Kaine: What do you mean and what is the “damned backswing”?
Vetus: Where to start? Are you familiar with category theory?
Kaine: I have heard the term; explain.
Vetus: Category theory is the name of a branch of mathematics, but on a meta level, so to speak. Algebraists study the things of algebra, and number theorists study the things of number theory—an arrangement that holds almost completely. But category theory studies common patterns in other branches of mathematics, and it is the atypical, rare branch of mathematics that studies all branches of mathematics. And, though this is not to my point exactly, it is abstract and difficult: one list of insults to give to pet languages is that you must understand category theory to write even the simplest of all programs.
The achievements of category theory should ideally be juxtaposed with Bourbaki, the pseudonym of a mathematician or group of mathematicians who tried to systamatize all of mathematics. What came out of their efforts is that trying to systematize mathematics is like trying to step on a water balloon and pin it down; mathematicians consider their discipline perhaps the most systematic of disciplines in academia, but the discipline itself cannot be systematized.
But the fact that Bourbaki’s work engendered a realization that you cannot completely systematize even the most systematic of disciplines does not mean that there are patterns and trends that one can observe, and the basic insight in category theory is that patterns recur and these patterns are not limited to any one branch of mathematics. Even if it does not represent a total success of doing what Bourbaki tried and failed to do, it is far from a total loss: category theory legitimately observes patterns and trends that transcend the confines of individual subdisciplines in mathematics.
Kaine: So the “damned backswing” is like something from category theory, cutting across disciplines?
Kaine: And why did you choose the term of a damned backswing?
Vetus: Let me comment on something first. C.S. Lewis, in a footnote in Mere Christianity, says that some people complained about his light swearing in referring to certain ideas as “damned nonsense.” And he explained that he did not intend to lightly swear at all; he meant that the ideas were incoherent and nonsense, and they and anyone who believed in them were damned or accursed. And I do not intend to swear lightly either; I intend to use the term “damned” in its proper sense. Instead there is a recurring trend, where some seemingly good things have quite the nasty backswing.
Kaine: And what would an example be?
Vetus: In the U.S., starting in the 1950’s there was an incredibly high standard of living; everything seemed to be getting better all the time. And now we are being cut by the backswing: the former great economic prosperity, and the present great and increasing economic meltdown, are cut from the same cloth; they are connected. There was a time of bait, and we sprung for it and are now experiencing the damned backswing.
Kaine: So the damned backswing begins with bait of sorts, and ends in misery? In the loss of much more than the former gain? Do you also mean like addiction to alcohol or street drugs?
Vetus: Yes, indeed; for a while drinking all the time seems an effective way to solve problems. But that is not the last word. The same goes from rationalism to any number of things.
Kaine: Do you see postmodern trends as the backswing of modern rationalism?
Vetus: All that and less.
Kaine: What do you mean by “and less”?
Vetus: The damned backswing did not start with Derrida. The understanding of “reason” that was held before the Enlightenment was a multifaceted thing that meant much more than logic; even as Reason was enthroned (or an actress/prostitute), Reason was pared down to a hollowed-out husk of what reason encompassed in the West before then. It would be like celebrating “cars”, but making it clear that when the rubber hits the road, the truly essential part of “a set of wheels” is the wheel—and enthroning the wheel while quietly, deftly stripping away the rest of the car, including not just the frame but engine, and seats. The Damned Backswing of rationalism was already at work in the Enlightenment stripping and enthroning reason. And the damned backswing was already at work in economic boom times in the West, saying that yes, indeed, man can live by bread alone.
And perhaps the strongest and most visible facet of the damned backswing occurs in technology. There are other areas: a country erected on freedoms moves towards despotism, just as Plato said in his list of governments, moving from the best to the worst. But in technology, we seem to be able to be so much more, but the matrix of technology we live in is, among other things, a surveillance system, and something we are dependent on, so that we are vulnerable if someone decides to shut things off. Man does not live by bread alone, but it is better for a man to try to live by bread alone than live by SecondWife alone, or any or all the array of techologies and gadgetry. The new reality man has created does not compare to the God-given reality we have spurned to embrace the new, and some have said that the end will come when we no longer make paths to our neighbors because we are entirely engrossed in technology and gadgetry.
Kaine: And are there other areas?
Vetus: There are other areas; but I would rather not belabor the point. Does this make sense?
Kaine: Yes, but may I say something strange?
Kaine: I believe in the damned backswing, and in full.
Kaine: There’s an awfully strong clue in the title.
Vetus: That the author believes so strongly in the Divine Sovereignty that he cannot countenance creaturely freedom?
Kaine: Not quite.
Vetus: Then what is the clue? I don’t want to guess.
Kaine: The clue is that the author believes in the Divine Sovereignty so weakly that he cannot countenance creaturely freedom, and that if there is one iota of creaturely freedom, there is not one iota of Divine Sovereignty.
His is a fragile Divine Sovereignty, when in actual fact God’s Sovereignty is absolute, with the last word after every exercise of creaturely freedom. There is no exercise of freedom you can make that will impede the exercise of the Divine Sovereignty.
Vetus: I could sin. In fact, I do sin, and I keep on sinning.
Kaine: Yes, but God is still Sovereign and can have the last world where there is sin. To get back to Lewis for a second, “All of us, either willingly or unwillingly, do the will of God: Satan and Judas as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.” The Divine Sovereignty is the Alpha and the Omega, the Founder of the beginning, and works in and through all: “even Gollum may have something yet to do.”
Vetus: But what?
Kaine: “But what?”, you ask?
For starters, there is Christmas. Good slips in unnoticed. God slips in unnoticed. True, it will become one of the most celebrated holidays in the Western world, and true, the Western world will undertake the nonsensical task of keeping a warm, fuzzy Christmas without Christ or Christmas mentioned once. But us lay aside both Christian bloggers speaking in defense of a secularized Christmas, and bloggers telling retailers, “You need Christmas, but Christmas doesn’t need you.” You speak of the damned backswing coming from an unexpected place; this is nothing next to God slipping in unnoticed.
There will be a time when God will be noticed by all. At the first Christmas, angel hosts announced good news to a few shepherds. When Christ returns, he will be seen by all, riding on the clouds with rank upon rank of angels. At the first Christmas, a lone star heralded it to the Magi. When he returns, the sky will recede as a vanishing scroll. At the first Christmas, a few knees bowed. When he returns, every knee will bow. And the seed for this victory is planted in Christmas.
And the same seeds of glory are quietly planted in our lives. You are not wrong to see the damned backswing and see that it is real: but one would be wrong to see it and think it is most real. Open one eye, and you may see the damned backswing at work. Open both eyes wide, and you may see God at work, changing the game.
And God will work a new thing in you. Not, perhaps, by taking you out of your sufferings or other things that you may pray for; that is at his good pleasure. But you have heard the saying, “We want God to change our circumstances. God wants to use our circumstances to change us.” Whole worlds open up with forgiveness, or repentance, or any virtue. If you are moulded as clay in the potter’s hands, unsought goods come along the way. The Best Things in Life are Free, and what is hard to understand is that this is not just a friend’s smile, but suffering persecution for the sake of Christ. It was spiritual eyes wide open that left the apostles rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame [and violence] for Christ’s name. And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” This newness begins here and now, and it comes when in circumstances we would not choose God works to give us a larger share in the real world. We enter a larger world, or rather we become larger ourselves and more able to take in God’s reality. And all of this is like the first Christmas, a new thing and unexpected. We are summoned and do not dare disobey: Sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord all the earth. And it is this whole world with angels, butterflies, the Church, dandylions, energetic work, friends, family, and forgiveness, the Gospel, holiness, the I that God has made, jewels, kairos, love, mothers, newborn babes, ostriches, preaching, repentance from sins, singing, technology, unquestioning obedience, variety, wit and wisdom, xylophones, youth and age, and zebras.
Paidion: I found some really interesting stuff about the Law of Attraction.
Aneer: What is it that you have found?
Paidion: This wonderful secret, the Law of Attraction, is a secret where if you understand how you attract what you think about… then you have the key to happiness!
Aneer: Have you seen what else the Law of Attraction could be?
Paidion: You mean the Law of Attraction could be more?
Aneer: Let me think about how to explain this…
Paidion: Did the Church Fathers say anything about the Law of Attraction? Or did the Bible?
Aneer: Where to start, where to start—the Law of Attraction says our thoughts are important, and that is true. Not just a little bit true, but deeper than a whale can dive. The Apostle writes:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Paidion: And there is something about “ask, seek, knock?”
Aneer: Yes, indeed:
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
Aneer: Yes indeed, from the first pages of Genesis:
Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, “Yea, hath God said, “Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?'”
And the woman said unto the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”
And the serpent said unto the woman, “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat,
The Law of Attraction is here. The very heart of the Law of Attraction is here. Have you read The Magician’s Nephew?
Paidion: It is one of my favorite books.
Aneer: Do you remember what Jadis stole?
Paidion: How could Jadis steal anything? She was a queen!
Aneer: Then you have forgotten the verse when Jadis met a garden enclosed:
“Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear,
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.”
The story gives a glimpse of the Queen Jadis finding her heart’s desire: undying years, and undying strength. She found everything the Law of Attraction promises. If the Law of Attraction does anything, you can see it unfold in Eve choosing to be attracted to the fruit, or Jadis.
But undying strength was not the only thing in the picture. When Jadis ate that apple, she might never age or die, but neither could she ever live again. She cheated death, perhaps, but at the expense of Life. Which is to say that she didn’t really cheat Death at all. And she damned herself to a “living” death that was hollow compared to her previous life she so eagerly threw away.
Paidion: So you think Eve was like Jadis? Halfway to being a vampire?
Aneer: Paidion, you’re big on imagining. I want you to imagine the Garden of Eden for just a moment. Adam and Eve have been created immortal, glorious, lord and lady of all nature, and Eve tastes an exhilirating rush that has something very vampiric about it: a moment passed, and the woman who had never known pain found the seed of death deep inside her. And in a flash of insight, she realized something.
Paidion: What is it she realized?
Aneer: She had the seed of death eating away at her. Nothing could stop her from dying. And her deathless husband would watch her die.
Paidion: A sad end to the story.
Aneer: What do you mean?
Paidion: But it’s a tragedy!
Aneer: It may be tragic, but how is it an end to Adam’s story?
Adam was still deathless. He would live on; did you assume he would be celibate, or that Eve envisioned God to never provide him a wife to share in blessed happiness?
Paidion: Look, this is all very impressive, but is any of this really part of the ancient story?
Aneer: I cut off the story before its usual end. The end goes surprisingly fast:
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
Paidion: Why? Is this just Eve’s… solution… to… the… problem… of… Adam’s… [shudder]
Aneer: Do you think your generation is the first to invent jealousy?
Paidion: But can’t the Law of Attraction be used for good?
Aneer: When people speak of the Law of Attraction, it always sounds like the unearthing of the key to happiness.
Paidion: But what else could it be once we are attracting the right thoughts?
Aneer: What, exactly, are the right thoughts might be something interesting to discuss someday. But for now let me suggest that the Law of Attraction might be something very different, at its core, from the key to happiness: it could be the bait to a trap.
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
but only after saying something that is cut from the same cloth:
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
The Sermon on the Mount finds it unworthy of the children of a loving and providing God to chase after food and clothing—or cars and iPods or whatever—as if they have to do so because their Heavenly Father has forgotten their needs. God knows our needs before we begin to ask, and it’s a distraction for us to be so terribly concerned about the things that will be added to us if we put first things first and last things last.
Paidion: But what is wrong with wanting abundance?
Aneer: Did you know that royalty do not touch money?
Paidion: Why not? It would seem that a king should have the most right to touch money.
Aneer: Well, let us leave discussion of rights for another day. But there’s something in the Republic where Plato knows something about gold, and it is the reason why royalty do not touch money.
Paidion: And that is?
Aneer: Plato is describing the guardians, the highest rulers of an ideal city. And what he says about them is that they have true gold in their character: they have a truer gold than gold itself, and they are set apart for something high enough that they would only be distracted by handling the kind of gold that is dug up from the earth like something dead.
Paidion: But kings have palaces and jewels and such!
Aneer: Not in Plato’s Republic they don’t. The life of a ruler, of a king, in Plato is something like the life of a monk. It’s not about having palaces of gold any more than being President is all about being able to watch cartoons all day!
Paidion: Ok, but for the rest of us who may not be royalty, can’t we at least want abundance as a consolation prize?
Aneer: “The rest of us who may not be royalty?”
What can you possibly mean?
Aneer:All of us bear the royal bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve. All of us are created in the divine image, made to grow into the likeness of Christ and—
Paidion: So we are all made to rule as kings?
Aneer: Read the Fathers and you will find that the real rule of royalty is when we rule over God’s creation as royal emblems, as the image of God. For people to rule other people is not just not the only kind of royal rule: it’s almost like a necessary evil. Do you know of the ritual anointing of kings? In the Bible, a man is made king when he is anointed with oil. Such anointing still takes place in England, for instance. And when a person receives the responsibility for sacred work in the Orthodox Church, he is anointed—chrismated—and in this anointing, the Orthodox Church has always seen the sacred anointing of prophet, priest, and king.
Paidion: But this is just for priests, right?
Aneer: Paidion, every one of us is created for spiritual priesthood. Perhaps I wasn’t clear: the anointing of prophet, priest, and king is for every faithful member of the Church, not just a few spiritual Marines. Chrismation, or royal anointing, is administered alongside baptism to all the faithful.
Paidion: And it’s part of this royal dignity not to touch money?
Aneer: There is a very real sense in which Christians may not touch money. Not literally, perhaps; many Christians touch coins or other items, and so on and so forth. But there is a real sense in which Christians never have what you search for in abundance, because they have something better.
Paidion: Are you saying half a loaf is better than an abundance of loaves?
Aneer: I know a number of people who have found that an abundance of loaves is not the solution to all of life’s problems. Easy access to an abundance of loaves can lead to weight issues, or worse.
May I suggest what it is that you fear losing? It isn’t exactly abundance, even if you think it is.
Paidion: So am I mistaken when I think I want shrimp and lobster as often as I wish?
Aneer: Maybe you are right that you want shrimp and lobster, but you don’t only want shrimp and lobster. You want to be able to choose.
Remember in Star Wars, how Luke and Ben Kenobi are travelling in the Millenium Falcoln, and Kenobi puts a helmet on Luke’s head that has a large shield completely blocking his eyesight? And Luke protests and says, “With the blast shield down, I can’t even see. How am I supposed to fight?” And then something happens, and Luke starts to learn that he can fight even without seeing what was in front of him, and Kenobi says, “You have taken your first step into a larger world.”?
What you want is to have your ducks in a row and be able to see that you can have shrimp and lobster as often as you want.
What the Sermon on the Mount says is better than a way to do a better job of having your next meal right where you can see it. It says to put the blast shield down…
And take your first step into a larger world.
Paidion: I’m sure for a man of faith like you—
Aneer: Why call me a man of faith? I may not have all my ducks lined up in a row, but I have always known where my next meal is coming from.
Paidion: Well sure, but that’s—
Aneer: Maybe everybody you know has that privilege, but a great many people in the world do not.
Paidion: That may be, but I still want abundance.
Aneer: May I suggest that you are reaching for abundance on a higher plane?
Paidion: Like what? What is this larger world?
Aneer: When you have the blast shield down over your eyes, what you receive is part of a life of communion with God. When you don’t see where your next meal is coming from, and God still feeds you, you get a gift covered with God’s fingerprints. You’re living part of a dance and you are beckoned to reach for much deeper treasures. If you are asked to let go of treasures on earth, it is so your hands can open all the wider to grasp treasures in Heaven.
Paidion: Maybe for super-spiritual people like you, but when I’ve tried anything like that, I’ve only met disappointments.
Aneer: I’ve had a lot of disappointments. Like marriage, for instance.
Paidion:You? You’ve always seemed—
Aneer: My wife and I are very happily married. We’ve been married for years, and as the years turn into decades we are more happily married—more in love. But our marriage has been a disappointment on any number of counts.
G.K. Chesterton said, “The marriage succeeds because the honeymoon fails.” Part of our marriage is that it’s not just a honeymoon; my wife is not some bit of putty I can inflate to the contours of my fantasies about the perfect wife; she is a real person with real desires and real needs and real virtues and real flaws and a real story. She is infinitely more than some figment of my imagination. She has disappointed me time and time again—thank God!—and God has given me something much better in her than if she was some piece of putty that somehow fit my imagination perfectly. By giving me a real woman—what a woman!—God is challenging me to dig deeper into being a real man.
Paidion: So all disappointments make for a happy marriage? Because…
Aneer: I’m not completely sure how to answer that. We miss something about life if we think we can only have a happy marriage when we don’t get any disappointments. Read the Gospel and it seems that Christ himself dealt with disappointments; his life on earth built to the disappointment of the Cross which he could not escape no matter how hard he prayed. But the Apostle Paul wrote about this disappointment:
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It is part of his glory.
If you have a disappointment, you have one problem. If you have a disappointment and you think that with such a disappointment you can’t really be where you should be, you have two problems. Disappointments sting like ninety, but they can be drawn into something deeper and a richer life.
Paidion: So you’d rather be disappointed in life than get your way.
When I haven’t gotten my way, that has been a stepping stone for a refinement on more than one level, a refinement in what I sought and what I wanted. I’ve gotten better things than if I always had a magic key that gave me what I thought I wanted. St. Paul said, “When I became a man, I put childish things behind me.”
Paidion: Am I being childish if I wish the Law of Attraction could get me what I want? If I dream?
Aneer: What the Law of Attraction is a way to satisfy the kind of things childish people set their hearts on. Always getting your way is not an unattainable dream. Always getting your way is not a dream at all. Always getting your way is a nightmare. It is the nightmare of succeeding at being a spoiled brat where others have grown up in all the disappointments you hope to dodge.
Paidion: Is virtue its own reward?
Or is it just the consolation prize when you do the right thing even if you don’t get a real reward?
Aneer: Let us return to Plato again.
Elsewhere in the Republic, some people say some questionable things about goodness. Someone says, for instance, that what is good is whatever the stronger group wants, or something like that. And so someone asks if there’s anything a good man has that the evil man does not.
Actually, the question is put much more strongly than that. We are asked to suppose that an evil man has every worldly benefit—a good name, wealth, good children, everything in life going his way. And let us suppose that the good man gets quite the opposite: he is slandered and betrayed, loses everything, is tortured, and is finally crucified. Can we still say that the good man has anything the evil one does not?
Paidion: If that is the case, it’s hard to see that the good man has anything valuable that the evil man does not.
Aneer: He has goodness.
Paidion: Well, yes, but besides—
Aneer: Paidion, how would you like to have all of the wealth in the world and the health with which to spend it?
Paidion: No thanks!
Aneer: Meaning that on those terms, no man in his right mind would choose any amount of wealth!
Paidion: Sure, if you have to spend all the money on doctor bills…
Aneer: All right.
Let’s suppose you don’t have to spend any of it on doctor bills. Suppose you’re a billionaire with all kinds of free medical care, and with your billions of dollars comes the worst of health and the most atrocious suffering for the rest of your mercifully short life. Billions of dollars must be worth that, right?
Paidion: Does this relate to Plato?
Paidion: Are you saying that the evil man had bad health? You didn’t mention that at first.
Aneer: Well, that depends on what you mean by health. Externally, he had the best of health, I suppose, and the good man had terrible diseases. But the condition of being evil is the spiritual condition of being diseased, twisted, and shrunken. Even our English words like “twisted” and “sick” are signs of ancient recognition of evil as a spiritual disease. The evil man with worldly glory is the man who has all of the wealth in the world and the health with which to spend it—and the good man is the man who has nothing but his health. He has the one thing the evil man does not: his health!
Paidion: Is this about Heaven and Hell? Because however impressive they may be, we aren’t there yet.
Aneer: Wrong. Heaven and Hell begin in this life. The eternal tree that forever stands in Heaven or Hell is planted and nourished in this life. The connection between this life and the next is a closer connection than you can imagine.
Paidion: All this sounds very wonderful, and I could wish it were true. For people like you who have faith, at least. I don’t…
Aneer: Paidion, there was something that happened in The Magician’s Nephew, before Queen Jadis attracted to her the deathless strength that she desired. Something happened before then. Do you remember what?
Paidion: I’m not sure what.
Aneer: It’s quite memorable, and it has quite a lot to do with the Law of Attraction.
Paidion: I am afraid to ask.
Aneer: Let me quote the Queen, then.
…That was the secret of secrets. It had long been known to the great kings of our race that there was a word which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and soft-hearted and bound themselves and all who should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after the knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it. I did not use it until she forced me to it. I fought to overcome her by every other means. I poured out the blood of my armies like water…
The last great battle raged for three days here in Charn itself. For three days I looked down upon it from this very spot. I did not use my power till the last of my soldiers had fallen, and the accursed woman, my sister, at the head of her rebels was halfway up those great stairs that led up from the city to the terrace. Then I waited till we were so close that we could not see one another’s faces. She flashed her horrible, wicked eyes upon me and said, “Victory.” “Yes,” said I, “Victory, but not yours.” Then I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing beneath the sun.
Paidion: Are you saying that the Law of Attraction is like the Deplorable Word?
Aneer: The Law of Attraction is described in glowing terms but what is described so glowingly is that there’s you, your thoughts, and a giant mirror called the universe… and that’s it. Everything else is killed. Not literally, perhaps, but in a still very real sense. The reason you have not succeeded at getting what you want couldn’t be because a powerful man, with his own thoughts and motives, is refusing something you want, much less that God loves you and knows that what you want isn’t really in your best interests. The powerful man is just part of the great mirror, as is God, if there is anything to God besides you. The only possible reason for you to not have something, the only thing that is not killed, is your thoughts.
And how I wish you could enter a vast, vast world which is not a mirror focused on you, where even the people who meet and know you have many other concerns besides thinking about you, who have their own thoughts and wishes and which is ruled by an infinitely transcendent God who is infinitely more than you even if you were made for the entire purpose of becoming divine, and perhaps even more divine than if you are the only thing you do not lump into the great mirror reflecting your thoughts.
Paidion: But how shall I then live? It seemed, for a moment, like things got better when I paid attention to my thoughts, and things in my life—
Aneer: If you think it seems like your thoughts matter, perhaps that’s because your thoughts really are important, possibly more important than you can even dream of. Perhaps there are other things going on in the world, but it is your thoughts that stand at the root of everything you contribute to the tree that will stand eternally in Heaven or as Hell. I don’t know how to tell you how important it is to attend to your thoughts, nor how to tell you that what you think of as morality is something which all the wise go upstream and deal with at the source, in the unseen warfare of vigilant attention to one’s thoughts. Little thoughts build to big thoughts and big thoughts build to actions, and spiritual discipline or “ascesis” moves from the hard battle of actions to the harder battle of thoughts. And thoughts aren’t just about concepts; when I’ve had trouble getting a thought of doing something I shouldn’t out of my head, sometimes I’ve reminded myself that what is not truly desired doesn’t really last long. The Philokalia there, my point is that it is a lifetime’s endeavor to learn how to pay proper attention to one’s thoughts.
Paidion: Um… uh… did you say I was made to be divine? Did you mean it?
Aneer: Paidion, if being divine just means that there isn’t anything that much bigger than us, then that’s a rather pathetic idea of the divine, and I wouldn’t give twopence for it. But if we really and truly understand how utterly God dwarfs us, if we understand what it means that God is the Creator and we are his creatures, and the infinite chasm between Creator and creature is then transcended so that we his creatures can become by grace what God is by nature—then that is really something and I would give my life for that way of being divine!
There is a hymn, of ancient age, that says, “Adam, wanting to be divine, failed to be divine. Christ became man that he might make Adam divine.” Christ’s life is an example of what it means to be divine: as a child he was a refugee, then grew up as a blue-collar worker, then lived as a homeless man, and died a slave’s death so vile its name was a curse word. This is a tremendous clue-by-four about what true glory is. This is a divine clue-by-four about what Adam missed when he decided that reigning as immortal king and lord of paradise and following only one simple rule wasn’t good enough for him.
And it is in this messy life we live, with so many situations beyond our control and so many things we would not choose, that God can transform us so that we become by grace what he is by nature.
Paidion: Aneer, can I ever enter the vast world you live in? It seems I have, well…
Paidion: Chosen to live in an awfully small world, thinking I was doing something big.
Aneer:All of us have. It’s called sin. Not a popular word today, but realizing you are in sin is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Before you repent, you are afraid to let go of something that seems, like the Ring to Gollum, “my precious.” Afterwards you find that what you dropped was torment and Hell, and you are awakening to a larger world.
Paidion: But when can I do something this deep? My schedule this week is pretty full, and little of it meshes well with—
In an era of political correctness, it is always refreshing to discover a new manuscript from Athanasius, a saint a bit like gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who told the community’s most respected members that they crossed land and sea to gain one single convert only to make this convert twice as much a child of Hell as they were themselves (Matt 23:15). In an era of political correctness, Athanasius can be a breath of fresh air.
In this hitherto undiscovered and unknown work, Athanasius addresses a certain (somewhat strange and difficult to understand) era’s idiosyncracy in its adulation of what is termed “creative fidelity.” His own era seems to be saying something to ours.
Athanasius: On creative fidelity
What is this madness I hear about “creative fidelity“? For it is actually reported to me that whenever one of you talks about being faithful to tradition, his first act is to parrot mad words about how “Being Orthodox has never been a matter of mindless parrot-like repetition of the past, but always a matter of creative fidelity.”? What madness is this?
Is creative fidelity the fundamental truth about how to be an Orthodox Christian? Then why do we only hear about this at a time when people love innovation, when the madness of too many innovators to mention poisons the air as effectively as the heretic, the Antichrist, Arius? How is it that the Fathers, who are also alledged to participate in this diabolical “creative fidelity”, did not understand what they were doing, but instead insisted in one and the same faith shared by the Church since its beginning? Is this because you understand the Fathers better than the Fathers themselves?
Is the report of blasphemy also true, that to conform to people’s itching ears (II Tim 4:3) you shy back from the divine oracle, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (I Cor 11:3)? There is something the Apostle so much wants you to understand, and perhaps if you understood it better you would not go so far astray as to seek the living among the dead (Luke 24:5) in your quest for creative fidelity.
How is it that you seek the living among the dead (Luke 24:5)? Christ is the head of the Church (Eph 5:23), of every man (I Cor 11:3), of every authority (Col 2:10), of all things (Eph 1:22,) and God is the head of Christ (I Cor 11:3). Christ is the one head, and because of him there are many heads. The sanctuary is the head of the nave: the place where sacred priests minister meets its glory and manifest interpretation (for as the divine Disciple tells us, the Son has interpreted the Father (John 1:18) to the world) in the nave where the brethren worship. The archetype is the head of the image, the saint the head of his icon, and indeed Heaven is the head of earth. And it is the head whose glory is manifest in the body.
If both incorruptible and unchangeable Heaven is the head of corruptible and changeable earth and yet earth manifests Heaven, what does this say about this strange thing you laud called “creative fidelity”? Does it not say something most disturbing? Does the one and the same faith, alive from the days of the apostles, belong to the corruptible or the incorruptible? Is it not unchangeable?
What then of those adaptations you make—even if some are good and some are even necessary? Do they not belong to the realm of the changeable and the realm of the corruptible?
Which then is to be head? Is the corruptible and changeable to be the head of the incorruptible that suffers no change? Or rather is not the heavenly incorruptible faith to be made manifest and interpreted in the world of change? Such creative fidelity as there may be cannot be the head, and when it usurps the place of the head, you make Heaven conform to earth. Such a people as yours is very good at making Heaven conform to earth!
Listen to me. When you prepare for the sacred Pascha, how many fasts are there? One of you fasts most strictly; another is too weak to fast; another has an observance somewhere between these poles, so that there are several ways of observing the fast.
Are there therefore many fasts? Are there many Lords (I Cor 8:5) honored when you fast? Or is it not one and the same fast which one observes according to the strictest letter, another with more accommodation, and each to the glory of God? Now which is the head, the variation in fasting, or the fast itself? Are the differences in observance the spiritual truth about the fast, or the one fast to the glory of the One Lord? Or do you think that because the fast may be relaxed in its observance, the most important truth is how many ways it may legitimately be observed?
So then, as the Church’s fast is the head of the brethren’s fast, be it strict or not strict, and it is one fast in the whole Church, so also there is one faith from the days of the Apostles. This I say not because I cannot notice the differences between the Fathers, but because these differences are not the head. The one fast is the head of various observances and the one faith perfectly delivered is the head even of creative fidelity, which has always appeared when people pursue the one faith and which has no need of our exhortations. Have the Fathers shown creative fidelity when they sought to preserve the one faith? If you say so, what does that say about your exhortation to creative fidelity? Is it needed? Do you also exhort people to wrong others so that the flower of forgiveness may show forth? Or is there not enough opportunity for the flower of forgiveness without seeking it out? Show creative fidelity when you must, but must you seek it out? Must you make it the head? Must you make the Fathers wrong when they lay a foundation, not of each day’s idiosyncracies in being faithful, but in the one faith that like Heaven cannot suffer change and like Heaven is what should be made manifest in earth?
Why do you seek the living among the dead (Luke 24:5)? Our confession has a great High Priest (Heb 3:1) who has passed through the Heavens (Heb 4:14) to that Temple and Tradition, that Sanctuary, of which every changeable earthen tradition is merely a shadow and a copy (Heb 8:5) and which the saints of the ages are ever more fully drawn to participate! Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses and the Great Witness himself, let us also lay aside every weight, and change, and sin which so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us (Heb 12:1), changing that we may leave change behind!
We are told as we read the trials in the Book of Job that Satan stands slandering God’s saints day and night and said God had no saint worthy of temptation. And the Lord God Almighty allowed Satan to tempt St. Job.
We are told this, but in the end of the Scripture, even when St. Job’s losses are repaid double, St. Job never hears. He never knows that he stands in the cosmic coliseum, as a champion on God’s behalf. Never on earth does St. Job know the reason for the catastrophes that befell him.
St. Job, buffeted and bewildered, could see no rhyme or reason in what befell him. Yet even the plagues of Satan were woven into the plans of the Lord God who never once stopped working all things to good for this saint, and to the saint who remained faithful, the plagues of Satan are woven into the diadem of royal priesthood crowning God’s saints.
Everything that comes to us is either a blessing from God or a temptation which God has allowed for our strengthening. The plagues by which Satan visited St. Job are the very means themselves by which God glorified his faithful saint.
Do not look for God in some other set of circumstances. Look for him in the very circumstances you are in. If you look at some of your circumstances and say, “God could not have allowed that!”, you are not rightly accepting the Lord’s work in the circumstances he has chosen to work his glory.
You are in the arena; God has given you weapons and armor by which to fight. A poor warrior indeed blames the weapons God has armed him with.
Fight therefore, before angels and men. The circumstances of your life are not inadequate, whether through God lacking authority, or wisdom, or love. The very sword blows of Satan glancing off shield and armor are ordained in God’s good providence to burnish tarnishment and banish rust.
The Almighty laughs Satan to scorn. St. Job, faithful when he was stricken, unmasked the feeble audacity of the demons.
God gives ordinary providence for easy times, and extraordinary providence for hard times.
If times turn hard for men, and much harder for God’s servants, know that this is ordained by God. Do not suppose God’s providence came when you were young but not now.
What in your life do you wish were gone so you could be where you should be? When you look for God to train you in those very circumstances, that is the beginning of victory. That is already a victory won.
Look in every circumstance for the Lord to train you. The dressing of wounds after struggle is part of training, and so is live combat.
The feeble audacity of the demons gives every appearance of power, but the appearance deceives.
Nothing but your sins can wound you so that you are down. And even our sins are taken into the work of the Almighty if we repent.
When some trial comes to you, and you thank God, that is itself a victory.
Look for God’s work here and now. If you will not let God work with you here and now, God will not fulfill all of your daydreams and then begin working with you; he will ask you to let him train you in the here and now.
Do you find yourself in a painfully rough situation? Then what can you do to lighten others’ burdens? Instead of asking, “Why me?”, ask, “Why not me?”
An abbot asked a suffering monk if he wanted the abbot to pray that his suffering be taken away. The disciple said, “No,” and his master said, “You will outstrip me.”
It is not a contradiction to say that both God has designs for us, and we are under the pressure of trials. Diamonds are only made through pressure.
No disciple is greater than his master. Should we expect to be above sufferings when the Son of God was made perfect through suffering?
Anger is a spiritual disease. We choose the path of illness all the more easily when we do not recognize that God seeks to train us in the situation we are in, not the situation we wish we were in.
It is easier not to be angry when we recognize that God knows what he is doing in the situations he allows us to be in. The situation may be temptation and trial, but was God impotent, unwise, or unloving in how he handled St. Job?
We do not live in the best of all possible worlds by any means. We live instead in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods. And that is the greater blessing.
Some very holy men no longer struggle spiritually because spiritual struggle has worked out completely. But for the rest of us, struggle is a normal state. It is a problem for you or I to pass Lent without struggle. If we struggle and stumble and fall, that is good news. All the better if we cannot see how the thrusts and blows of the enemy’s sword burnish away a little rust, one imperceptible speck at a time.
Do you ask, “Did it have to hurt that much?” When I have asked that question, I have not found a better answer than, “I do not understand,” and furthermore, “Do I understand better than God?”
We seek happiness on terms that make success and happiness utterly impossible. God destroys our plans so that we might have the true happiness that is blessedness.
Have a good struggle.
There is no road to blessedness but the royal road of affliction that befits God’s sons. Consider it pure joy when you fall into different trials and temptations. If you have trouble seeing why, read the Book of James.
Treasures on earth fail. Treasures in Heaven are more practical.
Rejoice and dance for joy when men slander you and revile you and curse you for what good you do. This is a sign you are on the royal road; this is how the world heralds prophets and sons of God. This earthly dishonor is the seal of Heavenly honor.
If you have hard memories, they too are a part of the arena. Forgive and learn to thank God for painful memories.
Remember that you will die, and live in preparation for that moment. There is much more life in mindfully dying each day than in heedlessly banishing from your mind the reality. Live as men condemned to die, made a spectacle before men and angels.
Live your life out of prayer.
It takes a lifetime of faith to trust that God always answers prayers: he answers either “Yes, here is what you asked,” or “No, here is something better.” And to do so honestly can come from the struggle of praying your heart out and wondering why God seemed to give no answer and make no improvements to your and others’ pain.
In the Bible, David slew Goliath. In our lives, David sometimes prevails against Goliath, but often not. Which is from God? Both.
Struggling for the greater good is a process of at once trying to master, and to get oneself out of the way. Struggle hard enough to cooperate with God when he rips apart your ways of struggling to reach the good.
This life is an apprenticeship. You do not understand its purpose until you understand that we are created to be apprentice gods.
It is said, a man knows the meaning of life when he plants a tree knowing he will never live to sit in its shade. Truer is to say that a man knows the meaning of life when he plants a tree not seeing how he will ever this side of Heaven sit in its shade.
You do not understand life in the womb until you understand what is after the womb. For some actions in the womb bear fruit in the womb, but suckling and kicking are made to strengthen muscles for nursing and walking, and nursing a preparation for the solid food of men.
You shall surely die: such Adam and Eve were warned, such Adam and Eve were cursed, and such the saints are blessed. For death itself is made an entryway for life. But we can only repent in this life: after this life our eternal choice of Life or Death is sealed.
Do not despise moral, that is to say eternal, victories. Have you labored to do something great, only to find it all undone? Take courage. God is working with you to wreak triumph. From his eternal providence he is working, if you will be his co-worker, in synergy, to make with you something greater than you could possibly imagine, a treasure in Heaven which you never could imagine to be able to covet.
The purpose of life may be called as an apprenticeship to become divine. The divine became man that man might become divine. The Scriptures oft speak of the sons of God, and of men’s participation in the nature divine. This divinisation begins on earth and reaches its full stature, when the Church triumphant and whole becomes the Church of saints who have become what in God they were trying to become. And we are summoned to that door.
Were sportsmanship to be found only in a foreign culture, we would find it exotic. Play your best, seek to win a well-played game, but have dispassion enough to be graceful in winning and losing alike. But one of its hidden gems is that most often a team that has to win will be defeated by a team that only tries to give it their best.
But sportsmanship is not just for sports. Hard times are encroaching and are already here: but we are summoned, not to win, but to play our best. Hence St. Paul, at the end of a life of as much earthly triumph as any saints, spoke as a true sportsman: he said not, “I have triumphed,” but that he had been faithful: I have fought a good fight, I have finished my [race]course, I have kept the faith. This from a saint who enjoyed greater earthly accomplishments than his very Lord.
It is said that there are three ranks among the disciples: slaves who obey God out of fear, hirelings who obey God out of the desire for reward, and sons who obey God out of love. It has also been said that we owe more to Hell than to Heaven, for more people come to the truth from fear of Hell than the desire for the rewards in Heaven. But if you want a way out of Hell, seek to desire the incomparably greater reward in Heaven; if you seek reward in Heaven, come to obey God out of love, for love of God transcends even rewards in Heaven.
It is said, Doth thou love life? Then do not waste time, for time is the stuff life’s made of. It might be said, Seekest thou to love? Then do not shun ascesis and discipleship, for they are the stuff love is made of. Or they a refining fire that purges all that is not silver and gold. Our deifying apprenticeship takes place through ascesis and being disciples.
The sum of our status as apprentice gods is this: Love men as made in the image of God, and work in time as the womb of eternity. Fulfill your apprenticeship with discipleship as best you are able. And follow God’s lead in the great Dance, cooperating in synergy with his will. And know that lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
Can you pull out Leviathan with a hook,
or press his tongue down with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose,
or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many supplications to you?
Will he speak soft words to you?
Will he make a covenant with you?
Will he be your servant forever?
Will you play with him as with a bird?
Or will you put him on a rope for your maidens?
Will traders bargain for him?
Shall he be divided among the merchants?
Can you fill his skin with harpoons,
or his head with fishing spears?
Lay hands on him;
Think of the battle; you will not do it again!
Behold, the hope of a man is disappointed;
he is laid low even at the sight of him.
No one is so fierce as to dare to stir him up.
Who then is he who can stand before him?
Who can confront him and be safe?
Under the whole Heavens, who?
I will not keep silence concerning his limbs,
or his mighty strength, or his powerful frame.
Who can strip off his outer garment?
Who can penetrate his double coat of mail?
Who can open the doors of his face?
Round about his teeth is terror.
His back is made of rows of shields,
shut up as tightly as with a seal.
One is so near to another
that no air can pass between them.
They are joined to one another;
they clasp each other and cannot be separated.
His sneezings flash forth light;
and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
Out of his mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap forth.
Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
In his neck abides strength,
and terror dances before him.
The folds of his flesh cleave together,
firmly cast upon him and immovable.
His heart is as hard as a stone,
as hard as the lower millstone.
When he raises himself up, the gods are afraid;
at the crashing they are beside themselves.
Though the sword reaches him, it does not avail;
nor spear, nor dart, nor javelin.
He counts iron as straw,
and bronze as rotted wood.
The arrow cannot make him flee;
for him slingstones are turned to rubble.
Clubs are counted as stubble;
he laughs at the rattle of javelins.
His underparts are like sharp potsherds;
he spreads himself like a threshing sledge on the mire.
He makes the deep boil like a pot;
he makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
Behind him he leaves a shining wake;
one would think the deep to be hoary.
Upon earth there is not his equal,
a creature without fear.
He beholds everything that is high;
he is king over all of the sons of pride. (Job 41)
Behold Behemoth, which I made with you;
he eats grass as an ox.
Look now; his strength is in his loins,
and his power is in the muscles of his belly.
He swings his tail like a cedar;
the sinews of his thighs are knit together.
His bones are like rods of bronze;
his limbs are like bars of iron.
He is the chief of the works of God;
his maker can approach him with the sword.
Surely the mountains bring forth food to him,
where all of the beasts of the field play.
He lies under the lotus trees;
the willows of the book surround him.
Behold, he drinks up a river and is not frightened;
he is confident though the Jordan rushes into his mouth.
Can a man take him with hooks,
or pierce his nose with a snare? (Job 40:15-24)
These words, lightly altered from the Revised Standard Version, culminate a divine answer to Job out of the whirlwind: where was Job when God laid the foundation of earth? The divine voice turns to the foundations of the earth and the bounds of the sea, light and darkness, rain and hail, the stars, and the lion, mountain goat, wild ox and ass, ostrich, horse, and the hawk. The text is powerful even if translators demurely use “tail” for what the Behemoth swings like a cedar.
On a more pedestrian level, I was reticent when some friends had told me that they were going to be catsitting in their apartment and invited me over. (They know I love cats and other animals.) What I thought to explain later was that I proportionately outweigh a housecat by about as much as a mammoth outweighs me (perhaps “rhinoceros” would have been more appropriately modest than “mammoth”), and I try to let animals choose the pace at which they decide I’m not a threat. (And the cat has no way of knowing I don’t eat cats.) As far as the environment to meet goes, I didn’t bring up “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” but humans are more forgiving than animals. Although I didn’t mention that, I did mention the difference between someone approaching you in a mailroom and someone following you in a less safe place. All of which was to explain why I love animals but would be cautious about approaching a cat in those circumstances and would play any visit by ear. (I later explained how even if the cat is not sociable and spends most of its visit hiding, they can still experience significant success by returning the cat to his owner unharmed with any unpleasantness quickly forgotten in the arms of his owner.)
As I write, I spent a lovely afternoon with those friends, and tried to serve as a tour guide. What I realized as I was speaking to them was that I was mixing the scientific with what was not scientific, not exactly by saying things some scientists would disapprove like why eyeless cave fish suggest a reason natural selection might work against the formation of complex internal and external organs, but by something else altogether.
What is this something else? It is the point of this essay to try and uncover that.
I wrote in Meat why I eat lots of beef but am wary of suffering caused by cruel farming, and for that reason don’t eat veal and go light on pork: I believe it is legitimate to kill animals for food but not moral to raise them under lifelong cruelty to make meat cheap. (Jesus was very poor by American standards and rarely had the luxury of eating meat.) While I hope you will bookmark Meat and consider trying to eat lower on the animal cruelty scale, my reason for bringing this up is different. The reason I wrote Meat has to do with something older in my life than my presently being delighted to find beef sausage and beef bacon, and trying not to eat much more meat than I need. And I am really trying hard not to repeat what I wrote before.
Thomas Aquinas is reported to have said that the one who does not murder because “Do not murder” is so deep in his bones that he needs no law to tell him not to murder, is greater than the theologian who can derive that law from first principles. What I want to talk about is simultaneously “deep in the bones” knowledge and something I would like to discover, and it is paradoxically something I want to discover because it is deep in my bones. And it is connected in my minds less to meat than when one of my friends, having come with a large dog who was extremely skittish around men, had a mix of both women and men over to help her move into her apartment, and asked me and not any of the women to take care of a dog she acknowledged was afraid of men. (I don’t know why she did this; I don’t think she thought about my being a man.) At the beginning of half an hour, the dog was manifestly not happy at being at the other end of a leash with me; at the end of the half hour the dog had his head in my lap and was wagging his tail to meet the other men as well as women.
Part of this was knowledge in the pure Enlightenment sense about stretching an animal’s comfort zone without pushing it into panic—a large part, in fact. But another part is that while I don’t believe that animals are people, I try to understand animals and relate to them the same way I understand and relate to people. Maybe I can’t discuss philosophy with a rabbit, and maybe a little bit of knowledge science-wise helps about minimizing intimidation to a creature whose main emotion is fear.
But that’s not all.
After I ended the phone conversation where I explained why I was wary of terrifying what might be an already afraid cat, I realized something. I had just completed a paper for a feminist theology class which criticized historical scholarship that looked at giants of the past as behaving strangely and inexplicably, and I tried to explain why their behavior was neither strange nor inexplicable. I suggested that historical sources need to be understood as human and said that if you don’t understand why someone would write what you’re reading, that’s probably a sign there’s something you don’t understand. Most of the length of my paper went into trying to help the reader see where the sources were coming from and see why their words were human, and neither strange nor inexplicable. What I realized after the phone conversation was that I had given the exact same kind of argument for why I was hesitant to introduce myself to the cat: I later called and suggested that the cat spend his first fifteen minutes in the new apartment with his owner petting him. I never said that the cat was human, and unlike some cat owners I would never say that the cat was equal to a human, but even if I will never meet that cat, my approach to dealing with the cat meet him is not cut off from my approach to dealing with people. And in that regard I’m not anywhere near a perfect Merlin (incidentally, a merlin is a kind of hawk, the last majestic creature we encounter before the proud Behemoth and Leviathan, and it does not seem strange to me that a lot of Druids have hawk in their name, nor do I think the name grandiose), but Merlin appears in characters’ speculation in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength as someone who achieves certain effects, not by external spells, but by who he is and how he relates to nature. That has an existentialist ring I’d like to exorcise, but if I can get by with saying that I feel no need to meditate in front of a tree and repeat a mantra of “I see the tree. The tree sees me,” nor do I spend much of any time trying to “Get in touch with nature…” then after those clarifications I think I can explain why something of Lewis’s portrayal of Merlin resonates. (And I don’t think it’s the most terribly helpful approach to talk about later “accretions” and try to understand Arthurian legend through archaeological reconstruction of 6th century Britain; that’s almost as bad as asking astronomy to be more authentic by only using the kind of telescopes Galileo could use.) It is not the scientific knowledge I can recite that enables me to relate to animals well, but by what is in my bones: a matter of who I am even before woolgathering about “Who am I?”
This has little to do with owning pets; I do not know that I would have a pet whether or not my apartment would allow them, and have not gone trotting out for a cat fix even though one is available next door. It’s not a matter of having moral compunctions about meat, although it fed into my acquiring such compunctions a few years ago. It’s not about houseplants either; my apartment allows houseplants but I have not gone to the trouble of buying one. Nor is it a matter of learning biology; physics, math, and computer science were pivotally important to me, but not only was learning biology never a priority for my leisure time, but I am rather distressed that when people want to understand nature they inevitably grab for a popular book on biology. When people try to understand other people, do they ask for CT scan of the other person’s brain? Or do they recognize that there is something besides biological and medical theories that can lend insight into people and other creatures?
The fact that we do not try to relate to people primarily through medicine suggests a way we might relate to other animals besides science: trying to relate to nature by understanding science is asking an I-It tree to bear I-Thou fruit. (If you are unfamiliar with Martin Buber’s I and Thou, it would also be comparable to asking a stone to lay an egg.)
I’m not going to be graphic, but I would like to talk about dissection. Different people respond differently to different circumstances, and I know that my experience with gradeschool dissection is not universal. I also know that dissection is not a big deal for some people, as I know that the hunters I know are among the kindest people I’ve met. Still I wish to make some remarks.
The first thing is that there is an emotional reaction you people need to suppress. Perhaps some adults almost reminisce about that part of their education as greatly dreaded but almost disappointing in its lack of psychological trauma. And I may be somewhat sensitive. But there’s something going on in that experience, stronger for some people and weaker in others. It’s one learning experience among others and what is learned is significant.
But is it really one learning experience among others?
Again without being graphic, dissection could have been used as a bigger example in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book I strongly reccommend. It finds a red flag in the dissection room, if mentioned only briefly—a red flag that something of our humanity is being lost.
To be slightly more graphic, one subtle cue was that in my biology classroom, there were plenty of gloves to begin with, then as the dissections progressed, only one glove per person, then no gloves at all—at a school for the financially gifted. And, to note something less subtle, the animals were arranged in a very specific order. You could call the progression, if you wanted to, the simplest and least technical to properly dissect, up to a last analysis which called for distinctly more technical skill. Someone more suspicious might point out how surprisingly the list of animals coincides with what a psychologist would choose in order to desensitize appropriately sensitive children. I really don’t think I’m being too emotional by calling this order a progression from what you’d want to step on to what some people would want to cuddle. I don’t remember the Latin names I memorized to make sense of what I was looking at. What it did to my manhood, or if you prefer humanity, is lasting, or at least remembered. Perhaps my sensibilities might have needed to be coarsened, but it is with no great pride that I remember forcing myself in bravado to dissect without gloves even when everybody else was wearing them. Perhaps I crossed that line so early because there were other lines that had already been crossed in me. And perhaps I am not simply being delicate, but voicing a process that happened for other people too.
If the question is, “What do we need in dealing with animals?”, one answer might be, “What dissection makes children kill.” I’m not talking about the animals, mind you; with the exception of one earthworm, I never killed a specimen. Perhaps the memories would be more noxious if I had, but all my specimens were pre-killed and I was not asked to do that. But even with pre-killed specimens I was, in melodramatic terms, ordered to kill something of my humanity. I do not mean specifically that I experienced unpleasant emotions; I’ve had a rougher time with many things I can remember with no regrets. What I mean is that any emotions were a red flag that something of an appropriate way of relating to animals was being cut up with every unwanted touch of the scalpel. It’s not just animals that are dismantled in the experience.
When I wrote my second novel, I wrote to convey medieval culture (perhaps Firestorm 2034 would have been better if I focused more on, say, telling a story), and one thing I realized was that I would have an easier time conveying medieval culture if I showed its contact, in a sense its dismantling, with a science fiction setting, although I could have used the present day: I tried not to stray too far from the present day U.S. There is something that is exposed in contact with something very different. It applies in a story about a medieval wreaking havoc in a science fiction near future. It also applies in the dissection room. Harmony with nature, or animals, may not be seen in meditating in a forest. Or at least not as clearly as when we are fighting harmony with animals as we go along with an educator’s requests to [graphic description deleted].
Let me return to the account from which I took words about a Leviathan and a Behemoth whose tail swings like a cedar. This seemingly mythological account—if you do not know how Hebrew poetry operates, or that a related languages calls the hippopotamuspehemoth instead of using the Greek for “river horse” as we do—is better understood if you know what leads up to it. A stricken Job, slandered before God as only serving God as a mercenary, cries out to him in anguish and is met by comforters who tell him he is being punished justly. The drama is more complex than that, but God save me from such comforters in my hour of need. The only thing he did not rebuke the comforters for was sitting with Job in silence for a week because they saw his anguish was so great.
Job said, “But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.” (Job 13:3) And, after heated long-winded dialogue, we read (Job 38-39, RSV):
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who shut in the sea with doors,
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, `Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal,
and it is dyed like a garment.
From the wicked their light is withheld,
and their uplifted arm is broken.
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.
Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
and where is the place of darkness,
that you may take it to its territory
and that you may discern the paths to its home?
You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war?
What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no man is,
on the desert in which there is no man;
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass?
Has the rain a father,
or who has begotten the drops of dew?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?
The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.
Can you bind the chains of the Plei’ades,
or loose the cords of Orion?
Can you lead forth the Maz’zaroth in their season,
or can you guide the Bear with its children?
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
Can you establish their rule on the earth?
Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go
and say to you, `Here we are’?
Who has put wisdom in the clouds,
or given understanding to the mists?
Who can number the clouds by wisdom?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cleave fast together?
Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?
Do you know when the mountain goats bring forth?
Do you observe the calving of the hinds?
Can you number the months that they fulfil,
and do you know the time when they bring forth,
when they crouch, bring forth their offspring,
and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open;
they go forth, and do not return to them.
Who has let the wild ass go free?
Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass,
to whom I have given the steppe for his home,
and the salt land for his dwelling place?
He scorns the tumult of the city;
he hears not the shouts of the driver.
He ranges the mountains as his pasture,
and he searches after every green thing.
Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
Will he spend the night at your crib?
Can you bind him in the furrow with ropes,
or will he harrow the valleys after you?
Will you depend on him because his strength is great,
and will you leave to him your labor?
Do you have faith in him that he will return,
and bring your grain to your threshing floor?
The wings of the ostrich wave proudly;
but are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that the wild beast may trample them.
She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear;
because God has made her forget wisdom,
and given her no share in understanding.
When she rouses herself to flee,
she laughs at the horse and his rider.
Do you give the horse his might?
Do you clothe his neck with strength?
Do you make him leap like the locust?
His majestic snorting is terrible.
He paws in the valley, and exults in his strength;
he goes out to meet the weapons.
He laughs at fear, and is not dismayed;
he does not turn back from the sword.
Upon him rattle the quiver,
the flashing spear and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground;
he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, he says `Aha!’
He smells the battle from afar,
the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads his wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes his nest on high?
On the rock he dwells and makes his home
in the fastness of the rocky crag.
Thence he spies out the prey; his eyes behold it afar off.
[closing gruesome image deleted]
Then Job says some very humble and humbled words. Then the Lord gives his coup de grace, a demand to show strength like God that culminates with words about the Leviathan and Behemoth. Job answers “… Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… I had heard of thee by hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee.” (Job 42:3,5, RSV)
Did God blast Job like a soup cracker?
Absolutely, but if that is all you have to say about the text, you’ve missed the text.
There’s something about Job’s “comforters” defending a sanitized religion too brittle to come to terms with un-sanitized experience and un-sanitized humanity; Job cares enough about God to show his anger, and though he is never given the chance to plead his case before God, he meets God: he is not given what he asks for, but what he needs.
There’s a lot of good theology about God giving us what we need, but without exploring that in detail, I would point out that the Almighty shows himself Almighty through his Creation, quite often through animals. There may be reference to rank on rank of angels named as all the sons of God shouting for joy (Job 38:7), but man is curiously absent from the list of majestic works; the closest reference to human splendor is “When [Leviathan] raises himself up the gods are afraid; at the crashing they are beside themselves” (Job 41:25). The RSV thoughtfully replaces “gods” with “mighty” in the text, relegating “gods” to a footnote—perhaps out of concern for readers who mihgt be disturbed by the Old and New Testament practice of occasionally referring to humans as gods, here in order to to emphasize that even the mightiest or warriors are terrified by the Leviathan.
This is some of the Old Testament poetry at its finest, written by the Shakespeare of the Old Testament, and as Hebrew poetry it lays heavy emphasis on one the most terrifying creature the author knew of, the crocodile, a terrifying enough beast that Crocodile Dundee demonstrates his manhood to the audience by killing a crocodile—and the film successfully competes head-to-head against fantasy movies that leave nothing to the imagination for a viewer who wants to see a fire-breathing dragon.
Let me move on to a subtle point made in Macintyre’s Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. While the main emphasis of the work is that dependence is neither alien to being human nor something that makes us somehow less than human, he alludes to the classical definition of man as “rational mortal animal” and makes a subtle point.
Up until a few centuries ago the term “animal” could be used in a sense that either included or excluded humans. While both senses coexisted, there was not a sense that calling a person an animal was degrading any more than it was degrading to mention that we have bodies. Now calling someone an animal is either a way of declaring that they are beneath the bounds of humanity, or a dubious compliment to a man for boorish qualities, or else an evolutionary biologist’s way of insisting that we are simply one animal species among others, in neo-Darwinist fashion enjoying no special privilege. But Aristotle meant none of these when he recognized we are animals.
To be human is to be both spirit and beast, and not only is there not shame in that we have bodies that need food and drink like other animals, but there is also not shame in a great many other things: We perceive the world and think through our bodies, which is to say as animals. We communicate to other people through our bodies, which is to say as animals. Were we not animals the Eucharist would be impossible for Christians to receive. We are also spirit, and our spirit is a much graver matter than our status as animals, including in Holy Communion; our spirit is to be our center of gravity, and our resurrection body is to be transformed to be spiritual. But the ultimate Christian hope of bodily resurrection at the Lord’s return is a hope that as spiritual animals we will be transfigured and stand before God as the crowning jewel of bodily creation. The meaning of our animal nature will be changed and profoundly transformed, but never destroyed. Nor should we hope to be released from being animals. To approach Christianity in the hope that it will save us from our animal natures—being animals—is the same kind of mistake as a child who understandably hopes that growing up means being in complete control of one’s surroundings. Adulthood and Christianity both bring many benefits, but that is not the kind of benefit Christianity provides (or adulthood).
If that is the case, then perhaps there is nothing terribly provocative about my trying to understand other animals the way I understand other people. Granted, the understanding cannot run as deep because no other animal besides man is as deep as man and some would have it that man is the ornament of both visible and spiritual creation, Christ having become man and honored animal man in an honor shared by no angel. The old theology as man as microcosm, shared perhaps with non-Christian sources, sees us as the encapsulation of the entire created order. Does this mean that there are miniature stars in our kidneys? It is somewhat beside the point to underscore that every carbon nucleus in your body is a relic of a star. A more apropos response would be that to be human is to be both spirit and matter, to share life with the plants and the motion of animals, and that it is impossible to be this microcosm without being an animal. God has honored the angels with a spiritual and non-bodily creation, but that is not the only honor to be had.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
There is a classic Monty Python “game show”: the moderator asks one of the contestants the second question: “In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” The contestant looks at him with a blank stare, and then he opens the question up to the other contestants: “Anyone? In what year did Coventry City last win the English Cup?” And there is dead silence, until the moderator says, “Now, I’m not surprised that none of you got that. It is in fact a trick question. Coventry City has never won the English Cup.”
I’d like to dig into another trick question: “When was the world created: 13.7 billion years ago, or about six thousand years ago?” The answer in fact is “Neither,” but it takes some explaining to get to the point of realizing that the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.
Adam fell and dragged down the whole realm of nature. God had and has every authority to repudiate Adam, to destroy him, but in fact God did something different. He called Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, and in the fullness of time he didn’t just call a prophet; he sent his Son to become a prophet and more.
It’s possible to say something that means more than you realize. Caiaphas, the high priest, did this when he said, “It is better that one man be killed than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) This also happened when Pilate sent Christ out, flogged, clothed in a purple robe, and said, “Behold the man!”
What does this mean? It means more than Pilate could have possibly dreamed of, and “Adam” means “man”: Behold the man! Behold Adam, but not the Adam who sinned against God and dragged down the Creation in his rebellion, but the second Adam, the new Adam, the last Adam, who obeyed God and exalted the whole Creation in his rising. Behold the man, Adam as he was meant to be. Behold the New Adam who is even now transforming the Old Adam’s failure into glory!
Behold the man! Behold the first-born of the dead. Behold, as in the icon of the Resurrection, the man who descends to reach Adam and Eve and raise them up in his ascent. Behold the man who will enter the realm of the dead and forever crush death’s power to keep people down.
Behold the man and behold the firstborn of many brothers! You may know the great chapter on faith, chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, and it is with good reason one of the most-loved chapters in the Bible, but it is not the only thing in Hebrews. The book of Hebrews looks at things people were caught up in, from the glory of angels to sacrifices and the Mosaic Law, and underscores how much more the Son excels above them. A little before the passage we read above, we see, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’?” (Hebrews 1:5) And yet in John’s prologue we read, “To those who received him and believed in his name, he gave the authority to become the children of God.” (John 1:9) We also read today, “To which of the angels did he ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I have made your enemies a footstool under your feet?'” (Hebrews 1:13) And yet Paul encourages us: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet,” (Romans 16:20) and elsewhere asks bickering Christians, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (I Corinthians 6:3) Behold the man! Behold the firstborn of many brothers, the Son of God who became a man so that men might become the Sons of God. Behold the One who became what we are that we might by grace become what he is. Behold the supreme exemplar of what it means to be Christian.
Behold the man and behold the first-born of all Creation, through whom and by whom all things were made! Behold the Uncreated Son of God who has entered the Creation and forever transformed what it means to be a creature! Behold the Saviour of the whole Creation, the Victor who will return to Heaven bearing as trophies not merely his transfigured saints but the whole Creation! Behold the One by whom and through whom all things were created! Behold the man!
Pontius Pilate spoke words that were deeper than he could have possibly imagined. And Christ continued walking the fateful journey before him, continued walking to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, and finally struggled to breathe, his arms stretched out as far as love would go, and barely gasped out, “It is finished.”
Then and there, the entire work of Creation, which we read about from Genesis onwards, was complete. There and no other place the world was created, at 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD. Then the world was created.
To the Orthodox, at least in better moments, Christ is not just our perfect image of what it means to be God. He is also the definition of what it means to be Christian and what it ultimately means to be man.
Can we understand this and deny that Christ is an animal?
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.