A Brief Christian History of the Cosmos (with Some Defense and Exposition)

“Earendil and Elwing” from a book cover illustration by Linda and Roger Garland for The Shaping of Middle-Earth.

[Note: see some efforts to update my thinking below with further thoughts in a more recent post here.]

Christians claim that we live in a damaged world, although it still reveals to us an undamaged reality beyond and within. Growing up in a Christian home, I lived constantly with the idea that our brokenness is obvious and that all the beauty and wonder of this world speaks to us ceaselessly of a goodness from which we are somehow estranged. Despite this upbringing, it surprised me recently to read that we cannot recognize the fallenness of our world without a revelation given to us from outside our frame of reference. As I’ve grown older, however, I see that I don’t always live as if this world is incomplete. Instead, I act as if this world commands my full allegiance—as if what I can acquire and achieve is all that matters. I treat the world around me as all that I have or as the full picture of reality.

Recently, however, I’ve come to reflect on some Christian claims that place us even more deeply within a tragically reduced creation than I would have previously understood or expressed. I’m considering that even our experience of time has fallen so that the fullness of reality does not fit within our temporal history and even our fall itself is beyond our immediate grasp as a specific point within the timeline of our past. This remoteness of our own fall leaves us with the powerful illusion that we know our own story and the full scope of what exists. In fact, however, we are heavily blinded and “we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). We are easily inclined to live and act as if evil and death are normal and as if there is nothing fundamentally wrong with ourselves and our world. In response, this supratemporal understanding of the fall has challenged me to consider just how separated we are from the fullness of reality—cut off in ways that leave us blinded to who we truly are as God’s children.

Even during this life, God’s presence within a quieted heart allows us to begin seeing the true nature of ourselves and our world. We have God fully revealed to us within human history in the person of Jesus Christ, and he reveals a strange relationship to sin, evil, suffering and death:

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

From The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart, chapter 9.

It is not an easy thing to live as if sin, suffering, evil and death are not a part of the eternal realities of our world. Ultimately, this requires going to the cross and communing there with our loving God “who was slain before the foundations of the world” (Revelation 13:8). We find in this communion a courage and joy that is far from a reliance on great emotions or great ideas. It is a beautiful relationship with what is true and good. This all requires learning to live with our fears and sufferings as part of what we carry now but ultimately as falsehoods that will be overcome by the true gifts that our loving God offers to us with His presence.

C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity and several other places about the ache of joy as a sign to us that we are all clearly “made for another world.” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote stories of a Straight Road kept open only for the Elves so that they could continue to sail their ships along the pathway of the once-flat sea and into what is now our sky. The bending of our world into its current reduced shape took place in Tolkien’s stories at the downfall of Númenor. This shrinking of our current world cut us off from Aman and the realm of the Valar (see “Akallabêth: The Downfall of Númenor” in The Silmarillion for one depiction of this by Tolkien). In the “The Ballad of the White Horse,” G.K. Chesterton writes: “For the end of the world was long ago, / And all we dwell to-day / As children of some second birth, / Like a strange people left on earth / After a judgment day.”

These ideas from Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis (who I have read since childhood) are clearly of a piece with other claims about the fall that I have read more recently as a summary of ancient Christian teaching:

The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death.

…It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.

From “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex Nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a Few Dostoyevskian Meditations” by David Bentley Hart, published in Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest.

Many ancient Christian teachers have said that our entire cosmos exists within a weakened and reduced condition of space and time. Our access to reality is obstructed by our current fallen condition. Time, as we now know it, does not contain all that is true about time in its fullness. Human history and our entire physical universe exists within an incomplete form of time and space. Our fall cut us off from access to our true selves, our true history and from the fullness of the realities to which we still belong but from which we are estranged.

Speaking about the history of how all of this happened is not fully possible within our current temporal categories. Ancient myths and great stories point toward this history over and over in images and language that help us to see beyond our current condition. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien describes the Ainur as the first living beings kindled by Eru Ilúvatar with love for the Flame Imperishable and who therefore had the power of creativity. Ilúvatar taught each of them to sing, and they slowly began to make music on their own and in small groups. Hearing and observing each other singing taught the Ainur more and more about the mind of Ilúvatar, increasing their “unity and harmony.” Eventually, their creator gathered all of the Ainur and told them that he would guide them in a song so great and complex that every one of them would participate together. At first the Ainur were so amazed at this idea, that they bowed before Eru Ilúvatar in silence. When they began to sing, their voices filled the depths and heights of sound “beyond hearing” and filled even the Void so that it “was not void.” Their singing then went through multiple themes with it’s first theme increasing their unity, harmony and their knowledge of Ilúvatar. However, discord was eventually introduced by the voice of Melkor who drew other voices with him so that Ilúvatar needed to introduce a theme that would eventually enfold and resolve the discord of Melkor (a theme involving sacrifice and eucatastrophe). As you read further in Tolkien’s stories, his entire mythic history of Middle Earth is depicted as existing within these powerful but temporary discords of Melkor.

As ancient storytellers and Tolkien understood, any attempt to give a brief history of the cosmos must somehow transcend time as we now experience it. To go to the beginning, requires a look into the life of God. However, to consider God’s life, we can only begin with what we know about our lives together. We all know that admiring something good in another person satisfies us deeply. In the Christian teaching of Imago Dei, to admire goodness in someone else is also to see God revealed in them. Seeing two other persons find this kind of satisfaction in each other likewise invites us to admire each of them in return. This kind of fellowship between three or more people is described in clear and simple terms by C.S. Lewis:

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.

From The Four Loves.

Although not relatable within our terms of finitude and need, Jesus Christ reveals God to us as a timeless community of three persons sharing one perfect nature. Christianity maintains that everything is founded upon the love of these three persons within the life of God. Dante references an ancient classical and Christian tradition with his lines about how it is “love that moves the sun and other stars” (The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, XXXIII.145).

In fact, not only all movement but all existence is a result of God’s love. Everything that exists only exists as a response to this life and love shared between these three persons as they enjoy the same complete goodness in each other but manifest and appreciate this goodness each in their own distinct ways. For its own sake, our cosmos exists in response to this fullness of God’s life and love. He needs no goodness added to his own, but his superabundant goodness calls for our response so that we too might enjoy it.

Before our cosmos began to suffer, however, and even before our place as humans within the cosmos was shaped by God’s superabundance of life and love, many other ranks of free and glorious spirits first came to be in response to God. In this uncorrupted time and space, a community of heavenly life exists continually where mighty living lights move in a dance filled with awe and joy, breathing out their songs around the throne of God. In a passage about the heavenly life at the end of time, C.S. Lewis describes a dynamic that is true from the beginning and that remains unchanged around the throne of God even throughout all the tumult of our human history:

Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.

Again from The Four Loves.

Out of this harmonious life with God, God called forth yet another form of life. Humans were like children wearing garments of light and placed to grow up within a well-watered garden of beautiful plants and animals. Our cosmos was already shaped long before humanity was placed into it, and our cosmos was filled from the start with powerful lights that danced and sang from out of the darkness. These great spirits made up the mighty household of God, and their dances and voices formed the great harmonious movements that exist still as the metaphysical foundation of our cosmos. Remember Dante’s claim (echoing Augustine and many others) that it is “love that moves the sun and other stars.”

Plato taught us this about the stars as well, i.e. that they are moved (as are all things) by unseen realities and that their visible movements (although imperfect like all the rest of the visible world) reveal perfect realities. Alan Scott has an excellent summary of Plato’s teaching on the stars in Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by (Oxford Early Christian Studies, Clarendon Press, 1994):

True astronomy is not concerned merely with what is seen in heaven but with the understanding of what lies behind what is seen. …To the mind which understood properly, there was true harmony in heaven even if this was not possible for the material bodies of heaven, even as there is exactness in geometry though it is not part of any merely visible diagram. …Just as Plato accepts elements of the latest astronomical research but not the philosophical and religious implications it was sometimes thought to have, so too before his later writings he can accept the popular veneration of the heavens without taking it altogether seriously. In the Republic, Plato does say that the craftsman of heaven, like Daedalus, fashioned the courses of the stars with the greatest beauty possible, and at one point Plato even goes so far as to refer casually to ‘the gods in heaven’, one of which is the sun, and yet he also openly doubts that the visible stars are eternal and immutable.

…The author of [Epinomis] tells us as Plato did that most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence. [As an aside, this claim that uniform motion is a sign of intelligence is brilliantly expanded and defended here by G.K. Chesterton.]

Scripture has many passages where “the hosts of heaven” can just as well be translated with either “stars” or “angels.” What we see as the movements of the stars does ultimately reflect the life of God and his entire creation. However, what we see of everything in this world equally reflects God’s life—from earthly weather patterns to cellular life. But I’ve wandered far away from the storyline again. Back to the arrival of humanity.

Some Christian sages have said that when God made humans amid this great assembly, a few powerful voices in the heavens grew jealous or proud. There is something glorious (imponderable to some degree) about the introduction of humans into creation. Most early Christian teachers took it for granted that God created humanity after the pattern of the second person of the Trinity—the eternal Son of God—as a first step in God’s own incarnation. Our creation was the means for God to participate fully within the life of all his creation. In a way that should be understood as related to our image-bearing and incarnational intent, human life is made to tend, protect and call into harmonious voice all the beauties of the entire cosmos around us. Job says that the stars sang as the earth was made (even before humans were here), and yet humans are placed upon the earth so that we can call upon the stars themselves to sing (as we do in several of the Psalms). There is something mysterious (and easily offensive) about this sequence of events within God’s divine plan.

Some time not too long after God makes humans, we come to a critical and obscure detail within the story. There is a forbidden tree within the garden. This in and of itself is not an issue as it is simply understood by most ancient scholars of the Bible to indicate that humans were made to mature. We were not created fully developed in our moral and relational capacities. This tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not for the young and untested. More messy is the fact that there is a tempter. Some scholars point out that the instructions to “care for the garden” would have been read by ancient people as “guard,” and that our first parents should have prevented the serpent from entering. This may be the case. Alternatively, the snake was part of God’s first household and there was already some discord within that house. In this case, the fallenness of humanity and our world is wrapped up to some degree with a fall of some variety among powerful spirits who were made before us. This point cannot be taken too far, however, because humanity is clearly held responsible for the current condition of our cosmos. We see this in Romans 8:19-23, for example, where we read that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God …for we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”

All Christian theologians agree to a remarkable degree that humanity provides a vital link between God and this new creation (again tied to the incarnational purpose of our creation from the start). David Bentley Hart summarizes it this way: “Human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly ‘methorios’ (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell” (from “The Devil’s March” again). Both pagan and Christian sages throughout history have spoken of each human person as a microcosm of the whole cosmos. Great women and men of prayer and contemplation have repeatedly insisted that there is a powerful connection between the depths of the human heart and the central throne of God. In some sense, each human heart is the center of all that God has made (creating what we call a “place”), and each human heart also touches every other place because each heart stands directly before God. To see God as well as the places that we occupy, requires that what the ancient Greeks called our “nous” (intuitive apprehension) be given a complete and quiet authority within our heart (which is the only location from which the nous can see God and reality directly). To get back to the point (and to repeat once more), all of this means that humanity displays God to the world in some central way and also receives the gifts of God from all of the world surrounding us. We are each a living sacramental or eucharistic center of seeing, receiving and thanksgiving (making our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19). When our relationship to God is broken, it is not just (or even primarily) an individual tragedy. Each human’s broken relationship to God is a cosmic tragedy with extremely real and terrible implications. Likewise, for any human to live in restored communion with God means that all of creation and every fellow human may witness and share, to some degree, a substantial return to the true and intended arrangement of things. Holiness is this participation of particular persons and things with this original purpose of communicating God’s presence.

Whatever might be made of these glorious claims surrounding humanity and the serious implications of our fall, we have a divinely inspired story that clearly makes our fall the essential reason for cosmic suffering. It is tempting to identify the exact temporal sequence of these events. However, it seems that angelic rebellion and the human fall took place before our current time and space were fractured and reduced to an incomplete existence that can no longer contain any of the points in heavenly time at which any of these events took place. In other words, the actual account of our own fall does not fit within our current experiences of time and space. If this is true, then our fall is something that transcends our time. It may have happened in some kind of sequence within a kind of heavenly time, but it can’t be located within earthly time. One quality of a higher dimension in math (to use one easy analogy) is that it can “contain” all of a lesser dimension (as a sphere contains many circles). In an analogous way, every one of our personal lives may be contained within the single event of the human fall. We may each be an active participant in the fall of our first parents.

There are clearly other events within human history that transcend our standard understandings of time according to the biblical accounts. Consider the exodus as well as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see this kind of supratemporal reality clearly described within this passage about a prayer from the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (“a little book with prayers for the Eucharist, baptism, ordination, and other rites reflecting practice in Rome at the end of the second century”) in Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (32-36):

It is apparent from the wording of the prayers that something more is at work here than recalling ancient history. After reciting the history of salvation leading up to the “night on which he was betrayed,” the prayer continues as follows: “And we sinners make remembrance of his life-giving sufferings, his death, and resurrection on the third day from death and ascension to the right hand of You, his God and Father, and his second glorious and fearful coming.” The key term here is the Greek word anamnesis, usually translated “remembrance,” which in this context means “recall by making present.”

There are parallels between this sense of remembrance and the way the Exodus out of Egypt is remembered in the Jewish Passover. In the Mishnah, the collection of Jewish law from the early third century, it is reported that Rabbi Gamaliel used to say, “…In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, ‘And you shall tell your son on that day saying, “It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”’ Those who celebrate Pesach are not spectators, they are participants. “It is I who came forth out of Egypt,” says Rabbi Gamaliel. Remembrance is more than mental recall, and in the Eucharist the life-giving events of Christ’s death and Resurrection escape the restrictions of time and become what the early church called mysteries, ritual actions by which Christ’s saving work is re-presented under the veil of the consecrated bread and wine. Speaking of the Christian paschal celebration Origen wrote, “The Passover still takes place today” and “Those who sacrifice Christ come out of Egypt, cross the Red Sea, and see Pharaoh engulfed.” What was once accomplished in Palestine is now made present in the action of the liturgy, as the prayers indicate: “We offer to You O Lord, this awesome and unbloody sacrifice, beseeching You to deal with us not according to our sins.” Liturgy is always in the present tense. The past becomes a present presence that opens a new future.

What is being claimed about the human fall is different then what is being claimed about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our fall did not take place in human history, it was in some sense the start of cosmic history as we know it (that is as a broken and reduced experience). God’s great actions in human history (with Jesus Christ fulfilling all of these) are both historic events and transcendent events. They have a particular place in history but also touch every other point in history (as a transcendent event). Our fall, as I’m explaining it also touches every other point in history, but it cannot also be located within human history as we can locate Jesus Christ.

With these explanations in place, the history of our cosmos can be told briefly:

  1. God’s joyous, free and self-sufficient life as three persons brought many great and diverse spirits to a free yet contingent life so that they could share in and enjoy the life of God.
  2. This household of free and sub-creative spirits rejoiced as God’s life continued to invite more life into newly shaped space and time. God made a beautiful cosmos and then brought humanity into it as those showing forth God’s image within this new realm of spirits whose creation would be fulfilled with the incarnation of God’s Son among them.
  3. God warned his new children that great and mysterious powers were still beyond their reach and that their own pursuit of this knowledge would bring terrible damage, destruction and death.
  4. Evidently, however, some in God’s first household did not simply rejoice at the creation of this second household. They invited humans to forgo growth and maturation, to grasp on their own for goals and ends that they were not yet developed enough to see clearly or to understand. As humans followed these promptings, bitterness, mistrust and fear resulted. As God had warned them, they fled from God and faced death.
  5. Many ancient accounts of the expulsion from the garden note that God was protecting humanity from the tree of life, not punishing them. Our first parents would cause more damage to themselves and their world in their fallen condition if they had been given continued access to the tree of life.
  6. We might say that a reduced cosmic history began here, but we would need to recognize that our entire history to which we have any conceivable access is a reduced history. We lost all access to the kind of time and space in which we were initially created, and our entire story as well as the entire story of our current cosmos became a story characterized by death and suffering from beginning to end.
  7. Taking compassion on us in our fallen condition, God clothed our first parents in garments of skin (with many ancient accounts saying that this covered or replaced their original garments which had been made of light), and God commanded members of his first household to attend and help fallen humanity within the sad confines of our now reduced and limited history.
  8. Our fall, however, left a great vacuum in our hearts and therefore in all of the cosmos so that members of God’s first household could abuse us and our world, claiming it as their own dominion. Humanity followed much of this abuse in our own lust for power as well as in fear, and we neglected our life as God’s image bearers and caretakers more and more for the sake of desperate ventures and false worship.
  9. Amid the ravages and terror of this sad history, Jesus Christ nonetheless fulfilled God’s original intention for us and revealed that God could unite his life even to death and to the grave itself, shattering them from within and offering us the life of God (the fruit of the tree of life as his own body) in communion with our own sufferings and deaths.
  10. After this astounding victory and revelation, Jesus Christ returned to God’s throne where he now offers his own body to us as our bread and where he remains who he was revealed to be upon the Cross: the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world and our bread of life.
  11. God has united himself and his life to us once again from his own real and eternal kingdom. In Jesus Christ, our broken and incomplete cosmos has been opened up and brought back into contact with the life of God.
  12. This history is not over, but we now can see, through Jesus Christ, that the entire history of our cosmos has a beginning and an end that is not currently visible to us, and that all things must truly be made new so that we live now as heavenly citizens but also as future inheritors of a new heavens and an a new earth. United with Christ in his death now as we feed upon his incorruptible body, our own deaths will not hold us captive but will give way to Christ’s death and therefore also to his life.

This exercise has shown me, again, that there are good reasons why these truths are related in great stories and powerful images. They ring shallow and false when reduced to truisms and propositions. Nonetheless, I hope that some of these foolish babblings, for anyone desperate enough to have read them, might have pointed you toward something of the life of God in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Detail from “The Grey Havens” by John Howe.

Note: this article was also share here by Mercy On All.

a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy

Wendell Berry on Heaven and Hell:

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

Wendell Berry in A World Lost.

for creation to become like the burning bush

Robert Wright (journalist and author of several books who has said that God is a figment of the human imagination but also that he is not an atheist) interviewed David Bentley Hart on his video blogging channel (The Wright Show, posted here on YouTube, Feb 26, 2020). Wright did an excellent job of keeping Hart down to earth and of drawing out material on a wide range of topics (although primarily focused on Hart’s latest book). Below is a fast transcription of a few portions on the new heavens and the new earth as well as philosophy of mind that I will want to return to for myself. Below the transcript, I compare what Hart shares with ideas from N. T. Wright (not to be confused with Robert Wright). So here is the hasty transcript:

(47:01) What did someone like Origen or Gregory of Nyssa think that the point of creation is? It’s ultimately to call spirits out of nothingness into an eternal divinizing union with God and within a framework of created nature which is full of the glory of God. That’s it. That’s the whole point. If you don’t reach that end, then God’s will has been thwarted.

[Criticism of the impoverished and cartoonish vision that we modern Christians put in the place of this and contrasting our impoverished vision with Paul’s “glorious cosmic vision” in 1 Corinthians 15 which “should shift your vision of what the religious imagination is capable of seeing.” (48:38)]

(49:32) …The eschatology of the whole Bible, …Jewish and Christian alike, is this worldly. The kingdom of heaven just means the kingdom of the heavenly places or the transcendent places, the places on high. If you had the cosmology of the time, it would mean the kingdom literally either of the Empyrean above the sphere of the fixed stars or Primum Mobile or the kingdom that encompassed everything above the sphere of the moon. It just means the divine place. …When the kingdom of the heavens or of heaven comes to earth, it is to transform earth so all of the language of redemption in the New Testament is of a new heaven, a new sky literally, a new earth. And all the animals are there rejoicing, and there is plant life and animal life and human life. It’s a communal, a cosmic restoration in which the glory of God now pervades everything. In the eastern Christian tradition, which has a certain pronounced mystical tendencies even at the center of dogmatic life, a very popular image is to say that the end of creation is for creation to become like the burning bush—pervaded by the glory of God but not consumed.

(51:55) …The first showing of God to Moses is in the form of a burning bush, a bush that is not consumed by the flames. …This was the vision of the purpose of creation in the New Testament or the early church. It’s not that human spirits are wafted away to an ethereal paradise, but rather that the whole cosmos—well it’s right there in Paul, chapter eight of Romans, that all of creation is groaning in anticipation of the glory that will be revealed or Revelation, I saw a new heaven and a new earth. It’s not about a heaven elsewhere.

(56:30) Wright: …Do you have a conception of what the afterlife might be like?

…No. I have none. No. Even the dogmatic pronouncements on this are worthless. It’s part of Catholic doctrine, for instance, that there is such a thing as immediate judgement. …I think all of that should be just judiciously ignored.

Wright: So you’re what—agnostic but hopeful or what?

Hart: I’m not a materialist. I don’t even believe that you can come up with a materialist reduction of consciousness let alone of anything else actually. I just don’t think that any picture we have could possibly be adequate to whatever the reality would be, so I dislike trying. …I just wouldn’t claim to know what it’s like beyond this life. I find it always results in a kind of cartoon. You always picture somebody who has a nice front garden and running orange juice from the taps. It’s everything that our limited imagination at its most guilelessly childlike can come up with, but other than that—just take those as psychological symbols of something far greater.

1:03:23 …Wright: You think consciousness is more fundamental than the material world.

Wright: So the material world depends on it more than it depends on the material world?

Hart: Most definitely, yah. It would have to be, I think.

Wright: So the material world depends on it more than it depends on the material world?

Hart: I would say that the ancient intuition that held good up until the days of the mechanical philosophy that mind is the more basic reality, the more original, the more primordial principle is correct and that the modern tendency that has become dogma for us since the seventeenth century—first in the form of a schism between a mental and a physical realm and then in terms of a sort of omnivorous physicalism which tried to explain everything including mind in terms of a material reduction—has been a logical failure and will continue to be one because it creates more problems than it answers. So yes, I’m very much with the forest ascetics and the contemplatives and the mystics when it comes to how I understand the nature of reality.

Among several other things, it struck me that Hart sounded similar to N. T. Wright’s thesis in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. For example, Hart says:

The eschatology of the whole Bible, …Jewish and Christian alike, is this worldly. …When the kingdom of the heavens or of heaven comes to earth, it is to transform earth so all of the language of redemption in the New Testament is of a new heaven, a new sky literally, a new earth. And all the animals are there rejoicing, and there is plant life and animal life and human life. It’s a communal, a cosmic restoration in which the glory of God now pervades everything. …It’s not about a heaven elsewhere. …It’s not that human spirits are wafted away to an ethereal paradise, but rather that the whole cosmos—well it’s right there in Paul, chapter eight of Romans, that all of creation is groaning in anticipation of the glory that will be revealed.

Compare that to N. T. Wright:

Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about. …“God’s kingdom” in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming “on earth as it is in heaven.”

More recently, N. T. Wright took Hart on for what Wright described as an overly spiritualized translation of Paul, specifically Paul’s description of the resurrection body as a spiritual body (a debate that I have considered at length here). Wright implied that Hart was too neoplatonic or gnostic—something such as what N. T. Wright criticizes generally in this passage from Surprised by Hope:

Most Western Christians—and most Western non-Christians, for that matter—in fact suppose that Christianity was committed to at least a soft version of Plato’s position. A good many Christian hymns and poems wander off unthinkingly in the direction of Gnosticism. The “just passing through” spirituality (as in the spiritual “This world is not my home, / I’m just a’passin’ through”), though it has some affinities with classical Christianity, encourages precisely a Gnostic attitude: the created world is at best irrelevant, at worst a dark, evil, gloomy place, and we immortal souls, who existed originally in a different sphere, are looking forward to returning to it as soon as we’re allowed to. A massive assumption has been made in Western Christianity that the purpose of being a Christian is simply, or at least mainly, to “go to heaven when you die,” and texts that don’t say that but that mention heaven are read as if they did say it, and texts that say the opposite, like Romans 8:18–25 and Revelation 21–22, are simply screened out as if they didn’t exist.

There is something elusive about the distinctions between David Bentley Hart and N. T. Wright in their recent disputes over the nature of the resurrection body as described by Paul. Hart sounds just like Wright when he says that “the eschatology of the whole Bible, …Jewish and Christian alike, is this worldly” and that “it’s not about a heaven elsewhere” or “that human spirits are wafted away to an ethereal paradise.” At the same time, Hart regularly describes himself as a neoplatonist (in this interview excerpted above and in many other places), and Hart is regularly criticized for this.

I find the key in the title that Hart gave his essay when he defended himself against N. T. Wright: “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients” (more here including links to all the related articles between Hart and Wright). Hart clearly does not think that the standard criticisms of the neoplatonist position are correct about what neoplatonist believed. In this interview with Robert Wright, Hart mentions gnosticism once (not in my transcript and just in passing as a description of a film that Robert Wright brought up, The Matrix). Hart would no doubt agree that certain neoplatonists and gnostics (not to be conflated) were wrong to be dismissive of everything about this earthly realm (all of which clearly matters eternally in some real sense for Hart). Neoplatonism is misunderstood according to Hart. While it does insist on the greater substantiality of mind and spirit, not all neoplatonism therefore dismisses or despises the stuff of earth.

I love Hart’s allusions to the importance of the burning bush in the understanding of the purpose of all creation, and I can’t close this essay without citing the opening lines of “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins: “THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;” which I’m sure were written with an awareness of this standard image from the early church authors.

Finally, here’s an excellent quote about this idea of the burning bush among the early church fathers (shared with me from this fantastic blog):

St. Maximos says that “the unspeakable and prodigious fire hidden in the essence of things, as in the bush, is the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of his beauty inside every thing.”

The logoi of created things, the presence of the invisible within them, is at the same time their hidden beauty that can be apprehended by noetic vision.

The beautiful, then, is “a shining forth, an epiphany, of the mysterious depths of being”—the visible illuminated by the invisible.

All are part of the shared redemption of humanity and nature through the disclosure of divine beauty.

From Bruce Foltz in The Noetics of Nature.
“Landscape with Moses and the Burning Bush.” 1610–16. Domenichino (Domenico Zampieri). Italian.

God our Savior, Who Desires all People to be Saved

The Crucifixion, tempera, Andreas Pavias (active in Crete during the second half of the 15th century).

At a recent book club discussion (on The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, to give only the subtitle), a gentle Christian lady seated to my left asked me if the author David Bentley Hart could still be considered a Christian after his most recent book—That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (Yale UP, 2019). I told her that I did not have the qualifications or authority to answer that question but that I really appreciated the book. My godfather—a third generation Orthodox priest of Eastern European ancestry—had gone to the bathroom just before this question, and I directed it to him a little later in the course of the conversation. He joked that he had stepped out at just the right time before answering that he had not read the book but that Hart had reportedly gone too far in saying that his thesis was the only possible correct understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Just before our book club meeting, my godfather told me that he had never imagined reading a David Bentley Hart book because of this author’s reputation as snarky and polarizing. However, the book club in his church selected The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, and he had thoroughly appreciated it. When talking about the passage on Peter’s tears and how Christ gave a face to the faceless, my godfather shed his own tears. He was also amazed that anyone had been able to give him compassion for Julian the Apostate.

As our conversation touched on the topic of universal salvation, I reminded my godfather of how he had once reassured me that I was far too insignificant to ever be at serious risk of becoming a heretic. He laughed and said that he belongs in the same category. To be a heretic, you must be a false teacher who needs to be formally confronted by a church authority and who then refuses to be corrected. Certainly, I am concerned to understand and love all that the church teaches to the best of my ability, but I am unlikely to ever have the responsibility of being a teacher within the church who would ever be worth anyone’s time to actually bring before the church for formal correction.

So if I am not qualified to say anything about the position taken by David Bentley Hart in That All Shall Be Saved, why am I writing this review? Well, honestly, it is mostly because I have three other little writing ideas waiting patiently to get out into words, and this content is one of two little clusters of ideas that feel like they are sitting in the way. So I’m weak, and I’m taking the easy way around. Writing always helps me to understand my own thoughts a little better and to continue on with the next ponderings. Finally, there is the excuse that a few other people (besides the kind lady beside me in the book club discussion) have asked me about this book. For these various reasons, I’m offering my poor thoughts freely to anyone who wants to know.

I’ve read the book twice and also read about a dozen reviews of it, and here is the short answer regarding what I think: being intellectually persuaded that all will be saved has no value compared to learning actually to long for the salvation of all people—learning to live and to pray like I really want it. In his letter to Timothy, Paul describes “God our Savior” as one who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:3-4). Looking at the whole of what Jesus Christ reveals to us, it seems clear that to be a person after God’s own heart, we should learn to desire the salvation of all people. This is widely and clearly taught in my own Orthodox Christian tradition. David Bentley Hart goes far beyond this, however, and argues that the only coherent understanding of the gospel revealed by Jesus Christ includes the eventual restoration of all things to a right relationship with the Creator (a concept known among the Greek fathers as apocatastasis, coming from Acts 3:21). Hart follows a tightly constructed philosophical case that he claims, repeatedly, to be irrefutable (within the book as well as in essays responding to critics of his book). This philosophical case involves a close examination of what we can coherently mean by speaking of God as loving, good and omnipotent. His case includes a number of biblical reasons (flowing out of his recent translation of the entire New Testament) as well as historical and theological reasons. However, these biblical and theological points are all secondary to his main metaphysical arguments.

Historically, Hart describes a church in which the idea of apocatastasis was the majority position, at least among clergy in the Greek-speaking east, for almost the first 500 years:

The great fourth-century church father Basil of Caesarea (c. 329–379) once observed that, in his time, a large majority of his fellow Christians (at least, in the Greek-speaking Eastern Christian world that he knew) believed that hell was not everlasting, and that all in the end would attain salvation. This may have been hyperbole on his part, but then again it may very well not have been; and, even if he was exaggerating, he could not have been exaggerating very much, as otherwise the remark would have sounded silly to his contemporaries, whereas he stated the matter as something almost banal in its obviousness. Over time, of course, in large part as a result of certain obvious institutional imperatives, the voices of the universalists would dwindle away to little more than a secretive whisper at the margins of the faith.

Theologically, Hart leans most heavily on Gregory of Nyssa (Basil’s younger brother) who defended apocatastasis plainly in several existing texts. Follow this link for an extended quotation in which Hart moves between multiple texts to unpack Gregory’s theology of our salvation as only being possible as a whole human race because the image of God is only revealed fully in all of humanity as one body that is connected to Jesus Christ as our head.

In his scriptural arguments, Hart only touches upon a few basic points regarding key terms such as age, eternity and hell as these are used by various biblical authors. He also outlines a scriptural understanding of human history as being contained within two envelopes or horizons, both at its beginning and at its end. God’s restoration of all things takes place, in some ultimate sense, beyond the confines of our current temporal framework. Our experiences within time now as well as after death (which Hart leaves mostly unaddressed as essentially unknown) are certainly of eternal significance and involve both deep suffering (a real hell in this life and the next) as well as the potential for profound joy.

This raises a critical point of contrast between Hart’s universalism and that of many contemporary universalists. Hart is not presenting a cheerful or positive picture of our condition now or after our deaths. It is clear that Hart considers our desires and longings to stay with us as we go to encounter the fiery love of our Creator beyond this life, and it is also clear that it will be a terrible thing as most of us find that our desires are not for our God in whom we are made to find our joy. Beyond these differences, Brad Jersak offers this helpful summary of the distinctions from “pop universalism” in this blog post:

The universalism Hart advocates is a specific subset that some call patristic universalism. Unlike pop universalism, Hart retains all the key vital features found in two of my favorite saints, St. Gregory of Nyssa (which is also to say, St. Macrina the Younger) and George MacDonald. Hart might describe these elements differently, but in general, they expand on the tenet proffered earlier:

    • Jesus Christ alone is the author and finisher of our salvation.
    • The Incarnation of Christ, climaxing in his Passion (death, descensus and resurrection) is the fundamental means by which God saves us and restores all things.
    • Sin and death matter greatly, but Christ has already and will ultimately overcome sin (by his freely given forgiveness) and death (by raising up humanity in his resurrection).
    • There will be a final judgment, and although it’s nature, duration and details are held in mystery, the agenda and outcome are revealed as entirely restorative and redemptive.
    • That all sentient beings will ultimately willingly embrace this salvation through the restoration of their natural wills, established in Gethsemane and effected by the beatific vision, when every eye sees him, every knee willingly bows and every tongue joyfully confesses the Lordship of Christ.

[Hart’s] patristic adaptation of the universalist label may work with his fans, but I suspect he’ll confound and confuse both disciples and detractors who assume universalists abandon any the above essentials because that’s exactly what most do. This isn’t Hart’s fault. The problem is with the term and with sloppy readers (if they even bother with reading). If we’re to call Hart a universalist on his own terms, then I recommend always including the patristic modifier and insisting others do so also.

Beyond just this one helpful category of patristic universalism (which might also be called apocatastasis), it is also critical to note that there were several distinct doctrines of apocatastasis described and defended within the first five or six centuries of Christianity.

These differences are essential to understanding the frequently cited point that universalism or apokatastasis was condemned as heresy by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (A.D. 553) and ratified again by the Sixth Ecumenical Council when the the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas were reviewed and kept in place. Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog provides an excellent review of the scholarship surrounding these matters. He explains that many scholars consider the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas to have been added on later without full conciliar authority. Even if they do carry conciliar authority, it is clear that they are condemning a distinct and distorted doctrine of apokatastasis that was developed by disciples of Evagrius Ponticus centuries after Origen or Gregory of Nyssa. In this regard, Fr. Aidan cites Brian E. Daley (Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology):

The denounced theses represent a radicalized Evagrian Christology and cosmology, and a doctrine of apokatastasis that went far beyond the hopes of Origen or Gregory of Nyssa. They envisage not only a spherical, ethereal risen body, but the complete abolition of material reality in the world to come, and the ultimate absorption of all created spirits into an undifferentiated unity with the divine Logos, so that even the humanity and the Kingdom of Christ will come to an end. …E. M. Harding agrees that the views of the sixth-century Origenists were rooted not in Origen himself but in the teachings of Evagrius Ponticus. Augustine Casiday concurs, with an important qualification: just as there are crucial differences between Origen and sixth-century Origenism, so there are crucial differences between Evagrius and sixth-century Evagrianism. [See original blog post for full citations.]

In his recent book on the apokatastasis (as taught by at least one of the Cappadocian Fathers,  Gregory of Nyssa), David Bentley Hart is not advocating any of the later versions that may have been condemned as heresies by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (such as those involving the pre-existence of souls or “the ultimate absorption of all created spirits into an undifferentiated unity with the divine Logos”).

What Hart does do in his book, however, is utterly reject and vigorously condemn the idea that any human would be left in eternal conscious torment by our God. He makes it clear that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is morally despicable to him and rightly condemned in his view as idodic and horrific. Many reviewers have commented on Hart’s harsh language. He has responded that he intentionally reserved his blistering invectives for despicable ideas (that distort and hide who God is) and not for any of the particular people who have taught and defended these ideas over the centuries. Hence, readers will typically find that Hart will argue civilly with Calvin’s thinking (for example) and save his disparagement for Calvinism. This distinction is small comfort to most fellow Christians. It should be noted, however, that Hart does not play favorites at least. A beloved theologian of many people sympathetic to universalism in recent decades is Hans Urs von Balthasar (d. 1988) who made the case that Christians can and should hope for the salvation of all. Hart says that he “has very small patience” with this idea and dismisses anyone who is “timidly groping his way toward some anxious, uncertain, fragile hope.”

This brings me back to my own position on all of this. I’ve appreciated reading and learning. Hart’s case was compelling and will keep me reading and thinking about this at some level for the rest of my life. However, what matters is clearly the love (or the lack of it) within my own heart for God and for my neighbor. Whether or not I am intellectually convinced that my neighbor will be saved is not the most critical issue. In fact, any intellectual confidence on my part could easily become a distraction, an idol or a reason for complacency. Therefore, I prefer to face questions in response. Do I long for my own salvation and the salvation of my neighbor? Do I have the heart of Jesus Christ toward all those who I have come to know, and do I desire more than anything else for them to grow in their love for my Heavenly Father? Do I see the apathy and self-indulgence in my own heart that leaves me cold and suffering even within the warm and loving presence of my Creator? I am not criticizing David Bentley Hart with any of these questions. Right or wrong in all the particulars of his case, Hart is clearly zealous to defend our loving Father as Jesus Christ reveals Him perfectly to us. Moreover, Hart’s calling is obviously different from mine which makes is foolish for me to judge it. At the end of it all, I don’t want to feel compelled to turn over every stone within each part of the arguments or to come to rest upon my intellectual confidence. I want simply to grow in my desires for others to know and enjoy God’s love.

__________________________________________

Note, if you are interested in more about this book, here are three reviews from a variety of positions:

  • Jason Micheli (positive review from December 4, 2019)
  • Michael McClymond (critical review from October 2, 2019)
  • Peter Leithart (critical review from October 2, 2019 and which is followed by a response from Hart that raises many profound exegetical questions about the Old Testament)

Finally, here are two books that Hart and others have recommended in connection to this:

  • Origen: On First Principles by John Behr
  • A Larger Hope?: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Volume 1 of 2) by Ilaria L. E. Ramble

heaven is reality itself

C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce:

Walking proved difficult. The grass, hard as diamonds to my unsubstantial feet, made me feel as if I were walking on wrinkled rock, and I suffered pains like those of the mermaid in Hans Andersen. A bird ran across in front of me and I envied it. It belonged to that country and was as real as the grass. It could bend the stalks and spatter itself with the dew.

***

Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.

***

[You] cannot in your present state understand eternity. …Both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. …That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say ‘Let me but have this and I’ll take the consequences’: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say, ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”

***

Hell is a state of mind—you never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself—every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind—is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.

***

There is no other day. All days are present now. This moment contains all moments.

***

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

***

Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.

***

No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.

the depiction of the inner condition of the soul

The icon must depict externals, but also interior life, holiness, and proximity to Heaven. The principal means for accomplishing this is in the face, the facial expression and its look depicted on the icon; also, the rest of the icon must be consonant with that expression. It was on the depiction of the inner condition of the soul, hidden by the flesh, that our Orthodox iconographers focused their attention. The better they were able to accomplish this, the better the icon appeared to be. Often, there would be deficiencies in the manner of depicting various parts of the body – not because iconographers were doing it consciously, but because [their efforts to] accomplish their principal goal did not always allow them to give sufficient attention to secondary aspects of their work.

Elder Joseph the Hesychast in Monastic Wisdom.

everything entered and lived in me

A wondrous change had passed upon the world—or was it not rather that a change more marvellous had taken place in us? Without light enough in the sky or the air to reveal anything, every heather-bush, every small shrub, every blade of grass was perfectly visible—either by light that went out from it, as fire from the bush Moses saw in the desert, or by light that went out of our eyes. Nothing cast a shadow; all things interchanged a little light. Every growing thing showed me, by its shape and colour, its indwelling idea—the informing thought, that is, which was its being, and sent it out. My bare feet seemed to love every plant they trod upon. The world and my being, its life and mine, were one. The microcosm and macrocosm were at length atoned, at length in harmony! I lived in everything; everything entered and lived in me. To be aware of a thing, was to know its life at once and mine, to know whence we came, and where we were at home—was to know that we are all what we are, because Another is what he is! Sense after sense, hitherto asleep, awoke in me—sense after sense indescribable, because no correspondent words, no likenesses or imaginations exist, wherewithal to describe them. Full indeed—yet ever expanding, ever making room to receive—was the conscious being where things kept entering by so many open doors! When a little breeze brushing a bush of heather set its purple bells a ringing, I was myself in the joy of the bells, myself in the joy of the breeze to which responded their sweet TIN-TINNING, myself in the joy of the sense, and of the soul that received all the joys together. To everything glad I lent the hall of my being wherein to revel. I was a peaceful ocean upon which the ground-swell of a living joy was continually lifting new waves; yet was the joy ever the same joy, the eternal joy, with tens of thousands of changing forms. Life was a cosmic holiday.

Now I knew that life and truth were one; that life mere and pure is in itself bliss; that where being is not bliss, it is not life, but life-in-death. Every inspiration of the dark wind that blew where it listed, went out a sigh of thanksgiving. At last I was! I lived, and nothing could touch my life!

…The master-minister of the human tabernacle is at hand! Heaping before his prow a huge ripple-fretted wave of crimson and gold, he rushes aloft, as if new launched from the urging hand of his maker into the upper sea—pauses, and looks down on the world. White-raving storm of molten metals, he is but a coal from the altar of the Father’s never-ending sacrifice to his children. See every little flower straighten its stalk, lift up its neck, and with outstretched head stand expectant: something more than the sun, greater than the light, is coming, is coming—none the less surely coming that it is long upon the road! What matters to-day, or to-morrow, or ten thousand years to Life himself, to Love himself!

…I walked on the new earth, under the new heaven, and found them the same as the old, save that now they opened their minds to me, and I saw into them. Now, the soul of everything I met came out to greet me and make friends with me, telling me we came from the same, and meant the same. I was going to him, they said, with whom they always were, and whom they always meant; they were, they said, lightnings that took shape as they flashed from him to his. The dark rocks drank like sponges the rays that showered upon them; the great world soaked up the light, and sent out the living. Two joy-fires were Lona and I. Earth breathed heavenward her sweet-savoured smoke; we breathed homeward our longing desires. For thanksgiving, our very consciousness was that.

…[T]hese were living stones—such in which I saw, not the intent alone, but the intender too; not the idea alone, but the imbodier present, the operant outsender: nothing in this kingdom was dead; nothing was mere; nothing only a thing.

…Novalis says, “Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one.”

George MacDonald (Lilith)

just sitting there multiplying the feel of the wind by two

Boughton says he has more ideas of heaven every day. He said, “Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two. I’d multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy. But two is much more than sufficient for my purposes.” So he’s just sitting there multiplying the feel of the wind by two, multiplying the smell of the grass by two.

From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.

Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, ‘Here comes one who will augment our loves.’ For in this love ‘to divide is not to take away.

In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.

C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves.

we know so little about life

The question is, does the system I’ve just devised help us in the evaluation of literature? Perhaps a real masterpiece cannot be crucified on a cross of this design. How about Hamlet?

…But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth…. The truth is, we know so little about life, we really don’t know what the good news is and what the bad news is.
And if I die–God forbid–I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, “Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?”

From A Man Without a Country (2005) by Kurt Vonnegut.

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