the ground of all nature is personal presence

The Bible doesn’t give you imagery of some other place than this world. In the Old Testament, the New Testament, in the Prophets, in Paul—the only image of salvation that there is, is cosmic. It’s always not just human beings praising God but all the animals of the land and the sea. It’s a restored creation. It has a new Jerusalem in it—that imagery of a purified Jerusalem descending to earth. There is no notion of going to some ethereal heaven apart from the rest of creation.

The imagery is of a renewed world, a renewed cosmos in which everything—mineral, vegetable, animal, human—is present. The ground of all nature is personal presence. That’s more original than everything else. I think that is a reality that one can confirm in experience not just through some sort of set of metaphysical commitments.

It’s clear that, when you interact with animals, you’re interacting with personal beings. I don’t give a damn how offensive that is to anyone in the tradition. You are dealing with creatures that have consciousness, that have identity, that have (to some degree) personality, so they are spiritual beings. Any attempt to deny that is simply based on a rather childish fixation on a notion of what constitutes proper human dignity. The notion that they are somehow excluded from the universal dispensation of a new creation seems to me, self-evidently, a rather squalid picture of things. Those who have owned a dog know who that dog is—unlike every other dog in many ways—that he or she has little idiosyncrasies or habits …you know if this dog is excessively timid. You are, in all of nature, always confronted with a kind of personal presence. I tend to think that here [Sergei] Bulgakov is right: all of nature, all of creation, is in its inmost essence always already personal. Its destiny can’t be the destiny of a machine that merely collapses into dust at the end of its utility. Apokatastasis literally means restoration of all things, and all things would seem to include all things.

This is from a short video clip of a forthcoming interview with David Bentley Hart that will be included within a larger documentary from what I’ve heard.

The term apokatastasis is used in the New Testament just once (in Acts 3:21) but is also talked about by many early church fathers in relation to Paul’s reference, in 1 Corinthians 15:28, to Christ subjecting himself to God so “that God may be all in all.” I’m tempted here to reflect on the similarities and differences between David Bentley Hart’s vision of the eschaton and that of N. T. Wright. Both of them insist upon a heaven that is in profound contact with the here and now, but they go about this in radically different ways. Wright insists upon the materiality (fleshly and earthly) of heaven and avoids metaphysical categories. Hart grounds the presence of God in the here and now as well as in the most substantial reality of “personal presence” and of “spiritual beings.” While Hart beautifully maintains that this is a “reality that one can confirm in experience not just through some sort of set of metaphysical commitments,” even in this passage, you can see that Hart is leaning in to metaphysical categories that he believes are profoundly present in Paul and other New Testament authors as well.

I’m also tempted to consider the image of the fire of God burning at the heart of each individual thing (each self) within creation—an image that shows up prominently in the church fathers, in Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889), and in George MacDonald (1824 – 1905). However, I’ve tried to write about all of this before, and I will leave off trying to do any of it again for now.

flesh requires a history

David Armstrong recently recorded a conversation with Michael Martin. It’s all thought provoking, and you can find it here. Here are two highlights (out of many more). At one point, Michael Martin describes a forthcoming book by David Bentley Hart as having “inherited the mantle of the Inklings.”

53:29
David Armstrong: You’ve written quit a bit on the value of paganism. …I really dig this just as a scholar of religion and a fantasy nerd, among other things. It seems like there’s a lot of talk about these sorts of things. In the sciences, there are related paradigm shifts with the growth of panpsychism both in physicalist and idealist forms. Lewis, of course, famously thought that we have to become pagans again before we can become truly Christians. The animist and platonist attitudes toward reality are way closer to a Christian cosmology than secular modernity is. How can Christians reclaim, for lack of a better term, what is our native paganism?

Michael Martin: …I think that a Sophiological insight will bring you to this realization. David [Bentley Hart] gets into it in his Roland book. But wait until you see his next book. …I don’t know how he is pronouncing it: “Kenogia” [not sure the spelling]. It’s based on a kind of a retelling of the gnostic Hymn of the Pearl. It’s wonderful. He has inherited the mantle of the Inklings on this one. One of my kids is almost thirteen, and the other one is almost eleven. I can’t wait till the book gets out so that I can give it to those guys because they will be totally into it.

1:30:40
David Armstrong: If you read the Greek fathers, it’s clear that they are alterist [a term used by Alexander Khramov here], meaning that they believe that the cosmos as it exists now is still God’s creature but space, time and matter as they exist are fallen and so evolution as it exists involves death where it would not have otherwise. And corporeality is very different than it would have been otherwise. Adam and Eve, for the fathers and for most early Jews, start out as angelic beings.

Michael Martin: And after they are kicked out of the garden, it says that God makes for them coats of skin. It doesn’t say animal skins. It’s “coats of skin.” Like you, I think it’s a fall from a somewhat angelic state of being into a deeper fall into matter.

David Armstrong: And flesh requires a history and so the whole evolutionary history of life on the planet. It’s weird. It bends our whole notion of how we tend to think of space and time in purely linear ways. In this sense it’s like—the whole evolutionary history of the universe—it still manifests, on the one hand, God’s creative wisdom (there is still glory that is going on in the emergence of physical laws and life), but it is also the case that this is all almost like a shadow being cast backwards and forwards from a vertically, hierarchically superior kind of thing. …There are consequences for how we talk about flesh versus spirit if we’re thinking from within that more alterist framework where the goodness of life in the body as we experience it is really good, but it is bifurcated at every moment with a simultaneous experience of diminution and fall that is actually best captured imaginatively. I’m a big lover of Jim Henson, and I loved the Dark Crystal growing up, and that movie is actually a really great representation of what the Christian tradition has historically said about human beings.

Transcriptions from the Q&A with David Bentley Hart — Discussing “Roland in Moonlight” from Ta’seel Commons with Hasan Azad and Esmé Partridge

What follows are my own transcriptions from this interview with David Bentley Hart by Hasan Azad and Esmé Partridge (posted on April 8, 2021). It starts and ends with readings by David from his most recent book Roland in Moonlight. Between these readings, the interview moves through the topics given in bold text (with all words transcribed here being from Hart):

How to re-enchant the world

27:07

Oh that we could all be more like Roland. There are some things that we should not aspire to.

…I don’t know if [re-enchantment] is one of those things that individuals have the capacities to do. I really do think that there are ways of seeing reality that are unfortunately a kind of destiny, a kind of a historical destiny for us—the way that we perceive things, the way we think about them, the sort of communion we are capable of having with them. The obvious roots of return, the obvious avenues of reconciliation with that reality are the same as they have ever been: the arts, religion (not in the dreary sense of conforming oneself simply to a certain canon of dogmas but I mean in the ancient sense of religion as a certain virtue, that is a certain habitus of the mind, a certain willingness to be open to the divine, to what it shows itself in nature). For late modern people, the arts are an absolutely necessary avenue of return. At one time, for all human beings, this was simply the organic expression of our nature. Every culture produced poetry before it produced prose, produced highly abstract painted figures before it produced the ability to sketch out the blueprints of a city. The artistic impulse was—like the capacity for dreaming vidily—something that was spontaneous, organic, inescapable and necessary for us. Now it is a capacity that we have to recover almost willfully.

I think there is a serious, a spiritual, a real moral tutelage in the arts because one has to learn to surrender to another’s vision and a vision that conveys to us more than we can tell ourselves. In the late modern world, religions have become rather positivistic systems of propositions and adherences that …[are] a desperate attempt to recover a sense of the sacred but in the terms of a late modern positivist grammar of proposition [and] tenant. …But that is not the virtue, that is not the habit of mind, the habit of soul that “religio” once was, which was rather a capacity to be seized from without by what shows itself in us and beyond us.

So I think that the way back in for modern persons is necessarily an aesthetic discipline: learning to see with the eye of appreciation and surrender before you begin to encumber it with moral or doctrinal expectations. It’s not surprising to me that the one area where atheism never seems to be able to get a foothold is in the musical world. There have certainly been atheist composers, but they are actually a vanishingly small number. To take probably the best living British composer right now, [Sir James] MacMillan, all of his work is absolutely saturated in his faith and in sacred themes. I don’t think he’d be able to write music on any lesser theme than God. And the arts in general, even when they try to take leave of God, return again and again, like they are probing a wound or a place where a tooth has been lost. …A good example is Philiph Roth. …There is something about attempting to create which always makes one, if not open to, at least obsessively concerned with, the creator of all things, with creation as such, with the mystery of the being of things as an act of creative intentionality. …In the world of the arts, …you can have an artist who has no sense of the transcendent as a real possibility in his own life or her life, and yet you can’t have an art from which the transcendent is absent and that doesn’t invite one to turn towards transcendence.

34:28

Materialist savagery

35:34

As for materialist savagery, I mean, look, every age has its own special evils, its own special barbarisms. You don’t have to idealize the past to recognize the special evils of a world that really presumes as its tacit metaphysics, as its presupposed picture of reality, a mechanistic [and] materialist model of reality. …We are in the age of technology …in which nature rather than being the upwelling mystery of being has become rather this dead realm of resources waiting [for] our exploitation. Technology is the ultimate realization of the control over fortuity, over reality that’s anumbrated …as the axial age—the moment of the vertical transcendence beginning to chase away the intermediate levels (the spirits and gods). Putting that genealogy to one side, what you can say is that we’ve arrived at a point at which it became possible …that human nature itself could become a technology.

…You don’t really have to make an argument about whether materialist savagery is a proper way of thinking when we saw genetic or eugenic pictures of humanity emerge as soon as it became possible to think of humankind as a technology that should be mastered and improved and that improvement involved the destruction of supposedly defective models which would mean those racially not elect. Or humanity becomes an economic technology. We saw in the worst excesses of communism in the twentieth century—or at least totalitarianisms that called themselves communisms—basing their remit to reinvent the human, to reinvent human society, on its mastery of the technology of homo economicus.

Materialism of the most purely reductive kind, say what you like, make all the disclaimers you wish, is ultimately an invitation to trespass upon the inner precincts of the mystery of the human in a way that previous generations knew not to do. There was always that inviolable inner sanctuary that was the special home of God or the gods or the daemons and of the spirit, the self, the soul that one could not touch. Humanity was not just a technology to be adjusted, rearranged, reconstructed.

The moment that sense of an inviolable sanctity or an inaccessible divine temenos in the human person or in nature or in the created world or in animals, …all sorts of atrocities from cruelty to animals to destruction of the world at large as a standing reserve of neutral dead resources, right up to the holocaust and the gulags, that’s the consequence of a certain ideological and metaphysical revolution: the movement from the mystery of being to the mechanism of nature in the modern sense (physicalism).

Now, again, you don’t have to idealize the past. …That same sense of the sanctity and the  inviolability of the human person and of the mystery of the gods or of God could be allied to fairly cynical authoritarian structures of power that exploited and abused (and still do, in their own way). As I say, every age, every epoch of the spirit so to speak, has its own special evils. The evils of an unguarded and dogmatically confident materialism… again Hiroshima …Nagasaki.

41:16

Consciousness

41:53

Each philosophical project to come up with a plausible logical causal connection between first person phenomenal intentional mind and third person electrio-chemical and mechanical events has failed, has magnificently collapsed under the burden of its own contradictions and warrantless presuppositions. As sciences that mistake themselves for sciences of consciousness—which are actually just sciences of neurological correlation with cognitional states—have proved (as we could have predicted they must) impotent to give us any insight on this union of the first person and the third person.

More and more you’ve seen philosophy of mind among committed physicalists tend toward two extremes. One is panpsychism. …Understood as a purely materialist system, [it] is based on a kind of fantastic notion of consciousness as a property attendant upon every physical symbol—like simple atoms onward or even at lower levels of reality than atoms, down to Planck scales. …To use the Kantian language, [there is] a pathological side concomitant with the nomological side of nature. Somehow, through cumulative complexity, this becomes greater structures of consciousness or becomes consciousness as we think of it. Whereas I’m sympathetic to certain kinds of panpsychism of the non-materialistic type, the materialist picture simply defers the problem to the Planck scale. You’ve still got this inexplicable union of the nomological and the pathological as well as now an infinitely amplified combination problem of trying to understand how a composite effect or consequence of physical states can lead to a simple state (apprehension or consciousness).

The other extreme is simply to deny that consciousness exists altogether. Total eliminativism says that what we call consciousness is just folk psychology and that one day we will be able to chase away talk of intention and choice and subjectivity and pathos and qualia by understanding first the chemical, biochemical, electrochemical and then understanding the physical laws underlying that so that we could reconstruct the seeming phenomenon of consciousness from basic particles upward.

That’s just stupid. …For fifty years, Daniel Dennett’s been preaching this, and for fifty years he’s failed to make it even logically coherent because he’s always failing [with] the one thing that he’s supposed to be explaining which is the evident fact of first person experience. [But this] is the one thing that he cannot accept because, as sophisticated as he and others like him are in their grasp of the sciences, they’re still fixed in the mechanistic paradigm, the mechanistic metaphysics of the 17th century. And how was that metaphysics fashioned? It was from a metaphysics that excluded mental phenomena like intentionality, teleology, consciousness and just put them in a different realm altogether (that of soul). [They] ultimately tried to drag them back into the mechanistic picture but without any means for doing so because it’s already been expelled from nature. This is not a problem for an ancient Aristotalian or a Platonist for whom the structure of nature is already mind like. It already has an intrinsic teleology. It already has a kind of pathos. In fact, there is quite a lot of panpsychism in the early Aristotle.

…I think the sane conclusion to anyone who has really deeply immersed themselves in the absolute oceans of philosophical and scientific literature on this is that there is no way plausibly, causally, of explaining consciousness in physicalist terms. The eliminativist option is just an insult to our intelligence. So panpsychism is winning the day one way or the other. As long as it’s still framed in physicalist terms, it too is going to fail. Now I also dislike the Cartesian model. I’m a pure idealist. I believe that the ground of all reality is consciousness. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t physical bodies, but whatever there are, whatever unions or dis-unions they are (body, mind, soul), however it works, all of it is reducible to a more original unity, a sort of metaphysical monism of mind. Obviously, I think there is one preeminent mind. …To use the word with dangerous imprecision, everything ultimately is an infinite act of thought.

47:38

Divine feminine

49:23

We are born out of the world. We are sheltered. We are nourished. The traditional images of the divine feminine again fall into the very traditional paradigms of motherhood and spousal love and all that. …One of the reasons that Sophiology has this rich thematic depth to it …is because it [works against] this tendency to exclude …one half of human experience, of human capacity, of human nature, …whether it is the feminine in all of us or whatever. …In so doing, you create this curiously bifurcated understanding between God and his creatures, God and his creation that is itself already premonitory of an ultimate nihilism.

53:17

…There is a history in the West that tends toward this nihilistic estrangement. First you get the God of absolute will and power who is sort of a cartoon of a king on his throne with absolute privilege and potency. Then that becomes the model of the sovereign self because the self becomes a mirror of the God who is most high so that the pure sovereign God of 16th and 17th century theology becomes also a reflection of the absolute sovereign of the emerging nation state. Then the self becomes an absolute sovereign for whom God becomes a rival.

…I don’t know the degree to which talk about Sophia or the divine femine has the power to disrupt that image, but I certainly hope that it could do some serious work.

54:21

Embodiment

1:09:58

I’ve written on this before: Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 talking about the spiritual body as opposed to the animal body or the psychical body—a body of ψυχή (psyche) or πνεῦμα (pneuma). The body is still body for Paul. He believes in spirit as a kind of element. In fact, this is common for late antiquity. They think of it as a kind of an ethereal or super-ethereal sort of element that is also somehow the wind. Or it is the subtle part in the wind. Or it is an ichor, a subtle essence in the optic nerve or optic causeways. There is not the firm distinction; there is not a Cartesian distinction. You’ll often hear that Plato was a kind of Cartesian, but that is wrong. There is not a mechanical body in Plato. The body itself is a reflection of an eternal idea, naturally fitted to the expression of a spiritual presence, and it dies the moment that the spirit is not there. The mechanical idea has not [developed]. It is not the Cartesian automaton or the Cartesian puppet waiting for an immaterial puppet master somehow miraculously to take control in the pineal gland.

Embodiment—for Paul flesh and blood will pass away, …Paul is quite explicit about it as “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of Heaven”—but the body remains. You find this both East and West, in the sense of the subtle body or the spiritual body. It is not a rejection of embodiment. In fact, it is understood that communion [and] community for finite spirits is an embodied reality. It is embodiment as such. But it is embodiment within a hierarchy of embodiment. It is embodiment within a spiritual community which is itself the greater body of the Protanthropos, the totus Christus (in Christian thought) or Adam Kadmon’s cosmic expression. And you have this in Islam as well as the origional man or the man from above. …This is nested embodiments within nature, within the world, within the greater body of the one human nature. In Greek, physis is not an abstraction in the way that we use nature now. Like natura, it has that sense of being also birth, of being a line of descent. …Physis can mean literally your origin, your physical origin, your family, your people, your race, the whole human race.

Disembodiment—the notion that we are abstract essences—you don’t even find this in the supposedly gnostic literature. There too there is the very firm identity of a true, a subtle body. [Disembodiment] is very much a modern phenomenon—the notion that the self is so isolated from nature, from reality, so pure in its absolute sovereign selfhood that it is not even really local. It doesn’t exist within the ecology of living selves, within the hierarchy of embodiment. It is a curious picture because it is completely contrary to every moment of actual experience. …It is even true in the psychoanalytic tradition. We have no modern concept of the self that isn’t this strangely abstracted remnant of what a real human being is.

1:14:32

Story of humans all disappearing as we “upload” ourselves

1:20:14

The story that Hasan [was thinking of is that], at one point in the book, Roland thinks of writing a science fiction story in which algorithms of certain computers have become so sophisticated that they not only pass the Turing test, they succeed in convincing everyone that the computer itself is conscious, so that people begin downloading their minds into it. But actually there is a total affective void on the other side. There is no consciousness there, but no one knows this until they’ve all been downloaded.

…Read “The Invention of Reality” [by Adolfo Bioy Casares in La Invención de Morel], and you’ll get the point that I was making. …[It] is about what appears to be a community of real people, but it is nothing but empty projections left behind by a machine that is still running. It is a brilliant little grim phantasy.

1:21:48

Finding all the great traditions of the world to be full of beauties and profundities and God to show himself in a multitude of ways and places

1:30:15

Are there there any universalist theologians within the Islamic tradition

Roland barks at 1:34:04 when he objects to a fine point in David’s summary of N.T. eschatological thought (with David maintaining, despite Roland’s objection, that a Preterist reading is reasonable).

1:36:38

How persons are identities constituted by a whole history of loves and affinities and associations with others

1:38:26

Since none of us is God, except by participation in the divine presence, that essential structure of what it is to be a person, the depth of the undisclosed …reveals itself in a Logos, which manifests itself, and comes to itself in spirit. …None of us is complete in and of ourselves. Unlike God, since we are finite, changing, synthetic (…neither essence nor existence but the two in dynamic union), that fullness of ourselves, who we are coming to ourselves, is always mediated through and by otherness and others, in language, in community. We cannot come into full expression as human beings, you can’t love, you can’t think except by way of an exteriority that is also a response of intentionality and self out there. …Divine personality—to use that word in a dangerously imprecise way—can be complete in itself and can have the fullness of relation and life in itself if it is infinite. We cannot. We’re neither thinkers nor feelers nor creators nor selves except in and through others, and by that relation we come to be.

1:40:27

1:42:45

Militant compassion as something that dogs embody and something that we need in our lives in the United States (ending in a description of a dog, Laurie, that David had as a child who adopted and nurtured everything)…

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

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

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

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

David Bentley Hart (in the comments here)

Gnosticism in the Words of David Bentley Hart (2013 to 2020)

I became interested in the portrayal of Gnosticism by David Bentley Hart over his career because it is complex and it sounds like it will feature prominently his forthcoming book You Are Gods (due out in 2021). In pulling together this summary of key passages below from four sources, I find the portrait consistent over time despite its complexity (and some possible shifts in focus). Despite the many points of similarity, what distinguishes Gnosticism from Christianity is the fact that Christianity (like Platonism) maintains a participatory metaphysics with no complete ontological schism between earthly or fleshly creation and the life of God.

Four Sources (identified below by the publication year in bold here):

  1. “Jung’s Therapeutic Gnosticism: the Red Book Reflects a Lat-Modern Desire for Transcendence without Transcendence” posted to First Things by David Bentley Hart, January 2013.
  2. The Story of Christianity published in 2015.
  3. “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a few Dostoyevskian Meditations” is an essay contributed to Creation ex nihilo: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Challenges (eds. Gary A. Anderson and Markus Bockmuehl) in 2017 as well as reprinted in Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest in 2020.
  4. Transcription of David Bentley Hart on the “Actually, It’s Good” podcast from an episode titled “Gnosticism… It’s Good” published Nov 17, 2020.

Gnosticism Overview:

  • To the Gnostics of old …this world is an immense prison guarded by malevolent powers on high, a place of exile where the fallen and forgetful divine spark dwelling deep within the pneumatikos (the “spiritual man”) languishes in ignorance and bondage, passing from life to life in drugged sleep, wrapped in the ethereal garments of the “souls” it acquired in descending through the planetary spheres, and sealed fast within the coarse involucrum of an earthly body. The spiritual experience at the heart of the Gnostic story of salvation was, as Hans Jonas puts it, the “call of the stranger God”: a call heard inwardly that awakens the spirit from its obliviousness to its own nature, and that summons it home again from this hostile universe and back again to the divine pleroma—the “fullness”—from which it departed in a time before time. (2013)
  • The earliest Gnostic or proto-Gnostic teacher of whom we know was Simon Magus (or Simon the Magician) who makes a brief appearance in the Book of Acts, where he attempts to purchase supernatural powers from the Apostles Peter and John. …Simon’s story contains a number of elements common to later, more developed schools of Gnostic speculation: the idea of a primordial fall within the divine realm itself; the claim that this world is the creation not of God but of inferior beings; an understanding of salvation as spiritual recollection followed by escape from the powers who rule this world. The great second-century systems devised by Valentinus, Basilides and other Gnostic sages all taught that the true God has no connection to this world, and that the material cosmos is the evil or defective creation of the ‘archons’ or ‘rulers’ who reign in the planetary spheres above, or of a chief archon, the ‘demiurge’ or ‘world- maker’ (often identified with the God of the Old Testament). Many spoke of a divine Pleroma or ‘Plenitude’ of light, a sort of pre-cosmic community of divine beings called the ‘aeons,’ generated in eternity by the divine Father, who himself remained eternally inaccessible, even to his own offspring. According to some Gnostic systems, the lowest of the aeons Sophia or Wisdom, conceived an unlawful longing to know the hidden Father, and in this way fell from the fullness of the godhead; then she, in one way or another, generated the demiurge and the lower powers; and then, either by accident or through divine cunning, sparks of divine spirit became enmeshed within the machinery of the demiurge’s cosmos. (2015)
  • Thus the spiritual temper of Gnosticism is, first, a state of profound suspicion—a persistent paranoia with regard to the whole of apparent reality, a growing conviction that one is the victim of unseen but vigilant adversaries who have trapped one in an illusory existence—and then one of cosmic despair, and finally a serenity achieved through final detachment from the world and unshakable certitude in the reality of a spiritual home beyond its darkness. The deepest impulse of the gnostic mind is a desire to discover that which has been intentionally hidden, to find out the secret that explains and overcomes all the disaffections and disappointments of the self, and thereby to obtain release. (2013)
  • For the Gnostic, the world is a prison from which the spirit must flee altogether in order to find the true light of truth. In each case, though, what remains constant is the real hope for an encounter with a divine reality greater than either the self or the world. (2013)
  • For Gnostics, the inner ‘call of the stranger God’ remained an expression—however tragically muted and distorted—of a perennial and universal spiritual longing: the wonder at the mystery of existence that is the beginning of all philosophy and all worship, the restlessness of the heart that seeks its rest in God, that luminous elation clouded by sorrow that is the source of all admirable cultural achievements and all spiritual and moral heroism. Even at its most despairing, the Gnostic religious sensibility still retained some vital trace of a faith that, in more propitious circumstances, could be turned back towards love of the world and towards a vision of creation as a vessel of transcendent glory. (2013)

What Distinguished Gnosticism from Christianity:

  • Gnosticism (even Christian Gnosticism) was clearly not an organic outgrowth of the Apostolic Church, but rather a kind of syncretistic, trans religious theosophy that drew from Christian, Jewish, Greek, Syrian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Persian sources, often simultaneously. As such, it may be likened to modern ‘New Age’ spirituality. (2015)
  • Even pagan observers were apparently able to tell the difference. The great Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus (205—70) attacked Gnosticism vigorously, but never treated it as a species of Christianity. (2015)
  • Gnosticism spoke to a particular sort of spiritual discontent among persons of a certain type of temperament. It was not, however, a message of hope for a suffering humanity. (2015)
  • So what is the great distinction? Well, God created this world. There aren’t two gods. Well, even then, there are certain ambiguities there. As the lawgiver, God the Father is not even the author of the law. …What we vaguely call gnostic sects, …if they can be classified as in any way as heterodox, …[is] this willingness to amplify that provisional dualism into a complete ontological schism. (2020)
  • If I had to say that there is one thing that these schools had in common so that you could classify them as gnostic, is that …there is none that has an explicit metaphysics of participation. (2020)
  • [Compare the last two points to Clark in Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy: “Both pagan and Abrahamic Platonists have found corporeal nature sacramental. Plotinus …denounced those ‘gnostics’ who despised the earth. Porphyry, his pupil, was until recently the only ‘professional philosopher’ to write at length in favour of ‘the rights of beasts’ (Porphyry 2000). Nor was this at odds with Plato.” (110)]
  • One has to tread delicately here because I’m more than willing to say that, in one sense, all of creation is a real theophany, a real incarnation, even, of the divine story, of the divine nature, but am I willing to allow that the fallenness of that history is constituent of the goodness, is constituent of the nature of God such that violence, death, betrayal, cruelty become, even if negative, nonetheless probative aspects of the divine story? That is actually not a gnostic impulse. To say that is just the opposite. The so-called gnostics …[had] absolute horror of that suggestion. The God most high is not, in any of these systems, …is in no way involved in the fall of nature. The Father remains absolutely inaccessible, unknown, incomprehensible and removed from any taint of evil, from any finitude. It is something of a point of …a neurosis in the gnostic texts that might alone explain why they go in the direction they go in—the anxiety to make sure that in no way can the evil of this world, the darkness of this world, the pain of this world in any way be attributed to the true divine nature. (2020)

How Gnosticism Can Help us to Read the NT:

  • My interest in recovering the real form of gnosticism, trying to understand what it really was (if we are going to keep trying to use that word) is mostly to try to detach our understanding of the New Testament and the early church from the pictures that we formed of it based on later theological developments, later theological habits of thought, and later cultural alienations and estrangements from the original texts that allow us to imagine that we understand the world of the New Testament much better than we actually do. (2020)
  • There is a kind of “provisional” cosmic dualism within the New Testament that simply cannot be evaded: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles, but certainly a conflict between, on the one hand, a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God and, on the other, the saving love of God in time. (2017)
  • The explicit claim of Christian scripture is that God’s will can be resisted by a real and (by his grace) autonomous force of defiance, and that his purposes can be hidden from us by the history of cosmic corruption, and that the final realization of the good he intends in all things has the form—not simply as a dramatic fiction, for our edification or his glory, nor simply as a pedagogical device on his part, but in truth—of a divine victory. (2017)
  • We tend to characterize Chrsistianity’s understanding of creation as, in an unqualified way, one of affirmation. Now it is in the sense that there is no notion in Paul or John that this world is literally ontologically estranged from God to the point that it is actually handiwork of a lesser celestial demon or the demiurge. And yet if you actually look at the New Testament, the Gospel of John is about as stark and dualistic in some of its formulations as it’s possible to be. Christ descends from above, and that above is not—and this is one of the things that I hope we talk about, the cosmology of the first century and other things like angelology that are often misunderstood, not just by modern Christians but Christians from the medieval period onward—but that descent is quite real. He is the man who is above, and he alone knows the secrets of the Father and descends into the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend him. Throughout John’s gospel, it is a war of darkness and light, and it’s also a light that divides rather starkly. Christ passes through the Gospel of John not like the frail man of sorrows or the political revolutionary of the synoptics but as already, not only risen but as one who comes from the mysterious realm that is already in some sense if not alien to but so transcendent of this realm that there can only be enmity until the end between the children of this world and of the devil who is called the ruler of this age, the ruler of this world, the archon of this world or the prince of this world in the King James and the one who comes from the Father who alone reveal the words of eternal life that gnosis that saves and heals. (2020)
  • In Paul, 1 Corinthians 15 is where it is most evident, but it is there throughout Paul. The current age, the olam ha-zeh in Hebrew, is not just a somewhat diminished reality. It is one that has been under the rule of mutinous angelic celestial powers literally in the heavens above separating us physically and spiritually from the highest heaven of God the Father as well as beings under the earth and on the earth that are very much the sort of malign spiritual agencies that were part of the intertestamental and second temple literature of the Noahic fall. For Paul, if you read 1 Cornithians 15, the age to come is one in which these powers are subdued by force, placed under the governance of the Son that may be handed over to the Father, and only then will the cosmos be under the rule of God and the way clear, physically and spiritually, to communion between us and God so that there is no longer any height or depth, no angel or archon or power between us and God. That imagery should be taken very literally because Paul meant it quite literally. The fallen heavens are guarded by these sentinel beings and the nations governed by them. The age to come is one in which we will put aside flesh, and he means flesh. …[Flesh] is actually an element incapable of inheriting the Kingdom of God. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” So our body in the olam ha-ba, the age to come, will be a spiritual body that is literally a body composed of the element called spirit which is a semi-physical reality in its own right in the metaphysics that Paul’s language presumes. (2020)
  • So there is a very dark view of the condition of the cosmos under the reigning archon, the god [or archon] of this present evil age [or cosmos]. …It’s easier for twentieth and twenty-first century Chrsitians with antibiotics that work and when strep throat doesn’t kill your child and infant mortality rates aren’t fifty-two percent. It’s easy for us, somehow, to delude ourselves that the dissatisfactions and sorrows of life that we haven’t encountered aren’t as bad as they’ll prove to be, and we certainly can’t look at the world from the perspective of ancient persons who understood suffering and reconciled themselves to it far more easily than we do. Nonetheless, throughout Christian history, this provisional dualism [rather quickly] receded. It is there up to the early Alexandrians. You find it even in Origen when he talks about the nature of the cosmos. They still inhabited the same cosmology. It’s almost literal, physical estrangement, and I should say estrangement of nature between creation and the most High God. (2020)
  • Interviewer: “Even as late as Maximus, they are still claiming that Chrisitianity is this true gnosticism. …And one of the key claims is that—especially in the Alexandrian tradition starting with Origen—not everything that appears to us is a work of God, a creation of God. …That infuses the New Testament themes that you are talking about with the most substantial sense in which that provisional dualism is a true dualism, that one side has to be overcome, obliterated. This is inherent in the gospel, in the Kingdom of God.” Hart: “Right. …It is actually Paul who speaks of the ‘god of this age.’ John and Ephisians both speak of the archon, the prince of this cosmos. First John, all things lie in the power of the evil one. The heavenly spheres are throned by archons and powers and principalities in Romans, in First Corinthians, in Ephesians. They are cursed by a law that was in fact ordained by lesser, merely angelic powers. Galatians quite clearly says the law was written by angels delivered through human mediators. So even the law comes to us in a defective form because the angels that govern the nations, even the angel that governs Israel apparently—the Angel of the Lord, is defective in his rule. So the world is a prison of spirits, and this is a darkness and in John it doesn’t know the true light. A divine savior descends from the aeon above into this world. In John, aionios doesn’t mean everlasting in the durative sense. It doesn’t necessarily even mean the age to come, in the sense of the future but actually refers to things heavenly or divine that exist in the aevum or aeon above rather than in the realm of chronos time. He brings with him a wisdom that has been hidden from before the ages we’re told in Romans and Galatians and Ephesians and Collasians. It’s a secret wisdom unknown even to the archons of this cosmos in First Corithians. He has the power to liberate fallen spirits we’re told in John 8. And now there are certain blessed persons who possess gnosis, First Corinthians, and they constitute an exceptional group called the pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones. …In Jude, when it speaks of psychical men who do not possess spirit, and that is always translated as ‘who don’t possess the Holy Spirit’, but there is no ‘the’ and no ‘holy.’ It means …who are without spirit. In that context, it is as much a quality of one who has been sanctified as it is an actual element or constitution of their nature. And so the savior opens a pathway through the planetary spheres, the heavens and the armies of the air and the powers on high. That is when Paul will tell us that neither death nor life, nor angels nor archons nor things present nor things imminent nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (2020)
  • This is the way that Paul is thinking constantly. Creation is that which is yet to be revealed. In part, creation is something that is constructed by spiritual natures. He doesn’t talk in terms of a demiurge. He does talk in terms of a god of this world, but …the world we inhabit is the one that has been corrupted by spiritual natures. I think he probably has a book of Enoch notion of the degree to which angels participated in this, the degree to which we participated in it. I don’t know if what he talks about the impress, the image of the celestial man, if we fully understood, but that seems very much inline with the first and second and third century mysticism of the true human who dwells in the heavenly places as the true image of God and of the Son of God. Until then, the world that we inhabit, that we create together as spiritual beings, that we perceive, that is the work of our wills in our ignorance is maya. …You’ve already got it there in the neoplatonic tradition, I just think that there are all these wonderful Indian thinkers who had all sorts of categories and reflections that can enrich the Christian treasury of terms. But actually, it’s a good term. …What does maya mean? …Appearance, illusion. …To a degree, that’s the meaning it has. …But really, it’s the same Indo-European root as maguš, magic. It’s the power of creation but it’s also illusion. It has that dual sense. There’s that kind of demiurgic distance between us and the world that is a work of spiritual estrangement from God that’s both, in one sense, natural, even physical if you want to use the Pauline language and also moral. Berdyaev instinctively understood that this is something that is actually there in the essence of the New Testament language even though he wouldn’t be encouraged to think that from later Christian thought—although in the East, obviously, many of these tropes were retained a bit more fully. (2020)

How Gnosticism Shows up Today (all points below from the 2013 source):

  • Current gnostic tendencies due to:
    • The constant erosion of Christendom over the past few centuries, and with the final collapse of the old social order of the West in the twentieth century’s political and ideological storms, and with all those seas of human blood that overwhelmed the ruins.
    • Seemingly irreversible alienation from the natural world that defines modernity. …The realm of the senses has become ever more remote from us, and ever less meaningful for us.
    • We have learned to see nature as only a machine, composed of material forces that are inherently mindless, intrinsically devoid of purpose, and therefore only adventitiously and accidentally directed towards any end, either by chance or by the hand of some demiurgic “Intelligent Designer.” And, with the rise of Darwinism, in the context of the mechanistic narrative, the story of evolution appears to concern only a mindless process of violent attrition and fortuitous survival, random force and creative ruin, in which order is the accidental residue of chaos and life the accidental residue of death.
  • It all is the suspicion of the apparent world, the turn inward towards hidden foundations and secret depths, the fantasy of escape to an altogether different reality.
  • With enough therapy and sufficient material comforts, even gnostic despair can become a form of disenchantment without regret, sweetened by a new enchantment with the self in its particularity. Gnosticism reduced to bare narcissism …might be an apt definition of late modernity as a whole.
  • Ours is one of those epochs that is hospitable to a gnostic sensibility:
    • The newer religious movements that have flourished most abundantly in the developed world over the last century and a half (including a great deal of American Evangelicalism).
    • The smaller sects that keep springing up at the margins (Scientology, for instance) are even more acute manifestations of the same spiritual impulses.
    • Gnostic themes, moreover, have been a persistent and recurrent element in Western literature since the Romantic age.
    • Most of us now are susceptible to the psychologistic assumption that spiritual disaffection is something to be cured by discovering and decoding some forgotten, half-effaced text inscribed somewhere within the self.
  • For Jung, Gnostic myth was really just a poignantly confused way of talking about the universal human tragedy of the ego’s alienation from the unconscious, which each of us enacts in growing out of childhood. The infant dwells in the super-personal unity of the unconscious, so the story goes, wholly unaware of any duality of self and other; but with age comes progressive individuation, which involves the ego’s traumatic emergence from that original state of blissful plenitude into the winnowing drama of personality.
    • And the same story, says Jung, unfolds itself in the development of human society; cultural phylogeny, so to speak, recapitulates psychological ontogeny. Primitive cultures remain just at the boundary of the infantine state, half dreaming in the tender dawn-light of the nascent ego, effortlessly projecting the contents of the unconscious onto the world in the forms of gods, spirits, ghosts, and demons. The somewhat more mature civilized peoples of the ancient world then transformed those projections into rigid religious systems, thus abandoning the flowing immediacy of dreams for the static day-lit objectivity of doctrines. Modern persons abandon myth and creed alike in favor of the subtler projections of ideological and social prejudice. In each case, though, a tragic internal division persists, and is even hardened over time. All of us have lost touch with that inner world in which our souls were born, and remember it only in the alienated forms of imaginary external forces and principles.
    • According to Jung, it was the special distinction of the ancient Gnostics in some sense to have understood this: to have recognized that the stories we usually tell about the world are in fact just projections—just fabrications—behind which lies the true tale we have forgotten, the perennial story of that primordial catastrophe that has shattered each of us within. Unfortunately, not having the benefit of Jung’s “scientific” psychology to explain their spiritual distress to them, the Gnostics inevitably fell back upon projections of their own. They imagined the unconscious as a divine pleroma from which the spirit had literally suffered a prehistoric fall. They interpreted the latent but restless presence of the unconscious behind the ego’s elaborate plaster façade as the imprisonment of a divine scintilla in the vast dungeon of the cosmos. They dramatically transcribed their inchoate awareness of inner inhibitions and confusions into a figural language of hostile cosmic archons. They transformed the ego’s denial of its dependency upon the unconscious into the story of the “god” of this world, who proudly denies that there is any God above himself whose creature he is. And they mistook the dreamlike deliverances rising from their own inner depths for the voice of a savior descending from beyond the sphere of the fixed stars.
    • All understandable errors, Jung thought, but with some singularly unfortunate consequences. In Gnostic thought, the primal human longing to overcome the ego’s alienation from the unconscious was distorted into a yearning for a final escape from spiritual exile and a return to a divine unity transcending world and ego alike. But that, thought Jung, stripped of its mythic garb, is nothing more than a pathetic longing for the ego’s disappearance into its impersonal ground. That would be to trade one tragedy for another. The only true rescue from the human predicament lies not in a retreat from the ego back into the abyss of the unconscious, but in one’s reconciliation with one’s own primordial depths, achieved by raising the unconscious up into consciousness without sacrificing one’s individuality or autonomy. In the end, he concluded, psychic alienation can be conquered only through Jungian psychotherapy. The only true pneumatikos, it turns out, is a psychiatric patient (one whose psychiatrist likes to talk a great deal about archetypes).

Two Paraphrases from Matthew 10:28

Every early church father that I have found (Justin Martyr, Chrysostom and Origen) understands Christ in Matthew 10:28 to be saying that God can destroy body and soul (or breath) in hell (Vale of Hinnom). Only a tiny minority of recent scholars think that Christ is talking about Satan in Matthew 10:28. According to Peter Kreeft, N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington, Christ is saying that Rome is not the real enemy because Rome can only destroy your body, while Satan can destroy body and soul.

Reading over the passage some more, “fear” appears four times within a few verses: “do not fear” (them) twice in verses 26 and 28 followed by “instead fear” (the one) in verse 28 and finally “do not be afraid” (of my Father) almost immediately again in verse 31. This makes it clear that the overall message of Christ to his disciples is that they do not need to fear those who can kill them now and that their Father in heaven cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on their heads and will honor this care for them despite their calling now to pick up their own cross and to suffer with Christ.

Finally, Christ speaks positively about the loss of our soul (or breath) just a couple verses later: “whoever loses his soul for my sake will gain it” (verse 39). Paul also says that our “soulish body” must die in order for us to receive our “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44-45). The same Greek word for soul (or breath) is used twice by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ uses in Matthew 10:28 and 39, with both Christ and Paul indicating that our soul must be lost in order to inherit the fullness of life with God (having received what Paul calls a “spiritual body”). [As an aside, N. T. Wright and David Bentley Hart had an exchange a few years back over this passage from 1 Corinthians 15.]

Taking all of this together surrounding Matthew 10:28, a good case can be made for understanding Christ to be saying:

  • Don’t be afraid of the Romans who can kill your body because the real threat is Satan who can kill body and soul. My Father in heaven, however, cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on your head, and you therefore have no reason to be afraid. I will recognize you as my own before my Father if you have recognized me as your own by giving up your life for me when terrible persecutions will come upon you. In fact, you need to be willing to give up your body and your soul for my sake in order to gain eternal life with me for your soul.

However, the vast majority of Christians from the earliest years understood Christ to be saying something more like:

  • Don’t be afraid of the Romans who can kill your body. Only God has the power to destroy your body and your soul in the final refuse heap. Do not fear my Father in heaven, however, who cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on your head. I will recognize you as my own before my Father if you have recognized me as your own by giving up your life for me when terrible persecutions will come upon you. In fact, you need to be willing to give up your body and your soul for my sake in order to gain eternal life with me for your soul.

Here are a variety of resources that I found on Matthew 10:28 from various places:

The earliest commentary I could find, takes the position that has been the strong majority understanding throughout Christian history:

“Fear not them that kill you, and after that can do no more; but fear Him who after death is able to cast both soul and body into hell.” Matthew 10:28. And hell is a place where those are to be punished who have lived wickedly, and who do not believe that those things which God has taught us by Christ will come to pass.

Justin Martyr in The First Apology, Chapter 19

When Origen comments on Matthew 10:28 (and Luke 12:45), he admits that it is God who ‘can destroy both the body and the soul in Gehenna’ but emphasizes that while the text speaks of human beings who do in fact kill, it says of God only that God can destroy the sinner. How could God actually do such a thing, he wonders, ‘since the Savior has come to seek and save those who perished’? In view of Christ’s saving act, Origen seems inclined to doubt the eternal character of divine punishment, If there are some texts in which he speaks of Gehenna as a definitive state, there are many others which seem to view it as a purifying chastisement.

“Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology” by John R. Sachs, S.J., Weston School of Theology. Theological Studies 54 (1993).

In “Homily 34 on Matthew,” Saint John Chrysostom makes the case that Christ in the 10:28 passage is giving his disciples the ultimate confidence against persecution:

Then, because He had lifted them up on high, He again gives warning of the perils also, adding wings to their mind, and exalting them high above all. For what says He? Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Matthew 10:28 Do you see how He set them far above all things, persuading them to despise not anxiety only and calumny, dangers and plots, but even that which is esteemed of all things most terrible, death? And not death alone, but by violence too? And He said not, you shall be slain, but with the dignity that became Him, He set this before them, saying, Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell; bringing round the argument, as He ever does, to its opposite. For what? Is your fear, says He, of death? And are you therefore slow to preach? Nay for this very cause I bid you preach, that you fear death: for this shall deliver you from that which is really death. What though they shall slay you? Yet over the better part they shall not prevail, though they strive ten thousand ways. Therefore He said not, Who do not kill the soul, but, who are not able to kill. For wish it as they may, they shall not prevail. Wherefore, if you fear punishment, fear that, the more grievous by far.

Do you see how again He does not promise them deliverance from death, but permits them to die, granting them more than if He had not allowed them to suffer it? Because deliverance from death is not near so great as persuading men to despise death. You see now, He does not push them into dangers, but sets them above dangers, and in a short sentence fixes in their mind the doctrines that relate to the immortality of the soul, and having in two or three words implanted a saving doctrine, He comforts them also by other considerations.

Thus, lest they should think, when killed and butchered, that as men forsaken they suffered this, He introduces again the argument of God’s providence, saying on this wise: Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall into a snare without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Matthew 10:29-30 For what is viler than they? says He; nevertheless, not even these shall be taken without God’s knowledge. For He means not this, by His operation they fall, for this were unworthy of God; but, nothing that is done is hid from Him. If then He is not ignorant of anything that befalls us, and loves us more truly than a father, and so loves us, as to have numbered our very hairs; we ought not to be afraid. And this He said, not that God numbers our hairs, but that He might indicate His perfect knowledge, and His great providence over them. If therefore He both knows all the things that are done, and is able to save you, and willing; whatever ye may have to suffer, think not that as persons forsaken ye suffer. For neither is it His will to deliver you from the terrors, but to persuade you to despise them, since this is, more than anything, deliverance from the terrors.

Finally, here is the passage form Matthew’s Gospel with context (from a recent translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart):

13And if in-deed the household should be worthy, may your ‘Peace’ come upon it; but if it should be unworthy, may your ‘Peace’ revert back to you. 14And whoever should not welcome you, or should not listen to your words, on departing outside that household or that city shake the dust off your feet. 15Amen, I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that city. 16See: I send you forth as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and as guileless as doves. 17And beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and they will flog you in their syna-gogues; 18And you will be led before leaders and even kings for my sake, as a witness to them and to the gentiles. 19But when they deliver you up do not worry over how or what you might speak; for whatever you might say will be given to you in that hour; 20For you are not the ones speaking, but rather the Spirit of your Father is speaking in you. 21And brother will deliver up brother to death, and father child, and children will rise up against parents and put them to death. 22And you will be hated by all on account of my name; but whoever endures to the end, that one will be saved. 23And when they persecute you in one city, flee to another; for, amen, I tell you, you will most certainly not have finished with the cities of Israel before the Son of Man arrives. 24A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his lord. 25It suffices that the disciple become as his teacher, and the slave as his lord. If they have arraigned the master of the household as ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more so those who belong to his household? 26Therefore, do not fear them; for there is nothing that has been veiled that will not be unveiled, and nothing hidden that will not be made known. 27What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in your ear, proclaim upon the house-tops. 28And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in the Vale of Hinnom. 29Are not two sparrows sold for the smallest pittance? And not one of them will fall to earth without your Father. 30But even the hairs of your head have all been numbered. 31So do not be afraid; you are of greater worth than a great many sparrows. 32Therefore, everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge him before my Father in the heavens; 33And whoever denies me before men, I also will deny him before my Father in the heavens. 34Do not suppose that I have come to impose peace upon the earth; I came to impose not peace but a sword. 35For I came to divide a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law-36And a man’s enemies: the members of his house-hold. 37Whoever cherishes father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever cher-ishes son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38And whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. 39Whoever gains his soul will lose it, and whoever loses his soul for my sake will gain it. 40Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who has sent me forth. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet because he is called prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a just man because he is called just will receive a just man’s reward. 42And whoever gives one of these humble ones a cup of cold water solely because he is called disciple, amen, I tell you, he most certainly will not lose his reward.

David Bentley Hart’s translation of this passage (Yale UP, 2017).

A List of Online Articles (and a Reading List) by David Bentley Hart

A few folks have asked me for this list from time to time, so I plan to start maintaining it publicly. Here is a list of online articles by David Bentley Hart going back in time (with his exchange with N.T. Wright separated below):

  • “Three Cheers for Socialism: Christian Love & Political Practice” in Commonweal Magazine on February 24, 2020 here.
  • “A Pakaluk of Lies” in First Things on February 14, 2020 here.
  • “Why Do People Believe in Hell” in The New York Times on January 10, 2020 here.
  • “Misenchantment” in Commonweal Magazine on January 6, 2020 here.
  • “Manoussakis and his Pear Tree”in Eclectic Orthodoxy on November 7, 2019 here.
  • “‘Gnosticism’ and Universalism: A Review of ‘The Devil’s Redemption’” in Eclectic Orthodoxy on October 2, 2019 here.
  • “1 Timothy 2:3-4: will, intend, or desire?” in Eclectic Orthodoxy on September 23, 2019 here.
  • “Theodicy and Apokatastasis” in Eclectic Orthodoxy on September 20, 2019 here.
  • “Divorce, Annulment & Communion: An Orthodox Theologian Weighs In” in Commonweal Magazine on August 26, 2019 here.
  • “Quentin Tarantino’s Cosmic Justice” in The New York Times on August 6, 2019 here.
  • “Can We Please Relax About ‘Socialism’?” in The New York Times on April 27, 2019 here.
  • “Anent Garry Wills and the ‘DBH’ Version” in Eclectic Orthodoxy on February 11, 2018 here.
  • “The Gospel According to Melpomene: Reflections on Rowan Williams’s The Tragic Imagination” in Modern Theology on January 26, 2018 (not fully accessible without a fee but can be previewed and purchased here).

Exchange with N.T. Wright:

  • N.T. Wright published “The New Testament in the strange words of David Bentley Hart” in The Christian Century on January 15, 2018 here.
  • David Bentley Hart published “A Reply to N. T. Wright” in Eclectic Orthodoxy on January 16, 2018 here.
  • David Bentley Hart published “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients” in Church Life Journal on July 26, 2018 here.
  • James P. Ware published “The Incarnation Doesn’t End with the Resurrection” in Church Life Journal on June 21, 2019 here.
  • David Bentley Hart published “Looking Awry at Resurrection Bodies” in Church Life Journal on July 04, 2019 here.

A few older favorites by David Bentley Hart:

David Bentley Hart also frequently appears in online video interviews and podcasts. I have transcribed portions of some of these:

  • See here for a conversation about the new heavens and the new earth as well as some philosophy of the mind in an interviewer with Robert Wright from February 26, 2020.
  • See here for a conversation about the living cosmos in an interview here with Jason Micheli from April 13, 2018.
  • See here for some conversation about classical liberalism, Karl Marx and other topics in an interview with Jason Micheli from October 18, 2019.
  • (Separately, I also have various favorite passages from Hart’s books collected here along with a few of my own ruminations about some of his work.)

Finally, here is a reading list from David Bentley Hart that has frequented the internet since November of 2015 when Ben Davis posted an email from David Bentley Hart recommending these titles for any theologian:

Metaphysics:

  • Metaphysics (4th edition) by Richard Taylor
  • He Who Is by E. L. Mascall
  • Existence and Analogy by E. L. Mascall
  • The One and the Many by W. Norris Clarke
  • Proofs of God by Matthew Levering

Theology (always start with the fathers):

  • Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man
  • Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and Resurrection
  • Ps-Dionysius, Complete Works
  • Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ
  • Athanasius, On the Incarnation
  • St Isaac of Ninevah (especially the “Second Volume”)
  • Maximus the Confessor, Chapters on Love
  • Maximus the Confessor, The Cosmic Mystery of Christ

Mediaeval and Early Modern Theology:

  • Symeon the New Theologian’s Mystical Discourses (or whatever it’s called in English)
  • Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God
  • Nicholas of Cusa
  • Thomas Traherne, Centuries
  • George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons

Modern Theologians:

  • Sergius Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord. (This is a seven volume set.)
  • Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church
  • Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World
  • Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics part IV, (There are 5 volumes in this set. 14 total.)
  • Henri de Lubac’s Supernatural (currently being translated I believe, but if you read French go ahead)
  • Rowan Williams’ Resurrection (2nd edition)

Angelic, Glorified and Social Bodies in Dale Martin’s Work

Transfiguration_by_Feofan_Grek_from_Spaso-Preobrazhensky_Cathedral_in_Pereslavl-Zalessky_(15th_c,_Tretyakov_gallery) detail

Image: this is a detail from a traditional transfiguration icon. See full image and info at bottom of post.

“In reality only the Deity is immaterial and incorporeal.” —St. John of Damascus

Section Titles:

  • Introduction
  • Summary and Critique of Dale Martin’s Book (as an Aside)
  • Martin’s Key Points on Paul’s Model of the Cosmos and its Bodies
  • Glorified and Angelic Bodies in Paul (Was Hart Right and Wright Wrong?)
  • Spiritual Bodies in my Life and in the Work of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis
  • Why Moderns Can’t See What is Most Real
  • Further Reading

Introduction

This is not so much a review of The Corinthian Body (Yale UP, 1995) as it is my own reappropriation of Dale Martin’s work. I want to understand the metaphysical world that was inhabited by Paul and his beloved congregation in Corinth so that I can better grasp what is real and what I am blind to because of my own impoverished cosmological models and metaphysical categories of thought. Martin is a veteran New Testament scholar who has held academic chairs at Duke and Yale over the course of a long and distinguished career, and his book unpacks Paul’s world of thought with exquisite care. This takes place through an examination of all the beliefs current in Paul’s day within the areas of folk culture, medicine and metaphysics. In standard scholarly fashion, Martin does not generally share his own thoughts as he analyzes Paul’s beliefs about metaphysics, medicine and the nature of bodies other than as the basis for explaining Paul’s reasoning and thought processes within his letters. There is one notable exception to this when Martin hopes that not all women in Paul’s day believed what Martin says that Paul taught about the inferiority of the female body (251). I’ll return to this later, but for now, let me reiterate that my own reason for reading this book was to subject myself to a rigorous scholarly analysis of Paul’s profoundly pre-modern thought world.

I first heard of Martin’s book when it was recommended by David Bentley Hart as he defended himself against published criticism from N.T. Wright (and some others backing Wright) over Hart’s translation of “spirit”, “soul” and “flesh” as these were used by Paul in his discussion of the resurrection body. When two of the most preeminent living scholars of the New Testament thought world (who have both published translations of the entire New Testament) engaged in public debates over the nature of our resurrection bodies, I followed every word (with repeat readings). In response to Hart’s most developed essay on the topic (“The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients”), James Ware offered a defence of N.T. Wright’s position. Hart, in his very terse response to Ware, recommended reading “Dale Martin’s treatment of the matter in his book The Corinthian Body, which simply places Paul’s words in the context of his age.” [You can find all three articles here, here and here from Church Life Journal with the University of Notre Dame from July 26, 2018 to July 04, 2019. The original sally by N.T. Wright is here at The Christian Century from January 15, 2018. Hart’s initial response to Wright is here from January 16, 2018 on Eclectic Orthodoxy, a blog that Hart frequents. Finally, Christianity Today published an account of the “tussle” here on January 24, 2018.]

Dale Martin is recognized as being unorthodox with regard to some basic tenants of the Christian faith. David Bently Hart, on the other hand, defends Christian orthodoxy vigorously and takes the Christian creeds with all seriousness. Addison Hart recently wrote (in an social media discussion forum) that his brother David “reads Dale Martin, John Dominic Crossan, and others that many wouldn’t for doctrinal reasons” because “if you’re going to engage scholarship at all, that’s what you do” even if “you won’t always like what you read or even what you learn from it.”

Despite critical differences with some of Martin’s conclusions, I appreciated his rigorous examination of the world of thought and belief out of which Paul lived and taught and composed his letters. Paul’s pre-modern beliefs about the cosmos, angelic bodies, social bodies and our own human bodies (both current and glorified) point us toward realities that we have lost the capacity to see. This does not imply, of course, that Paul’s specific medical or metaphysical models should be maintained today. David Bentley Hart would doubtless extol most aspects of Paul’s metaphysics while pointing out that there is no necessary conflict with modern medical practices or physiology. This perceived conflict, however, leaves us benighted moderns with emaciated and collapsed cosmologies. We need fresh models of the universe and ourselves (along with revived stories of our shared travels through time and place) so that we can regain access to all of the layered realms that were opened up by the ancient cosmologies and social imaginaries that we have discarded as primitive. Tragically, our modern models provide no meaningful space for the realms of reality that were taken most seriously within all of the ancient maps of nature and of the human body. As a result, during the past five centuries, modern and Western humans (which, in another ghastly aspect of our current story, increasingly means all humans) have grown profoundly and increasingly blind to the most substantial elements of our own bodies and of the world that we inhabit.

Summary and Critique of Dale Martin’s Book (as an Aside)

Before leaving Martin largely aside and plundring his scholarship for my own purposes, I will pay his work the well-earned respect of my poor efforts at a summary and a critique. This portion of my post has drifted back and forth between this second section, the third section and even an appendix. This drifting had two reasons. First, I am not even faintly qualified to summarize let alone criticise Martin’s scholarship. Second, to understand even the basic outlines of Martin’s points requires a substantial and counterintuitive understanding—for us as moderns—of what bodies are for Paul and his congregation in Corinth. This requires that I repeat a lot of the basic metaphysics of human and social bodies in order to simply summarize Martin’s book. Both of these serious issues notwithstanding, I have opted to plunge in with a survey and response to Martin at the outset. (Please feel free to second guess my judgement or abilities in this and to skip ahead to later sections.)

In The Corinthian Body, Martin argues that virtually all of the directives and the guidance that Paul gave to the Corinthian church were motivated at some basic level by Paul’s concern for the purity and harmony of Christ’s body as the church. In chapter 1 (“The Body in Greco-Rioman Culture”), Martin makes it clear why Paul’s understanding of the “the body of Christ” is so literal, substantial and central to his entire vision for Christian life in this world. Throughout the book, Martin examines a comprehensive range of popular and scientific physiologies and etiologies from the ancient world—looking at what all bodies (human, social and heavenly) were thought to be composed of as well as what caused their diseases. In this effort, Martin’s survey of the realms of folklore, philosophy and medicine are impressive and fruitful.

In chapter 2 (“The Rhetoric of the Body Politic”), Martin looks closely at homonoia (“concord”) speeches as a standard category of deliberative rhetoric in which the speaker encouraged an entire population to maintain the health and unity of their social body. At one point, Martin argues that Paul likely had a standard rhetorical education in keeping with this background of higher social standing. Interestingly, Martin notes that every Hellenistic education had a basic rhetorical component that was separated from the more widely recognized later training of those who would go on to use rhetoric formally within their social calling (44, 48 and 51-52). In Martin’s analysis, regardless of the technical details of Paul’s education, he was clearly familiar with this standard rhetorical type concord speeches and used it to remarkable effect as he addressed the two primary threats that faced Christ’s body in Corinth. Both of these perils were understood by Paul in palpable terms as means by which cosmic powers—still struggling at some level to pollute and disrupt the body of Christ—might be allowed entry through disharmony or negligence. Although Martin does not provide this context, it does not conflict with Martin to point out that—while Christ had conquered all cosmic powers—many were still seeking to damage Christ’s body the church and that the reality of Christ’s conquest of them was still being played out in some sense by Christ through the church as his body. Martin focuses on Paul’s concern with this cosmic battle between the worldly realm (dominated by rebellious powers) and the church which is the pure body of Christ (demonstrating Christ’s power and victory over all of this world’s old authorities).

Two points of vulnerability for the church body form the two main parts of Martin’s book. He first deals with the threat to Christ’s body posed by “the Strong” in Corinth (Martin’s category name and capitalization). The second part of the book considers the dangers posed by female bodies. The strong in Corinth threatened the harmony of the church through their failure to understand and live by the reversed hierarchical order of social glory that had been established under Christ. Women, through no fault of their own, possessed bodies that were made up (in this fallen world) of a higher concentration of elements that allowed for the easy passage of powerful substances from one realm into the other. Martin notes that modern readers will generally appreciate the first aspect of Paul’s message (directed at the strong) but will be confused and offended by Paul’s ideas about the female body.

To unpack each threat to Christ’s body a little further, first in this pair of weak points was the refusal of the strong within the Corinthian church to give up their false idea of social eminence within the body of Christ. This failure by the strong to subserviate themselves within the church threatened the harmony of Christ’s body as a place where the categories of glory had been restructured in reverse order to the hierarchy that all human societies had previously followed (including those of the Greco-Roman world). For Martin, the strong were a group of especially responsible and empowered Christians (within the life of their city) who formed a vocal minority in the church at Corinth. These Christians understood their functions within the church to reflect their noble functions within the social body of their city, but Paul made it clear to them that Christ’s body is constituted with a reversal of the social hierarchies of the fallen world (although not by a reversal of the bodily elements associated with these categories, as will become apparent below). A powerful revolution—an upending of social status categories—had been accomplished by Christ’s bodily death on a cross (at the very bottom of the Roman social order) and subsequent resurrection and ascension to the throne of God (from which Christ appeared to Paul and demanded Paul’s allegiance).

According to Martin, Paul was calling out the strong despite the fact that Paul had more in common socially with the strong at Corinth than with the other Christians of the city (who have been servants or slaves of the strong in many cases). At the same time, Martin claims that certain areas of Paul’s folk beliefs (especially regarding the causes of disease) reflected ideas much closer to the weak in Corinth than to the more sophisticated medical and philosophical theories of the strong (122, 135, 136 and 168). With these several nuances, Paul’s relationship with the strong at Corinth was complex and dynamic. This adds subtlety and delight to Martin’s analysis of Paul’s rhetorical appeals to the strong in Corinth to give up their high status within the church and to imitate Christ’s humiliation for the sake of concord within Christ’s body. [This is a good place to note that—in this first portion of the book—Martin was clearly drawing on some of the concepts from his earlier book Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity (Yale UP, 1990). This no doubt added depth to Martin’s arguments in the first section of The Corinthian Body. Also, this idea of “slavery as salvaiton” corelates powerfuly in several ways with some of David Bentley Hart’s key points in Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, particularly in chapter 13 (“The Face of the Faceless”).]

The second of Martin’s two main points within The Corinthian Body was the danger posed to Christ’s body by the physical makeup of the female body in this fallen world. Martin argues that female bodies were universally understood to be made of a greater percentage of elements that would allow for invasive substances and powers to more easily enter and threaten the entire body of Christ through them. He gives extensive evidence for the pervasive ancient belief that weaker and more porous substances made up female bodies and that these substances rendered female bodies more susceptible to invasion and pollution (199). This required different types and measures of care for females. This should not be misunderstood as saying that males and females were made of different elements. Genders simply contained different proportions of the same elements. “The human body—whether of a man or a woman—was understood to comprise male and female aspects. …Sexualtiy …was constructed less in terms of a dichotomy between male and female and more as a spectrum in which masculinity occupied one pole, femininity the other.” (32)

To understand Martin’s case regarding Paul’s thought here, it must also be clear that Paul would not have had any concept of an autonomous individual. All human bodies, regardless of gender or class, were understood as a part of their environment (in the broadest possible sense). In other words, human bodies were simply shifting and porous parts of their larger physical or elemental environments as well as of the larger social body (understood to be a very real entity). This surrounding elemental environment included powerful spiritual substances (a contradiction in terms for any modern mind) that could enter and cause disease in the entire social body (the household, city or church) through the body of any one individual. This basic line of thinking was taken as a matter of fact by anyone in Paul’s world, irrespective of their social status or gender. More sophisticated members of the Hellenistic world tended to emphasize the imbalance etiologies of Greek medicine over the invasion etiologies of folk culture, but both would have seen some individual bodies within any social body as more susceptible to a variety of dangerous influences (imbalancing or invading) than other bodies. Martin argues that Paul had such concepts in mind as he made what would have been understood as rather sensible recommendations for women, such as veiling themselves during corporate worship.

Martin notes that, in Paul’s world, a veil was not effective unless put in place by the woman of her own accord (245-246). While Martin explains this primarily in terms of power and dominance (which were of course fundamentally involved), he also notes that this was understood by everyone as essential to the welfare of the woman and to the entire collective body of which she was understood as a literal member (along with all males). This need for veiling was not understood as affected by the character of any women but was a product of the physiological constituents of every female body. Martin ultimately makes the case that Paul’s comment “because of the angels” in 1 Corinthians 11:10 refers to Paul’s concern that women might be dangerously exposed to the gaze of angelic powers during worship. Martin cites Terrtullian extensively regarding this concern “that lustful angels would be tempted by unveiled women” (246). Summarizing his case regarding what Paul believed, Martin says: “The veiling of women in church, especially when they were in an extra exposed state of inspiration, functioned as prophylaxis against external penetration and pollution for …both the female body and the communal body [or Christ] through the female” (248).

As Martin suggests, this portion of his book is the most bizzare to modern ears, but I also found it to be the most incomplete. While I don’t fundamentally disagree with Martin’s points about how the female body was understood in the Hellenistic world, I do not think that Martin fully develops Paul’s Christian vision of the female into a complete (and therefore an accurate) picture. To illustrate this, it will be helpful to develop another claim that Martin makes regarding the female body in Paul’s thought.

Martin says that Paul’s statement about there being “no male or female in Christ” was based on Paul’s idea that all resurrected female bodies would have to be reconstituted out of ingredients typical of males:

Women’s bodies are different from men’s—not just in the way we today think of them as different, in that they have different “parts,” but in that the very substance, the matter that makes up their bodies, is constitutionally different. Until the resurrection, women’s bodies will be different from men’s, more porous, penetrable, weak, and defenseless. …In Paul’s language, …in the kingdom of God[,] people who are now women will then be equal to people who are now men. Those who were formerly female will be equal, however, because their femininity will be swallowed up by masculinity. The inferior nature of their female stuff will be transcended as their bodies are raised to a higher level on the spectrum extending from higher male to lower female. (249)

According to Martin, Paul had no other way to conceive of what it would mean for a female body to be transformed into the incorruptible, immortale and glorified body of the resurrection.

Several questions came to mind at this point in my reading. Martin made it clear earlier in the book that Paul believed that glorified bodies would be transformed into the most substantial and potent of all elements: pure spirit (not immaterial as we will consider below but also not intermixed with elements of soul, flesh or blood). However, this body of pure spirit does not describe bodies that “are raised to a higher level on the spectrum extending from higher male to lower female.” For Paul, according to Martin, all fallen female bodies contained some spirit, and no fallen male bodies were made of anything close to pure spirit. Paul’s glorified spiritual bodies radically transcended both male and female bodies. It makes sense that Paul had this literal sense in mind (among other meanings) when he said that there is no male or female in Christ. However, neither Paul nor any women in the church were likely to have considered this demeaning toward the female body.

Martin does not say anything further about what New Testament authors might have thought regarding the shape or form of female resurrection bodies other than his brief reference (quoted above) to different “parts” not being the primary distinction between male and female. It seems entirely consistent with everything Martin says about Paul to believe that females would have been thought by Paul to receive a purely spiritual body with a feminine form. With this detail included, there seems to be even less reason to think that Paul’s teachings about the resurrection body would have been understood by himself or his audience as an elevation of all females to males—instead both would be substantially elevated.

Leaving Martin aside briefly, it is worth noting the early oral tradition in the church that had a female receiving what was something like the second glorified body after Christ as the Lord took his mother to be with him in heaven (setting aside potential body counts involving other figures taken up to heaven by God in earlier scriptural accounts). Of course the dating of the oral tradition about Mary being taken bodily into heaven to be with Christ is impossible to determine, and most scholars assign it a relatively late date. However, at whatever point there were any earlier Christians who began to believe this account of Mary being taken to heaven by Christ, there was a specific conception of a female body reigning with the glorified and enthroned Christ—typically seated on a throne of her own close beside Christ in a similar arrangement to that in ancient Israel with the Gebirah (a formal court title ascribed in the scriptures to several queen mothers of Israel and Judah). This image of an eternally glorified female figure clearly indicates that early Christians did not have any issue with the concept of the feminine form being present in heaven enthroned beside God. This corroborates with the idea that—while Paul would have assumed that the glorified female body would have to be made up of imperishable substances—he also would have assumed that it would still maintain its familiar feminine form. Moreover, the popular beliefs of all the common people in Paul’s day (which Martin says that Paul essentially shared with regard to the differences in male and female physiology as well as heavenly and earthly bodies) would have been that the bodies of goddesses were made of a pure imperishable substance while still retaining their female forms and even procreative abilities.

I’ll note one final detail regarding the incomplete idea that Martin develops regarding Paul’s concept of the female body. In several places throughout the book, Martin suggests that the bodies of the ruling class were made up differently than the bodies of the socially weak. However, when focusing in on Paul’s denigration of the female body, Martin makes the opposite claim: “Paul does not seem to think that a slave’s body is a different kind of body from that of a free person” but that “he believes, unquestionably, that women’s bodies are different from men’s bodies” (199). This simply does not line up with other portions of the book where Martin clearly indicates that Paul also understood bodily differences to have existed between different social classes.

For example, Martin sets this out in his opening chapter regarding the wider context for Paul’s own ideas:

Upper-class ideology of the body was not altogether consistent. On the one hand, it insisted that a person’s character was set from birth. …On the other hand, documents written by and for the upper class show much concern with the procedures whereby the young body may be formed. (25) …The real task of shaping the aristocratic body …began at birth. (26) …All aspects of the body and the self are malleable and susceptible to formation by the nurse, midwife, or whoever is standing in for society at the time. …The shape of the body and its inner constitution are thus subject to the molding of civilization. (27)

All the various aspects of the self were hierarchically arranged. A firm social hierarchy existed within the body of the ancient person. …Each individual body, moreover, could be placed confidently as some location in the physiological hierarchy of nature. In other words, each body held its hierarchy within itself. …In popular Greco-Roman culture, bodies were direct expressions of status, usually pictured as a vertical spectrum. (34)

In a later place, Martin argues that Paul would have understood gnosis as “a substance” (186). Martin goes on: “Paul’s view of gnosis makes is much less transferable; it is linked securely to the status or state of the possessor. The Weak simply do not have it, and no means for acquiring it are entertained.” (188-189)

In a similar way, Martin portrays Paul as agreeing with the strong at Corinth regarding the fact that self-control was more feasible for those with bodies composed of stronger elements:

Paul calls the ability to control oneself sexually a charisma, “a gift” (7:7); but the issue of control and a hierarchy of strong and weak constitute the frame in which possession of this gift is understood. Indeed, in versies 6-9 we see Paul using the same strategy as elsewhere in 1 Corinthians: he claims for himself the position of greater strength then notes that he is willing to be more flexible for the sake of weaker members. The construction assumes that celibacy is the practice of higher status and greater strength. (210)

Martin’s examples here of Paul’s own thinking line up with the idea that the bodies of “nobles” differed from the bodies of “commoners” in at least their form if not also their substance.

While the bodily differences between classes seems to have been understood as more dependent on formation than birth, it still seems clear that Paul and his contemporaries would have believed that different classes as well as different genders were grounded in real (although internal and constitutional) bodily differences. This makes the reversal of social status and power categories that Martin identifies within Paul’s letter all the more remarkable. The fact that gender categories were not unique in their direct connection to physiology also weakens Martin’s case that Paul had a uniquely degrading understanding of the female body (undermining key claims by Martin quoted above from 199).

Moreover, as Martin makes clear with regard to the strong in Corinth, these different physiologies in each person would have required different roles and needs within the social body. When speaking of the strong seeking to exercise their authority within the church, Martin notes that they were not functioning as selfish individuals in the way that we moderns would conceive of this (208). Nobility was a type of body that was received from and formed by others. It was also a body that required the noble person to submit to his or her role and function within the social body (for the good of the social body and not for the person’s own gratification). Not to follow the requirements of nobility would have been perceived as deeply impious and threatening to the entire social body. This is why Paul’s instructions to the strong in Corinth to imitate Christ upon his cross (by their submission and service to the weak) was so counterintuitive. This is also why early Christian teaching was labeled by many educated outsiders as the teachings of atheists and anarchists that threatened to destroy the entire social body of Rome.

Martin takes extended time to explore these nuanced dynamics between the socially strong and weak in Corinth—including considerations of Hellenistic traditions of noble self-abdication (41-43) and democracy (44). However, Martin does not do the same for the relationships between males and females in Corinth. He does not explore any equivalent ways in which men and women would have both been expected to function in keeping with the proportionally different ingredients of their bodies in order to secure the flourishing of the entire communal body. Nor does Martin explore any nuances with regard to status between male and female in the Hellenistic world.

The radical reversal by Paul within the status dynamics of Christ’s body (between the socially strong and the socially weak) within the first half of Martin’s book is contrasted repeatedly by Martin in his second half with the lack of evidence for any such status reversal (or even corrective) within the body of Christ along gender lines. Instead, Martin clearly sees Paul as teaching a degradation of the female body. Because of this, Martin openly hopes that Paul may have failed to fully carry out several of his instructions regarding women (251). While there are some clear differences to consider between Paul’s treatment of the socially weak and his treatment of women, my own sense is that Martin is missing several explanations that could move us well beyond a simplistic demeaning of female bodies in stark contrast to the elevation of slaves. It is possible that Paul and the women in Corinth saw both male and female bodies as being capable of a profound transformation through a future resurrection and glorification. This vision would allow for real differences in male and female physiology in this current world (along with the different types of responsibilities that would attend these different bodies) without there being any ultimate sense of inferiority on the part of females. Also, it is possible that the status of the socially weak in Corinth was at risk while the status of women in that church was not generally understood by Paul or any of the women there to be threatened to an equivalent level.

In principle, I have no issue with the idea that Paul had substantial class and gender blindnesses or that he personally struggled to respect women (not that Martin suggests this or that this necessarily lines up with the little that we know about any specific sins dealt with by this “chief of sinners”). After all, Paul was a proud member of an elite religious class in Roman Palestine, and he even had the coveted status of a Roman Citizen in addition to this. If Paul was an elitist and a misogynist (personally and/ or as a part of his broader cultural setting), he could easily have experienced a revolution with regard to social status without having any equivalent revolution with regard to gender statuses. This is what Martin strongly suggests. However, it is also possible that Paul and the women of Corinth did not perceive serious gender status problems to be addressed within their particular church at that time.

Either way, Martin seriously overplayed the idea that female bodies would become male (in their internal makeup) at the time of their resurrection and glorification. Paul clearly believed that male and female would both be transcended through an internal glorification of the bodily substances. For my own part—living within a culture that is saturated in images and obsessions with regard to the external female form—I found the focus of the Hellenistic world upon internal constitution and correlating social responsibilities to be refreshing and potentially insightful. After all, the modern world’s extreme externalizing of what it means to be female or male has hardly been a blessing to either gender. As Martin notes, male and female were not understood in Paul’s world primarily as opposites but as each containing the other or as each being different forms of the other. There was a spectrum on which all male and female bodies were located and it moved, in certain respects from weak to strong. Certainly, this hierarchy was easily connected to abusive power structures and disparaging status rankings. Power and abuse were real and wide-spread moral horrors between genders as well as social classes.

However, these structures were not necessarily abused, and they did not necessarily imply status differences. Moreover, these hierarchical structures and the literal understandings of every person as a part of the whole social body also provided a powerful positive sense of place and purpose that could be real blessings within each human life. It is far beyond the scope of this review to explore early Christian ideas of male and female and the implications of the good news and saving work of Jesus Christ for the social dynamics between genders. To do so would no doubt require a difficult attempt to re-inhabit an extraordinary strange world of thought and relationships. It would need to place the devastating vulnerability of orphans and widows at center stage—as Jesus Christ did in keeping with many prophets of Israel. It would also need to account for the profound reverence that depicted the mother of God prominently among the earliest images within places of worship and that elevated the myrrh-bearing women with the title of “Apostles to the Apostles.” These first apostles cared for the dead body of Christ at great personal risk and with no reward in view and therefore became the first to witness Christ’s resurrection and to carry this news to the men in hiding (who initially dismissed the account as womanly foolishness). Any effort to re-inhabit this premodern world of thought and relationships with regard to men and women would need to reconcile these high-status elements within early Chrisitian life and worship to the virtual invisibility of females within most of the early narratives. Whatever status and roles that females held during the apolstolic and patristic periods of the church, it was simultaneously visible and hidden. There is a strong sense in Mary’s life of something treasured and potent—something that is shown respect and acknowledged but yet intentionally hiding itself and working from within the new reality of Christ’s veiled kingdom.

With all of this, Martin misses some vital aspects of the full picture with regard to Paul’s beliefs about the female body and Paul’s teachings about the ultimately dignity and coequal status of females alongside of males in Christ’s kingdom. At the same time, I must also acknowledge that I learned a lot about Hellenistic beliefs regarding the female body that I am not capable of processing. I hope to keep reading. My confidence in the love of Jesus Christ for humanity is not diminished, but I can easily imagine that there is more to human degradation throughout our history than I have in any way comprehended.

At this point, however, I have wandered absurdly far off topic. These matters are not what drew me to this book nor were they my focus while reading it. Setting debates over class and gender aside, then, I will return to my own focus on the metaphysics of our resurrection bodies as understood by Paul.

Martin’s Key Points on Paul’s Model of the Cosmos and its Bodies

Two essential insights from Martin strike me as the most helpful lenses to use when seeking to gain a vision of the cosmos that Paul and his early converts saw in their own day. These lenses need to be fitted and tried out repeatedly in order to start seeing just how different Paul’s world was from our own. Therefore, I will intentionally cycle through both of them twice (with a summary and then with passages from Martin) before looking more closely at several details regarding specific terms and the minor differences that did exist between different social classes or schools of philosophy and medicine in Paul’s own day.

The first lense to try out erases any concept of the autonomous individual. Human bodies related to the world around them in three ways:

  1. As reflections of greater social bodies and of the cosmos as a whole with corresponding internal substances and regions that responded to the movements of these same substances and regions in the larger surrounding bodies.
  2. As derivatives and parts of these several larger social bodies as well as of the entire cosmos.
  3. As porous and mailable arrangements of every kind of substance that would continually take in and respond to the full array of surrounding elements and movements.

Human bodies were both reflections of and pieces of multiple larger entities. Bodies had their own internal weather systems that were continually responding to and joining together with the activity of the greater weather systems of which they were microcosms (17). “The human body was not like a microcosm; it was a microcosm—a small version of the universe at large” (16). This microcosmic human body was arranged of the same essential substances and even in similar proportions and alignments as the larger bodies (both political and cosmic) of which each human was therefore a small reflection. For example, specifically heavenly elements predominated in the makeup of the human head as well as in the bodies of the ruling classes within human societies. (Even parallel shapes were sometimes noted between the human head and the heavenly bodies.) In turn, these heavenly elements within human heads and chests responded to the actual movements of these same elements as they moved within the stately dancing of the sun, moon and stars in the upper realms. All of these corresponding elements needed to be maintained in a harmonious hierarchy between the heavens, the social body of the local community and, finally, the body of each human. At times, however, these larger bodies would be in conflict, and human bodies were then at risk because they were continually open to being filled up by multiple types of stronger elements that could empower them or throw them into disarray.

Amid all of this, no one in the ancient world could have imagined the human body as something that any one person could control or claim as their own private concern. Today, we think of our bodies as having fairly well defined physical boundaries, and we also think of ourselves as essentially independent and morally autonomous individuals. We each have human dignity and rights attached to ourselves and consider our free wills, our reason and our consciences all to be an essential part of how we make decisions and function within the many choices available to us in our democratic and free market society. We also have personal or private opinions and feel entitled to our feelings as things that cannot be dictated, trained or criticized. We are concerned about our physical and our psychological health, but both are intensely private. Many legal and bureaucratic codes exist to ensure that our privacy is not violated. In turn, we also expect to be able to exercise various freedoms such as the freedom of speech which is our own ability to say what we believe or wish to express without any limitations from our community.

In Paul’s world, any idea of an independent and autonomous individual who was in control of their own destiny would have been extremely difficult to understand. Human bodies belonged to multiple larger bodies and were literally reciprocating, mixed up with and continually interacting with several powerful and layered realities. Our contemporary talk of private lives, personal freedoms, and autonomous wills would have sounded profoundly inadequate to the complex and powerful relationships at work in reality. Ancients who could begin to understand our modern mindsets would have felt sadness for our tragic self-delusion and our blindness to the profound connectedness that we had with each other and with all of nature.

Seeing this ancient world, however, depends on a second lense as well. Putting this lense in place before our twenty-first century eyes, will erase our modern dualism between the material and the immaterial, between the natural and the supernatural and between the physical and the mental. We moderns have dug massive moats of separation between the physical or natural realm (that we instinctively take as real and important) and any possible mental, psychological or supernatural realms (that we typically view as products of the physical realm and that we automatically subject to careful critical analysis before granting any level of reality or importance).

This is actually a remarkable reversal of the ancient mindset. Anyone in Paul’s day would have assumed the greater potency and reality of substances such as mind and spirit over the impotent and less consequential substances of earth and body. Spirit or mind were not conceived of (even by the neoplatonists) as immaterial. Understanding spirit and mind as substantive elements that filled and directed all of the lower materials was essential to appreciating the profound connectedness and interdependence that existed for all types and levels of bodies throughout the entire cosmos. Our benighted modern minds can conceptually grant the ideas of microcosm and connectedness at some level, but it is profoundly difficult for us to truly inhabit a world where spirit is the most substantive and powerful element. This, however, is the second lense: to insist that entities such as spirit, mind and knowledge are all material substances that fill, guide and direct all of the lower elements such as earth and water.

At this point, we will circle back and look at what Martin has to say about each of these two topics: the absence of the autonomous individual and the breakdown of Cartesian dualism. To be clear, in my rhetorical gimmick of prescribing two lenses, I’m identifying these two concepts as “most important.” Martin, of course, does not do this. He does, however, make it clear that all of these basic ideas were held in common by Paul and everyone of his Hellenistic society regardless of their ethinc background or social status (15). “Greeks and Romans could see as ‘natural’ what seems to us bizarre: the nonexistence of the ‘individual,’ the fluidity of the elements that make up the ‘self,’ and the essential continuity of the human body with its surroundings” (21).

Regarding the first lense, Martin makes the case repeatedly that no concept of an autonomous human individual or body would have been conceivable for Paul or any of his contemporaries:

In most of Greco-Roman culture the human being was a confused commingling of substances. …For most people of Greco-Roman culture the human body was of a piece with its environment. The self was a precarious, temporary state of affairs, constituted by forces surrounding and pervading the body, like the radio waves that bounce around and through the bodies of modern urbanites. In such a maelstrom of cosmological forces, the individualism of modern conceptions disappears, and the body is perceived as a location in a continuum of cosmic movement. (25)

The workings of the internal body are not just an imitation of the mechanics of the universe; rather, they are part of it, constantly influenced by it. (17)

The concept of poroi in medical theory is one expression of the ancient assumption that the human body is of a piece with the elements surrounding and pervading it and that the surface of the body is not a sealed boundary. (18)

No ontological dichotomy between the individual and the social can be located in Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 5. One may argue that the modern concept of the individual is simply unavailable to Paul. In any case, the logic underlying 1 Corinthians 5 depends on the breaking down of any possible boundary between the individual body and the social body. (173)

Martin argues that moderns tend to conflate Platonic vs. Cartesian dualism. He describes an ancient dualism in some schools of philosophy between the body and the soul, but Martin argues that this should not be conflated with our modern dualism between the material and the immaterial. Martin states explicitly that no person in Paul’s day would have shared our modern distinctions between the natural and the supernatural or between the material and the immaterial. Even the Platonists believed that soul and spirit were substances and conceived of them in ways that we moderns would think of as material (12 and 14-15). (Note that, in drawing this sharp distinction between Platonic and Cartesian dualisms, it should be understood that neither of these helpful labels are representative of Plato or Descrtes in their own original thinking.) Here are a few illustrative passages from Martin on these points:

Plato maintains that quite a few ailments that we would think of as psychological, ethical, or spiritual are actually physiological at base. …All kinds of pains can alter the mind. “Acid and saline phlegm and bitter bilious humours roam about the body, and if they are trapped inside and can get no outlet the vapour that rises from them mixes with the movement of the soul, and the resultant confusion causes a great variety of disorders of different intensity and extend, which attach the three areas where the soul is located with different effects, producing various types of irritability and depression, of rashness and timidity of forgetfulness and dullness” (86D). An Epicurean or Stoic could not have put it more “materialistically.” Even in Plato, therefore, the most dualistic of ancient philosophers, we find something quite different from the radical ontological dualism between mind and body, matter and nonmatter, familiar from Descartes. We are still dealing with something more like a spectrum of essences than a dichotomy of realms. (11-12)

[Martin quotes Ruth Padel at length related to these ideas:] When I speak of innards, I mean all this equipment of feeling and thinking. The poets treat words fluidly as organs, vessels, liquid, breath. But I am not suggesting that tragedians “blurred” distinctions we make between mind and body, or that this words were ambiguous, or that the psychological “overlapped” the physical in Greek thought. These metaphors of blur and overlap would imply that the Greeks perceived two different things to blur, two meanings to slip between. If the distinctions and meanings are ours, not theirs, then there were no two things for them to blur or be ambiguous about. It is not useful to project semantic fields of our own words, like heart, soul, mind, or spirit, or to talk in terms of slippage. (20)

In the ancient world, all eating (and practically all activity) was construed as an aspect of interaction with unseen powers. (183)

A few philosophers, Platonists perhaps, may have emphasized a dualism between the body and the soul. But such theorists represented a small minority. (25)

For most ancient philosophers, to say that something was incorporeal was not to say that it was immaterial. Furthermore, to say that something was not composed of hyle [often translated matter but really meaning something like heavy and inactive matter] did not mean it was immaterial in the modern sense of the word. Air, water, and especially ether could all be described as substances not included in the category of hyle, yet we moderns would be hard pressed to think of them as “immaterial substances.” In other words, all the Cartesian oppositions—matter versus nonmatter, physical versus spiritual, corporeal (or physical) versus psychological, nature versus supernature—are misleading when retrojected into ancient language. A “one world” model is much closer to the ancient conception, and, instead of an ontological dualism, we should think of a hierarchy of essence. (15, italics from the original text)

Critical to this understanding is that the higher elements (such as spirit) would literally propel the lower ellements (such as earth and flesh): “According to Lucretius, the mind strikes the spirit, the spirit strikes the body, and so the body walks or moves” (9). This is counter-intuitive to our modern thinking for two reasons. First, we don’t think of mind or spirit in material terms. Second, when the ancients spoke of mind and spirit as being light weight and filling up other substances, we do not associate these qualities with the ability to physically push other substances around. However, despite their ethereal qualities, substances such as spirit were actually far more permanent and powerful than the heavy weight substances known as hyle.

In summary, these two charts (my own and therefore all problems are mine) present the basic concepts of modern Cartesian dualism vs. the spectrum (or hierarchy) of substances in the Hellenistic world (which contains and properly contextualizes the Platonic dualism between soul and body).

Modern Cartesian Dualism

Category Names

Fields of Study

Connotations

spirit, soul, heaven, immaterial, mental, intangible, supernatural

religion, theology and psychology

  1. less real and powerful

  2. potentially sacred or holy

body, earth, material, physical, tangible, natural

science and economics

  1. more real and powerful

  2. strictly secular (within any legal or professional realm)

Spectrum of Substances in the Hellenistic World

Three Types of Bodies

Substances that Predominate in Each Region

Cosmos

Social Bodies (City or Church)

Human Bodies

Substance Names

Substance Properties

sun and stars

nobles and priests

head

  • mind

  • pneuma (spirit, breath or wind)

  • psychē (soul)

  • aether

  • fire

  1. active or pushing

  2. filling or penetrating

  3. immutable or well-formed

  4. light-weight

region under the moon

citizens

chest

earth and regions under the earth

slaves and servants

stomach and genitals

  • earth

  • water

  • sōma (body)

  • sarx (flesh) and blood

  • hylē (heavy and formless matter)

  1. passive or pushed

  2. being filled or porous

  3. mutable or not fully formed

  4. heavy-weight

To be clear, charts such as these easily misrepresent actual realities. For example, this chart aligns human heads as well as the cosmic heavens with spirit and mind as if these things were all parallel, but substances such as mind or spirit were not found only in the heavens or in human heads. Spirit and mind just predominated in more concentrated forms within the heads of a wide variety of intersecting human and social bodies that each reflected the cosmos as a whole.

The basic concepts covered so far in this section (and outlined in the above chart) were widely shared by all those in Paul’s world regardless of their cultural heritage or education. (Although time and space to not allow for a more complete review, Martin’s survey, especially in the first chapter, of the common ground between Platonic, Aristitelian, Epicurean and Stoic thought, among other categories, is persuasive and fascinating.) Within this shared framework, however, there were many specific debates between different schools of thought in medicine and philosophy as well as some distinguishing features between popular or folk beliefs and the those of more educated people. As I mentioned in the last section, folk medicine tended to favor invasion etiologies (where corrupt or incorrect elements caused disease by entering the body) while Greek doctors tended to favor imbalance etiologies (where disease was the result of disturbances to the proper proportions or movements of elements within the body). Between these two positions, Paul tended to favor the common people and their folk ideas of invasion by corrupt elements as the source of disease:

Paul, …along with …the majority of early Christians, presupposes an invasion etiology of disease. The body, rather than being a balance ecosystem or microcosm of an equilibrated nature, is a permeable entity susceptible to attack by daimonic agents. Protection from attack is possible only by means of the powerful action of God. Cures are obtained by appeals to God that the hostile, alien attacker be expelled or by recourse to the charismatically endowed healers who function as conduits for the purifying power of God (see 1 Cor. 12:28). …This logic of the body underwrites Paul’s ethical arguments against the Strong at Corinth, educated believers who appear to subscribe to the other etiology of disease [i.e. the etiology of balance and imbalance that dominated Greek medical theory (see 152)]. (168)

Although identifying Paul with “the strong” at Corinth in terms of Paul’s overall social status, Martin also aligns Paul with some of the more folksy or popular ideas about the causes of disease and pollution (see 136 as well).

In addition to these differences over the causes of disease, we see a divide over the way in which language about dead bodies and resurrected bodies could be understood differently by different classes in the Hellensitic world. Here again, Paul tends to use language is, on its surface, more comfortable for the socially weak in Corinth. Teaching on the resurrection, Paul follows a narrow path that insists on a bodily resurrection but that must also make it clear that he is not talking about the zombies of Greek magic and folklore or that he is not insisting on the eternal incorruptibility of any substances that an educated Greek would have understood as mutable and impermanent in its very nature:

[The strong in Corinth] do believe in the resurrection and glorification of Christ, and …some kind of afterlife. What they question is the idea that human bodies can survive after death and be raised to immortality. …The strong …misunderstand Paul partly because …of the vocabulary he has used to describe resurrection. …Paul’s use of egeirein nekron would probably be heard as a crude form of “wake the dead,” also referring to a corpse, as in an example from the magical papyri. Thus when Paul uses the phrase anastasis nekrōn or the like (15:21, 42), it would be natural for the Corinthians to imagine a bringing to life of human corpses along lines familiar from popular myth and folklore. …The bodies raised out of graveyards by magicians are called by Lucian “corpses,” …as are the emaciated, unfed dead bodies the credulous people believe occupy the regions below the earth. …The most natural way in which a Greek speaker would have heard Paul’s langue in 1 Corintihans 15 would have been as a reference to what we would call resuscitation of corpses. As we will see, Paul himself rejects such an interpretation; but it is easy to see how his Greek audience might take his language in this way. For lower-class Chrisitans, not educated in the assumptions of philosophers, such language would perhaps not be off-putting. …But for the educated such beliefs would have appeared vulgar and naive at best and ridiculous at worst. It is against such skepticism that Paul must show his position to be more sophisticated than would appear on the surface, and do so without giving up his apocalyptic belief in the resurrection of the body. (122-123)

In loyalty to that apocalypticism, [Paul] insists on the future resurrection of the body, thereby denying the lowly status attributed to the body by Greco-Roman elite culture. At the same time he admits that the resurrection body will have to be thoroughly reconstituted so as to be able to rise from the earth to a new luminous home in the heavens. The eschatologial body must be one without earth, flesh, blood, or even psyche (soul). The tendency towards cosmic revolution inherent in Paul’s apocalypticism must bow to some aspects of cosmological hierarchy. Paul’s theology is constrained by his physiology. (135)

Paul is so far identified with the social weak in Corinth by some of his language choices and his ideas about the dangers of pollution to human and social bodies, that the strong in Corinth would have suspected Paul of foolish superstitions at points. First, however, Martin clarifies what was meant by superstition in the ancient world (as distinct from our modern meaning):

The philosophically educated referred to the beliefs they despised as “superstitious” (deisidaimonia). …In ancient texts “superstition” does not refer to a belief in supernatural beings or supernatural causation; it means simply “an unreasonable fear of the gods,” a “dread of divinities.” …Women and the masses (ochlos, hoi polloi) are assumed to be especially superstitious. (156, see also 114)

Alongside certain beliefs of Paul’s that would have made some philosophers turn away, some of Paul’s common language may have been intentional. He certainly shows an awareness of what the socially strong in Corinth believed and how they would have taken his language. Paul had a strong grasp of educated Greeco-Roman categories of thought. Specifically, however, “the kind of popular philosophy that seems to have influenced early Christians, Paul in particular, was of a general moral sort and much more related to Stoic than Platonic concepts” (15).

Although the details of Martin’s assessments across ancient Hellenistic thought continue to alure me, I must leave off this overview at this point. I will make a couple notes, in closing out this section, about how Dale Martin and David Bentley Hart do (or might) relate any of this to our own world and day. While Martin maintains a fairly standard “scholarly detachment” from the pre-modern science, medicine, metaphysics and popular physiology of the New Testament era, he does interject a thought or two of his own very occasionally. For example, he says within parentheses that “whatever we [moderns] do mean by the term [matter], it is not clear in the latter twentieth century” (106-107). Later, he criticizes contemporary medicine and the way that “much modern drug therapy operates through a certain ‘cowboy philosophy’ of American populism” whereby “the hero singlehandedly blasts out the desperadoes who were running rampant through the settlement” (145, quoting René Dubos). Finally, Martin mentions the “modern medicalization of the self” (211).

In contrast to Dale Martin, David Bentley Hart doubtless takes much of the pre-modern metaphysics of Paul’s world rather seriously on its own merits. I’m far out of my technical depth with these speculations about Hart (based on readings of his that I’ve only imperfectly grasped), but Hart probably would not hold on to much of the ancient medicine or popular physiology (while he would not consider these essential to the ancient metaphysical framework). Interestingly, in Martin’s construction, this dismissal of some ancient folk ideas by Hart might put him on the side of “the strong” over against Paul in a few instances. (However, Hart does have a track record of boldly defending folk stories (see “The Secret Commonwealth” in First Things October 20, 2009 for example), so I don’t want to overstate this conjecture on my part or be influenced by my own recent disappointment with Hart’s rather sweeping dismissal of a favorite folk story of my own from the life of Abba Macarius of Egypt (in the opening lines of That All Shall Be Saved). In summary, while I doubt that Hart would say that Martin fully represented Paul in his ideas of the feminine, Hart would no doubt join Martin in dismissing some of Paul’s specific beliefs regarding the physiology of male and female bodies as well as some of the specifics of Paul’s disease etiology.

Overall, however, the extent to which Martin’s scholarship supports Hart’s thinking is substantial. At its core, they both have the same understanding of the pre-modern that Paul saw. Another essay by David Bentley Hart, “Everything you know about the Gospel of Paul is likely wrong” (from Aeon January 8, 2018), is echoed in passages from Martin. Here is how Hart summarizes the main ideas in the good news that Paul preached:

The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph. For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God. But Christ has conquered them all.

In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession. All that now remains is the final consummation of the present age, when Christ will appear in his full glory as cosmic conqueror, having ‘subordinated’ (hypetaxen) all the cosmic powers to himself – literally, having properly ‘ordered’ them ‘under’ himself – and will then return this whole reclaimed empire to his Father. God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.

Backing up much of this, Martin says:

Paul’s views are informed by a myth that encompasses the entire cosmos within its explanatory frame. Christians are not free selves exercising their wills in their individual bodies; they are pieces in a cosmic conflict, who occupy places on a cosmic map of battle. …Paul apocalypticism perceives enemy agents everywhere in the cosmos as presently constituted. Death and sin are not abstract states but demonized beings. Even the Law is not an abstract concept or a list of rules but an agent of a dangerous nature, good in its basic intent but responsible for a disastrous state of affairs. Because humans are enslaved to sin, the Law is functionally an enemy of humanity. (134-135)

Within such a common framework, it is easy to see how Dale Martin supports David Bentley Hart’s reading of Paul over against N.T. Wright.

Glorified and Angelic Bodies in Paul (Was Hart Right and Wright Wrong?)

Obviously, all of the proceeding material has significance for how we understand resurrection and angelic bodies as well as for the debate between David Bentley Hart and N.T. Wright over Paul’s conception of resurrection bodies. Hart clearly knew what he was doing when he cited Dale Martin in defence of his essay “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients.” A full survey of the idea landscape in which Paul lived lends powerful support to Hart’s assessment of Paul’s teachings about glorified bodies. My two previous sections will have made this clear in multiple explicit ways. However, I have intentionally not cited extensively from Martin chapter 5 on “The Resurrected Body.” In this section, I will briefly set out some of the specifics from Martin on this point.

Martin starts out by insisting that we should be careful not to introduce “a matter/nonmatter dichotomy” into our reading of Paul (106), and points out that “the problem for the Corinthians lies in the resurrection of the body, not in the existence, in the present or the future, of matter” (107). As I set out in the last section, Martin goes on to say that Paul was eager to affirm the bodily resurrection in ways that would have been reassuring to the socially weak in Corinth while also being offensive and vulgar to the socially strong. Both the weak and the strong in Corinth might have mistaken the bodily resurrection that Paul spoke of to be similar to the resuscitation of corpses practiced in Greek folklore and magic. The more educated in Corinth would have wanted to push Paul in the direction of simply recognizing a spiritual element in each human person that would continue on after death and could participate in eternal life with God.

Paul, however, insisted on using words that connected directly to the deceased body or corpse and claimed that this body would be raised up and glorified as a spiritual body. In this, Paul was acknowledging the sensibilities of educated Greeks regarding the impossibility of soma and hyle (substances that were impotent, malleable and transitory) being part of any conception of eternal and incorruptible life. Paul goes so far in his defense of this idea of a spiritual body as to say explicitly that our flesh, blood and even soul will all be transformed into pure spirit. Here is where Wright took issue publically with Hart’s translations and where Hart struck back in defense of his translations so forcefully. Everything that Martin sets out about the ideas of Paul and of all parties at Corinth, makes it clear that Hart is correct in every respect with regard to what Paul said to the Corinthians about the glorified body of the resurrection.

To be clear, this does not mean that there was unanimity among the early followers of Christ on the exact metaphysics of the resurrection body. Martin says that “in the first century there was no general agreement among early Christians about the nature of the resurrected body” (123). He goes on: “In John, Jesus’ death and resurrection are emphasized as physical, but the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body is not at all clear” (124). Martin says his “guess” is that most Chistians “seldom thought about the resurrection systematically but simply assumed that the resurrection of the body meant the resurrection, completely, wholly, and crassly, of the flesh-and-blood body” while some others recognized (like Paul) “that some change will affect the body ‘…for the better of what still remains in existence at that time’” [quoting Athenagoras with reference to the glorification of dissolute remains that will clearly be in need of improvement] (124). Responding to some who were pushing in more incorporeal and sophisticated directions, Tertullian insisted that the resurrected body is “none other than all that structure of the flesh, of whatever sort of materials it is composed and diversified, that which is seen, is handled, that hin short which is slain by men” (124).

Paul’s written teaching to the Corinthians starts with and maintains an insistence on the bodily nature of the resurrection but ends up clearly saying that the constitution of this sōma (“body”) will be transformed from any ingredients of sarx kai haima (“flesh and blood”) or psychē (soul) into a sōma of pure pneuma (“spirit”). This “spirit body” would take the original earthly body and transform or glorify it into a “heavenly body” (like the bodies possessed by the stars). This heavenly body would be grounded (via its origin) in the earthly body and—even in its spiritual makeup—would not have been understood as immaterial but as “supermaterial” (my term seeking to capture Martin’s points succinctly from 125-131).

Another aspect of the resurrection body that Martin points out form Paul, is that Paul assumes “that individual bodies have reality only in so far as they are identified with some greater cosmic reality.” Martin goes on:

Christian bodies have no integral individuality about them. Due to their existence “in Christ,” they must experience the resurrection. To deny the resurrection of their bodies is to deny the resurrection of Christ; to deny the resurrection of Christ is to render any future hope void. The Christian body has no meaning apart from its participation in the body of Christ.

Paul so firmly assumes that identity is constructed upon participation that he can refer without demurral to the practice of baptism for the dead. [As Dan Doriani at The Gospel Coalition (a large reformed evangelical blog) says: “the simplest reading of the text is that some Corinthian Christians were baptized vicariously on behalf of some who’d already died, seeking a spiritual benefit.” Doriani goes on to argue that this could not have possibly been the case and that we simply can’t know what Paul was talking about. Martin, however, takes the verse (1 Cor. 15:29) at its face value as describing a practice that Paul does not recommend but that Paul was aware of among his church in Corinth and uses as an example demonstrating the truth of the resurrection. Incidentally, the lives of several Orthodox Christian saints—in particular of several holy fools—were lived “on behalf” of another person who had died outside of the faith. See St. Xenia for example who wore the military coat of her deceased husband and seems to have devoted her entire holy life to him.] …Some scholars try to distance Paul’s theology from it. …But their attempts to explain away this bizarre belief—that actions performed on the bodies of the living can affect the bodies of the dead— are only special pleadings. Paul mentions the practice as proof of an afterlife for the dead, and his argument depends on certain assumptions: that the baptism of a human body incorporates it into the body of Christ, thus demonstrating a connection between the Christian’s body and Christ’s body, and that the baptism of a living body can affect the state of a dead body, incorporating the dead body into Christ, thus demonstration the connection between a person’s body and the bodies of his or her dead loved ones. The sensibility of the logic underwriting baptism for the dead is thoroughly consistent with Paul’s assumption that identity is established by participation in a larger entity. Existence in the body of Christ is not, however, the only reality Indeed, insofar as human bodies are subject to death at all, it is due to their incorporation in the body of Adam (15:21-22). (131-132)

To be clear, Martin’s case in all of this in no way depends on his reading of what “baptism for the dead” was talking about. Martin’s argument is taken from all across Paul’s writing and this example of how Paul uses baptism for the dead simply lines up with the way that Paul thought.

Such ideas about human identity as “established by participation in a larger entity” should sound familiar to anyone who has David Bentley Hart’s most recent book and his exposition of what Gregory of Nyssa taught about how the whole human race holds together as one insoluble body in both Adam and Christ (see here for excerpts from this remarkable exposition of Gregory by Hart). Paul clearly took this same idea very literally for all of those baptised into Jesus Christ. Moreover, we can see many other simple implications (not drawn out by Paul or Martin) such as the fact that, in some sense, every baptised Christian already participates in Christ’s resurrection. All of this points to the idea that the Christian’s glorified body is a revelation of their true body, not unlike the clear indication that Jesus Christ revealed his true nature to only his closest disciples on top of Mount Tabor during his transfiguration (as he show like the sun and communed with Moses and Elijah). There are also clear implications from all of this for Paul’s idea of communion with the body and blood of Christ in the eucharistic meal. We find life and mature as we eat and drink that which God created us (and then recreated us) to be.

As I will point out briefly in the last two sections, our contemporary ideas about the nature of our bodies as well as all other bodies have been wandering far away from these ideas common to everyone in the days of Jesus and Paul. We assume (in fact, we really cannot possibly help but assume even if we would rather not) that this is all a matter of increasing knowledge and scientific accuracy about extremely basic truths. Martin would likely largely agree that Paul’s ideas are simply wrong on virtually all fronts, but Hart would not. I’m not suggesting that Hart would defend Paul on every particular, but Hart has consistently defended—over his entire career to date—a metaphysics of the cosmos and of the human person that is remarkably consistent with the whole system of Paul’s thought. Of course, I could point out some critical distinctions between the metaphysics of Paul and Hart, and a trained philosopher (such as Hart) could point out far more. However, in the context of the contemporary intellectual landscape, Hart’s metaphysical common ground with Paul is far more remarkable than the differences. This is no small achievement for a professional scholar at the highest levels of the contemporary intellectual profession (holding a chair at Notre Dame and routinely publishing with Yale UP). This has required Hart to continually astound, challenge, offend and baffle his opponents time and again while seeking to communicate as clearly and precisely as he can regarding the nature of reality in both the cosmos and the human person.

Martin’s meticulous scholarship solidly backs up Hart’s recent self-defense against the criticism that N.T. Wright first leveled (and that some of Wright’s students continued) regarding Paul and the idea of spiritual bodies. It is clear that Hart has done some reading and plundering of Martin as well, although Hart’s own reading in the literature of the New Testament and patristic periods reaches far beyond Martin’s in its scope (as well as demonstrating an incredible depth of integration across multiple fields of study). Given this track record from David Bentley Hart, I do not feel quite as pathetic about my own poor attempt here to follow this trail and to mine the riches of Dale Martin in my own small way as I peer into his insights regarding the world of Paul’s ancient beliefs.

Spiritual Bodies in my Life and in the Work of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis

This section title is more than a little misleading because I don’t have much experience with spiritual bodies in my own life. As a baptised and chrismated member of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, I consider myself to be a member of Christ’s body and to eat and drink Christ’s body and blood which is truely and spiritually present in the bread and wine of the eucharist. However, Paul’s famous description of his own experience with his “old man” fits mine as well: my old man hardly acknowledges my new man. Unlike Paul (who could speak of being brought through multiple heavens to witness things of which he was forbidden to speak), I have almost no knowledge or experience of my spiritual body (in so far as it is currently developed), and I expect that this is why I do not see, converse or commune to any remarkable degree with the spiritual bodies of those around me (human or otherwise).

Coming at this from another direction, however, I have started to know a little something of spiritual life. Paul’s reasoning in many passages makes it clear that heavy material realities (such as flesh or earth) are our blessed means of receiving the spiritual realities that they communicate (as the bread and wine are necessary for me to receive Christ’s body and blood). More recent sacramental theologians such as Alexander Schmemann have expressed this as the bread of the eucharist or the water of baptism being “revealed” as what all bread or all water actually are as gifts from God out of the endless bounty of God’s own Being for our life and benefit. (Hart’s work, of course, is filled with such language and insight as well, although Martin would not be other than in so far as he is expounding Paul’s thought.) It is at this level—of simple experiences of God’s grace carried by those most tangible realities of this world—that I am able to perceive in my current condition. If you are interested, here is something personal that I have written that does share one very modest example of this.

This concept—of the spiritual hidden within the lower elements and making them present to us and allowing participation without the full ability to perceive—may be slightly easier for us modern people to grasp than any concept of spirit as matter. Still it is potentially in line with the idea of spirit or mind as the most substantial of elements that push and direct the heavier and less substantial stuff of earth or flesh from within. Regardless, it is critical to grasp this internality and hiddenness that characterizes the most substantial realities. In this concept, we have the truth that holds together the ideas of the kingdom of God as both within us and above us. All things contain internal depths that touch the mystery of Being itself and therefore all things throughout the cosmos can be said to circle around the throne of God. In this sense, the heaven and the stars themselves—properly or fully apprehended within the microcosm of each human heart—are not distant or high above our heads as much as they are deep within our hearts. (Regarding this idea of internality, Naming the Powers by Walter Wink has some thoughtful points to offer, see my review of Wink’s book here.)

At this point, however, I’m wandering far out of my depths and I should turn back to some real help. In summary, I have next to nothing to offer from my own experience of angelic or glorified bodies other than some growing sense of my own current poverty and need (which truly is a rich gift and lesson). Therefore, in a final consideration of how to find our place within the reality of the world that Paul apprehended, I will point briefly toward two more recent masters.

Any such attempt to return to Paul, however, should acknowledge the gap that has formed between our thinking and his for many centuries. Even going back as far as Aquinas, we see that he taught about fully incorporeal angels as if they were a given when in fact, that was far from what Paul believed. In the Hellenistic world of the New Testament, angels certainly had bodies just as stars had bodies. C.S. Lewis did not get the idea for Ramandu (the star who is the father of Prince Caspian’s queen) out of nowhere, and Origen was far from alone in writing extensively about the life of stars (see Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by lan Scott (Oxford Early Christian Studies, 1994).

Like a good many American Evangelical boys, I had read The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis more than once before college. So I knew the glorious image well from an early age of those vivid bodies striding down from the high country of the heavenly foothills toward the passengers who had just disembarked from their terrestrial bus. These newly-arrived earthlings were so feeble that their feet did not even disturb the dew upon the grass. They could not lift a beech-leaf or pluck a daisy without losing most of the skin off their hands in the effort. Lewis finally calls them “man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.” Meanwhile, here is how Lewis describes the citizens of heaven as they come to welcome the passengers from earth:

Mile after mile they drew nearer. The earth shook under their tread as their strong feet sank into the wet turf. A tiny haze and a sweet smell went up where they had crushed the grass and scattered the dew. Some were naked, some robed. But the naked ones did not seem less adorned, and the robes did not disguise in those who wore them the massive grandeur of muscle and the radian smoothness of flesh. …They came on steadily. I did not entirely like it. Two of the ghosts screamed and ran for the bus. The rest of us huddled closer to one another.

This contrast between earthly and heavenly bodies is exactly what David Bentley Hart expounded in his article “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients.” Just as Lewis does in this story, Hart’s title challenges our modern way of equating material with substantial and spiritual with insubstantial. In trying to explain how ancients understood the relationships between the words matter, body, soul and spirit, Hart says: “Neither ‘spirit’ nor ‘soul’ was anything quite like a Cartesian ‘mental substance.’ Each, no less than ‘flesh and blood,’ was thought of as a kind of element.” Hart concludes that “spirit was something subtler but also stronger, more vital, more glorious than the worldly elements.” In further pointing out what was thought about creatures with purely spiritual bodies, Hart notes “that angels had actually sired children” within the stories most current at the time of Jesus and Paul and that “there really appears to have been nothing similar to the fully incorporeal angels of later scholastic tradition.” [Although many older Christian sources describe angels as incorporeal, John of Damascus says that “in reality only the Deity is immaterial and incorporeal.” See this passage from his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (book II, chapter 3, “Concerning angels”).] C.S. Lewis loved these same ancient categories of understanding reality, and his description of the citizens of heaven within The Great Divorce clearly also sought to demonstrate the substantiality of spiritual bodies. There are many other examples from Lewis, but perhaps the most striking is from Till We Have Faces. Here is one example:

She was the old Psyche still; a thousand times more her very self than she had been before the Offering. For all that had then but flashed out in a glance or a gesture, all that one meant most when one spoke her name, was now wholly present, not to be gathered up from hints nor in shreds, not some of it in one moment and some in another. Goddess? I had never seen a real woman before.

Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature has a passage by C.S. Lewis that attempts to sketch the whole of the cosmic picture:

In every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God. …The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one. They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect object.

Both Hart and Lewis take much from Plato. While Plato and his later followers are often accused of promoting a dualistic system that exalts the spirit or soul at the expense of the body, what Hart and Lewis maintain is that spirits have bodies too and that these bodies are fully present within and expressive of everything within our current bodies of flesh—but only at their most substantive and potent when able to be encountered directly.

Lewis, or course, was a devout student of George MacDonald who also provides many examples of stories and descriptive passages that sought to express this interior and participatory nature of reality. His story Lilith contains some of the most fully developed of these passages:

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.

…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.

Why Moderns Can’t See What is Most Real

As we progress today in so many exciting ways (across impressive fields of study such as economics, medicine and technology), I believe that we are actually more and more deaf and blind to our world, to each other and to critical realities within our own hearts. I suspect these regressions because of things that I have observed in my cross-cultural experiences (growing up trilingual overseas for my entire childhood as well as some time spent in other countries at several points in my adulthood), my formal studies in history (with both undergraduate and graduate degrees) and my teaching of ancient literature to a wide range of contemporary American young people over several years. While my concerns are based on my observations, I am not primarily concerned about the blindness of others. It is my own blindness that is my chief concern. For myself or others, however, I am not thinking of abilities that can be regained easily (or even at all) by any one person. These are profound and collective blindness that have been deepening over many generations. Among other problems, we’ve lost any conceptual or experiential categories with which to recognize or think about the things that we can’t see.
So what am I talking about exactly? One fun example of what I suspect is expressed by C.S. Lewis in this letter to Arthur Greeves (from June 22, 1930):

Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the woods – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them.

We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.

David Bentley Hart has made similar points in many places with many different words. Here is just one of many examples (from Atheist Delusions):

I know three African priests—one Ugandan and two Nigerian—who are immensely educated and sophisticated scholars (linguists, philosophers, and historians all) and who are also unshakably convinced that miracles, magic, and spiritual war- fare are manifestly real aspects of daily life, of which they themselves have had direct and incontrovertible experience on a number of occasions. All three are, of course, creatures of their cultures, no less than we are of ours; but I am not disposed to believe that their cultures are somehow more primitive or unreasoning than ours. It is true they come from nations that enjoy nothing like our economic and technological advantages; but, since these advantages are as likely to distract us from reality as to grant us any special insight into it, that fact scarcely rises to the level of irrelevance. Truth be told, there is no remotely plausible reason—apart from a preference for our own presuppositions over those of other peoples—why the convictions and experiences of an African polyglot and philosopher, whose pastoral and social labors oblige him to be engaged immediately in the concrete realities of hundreds of lives, should command less rational assent from us than the small, unproven, doctrinaire certitudes of persons who spend their lives in supermarkets and before television screens and immured in the sterile, hallucinatory seclusion of their private studies.

Finally, turning to a more mundane illustration, consider carefully how Wendel Berry describes, Nick, an older man who worked for his father on their Kentucky farm and who Wendel Berry loved and imitated throughout his childhood. In Berry’s description (from The Hidden Wound), Nick knew the world in a life-long and constant way that an Emerson, Thoreau or Dillard could only dreamed about:

He was a man rich in pleasures. They were not large pleasures, they cost little or nothing, often they could not be anticipated, and yet they surrounded him. …They were pleasures to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.

With a similar affection and simplicity, Berry describes Aunt Georgie, an old woman who lived with Nick and who also cared for Berry through much of his childhood—telling him many wild and terrible stories from a forgotten oral tradition that mixed Christian scriptures with a variety of folklore. Berry describes what Aunt Georgie taught him:

I wanted desperately to share the smug assumptions of my race and class and time that all questions have answers, all problems solutions, all sad stories happy endings. It was good that I should have been tried, that I should have had to contend with Aunt Georgie’s unshakable—and accurate—view that life is perilous, surrounded by mystery, acted upon by powerful forces unknown to us. Much as she troubled me and disturbed my sleep, I cannot regret that she told me, bluntly as it needs to be told, that men and events come to strange and painful ends, not foreseen. …And no doubt because of this very darkness of cosmic horror in her mind, everything in the world that she touched became luminous with its own life. She was always showing you something: a plant, a bloom, a tomato, an egg, an herb, a sprig of spring greens. Suddenly you saw it as she saw it—vivid, useful, free of all the chances against it, a blessing—and it entered shadowless into your mind. I still keep the deepest sense of delight in the memory of the world’s good things held out to me in her black crooked floriferous hands.

My point with all of this is simply that Paul had more in common with the daily experiences of Aunt Georgie than with my own. While humans have never enjoyed a golden age of “spiritual awareness,” I do think that we have lost ground. I’d identify three fundamental reasons for this:

  1. Our loss of local oral culture and folk traditions (see Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge for example)
  2. Our loss of intergenerational connection to place (see Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane for example)
  3. Our loss of contemplative habits (see Leisure: the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper for example)

Any statistical analysis of such alleged losses would of course involve a complex task of definition and consideration of variables (not to mention the actual data collection). If the losses could be quantified, assessing the historical reasons for such losses would be even more complex. For my part, I suspect the rise of the nation state as this process was accelerated by the Protestant Reformation. Hope in the power of the state to deliver on the dreams of the Enlightenment have led to many powerful, idealistic and extraordinarily lethal revolutions and conquests. David Bentley Hart calls modernism a “Christian heresy” because it fed on the ideas and assumptions made possible by Christianity but applied them in idealistic and deadly ways. Nations states have also provided the legal framework for capitalism and corporatism to establish the powerful and global consumer economy of today that thrives on short-lived novelties in media, entertainment and time-saving tools as well as the even more potent and hidden mechanics of the attention economy (see Stand out of our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams for example). If you’re interested, I’ve written a little more about these things in two pieces at the Front Porch Republic: Building Folklore Wealth and Reading Reality (and Watching for Bric-à-Brac on Our Windowsill).

In my understanding, human history does not evidence fundamental progressions or regressions but rather many long examples of both on multiple scales. I’m not advocating either a return to any “glorious past” or any fear of some “doomsday predictions.” However, in so far as we each are able, I’m advocating a pursuit of the freedom to connect back to local communities and places with some stability across generations (recognizing our existence within social bodies as Martin called this concept within Paul’s thought) and also to slow down so that our lives might be able to enjoy more oral traditions and contemplative habits. These pursuits can provide some way back, I believe, to whatever level of awareness this lifetime might have to offer with regard to what is real and what we are made to enjoy as humans.

Further Reading

  • Lilith by George MacDonald is a profound fantasy novel by an author who deeply influenced C.S. Lewis.
  • Till We Have Faces and The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.
  • The Weight of Glory” by C.S. Lewis includes his famous point: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.”
  • The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis is among the best introductions to ancient cosmology that I have read—especially the chapters on THE HEAVENS, THE LONGAEVI, and EARTH AND HER INHABITANTS.
  • Naming the Powers by Walter Wink. (I first heard of this book from Fr. Stephen Freeman who recommended it when he commented here during a conversation about some of Hart’s ideas regarding the Powers in Paul. I linked above to a review of it that I posted on my blog.)
  • The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael Heiser. This scholar takes Christian orthodoxy and scriptures seriously while expounding fully and rigorously on this topic. This book is much stronger in the Old Testament world than in the New Testament (or patristic) world. As an American evangelical, this author also has some introductory comments placing historic creeds at odds with scripture while proclaiming scriptural inerrancy.
  • Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by lan Scott (Oxford Early Christian Studies, 1994).
  • “When Did Angels Become Demons?” by Dale Basil Martin in Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 129, No. 4 (WINTER 2010), pp. 657-677 (21 pages). This journal article gives a lot of technical information about the various names given to various types of creatures in Hebrew and how these various creatures names were translated into Greek by Jewish scholars (providing the context of the thought world in which the New Testament was written) and then eventually developed into the later Christian cosmology that tended to place all such creatures into just two categories of angels and demons (as fallen angels).
  • The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God by Margaret Barker is more speculative (and unorthodox in several basic ways). Several of her books have fairly sensational titles, but she is widely recommended as a scholar of ancient Israelite religion.
  • Niels Peter Lemche, Mark S. Smith and Nahum Sarna (commentaries on Genesis and Exodus) are other scholars of Israel’s history that has been recommended to me but that I have not yet been able to read at all.

Transfiguration_by_Feofan_Grek_from_Spaso-Preobrazhensky_Cathedral_in_Pereslavl-Zalessky_(15th_c,_Tretyakov_gallery)

“Transfiguration” (traditional icon) by Feofan Grek from Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral in Pereslavl-Zalessky, 15th c., Tretyakov gallery.

I find some versions of panpsychism quite attractive

David Bentley Hart said in this interview:

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

I’m always on the hunt for more about these concepts. The Corinthian Body by Dale Martin is yielding some fruit, and I’m hoping to post a review of it on here for myself before long. Meanwhile, I’m “rereading” The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss as audio book. In portions of pp. 215-230 (2013 print book version), Hart writes:

Alternatively, one could opt for the naturalist version of “panpsychism” (naturalist, that is, rather than dualist or idealist). This theory claims that consciousness is not a unique property of organisms with brains, but is a fundamental property of the universe at large, present in all physical reality in some form: perhaps as, say, a natural accompaniment to the exchange of “information states” that occurs whenever one material reality affects another (so that a thermometer or a coffee spoon could be said to be conscious, presumably at a fairly idiotic level, of a change in room temperature or of stirring cream into coffee). In this view of things, there is a qualitative and intentional dimension to everything, no less fundamental than the particles of matter, though entirely different from them in nature. This approach to things does, at least, relieve one of the burden of explaining the existence of mind—why, it’s everywhere!—but few committed philosophical naturalists will wish to solve the mystery of consciousness by invoking some ubiquitous quintessence more mysterious still. And, in any event, the whole notion, when posed in naturalist terms, merely conflates the distinct realities of information and our consciousness of information, which is both logically illicit and explanatorily vacuous. (For the record, I find some versions of panpsychism quite attractive, but am also quite certain that the idea is irreconcilable with materialism.)

…There is no good reason not to accord serious consideration to the ancient intuition that the true order of ultimate causes is precisely the opposite of what the materialist philosopher imagines it is, and that the material realm is ultimately dependent upon mind rather than the reverse: that the fullness of being upon which all contingent beings depend is at the same time a limitless act of consciousness. What could we possibly imagine we know about matter or mind that would preclude such a possibility? That the concept of incorporeal or extraphysical consciousness is unintelligible? That, as it happens, is a vacuous assertion: We have no plausible causal model for how consciousness could arise from mechanistic physical processes, and therefore no reason at all to presume some sort of necessary bond between mind and matter. And, truth be told, we have far better warrant for believing in mind than we do for believing in matter. Of the material world we have compelling evidence, of course, but all of it consists in mental impressions and conceptual paradigms produced by and inhabiting the prior reality of consciousness. Of consciousness itself, however, our knowledge is immediate and indubitable. I can doubt that the world really exists, but I cannot doubt that I have intentional consciousness, since doubt is itself a form of conscious intention. This certitude is the imperturbable foundation of my knowledge of anything else. We have and share a world only because each of us has this incommunicable and integral subjectivity within. That whole rich inner universe of experience and thought is not only real, but more real than any physical object can be for us—more real, for instance, than this book you hold in your hands, which exists for you only within the far deeper, fuller, and more certain reality of your consciousness. Once again, we can approach nature only across the interval of the supernatural.

…Perhaps, to exist fully is to be manifest to consciousness. If there were a universe in which consciousness did not exist, in what sense precisely would that universe itself exist? Certainly not as a fully articulated spatial and temporal reality filled with clearly discrete objects, concretely and continuously flowing from a vanished past to an as-yet unrealized future, like the universe that exists in our minds: the reality we find represented in our thoughts, in which intensities and den- sities and durations and successions are arranged in such magnificently complex but diverse order, exists only relative to consciousness; in a universe devoid of mind, at the phenomenal level of reality as it appears to intentional awareness—nothing would exist at all. In itself, if it had any reality in itself, this “mindless” universe would be only a plenum or totality of particles or quantum potentialities “extended” relative only to one another, but in a way quite difierent from the kinds of extension in space and time of which we conceive. Even then, however, it seems fair to say that such a universe, if it existed, would exist exactly to the extent that it could be known to consciousness of some kind.

…There is a point then, arguably, at which being and intelligibility become conceptually indistinguishable. It is only as an intelligible order, as a coherent phenomenon (sensible or intellectual), that anything is anything at all, whether an elementary particle or a universe; perhaps it is true that only what could in principle be known can in actuality exist.

Finally, a friend just recommended Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman. I’ll have to check it out. Anyone still reading this, do you have any other leads? Leave a comment.

I knew one who made his pilgrimage to springs

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

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