my back today with a high fever, I spent some time reflecting on his theme of heavenly humor. This topic is taken up by several other Christain authors including C.S. Lewis. For example, this scene in The Magician’s Nephew when a Jackdaw has an awkward moment just after Aslan has given voices to all of the animals in the new world of Narnia:

“Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”

So they all let themselves go. And there was such merriment that the Jackdaw himself plucked up courage again and perched on the cab-horse’s head, between its ears, clapping its wings, and said:

“Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke? Will everybody always be told how I made the first joke?”

“No, little friend,” said the Lion. “You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke.” Then everyone laughed more than ever; but the Jackdaw didn’t mind and laughed just as loud till the horse shook its head and the Jackdaw lost its balance and fell off, but remembered its wings (they were still new to it) before it reached the ground.

Chesterton, like Lewis, clearly had a high view of humor and defended it often. His two main themes on the topic are the goodness of human laughter vs. the awfulness of divine laughter. Chesterton suggests that human laughter is an almost unmitigated good. Here are several examples from over the course of his lifetime:

  • Laughter has something in it in common with the ancient winds of faith and inspiration; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes men forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves; something (as the common phrase goes about a joke) that they cannot resist.
  • For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.
  • Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.
  • Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.
  • It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.
  • Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.

And this one (which most directly sheds light on the hornbill passage at the start of this post):

Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshipers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.

In another vein, however, Chesterton suggests that God’s laughter is a serious (even terrible) thing—too wonderful for us—something that we must be protected from or that we are mercifully incapable of hearing:

We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.

In a later passage, Chesterton suggests that divine laughter is not so much inaudible to us as it is mercifully hidden us:

The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

In an even more serious-sounding passage that I cannot find, Chesterton says (if my memory serves me), that exposure to the raw power of our Creator’s laugh, in our current sickened condition, would virtually unmake us. Certainly God’s laughter in some Old Testament passages is something very close to judgement. We may also, perhaps, learn something about God’s humor (and I say this tentatively because I doubt that I am right but I still think it worth considering) through a study of the lives of holy fools or through the preaching and the satirical skits of certain Old Testament prophets (see God’s compromise with Ezekiel in 4:15, for example).

Of course, this point about God’s laughter being dangerous is part of a larger theme in Chesterton as well as Lewis and Tolkien: heavenly things are so good that they (in one sense) pain or hurt us in our current condition. In The Great Divorce, Lewis famously describes people from hell stepping off of a bus that has taken them to heaven. They decide that the grass in heaven is too painfully real. They would rather return to hell than endure the too-substantial grass of heaven. However (and Lewis would agree), God’s goodness is always and ultimately wholesome, even when it pains us. We see this perfectly in Jesus Christ. His divine humor may have been heavily veiled as Chesterton suggests, but Jesus clearly teased and jested with those closest to Him. This simple human laughter of Jesus never comes up directly in scripture, but it is easy to imagine what a gift it would have been in the hearts of those who loved Him. In helpful contrast to Chesterton’s reflections on Christ’s awful and hidden divine humor, Patrick Henry Reardon talks about Christ’s sense of humor, and Reardon fully humanizes it. He makes the case that Christ regularly enjoyed laughter with those closest to him:

Jesus related to these original disciples—even from the beginning—as ‘individuals,’ as particular men. He does not permit their specific identities to become lost in the group. Philip, Andrew, Thomas, and the others preserve their individual characters. Observe, for instance, how he teases them. Jesus’ irony toward Nathaniel is a perfect example of this [John 1:45-47].

…What shall we say of the nickname Jesus gave to the two sons of Zebedee: James and John? He called them “sons of thunder,” which in our modern idiom would be “hotheads.” One suspects the brothers received this moniker because … they [once] said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:52–54)

…Luke relished the irony of it: John bar Zebedee … got his wish … when the church at Jerusalem sent him … as one of its delegates to call down on the Samaritans the true fire from heaven—the Holy Spirit.

…Peter, when he felt enthusiastic, imagined himself invincible … [and ] readily mistook a rush of adrenaline for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit…. Jesus surely recognized the name’s improbability in Peter’s case. The only time [that Peter] showed any rocklike quality was on that memorable occasion when he attempted to walk on water!

…In all these instances, we perceive a light and jocund side of Jesus’ relationship with these men, whom he chose ‘that they might be with Him’ (Mark 3:14). With these disciples, Jesus carried himself as a man among men, to whom he was bound by the sorts of habits, attitudes, and discourse [by which] normal men establish friendships and maintain loyalties.

There are some clear parallels between Reardon’s portrait of Jesus (jesting with his closest followers) and Lewis’ portrayal of Aslan (the first joker encouraging laughter over the vivacious Jackdaw). However, there is also a comforting difference between these two accounts. The humor exercised by Jesus is more gentle, subtle, and deeply personal than that of Lewis’ Aslan. To those learning to follow Him, Christ is a gentle friend (in the aggregate at least).

Finally, in Reardon’s account, Jesus’ joking is connected almost entirely to renaming and nicknames. It is remarkable that Jesus’ humor is bound up so closely with something that is so central to His identity as the Logos, by whose words all things are made and sustained. Naming is a task that God calls humans to share with Him, and Adam’s naming of each animal might have involve more laughter than we imagine. Chesterton may be onto something with his idea that the angels themselves are still learning to laugh at the hornbill. Furthermore, simply by process of elimination, it seems possible that humans with a healthy sense of humor could provide an important example for any angels who are still learning to see God’s mirth on display throughout creation. This line of thinking about Jesus’ enjoyment of clever nicknames also puts new possibilities into play when it comes to the intimate name that Christ has prepared for each of His saints (Revelation 2:17). Each of God’s children may be revealed as an even better joke than the Jackdaw before all is said and done. For my part, I take some comfort in the hope of garnering a few laughs as the trillion-and-first joke when my own time comes.

Nonetheless, if I make light of myself, this is not to make light of humanity or of my own high calling to communion with God. (As Chesterton says: “Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.”) In Christ, Peter did live up to his nickname.