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As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.
This page is a work of satire, and it is not real.
On the screen appear numerous geometrical forms—prisms, cylinders, cubes — dancing, spinning, changing shape, in a very stunning computer animation. In the background sounds the pulsing beat of techno music. The forms waver, and then coalesce into letters: “Religion Within the Bounds of Amusement.”
The music and image fade, to reveal a man, perfect in form and appearance, every hair in place, wearing a jet black suit and a dark, sparkling tie. He leans forward slightly, as the camera focuses in on him.
“Good morning, and I would like to extend a warm and personal welcome to each and every one of you from those of us at the Church of the Holy Television. Please sit back, relax, and turn off your brain.”
Music begins to play, and the screen shows a woman holding a microphone. She is wearing a long dress of the whitest white, the color traditionally symbolic of goodness and purity, which somehow manages not to conceal her unnaturally large breasts. The camera slowly focuses in as she begins to sing.
“You got problems? That’s OK. You got problems? That’s OK. Not enough luxury? That’s OK. Only three cars? That’s OK. Not enough power? That’s OK. Can’t get your way? That’s OK. Not enough for you? That’s OK. Can’t do it on your own? That’s OK. You got problems? That’s OK. You got problems? That’s OK. Just call out to Jesus, and he’ll make them go away. Just call out to Jesus, and he’ll make them go away.”
As the music fades, the camera returns to the man.
“Have you ever thought about how much God loves us? Think about the apex of progress that we are at, and how much more he has blessed us than any one else.
“The Early Christians were in a dreadful situation. They were always under persecution. Because of this, they didn’t have the physical assurance of security that is the basis for spiritual growth, nor the money to buy the great libraries of books that are necessary to cultivate wisdom. It is a miracle that Christianity survived at all.
“The persecution ended, but darkness persisted for a thousand years. The medievals were satisfied with blind faith, making it the context of thought and leisure. Their concept of identity was so weak that it was entangled with obedience. The time was quite rightly called the Dark Ages.
“But then, ah, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Man and his mind enthroned. Religion within the bounds of reason. Then science and technology, the heart of all true progress, grew.
“And now, we sit at the apex, blessed with more and better technology than anyone else. What more could you possibly ask for? What greater blessing could there possibly be? We have the technology, and know how to enjoy it. Isn’t God gracious?”
There is a dramatic pause, and then the man closes his eyes. “Father, I thank you that we have not fallen into sin; that we do not worship idols, that we do not believe lies, and that we are not like the Pharisees. I thank you that we are good, moral people; that we are Americans. I thank you, and I praise you for your wondrous power. Amen.”
He opens his eyes, and turns to the camera. It focuses in on his face, and his piercing gaze flashes out like lightning. With a thunderous voice, he boldly proclaims, “To God alone be the glory, for ever and ever!”
The image fades.
In the background can be heard the soft tones of Beethoven. A couple fades in; they are elegantly dressed, sitting at a black marble table, set with roast pheasant. The room is of Baroque fashion; marble pillars and mirrors with gilt frames adorn the walls. French windows overlook a formal garden.
The scene changes, and a sleek black sports car glides through forest, pasture, village, mountain. The music continues to play softly.
It passes into a field, and in the corner of the field a small hovel stands. The camera comes closer, and two half-naked children come into view, playing with some sticks and a broken Coca-Cola bottle. Their heads turn and follow the passing car.
A voice gently intones, “These few seconds may be the only opportunity some people ever have to know about you. What do you want them to see?”
The picture changes. Two men are walking through a field. As the camera comes closer, it is seen that they are deep in conversation.
One of them looks out at the camera with a probing gaze, and then turns to the other. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, Jim.” He draws a deep breath, and closes his eyes. “I just feel so… so empty. A life filled with nothing but shallowness. Like there’s nothing inside, no purpose, no meaning. Just an everlasting nothing.”
“Well, you know, John, for every real and serious problem, there is a solution which is trivial, cheap, and instantaneous.” He unslings a small backpack, opening it to pull out two cans of beer, and hands one to his friend. “Shall we?”
The cans are opened.
Suddenly, the peaceful silence is destroyed by the blare of loud rock music. The camera turns upwards to the sky, against which may be seen parachutists; it spins, and there is suddenly a large swimming pool, and a vast table replete with great pitchers and kegs of beer. The parachutists land; they are all young women, all blonde, all laughing and smiling, all wearing string bikinis, and all anorexic.
For the remaining half of the commercial, the roving camera takes a lascivious tour of the bodies of the models. Finally, the image fades, and a deep voice intones, “Can you think of a better way to spend your weekends?”
The picture changes. A luxury sedan, passing through a ghetto, stops beside a black man, clad in rags. The driver, who is white, steps out in a pristine business suit, opens his wallet, and pulls out five crisp twenty dollar bills.
“I know that you can’t be happy, stealing, lying, and getting drunk all of the time. Here is a little gift to let you know that Jesus loves you.” He steps back into the car without waiting to hear the man’s response, and speeds off.
Soon, he is at a house. He steps out of the car, bible in hand, and rings the doorbell.
The door opens, and a man says, “Nick, how are you? Come in, do come in. Have a seat. I was just thinking of you, and it is so nice of you to visit. May I interest you in a little Martini?”
Nick sits down and says, “No, Scott. I am a Christian, and we who are Christian do not do such things.”
“Aah; I see.” There is a sparkle in the friend’s eye as he continues, “And tell me, what did Jesus do at his first miracle?”
The thick, black, leatherbound 1611 King James bible arcs through the air, coming to rest on the back of Scott’s head. There is a resounding thud.
“You must learn that the life and story of Jesus are serious matters, and not to be taken as the subject of jokes.”
The screen turns white as the voice glosses, “This message has been brought to you by the Association of Concerned Christians, who would like to remind you that you, too, can be different from the world, and can present a positive witness to Christ.”
In the studio again, the man is sitting in a chair.
“Now comes a very special time in our program. You, our viewers, matter most to us. It is your support that keeps us on the air. And I hope that you do remember to send us money; when you do, God will bless you. So keep your checks rolling, and we will be able to continue this ministry, and provide answers to your questions. I am delighted to be able to hear your phone calls. Caller number one, are you there?”
“Yes, I am, and I would like to say how great you are. I sent you fifty dollars, and someone gave me an anonymous check for five hundred! I only wish I had given you more.”
“That is good to hear. God is so generous. And what is your question?”
“I was wondering what God’s will is for America? And what I can do to help?”
“Thank you; that’s a good question.
“America is at a time of great threat now; it is crumbling because good people are not elected to office.
“The problem would be solved if Christians would all listen to Rush Limbaugh, and then go out and vote. Remember, bad people are sent to Washington by good people who don’t vote. With the right men in office, the government would stop wasting its time on things like the environment, and America would become a great and shining light, to show all the world what Christ can do.
“Caller number two?”
“I have been looking for a church to go to, and having trouble. I just moved, and used to go to a church which had nonstop stories and anecdotes; the congregation was glued to the edges of their seats. Here, most of the services are either boring or have something which lasts way too long. I have found a few churches whose services I generally enjoy—the people really sing the songs—but there are just too many things that aren’t amusing. For starters, the sermons make me uncomfortable, and for another, they have a very boring time of silent meditation, and this weird mysticism about ‘kiss of peace’ and something to do with bread and wine. Do you have any advice for me?”
“Yes, I do. First of all, what really matters is that you have Jesus in your heart. Then you and God can conquer the world. Church is a peripheral; it doesn’t really have anything to do with Jesus being in your heart. If you find a church that you like, go for it, but if there aren’t any that you like, it’s not your fault that they aren’t doing their job.
“And the next caller?”
“Hello. I was wondering what the Song of Songs is about.”
“The Song of Songs is an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church. Various other interpretations have been suggested, but they are all far beyond the bounds of good taste, and read things into the text which would be entirely inappropriate in holy Scriptures. Next caller?”
“My people has a story. I know tales of years past, of soldiers come, of pillaging, of women ravaged, of villages razed to the ground and every living soul murdered by men who did not hesitate to wade through blood. Can you tell me what kind of religion could possibly decide that the Crusades were holy?”
The host, whose face had suddenly turned a deep shade of red, shifted slightly, and pulled at the side of his collar. After a few seconds, a somewhat less polished voice hastily states, “That would be a very good question to answer, and I really would like to, but I have lost track of time. It is now time for an important message from some of our sponsors.”
The screen is suddenly filled by six dancing rabbits, singing about toilet paper.
A few minutes of commercials pass: a computer animated flash of color, speaking of the latest kind of candy; a family brought together and made happy by buying the right brand of vacuum cleaner; a specific kind of hamburger helping black and white, young and old to live together in harmony. Somewhere in there, the Energizer bunny appears; one of the people in the scene tells the rabbit that he should have appeared at some time other than the commercial breaks. Finally, the host, who has regained his composure, is on the screen again.
“Well, that’s all for this week. I hope you can join us next week, as we begin a four part series on people whose lives have been changed by the Church of the Holy Television. May God bless you, and may all of your life be ever filled with endless amusement!”
The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?
And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?
Someone said that a memo is written, not to inform the reader, but to protect the sender.
There is something wrong when employees receive so much allegedly mandatory reading material that if they were actually to sit down and read it as told, they wouldn’t get other work done. And it is entirely inappropriate to demand that people without significant legal acumen claim to have read and understood a contract. Really, contracts are rightly understood only if you understand the tradition surrounding how they are interpreted. That means that unless (or possibly even if) you are a lawyer (or else a hobbyist who may not legally be licensed to practice but who is fascinated at learning how law works), you don’t understand the contract. This is, incidentally, why there’s the website tosdr.org (“Terms of Service – Didn’t Read“).
That much I still believe. However, I believe there was some nasty pride in expecting the business world to meet what I consider reasonable. The normal way of dealing with things is to not read, or to read just enough. And that is why in my first job with over a quarter inch of daily allegedly mandatory reading, I should just have listened to a colleague gently tell me that I didn’t have to read that.
I’ve worked on humility a little bit since then.
Once upon a time, there was a new employee, hired fresh out of college by a big company. The first day on the job, he attended a pep rally, filled out paperwork concerning taxes and insurance, and received a two page document that said at the top, “Sexual Harassment Policy: Important. Read Very Carefully!”
So our employee read the sexual harassment policy with utmost care, and signed at the bottom indicating that he had read it. The policy was a remedial course in common sense, although parts of it showed a decided lack of common sense. It was an insult to both his intelligence and his social maturity.
Our employee was slightly puzzled as to why he was expected to read such a document that carefully, but soon pushed doubts out of his mind. He trotted over to his new cubicle, sat down, and began to read the two inch thick manual on core essentials that every employee needs to know. He was still reading core essentials two hours later when his boss came by and said, “Could you take a break from that? I want to introduce you to your new co-workers, and show you around.”
So our employee talked with his boss — a knowledgeable, competent, and understanding woman — and enjoyed meeting his co-workers, trying to learn their names. He didn’t have very much other work yet, so he dutifully read everything that the administrators sent him — even the ones that didn’t say “Important — please read” at the top. He read about ISO 9001 certification, continual changes and updates to company policy, new technologies that the company was adopting, employee discounts, customer success stories, and other oddments totalling to at least a quarter inch of paper each day, not counting e-mails.
His boss saw that he worked well, and began to assign more difficult tasks appropriate to his talent. He took on this new workload while continuing to read everything the administration told him to read, and worked longer and longer days.
One day, a veteran came and put a hand on his shoulder, saying, “Kid, just between the two of us, you don’t have to read every piece of paper that says ‘Important’ at the top. None of us read all that.”
And so our friend began to glance at the first pages of long memos, to see if they said anything helpful for him to know, and found that most of them did not. Some time after that, he realized that his boss or one of his co-workers would explicitly tell him if there was a memo that said something he needed to know. The employee found his workload reduced to slightly less than fifty hours per week. He was productive and happy.
One day, a memo came. It said at the top, “Important: Please Read.” A little more than halfway through, on page twenty-seven, there was a description of a new law that had been passed, and how it required several jobs (including his own) to be done in a slightly different manner. Unfortunately, our friend’s boss was in bed with a bad stomach flu, and so she wasn’t able to tell him he needed to read the memo. So he continued doing his job as usual.
A year later, the company found itself the defendant in a forty million dollar lawsuit, and traced the negligence to the action of one single employee — our friend. He was fired, and made the central villain in the storm of bad publicity.
But he definitely was in the wrong, and deserved what was coming to him. The administration very clearly explained the liability and his responsibility, in a memo very clearly labelled “Important”. And he didn’t even read the memo. It’s his fault, right?
Every communication that is sent to a person constitutes an implicit claim of, “This concerns you and is worth your attention.” If experience tells other people that we lie again and again when we say this, then what right do we have to be believed when we really do have something important to say?
I retold the story of the boy who cried wolf as the story of the administrator who cried important, because administrators are among the worst offenders, along with lawyers, spammers, and perhaps people who pass along e-mail forwards. Among the stack of paper I was expected to sign when I moved in to my apartment was a statement that I had tested my smoke detector. The apartment staff was surprised that I wanted to test my smoke detector before signing my name to that statement. When an authority figure is surprised when a person reads a statement carefully and doesn’t want to sign a claim that all involved know to be false, it’s a bad sign.
There is communication that concerns the person it’s directed to, but says too much — for example, most of the legal contracts I’ve seen. The tiny print used to print many of those contracts constitutes an implicit acknowledment that the signer is not expected to read it: they don’t even use the additional sheets of paper necessary to print text at a size that a person who only has 20/20 vision can easily read. There is also communication that is broadcast to many people who have no interest in it. To that communication, I would propose the following rule: Do not, without exceptionally good reason, broadcast a communication that concerns only a minority of its recipients. It’s OK every now and then to announce that the blue Toyota with license place ABC 123 has its lights on. It’s not OK to have a regular announcement that broadcasts anything that is approved as having interest to some of the recipients.
My church, which I am in general very happy with, has succumbed to vice by adding a section to the worship liturgy called “Announcements”, where someone reads a list of events and such just before the end of the service, and completely dispels the moment that has been filling the sanctuary up until the announcements start. They don’t do this with other things — the offering is announced by music (usually good music) that contributes to the reverent atmosphere of the service. But when the service is drawing to a close, the worshipful atmosphere is disrupted by announcements which I at least almost never find useful. If the same list were printed on a sheet of paper, I could read it after the service, in less time, with greater comprehension, with zero disruption to the moment that every other part of the service tries so carefully to build — and I could skip over any announcements that begin “For Married Couples:” or “Attention Junior High and High Schoolers!” The only advantage I can see to the present practice, from the church leadership’s perspective, is that many people will not read the announcements at all if they have a choice about it — and maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson in that.
As well as pointing out examples of a rampant problem in communication, where an administrator cries “Important!” over many things that are not worth reading, and then wonders why people don’t believe him when he cries “Important!” about something which isimportant, I would like to suggest an alternative for communities that have access to the internet. A web server could use a form to let people select areas of concern and interest, and announcements submitted would be categorized, optionally cleared with a moderator, and sent only to those people who are interested in them. Another desirable feature might let end receivers select how much announcement information they can receive in a day — providing a discernible incentive to the senders to minimize trivial communication. In a sense, this is what happens already — intercom litanies of announcements ignored by school students in a classroom, employees carrying memos straight from their mailboxes to the recycle bins — but in this case, administrators receive clear incentive and choice to conserve bandwidth and only send stuff that is genuinely important.
While I’m giving my Utopian dreams, I’d like to comment that at least some of this functionality is already supported by the infrastructure developed by UseNet. Probably there are refinements that can be implemented in a web interface — all announcements for one topic shown from a single web page, since they shouldn’t be nearly as long as a normal UseNet post arguing some obscure detail in an ongoing discussion. Perhaps other and better can be done — I am suggesting “Here’s something better than the status quo,” not “Here’s something so perfect that there’s no room for improvement.”
In one UseNet newsgroup, an exchange occurred that broadcasters of announcements would be well-advised to keep in mind. One person said, “I’m trying to decide whether to give the UseNet Bore of the Year Award to [name] or [name]. The winner will receive, as his prize, a copy of all of their postings, minutely inscribed, and rolled up inside a two foot poster tube.”
Someone else posted a reply asking, “Length or diameter?”
To those of you who broadcast to people whom you are able to address because of your position and not because they have chosen to receive your broadcasts, I have the following to say: In each communication you send, you are deciding the basis by which people will decide if future communications are worth paying attention to, or just unwanted noise. If your noise deafens their ears, you have no right to complain that the few truly important things you have to tell them fall on deaf ears. Only you can prevent spam!
I had the privilege of reading A Foot in Two Worlds recently, and posting the following five star review titled, “REAL Theology”:
I’m Orthodox where Vince is old-style UMC, and one of the things valued in theology is that it’s not some sort of game you play in your head; it is what you work out, what you live. In that sense real theology is more like a wrestling class than a math class.
This is a book of real theology. The pastor who wrote it met a terrible pain, the abrupt news that his son, the kind of child who has it rough and who is especially dear to a parent’s loving heart, without warning collapsed in death. One day there, the next gone.
And in the midst of a pain no man should have to suffer, Pastor Vince dug down, deep down, and found that the bottom was solid, and built his house on rock. This is real theology. I don’t agree with every detail of what he says; if I were responsible for sorting out his ideas, a duty no one has appointed me to, I might try to convince him that all he says about the people who he calls sparrows in life is true, but the God who loves sparrows with an infinite and everlasting love, and sees every sparrow fall, is beyond suffering. No one can force him to suffer: but he chooses to enter into the suffering of his Creation. Even the formula “One of the Trinity has suffered” has been considered and roundly rejected. And the point is important; it is wrestling and not mental chess, but it is not one I would force upon the book. The theology in the book is real, and I would not try to argue him out of his belief that the God who loves the suffering ones, is compelled to Himself suffer. It would be less real theology if we entered a debate and he acknowledged I scored that point.
I mention theology because that is of cardinal interest to me. But that is, perhaps, not the biggest point to be made. He has taken pain, again a pain no parent should know, and crafted a work that is human and beautiful. It is painful, but it is beautiful, and if I were at my young age to keel over dead this instant, as abruptly as Vince’s son Gabe collapsed having no pulse, and leave my parents to sort out what would be left behind, I would scarcely have a better final message to give them than to leave my computer open to “A Foot in Two Worlds.”
I stand by every accolade I gave in that review, not to mention that the book represents superb writing. And if I were to pass away at my young age, I would want my parents to read A Foot in Two Worlds. But the more time passes, the less the question of whether God suffers looks purely academic. It is a question of doctrine of God, of theology proper, and it has more than meets the eye. And I am grateful to Pastor Vince because in writing his book he gave me the possibility of writing this work. In a real sense I owe the possibility of writing it to him.
There is a quote, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” My point is that God does not suffer in the sense of being a God too small to avoid suffering. My point is that “on the other side of complexity”, a God whom no one can constrain to suffer, a God utterly beyond anything we can imagine, has chosen to suffer.
I will look at several authors, some of them Eastern and some of them Western, and try to unfold the grandeur of a God who is beyond suffering, yet chooses to suffer in us, closing with why a God who is not bound to suffer is better news to us who suffer than a God who suffers would be.
The first stop I wish to make is with Anselm of Canterbury. His Monologion makes different arguments about God and is a bit of a hodge-podge that Anselm seemed to want to simplify on second thought. So he wrote the Proslogion. In it he presents the following argument:
God, whether or not he exists, is by definition that than which nothing greater can be thought. Now either he exists a real God in actuality, or only as a concept in people’s minds. But it is greater to be a God who exists in actuality than to exist only in people’s minds, so God must exist, or else reality is based on contradiction.
Most people on hearing this think the argument has slipped something past them, and atheists respond to this backward argument from the Middle Ages by saying, “But if that is true, by the same logic there must be some ultimate exotic paradise where it rains Champagne, and filet mignon and lobster grow on trees!” And in fact this argument has a quite venerable precedent; a man named Gaunilo published this argument soon after Anselm and Anselm offered a rebuttal arguing, “Yes, but not in the case of God.” Anselm expressed a wish that Gaunilo’s objection, and Anselm’s own response, be published together with the original piece, and so far that wish has been honored; my link to the Proslogion is actually to a translation that contains the Proslogion, Gaunilo’s objection, and Anselm’s reply. And I have never heard an atheist show knowledge of Gaunilo’s having anticipated their objection centuries ago, or of Anselm’s attempt to respond to it.
I am not asking that you accept this argument; it has been called the most controversial argument in the history of philosophy, and I’m not completely sure what to make of it. Something said of Bishop Berkeley’s strange arguments might be said of this “ontological argument”: “They admit no answer and produce no conviction.” My own reasons relate to why Thomas Aquinas said that the peasant who does not murder because the law of God is so deep in his bones is greater than the theologian who can reason, “Do not murder” from first principles. I have seen the argument compel a grudging head; I have never known the argument to directly compel a heart. And for that reason I hold it with tongs.
But I bring this up because whatever the status of the argument as a whole, it hits the nail on the head in terms of nature of God. God is greater than anything else that can be thought; Anselm rightly goes further in saying that God is greater than can be thought. God is the Greatest God That Could Possibly Be.
Editors often have the right aesthetic distance to pick out a title for a work, and are sometimes much better than authors about picking an appropriate title to a work that the author has deeply burrowed into. One editor described to me the title “Maximum Christology” to an article on the Christological Councils: the Councils met the various debates of their day by affirming that Christ is maximally God, maximally Man, and the Divine and human natures are both maximally united and maximally unconfused. This is the essence of what is called Chalcedonian Christology.
Humans suffer, and human parents suffer when their children suffer. But it is my thesis, which I will argue below, that God does not suffer in himself, as creatures do. He chooses to suffer in others, in Christ and in mankind: in the communicatio idiomatum, God “without change became Man,” as the Liturgy says, and Christ transcended his own state beyond suffering so that the Son of God suffered in the Son of Man everything Jesus suffered as a man. In fact the God whom no external force could compel to suffer, but chooses to suffer in Christ and in Creation, has something to offer suffering men that a God that could be forced to suffer would not. Perhaps the greatest God that we can think of is one bound to suffer. But there is a God who is greater than we can think of, and nothing can make him suffer against his will.
Let me try to explain.
Rudolf Bultmann is perhaps known for “de-mythologizing:” stripping out the mythological elements of Scripture to get at the truths behind them. What is perhaps less well known is that well over a millenium before, St. Dionysius, also called Pseudo-Dionysius, had done a much better and more interesting job of the de-mythologizing project.
Some hint of this project came up, as all theological issues came up, on a Sunday where the Gospel message had two Apostles, James and John (or, perhaps more embarrassingly, their mother) ask to sit on the right and left hand of Christ in glory. He said, “This is a strange request. What could it possibly mean?” I pointed out that the Creed, chanted in church every Liturgy, says that Christ “[sits to] the right hand of the Father,” and this “cannot be taken literally”, which he corrected to, “cannot literally be true.” This is an example of de-mythologizing: the Nicene Creed says things that cannot literally be true, and we say and mean them, without crossing our fingers. Some people know that the words are “best approximations”, and try to mean what the words are intended to approximate. Other people with less education may mean that Christ “came down from Heaven” literally speaking. But this is a little more a distinction of erudition than a distinction of faith itself; hence, as one person said, there are “grandmothers who don’t know the Creed, but are all ready for Heaven.” The story is told of a saint who went off in a boat to educate hermits, and spoke with three old hermits who were about as thick students as he could ask for. After an exhausting teaching visit when it seemed that no theology could get through to these thick-headed students, he started to row away, when the three men came out running on the water as if it were dry land, apologizing that they had forgotten even the first line of the “Our Father” and asking him to teach it to them again.
Something like this is why I inwardly winced at someone saying that, in Genesis 1, God spoke with a voice, lips, and a tongue—I think I challenged it in some form, but it was not a failure of faith. And if Orthodoxy admits a form of de-mythologization, it is not the center of gravity. De-mythologization isn’t worth much if it does not lead to a deeper participation in God.
Children can be fond of asking, “Can God make a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?”, on hearing that God can do anything. But the Bible, especially in places like Job, portray not exactly a picture of omnipotence, as such, but of absolute authority that extends beyond omnipotence. God cannot be tempted. He cannot change, nor can he lie. His nature is beyond suffering and cannot suffer directly. In the West, Thomas Aquinas said that nothing contradictory falls under the divine omnipotence.
Divine omnipotence does not mean that anything we can conceive or put into words must be something God can do.
It may be closer to the truth to say that what God can do is not anything we can conceive or put into words.
If we are to understand the divine omnipotence, the divine authority, we must let questions like “Could God create a rock so heavy he couldn’t lift it?” to fall away, like a booster rocket.
The difference between victory and defeat is not in what God does here. The difference is in us.
While I was studying as an undergraduate at Calvin, in one of the oldest pieces on my website, I wrote, The Way of the Way,
What does Heaven look like?
He who is proud will see that every man present is present, not because of, but despite what he merits.
He who is rebellious will see people serve an absolute King.
He who desires self-sufficiency will see that joy is offered in community.
He who seeks wealth, prestige, power, and other ways to dominate others, will find his effort in Heaven to be like buying a gun in a grocery store.
He who strives will see that there is no one to strive with.
He who despises the physical will see a bodily resurrection.
He who desires his own interpretation and his own set of beliefs, will see absolute truth in crystalline clarity.
To those who will not let God change their character to virtue and love, even Heaven would be Hell.
A friend advised me, “It almost sounds like you are saying that Heaven and Hell are the same thing.” At that point, out of what healthy instincts I had, I pulled back and said that Heaven and Hell are two different things. But among the images in Orthodoxy is one image, the River of Fire, in which the Light of God shines on all, and the saints embrace the Light as ultimate bliss, and the damned fight the Light and experience it through their rejection of Him: and to them, the Light of Heaven is experienced as the fire of Hell. The choice Adam made in Eden can be repeated:
Adam reigned as an immortal king and lord over the whole world. He had a wife like nothing else in all Creation, paradise for a home, and harmony with nature such as we could not dream of. And, he was like a little boy with a whole room full of toys who is miserable because he wants another toy and his parents said “No.”
God cannot but love. He cannot but shine. He cannot but resurrect. And regardless of how far that image should be taken—or de-mythologized—this much is clear: he resurrects the saved and the damned alike.
And something like this image is known in the West: I have not exactly seen the claim, “God does not send people to Hell, but the fires of Hell are nothing other than the light of Heaven experienced through the rejection of Christ” in Western sources, but C.S. Lewis says, “Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to.” He does not go so far as to say that mercenary souls will also see God, but the implication is that the experience of seeing God is in no way welcome or desirable to a mercenary soul. And it is possible—even if the point should not be pressed too far—that all will see God, and the pure in heart will delight in it, while mercenary souls will be beyond squirming; they will be scorched by it. And Lewis may press the point further in The Great Divorce:
Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.
The formula, “Unus ex Trinitate passus est.” (“One of the Trinity has suffered.”) is one of few formulas from my education that I remember first in Latin, then in other languages. It was a debated formula that was considered, rejected by the same Church that rejected Nestorius for dividing the Christ, and ultimately accepted. If you will, it was decided that God is utterly beyond suffering, and then that God transcends this so that the Son of God was crucified. The Chalcedonian affirmation is that Christ is maximally God, maximally man, and the natures are maximully unconfused and maximally united. And suffering belongs to the human nature, not the Divine nature. But there is a distinction between I would speak of suffering in oneself and suffering in another: Not One of the Trinity has suffered in himself, but the Son of God suffered in the man with which he was maximally united, and suffers in the human race he became a member of. But something of this again exists in the creature’s relationship to God. Christ has ascended into Heaven, into the glory that we will also participate if we take up God’s offer of salvation. Then is there a possibly a way we can describe him as hungering or thirsting, sick or in prison?
The apocalyptic buildup in St. Matthew assures us there is:
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
This passage is not for Christ’s benefit; it’s for ours. If we cannot properly love Christ when he comes to us in the person of a beggar, how will we see him in the last day when he brings us to him face to face? The ascended Christ, enthroned in Heaven, is not thirsty in himself. However, each person is made in the image of God, is built according to the presence of God, and if we see beggars as a nuisance rather than an icon of Christ, and an icon in whom Christ suffers, what are we practicing for Judgment Day?
My music teacher in gradeschool emphatically stated, “Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent,” the point being that we should not just log time practicing, but log time practicing as well as we could. Each person we meet is one for whom God ordained that we should cross paths, and with each of these are practicing how we will meet Christ in his own person on Judgment Day. And one day, the results of our practicing will be made irrevocably permanent.
But what about the question of whether God suffers? Pastor Vince in A Foot in Two Worlds talks at length about “sparrows”, a point just nicked on in my review. Literal sparrows, in the Bible, were sold for offerings, two for a penny or five for two pennies: the fifth one thrown in because it wasn’t really worth much of anything. Metaphorical sparrows, infinitely dear to a parent’s heart, were those who suffer in life: those who lost at sports, or were clumsy, or got lousy grades, or were social outcasts, or didn’t look the prettiest. The person who was low man on the totem pole, who had it rough: these were the children dearest to a parent’s heart. Vince gives thicker description than the parable of the Last Judgment quoted above, but it is quite a similar roster of usual suspects. And a parent’s heart goes out to sparrows, and suffers with them. The greatest virtue the book paints of parental love is that it goes out to sparrows, and suffers with them. Suffering is not an option: the constitution of love demands it. If a child suffers, and a parent loves the child, the parent suffers the child’s suffering; and the parent suffers more than the child suffers. This is behind a statement that seems ludicrous sophistry to a child receiving punishment: “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” But it is not ludicrous sophstry: it is quite literally true.
And what can God be if he does not share in his children’s sufferings? And, of course, all of the people considered to be God’s children really are what the book says they are.
Something of the same thinking undergirds some of the texts for my classes: a Radical “Orthodoxy” essay stated that God was masculine, and feminine, and supramasculine, and suprafeminine, and I think neuter may have been thrown in there somewhere. What is going on is the same as texts one would expect Radical Orthodoxy, on the surface of it, to oppose: seeing that men and women exist equally on earth, an identical measure or kind of man-ness and woman-ness must be ascribed to God, and not a God who is masculine beyond any sense of femininity, because if that’s the case, then the good of woman is impaired. And scholars won’t see things any other way, and the possibility that the good of women could be advanced by the Father for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and earth is named, is inconceivable.
(But to those few who do glimpse what the alternative to the politically correct canon may be, there is a freedom and a fittingness that is like a lifelong experience of falling off a cliff.)
Charles Darwin buried a child, and his theory of evolution was a product of his grieving. Almost a triumph of it. Darwin could not believe that a good God, and one who intervened with miracles, could choose not to save his son. And so he developed a theory where God had not intervened with miracles, not only in the time of Christ, but at any time. Even before humans, the origin of species was to be without miracles. God was like a Watchmaker who carefully built a watch, wound it, set it in motion, and then never needed to touch it again. And so Darwin, in his efforts to save his belief in God, proposed a mechanism, evolution via natural selection, whereby species could appear without miracles. God, a good and honorable God if necessarily a distant one, could thus remain a good God even if Darwin’s son had died, because such a God was necessarily absolved of any guilt for failing to answer prayers. To rescue the goodness of God, Darwin found an ingenuius way to cut God down so that the divine goodness would fit into his head. Later, Darwinian and neo-Darwinian evolution would be taken up by some religious faithful, and by many naturalists who want to avoid the conclusion that life is the creation of a Creator God. The consequences are impressive. But the core is that in pain and grief, Charles Darwin cut down God until he would fit inside of his head.
I hesitate very much to lump Pastor Vince in with Darwin; it would be a brutal blow, and in poor taste. But consider this: parents, as a rule, love children. Love for children is part of the landscape even in abortion, where whatever the rhetoric of “my body, my choice” may be, women who have abortions grieve the loss of a child. No competent and honest post-abortion counselor will say that psychologically an abortion is just the removal of an unwanted parasite; the love of mother for child is real and a deeply engraved portion of the landscape, and this is true even when people cut against the grain by setting things up so women believe they are better off with an abortion. In other words, the love of parent for child is a major landmark even when the parent chooses a separation.
If this much is true, what is to be said for a man who has had years to learn to love his son, whose heart goes out to sparrows, who out of love for his neighbor has become a pastor, who pours out his love, his regrets, his sorrow, and his hope into a masterpiece, who still suffers in the suffering of his son and remains in regret even when his pain has come to be coupled by hope so he has one foot in suffering and one foot in hope? And if he believes that God as a parent must be a suffering God? The words, “Do not judge” come to mind. None the less, God does not suffer as earthly parents do. No external force pushes him into grief he did not choose. He is beyond all such constraint.
I have been speaking of the transcendence of God, although I have not used that term much. Words about Christ “[sits to] the right hand of the Father” as words that cannot literally be true, underscore his transcendence. Words about the Greatest God That Could Possibly Be underscore his transcendence. Words about the maximum Christology of the Maximum Christ underscore his transcendence. The entire thrust of the argument in this article has been to underscore that God infinitely transcends anything we could possibly ask or imagine. And this brings me to one last point:
God transcends his own transcendence.
St. Dionysius, in the height of what may be the height of the Orthodox Church’s works of theology on the transcendence of God, wrote:
The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing…
So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. It is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. It is neither perceived nor is he perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. It is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. It endures no deprivation of light. It passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of all this can either be identified with it nor attributed to it.
Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does It possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is It speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and It cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, It is not power, nor is It light. It does not live nor is It life. It is not a substance, nor is It eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since It is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is It a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and It is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know It as It actually is and It does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of It, nor name nor knowledge of It. Darkness and light, error and truth—It is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to It, but never of It, for It is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of his preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; It is also beyond every denial.
And yet there is one point further: God transcends his own transcendence.
The same God who is beyond the farthest stars is infinitesemally near.
We live by feeding off of the energies of God. It may be mediated by food and drink, but it is simply and ultimately God who sustains us.
The fact that God is Father and not Mother matters less than you think. Or rather, it does not hurt things. It is transcended.
Again to return to C.S. Lewis, “Prayer does not change God. Prayer changes me.” But the divine Transcendence of God is so great that the fact that prayer does not change God, matters less than you might think. Or rather, it does not hurt things. It is transcended. God is Transcendent, and prayer is powerful; it is among the most powerful things we can do. And the fact that we cannot change God’s mind detracts nothing from the power of prayer. Indeed, it is better for us that we cannot change God’s mind, as it is better for us that The Greatest God That Can Possibly Be is untouched by how we would solve problems.
And the fact that God cannot suffer in himself matters less than you think. Or rather, it does not hurt things. It is transcended. Every earthly suffering borne out of love for another who suffers is a shadow of the God who is beyond suffering and yet transcends this to choose to suffer in his Creation.
In his book, Vince spoke of a wound rubbed raw, in people telling him, “I know just how you feel.” Now a tangent might speak of genderlects and explain that this is a helpful assurance when speaking to a woman but not to a man; here the Golden Rule needs a little adjustment in that it is wiser not to give a member of the opposite sex the exact same form of encouragement you would best respond to. But this sensitivity was not present, and people assured him that because of some bereavement they’d experienced, “I know just how you feel.” (The most offensive example was the loss of a pet.) I’ve lost both grandparents on my mother’s side, and while there was grief—my grandmother’s death came as a shock even as it was expected—it’s not just sensitivity of “He’s said he doesn’t like being told others know just how you feel” that stops me from saying that I know just how he feels. I’ve experienced bereavements that cause pain that fades after time. Some of them hurt much worse than my grandmother’s death. But the death of a child can cause lifelong pain, and his experience has been one of unending pain that in one sense improves by being accompanied by hope as time goes on, but in another sense never stops stinging. Thanks be to God, my pains have not been like that. But I would say this: “God knows just how you feel. He understands you perfectly. He understands your sorrows, and every nook and cranny of your grief. Every regret you feel, he sees from the inside. And he is at work. Suffering is God’s workshop. And he is working on you with eternal intentions. Perhaps he does not suffer in himself. He has chosen to enter your sufferings. He understands and loves you better than if he did.” And I would hesitate to say this, because the greatest insensitivity to his nerves has been to calmly say, “I know just how you feel,” and speaking personally as a cancer survivor, when I met with my Uncle Mark who had travelled for cancer treatment, he voiced pain at people saying, “I know just how you feel.” I didn’t offer him any such assurance, even though I possibly did know something like what he felt. But someone who knows just how you feel may connect without saying, “I know just how you feel;” if I did understand my uncle’s experience, he picked it up without my making the claim. But with all due respect to a wound rubbed raw, God knows just how the pastor feels, and does this no less because he does not suffer himself.
And here is where the God who is beyond suffering, who suffers because he transcends his own transcendence, has most to give us. In Isaiah, we are told, For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. We are dealing, with so to speak, the ultimate benevolent alien Intelligence. (No, not crop circles. Crop circles are toxic and something to turn your back on if you want any spiritual or mental health.) The alien Intelligence, as it were, speaks our language, but is beyond the “abstractions of half a million years of wildly alien culture” found in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a perenially interesting cult classic that has never gone out of print. The premise of the book is that a rocket ship travels to Mars, a baby boy is born before all adults die or are killed, and the boy is raised in the wisdom and spiritual discipline of Martian culture, and then brought “back” as a young “man” to earth. (‘”Smith… is… not… a… man.” – “Huh? Explain yourself, Captain.” – “Smith is an intelligent creature with the ancestry of a man, but he is more Martian than man. Until we came along he had never laid eyes on a man.”…) Amidst unfolding space opera political drama, Michael struggles to adapt to survive, has to struggle terribly to adjust to human culture and human language, then becomes adept in both human culture and language, which he fuses with the treasure of Martian culture and becomes a Messiah-figure, bringing to mankind the wisdom and spiritual disciplines of Martian culture, making a quite literal “best of both worlds” that offers a profound improvement to human life. (At least that’s a sanitized summary of the story.)
I mention Stranger because something like this happens in the Bible and God’s drama with the world, and I wrote, Looking at Stranger in a Strange Land as a Modern Christological Heresy, basically because its attraction is a theme more interestingly engaged in the Bible itself. Not, specifically, that Stranger is a Christological heresy in the sense of being a flawed attempt at Christology someone worked out; Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self comments that one scholar had made a perceptive study of Martin Luther’s momentous crisis of faith in light of the psychological literature of modern midlife identity crises, even though Martin Luther probably would not have understood the comparison and probably would have found it represensible if he had understood it. In like fashion, Heinlein cannot properly be considered someone who was trying to get Christology right and failed, but his book can be studied in light of the various Christologies of which the Church has said, “This is inadequate to the Maximum Christ… That is inadequate to the Maximum Christ… That one, too, is inadequate to the Maximum Christ…”
I would like to close with the letter I wrote Vince after a bit of time to recoil from the force and power of A Foot in Two Worlds. I didn’t mention that he had placed my quotation in the most honoring place it could have been, even though I was deeply grateful. I believe it shows something of the Alien Intellicence Who Loves Us, The Greatest God That Could Be, the God Who Cannot Suffer In Himself But Suffers In Us, Embracing Our Suffering, the God Who Is Greater Than Can Be Thought:
Vince, I am in awe of your work of honesty and practical theology. It’s been a while since I have read something of this caliber in what I read.
I was wondering if I could give an appropriate response, and I think I will send you an email today. The book you wrote was of unexpected pain; this is of unexpected joy. I don’t want to say this is as good as your son’s death was bad, when such is manifestly and obviously not the case. But surprises come, and I started reading your book in suffering without hope of release, and to my surprise this is what I have to offer you in my hands in response to what you had to offer from your hands.
I pray that God may bless you.
One of my doctors referred me to a sleep center, which did some studies that seemed to me at first to be a simple disappointment. They didn’t seem to offer hope that I could be more awake, when I had decreasing energy during the day.
Then I met with one of their specialists, and he basically unravelled the puzzle reflected by my habits and medications. There had been an earlier conversation on a list when I mentioned nausea, in light of preceding history.
There had been an ill-advised medication switch by one doctor that resulted in a long-term underdose that almost killed me: I experienced nausea that built over months and led to me going without food or water for two days before I figured out that the approved underdose was making nausea. I asked generalists and specialists for help with nausea and the only thing I found was that if I increased my dosage of some medications [again], I could stave off nausea [for a little longer].
And in light of this conversation, it was singularly helpful that a friend pointed out that ginger is a potent anti-nauseant. This was much more helpful than the doctor’s “I dunno”, or a pharmacist informing me that non-prescription anti-nauseants boil down to sugar. (I was steered to a chemically engineered concoction of table sugar, [pharmaceutical grade] corn syrup, etc. and decided that if sugar was the only game in town besides a prescription anti-nauseant, which I had been refused, I’d rather have real honey than corn syrup.)
And the specialist I spoke with today explained to me why I felt so tired: the controlled sleep medicine I was given was one that has over 50% still remain in your system 24 hours later, so yes, he saw reason for my trouble escaping sleepiness. He wants to work with me to ratchet down the [prescription] drug complex I have after all my adventures, so I am really at doses that are medically necessary and not at doses that happen to include nausea control.
He wants me to do that, but first I need to make a preliminary adjustment for two weeks: get down to my normal 10 hours of sleep. (I legitimately need more sleep than most people, but not as much as I’ve been getting.)
I began to try to think about what to do. Jobhunting has had me a little more active, but it has its lulls. Then I remembered that I know little of Dickens, who has been described to me as “the primer for character and plot.” Once I finish the piece I’m reading, the humanness of Dickens lies open. And I may ask on social media for reading recommendations, and read and reread the Fathers. Perhaps I will need breaks, but it looks like something to use the time constructively and help me grow as an author and as a man. I want to give my jobhunting first attention, but of all jobhunts this is the one that I would be most happy with my being slow at. I am not in my best state now, and up to a point the longer I wait the better I may be prepared to work. And there are other things I can do; pro bono technical work, maybe, and walking.
I feel like I’ve crossed a threshold. I don’t expect any sudden changes of any sort, but vistas lie open. Thanks to Cynthia, the friend mentioned on this mailing list, I have a “nearly side effect free” way of controlling nausea; and now thanks to this I hope for a slow but effective process of waking up from my present state of being medicated to narcosis, and getting back to the Christos Jonathan you knew earlier.
This piece, that you are reading, is the first work of theology I have been able to create in months. My site’s list of recent postings has three items from previous months that were posted out of something older, but this is the first blade of grass showing after a thaw.