I learned about a delightful text from medieval history recently that I had somehow missed despite being a history major and grad student and then getting to teach Beowulf for years at a classical Christian high school. Der Heliand (The Savior) is an Old Saxon epic that harmonizes the four Christian gospels in the alliterative style of Germanic poetry. Written in the first half of the 9th century, it was part of a larger (apparently unfinished) project to cover all of the Christian canon, but we only have fragments from the book of Genesis and two manuscript versions of this gospel harmony. Some of the fragments have musical directives, indicating that this was intended to be performed in Saxon feasting halls. I came across this because there is a great description of it in a forthcoming volume of The Curious Historian (published by the company where I work).
From pages 175 to 176 of Kenogaia (A Gnostic Tale) by David Bentley Hart:
But, as Michael began to rise, Oriens reached out and gently took him by the arm. “Michael Ambrosius,” he said.
“Yes?” said Michael resuming his seat. “You can call me just Michael. We’re friends.”
“Forgive me,” said Oriens, “I mean no offense. I wish to give you something, for your protection.” And reaching around behind his neck, he raised his hands over the top of his head as though holding something between them, though nothing was visible at first; but, as he brought his hands away from his body, a thin golden cord shimmered into visibility and then, as it swung away from his chest, a small silver pouch with embroidered blue flowers appeared. Laura quietly gasped and Michael felt a cool shiver run down his spine.
“The jewels you brought with you,” said Michael.
“Yes,” said Oriens blandly. “They are very powerful, and I shall tell you as much as I can about what they can do. This cord cannot be broken, not even by the hand of a god, and so long as you wear this purse about your neck no one but you in all this world can touch it, much less take it from you or remove any of its gems. Nor can anyone take one of these gems from your hand unless you freely give it.”
“I mustn’t take them,” said Michael. “They’re for your protection. Your whole reason for being here . . . your journey. . . your sister.”
“And your father?” said Oriens. “Again, no one can take them from you. They are safe with you. And my hopes for finding my sister lie in your hands, so in protecting you they protect her and me. Even now, my guide is seeking out a way to reach her, and we shall await you here, so that we may all go together and win her back.”
“I can’t be certain . . .”
“You can, if you wish it. You must simply master your doubt. Then you will become invincible. Not even a god can change victory into defeat for one who has vanquished himself.”
“No,” said Michael, more pathetically, “I truly can’t.”
“I am sorry,” said Oriens, now with a faint but kind smile, the otherworldly blue of his eyes seeming to shine even more brightly than usual, “but you fail to understand. You have said I am your friend, and I say you are mine. You are not free, then, to refuse my gift, or to fail to bring it back in order to protect us with it; and so you must return to us safely.”
Michael lowered his eyes. “I won’t take them.”
“I command it,” said Oriens, his voice still calm.
“Command?” whispered Laura, in a tone not of protest but of curiosity.
“Yes, command”— his back grew somewhat straighter, his gaze more penetrating—“I, your liege, Prince Oriens Anatolius of House Enteles, regent and heir to the Kingdom of Pleroma, son of the High and Hidden King and of the Queen Beyond the Veil, and brother to the Princess Aurora Orthrina, keeper of the vessels of light.”
Michael smiled bleakly and raised his eyes to look directly at Oriens. “You’re not my prince,” he said. “I’m not from your world.”
“Oh, but you are,” Oriens replied, stretching out his arms and placing the cord over Michael’s head and around his neck, so that both cord and purse vanished in an instant. “You think you know yourself, but your true self is hidden from you. As my guide would say, within you there are two birds seated upon a single bough, and one eats of the fruit of the tree and is sated by it, and so is content to stay where it is, but the other does not eat, and looks instead to the skies and remembers its true home, and longs to take wing. Heed the second bird’s Wisdom. Follow its desires. You have passed through many lives, worn many names, been made to forget again and again, wandered in this dark prison of Kenogaia, this sorcery, this maze of dreams”— he withdrew his hands and folded them together in his lap —“but the glory that sleeps within you is from above, is from my kingdom, and is mine to call upon, and mine to awaken. And, in truth”— here his smile, for all its kindness, took on a hint of regal haughtiness — “your father pledged himself, and therefore his entire house, to my cause long ago. You cannot break faith with him.”
DBH: I don’t understand the resurgence of this view of grace and nature or grace and supernature …because I tend to ascribe it to pathologies rather than to the logical exigencies of the moment. …It does answer a certain appetite for well-defined boundaries that are non-porous and exclusive. The hard and fast distinction between nature and supernature is also a distinction between those truths which are salvific in those which are not and tends to confine the former in an almost positivistic sense in a series, in a set of, divinely revealed and yet not rationally deducible truths that are the exclusive possession of a tradition. If you’re a traditionalist very worried about the liceity with which Christian culture seems to be flirting with all sorts of other possibilities of the narrow gate to salvation, what that means, I can see psychologically why you might want to embrace this as a way of reasserting cultural and religious demarcations. Because what it tells us is the entirety of nature, the entirety of natural experience, the entirety of art (and nature and culture and sociality) all of that is, in a sense, extrinsic to the saving mystery that comes in the form of a certain set of information that can be provided by Catholic tradition alone. I don’t know. It may be unfair. …But my first response is that there’s some kind of psychological need for the question to reassert itself or this way of seeing things to reassert itself.
Moderator: Any lived implications for why do you think it would be important to correct this pathology as it were?
DBH: Well, you know my experience of it is that it does breed a kind of moral obtuseness. I must say, many who are in this school, that’s simply what they’ve been told: that grace is extrinsic to the nature of the creature, but it carries with it the implication that the circle of the saved, the circle of those who receive grace is extremely small, that we should be comfortable with this, that in fact this is part of the good news. I mean, I think there is a kind of morally atrophying effect on the imagination and on the motives of the heart, and I’ve seen it. This is actually why I wrote the book to begin with, the rather grim experiences I had at various places I taught as a visiting professor where this style of second scholastic Thomism was resurgent again, and I saw that it appealed specifically to a desire to affirm the meagreness of grace in a sense and, in fact, in a sense, to rejoice in that and to find reasons for being comfortable with that.
…I remember speaking recently [and] this came to me second hand, from a Cistercian not a Dominican but a Cistercian in this tradition who was arguing that so great is the elevation from nature to supernatural and so unmerited by the creature that if God were to save but one soul and condemn all the rest to hell it would still be a cause of rejoicing. I mean, at that point you’ve arrived at consummate absurdity. There’s no point speaking of the gospel as good news. Obviously, it’s rather bad news for the cosmos at large. It may be good news for Henry, the one guy who enjoys the super elevation. It creates a kind of hardness of heart and a kind of spiritual narrow vision that’s hideously damaging and also drives saner souls away from Christianity.
Milbank: I very much agree with all that David has said, and I share his bewilderment. Why are all the good arguments and all the solid historical scholarship being rejected? I’d tend to agree with him that, while the people who’ve returned to neo-scholasticism are perfectly sincere, I do think that to explain why that’s happened we have to look at sociological, psychological and even pathological explanations. Part of the answer is a sense of panic and a sense that things have got too complicated and that there’s a past that we need to go back to that was simpler. It’s easier, you just have to read Thomas Aquinas and the way you’re told to read it. …It saves you an awful lot of hard work, and I think it’s a sincere but completely false diagnosis of the surrender to liberalism.
In fact, I think the people who were trying to overcome pura natura had had a sophisticated critique of modernity and of liberalism. Therefore the other reason why people are returning to pure nature is a kind of actually sinister doublethink. It allows Catholics to speak in the purely public sphere without making any apparently, any specifically, Catholic claims and to insist on conclusions that, actually, they’re only coming to because they’re Catholic but to pass them off as natural conclusions. It’s ultimately a power move because it’s saying we want to appropriate in the name of the church an essentially liberal, technocratic, individualist, non-teleological modernity because it’s completely clear that, if you assert pure nature, you lose teleology. This is why I’m puzzled that somebody like [Alasdair] MacIntyre can’t see that. It’s clear that [Francisco] Suárez completely loses teleology and goes over to something more like a kind of neo-stoic kind of view of morality. So it’s not an accident that this leads to so-called integralism or, if you like, a very bad form of integralism that’s all too akin to the moves made by somebody like Mura [spelling?], you know, that the church then is the arbitrary power in charge of an essentially secular sphere with privileges reserved for this elite group. In other words, let’s make no bones about this, the return to pure nature is incipiently fascistic.
DBH: And has revealed itself as such. I don’t know if those watching this review have encountered the [Thomas] Crean and [Alan] Fimister volume Integralism, but it’s a perfect example of a perfectly consistent (with a few dissonant American inflections about the free market and things like that which are just, you know, neoliberalism at it’s arbitrarily most acute expression) but it shows you that ultimately the sphere of nature has to be confined (within the limits of which is capable) would have to be governed from above by the cognoscenti who have access to a saving knowledge that either will or will not be embraced by the subjects of the regime but nonetheless.
And by the way, John, I would also add that that, in some cases at least, we see this in American Catholic circles, it allows certain Catholic public figures to argue for ends that don’t come from their Catholicism but to which they’ve decided there’s a kind of yeah there’s a kind of indifference on the part of grace, that nature has its own intrinsic logic that, though obedient to natural law, nonetheless has exigencies and limits that allow for prudential uses of non-christian measures to bring about the peace.
It’s a curious thing, too, because it is a retreat not really to an older Catholic tradition of any great antiquity. There’s something we should point out here, is this is already a 16th century aberration that we’re talking about one that the reason it is so comfortable with the kind of state absolutism in things like the integralism volume is this very partition between nature and supernature in this absolute sense is already the carving out of a secular sphere complete in itself. It’s totally at odds with the language of scripture, with the language of patristic tradition, with most of medieval tradition. I’m not aware of it actually organically coming from Thomas except unless you pluck certain phrases… And of course every really impressive Catholic theological and scholarly mind of the modern period that rejects it out of hand is clearly an aberration. Yet it seems to be the safe harbor for a certain sort of troubled soul that’s fleeing a modernity with which it’s actually quite complicit.
Milbank: I think what David is doing is arguing that the certain figures that you might see as the radicals, slightly seen on the margins (we are talking about Maximus, Eriugena, the School of Chartres, Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa and I would add to that many 17th century French Oratorians, [DBH speaking at the same time: “Cambridge Platonists”] even [Nicolas] Malebranche), that actually these people are the most orthodox in a certain sense because they’re following through on the implications of orthodoxy, particularly insisting on the divine unity, simplicity, on the ultimately perspective of eternity as being what one has to ascend towards. And if one believes in divine simplicity and unity and creation else nothing, you cannot simply see the creation as a kind of arbitrary production of God standing alongside God simply in the way that you know that teacup over there on my desk is alongside the plex. There’s too much even in the the most respectable thinkers that sometimes sounds like that, including the idea that God is looking at a repertoire of choices before him, a kind of menu and selecting from those menus. This is an absurdly idolatrous view of God, and it doesn’t really concur with what the Bible is talking about, the fathers are talking about, Augustine and Aquinas at their best are talking about.
I think another way of putting what David is saying is that he’s insisting that christianity is not qualifying monotheism. Christianity is monotheism. It’s not even qualifying perennial monism, if you put it in a deeper way. I think David and I would agree that in fact neoplatonism and Vedanta and Islamic mysticism are monistic than say Spinoza because imminentism collapses into a kind of dualism, the perspective of the whole versus the perspective of the parts. For all that I rather like Spidoza, I think that’s the problem. So I think his insistence that, actually, an emanationism, a monotheism, these are actually the more monistic visions and that if we’ve got all these things in Christianity like Trinity, incarnation, grace and deification and so on, these aren’t qualifying monism. They are spelling monotheism out. They’re spelling out the logic, the grammar, the coherence of monotheism, and that has an implication which I think David spells out extremely well in this book. There’s no longer any conflict between hospitality towards other religions and an insistence on Christian uniqueness. It’s not an accident that somebody who’s metaphysics was so christological like Nicolas of Cusa was also the first person to say, well hold on, you know, Islam is not all bad and so forth.
Why should that be the case? Exactly because, you’re saying, we agree with this rigorous monotheism. We agree and even with rigorous monism. It’s just that we actually think our doctrines are realizing this even more, and of course the complexity there is that you are referring to historical events. That means the peculiarities, if you like, you’re having to integrate history of metaphysics, and this is why David is right to say Hegel was trying to do the right thing. He did it in the wrong way, in the end, because of this sort of agonism in God that’s probably ultimately to do with Luther via Burma [spelling?], and yet in the end he’s kind of doing the right thing.
…I suppose you could also say that Hegel is is trying to bring together something one could see as a perennial monistic vision with a legacy that’s particularly Western. So my question is roughly along these lines: that, while I agree with you that we’ve got to now look at people like arugula we’ve got to put Eriugena at the center not Aquinas, it remains the case that I still think Augustine and Aquinas are peculiarly great theologians. Why? Because they pay such attention to time, to psychology, to experience, the politics, to history and to ethics. So is it possible to say that the positive thing in the Latin legacy is this sort of attention to the person and to the drama, if you like? But the task now might be to try and sort of reconcile that greater personalism of the West with a valid metaphysical monism that’s more Eastern. That’s the question.
DBH: Well, I think that, of course, [Sergei] Bulgakov already went some considerable way in that direction because he takes, throughout his work, an increasingly rich understanding of what constitutes persons as persons both in the hidden depths of the unexpressed and the expressed and understands this, as he goes along, as the very structure of being itself. I’m perfectly in agreement with that. I believe that what I say actually in the book is not to reject, obviously, Augustine and Aquinas but a certain displacement of the emphasis on scholasticism, say, that would make more room for what’s understood as the minority report but that I actually clarify. I mean I understand Eriugena as, in many ways, making advances not just on the Eastern tradition of which he was familiar but on Augustine as well. Early, when he first enters theological history, with the controversies that Gottschalk roused over a double predestination in the end, this obliged him to master the Augustinian corpus to use Augustine against Gottschalk’s Augustine. If you look at the Periphyseon, you see that he’s ever been as much an Augustinian when it comes to his understanding of the divine nature, how he understands divine simplicity how, he understands God’s expression of the paternal death in filial manifestation and, so to speak, the circuit of the divine rejoicing which is the Spirit and how that encompasses creation in its logic.
Aquinas, too, I will point this out though. When you mentioned earlier this this sort of image of God as deciding between different possibilities and the kind of landscape of possibilities as though he’s an extrinsic agent faced with, you know, a decision regarding which car to buy (the creation). This is one of the places where Thomas goes back and forth because, first of all, because his infra-lapsearian understanding of the incarnation immediately separates the rationale of creation from christology at least logically speaking, if not in actual fact. Then even the issue of whether or not the world that is the world of Jesus of Nazareth is the best of all of all worlds he could have created, he does say that there’s no such thing because they are an infinite number of worlds between that world and this that modally still are infinitely short of the glory of God. So I mean there is, there, a hint already of this problem of how to understand creation as a decision of a will, but it’s a sort of fleeting moment in Thomas. It’s one of the moments that he hasn’t thought out particularly well. I don’t want to blame him, but it becomes determinative in this later manualist tradition to a very great degree because once again the very nature of creation being infinitely remote from the order of grace already is a kind of arbitrary construct of the divine will to which super added there could be a gracious sequela if God chooses but he needn’t choose. So it’s not entirely absent from Aquinas, but, no, I agree with everything you just said.
In fact, you more or less uh answered the question you asked me before you asked me the question, so i’m a little at a loss here to think of how to amplify on it. But I think Bulgakov actually laid out the program better than any other modern theology and understanding. Well, first of all, because he took the time to understand the tradition. Even when he got it wrong, he had a vast grasp of the antecedent history of Western Christian thought before the German idealists. He understood where the German idealists went astray. I mean, of course, he begins, as all Russians in that period did, in a dialogue with Hegel and Schelling (with the late Schelling). I think his union of Augustinian personalism and the Maximian metaphysics is one of the brilliant theological syntheses of the 20th century and one that’s only now becoming more and more.
Milbank: It’s terribly encouraging. Yeah.
DBH: You see more and more as translations of Bulgakov are appearing over here.
Milbank: Can I follow that up with a related question? …If I was doing a similar sort of thing, possibly the words impossibility and paradox would feature more. I sometimes notice you edging away from paradox which is interesting because it’s such a favorite term for [Henri] de Lubac. So just to try to flesh that out a little bit. You know, throughout your book, you’ve got this idea of a point of indifference or indeterminacy between coming out and going back, between creation and salvation, and ultimately between God and creation. And I think this is correct that—and again it’s like Eriugena—you have to say that God is somehow more than God, that uncreated god is also created god. But if we’re saying there’s something more than God even though there can’t be something more than God and if we’re refusing any kind of univocity of being or something like that [and] we’re refusing the idea that there’s a bigger framework of being, then aren’t we forced to see that very much as paradox? I think slightly similar considerations apply, without spelling them out, to Christology where there’s a coincidence even though finite and infinite aren’t in competition to say that they’re perfectly coming together is somehow mystery.
Then just to illustrate the use of the word impossibility, the only point where I slightly hesitated in the book was when you were saying, look, there’s evil there because we’re on the journey from nothingness to God (and so, as it were, nothingness as an alibi) because if everything, if God is drawing us forth and there’s nothing sinister about this nothingness—there’s no pagan sinisterness left about the nothing—don’t we still have to say that the fall remains absolutely incomprehensible and in a way we only have a kind of ethical access to that? Again, I think that’s where there may be a difference between [us].
DBH: I don’t think the difference, though, is as great as you think. If you look at what I say about that, what I mean is simply that the possibility… all I’m saying there is, the possibility of evil is not the divine need. This is the problem. Well, why did God ordain an order in which evil was a possibility? What was the purpose thereof? Like I said, whatever that possibility is, it’s not ordinated in the theological sense, it’s not ordained by God towards a specific end in which evil plays a constitutive part. It’s simply that, if the possibility opens up there, it opens up within that vocation out of genuine nothingness. But you’re right, I mean it still doesn’t explain—because I’m quite clear—I take the high intellectualist understanding of rational freedom is that, even in that infantine state, children are better than we are, after all for, the very simple reason that they genuinely, until a certain degree of sophistication sets in, are like God, incapable of evil. God is the eternal child.
Milbank: What I’m driving at is that, given the sort of metaphysical incomprehensibility of evil, the fact that it’s just sheer nonsense, there is a sense in which our access to it is existential and dramatic. Perhaps at that point, is it possible to say that the Vedantic doesn’t quite have the platonic sense of the good and the linking of the good to our behavior in the city and so forth? Isn’t there something different here?
DBH: Yeah, no, I mean obviously there are differences. Although even there you have to qualify that regarding whether you’re talking about certain schools of Advaita Vedānta or Vishishtadvaita and forget about Vaita, but the Vishishtadvaita tradition also has political theory and cultural theory at the margins that actually makes room for understanding the good as a pragmatic and practical and social thing as well. But you’re right. This is one of the deficiencies of the Vedantic tradition. You do have to turn back to the Christian platonist tradition and then again, as Augustine lays out, there is nothing like the City of God before the City of God. It’s sort of a thunderbolt in that it understands that the eternal and the historical coincidence in Christ has ramifications that an older, more antique platonic metaphysics hadn’t yet discovered for obvious reasons.
But let me get back to the thing about nothing. The question, the way it’s often posed, is why didn’t God simply create beings already beyond the capacity for evil, and my only claim there that I’m making is that a creature is a creature only if it has the history of a creature. It actually has to have an absolute past in non-being. It can’t be a fiction, not simply a dramatist persona who has been crafted with a fictional past and that, whatever the mystery of evil is of sin, it happens in that always pastness of whatever it is that makes us who we are. It’s why it’s understood in Christian thought as an inheritance even though it’s also something that I think Bulgakov is right about. You have to understand what’s happening on the threshold between the ionic and the chronic. So I’m not trying to put the blame on nothingness as this is just a sort of constitutive deficiency and that evil is explicable in those rational terms. To me evil, like the designated hitter rule, is just a mystery that no one can penetrate how this could have happened.
As for paradox again, it depends. I’m all for paradox as long as one remembers that the proper meaning of paradox is that the contradiction is at one level, at the apparent level, but what it reveals is an unexpected and deeper unity. Again, one of the things I love about Bogakov’s christology is that he took the neo-chalcedonian, what would almost look like a paradoxical use of hypothesis as uniting natures that otherwise would almost be antithetical to one another, which creates to me a kind of Christ chimera. And he used the image of sophia in the sophianic language to see how, in fact, what this affirms is the rootedness of both divine and human nature in the divine depth, the divine paternal depth of what he calls hypostasibility. But that infinite intention towards full personhood [is] again a way of grounding the metaphysics in a kind of personalism. I don’t use the word paradox as much as you do. In fact, I tend to think you use it a little obsessively if you don’t mind my saying so. …On the one hand, you’re right, you can impoverish the language of Christianity if you don’t insist upon the sheer surprise of christology, but I still think that, to use one of your terms, that what we’re pushing towards is a christological momentum which reveals that the paradox, actually, is the revelation of a deeper rationality that can be unfolded through a proper trinitarian metaphysic. You need the Holy Spirit there to do this, but I don’t think those are great differences between us. It’s a matter of idiom.
Milbank: I didn’t think they were, and I should probably unpack paradox a bit more.
DBH: You don’t want to be mistaken for just one of those people who, in the train of Kierkegaard, stop with the paradox and then demand a kind of, if not fideistic, at least, you know at least, theatrically…
Milbank: No, no, I think that probably misreads Kierkegaard anyway.
DBH: No, it does. I think when you get to the late writings, Practice in Christianity  and Works of Love , you realize that that itself, as is infuriatingly the case with Kierkegaard, is a stage in a progressive argument. But what you encounter first is paradox.
Milbank: Yeah, I think that the point is more that, if you like, this point of indifference. If it isn’t simply a kind of univocal sort of monism, then inevitably it’s incredibly enigmatic, and it leaves us in a kind of to and pro and so on, but if i could just…
DBH: Well, can I just interject there clearly, I mean, remember, that point of indifference is very much pneumatological. I mean it’s in, not only my essay, but, something I would point out, in Paul. You know, ttranslations for so long have obscured this, but in Paul there is a rhetorical and then logical sort of indifference at times between divine and human spirit.
Milbank: I completely agree with all you say about the spirit. And actually that leads well into the next question because this has to do with the model, you know, the circle of glory that your book is very much about, the circle. It’s about an outgoing and a return, and they’re the same things. And your model of the Trinity is often very much to do with return. I mean, there is being, a manifestation and then there is a rejoicing that sort of takes you back to the beginning.
And incidentally, I don’t want to fail to say this. I thought that the way you connect the theology to the chiasmic co-belonging of being and intelligence is fantastic. That’s just wonderful, and that’s a new move that I think is really, really important.
But that keeps me on the track of the circle, so that you insist very strongly that, you know, the beginning and the end are identical, and of course that’s completely correct. It can lead us, you know, with the kind of question that Origen asks about, well, could there be repeated falls? And I guess that the answer to that as it is in Origen is christological, that you discover, if you’re fallen, that you actually can’t fall because God has brought you back again.
DBH: I believe there’s only one circle of eternity. I don’t believe there are successive circles.
Milbank: No, I get that, but I think it’s for christological—it’s because God has gone right down to the bottom.
DBH: And been brought back in the Spirit.
Milbank: But that does raise the question about the relationship of the the circle to the straight line. Quite rightly, you say that Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine have actually quite similar models of the Trinity and quite similar understandings of the Spirit as a kind of bond, but there there is, as you know, there is another model of the Trinity that we find in Dionysus, that we find in Victorinus, that we find in Maximus and we find in Eriugena which is deriving from Porphyry and is this sort of “esse, vivere, intelligere” (sometimes expressed as “essence, potency and operation model”) which you might say, you know to put it really crudely, it where the other one is circular this is kind of developmental. So my question is along the lines of: is there any sense at all in which there is also linearity in God, a sort of progress in God in which there’s the moment of being, the moment of manifestation but then the intellectual moment is in a way, the the spiritual moment, is in a way, the third moment. Yeah, and whether then we can sort of…
DBH: That’s why Hegel’s question is an inevitable one for Chrsitisans.
Milbank: Yes, if you like, it’s almost saying there’s a kind of epektasis in God and whether one can relate that to the idea that evil is a kind of impatience. It’s a failure to get to the end, if it’s a failure to arrive at the spirit. It’s a failure to arrive at the incarnation. It’s a failure to have the complete Trinity, if you like. So my question is just whether one could do more with that other model of the Trinity and how one would integrate it with the more circular model.
DBH: Yeah, I mean, obviously, the two models aren’t exclusive, and the easy thing to do is simply to try to divide them between the eternal and the temporal, you know.
Milbank: But this is an advanced course, you know…
DBH: Right. But I mean also that if you allow that to become a discontinuity then, in a sense, the course of history both expresses and dissembles but also doesn’t participate in the divine mystery. So I think that, yeah, I like the idea that, and others have said it before, that the Spirit also represents a kind of futurity. You get this in the Cappadocians occasionally, while denying all temporality of God, speaking of the Father in one sense as that absolute past that is always becoming manifest and moving towards the absolute future of Spirit. In time, this is manifested, of course: the age of Spirit is coming, the Olam Haba is the spiritualization of creation, I mean the absolute revelation of the Holy Spirit, the fabric of nature. There’s no reason not to map this onto the story of the history of revelation as well as Gregory of Nazianzus did which again, as I say, is why the sort of questions that Hegel raises are implicit already within the tradition.
Milbank: The interesting thing about the “being, life, intelligence model” is that it exists in the East and in the West. It’s in there, and therefore it is a point of mediation and perhaps a point where we see how we can integrate more evolutionary and historical thought into this monistic picture.
DBH: Right. Which again, Eriugena is tremendously helpful. You ask that question, but Eriugena has already, to some degree, demonstrated how these two models of the Trinity are not in competition with one another, how both take in the mystery of creation and as a trinitarian mystery of divine self manifestation, both return and so to speak (in the full development, you have to be careful of the language you use because someone will accuse you of being a process theologian if you dare use the wrong word here) but you know what I mean is that the Father really unfolds fully in the Son and reaches the complete form of divine knowledge and joy in the Spirit that is a procession that is both a generation: God generating God and God proceeding from that generation as God, you know, to to the fullness of God.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Unfortunately, we are already at the end of our time. However, I would like to give David the final word if he could finish responding to your previous question and also, perhaps, tie it in more explicitly to the nature super-nature debate for our viewers.
DBH: The nature super-nature debate. I honestly, I mean it’s a very complex thing now that you’ve asked but to return to that issue.
Moderator: Five minutes?
DBH: Well, that may be too much time because that’ll tempt me to say even more. I was trying to come up with a very simple formula. I wanted to leave you with something enigmatic and aphoristic. Then you say five minutes. You can conquer the world if you use those five minutes correctly. Okay, all right.
Understand that the revived second scholastic Thomism is one that, in a sense, entirely cuts off nature and history and culture from the trinitarian mystery. The Trinity becomes information that the church possesses as does the beatific vision, neither of which have to enter into our understanding of history or nature or evolution. In a sense the entirety of Christian revelation as a saving mystery has become an extrinsic fact about a world that exists in itself without manifesting the divine except insofar as it is vaguely oriented towards transcendental goods. I don’t think that’s what the Christian story is. I don’t think that makes sense of God becoming a man that humanity might become God and that the tikkun olam, apokatastasis ton panton, the restoration of all things would be the real revelation of the God who is all in all. It is such a truncation, such an abridgment of what is proclaimed from the New Testament onward that I think that it’s fundamentally a nihilistic parody of Christianity.
So that’s how I would tie it in with what John and I have been discussing here. I mean as exotic as it may sound, I think it is simply good, New Testament, Nicene, Calcidonian, reflection. I don’t even say that in an exclusive way because the non-Calcidonian churches actually have a rich a Christological [heritage]. It’s just a different language. I just mean that this is orthodoxy. The richness of it takes in the entire experience of nature and the human community of human culture and of the history of evolution. Grace infuses all of this, and it’s already fundamentally redemptive. Creation and salvation are not separate moments. They are the calling of all things out of nothingness into union with the God who, in a sense, not just expresses himself but is the God he is in being God in the created as well. I think that’s not only where the future of healthy Christian orthodox reflection leads, but you have to prevent at all costs this alternative picture which is so hideously destructive of that beautiful narrative.
Milbank: What you’re saying though does surely involve, and I think implicit in what you’re saying, that there’s value in the finite and the scarce as well as in the infinite and the plenitude.
DBH: Yes. Yeah.
Milbank: Ultimate value, in a sense.
DBH: I mean that actually the history, the story, the labor of being created and being saved, which is one and the same, includes Alice in Wonderland, Michelangelo’s David and all the butterflies that you’ve ever appreciated. Yes and not to see that, not to understand that, is a form of consummate philosophical and theological philistinism.
Milbank: Blasphemy as well, yeah.
DBH: Blasphemy, yeah, against the goodness of creation and the infinite modalities of God’s beauty.
In Theophany by Eric Perl, when covering Dionysius on the nature and causes of evil, Perl ends with a wonderful explanation of the fact that any apparently successful theodicy is itself evil. Here is the full passage:
For Dionysius, evil is privation and lack and weakness and asymmetry and failure [usually translated as “sin” but literally having the negative meaning “missing” or “failing”] and aimless and beautyless and lifeless and mindless and irrational and purposeless and unstable and causeless and indeterminate and unproductive and inactive and ineffective and unordered and unlike and limitless and dark and insubstantial and itself no being whatever in any way whatsoever.
Dionysius’ inability, or rather refusal, to assign a cause to evil, then, marks not the failure but the success of his treatment of the problem. To explain evil, to attribute a cause to it, would necessarily be to explain it away, to deny that evil is genuinely evil at all. For to explain something is to show how it is in some way good. “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” Only by not explaining evil, by insisting rather on its radical causelessness, its unintelligibility, can we take evil seriously as evil. This is why most “theodicies” fail precisely insofar as they succeed. To the extent that they satisfactorily account for or make sense of evil, they tacitly or expressly deny that it is evil and show that it is in fact good. Dionysius’ treatment of evil, on the other hand, succeeds by failing, recognizing that the sheer negativity that is evil must be uncaused and hence inexplicable, for otherwise it would not be negativity and would not be evil.
It has been wisely remarked that any satisfactory account of evil must enable us to retain our outrage at it. Most theodicies fail this test, for in supposedly allowing us to understand evil they justify it and thus take away our outrage. For Dionysius, however, evil remains outrageous precisely because it is irrational, because there is no reason, no justiﬁcation for it. The privation theory of evil, expressed in a radical form by Dionysius, is not a shallow disregard or denial of the evident evils in the world. It means rather that, confronted with the evils in the world, we can only say that for no reason, and therefore outrageously, the world as we ﬁnd it does not perfectly love God, the Good, the sole end of all love. And since the Good is the principle of intelligibility and hence of being, to the extent that anything fails to partake of that principle it is deﬁcient in being. The recognition of evils in the world and in ourselves is the recognition that the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God, the Good.
For a little more context, just before this passage in Theophany by Eric Perl, there is a fascinating summary of Plotinus defending an incoherent idea that matter is evil. Proclus rejected this as did Dionysius, both claiming that matter must be good. Here are the details regarding Proclus and Dionysius on this point:
Proclus differs from Plotinus by expressly rejecting the doctrine that evil is matter and that, as matter, it is necessary. He argues, more consistently than Plotinus, that “if matter is evil, one of two things is necessary: either to make the Good the cause of evil, or [to make] two principles of beings.” Either alternative is unacceptable. “Since matter is from the Principle, even this has its entrance into being from the Good. …Nor is evil from the Good.” To say, as Plotinus does, both that matter is evil and that it proceeds from the Good leads to absurdity: “Thus the Good will be evil, as the cause of evil, but evil will be good, as produced from the Good.” Proclus further argues that matter, precisely in that it is a necessary aspect of the sensible cosmos, cannot be evil: “But if matter is necessary for the All, and the cosmos would not be ‘this all-great and blessed god’ if matter were absent, how can the nature of evil still be referred to this? For evil is one thing, and the necessary another, and the latter is such that [the universe] could not be without it, but the former is privation of being.” By denying Plotinus’ identiﬁcation of evil with matter, Proclus thus avoids the difficulty of claiming that evil is a necessary condition for the good cosmos.
…[Dionysius] expressly follows Proclus in denying Plotinus’ “notorious” position that “evil is in matter, as they say, in that it is matter.” Dionysius argues, first, that “if [matter] is in no way whatsoever, it is neither good nor evil. But if it is somehow a being, and all beings are from the Good, this too would be from the Good.” He goes on to take up Proclus’ cogent argument that if matter is necessary, it cannot be evil: “If they say that matter is necessary for the completion of all the cosmos, how is matter evil? For evil is one thing, and the necessary another.” Whatever is necessary for the perfection of the whole is not evil but good. If, as Plotinus argues, matter is necessary, then it cannot be evil. This argument is effective not only against Plotinus’ doctrine that matter is both evil and a necessary consequence of the Good, without which the (good) cosmos could not be produced, but also against all attempts, such as have been made from antiquity to the present, to explain the evils that occur in the world as necessary contributions to the perfection of the whole. Any such theory, as Dionysius here points out, does not explain evil but rather explains it away by claiming, in effect, that it is not really evil at all.
Jesus Christ identifies himself as “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It’s a confident and bold claim, but it is one that Jesus has worked toward carefully with many bold decisions and words leading up to it. Among the most astounding of these is Christ’s decision to wait for his beloved friend Lazarus to die before responding to the pleas of Mary and Martha that Jesus come to save their brother from death. We face a dramatic series of twists and turns leading up to the moment when Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb despite the worrying of some witness of that Lazarus would stink. We learn, memorably, that Jesus wept (John 11:35) in response to the weeping of Mary and those with her as she confronted Christ and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (32).
Why does Jesus Christ use his beloved friends, Lazarus, Mary and Martha to demonstrate his power over death? It is difficult to reach any other conclusion from the story than that this was a deliberate decision on the part of Jesus Christ “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (4). Ultimately, this question goes back to the question of why God creates the world. Scripture teaches that we are still children who await, and who also have collectively resisted, our full formation (as well as the final formation of our entire cosmos). Our experience of death is a merciful and also terrible result of this resistance by us to our own creation. God enters the story of struggle that we have initiated by our rebellion as the human Jesus Christ. By entering the story of death fully, Jesus reveals death’s own impermanence and final defeat entirely from within our current and incomplete story of death. We encounter life itself in Jesus Christ. These topics, however, take us too far from the story of Lazarus.
Lest we be tempted to think this a crass, calculated and unfeeling act on Christ’s part, we are told repeatedly that these three were loved by Jesus. The two sisters first send word to Christ that “he whom you love is ill” (3). Then John writes, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (5). Finally, when Jesus “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (33) and then wept himself, the crowd of witnesses cries out, “See how he loved him!” (36). Despite all of these reassurances, we may still be tempted to wonder at Christ’s calculated waiting at the start of the narrative.
What is at work, however, is not a lack of feeling but a demonstration of perspective and power. Jesus Christ is not impressed or moved by death, but Christ’s awesome power does not at all prevent him from being deeply moved by love and by compassion for the suffering of others. This lordly disregard for death itself does not prevent Jesus from suffering with his friends or with each of us. We tend to associate a calculated display of power with a cold indifference because we have hearts that are not capable of combining lordly power and deep compassion. Jesus Christ, however, was fully in possession of both. He is—as the hymns of this seasons remind us over and over—”the only lover of humankind” but also the the Lord who intentionally despoils death itself in the most flagrant way in preparation for his own upcoming death and resurrection. Another hymn from this evening taunts death directly as we sing, “Through Lazarus, O death, Christ has already despoiled you.”
Nothing gets easier after the powerful command from Jesus Christ to a long-dead corpse: “Lazarus, come out!” We have one last intimate glimpse into this scene as the dead man obeys and stands helplessly bound up and blinded before the crowd. Lazarus is able to walk out of his grave but unable to remove the cloth that covers his own face. Christ tells them to set Lazarus free, but the story does not pause for any rest or celebration. It moves immediately into meeting of the Sanhedrin who decide that this teacher has gone too far and must die. Lazarus is dramatically rescued from death itself, but Jesus has sealed his own fate at the hands of the worldly powers surrounding him. From this point on in the story, every movement that Jesus makes is watched, and there are only a few days left before the final countermove comes with the help of one in Christ’s own inner circle.
This dramatic tension extended to the friends and followers of Jesus Christ as well. Tradition tells us that the Sanhedrin not only decided that Christ must die but that Lazarus must be killed as well. According to widespread accounts from the earliest days of the church, Lazarus had to flee from his home to save his own life, and Lazarus spent the rest of his life in exile on the island of Cyprus.
We might say that all this power and triumph by Jesus does no earthly good in this case. However, the victory is so complete precisely because it comes from within. We ourselves know sin and death from the inside, but Christ joins us there and still reveals to us that only life has any true power. In his book, The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart makes the case that the followers of Jesus Christ should learn to have a similar enmity for death and evil:
We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For after all, if it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.
This is why so many of the hymns for Lazarus Saturday and then for Pascha (Easter) itself all mock death and reiterate its utter powerlessness and failure in the face of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus, we are called to defeat sin and death in the power of Christ and to give them no foothold in our own lives. This does not mean that we do not suffer. Clearly, we are called to suffer with Christ (even “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” as Paul writes in Colossians 1:24). In suffering with Christ, we will find that this suffering softens our hearts so that we learn to be present with others in their suffering. We will learn to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) for blessed are “the poor in spirit” and “those who mourn” (Matthew 5:3–12). Learning this kind of compassion, however, gives no ground to sin and death. We are not stoically resigned to suffering but grateful for the life with Christ that we can enjoy even in the midst of death and in the midst of our fellowship with others in their sufferings.
As Jesus said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) Without fleeing from suffering and death, we can participate in Christ’s “relentless and miraculous enmity” toward sin, suffering, evil and death as we live day to day in communion with Jesus Christ.
Capturing several favorite items from yesterday (the Annunciation, March 25):
A point of time, immesurable waves of sound, unparticled contain eternity, a singing cosmos. Time is and isn’t, space an ever-moving repose shimmering, awaiting our sight. A slight participation, it seems: “fiat.” Two syllables, two moments, undivided presence.
“Annunciation” by Allwyn Fabre
Salvation to all that will is nigh ; That All, which always is all everywhere, Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear, Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die, Lo ! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie In prison, in thy womb ; and though He there Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear, Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try. Ere by the spheres time was created thou Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother ; Whom thou conceivest, conceived ; yea, thou art now Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother, Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
“Annunciation” John Donne
It is the complete end of a world and the beginning of another…And in one of those long beautiful days of June where there is no more night, no more gloomy darkness, where the day goes hand in hand with the day, it is the final instant of the evening and at the same time the first instant of the dawn. It is the final instant of the promise and at the same time the first instant of the keeping of the promise. It is the final instant of yesterday and at the same time the first instant of tomorrow. It is the final instant of the past and at the same time, in the same present, the first instant of a tremendous future.
Charles Péguy on the Annunciation
In the case of Adam, God neither foretold nor persuaded him concerning the rib from which Eve was to be fashioned, but put him to sleep, and in this way deprived him of the member in question; in the case of the Virgin, however, He first instructed her and awaited her assurance before proceeding to the deed. Regarding the creation of Adam, He conversed with His Only-Begotten Son, saying: ‘Let Us make man.’ But when, as Paul says, He was going to bring this wonderful Counselor, the First-Begotten, into the world, and to form the second Adam, He made the Virgin a participant in his decision. And this great counsel, about which Isaiah speaks, God proclaimed and the Virgin ratified. The Incarnation of the Word was the work not only of the Father, Whose good pleasure it was, and of His Power, Who overshadowed, and of His Spirit, Who descended, but also of the will and faith of the Virgin. For, just as, without those Three, it would have been impossible for this decision to be implemented, so also, if the All-Pure One had not offered her will and faith, this design could not possibly have been brought to fruition.
…For the Virgin was not like the earth, which contributed to the creation of man but did not bring it about, but merely offered itself as matter to the Creator and was only acted upon and did not do anything. But those things which drew the Artificer Himself to earth and which moved His creative hand did she provide from within herself, being the author thereof. …A mind furnished with wings that was not daunted by any height; a longing for God, which had absorbed the entire appetitive faculty of the soul into itself; possession by God, a union with God inconceivable to any created intellect. Having trained both body and soul to receive such beauty, she turned the gaze of God towards herself, and by her own beauty rendered our common nature beautiful and won over the Impassible One; and He Who was despised by men on account of their sin became man because of the Virgin.
…Today all of creation rejoices, and He Who holds Heaven in His hands is not absent from the Feast, either. Rather, the present celebration is in very truth a festival: all things are gathered together in a single act of rejoicing—the Creator, all of His creatures, and the Mother of the Creator herself, who made Him a partaker of our nature and of our liturgical synaxes and feasts. For He, being our Benefactor from the beginning of creation, and making this His own proper activity (never being in need of anything from anyone), to bestow gifts and to do good, and knowing only such things as these, on this day both does those same things and assumes a secondary place and stands in solidarity with the recipients of His benefactions. Bestowing some things on the creation from Himself, and receiving other things from it, He rejoices not so much in giving great gifts, since He is munificent, as in receiving small gifts from those to whom He has done good, since He loves mankind. He obtains honor not only from what He has laid down for His poor servants, but also from what He has received from us paupers.
…If there is ever a time when a man should rejoice, exult, and cry out with gladness, when he should go off and search for what great and brilliant statements he might utter, when he should wish to be vouchsafed sublimity of ideas, beauty of diction, and powerful oratory, I see no other occasion than this day.
St. Nicholas (Cabasilas). Translated from the Greek text in “Homélies Mariales Byzantines (II),” ed. M. Jugie, in Patrologia Orientalis, Vol. XIX, ed. R. Graffin and F. Nau (Paris: Firmin- Didot, 1920), pp. 484-495.
Finally, here is a list of all the events that Christians have connected to March 25 over the years (compiled by Fr. Aidan Kimel here):
God created the universe.
God created Adam and Eve.
Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
The Ring of Power was destroyed in the fires of Orodruin.
Abraham offered in sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah.
The Angel of Death passed over the Hebrews in Egypt.
The angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to the Savior.
The eternal Word of God took flesh in the womb of Mary.
Two Orthodox priests, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and Fr. Stephen De Young, have been podcasting together recently and shared about these five-ish angelic falls. They have also referenced three human falls which Fr. Stephen has blogged about previously here as well. These lists include some notes and clarifications later shared by Fr. Andrew in an outline group connected to the podcast group.
These five-ish angelic falls are wrapped up with the three human falls listed below but are articulated here from the angelic perspective:
Succession myth / serpent (=devil) cast into Hades. Attempt to overthrow the Most High from His throne in heaven that parallels various pagan myths of younger gods destroying the former gods. This is represented in all pagan myths as a success, but it is a failure in Genesis.
Initial fall in the heart or mind of a divine council member. This is not recounted in Genesis directly. Subsequent readings of Genesis tend to fill in the gap and place this succession myth before creation (as in Milton’s Paradis Lost). However, casting it before the creation of the world creates a basic logical problem. You can’t dethrone the Most High God in reality, but you can try to dethrone him in the hearts and minds of his creatures. This requires there to be other creatures. Therefore, the serpent (a member of the divine council) is depicted as having “overthrown God” within his own heart at beholding the creation of humans and then to have invited humans to do the same. This succession myth gets told in Isaiah 14. The dethroning happens in the minds of the fallen angels, which is how this is described by St. Gregory the Great.
Casting out of the devil into the Underworld for tempting mankind: the serpent, a divine council member, overthrows God in the hearts of humanity by tempting them with a shortcut to maturity and is sent by God to preside over the land of dust (i.e. of death or Sheol). This is the first angelic fall directly depicted in Genesis (a failure in contrast to the triumph of pagan succession myths). [Fr. Andrew notes that “fall” from this point on is not a moral fall or betrayal. In that sense, these angels are already fallen before these events happen. Fall here focuses on “being cast down.”]
Apkallu / Watchers / Nephilim-generation (the Watchers (the fathers) falling by generating nephilim). Angels tempt humans with technology for which they are not ready and then involve themselves in human procreation to produce a line of demigods (1/3 fallen angel) who start human royal dynasties. Paralleled in pagan myths such as the Sumeran Kings List and the story of the Apkallu or the story of the Seven Sages.
Nephilim / Unclean Spirits / Mastema+crew (the nephilim (the sons) falling by being defeated by the Flood when most are cast into the Abyss). Many of these demigods are finished off by Joshua and David. Their spirits trouble the earth as unclean spirits.
Accepting worship post-Babel. Fallen angels receive the worship offered to them at the Tower of Babel (gate of the gods) and become the 70 gods of the original divine council placed over the traditional 70 nations.
Satan (=devil?) falling like lightning. When Christ says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning” after his 70 disciples return from their commissions to declare the kingdom of God. This is also connected with Rev. 12:9. Some claim that Christ’s earthly ministry changed something for Satan. Are these two different figures who both fall, or is this one figure, one person, who falls two different times in two different ways? St. Andrew of Caesarea thinks it’s one figure who falls in two different ways.
Three human falls:
Fall of Adam. A trespass but no mention of sin in Genesis (seeking a childish shortcut to maturity despite God’s warning). This trespass of Adam brings death. It is the first fall and the last enemy to be defeated by Christ.
Fall of Cain. Considered by several patristic writers to be the first to sin with his murder of his brother.
Fall of humanity at the tower of Babel. Coming under the dominion of the angelic powers overseeing the nations.
In her very person as a Jewish girl become the mother of the Messiah, Mary binds together, in a living and indissoluble way, the old and the new People of God, Israel and Christianity, synagogue and church. She is, as it were, the connecting link without which the Faith (as is happening today) runs the risk of losing its balance by either forsaking the New Testament for the Old or dispensing with the Old. In her, instead, we can live the unity of sacred Scripture in its entirety.
To use the very formulations of Vatican II, Mary is ‘figure,’ ‘image’ and ‘model’ of the Church. Beholding her the Church is shielded against the aforementioned masculinized model that views her as an instrument for a program of social–political action. In Mary, as figure and archetype, the Church again finds her own visage as Mother and cannot degenerate into the complexity of a party, an organization or a pressure group in the service of human interests, even the noblest. If Mary no longer finds a place in many theologies and ecclesiologies, the reason is obvious: they have reduced faith to an abstraction. And an abstraction does not need a Mother.
From Rapporto Sulla Fede, a series of 1985 interviews given by Pope Benedict XVI to Vittorio Messori.
We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For after all, if it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.
From chapter 9 of The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart. [Transcribed from the audible book version with my own punctuation.]
“The Face of the Faceless” (chapter 13 in Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, Yale UP, 2009) by David Bentley Hart is a beautiful chapter in a profound book. Read it if you have not. Here’s an extended excerpt:
All four of the canonical Gospels tell the tale of the apostle Peter’s failure on the very eve of Christ’s crucifixion: Peter’s promise that he would never abandon Christ; Christ’s prediction that Peter would in fact deny him that same night, not once but three times, before the cock’s crow; Peter’s cautious venture into the courtyard of the high priest, after Christ’s arrest in the garden, and his confrontation with others present there who thought they recognized him as one of Christ’s disciples; and the fear that prompted Peter to do at the last just as his master had prophesied. John’s Gospel, in some ways the least tender of the four, leaves the story there; but the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—go on to relate that, on hearing the cock announce the break of day, Peter remembered Christ’s words to him earlier in the evening and, seized by grief, went apart to weep bitterly.
To us today, this hardly seems an extraordinary detail of the narrative, however moving we may or may not find it; we would expect Peter to weep, and we certainly would expect any narrator to think the event worth recording. But, in some ways, taken in the context of the age in which the Gospels were written, there may well be no stranger or more remarkable moment in the whole of scripture. What is obvious to us—Peter’s wounded soul, the profundity of his devotion to his teacher, the torment of his guilt, the crushing knowledge that Christ’s imminent death forever foreclosed the possibility of seeking forgiveness for his betrayal—is obvious in very large part because we are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter’s tears. To us, this rather small and ordinary narrative detail is unquestionably an ornament of the story, one that ennobles it, proves its gravity, widens its embrace of our common humanity. In this sense, all of us—even unbelievers—are “Christians” in our moral expectations of the world. To the literate classes of late antiquity, however, this tale of Peter weeping would more likely have seemed an aesthetic mistake; for Peter, as a rustic, could not possibly have been a worthy object of a well-bred man’s sympathy, nor could his grief possibly have possessed the sort of tragic dignity necessary to make it worthy of anyone’s notice. At most, the grief of a man of Peter’s class might have had a place in comic literature: the querulous complaints of an indolent slave, the self-pitying expostulations of a witless peon, the anguished laments of a cuckolded taverner, and so on. Of course, in a tragic or epic setting a servant’s tears might have been played as accompaniment to his master’s sorrows, rather like the sympathetic whining of a devoted dog. But, when one compares this scene from the Gospels to the sort of emotional portraiture one finds in great Roman writers, comic or serious, one discovers—as the great literary critic Erich Auerbach noted half a century ago—that it is only in Peter that one sees “the image of man in the highest and deepest and most tragic sense.” 1 Yet Peter remains, for all that, a Galilaean peasant. This is not merely a violation of good taste; it is an act of rebellion.
This is not, obviously, a claim regarding the explicit intent of any of the evangelists. But even Christianity’s most implacable modern critics should be willing to acknowledge that, in these texts and others like them, we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visibility, arguably for the first time in our history: the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of an infinite value. It would not even be implausible to argue that our very ability to speak of “persons” as we do is a consequence of the revolution in moral sensibility that Christianity brought about. We, after all, employ this word with a splendidly indiscriminate generosity, applying it without hesitation to everyone, regardless of social station, race, or sex; but originally, at least in some of the most crucial contexts, it had a much more limited application. Specifically, in Roman legal usage, one’s person was one’s status before the law, which was certainly not something invariable from one individual to the next. The original and primary meaning of the Latin word persona was “mask,” and as a legal term its use may well have harked back to the wax funerary effigies by which persons of social consequence were represented after their deaths, and which families of rank were allowed to display as icons of their ancestral pedigrees. Thus, by extension, to have a persona was to have a face before the law—which is to say, to be recognized as one possessing rights and privileges before a court, or as being able to give testimony upon the strength of one’s own word, or simply as owning a respectable social identity, of which jurists must be conscious.
For those of the lowest stations, however—slaves, base-born noncitizens and criminals, the utterly destitute, colonized peoples—legal personality did not really exist, or existed in only the most tenuous of forms. Under the best of the pagan emperors, such as Augustus, certain legal protections were extended to slaves; but, of themselves, slaves had no real rights before the law, and no proper means of appeal against their masters. Moreover, their word was of no account. A slave was so entirely devoid of any “personal” dignity that, when called to testify before a duly appointed court, torture might be applied as a matter of course. For the slave was a man or woman non Habens personam: literally, “not having a persona,” or even “not having a face.” Before the law, he or she was not a person in the fullest and most proper sense. Nor did he or she enjoy any greater visibility—any greater countenance, one might say—before society at large. In a sense, the only face proper to a slave, at least as far as the cultural imagination of the ancient world went, was the brutish and grotesquely leering “slave mask” worn by actors on the comic stage: an exquisitely exact manifestation of how anyone who was another’s property was (naturally) seen.
We today have our bigotries, of course; we can hardly claim to have advanced so far as to know nothing of racism, for instance, or of its most violent expressions; it was not so long ago that blackface and the conventions of the minstrel show were as inoffensive to us as the slave mask was to ancient audiences; and certainly there is no such thing as a society without class hierarchies. All we can claim in our defense is that we have names for the social inequities we see or remember; we are, for the most part, aware—at least, those of us who are not incorrigibly stupid or cruel—that they violate the deepest moral principles we would be afraid not to profess; we are conscious also—the great majority of us, at any rate—that they are historical accidents, which do not reflect the inmost essence of reality or the immemorial decrees of the gods or of nature, and therefore can and should be corrected. But this is only because we live in the long twilight of a civilization formed by beliefs that, however obvious or trite they may seem to us, entered ancient society rather like a meteor from a clear sky. What for us is the quiet, persistent, perennial rebuke of conscience within us was, for ancient peoples, an outlandish decree issuing from a realm outside any world they could conceive. Conscience, after all, at least in regard to its particular contents, is to a great extent a cultural artifact, a historical contingency, and all of us today in the West, to some degree or another, have inherited a conscience formed by Christian moral ideals. For this reason, it is all but impossible for us to recover any real sense of the scandal that many pagans naturally felt at the bizarre prodigality with which the early Christians were willing to grant full humanity to persons of every class and condition, and of either sex.
A few modern men, it is true, have been able to induce a similar dismay in themselves, or have at least succeeded in mimicking it. Nietzsche, for instance, did his very best to share the noble pagan’s revulsion at the sordid social sediments the early church continuously dredged up into its basilicas (though, middle-class pastor’s boy that he was, he never became quite as effortlessly expert in patrician disdain as he imagined he had). But to hear that tone of alarm in its richest, purest, and most spontaneous registers one really has to repair to the pagans themselves: to Celsus, or Eunapius of Sardis, or the emperor Julian. What they saw, as they peered down upon the Christian movement from the high, narrow summit of their society, was not the understandable ebullition of long-suppressed human longings but the very order of the cosmos collapsing at its base, drawing everything down into the general ruin and obscene squalor of a common humanity. How else could they interpret the spectacle but as a kind of monstrous impiety and noisomely wicked degeneracy? In his treatise Against the Galilaeans, Julian complained that the Christians had from the earliest days swelled their ranks with the most vicious, disreputable, and contemptible of persons, while offering only baptism as a remedy for their vileness, as if mere water could cleanse the soul. Eunapius turned away with revulsion from the base gods that the earth was now breeding as a result of Christianity’s subversion of good order: men and women of the most deplorable sort, justly tortured, condemned, and executed for their crimes, but glorified after death as martyrs of the faith, their abominable relics venerated in place of the old gods.
The scandal of the pagans, however, was the glory of the church. Vincent of Lérins, in the early fifth century, celebrated the severe moral tutelage of the monasteries in his native Gaul precisely because it was so corrosive of class consciousness: it taught the sons of the aristocracy humility, he said, and shattered in them the habits of pride, vanity, and luxuriance. It is arguable that, during the second century, the legal and social disadvantages of the lower classes under Rome had grown even more onerous than they had been in previous centuries, and that the prejudices of class had become even more pronounced than they had been in the Hellenistic or earlier Roman world. During this same period, however, Christians not only preached but even occasionally realized, something like a real community of souls, transcendent of all natural or social divisions. Not even the most morally admirable of the pagan philosophical schools, Stoicism, succeeded so strikingly in making a spiritual virtue of indifference to social station. The very law of the church was an inversion of “natural” rank: for Christ had promised that the first would be last and the last first. The Di-dascalia, for instance, prescribed that a bishop ought never to interrupt his service to greet a person of high degree who had just entered the church, lest he—the bishop—be seen to be a respecter of persons; but, on seeing a poor man or woman enter the assembly, that same bishop should do everything in his power to make room for the new arrival, even if he himself should have to sit upon the floor to do so. The same text also makes it clear that the early church might often have arranged its congregations into different groups, distinguished by age, sex, marital status, and so on, simply for propriety’s sake, but that social degree was not the standard by which one’s place was assigned among “the brethren.”2 Men of high attainment—literate, accomplished, propertied, and free—had to crowd in among slaves, laborers, and craftsmen, and count it no disgrace.
I do not wish to exaggerate the virtues of the early Christians on this count. Perfection is not to be found in any human institution, and the church has certainly always been that. Even in the early days of the church, certain social distinctions proved far too redoubtable to exterminate; a Christian slaveholder’s Christian slaves were still slaves, even if they were also their master’s brothers in Christ. And, after Constantine, as the church became that most lamentable of things—a pillar of respectable society—it learned all too easily to tolerate many of the injustices it supposedly condemned. The enfranchised church has never been more than half Christian even at the best of times; often enough, it has been much less than that. Neither, however, should we underestimate how extraordinary the religious ethos of the earliest Christians was in regard to social order, or fail to give them credit for the attempts they did make to efface the distinctions in social dignity which had traditionally separated persons of different rank from one another, but which had been (they believed) abolished in Christ. When all is said and done, the pagan critics of the early church were right to see the new faith as an essentially subversive movement. In fact, they may have been somewhat more perspicacious in this regard than the Christians themselves. Christianity may never have been a revolution in the political sense: it was not a convulsive, violent, or intentionally provocative faction that had some “other vision” of political power to recommend; but neither, for that reason, was the change it brought about something merely local, transient, and finite. The Christian vision of reality was nothing less than—to use the words of Nietzsche—a “transvaluation of all values,” a complete revision of the moral and conceptual categories by which human beings were to understand themselves and one another and their places within the world. It was—again to use Nietzsche’s words, but without his sneer—a “slave revolt in morality.” But it was also, as far as the Christians were concerned, a slave revolt “from above,” if such a thing could be imagined; for it had been accomplished by a savior who had, as Paul said in his Epistle to the Philippians, willingly exchanged the “form of God” for the “form of a slave,” and had thereby overthrown the powers that reigned on high.
Perhaps even more striking than the episode of Peter’s tears—at least, in regard to its cultural setting—is the story of Christ before Pilate. …In the great cosmic hierarchy of rational powers—descending from the Highest God down to the lowliest of slaves—Pilate’s is a particularly exalted place, a little nearer to heaven than to earth, and imbued with something of the splendor of the gods. Christ, by contrast, has no natural claim whatsoever upon Pilate’s clemency, nor any chartered rights upon which he might call; simply said, he has no person before the law. One figure in this picture, then, enjoys perfect sway over life and death, while the other no longer belongs even to himself. And the picture’s asymmetry becomes even starker (and perhaps even more absurd) when Jesus is brought before Pilate for the second time, having been scourged, wrapped in a soldier’s cloak, and crowned with thorns. To the ears of any ancient person, Pilate’s question to his prisoner now—“Where do you come from?”—would almost certainly have sounded like a perfectly pertinent, if obviously sardonic, inquiry into Christ’s pedigrees, and a pointed reminder that, in comparison to Pilate, Christ is no one at all. And Pilate’s still more explicit admonition a moment later—“I have power to crucify you”—would have had something of the ring of a rhetorical coup de grâce. Christ’s claim, on the other hand, that Pilate possesses no powers not given him from above would have sounded like only the comical impudence of a lunatic.
…I have to assume, however, that most of us today simply cannot see Christ and Pilate in this way. We come too late in time to think like ancient men and women, and few of us, I hope, would be so childish as to want to. Try though we might, we shall never really be able to see Christ’s broken, humiliated, and doomed humanity as something self-evidently contemptible and ridiculous; we are instead, in a very real sense, destined to see it as encompassing the very mystery of our own humanity: a sublime fragility, at once tragic and magnificent, pitiable and wonderful. Obviously, of course, many of us are quite capable of looking upon the sufferings of others with indifference or even contempt. But what I mean to say is that even the worst of us, raised in the shadow of Christendom, lacks the ability to ignore those sufferings without prior violence to his or her own conscience. We have lost the capacity for innocent callousness. Living as we do in the long aftermath of a revolution so profound that its effects persist in the deepest reaches of our natures, we cannot simply and guilelessly avert our eyes from the abasement of the victim in order to admire the grandeur of his persecutor; and for just this reason we lack any immediate consciousness of the radical inversion of perspective that has occurred in these pages.