In Greek philosophy, …the highest kind of knowledge, and therefore the highest moment of earthly life, …connected the visible with the invisible. [This] was noetic: the unencumbered exercise of that highest faculty of alertness and heedfulness and comprehension for which they reserved the name, “nous,” a noun that we can render variously as intellectual intuition, immediate apprehension, mans or mind, or in Jacob Klein’s plainer (and hence, more incisive) rendering, prepared openness, attentive consciousness. …It is a heedful awareness that is “open” to the presence of the invisible within the visible, of a kind of divinity within nature. [This] connection of nous with transcendence, spirituality, and above all mysticism is hard to miss for anyone not already dedicated to the modern project of reading the philosophers of Greek antiquity as Enlightenment phﬂosophes.The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible by Bruce Foltz.
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.From Bruce Foltz in The Noetics of Nature.
All are part of the shared redemption of humanity and nature through the disclosure of divine beauty.
Words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest.
…The moment we single out and emphasize the suggestions as we have done here they become unreal; and we, too, become unreal — specialists, word mongers, phrase finders, not readers. In reading we have to allow the sunken meanings to remain sunken, suggested, not stated; lapsing and flowing into each other like reeds on the bed of a river.
…Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations — naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today — that they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages. …A word is not a single and separate entity, but part of other words. It is not a word indeed until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other, although, of course, only a great writer knows that the word “incarnadine” belongs to “multitudinous seas.”
…Think what it would mean if you could teach, if you could learn, the art of writing. Why, every book, every newspaper would tell the truth, would create beauty. But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way, some hindrance to the teaching of words. For though at this moment at least a hundred professors are lecturing upon the literature of the past, at least a thousand critics are reviewing the literature of the present, and hundreds upon hundreds of young men and women are passing examinations in English literature with the utmost credit, still — do we write better, do we read better than we read and wrote four hundred years ago when we were unlectured, uncriticized, untaught? Is our Georgian literature a patch on the Elizabethan? Where then are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors; not on our reviewers; not on our writers; but on words. It is words that are to blame. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. Look again at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA; poems more lovely than the Ode to a Nightingale; novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love, and mating together. It is true that they are much less bound by ceremony and convention than we are. Royal words mate with commoners. English words marry French words, German words, Indian words, Negro words, if they have a fancy. Indeed, the less we enquire into the past of our dear Mother English the better it will be for that lady’s reputation. For she has gone a-roving, a-roving fair maid.
Thus to lay down any laws for such irreclaimable vagabonds is worse than useless. A few trifling rules of grammar and spelling are all the constraint we can put on them. All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live — the mind — all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious. They do not like to have their purity or their impurity discussed. If you start a Society for Pure English, they will show their resentment by starting another for impure English — hence the unnatural violence of much modern speech; it is a protest against the puritans. They are highly democratic, too; they believe that one word is as good as another; uneducated words are as good as educated words, uncultivated words as cultivated words, there are no ranks or titles in their society. Nor do they like being lifted out on the point of a pen and examined separately. They hang together, in sentences, in paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time. They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change.
…And it is because of this complexity that they survive. Perhaps then one reason why we have no great poet, novelist or critic writing to-day is that we refuse words their liberty. We pin them down to one meaning, their useful meaning, the meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination. And when words are pinned down they fold their wings and die. Finally, and most emphatically, words, like ourselves, in order to live at their ease, need privacy. Undoubtedly they like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them; but they also like us to pause; to become unconscious. Our unconsciousness is their privacy; our darkness is their light. …That pause was made, that veil of darkness was dropped, to tempt words to come together in one of those swift marriages which are perfect images and create everlasting beauty. But no — nothing of that sort is going to happen to-night. The little wretches are out of temper; disobliging; disobedient; dumb. What is it that they are muttering? “Time’s up! Silence!”
On April 29, 1937, as part of their Words Fail Me series, BBC broadcast a segment that survives as the only recorded voice of Virginia Woolf. This lecture was eventually edited and published in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays in 1942, a year after Woolf’s death, with the title “Craftsmanship.”
How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith:
To sense the force of this shift, we need to appreciate how this differs from the “enchanted” premodern imaginary where all kinds of nonhuman things mean — are loaded and charged with meaning — independent of human perception or attribution. In this premodern, enchanted universe, it was also assumed that power resided in things, which is precisely why things like relics or the Host could be invested with spiritual power. As a result, “in the enchanted world, the line between personal agency and impersonal force was not at all clearly drawn” (p. 32). There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power (p. 35). Things can do stuff.
At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous (p. 35). Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment” (p. 36)
The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), pp. 190 to 194:
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. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention and the standing before the invisible Lord, not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart. When the divine warmth comes, all this will be clear.
…When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by way of prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart. Placed by the creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals…. The intellectual faculty in man’s soul, though spiritual, dwells in the brain, that is to say in the head: in the same way, the spiritual faculty which we term the spirit of man, though spiritual, dwells in the upper part of the heart, close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.
From The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault:
It is certainly true that the heart’s native language is affectivity—perception through deep feelingness. But it may come as a shock to contemporary seekers to learn that the things we nowadays identify with the feeling life—passion, drama, intensity, compelling emotion—are qualities that in the ancient anatomical treatises were associated not with the heart but with the liver! They are signs of agitation and turbidity (an excess of bile!) rather than authentic feelingness. In fact, they are traditionally seen as the roadblocks to the authentic feeling life, the saboteurs that steal its energy and distort its true nature.
And so before we can even begin to unlock the wisdom of these ancient texts, we need to gently set aside our contemporary fascination with emotivity as the royal road to spiritual authenticity and return to the classic understanding from which these teachings emerge, which features the heart in a far more spacious and luminous role.
According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.
…Unanimously, the Christian wisdom tradition proclaims that the source of this lower-level noise is “the passions.” As the Philokalia repeatedly emphasizes, the problem with the passions is that they divide the heart.15 A heart that is divided, pulled this way and that by competing inner agendas, is like a wind-tossed sea: unable to reflect on its surface the clear image of the moon.
Here again is a teaching that tends to set contemporary people’s teeth on edge. I know this from personal experience, because the issue comes up at nearly every workshop I give. To our modern Western way of hearing, “passion” is a good thing: something akin to élan vital, the source of our aliveness and motivation. It is to be encouraged, not discouraged. At a recent workshop I led, a bishop approached me with some concern and explained that in his diocese, following the recommendations of a church consultant, he had managed to boost morale and productivity by significant percentages simply by encouraging his clergy “to follow their passions.”
Well-nigh universally today, the notion of “passionlessness” (a quality eagerly sought after in the ancient teachings of the desert fathers and mothers) equates to “emotionally brain dead.” If you take away passion, what is left?
So once again we have to begin with some decoding.
If you consult any English dictionary, you will discover that the word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer” (passio is the first-person singular). But this still doesn’t get us all the way, because the literal, now largely archaic, meaning of the verb “to suffer” (to “undergo or experience”) is literally to be acted upon. The chief operative here is the involuntary and mechanical aspect of the transaction. And according to the traditional wisdom teachings, it is precisely that involuntary and mechanical aspect of being “grabbed” that leads to suffering in the sense of how we use the term today. Thus, in the ancient insights on which this spiritual teaching rests, passion did not mean élan vital, energy, or aliveness. It designated being stuck, grabbed, and blindly reactive.
This original meaning is clearly uppermost in the powerful teaching of the fourth-century desert father Evagrius Ponticus. Sometimes credited with being the first spiritual psychologist in the Christian West, Evagrius developed a marvelously subtle teaching on the progressive nature of emotional entanglement, a teaching that would eventually bear fruit in the fully articulated doctrine of the seven deadly sins. His core realization was that when the first stirrings of what will eventually become full-fledged passionate outbursts appear on the screen of consciousness, they begin as “thoughts”—logismoi, in his words—streams of associative logic following well-conditioned inner tracks. At first they are merely that—“thought-loops,” mere flotsam on the endlessly moving river of the mind. But at some point a thought-loop will entrain with one’s sense of identity—an emotional value or point of view is suddenly at stake—and then one is hooked. A passion is born, and the emotions spew forth. Thomas Keating has marvelously repackaged this ancient teaching in his diagram of the life cycle of an emotion,16 a core part of his Centering Prayer teaching. This diagram makes clear that once the emotion is engaged, once that sense of “I” locks in, what follows is a full-scale emotional uproar—which then, as Father Keating points out, simply drives the syndrome deeper and deeper into the unconscious, where it becomes even more involuntary and mechanically triggered.
What breaks the syndrome? For Evagrius, liberation lies in an increasingly developed inner capacity to notice when a thought is beginning to take on emotional coloration and to nip it in the bud before it becomes a passion by dis-identifying or disengaging from it. This is the essence of the teaching that has held sway in our tradition for more than a thousand years.
Now, of course, there are various ways of going about this disengaging. Contemporary psychology has added the important qualifier that disengaging is not the same thing as repressing (which is simply sweeping the issue under the psychological rug) and has developed important methodologies for allowing people to become consciously present to and “own” the stew fermenting within them. But it must also be stated that “owning” does not automatically entail either “acting out” or verbally “expressing” that emotional uproar. Rather, the genius of the earlier tradition has been to insist that if one can merely back the identification out—that sense of “me,” stuck to a fixed frame of reference or value—then the energy being co-opted and squandered in useless emotional turmoil can be recaptured at a higher level to strengthen the intensity and clarity of heart perceptivity. Rather than fueling the “reactive ego-self,” the energy can be “rejoined to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” And that, essentially, constitutes the goal of purification—at least as it has been understood in service of conscious transformation.
See also my previous post: Tips I’ve Heard About How to Pray and Worship in an Orthodox Church.
God gaurd me from the thoughts men think / In the mind alone….
Yeats in “A Prayer for Old Age” quoted in Our Only Wolrd by Wendell Berry (7).
From George MacDonald’s book David Elginbrod. In chapter XIX, Lady Emily muses: “I wish I were you, Margaret.” Margaret answers:
“If I were you, my lady, I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of. For to have been thought about—born in God’s thoughts—and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest, most precious thing in all thinking.”
Note: some concepts and language from George MacDonald here are comparable to what C.S. Lewis has to say in “The Weight of Glory” (see this passage for example).
Having life “abundantly” has something to do with quality, not quantity. Quantity belongs to the mind. Issues of quality belong to the heart.
…The language of the heart is silence–not a bleak, empty silence, but a profound and meaningful silence that ceaselessly sings the glory of God.
From Bread & Water, Wine & Oil by Archimandrite Meletios Webber (24-25).