I remember meeting a couple; the memory is not entirely pleasant. Almost the first thing they told me after being introduced was that their son was “an accident,” and this was followed by telling me how hard it was to live their lives as they wanted when he was in the picture.
I do not doubt that they had no intent of conceiving a child, nor do I doubt that having their little boy hindered living their lives as they saw fit. But when I heard this, I wanted to almost scream to them that they should look at things differently. It was almost as if I was speaking with someone bright who had gotten a full ride scholarship to an excellent university, and was vociferously complaining about how much work the scholarship would require, and how cleanly it would cut them off from what they took for granted in their home town.
I did not think, at the time, about the boy as an icon of the Holy Trinity, not made by hands, or what it means to think of such an icon as “an accident.” I was thinking mainly about a missed opportunity for growth. What I wanted to say was, “This boy was given to you for your deification! Why must you look on the means of your deification as a curse?”
Marriage and monasticism are opposites in many ways. But there are profound ways in which they provide the same thing, and not only by including a community. Marriage and monasticism both provide—in quite different ways—an opportunity to take up your cross and follow Christ, to grow into the I Corinthians 13 love that says, “When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me”—words that are belong in this hymn to love because love does not place its own desires at the center, but lives for something more. Those who are mature in love put the childish ways of living for themselves behind them, and love Christ through those others who are put in their lives. In marriage this is not just Hollywood-style exhilaration; on this point I recall words I heard from an older woman, that you don’t know understand being in love when you’re “a kid;” being in love is what you have when you’ve been married for decades. Hollywood promises a love that is about having your desires fulfilled; I did not ask that woman about what more there is to being in love, but it struck me as both beautiful and powerful that the one thing said by to me by an older woman, grieving the loss of her husband, was that there is much more to being in love than what you understand when you are young enough that marriage seems like a way to satisfy your desires.
Marriage is not just an environment for children to grow up; it is also an environment for parents to grow up, and it does this as a crown of thorns.
The monastic crown of thorns includes an obedience to one’s elder that is meant to be difficult. There would be some fundamental confusion in making that obedience optional, to give monastics more control and make things less difficult. The problem is not that it would fail to make a more pleasant, and less demanding, option than absolute obedience to a monastic elder. The problem is that when it was making things more pleasant and less demanding, it would break the spine of a lifegiving struggle—which is almost exactly what contraception promises.
Rearing children is not required of monastics, and monastic obedience is not required married faithful. But the spiritual struggle, the crown of thorns by which we take up our cross and follow Christ, by which we die to ourselves that we live in Christ, is not something we can improve our lives by escaping. The very thing we can escape by contraception, is what all of us—married, monastic, or anything else—need. The person who needs monastic obedience to be a crown of thorns is not the elder, but the monastic under obedience. Obedience is no more a mere aid to one’s monastic elder than our medicines are something to help our doctors. There is some error in thinking that some people will be freed to live better lives, if they can have marriage, but have it on their own terms, “a la carte.”
What contraception helps people flee is a spiritual condition, a sharpening, a struggle, a proving grounds and a training arena, that all of us need. There is life in death. We find a rose atop the thorns, and the space which looks like a constricting prison from the outside, has the heavens’ vast expanse once we view it from the inside. It is rather like the stable on Christmas’ day: it looks on the outside like a terrible little place, but on the inside it holds a Treasure that is greater than all the world. But we need first to give up the illusion of living our own lives, and “practice dying” each day, dying to our ideas, our self-image, our self-will, having our way and our sense that the world will be better if we have our way—or even that we will be better if we have our way. Only when we have given up the illusion of living our own lives… will we be touched by the mystery and find ourselves living God’s own life.
Against (crypto-Protestant) “Orthodox” fundamentalism
If you read Genesis 1 and believe from Genesis 1 that the world was created in six days, I applaud you. That is a profound thing to believe in simplicity of faith.
However, if you wish to persuade me that Orthodox Christians should best believe in a young earth creation in six days, I am wary. Every single time an Orthodox Christian has tried to convince me that I should believe in a six day creation, I have been given recycled Protestant arguments, and for the moment the entire conversation has seemed like I was talking with a Protestant fundamentalist dressed up in Orthodox clothing. And if the other person claims to understand scientific data better than scientists who believe an old earth, and show that the scientific data instead support a young earth, this is a major red flag.
Now at least some Orthodox heirarchs have refused to decide for the faithful under their care what the faithful may believe: the faithful may be expected to believe God’s hand was at work, but between young earth creationism, old earth creationism, and “God created life through evolution”, or any other options, the heirarchs do not intervene. I am an old earth creationist; I came to my present beliefs on “How did different life forms appear?” before becoming Orthodox, and I have called them into a question a few times but not yet found reason to revise them, either into young earth creation or theistic evolution. I would characterize my beliefs, after being reconsidered, as “not changed”, and not “decisively confirmed”: what I would suggest has improved in my beliefs is that I have become less interested in some Western fascinations, such as getting right the details of how the world was created, moving instead to what might be called “mystical theology” or “practical theology”, and walking the Orthodox Way.
There is something that concerns me about Orthodox arguing young earth creationism like a Protestant fundamentalist. Is it that I think they are wrong about how the world came to be? That is not the point. If they are wrong about that, they are wrong in the company of excellent saints. If they merely hold another position in a dispute, that is one thing, but bringing Protestant fundamentalism into the Orthodox Church reaches beyond one position in a dispute. Perhaps I shouldn’t be talking because I reached my present position before entering the Orthodox Church; or rather I haven’t exactly reversed my position but de-emphasized it and woken up to the fact that there are bigger things out there. But I am concerned when I’m talking with an Orthodox Christian, and every single time someone tries to convince me of a young earth creationism, all of the sudden it seems like I’m not dealing with an Orthodox Christian any more, but with a Protestant fundamentalist who always includes arguments that came from Protestant fundamentalism. And what concerns me is an issue of practical theology. Believing in a six day creation is one thing. Believing in a six day creation like a Protestant fundamentalist is another matter entirely.
A telling, telling line in the sand
In reading the Fathers, one encounters claims of a young earth. However, often (if not always) the claim is one among many disputes with Greek philosophers or what have you. To my knowledge there is no patristic text in which a young earth is the central claim, let alone even approach being “the article by which the Church stands or falls” (if I may borrow phrasing from Protestant fundamentalist cultural baggage).
But, you may say, Genesis 1 and some important Fathers said six days, literally. True enough, but may ask a counterquestion?
Are we obligated to believe that our bodies are composed of earth, air, fire and water, and not of molecules and atoms including carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen?
If that question seems to come out of the blue, let me quote St. Basil, On the Six Days of Creation, on a precursor to today’s understanding of the chemistry of what everyday objects are made of:
Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and bonds, form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider’s web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that was all was given up to chance.
At this point, belief in his day’s closest equivalent to our atoms and molecules is called an absolutely unacceptable “spider’s web” that is due to “inherent atheism.” Would you call Orthodox Christians who believe in chemistry’s molecules and atoms inherent atheists? St. Basil does provide an alternative:
“And the Spirit of God was borne upon the face of the waters.” Does this spirit mean the diffusion of air? The sacred writer wishes to enumerate to you the elements of the world, to tell you that God created the heavens, the earth, water, and air and that the last was now diffused and in motion; or rather, that which is truer and confirmed by the authority of the ancients, by the Spirit of God, he means the Holy Spirit.
St. Basil rejected atoms and molecules, and believed in elements, not of carbon or hydrogen, but of earth, air, fire, and water. The basic belief is one Orthodoxy understands, and there are sporadic references in liturgical services to the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and so far as I know no references to modern chemistry. St. Basil seems clearly enough to endorse a six day creation, and likewise endorses an ancient view of elements while rejecting belief in atoms and molecules as implicit atheism.
Why then do Orthodox who were once Protestant fundamentalists dig their heels in at a literal six day creation and make no expectation that we dismiss chemistry to believe the elements are earth, air, fire, water, and possibly aether? The answer, so far as I can tell, has nothing whatsoever to do with Orthodoxy or any Orthodox Christians. It has to do with a line in the sand chosen by Protestants, the same line in the sand described in Why Young Earthers Aren’t Completely Crazy, a line in the sand that is understandable and was an attempt to address quite serious concerns, but still should not be imported from Protestant fundamentalism into Holy Orthodoxy.
Leaving Western things behind
If you believe in a literal six day creation, it is not my specific wish to convince you to drop that belief. But I would have you drop fundamentalist Protestant “creation science” and its efforts to prove a young earth scientifically and show that it can interpret scientific findings better than the mainstream scientific community. And I would have you leave Western preoccupations behind. Perhaps you might believe St. Basil was right about six literal days. For that matter, you could believe he was right about rejecting atoms and molecules in favor of earth, air, fire, and water—or at least recognize that St. Basil makes other claims besides six literal days. But you might realize that really there are much more important things in the faith. Like how faith plays out in practice.
The fundamentalist idea of conversion is like flipping a light switch: one moment, a room is dark, then in an instant it is full of light. The Orthodox understanding is of transformation: discovering Orthodoxy is the work of a lifetime, and perhaps once a year there is a “falling off a cliff” experience where you realize you’ve missed something big about Orthodoxy, and you need to grow in that newly discovered dimension. Orthodoxy is not just the ideas and enthusiasm we have when we first come into the Church; there are big things we could never dream of and big things we could never consider we needed to repent of. And I would rather pointedly suggest that if a new convert’s understanding of Orthodoxy is imperfect, much less of Orthodoxy can be understood from reading Protestant attacks on it. One of the basic lessons in Orthodoxy is that you understand Orthodoxy by walking the Orthodox Way, by attending the services and living a transformed life, and not by reading books. And if this goes for books written by Orthodox saints, it goes all the more for Protestant fundamentalist books attacking Orthodoxy.
Science won’t save your soul, but science (like Orthodoxy) is something you understand by years of difficult work. Someone who has done that kind of work might be able to argue effectively that evolution does not account for the fossil record, let alone how the first organism could come to exist: but here I would recall The Abolition of Man: “It is Paul, the Pharisee, the man ‘perfect as touching the Law’ who learns where and how that Law was deficient.” Someone who has taken years of effort may rightly criticize evolution for its scientific merits. Someone who has just read fundamentalist Protestant attacks on evolution and tries to evangelize evolutionists and correct their scientific errors will be just as annoying to an atheist who believes in evolution, as a fundamentalist who comes to evangelize the unsaved Orthodox and “knows all about Orthodoxy” from polemical works written by other fundamentalists. I would rather pointedly suggest that if you care about secular evolutionists at all, pray for them, but don’t set out to untangle their backwards understanding of the science of it all. If you introduce yourself as someone who will straighten out their backwards ideas about science, all you may really end up accomplishing is to push them away.
Conversion is a slow process. And letting go of Protestant approaches to creation may be one of those moments of “falling off a cliff.”
A lawyer, one Dr. Sandburg, wrote The Legal Guide to Mother Goose, doing his professional best to rewrite “Jack and Jill went up the hill” with the full precision of a legal document:
The party of the first part hereinafter known as Jack
And the party of the second part hereinafter known as Jill
Ascended or caused to be ascended
An elevation of undetermined height and slope
Hereinafter referred to as hill,
And it must be conceded that the English of legal documents is rarely held up as an example of how to communicate to people without extensive legal training. However, there is one point where we would do well to pay close attention to legal English.
“Enjoy” is a word frequently used in contracts, appearing like:
4. ________ will enjoy an unlimited right to sell, redistribute, publish, make derivative works to…
And “enjoy” means something that is alike powerful and beautiful here. It does not mean—one is tempted to say “has nothing to do with”—an agreement that someone will have pleasure. Contracts like this, even when they say “enjoy”, really do not have much to say about how much fun and pleasure either party will take from the agreement. “Enjoy” is a technical term that means something like “derive the full benefits from”, so that:
4. ________ will enjoy an unlimited right to sell, redistribute, publish, make derivative works to…
means something like:
4. ________ will derive the full benefits from an unlimited right to sell, redistribute, publish, make derivative works to…
And with that view in mind, let’s take a look at the opening question of the Westminster Catechism:
Q: 1. What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
There is something in Protestant missions I would like to look at and then deepen.
Among devout Protestants who care most deeply about mission, there is a saying, “Mission exists because worship does not.” The premise of this emphatic saying is that God has never created anyone for the purpose of missions. Every man who ever has been created has been created for one goal only: worshiping God. Or in the language of the catechism, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him together.” And some are quick to point out that these are not two separate things: glorifying God and enjoying him are the exact same thing. No one is created for mission; everyone is created for worship. But there is a tragic reality. Some people are not in a position to fulfill the purpose for which they are made. And because some people are deprived of the glorious worship they are made for, and there is this gap in worship, the Christian Church as a whole, and some Christians in particular, should serve in missions.
There are differences between Orthodox and Protestant understandings of mission: Protestant training, such as Wheaton College’s Institute for Cross-Cultural Training, give a kickstart in both anthropology and linguistics, training people to learn languages and communicate well in cross-cultural situations. The Orthodox history of missions does not ignore language or culture, but its best mission work is to have monks who are trained in holiness go out among people and let their holiness itself speak. If one reads of a St. Herman of Alaska, whose mission work is still bearing fruit in Alaska today, the story is overall not of an endeavor to understand language and culture, but of a man pouring himself out in love for God and having successful missionary activity precisely because he followed the maxim, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you as well.” I’ve attended courses at Wheaton’s Institute for Cross-Cultural Training and every person I spoke with was devout. But the content of the training itself, focused on language and culture, is by Orthodox standards a secular idea of how to succeed as a missionary. The Orthodox idea that the best missionary is a monk pursuing holiness as fully as he can, and that missions work when you live among people and seek first the Kingdom of God.
Ascesis exists because contemplation does not
Ascesis, meaning the spiritual disciplines of the Orthodox walk, means an open-ended list that includes prayer, fasting, church attendance, giving to the poor, spiritual stillness, and other things. It is profoundly important in Orthodoxy. But in an even stronger sense than we can say, “Mission exists because worship does not,” we can say, “Ascesis exists because contemplation does not.” And the observation here is not that there are others who are missing the glory they were made to share. The observation is that we have fallen short of the glory we were made to share, and we need the purifying fire of ascesis. We and others need ascesis, but this is the point. We were not created for ascetical toil. We need ascesis because we have fallen away from the contemplation we were made for, the contemplation which is another name for enjoying God.
And I have wanted to speak of contemplation but find myself falling short. Of our sins and our need to be polished in ascesis it is easy to say something adequate. But for contemplation, words fail me, or at least my command of words. Contemplation is a joy and other things pale in comparison next to it: yet even to speak of it as a joy is misleading, as misleading as reading a contract and think that “enjoy” means nothing more than assuring that someone will experience pleasure. Better, perhaps, is to say that I thirst for honor, I want worldly accolades and am too ungrateful to be satisfied with the worldly honors I have. But when I taste contemplation, such honors grow strangely dim and I find myself wanting what is really good for me, thisting and sated for real honor, real achievement, real love of others, and the debris I chase after in temptation looks like… in Silence: Organic food for the soul I wrote:
…is that we are like a child with some clay,
trying to satisfy ourselves by making a clay horse,
with clay that never cooperates, never looks right,
and obsessed with clay that is never good enough,
we ignore and maybe fear
the finger tapping us on our shoulder
until with great trepidation we turn,
and listen to the voice say,
“Stop trying so hard. Let it go,”
and follow our father
as he gives us a warhorse.
And so I am left saying that enjoying God in contemplation is beautiful beyond beauty, and words fail me, and ideas too. I want to tell of God and contemplation above all else, and nothing I can say fits them.
Apples are a powerful symbol in Orthodoxy. It is not just that the Song of Songs has a lovesick bride say, “Refresh me with apples.” Apples appear again and again in the spiritual treasure housed in the lives of the saints. The saints are refreshed with apples; a priest prays to see what paradise is like, and St. Euphrosynos appears to him in a dream and invites him to take whatever he desires. He chose three apples, and the cook Euphrosynos wrapped them up. The priest awoke from the dream and was astonished to find three apples, wrapped as they had been in the vision, fragrant beyond all measure. (When he told what happened, the cook ran to flee from worldly honor.) Another story tells of an abbess, at the end of her life, being given three apples from paradise. It is perhaps a reminiscence of this that in The Magician’s Nephew, Digory is sorely tempted to steal a Heavenly apple, comes clean about his covetousness, is told of all the evils that would have flown, and then to his astonishment is commanded to take such an apple as he desired to his ailing mother. And he returns home from Narnia and its garden:
…so the fruit of that mountain garden looked different too. There were of course all sorts of coloured things in the bedroom: the coloured counterpane on the bed, the wallpaper, the sunlight from the window, and Mother’s pretty, pale blue dressing jacket. But the moment Digory took the Apple out of his pocket, all those things seemed to have scarcely any colour at all. Every one of them, even the sunlight, looked faded and dingy. The brightness of the Apple threw strange lights on the ceiling. Nothing else was worth looking at: you couldn’t look at anything else. And the smell of the Apple of Youth was as if there was a window that opened on Heaven.
Such apples are no concoction that began in a fantasy writer’s imagination, however creative. There are saints who have tasted them. But what makes the apple so astonishing is that such apples are a bit like contemplation.
Readers who also read the popular usability author Jakob Nielsen may have read him give a popularized version of “the query effect,” which is essentially that even if people don’t have an opinion on something before you ask, if you ask their opinion they will very quickly come to an opinion, share the newly formed with you, and walk away thoroughly convinced of the opinion they just shared.
I haven’t actually done this, but if I were to waste people’s time and perhaps get in trouble with clergy by taking a survey at church and ask them what their opinion of chemistry was, I would expect some hesitation and befuddlement, people being perhaps a bit uncertain about where the question was coming from or my motives for asking, but given a bit of time to answer, something like the following might be expected:
I think it’s really cool that a chemist can take two beakers full of clear liquid and pour them together and have it turn colors.
Our lives are so much better for things that need chemistry for us to be able to manufacture them.
Chemistry is foundational to how we as a society have raped the environment.
What difference chemistry makes depends on how you make use of it.
Chemistry came from alchemy—I’m a bit more curious about alchemy!
Now what about an answer of “There are not hundreds of elements, e.g. hydrogen, helium, lithium, etc., but the original four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Chemistry is intrinsically atheistic, and no Orthodox should believe it.“?
Most readers may be even further confused as to where I may be going this, and suspect that the source of the opinion is occult, or deranged, or on drugs, or some combination of the above. But in fact that is the position of Church Fathers, although I will only investigate one of the Three Holy Heirarchs. In St. Basil’s Hexaëmeron (Homily 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9), in which we read:
Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and [bonds], form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider’s web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that was all was given up to chance.
Now a chemist who communicated well would be hard pressed to summarize chemistry (not alchemy) better in so few words as the opponents’ position as summarized by St. Basil. Even if modern chemistry is developed in a great deal more detail and scientific accuracy than St. Basil’s opponents. Compare the words of Nobel Prize laureate Richard Feynman, in the Feynman Lectures which are considered exemplars of excellent communication in teaching the sciences, in words that might as well have come from a chemist trying to explain chemistry in a single sentence:
If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.
Feynman and St. Basil’s summary of his opponents are saying the same thing, and almost with the same economy. St. Basil’s description could be used as a pretty effective surrogate if Feynman’s words here were lost.
If that is the case, what should we make of it? Well, let me mention one thing I hope doesn’t happen: I don’t want to see even one pharmacist (or as is said in the U.K., “chemist”), weeping, make the confession of a lifetime, stop using chemistry to ease the sick and the suffering, after the sobbing confession, “I thought I was an Orthodox Christian, but it turns out I was really an atheist all along!”
A sane reading of the Fathers would take a deep breath—or simply not need to take a deep breath—and recognize that something other than legalism is the wisest course for dealing with occasional passages in the Fathers that condemn chemistry, just like with the passages that claim a young earth.
Just like the passages that claim a young earth?
People in the U.S. who are not connected with Hispanic culture will often wonder that Mexicans, either in Mexico or the U.S., do not really celebrate Cinco de Mayo, and probably make less of a hubbub of what is assumed to be the the Mexican holiday. But, as my brother pointed out, “Cinco de Mayo legitimately is a Mexican holiday, but it’s not on par with the U.S.’s Independence Day; it’s on par with [the U.S.’s] Casamir Pulaski Day.”
It is helpful in dealing with passages from the Fathers to recognize what are genuinely Independence Day topics and what are only Casamir Pulaski Day topics. Independence Day topics include repentance, theosis, Grace, hesychasm, and there tend to be numerous treatises devoted to them. Casamir Pulaski Day topics like rejection of chemistry as atheistic, or insisting on a young earth, may be agreed on, but I have not read or heard in thousands of pages of patristic writing where either topic is front and center. So far I have only found brief passages, generally among other passages condemning various opinions in ways that, when they touch scientific subjects, are a bit scattershot—much as when one is proceeding the wrong way—as regards contributing to any useful and coherent way of evaluating modern science.
I’m not going to condemn believing in a young earth as it is a very easy conclusion to reach and it is shared among many saints. But I will suggest that even the conceptual framework of having an origins position is strange and not helpful, as it is spiritually really not that helpful to weigh in on whether chemistry makes you an atheist. We’re making a really big deal of a Mexican Casamir Pulaski Day, much to the confusion of those connected with Méjico!
Mainstream origins positions
Let me briefly comment on the mainstream origins positions held by Orthodox. Some things are non-negotiable; among them being that God created the world and that the human race is created in the image of God. Atheism, naturalism or materialism is not acceptable, with or without connection to evolution. The Ancient Near East and pagan Greek philosophy hold to various opinions which are not to be accepted: among these are that a hero or god fought a dragon or demon and ripped her body in half, making half into the sky and half into the earth; that the universe was created by divine sexual activity in a fashion that need not be described to Orthodox Christians; that the world has always existed and is as uncreated as God; and that the world is an emanation from God (divine by nature in a diluted form), in classical pantheistic fashion. All of these are to be rejected, but I am not aware of a camp among today’s Orthodox, nor have I encountered a single Orthodox follower, for these kinds of positions. And none of these seem to really overlap any mainstream position.
Among mainstream positions, let me enumerate the following. This excludes being completely not sure, finding the whole question messy and hesitating between two or more basic options (where I am now), and a few others. As far as I know, this list covers all encounters where I have seen a definite position taken by Orthodox. (Some or all of these positions may admit varieties and clarification.)
1: The saints believed in a young earth and that’s how I read Genesis.
If you believe this, and don’t go further or mix it with anything non-Orthodox, this is fine.
2: I believe in an old earth where God miraculously intervened by creating new life forms over time.
This position is now backed by intelligent design movement texts, such as Philip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial. The downside, at least as explained to me by two very hostile Orthodox theistic evolutionists who shut me down before I could make my point instead of letting me make my point and then refuting it, is that the new intelligent design movement was concocted by the Protestant creationist Discovery Institute to attract people not attracted by young earth creationism’s handling of science. Like the position that follows, most of its followers don’t jackhammer people who disagree.
3: I’m not a scientist, but I believe God could have done it through evolution.
This option, theistic evolution, is perfectly permissible, but I wince as it usually means “I’m coming to terms with the science of a hundred years ago.”
One hundred years ago, evolution was a live option in the academy. Now people still use the term, but its meaning has been gutted and any belief that life forms slowly evolve into different life forms has been dead so long that it has long since stopped even smelling bad. The evidence (the “evolutionary” term being “punctuated equilibrium” or “punk eek”) is that the fossil record shows long periods of great stability without real change in what kind of organisms there, abruptly interrupted by geological eyeblinks and the sudden appearance and disappearance of life forms. Or as my “University Biology” teacher at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy said, “Evolution is like baseball. There are long periods of boredom interrupted by brief moments of intense excitement.”
This option registers to me as a genuinely comfortable assent to science, but without awareness that the science in question has changed profoundly in the past hundred years.
But I wish to underscore: theistic evolution is (usually) an “I won’t drop the hammer on you” signal, and that is an excellent kind of signal.
4: I am a scientist, and I believe God probably worked through evolution.
My experience with this has not been the most pleasant; in one case behind the open hostility and efforts to shut me down from arguing (and rudely stop me before I could make my point at all instead of letting me make my point and then explain its flaws) may have lurked an uneasiness that I represented enough authority that I was intrinsically a threat to their certitude that scientific evidence pointed to “evolution” (as the term has been redefined in the sciences of today).
With that stated, I have known several Orthodox physicians, and I expect some of them after extensive evolution-laden biology classes would lean towards theistic evolution. However, I’m not sure as they generally seemed more interested in knowing, for instance, if I was having a nice day, than convincing me of their views about origins.
(I don’t remember any clergy or heirarch who was above me bringing up origins questions, although they have been willing to offer their thoughts if requested; “I’m not a scientist, but I believe God could have done it through evolution” is the most frequent opinion I’ve seen even among conservative clergy. Priests seem to be focused on bigger questions, like “What hast thou to confess?“)
All four opinions above are at least tolerable, but there is one additional common opinion that takes “problematic” to a whole new level:
5: God created a young earth and we know because Creation Science proves it.
I am perhaps biased by my frustrating experience with this crowd. I’ve had people offer to straighten out my backwards understanding of science whose understanding of science was so limited that I could not lead them to see when I was making a scientific argument, as opposed to just arbitrarily playing around with words. I have an advanced degree from a leading institution and a lot of awards. I am not aware of any of the people who sought to do me the favor of straightening out my backwards views on science as having a community college learner’s permit associate’s degree in any of the sciences.
The assertion is made that Creation Science is just science (after all, how could it not, if it has “Science” in its name?). A slightly more astute reader might listen to artificial intelligence critic John Searle’s rule of thumb that anything with the word “science” in its name is probably not a science: “military science,” “food science,” “Creation Science”, “cognitive science.” My best response to people who think Creation “Science” is science in the usual sense of the term, is to say that “Creation Science is real, legitimate science” is wrong, in the same way, for the same reason, as saying “Pro-choice Catholics are real, legitimate Catholics”. Pro-choice “Catholics” do not understand, appreciate, respect, or accept what it means to be a Catholic; Creation “scientists” do not understand, appreciate, respect, or accept what it means to be a scientist. Not only do Scientists and Catholics not accept the obnoxious intrusion, but arguing is pointless and brings to mind Confucious’s warning, “It is useless to take counsel with those who follow a different Way.”
The problem with Creation Science is not that it is not science. It is painfully obvious to those outside of the movement that it is a feature of the Protestant landscape, perhaps a Protestantism of yesteryear rather than Protestantism today: Wheaton College, which is quite arguably the Evangelical Vatican, has something like three young earth creationists on its faculty, and I have never heard the one I know even mention Creation Science—he only claims to accept a young earth from reading and trusting the Bible), and the origin and nature of Creation Science are well described by a leading Evangelical scholar of Evangelicalism, Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
Kiddies, if you’re going to take one feature of Protestantism and incorporate it into Orthodoxy, take Bible studies, or My Utmost for His Highest, or some other genuine treasure that tradition has produced. It would be better to do neither, of course, but those are better choices. Taking Creation Science from Evangelicalism is like robbing Evangelicalism in a blind alley, and all you take away is its pocket lint!
More than one person who have held this last position have called into question whether I should be calling myself an Orthodox Christian at all because I didn’t believe in a young earth. And I really think that’s a bit extreme. In twelve years of being Orthodox, I have on numerous occasions been told I was wrong by people who were often right. I have been told I was wrong many times by my spiritual father, by other priests, and by laity who usually have had a little bit more experience, and I suspect that future growth will fueled partly by further instances of people pointing where I am wrong. However, when I was newly illumined and my spiritual father said that what I had just said sounded very Protestant, he did not thereby call into question whether I should be calling myself an Orthodox Christian. The only context in the entirety of my dozen years of being Orthodox that anybody has responded to my words, faith, belief, practice, etc. by directly challenging whether I should be calling myself an Orthodox Christian at all, was Seraphinians who were exceedingly and sorely displeased to learn I did not share their certain belief in a young earth. This seems to say little about my weaknesses (besides that I am the chief of sinners), and a great deal more about an unnatural idol that has blown out of all proportions. The Casamir Pulaski day represented by the theologoumenon of a young earth has completely eclipsed every Independence Day question on which I’ve been wrong, from my early ecumenism (ecumenism has been anathematized as a heresy), to a more-inappropriate-than-usual practice of the Protestant cottage industry of archaeologically restoring the early Church. In both cases my error was serious, and I am glad clergy out-stubborned me as I did not give in quickly. But they refrained from casting doubt on whether I should be calling myself an Orthodox Christian; they seem to have seen me as both a nascent Orthodox and wrong about several things they would expect from my background. Really, we do need Church discipline, but isn’t dropping that sledgehammer on people who don’t believe a young earth a bit extreme?
I’ll not return the insult of casting doubt on whether they’re Orthodox; I don’t see that this option is acceptable, but I believe it is coherent to talk about someone who is both Orthodox and wrong about something major or minor. I believe that Creation Science is a thoroughly Protestant practice (that it is not science is beside the point), and militantly embracing Creation Science is one of the ways that the Seraphinians continue a wrong turn.
The position of Creation “Science” in relation to genuine science is the same as the relation between a non-canonical jurisdiction and the Orthodox Church. Even (or especially) if they have the word “Genuine” written right into their name!
But quite apart from that, the question of origins as I have outlined it is itself a heritage from Protestantism. Evangelicals once were fine with an old earth, before Evangelicals created today’s young earth creationism; the article Why young earthers aren’t completely crazy talks with some sympathy about the Evangelical “line in the sand;” Noll tells how it came to be drawn. The fact that it can be a relatively routine social question to ask someone, “What is your opinion about origins?” signals a problem if this Protestant way of framing things is available in Orthodoxy. It’s not just that the Seraphinian answer is wrong: the question itself is wrong, or at least not Orthodox as we know it now. Maybe the question “Did God create the entire universe from nothing, or did he merely shape a world that has always existed and is equally uncreated with him?” is an Independence Day question, or something approaching one. The questions of “Young or old earth?” and “Miraculous creation of new species or theistic evolution?” are Casamir Pulaski Day questions, and it is not helpful to celebrate them on par with Independence Day.
One friend and African national talked about how in her home cultural setting, you don’t ask a teacher “What is your philosophy of education?” as is routinely done in the U.S. for teacher seeking hire who may or may not have taken a single philosophy class. In her culture, that question does not fit the list of possibles et pensables, what is possible and what is even thinkable in that setting. (This whole article has been made to introduce a concept not readily available in the possibles et pensables of our own cultural setting, that having a modern style of “origins popsition” at all is not particularly Orthodox; and that some positions, even or especially among conservatives, are even more problematic. A transposition to chemistry helps highlight just how strange and un-Orthodox certain positions really are.) And let us take a look at Orthodox spiritual fathers. As advised in the Philokalia and innumerable other sources, if you are seeking a spiritual father, in or out of monasticism, you should make every investigation before entering the bond of obedience; after you have entered it, the bond is inviolable. I don’t know exactly how Orthodox have tried spiritual fathers, but I have difficulty imagining asking a monastic elder, “What is your personal philosophy of spiritual direction?” Quite possibly there is none.Even thinking about it feels uncomfortably presumptuous, and while theological opinion does exist and have a place, defining yourself by your opinions is not Orthodox.
If I were to ask someone in the U.S. “What are your family traditions for celebrating Casamir Pulaski Day?” the best response I could get would be, “Cas-Cashmere WHO?”
And now I will show you a more excellent way
I feel I may be sending a very mixed message by the amount I have written in relation to origins questions given that my more recent postings keep downplaying origins debates. Much of what I have written has been because I don’t just think certain answers have flaws; the questions themselves have been ill-framed.
But that isn’t really the point.
These pieces are all intended to move beyond Casamir Pulaski Day and pull out all of the stops and celebrate Independence Day with bells on. They may be seen as an answer to the question, “Do you have anything else to discuss besides origins?” If you read one work, Doxology is my most-reshared.
How shall I praise thee, O Lord?
For naught that I might say,
Nor aught that I may do,
Compareth to thy worth.
Thou art the Father for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and on earth is named,
The Glory for whom all glory is named,
All of us do the will of God. The question is not whether we do God’s will or not, but whether we do God’s will as instruments, as Satan and Judas did, or as sons, as Peter and John did. In the end Satan may be nothing more than a hammer in the hand of God.
To thee, O camel who passed through the eye of the needle, we offer thanks and praise: for thou gavest of thy wealth to the poor, as an offering to Christ. Christ God received thy gift as a loan, repaying thee exorbitantly, in this transient life and in Heaven. Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven’s treasures! (Repeated thrice.)
A look at India in relation to my own roots and formation
My live story up until now would be immeasurably impoverished if the various ways in which India had entered my life would simply be subtracted. I appreciate Indian food, even if I eat it in a non-Indian (Paleo) fashion. And that is not trivial, but there are deeper ways I’ve been enriched by that great nation. One of these relates to pacifism, where one of India’s giants, one certain Gandhi, is perhaps the best-known person in history as I know it for the strength of pacifism.
We are concerned today about our food,
and that is good:
sweet fruit and honey are truly good and better than raw sugar,
raw sugar not as bad as refined sugar,
refined sugar less wrong than corn syrup,
and corn syrup less vile than Splenda.
But whatever may be said for eating the right foods,
this is nothing compared to the diet we give our soul.
I would like to talk about repentance, which has rewards not just in the future but here and now. Repentance, often, or perhaps always for all I know, bears a hidden reward, but a reward that is invisible before it is given. Repentance lets go of something we think is essential to how we are to be—men hold on to sin because they think it adorns them, as the Philokalia well knows. There may be final rewards, rewards in the next life, and it matters a great deal that we go to confession and unburden ourselves of sins, and walk away with “no further cares for the sins which you have confessed.” But there is another reward that appears in the here and now…
“Why This Waste?” quoth the Thief,
Missing a pageant unfold before his very eyes,
One who sinned much, forgiven, for her great love,
Brake open a priceless heirloom,
An alabaster vessel of costly perfume,
Costly chrism beyond all price anointing the Christ,
Anointing the Christ unto life-giving death,
Anointed unto life-giving death,
A story ever told,
In memory of her:
The temperature of Heaven can be rather accurately computed from available data. Our authority is the Bible: Isaiah 30:26 reads, Moreover the light of the Moon shall be as the light of the Sun and the light of the Sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days. Thus Heaven receives from the Moon as much radiation as we do from the Sun and in addition seven times seven (forty-nine) times as much as the Earth does from the Sun, or fifty times in all.
I am writing to you concerning the inestimable responsibility and priceless charge who has been entrusted to you. You have been appointed guardian angel to one Mark.
Who is Mark, whose patron is St. Mark of Ephesus? A man. What then is man? Microcosm and mediator, the midpoint of Creation, and the fulcrum for its sanctification. Created in the image of God; created to be prophet, priest, and king. It is toxic for man to know too much of his beauty at once, but it is also toxic for man to know too much of his sin at once. For he is mired in sin and passion, and in prayer and deed offer what help you can for the snares all about him. Keep a watchful eye out for his physical situation, urge great persistence in the liturgical and the sacramental life of the Church that he gives such godly participation, and watch for his ascesis with every eye you have. Rightly, when we understand what injures a man, nothing can injure the man who does not injure himself: but it is treacherously easy for a man to injure himself. Do watch over him and offer what help you can.
With Eternal Light and Love, Your Fellow-Servant and Angel
Happy Independence Day! Enjoy the fireworks display.
Jack Kinneer, an Orthodox Presbyterian minister and a D.Min. graduate of an Eastern Orthodox seminary, wrote a series of dense responses to his time at that seminary. The responses are generally concise, clear, and make the kind of observations that I like to make. My suspicion is that if Dr. Kineer is looking at things this way, there are a lot of other people who are looking at things the same way—but may not be able to put their finger on it. And he may have given voice to some things that Orthodox may wish to respond to.
Orthodoxy is difficult to understand, and I wrote a list of responses to some (not all) of the points he raises. I asked New Horizons, which printed his article, and they offered gracious permission to post with attribution, which is much appreciated. I believe that Dr. Kinneer’s words open a good conversation, and I am trying to worthily follow up on his lead.
A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy
Jack D. Kinneer
During my studies at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, I was often asked by students, “Are you Orthodox?” It always felt awkward to be asked such a question. I thought of myself as doctrinally orthodox. I was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. So I thought I could claim the word orthodox.
But I did not belong to the communion of churches often called Eastern Orthodox, but more properly called simply Orthodox. I was not Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Antiochian Orthodox. As far as the Orthodox at St. Vladimir’s were concerned, I was not Orthodox, regardless of my agreement with them on various doctrines.
My studies at St. Vladimir’s allowed me to become acquainted with Orthodoxy and to become friends with a number of Orthodox professors, priests, and seminarians. My diploma was even signed by Metropolitan Theodosius, the head of the Orthodox Church in America. From the Metropolitan to the seminarians, I was received kindly and treated with respect and friendliness.
I am not the only Calvinist to have become acquainted with Orthodoxy in recent years. Sadly, a number have not only made the acquaintance, but also left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy. What is Orthodoxy and what is its appeal to some in the Reformed churches?
The Appeal of Orthodoxy
Since the days of the apostles, there have been Christian communities in such ancient cities as Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Corinth in Greece. In such places, the Christian church grew, endured the tribulation of Roman persecution, and ultimately prevailed when the Roman Empire was officially converted to Christianity. But, unlike Christians in the western half of the Roman Empire, the eastern Christians did not submit to the claims of the bishop of Rome to be the earthly head of the entire church. And why should they have done so? The centers of Orthodox Christianity were as old as, or even older than, the church in Rome. All the great ecumenical councils took place in the East and were attended overwhelmingly by Christian leaders from the East, with only a smattering of representatives from the West. Indeed, most of the great theologians and writers of the ancient church (commonly called the Church Fathers) were Greek-speaking Christians in the East.
The Orthodox churches have descended in an unbroken succession of generations from these ancient roots. As the Orthodox see it, the Western church followed the bishop of Rome into schism (in part by adding a phrase to the Nicene Creed). So, from their perspective, we Protestants are the product of a schism off a schism. The Orthodox believe that they have continued unbroken the churches founded by the apostles. They allow that we Reformed may be Christians, but our churches are not part of the true church, our ordinations are not valid, and our sacraments are no sacraments at all.
The apparently apostolic roots of Orthodoxy provide much of its appeal for some evangelical Protestants. Furthermore, it is not burdened with such later Roman Catholic developments as the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences, the immaculate conception of Mary, and her assumption into heaven. Orthodoxy is ancient; it is unified in a way that Protestantism is not; it lacks most of the medieval doctrines and practices that gave rise to the Reformation. This gives it for many a fascinating appeal.
Part of that appeal is the rich liturgical heritage of Orthodoxy, with its elaborate liturgies, its glorious garbing of the clergy, and its gestures, symbols, and icons. If it is true that the distinctive mark of Reformed worship is simplicity, then even more so is glory the distinctive mark of Orthodox worship. Another appealing aspect of Orthodox worship is its otherness. It is mysterious, sensual, and, as the Orthodox see it, heavenly. Orthodox worship at its best makes you feel like you have been transported into one of the worship scenes in the book of Revelation. Of course, if the priest chants off-key or the choir sings poorly, it is not quite so wonderful.
There are many other things that could be mentioned, but I’ve mentioned the things that have particularly struck me. These are also the things that converts from Protestantism say attracted them.
The Shortcomings of Orthodoxy
So then, is this Orthodox Presbyterian about to drop the “Presbyterian” and become simply Orthodox? No! In my estimation, the shortcomings of Orthodoxy outweigh its many fascinations. A comparison of the Reformed faith with the Orthodox faith would be a massive undertaking, made all the more difficult because Orthodoxy has no doctrinal statement comparable to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Orthodoxy is the consensus of faith arising from the ancient Fathers and the ecumenical councils. This includes the forty-nine volumes of the Ante- and Post-Nicene Fathers, plus the writings of the hermits and monastics known collectively as the Desert Fathers! It would take an entire issue of New Horizons just to outline the topics to be covered in a comparison of Orthodoxy and Reformed Christianity. So the following comments are selective rather than systematic.
First, in my experience, the Orthodox do not understand justification by faith. Some reject it. Others tolerate it, but no one I met or read seemed to really understand it. Just as Protestants can make justification the whole (rather than the beginning) of the gospel, so the Orthodox tend to make sanctification (which they call “theosis” or deification) the whole gospel. In my estimation, this is a serious defect. It weakens the Orthodox understanding of the nature of saving faith.
Orthodoxy also has a real problem with nominal members. Many Orthodox Christians have a very inadequate understanding of the gospel as Orthodoxy understands it. Their religion is often so intertwined with their ethnicity that being Russian or Greek becomes almost synonymous with being Orthodox. This is, by the way, a critique I heard from the lips of Orthodox leaders themselves. This is not nearly as serious a problem in Reformed churches because our preaching continually stresses the necessity for a personal, intimate trusting, receiving, and resting upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Such an emphasis is blurred among the Orthodox.
Second, the Orthodox have a very inadequate understanding of sovereign grace. It is not fair to say that they are Pelagians. (Pelagius was a Western Christian who denied original sin and taught that man’s will is free to choose good.) But they are definitely not Augustinians (Calvinists) on sin and grace. In a conversation with professors and doctoral students about the nature of salvation, I quoted Ezekiel 36:26-27 as showing that there is a grace of God that precedes faith and enables that human response. One professor said in response, “I never thought of that verse in that way before.” The Orthodox have not thought a lot about sin, regeneration, election, and so forth. Their view of original sin (a term which they avoid) falls far short of the teaching of Paul. Correspondingly, their understanding of Christ’s atonement and God’s calling is weak as well. Their views could best be described as undeveloped. If you want to see this for yourself, read Chrysostom on John 6:44-45, and then read Calvin on the same passage.
Third, the Orthodox are passionately committed to the use of icons (flat images of Christ, Mary, or a saint) in worship. Indeed, the annual Feast of Orthodoxy celebrates the restoration of icons to the churches at the end of the Iconoclast controversy (in a.d. 843). For the Orthodox, the making and venerating of icons is the mark of Orthodoxy—showing that one really believes that God the Son, who is consubstantial with the Father, became also truly human. Since I did not venerate icons, I was repeatedly asked whether or not I really believed in the Incarnation. The Orthodox are deeply offended at the suggestion that their veneration of icons is a violation of the second commandment. But after listening patiently to their justifications, I am convinced that whatever their intentions may be, their practice is not biblical. However, our dialogue on the subject sent me back to the Bible to study the issue in a way that I had not done before. The critique I would offer now is considerably different than the traditional Reformed critique of the practice.
Finally, many of the Orthodox tend to have a lower view of the Bible than the ancient Fathers had. At least at St. Vladimir’s, Orthodox scholars have been significantly influenced by higher-critical views of Scripture, especially as such views have developed in contemporary Roman Catholic scholarship. This is, however, a point of controversy among the Orthodox, just as it is among Catholics and Protestants. Orthodoxy also has its divisions between liberals and conservatives. But even those who are untainted by higher-critical views rarely accord to Scripture the authority that it claims for itself or which was accorded to it by the Fathers. The voice of Scripture is largely limited to the interpretations of Scripture found in the Fathers.
There is much else to be said. Orthodoxy is passionately committed to monasticism. Its liturgy includes prayers to Mary. And the Divine Liturgy, for all its antiquity, is the product of a long historical process. If you want to follow the “liturgy” that is unquestionably apostolic, then partake of the Lord’s Supper, pray the Lord’s Prayer, sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” and say “amen,” “hallelujah,” and “maranatha.” Almost everything else in any liturgy is a later adaptation and development.
A Concluding Assessment
But these criticisms do not mean that we have nothing to learn from Orthodoxy. Just as the Orthodox have not thought a lot about matters that have consumed us (such as justification, the nature of Scripture, sovereign grace, and Christ’s work on the cross), so we have not thought a lot about what have been their consuming passions: the Incarnation, the meaning of worship, the soul’s perfection in the communicable attributes of God (which they call the energies of God), and the disciplines by which we grow in grace. Let us have the maturity to keep the faith as we know it, and to learn from others where we need to learn.
Orthodoxy in many ways fascinates me, but it does not claim my heart nor stir my soul as does the Reformed faith. My firsthand exposure to Orthodoxy has left me all the more convinced that on the essential matters of human sin, divine forgiveness, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the Reformed faith is the biblical faith. I would love to see my Orthodox friends embrace a more biblical understanding of these matters. And I am grieved when Reformed friends sacrifice this greater good for the considerable but lesser goods of Orthodox liturgy and piety.
Dr. Kinneer is the director of Echo Hill Christian Study Center in Indian Head, Pa.
First, on an Orthodox mailing list, I saw a copy of your “A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy.” I would like to write a somewhat measured response that you might find of interest; please quote me if you like, preferably with attribution and a link to my website (CJSHayward.com). I am a convert Orthodox and a graduate of Calvin College, for which I have fond memories, although I was never a Calvinist, merely a non-Calvinist Evangelical welcomed in the warm embrace of the community. I am presently a Ph.D. student in theology and went to church for some time at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and have friends there. I hope that you may find something of interest in my comments here.
Second, you talk about discussion of being Eastern Orthodox versus being orthodox. I would take this as a linguistically confusing matter of the English language, where even in spoken English the context clarifies whether (o)rthodox or (O)rthodox is the meaning intended by the speaker.
Third, I will be focusing mostly on matters I where I would at least suggest some further nuance, but your summary headed “The Appeal of Orthodoxy,” among other things in the article, is a good sort of thing and the sort of thing I might find convenient to quote.
Fourth, the Orthodox consensus of faith is not a much longer and less manageable collection of texts than the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, combined with the even more massive Patrologia Graecae, and other patristic sources. I have said elsewhere that Western and particularly Protestant and Evangelical culture are at their core written cultures, and Orthodoxy is at its core an oral culture that makes use of writing—I could suggest that it was precisely the Reformation that is at the root of what we now know as literate culture. This means that Orthodoxy does not have, as its closest equivalent to the Westminster Confession, a backbreaking load of books that even patristics scholars can’t read cover to cover; it means that the closest Orthodox equivalent to Westminster Confession is not anything printed but something alive in the life and culture of the community. (At very least this is true if you exclude the Nicene Creed, which is often considered “what Orthodox are supposed to believe.”)
Fifth, regarding the words, “First, in my experience, the Orthodox do not understand justification by faith:” are you contending that former Evangelicals, who had an Evangelical understanding of justification by faith, were probably fairly devout Evangelicals, and are well-represented at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, do not understand justification by faith?
There seems to be something going on here that is a mirror image of what you say below about icons: there, you complain about people assuming that if you don’t hold the Orthodox position on icons, you don’t understand the Christian doctrine of the incarnation; here, you seem in a mirror image to assume that if people don’t have a Reformation-compatible understanding of justification by faith, you don’t understand the Biblical teaching.
I wrote, for a novella I’m working on, The Sign of the Grail, a passage where the main character, an Evangelical, goes to an Orthodox liturgy, hears amidst the mysterious-sounding phrases a reading including “The just shall walk by faith,” before the homily:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
One of the surprises in the Divine Comedy—to a few people at least—is that the Pope is in Hell. Or at least it’s a surprise to people who know Dante was a devoted Catholic but don’t recognize how good Patriarch John Paul and Patriarch Benedict have been; there have been some moments Catholics aren’t proud of, and while Luther doesn’t speak for Catholics today, he did put his finger on a lot of things that bothered people then. Now I remember an exasperated Catholic friend asking, “Don’t some Protestants know anything else about the Catholic Church besides the problems we had in the sixteenth century?” And when Luther made a centerpiece out of what the Bible said about “The righteous shall walk by faith,” which was in the Bible’s readings today, he changed it, chiefly by using it as a battle axe to attack his opponents and even things he didn’t like in Scripture.
It’s a little hard to see how Luther changed Paul, since in Paul the words are also a battle axe against legalistic opponents. Or at least it’s hard to see directly. Paul, too, is quoting, and I’d like to say exactly what Paul is quoting.
In one of the minor prophets, Habakkuk, the prophet calls out to the Lord and decries the wickedness of those who should be worshiping the Lord. The Lord’s response is to say that he’s sending in the Babylonians to conquer, and if you want to see some really gruesome archaeological findings, look up what it meant for the Babylonians or Chaldeans to conquer a people. I’m not saying what they did to the people they conquered because I don’t want to leave people here trying to get disturbing images out of people’s minds, but this was a terrible doomsday prophecy.
The prophet answered the Lord in anguish and asked how a God whose eyes were too pure to look on evil could possibly punish his wicked people by the much more wicked Babylonians. And the Lord’s response is very mysterious: “The righteous shall walk by faith.”
Let me ask you a question: How is this an answer to what the prophet asked the Lord? Answer: It isn’t. It’s a refusal to answer. The same thing could have been said by saying, “I AM the Lord, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. I AM WHO I AM and I will do what I will do, and I am sovereign in this. I choose not to tell you how, in my righteousness, I choose to let my wicked children be punished by the gruesomely wicked Babylonians. Only know this: even in these conditions, the righteous shall walk by faith.”
The words “The righteous shall walk by faith” are an enigma, a shroud, and a protecting veil. To use them as Paul did is a legitimate use of authority, an authority that can only be understood from the inside, but these words remain a protecting veil even as they take on a more active role in the New Testament. The New Testament assumes the Old Testament even as the New Testament unlocks the Old Testament.
Paul does not say, “The righteous will walk by sight,” even as he invokes the words, “The righteous shall walk by faith.”
Here’s something to ponder: The righteous shall walk by faith even in their understanding of the words, “The righteous shall walk by faith.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
When I showed this to one Reformation scholar to check my treatment of the Reformation, he said that I didn’t explain what “The righteous shall walk by faith,” but my entire point was to show what the Old Testament quotation could mean besides a shibboleth that one is sanctified in entirety in response to faith without one iota being earned by good works. The Reformation teaching, as I understand it, reflects a subtle adaptation of the Pauline usage—and here I might underscore that Paul and Luther had different opponents—and a profound adaptation of the Old Testament usage. And it may be possible to properly understand the Biblical text without interpreting it along Reformation lines.
Sixth, you write that Orthodox tend to have a poor understanding of sovereign grace. I remember how offended my spiritual Father was when I shared that a self-proclaimed non-ordained Reformed minister—the one person who harassed me when I became Orthodox—said that Orthodox didn’t believe in grace. He wasn’t offended at me, but I cannot ever recall seeing him be more offended. (Note: that harassment was a bitter experience, but I’d really like to think I’m not bitter towards Calvinists; I have a lot of fond memories from my time at Calvin and some excellent memories of friends who tended to be born and bred Calvinists.)
I would suggest that if you can say that Orthodox do not understand sovereign grace shortly after talking about a heavy emphasis on theosis, you are thinking about Orthodox doctrine through a Western grid and are missing partly some details and partly the big picture of how things fit together.
Seventh, I am slightly surprised that you describe original sin as simply being in the Bible and something Orthodox do not teach. Rom 5:12 as translated in the Vulgate (“…in quo omnes peccaverunt”) has a Greek ambiguity translated out, so that a Greek text that could quite justifiably be rendered that death came into the world “because all sinned” (NIV) is unambiguously rendered as saying about Adam, “in whom all have sinned,” which in turn fed into Augustine’s shaping of the Western doctrine of original sin. It’s a little surprising to me that you present this reading of an ambiguity as simply being what the Bible says, so that the Orthodox are deficiently presenting the Bible by not sharing the reading.
Eighth, I too was puzzled by the belief that the Incarnation immediately justifies icons, and I find it less puzzling to hold a more nuanced understanding of the Orthodox teaching that if you understand the Incarnation on patristic terms—instead of by a Reformation definition—its inner logic flows out to the point of an embrace of creation that has room for icons. I won’t develop proof-texts here; what I will say is that the kind of logical inference that is made is similar to a kind of logical inference I see in your report, i.e. that “The righteous shall walk by faith” means the Reformation doctrine that we are justified by faith alone and not by works.
I believe that this kind of reasoning is neither automatically right nor automatically wrong, but something that needs to be judged in each case.
Ninth, you write, “Finally, many of the Orthodox tend to have a lower view of the Bible than the ancient Fathers had.” When I was about to be received into the Orthodox Church, I told my father that I had been devoted in my reading of the Bible and I would switch to being devoted in my reading of the Fathers. My spiritual father, who is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, emphatically asked me to back up a bit, saying that the Bible was the core text and the Fathers were a commentary. He’s said that he would consider himself very fortunate if his parishioners would spend half an hour a day reading the Bible. On an Orthodox mailing list, one cradle Orthodox believer among mostly converts quoted as emphatic an Orthodox clergyman saying, “If you don’t read your Bible each day, you’re not a Christian.” Which I would take as exaggeration, perhaps, but exaggeration as a means of emphasizing something important.
Tenth, regarding higher-critical views at St. Vladimir’s Seminary: I agree that it is a problem, but I would remind you of how St. Vladimir’s Seminary and St. Tikhon’s Seminary compare. St. Vladimir’s Seminary is more liberal, and it is an excellent academic environment that gives degrees including an Orthodox M.Min. St. Tikhon’s Seminary is academically much looser but it is considered an excellent preparation for ministry. If you saw some degree of liberal academic theology at St. Vladimir’s, you are seeing the fruits of your (legitimate) selection. Not that St. Vladimir’s Seminary is the only Orthodox seminary which is not completely perfect, but if you want to see preparation for pastoral ministry placed ahead of academic study at an Orthodox institution, St. Tikhon’s might interest you.
Eleventh, after I was at Calvin, I remembered one friend, tongue-in-cheek, talking about “the person who led me to Calvin.” I also remember that when I was at Calvin, I heard more talk about being “disciples of John Calvin” than being “disciples of Jesus Christ,” and talk more about bearing the name of “Calvinist” than “Christian,” although this time it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek. I notice that you speak of how, “sadly,” people “left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy.” One response might be one that Reformers like Calvin might share: “Was John Calvin crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of John Calvin?” (Cf I Cor. 1:13)
I left this out at first because it’s not as “nice” as some of the others, but I would like to invite you to perhaps leave the “faith” (as you call it) that aims for John Calvin, and embrace the faith that Calvin was trying to re-create in response to abuses in the Western Church. It’s still alive, and we still have an open door for you.
When I studied early modern era Orthodox Patriarch Cyril Lucaris, I compared the Eucharistic teaching in his profession of faith to the Eucharistic teaching in Calvin’s Institutes…
…and concluded that Calvin was more Orthodox. Calvin, among other things, concerned himself with the question of what John Chrysostom taught.
I really don’t think I was trying to be a pest. But what I did not develop is that Calvin tried to understand what the Greek Fathers taught, always as an answer to Protestant questions about what, in metaphysical terms, happens to the Holy Gifts. The Orthodox question is less about the transformation of the Holy Gifts than the transformation of those who receive it, and Calvin essentially let the Fathers say whatever they wanted… as long as they answered a question on terms set by the Reformation.
When I read Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?, my immediate reaction was that I wished the book had been “expanded to six times its present length.” I have some reservations about the fruitfulness of presuppositional apologetics now. What I do not have reservations about is saying that there is a valid insight in Schaeffer’s approach, and more specifically there is distortion introduced by letting Orthodoxy say whatever it wants… as an answer to Calvinist questions.
To assert, without perceived need for justification, that the Orthodox have very little understanding of sovereign grace and follow this claim by saying that there is a preoccupation with divinization comes across to Orthodox much like saying, “_______ have very little concept of ‘medicine’ or ‘health’ and are always frequenting doctor’s offices, pharmacies, and exercise clubs.” It’s a sign that Orthodox are allowed to fill in the details of sin, incarnation, justification, or (in this case) grace, but on condition that they are filling out the Reformation’s unquestioned framework.
But the way to understand this is less analysis than worship.
Does Augustine Return to the Interpersonal Image of Love as Representing the Trinity, or Does He Abandon This in Favour of the Psychological Image? Behind this question may lurk another question that is both connected and distinct from it: ‘Does Augustine have a relational understanding of the image, or is his understanding ultimately solipsistic?’ I take Rowan Williams as an example of a scholar writing from a mindset which fails to adequately distinguish the two questions. He opens with quotes that read Augustine as almost Sabellian, and ends his opening paragraph with a spectacular strawman:
Augustine stands accused of collaborating in the construction of the modern consciousness that has wrought such havoc in the North Atlantic cultural world, and is busy exporting its sickness to the rest of the globe, while occluding the vision of the whole planet’s future in its delusions of technocratic mastery — a hugely inflated self-regard, fed by the history of introspection.
Williams is building up to a rescue operation. He offers a careful study which either counterbalances Augustine’s apparent meaning or replaces it. He brings up quotations like, ‘In the West, especially since the time of Augustine, the unity of the divine being served as the starting point of Trinitarian theology’, as examples of the reading he doesn’t like. Williams’s presentation of Augustine’s text does not bring up Augustine’s claim that all three persons of the Trinity speak in Old Testament theophanies. This claim is significant because Augustine rejects the Patristic claim that Old Testament theophanies are specially made through the immanent Son. Williams seems to be fighting an obvious reading so he can rescue relationality in Augustine. I would argue that the psychological image is relational from the beginning, and that Augustine’s image is psychological.
We’re looking for relationality in the wrong place if we look for it in where Augustine stood in the controversies of his day. The deepest relationality does not lie in i.e. his writing against Arianism, but something that was so deeply ingrained in the Church that he would never have thought it necessary to explain. The very individualism he is accused of helping construct had not come together. In the Reformation-era Anabaptist/Zwinglian controversy over infant baptism, the issue was not whether faith precedes baptism. Both sides believed that much. The issue was whether that faith was reckoned along proto-individualist lines, or whether the faith of a community could sanctify members too young to embrace faith on terms an individualist would recognise. Augustine lived over a thousand years before that controversy. His tacit theory of boundaries was that of a community’s bishop, not a counselor imparting the ‘value-free’ boundaries that flow from atomist individualism. I mention these examples to underscore that Augustine’s understanding of where one person ends and another begins is much less articulate, much less thorough, much less basic, much less sealed, and in the end much less focal than ours. The difference is like the qualitative difference between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Bible, and what either Arian or a Trinitarian did with what is present in the Bible. One is tacitly present, something you can’t explain (‘That’s just the way things are!’), and the other is articulate, the sort of thing you can at least begin to explain and give reason for. In the end Augustine’s understanding of how one person can meet another arises from a very different mindset from a setting where scholars argue that communication is impossible. This means that combining passages with individualist assumptions gives a very different meaning from combining the same passages with Augustine’s patristic assumptions. It is the latter which represents Augustine’s thought. I believe that Augustine did plant proto-modernist seeds. These seeds became a vital ingredient of modernism with many thinkers’ successive modifications. However, the fact that they have become modernism today with the influence of a millenium and a half of change does not make Augustine an early modernist. His beliefs were quite different from atomist individualist modernism.
What is most important in Augustine’s thought, and what he believed most deeply, includes some of what would never occur to him to think needed saying. These things that leave less obvious traces than his explicit claims. With that in mind, I would like to look more closely at Augustine’s interiority:
But it [the mind] is also in the things that it thinks about with love, and it has got used to loving sensible, that is bodily things; so it is unable to be in itself without their images. Hence arises its shameful mistake [errus dedecus ], that it cannot make itself out among the images of things it has perceived with the senses, and see itself alone…
What is interesting is what Augustine doesn’t say here. A materialist would see bodily things as including other people, but Augustine did not think from that starting point. Would he have included people? That’s a little less clear-cut. People are equal to oneself, and purely sensible objects are inferior. One is trying to go upwards, and Augustine does not seem to include equal people with inferior objects. Perhaps he does not raise this question. Augustine does go on to give a primacy to ‘Know thyself,’ but this is a matter of means,not of final end. Augustine is telling us to start with what is near at hand. The distinction between what Augustine called ‘interior’ and what we would call ‘private’ is significant. It contains not only phantasms (sense impressions) but the res ipsa (the realities themselves) of intelligible things, and is where the soul meets intelligible truth. God is in the interior, and is shared between people. Furthermore, when we unite with God, we are united with others united with God. Where there is privacy, this is darkness caused by the Fall.
II. Is the psychological image relational?
I would suggest that the psychological image is relational. Furthermore, I would suggest that the deepest relationality comes before making God the object of the vestigia (divine shadows or traces in Creation) of memory, understanding, and will. Augustine comments:
Even in this case [I Cor. 8:2], you notice, he [Paul] did not say “knows him”, which would be a dangerous piece of presumption, but “is known by him.” It is like another place where as soon as he said, But now knowing God, he corrected himself and said,Or rather being known by God…
Before we worry if God is the object of our love, he must be the Subject behind it. And that does not mean we need to worry about orienting the vestigia (traces of God imprinted in Creation) so we add relationality as something external; relationality is there in the beginning, as God knowing us.
Is remembering, understanding, and willing oneself a relational activity? If it’s sought on the right terms, it is. That means that it is not the pre-eminent goal , but a means, the bridge that must be crossed to gain access to other places. That means that remembering, understanding, and willing have God as their goal even before he is their object. Augustine comments in another draft of the psychological image:
This word is conceived in love of either the creature or the creator, that is of changeable nature or unchangeable truth; which means either in covetousness or in charity. Not that the creature is not to be loved, but if that love is related to the creator it will no longer be covetousness but charity. It is only covetousness when the creature is loved on its own account.
Augustine’s discussion of use and enjoyment forbids the psyche to enjoy itself: regardless of immediate object, God is the goal or goal of ‘Know thyself.’
In regard to the rest of Creation, it is much easier to read a psychological image as non-relational. His enjoyment/use distinction is not utilitarian but helped make utilitarianism. Whilst he chose Christianity over Manicheanism and Platonism, these other beliefs left a lasting imprint; Augustine rejected their claims that matter was evil, but his conversion to believing in the goodness of created matter was less thorough than one could desire. At one point Augustine considered sex a major to reject marriage; later he acknowledged sex an instrumental good when it propagates the people of God. Augustine’s much-criticised views on sex were in continuity with his understanding of creation, especially material creation. The created order that is neither called evil nor fully embraced as good, even fallen good: ‘Cleansed from all infection of corruption, they are established in tranquil abodes until they get their bodies back—but incorruptible bodies now, which will be their guerdon [beneficial help], not their burden.’ This negative view of our (current) bodies is not a view of something one would want to be in relation with, and that is part of who we are created to be. From these, one could argue a continuity, if perhaps not parity, with a mindset that would support an individualistic psychological image. The argument has some plausibility, but I believe it is not ultimately true.
The biggest difference between a person and mere matter is that a person has spirit. Augustine can say, ‘Now let us remove from our consideration of this matter all the many other things of which man consists, and to find what we are looking for with as much clarity as possible in these matters, let us only discuss the mind,’ and abstract away a person’s body to see the mind. I did not find a parallel passage abstracting away a person’s mind to see body alone. Even if we assume he remained fully Manichean or fully Platonist, both Manicheanism and Platonism find some people to be above the level of matter. Augustine was free enough of Platonism to forcefully defend the resurrection of the body in De Civitate Dei (The City of God). His belief in community is strong enough to make the interpersonal image important in his discussion. As argued in ‘Mindset Considerations’, he was quite far from individualism to begin with.
If community is important, why have a psychological image? Let me give one line of speculation. Augustine may be trying to put community on a proper ground. The Trinity turns outwards, not in an attempt to remedy any kind of defect, to try to get the creation to fill some need that it can’t fill itself. The Trinity turns outwards out of abundance and fulness. Augustine may not want half persons seeking other half persons to try and create fulness. I believe he wants whole persons turning outwards out of the fulness within. In other words, a psychological image lays the ground for robust interpersonal relationship. Leaving this speculation aside, community was deeply ingrained in the patristic mindset, so that it didn’t need saying. A psychological image could be explored without Augustine needing to add constant footnotes saying, ‘But I still believe in community.’
III. What understanding does Augustine hold in the end?
Augustine explores a number of possible images of the Trinity before settling on one. He starts with an interpersonal image of lover, beloved, and love representing Father, Son, and Spirit respectively. Then he explores a ‘psychological’ image of mind, mental word, and will, which he revises into memory, understanding, and will.  Besides these images there are others not explored in this essay, such as thing seen, sense impression formed, and will. I would like to show which image Augustine chooses.
I would also like to make a distinction which makes sense of his choosing one image from several candidates. The distinction is the distinction between images that are ‘built in’ and ‘after the fact’. The difference between an image that is ‘after the fact’ and one that is ‘built in’ is the difference between a portrait which resembles a person, and a cloud in which a resemblance is found. Is the image something prior to anything observable, something around which other things are shaped, or is the image what we can find when we find things that look like a trinity?
This is arguably latent in Augustine’s discussion of enigmas, and in remarks like ‘It is true of all of his creatures, both spiritual and corporeal, that he does not know them because they are, but that they are because he knows them.’ The discussion of enigmas discusses things mysteriously hidden and then brought forth: Augustine mentions the story of Hagar and Sarah and then Paul drawing out their hidden symbolism. He wrote, ‘As far as I can see then, by the word “mirror” he wanted us to understand an image, and by the word “enigma” he was indicating that although it is a likeness, it is an obscure one and difficult to penetrate.’ Augustine has looked through any number of images ‘after the fact.’ Now Augustine is trying to find out which of these plausible ‘after the fact’ candidates holds its plausibility precisely because it is the image ‘built in’. He wants to know which of the resemblances to the Trinity is there precisely because the Trinity created it to be ‘after our likeness’.
What, at heart, is the distance between an image ‘built in’ and ‘after the fact’? An ‘after the fact’ image is an ‘after the fact image’ because the behaviour and properties it shows, whilst a ‘built in’ image is such by its internal logic. An early draft of the psychological image compares the mind to the Father, its word to the Son, and the will joining them together to the Holy Spirit. Augustine, conscious of Arianism, says that a human mental word is equal to the mind that begot it. Even if he did not say this, and the word was described as inferior to the mind, there would be reason to see the mind/word/will psychological image as a ‘built in’ image. A person looking for an ‘after the fact’ image would look for the property that word and mind are equal because Father and Son are equal; if we look at ‘built in’ logic it is possible that uncreated God can beget a Word equal to himself, but a creaturely mind lacks the stature to beget a word that is its equal. Then the image would lack the property of equality, but it would have the internal logic of begetting what word one can beget, and reflect the Trinity at a deeper level.  This is like the difference between a literal translation and a dynamic equivalent. A literal translation tries to faithfully represent the text word for word; a dynamic equivalent tries to faithfully represent the text’s impact, and it may give the text much more breathing room than a literal translator feels is respectful. A literal translation preserves details, but only a dynamic equivalent can render a poem into something that breathes as poetry. This may be part of why Williams writes, ‘Growing into the image of God, then, is not a matter of perfecting our possession of certain qualities held in common with God… It is for us to be at home with our created selves…’ Growing into the image of God is not to look as if we had not been created, a literal rendering of God’s attributes, but a creaturely dynamic equivalent in which a glimpse of the Trinity is rendered in creaturely idiom. This is inadequate; the creaturely idiom isn’t powerful enough to capture the divine original, regardless of how it is rendered. Yet Augustine does settle on one image, one translation, not just as bearing ‘after the fact’ resemblance, but as having been constructed to have a ‘built in’ resemblance.
At the end of XV.3, Augustine quotes Wisdom 13:1-5 on recognising creation as the work of the Creator, and comments:
I quote this passage from the book of Wisdom in case any of the faithful should reckon I have been wasting time for nothing in first searching creation for signs of that supreme trinity we are looking for when we are looking for God, going step by step through various trinities of different sorts until we arrive at the mind of man.
This sets the programme for much of book XV. This program has subtleties of various sorts, and Augustine says far more than merely settling on the psychological image. The mind is the genuine image of the Trinity in that God has projected his own likeness downwards, but if we try to project anything in creation upwards—even the image God himself has fashioned—it must fall immeasurably short. The most faithful photograph captures at best a glimpse of the living person it portrays. So while Augustine settles with the psychological image, he is careful to portray its fundamental incompleteness. The psychological image may hold a unique privelege. Of all the ‘after the fact’ images surveyed, it alone bears apparent ‘after the fact’ resemblance because it was built to be image. In the end, this privelege of place underscores the book’s apophasis all the more powerfully. Not only do the various apparent ‘after the fact’ images which we see fail to accurately convey the Trinity, but theimage which the Trinity itself has built into us, itself falls fundamentally short of God’s transcendence. This is a far greater testimony to the divine transcendence: if an ‘after the fact’ image breaks down on closer observation, that only says that one specific ‘after the fact’ image breaks down on closer inspection. When the one ‘built in’ image, created by the Trinity itself, also breaks down, this says that the Trinity utterly transcends anything the creation can contain. The bigger it is, the immeasurably harder it falls, and the more we can learn from its failure.
But is this a failure of the created image?
Let’s look more specifically at Augustine settling on the psychological image. In book X, Augustine writes:
These three, then, memory, understanding, and will, are not three lives but one life, not three minds but one mind…. Are we already then in a position to rise with all our powers of concentration to that supreme and most high being of which the human mind is the unequal image, but image nonetheless? [emphasis added]
This is an important distinction. Augustine is not looking for a perfect and uncreated image of the Trinity, as the Son is the perfect and uncreated image of the Father. This is stated here, but I am not sure that this is a basic insight which informed his thought. He writes,
Again, there is this enormous difference, that whether we talk about mind in man and its knowledge and love, or whether about memory, understanding, and will, we remember nothing of the mind except through memory, and understand nothing except through understanding, and love nothing except through will. But who would presume to say that the Father does not understand either himself or the Son or the Holy Spirit except through the Son…
This is an observation that the ‘built in’ image he has chosen does not have what one would seek in a ‘after the fact’ image. In the surrounding text, Augustine doesn’t explicitly state that the differences are failings. However the long discussion of how much of the Trinity is not captured in this image does not seem a verbose way of saying that this image functions along ‘built in’ rather than ‘after the fact’ lines. It seems to be criticising the ‘built in’ image for failing to demonstrate ‘after the fact’ properties. If so, Augustine made something like a category error. This would suggest that the meticulous Augustine, so careful in accounting for the details of Bible verses, didn’t conceive this as something to be meticulous about. The impression I receive from reading Augustine is that Augustine probably had thoughts like the ‘built in’/’after the fact’ distinction I drew, but they were probably tacit, much less developed and much less prominent, and in particular not an organising principle or winnowing tool Augustine used in deciding which of many trinities he would rest with.
And there are other texts which show a psychological image:
So the trinity as a thing in itself is quite different from the image of the trinity in another thing. It is on account of this image that the thing in which these three [memory, understanding, and love] are found is simultaneously called image…
IV. Directions for further enquiry
The distinction between ‘built in’ and ‘after the fact’ appears to be significant. It would be interesting to study more specifically what is the relation between Augustine and this concept. There are quotations one could piece together to argue that Augustine thought in these terms, but other passages make this somewhat less clear. I have raised a question, but I believe more work needs to be done. My comments about that distinction in regard to Augustine’s choice of image may be treated more as a question than an answer.
People who read Augustine as overly unitarian seem to find a psychological image, and people who read him as a balanced Trinitarian seem to find an interpersonal image. Reading the psychological image as relational may suggest an alternative placement with regard to these basic positions.
The earliest Church Fathers, writing more or less systematic theological treatises, generally didn’t write about the Church. Was this because it was not important or not believed? To the contrary, it was air they breathed so deeply that they would never have thought of that as needing saying. Augustine was a Church Father and had the mindset of a Church Father. He chose a psychological image and did not try too hard to make it relational because he never thought it was the sort of thing that needed to have relationship added.
I have chosen an obvious reading which people may give people pause because it appears individualistic and not relational; this reading is that Augustine chose memory, understanding, and will as the ‘built in’ image of the Trinity. Of things raised in this essay that could merit further study, the most interesting is probably the concept of ‘built in’ images as contrasted with ‘after the fact’ images.
Ayres, Lewis, ‘The Discipline of Self-Knowledge in Augustine’s De Trinitate Book X’, in ed. Ayres, Lewis, The Passionate Intellect, Rutgers University Studies in the Classical Humanities, vol. 7, Brunswick: Transaction, 1995, pp. 261-96
Bourassa, F., ‘Théologie trinitaire chez s. Augustin’, Gregorianum 58, 1997
Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo (revised edition), London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1967, 2000
Cavadini, John, ‘The Structure and Intention of Augustine’s De Trinitate,’ Augustinian Studies 23, 1992
Fitzgerald, Allan D. (ed.), Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1999
Hill, Edmund (tr.), The Trinity, New City Press: Hyde Park, 1991.
MAXIMOS O PLANOUDHS, AUGUSTONOU PERI TRIADOS BIBLIA PENTEKAILEKA APER EK TES LATINON DIALEKTOU EIS THN ELLADA METENEGKE, AQENAI: KENTRON EKDOSEWS ERGWN ELLHNON SUGGRAFEWN, 1995 (Maximus the Traveler, Augustine’s On the Trinity, Fifteen Books From the Latin Translated to [medieval] Greek Brought Together [in parallel translation], Athens: Center For Giving Greek Work and Collaborative Writing, 1995)
 ‘The mind you see is not told Know thyself in the same way as it might be told “Know the cherubim and seraphim”; of them, as absent beings, we believe what they are declared to be, that they are certain heavenly powers.’ (X.12)
 These latter observations in the same paragraph are taken from Fitzgerald 1999, 454-5.
‘Memory’, ‘understanding’, ‘will’, and (mental) ‘word’ are all understood very differently in Augustine from their meanings today. I can give a bare hint at the nature of difference by saying will is not a Neitzchian Übermensch‘s power to domineer, crush, and persevere in lonely selfishness, but something whose nature is to incline towards the other in love, and something that holds things together even inside a person. Beyond that, it would be at least another essay to try to explain these different concepts. I’m going to have to content myself with saying there are significant cultural differences that I can’t fairly explain. A good understanding of Augustine’s memory, for instance, is suggested by reading Confessions X, complemented by Yates’ (1966, 1-49) treatment of memory in relation to ancient rhetoric.
 I have thought of this distinction out of discussion of universalia ante rem and universalia post rem that I had read, and I had originally used the more precise, if less vivid, terminology of ‘ante rem‘ and ‘post rem‘ for ‘built-in’ and ‘after the fact’ respectively. So far as I know, this usage is original to me.
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.